Thoughts on Sunyata
In the third century CE, the philosopher Nagarjuna brought forth ideas which would not only have profound effects on the acceptance of folk Buddhist practices but which would suggest that the world is much more interdependent than we commonly perceive it to be. Nagarjuna proposed the idea of sunyata, or emptiness. Sunyata rejects the idea that anything can have svabhava, or independent existence, rendering absurd any divisions of the world into discrete units. This provides a powerful philosophical tool for examining several of the central tenets of Buddhism: the concepts of anatman, nirvana, and impermanence are all fundamentally changed by the introduction of sunyata. Moreover, sunyata’s central insights are echoed in several other fields, from physics to economics to linguistics and philosophy, making it a concept of powerful interest even beyond theology.
Delving further into sunyata’s relationship with Buddhist cosmology, the Madhyamaka realized that if everything was interdependent then the dualities which color our perception of the world are illusory. The structural schema by which we navigate the world is actually constructed. Any difference perceived between the table and the chair is in the mind of the observer, rather than the table or the chair itself. There is no thing that exists “in and of” itself; things do not have essences, and do not have an a priori Platonic ideal. There is, furthermore, no essential self, in that no individual can arise or exist independently of others. Persons are so interdependent as to render the boundaries of selfhood misleading. This tendency to categorize is the theodicy of the Madhyamaka School.
Not only is the duality between self and other false, but the entire physical and spiritual realms of samsara and nirvana are actually concomitant. Any understanding of incongruence between samsara and the unconditional quality of nirvana is due to human fallibility and is a negation of life. Practically speaking, this philosophical development opened the door to many new practices in Buddhism, from anthropomorphic Buddha worship to adoption of yogic bodily exercises, all of which shared in conceiving of the world as permeated by the power of nirvana. This was an incredible change in the Buddhist orientation towards living in the world, transforming it “from an atheistic movement for the highly disciplined to a movement in which Buddhahood could be seen and venerated virtually anywhere.” (Clothey 58)
The lens of sunyata lends of also lends new perspective to the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence: if things are interdependent, incapable of existing except in relation to one another, then a change in one thing will always affect all others and so ensues a permanent state of flux for all things. Clutching at one thing, trying not only to separate it from all other existence but also from the natural flux of the universe, is to repudiate the world; and living in denial of the world, of the impermanence of things, is the source of dukka. One will always fail and sink into despair until one realizes this. Interestingly, however, interdependence offers the promise of an enduring legacy: karma echoes across the eons, permanence of a different kind, as the world I have shaped will continue to shape individuals in the next generation, and so on ad infinitum.
Intellectually, Nagarjuna’s proposition has very profound consequences. One is reminded of the complexities of chaos theory and the famous claim that a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa could cause a hurricane in Florida—such an unlikely chain of events becomes expected. Existence is understood as dialogue: I speak to the world, the world speaks to me, and trying to pick out one independent word or phrase from that dialogue becomes futile. Language is fertile ground for interrogating the concept of sunyata: any time I speak, I am using a word whose meaning is dependent upon fluidly established conventions without an intrinsic base. The existentialists of the twentieth century are prefigured by Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka School in understanding existence as preceding essence. In both philosophical systems, the lack of a defining, preexisting essence is liberating rather than nihilistic; there is “no libretto” and ergo there exists the freedom to be in the world, without being defined by the world. The twentieth century revolution in physics, which moved from an absolute to a relative frame of reference, produced as its mantra a line Nagarjuna might have found to be of interest: everything is relative. Finally, economists in the past few decades have made a project of isolating factors to examine them as independent variables, modeling the economy as a one-way street, and have consistently found these models inadequate. Instead they have found that the most accurate models are founded on endogenous rather than exogenous variables, meaning that factor feels the feedback of its effect on others, which is more accurate each factor has a determinant within the economy—just as all beings’ existences are predicated on the existence of others.
The law of universal gravitation states that the force of gravitation one body exerts on another body is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the two. A central implication of this is that, however miniscule or distant, any on body is constantly exerting a force on all other bodies; inversely, that same one body is acted on by all the other bodies’ gravitational pulls. All matter is eternally and simultaneously both subject and object, affecting everything and affected by everything. The analogy to Nagarjuna’s concept is clear: just as gravity makes mass have effects all across the universe, so too does interdependence mean that our actions have effects all across the universe. The implications of sunyata are vast. In the past it revolutionized Buddhism; today its echo cuts across disciplines to teach valuable lessons about the interconnectedness of things. Sunyata is as powerful and pervasive as gravity itself. Contrary to its name, “emptiness” actually leads to an incredibly rich perspective on life, one in which each individual has the ability to shape all existence and vice versa.