I suspect that anyone who’s lived an appreciable number of years will have come to know that darkest of places that we can know – with life as we’ve known it but a fast-fading memory, and life as we think it will be forevermore seeming like the darkest, coldest hell that can ever be imagined. Do you know this place of which I speak – the Void? I was still a teenager when I first encountered it. Whatever Christian faith I’d known up to that point had crumbled and I’d not yet cultivated much of anything to take its place. In that place of in-betweenness was everything abhorrent to the human mind: meaninglessness, aloneness, joylessness…
Some might be quick to refer to such an experience as “the dark night of the soul”; but to label it as such is at once to minimize it. For to assume that one’s soul is experiencing some tribulation that will eventually bring it closer to God, or to oneness, or to whatever it is that one might still believe in is to presume that there is a God, or something to be one with, or something in which to believe. Alas, such pretty ideas are the first to wither and die and blow away in the insufferable darkness of the Void. In fact, to refer to some experience as ‘night’ is to presume that day will follow – a far too luxurious presumption to exist within the darkness of the Void. No, if one can even speak of experiencing “the dark night of the soul”, then one does not yet have knowledge of the darkness of which I speak.
So, do you feel the Void in ways that I’ve described above – as meaninglessness, aloneness, joylessness – or do you see it in your mind’s eye as the endless and unending vacuousness of space and time in the midst of which you, contrary to any rational definition of voidness, have somehow found yourself? And if you haven’t seen it, then can you imagine it? Can you picture yourself an untethered spacewalker whose mother ship has disappeared into the infinite blackness, whose space suit has disappeared, whose body has disappeared – leaving nothing but consciousness contemplating the Void while disappearing completely within its annihilating embrace.
Imagine, if you will, the vulnerable and impressionable young man that I once was, reading early English translations of Buddhist texts that translated shunya, the transcendent nature of reality, as ‘void’ and shunyata as ‘voidness’. (See Watts' quote in my previous post, for example.) Let’s just say I was somewhere beyond having the bejesus frightened out of me! And, yet, the stubbornly truth-seeking young man that I was was nonetheless determined to accept wherever my quest for truth might take me. No place was too dark, or too cold, or too frightening if, in fact, it was the truth.
Shunyata, from what I can tell, is rarely translated as voidness anymore. A far more positive translation seems to have taken its place in contemporary usage – emptiness. Now, some may not see much difference between the two. After all, isn’t the voidness of which I just spoke pretty much just emptiness in a very absolute sense? Depending upon the context, perhaps. But it is the fact that emptiness is more amenable to nuanced interpretation that makes it more suitable as a translation of shunyata. Shunyata might be thought of more accurately as infinite potentiality absent any particularity whatsoever. Thus, some teachers clarify the nature of emptiness in terms of being empty of thingness. Rather than being nothingness, emptiness is no-thingness. Wow, what a difference a hyphen makes!
Consider Oleg Shuplyak’s painting displayed above. Depending upon how one views it one might see two birds or just one bird and a cluster of leaves. Within the context of this post we might say that the painting is empty of a particular interpretation. Now, as amazing as Shuplyak’s artwork is, it seems to be limited to only two interpretations – one of which is an ‘oh, I thought it was two birds, but now I see that one of them is a cluster of leaves’ interpretation. Can you imagine, however, a painting so skillfully done as to be amenable to three interpretations? Four? How about an infinite number of interpretations? This is more what I think of nowadays when I think of the Sanskrit word, shunyata.
Emptiness, then, can best be interpreted in terms of infinite potentiality without any fixed particularity. Hence, a contemporary English translation of the Heart Sutra conveys the reality that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”. It’s not that we don’t exist or that “things” don’t exist. It’s just that when we become firmly attached to name and form we have essentially become fixated on one particular view of all possible views and have lost track of the ultimate nature of reality – the underlying emptiness of phenomena. An example of this is our fixation on our own selfhood. Buddhist teachings related to no self nudge us toward the realization that that which we refer to as the self is actually empty of fixed identity. As I stated in The Self That Is Not Other:
[T]he key to understanding emptiness from the Buddhist point of view is to realize that it refers to being empty of individual and independent existence. Thus, the emptiness of ultimate reality is more a field of infinite potential than it is cold, dark, empty space; and comprehending no self is more a matter of comprehending one’s seamless integration into that field of infinite potential than it is convincing yourself that you don’t exist.
Thankfully, I made it out of that Voidness in which I’d once found myself, and ‘lived to tell about it’ as we so often say. If you presently find yourself mired in that vast ocean of nothingness (as opposed to no-thingness), I wish you strength. No matter how permanent that place may seem, it too will change. Everything changes. Sometimes we might view that as the bane of our existence, but at other times it is the greatest blessing of them all!
Check out the first link in the image credits for a brief history of nothingness.
Representation of the void courtesy of NPR via:
Slightly retouched image of space walker courtesy of NASA via:
Image of bird(s) by Oleg Shuplyak via:
Sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy via:
Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank