Sunyata

The vital role played by fulfillment in some religious traditions is played by emptiness in others. In many Taoist and Buddhist texts, ‘emptiness’ (hsü and sunyata respectively) is the concept developed to dispel the illusions of permanent “substances” or definitive “essences.” There’s a similar movement in the philosophy of science; for instance Ernst Mayr (1982, 249) speaks of ‘essentialism’ as ‘the most insidious of all philosophies.’ This movement encourages a shift of attention from static entities to dynamic processes. In the Buddhist context, the concept of ‘emptiness’ has played a key role in this shift. In other contexts, such as biology, the key term is behavior:

Life is distinguished not by its chemical constituents but by the behavior of its chemicals. The question ‘What is life?’ is thus a linguistic trap. To answer according to the rules of grammar, we must supply a noun, a thing. But life on earth is more like a verb. It repairs, maintains, re-creates, and outdoes itself.

— Margulis and Sagan (1995, 15)

A philosophical parallel to this can be found in Merleau-Ponty:

The something in transit which we have recognized as necessary to the constitution of a change is to be defined only in terms of the particular manner of its ‘passing.’ For example, the bird which flies across my garden is, during the time that it is moving, merely a greyish power of flight and, generally speaking, we shall see that things are defined primarily in terms of their ‘behaviour’ and not in terms of static ‘properties.’

— Merleau-Ponty (1945, 320-1)

The illusory nature of the usual view consists of its positing of essences which have attributes, or fundamental components which are assembled in the construction of the object. This way of organizing experience is of course very useful in many situations – that’s why it is the usual view – but it breaks down under persistent analysis. Eliminate all attributes and you find no essence remaining, just as there is no meaning without context. “Fundamentals” turn out, on deeper examination, to be “founded” on something else. Since what appears essential or fundamental changes when you change your orientation toward the object (or subject), we can say that nothing is permanent, or that all things are empty.

And here’s a physicist’s version of the concept, from David Bohm (1975):

… the notion of something with an exhaustively specificable and unvarying mode of being can be only an approximation and an abstraction from the infinite complexity of the changes taking place in the real process of becoming.

— Bohm (2003, 32)

The Buddhist model of co-dependent origination (interbeing, sunyata, emptiness, ….. ) is sometimes presented in circular form (e.g. Thich Nhat Hanh 1998). One aspect of this is world/self interaction, here presented in a form virtually identical with our ‘meaning cycle’:

If we look at the relationship between the individual and its world, we see a kind of circularity of conditioning power, whereby the world conditions the individual, who acts, and this action in turn circulates back into the world to change it and motivate it. The motion, however, is simultaneous, and the world is an extremely active place of unimaginable change. Buddhists have always insisted, with Aristotle, that to exist is to exert conditioning power on others.

— Francis H. Cook (1989, 24)

Enlightening beings ‘turn the dharma wheel’ in order to liberate all beings from this conditioning by raising awareness of it.

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