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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Sunyata

A Sanskrit term meaning “emptiness” (from śūnya, empty, void, vacant, zero; it is from this word, by way of Arabic, that we got the English words “zero” and “cipher” as well as the idea of the decimal system). In the Madhyamaka system of Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy, developed by Nāgārjuna (2nd cent. ce), it is used to characterize the ontological status of the world. Since one of the characteristic defining qualities of reality in Indian philosophy is permanence, and since one of the three basic doctrines of Buddhism is that everything in the manifested world is impermanent, Nāgārjuna dramatizes this by propounding his emptiness (śūnyatā) doctrine, that is, everything in the manifested world is empty of reality. The world, to Nāgārjuna, including human consciousness, is a dynamic world. There is no static reality. The most paradoxical statement to come out of his analysis is that, since the empirical world of rebirth (samsāra) is empty (i.e., = 0) and since the world of the liberated person (i.e., nirvāna) is empty (i.e., = 0), then samsāra = nirvāna. But as with all veridical paradoxes, the solution is simple: when one attains nirvāna-consciousness, the world does not disappear or alter its appearance radically; it remains the same dynamic world; it is our perception and understanding of it that changes — and not just intellectually, but fundamentally.

Most of the other Indian philosophic systems, as well as many Western orientalists, completely misunderstood the doctrine of śūnyatā, reifying it into a kind of special existent entity called The Void. Even some Chinese Buddhists did the same. Their critiques of it, therefore, miss Nāgārjuna’s (and the Buddha’s) point. Occasionally, Indian philosophers equate śūnyatā with the Advaita doctrine of MĀYĀ, which makes a similar claim about the ontological status of the world, but is really quite a different doctrine. Helena P. Blavatsky, who often relied on others for her definitions in the Theosophical Glossary, repeats this latter error when she defines “śūnyatā” as “Illusion, in the sense that all existence is but a phantom, a dream, or a shadow” (p. 313). In the sense that “emptiness” also has an axiological implication — that the empirical world is not of intrinsic value — it certainly entails that “all existence” has only a “phantom” value. But Nāgārjuna makes a distinction between the ultimate (PARAMĀRTHA) truth (satya) and what he terms “approximate,” “common,” or “customary” (samvti) truth. For ordinary affairs, this latter is what we use. It is not just a “dream” or a “shadow,” but rather is of immense practical value. It is, after all, the world in which N€g€rjuna is writing his philosophy and making these distinctions!

See also INDIAN PHILOSOPHY.

R.W.B.

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