Shūnyathā: ‘Emptiness And Form’


I published this Post earlier and had placed it following: ‘The Oldest Printed Text’. I later changed its location grouping it instead with the Posts on Logic. 

The 25 Sloka compacting of the MahaPrajñāpāramithā is the Hridaya Sūtra [‘Heart Sūtra’] the daily invocation in every Zendo. Intentionally bite-sized, it is to be read and interpreted only as supplement to the Vajrachedika for its very tight phrasing can seriously miscue the entrant. Given its brevity it is laid-out in its entirety at the link below.

No Sūtra in the entire canon is more direct, in-your-face, unflinching in its declaration than the Heart SūtraAnd very few Sūtras have been more insistently spun into a mystic outer-space than the Heart Sūtra.

The key line in the Sutra is: ‘The Prajñā-pāramithā mantra is said in this way: Om Gatheh! Gatheh! ParaGatheh! ParasamGatheh! Bodhi Svaha!’ [My understanding, released, soars, takes flight. Svaha!].

The summary expression has identical meaning to what is referred to on this Site as: ‘The natural and proper ‘Divide’ is as ‘True Nothing’ and ‘Not-True Nothing’. The leap from the limit of abstraction, the final Binary.

But its interpreters, certainly the contemporary ones, never got there. Why was that? The descent begins with the replacement of this cryptic line with a more comprehensible one, a line marking approach: Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.‘ [I won’t quibble with the translation but the original preferred the link ‘Not different from’, a meaningful distinction].

I’ll briefly go over the details.

Shūnyam is the formal Sanskrit for Śūnya in common-speak. Etymologically, Shūnyam originate in the notion of hollowness, of ‘Empty Inside’.

The  term ‘Empty’ or ‘Null’ as used in English translations of Shūnyam originate directly from the vocabulary of Classical Logic as does the word ‘Form’ as used in the Heart Sutra. [Although no guru, fee-speaker or book-writer I have met is aware of this root, which might explain their wildly creative interpretations of these two terms.]

Shūnyam itself is not to be confounded with the numerous versions of Śūnya with a suffix that evolved in the regional Dharmic literatures well into the 10th Century [ŚūnyaBrahman, ŚūnyaPurusha et al]. Or the selective use of the term ‘Emptiness’ in others [Kashmiri Shaivism, the Southern Bhairava et al]

The later derivative construct of Shūnyathā, a pivotal term in the ‘Heart Sūtra’found its inspiration in an established earlier earlier divide: Táthātā and Tát. And as with Shūnya, there are a variety of definitions of Shūnyathā to pick from beginning with the Theravada and reaching into all variants of the Mahayana.

What’s the difference? Táthātā, typically translated into English as ‘That-ness’ [also as Suchness, Thusness] is the abstraction of Tát [‘That’]. The problem is that you cannot abstract ‘That’ which has already gone well beyond such distinctions as ‘Abstract and Concrete’. It can only be abstracted by one who doesn’t understand its intent.

If it had any other purpose it was to differentiate the philosophical substance of ‘That’ from its routine grammatical chores. This would have been entirely legitimate. But it was rarely used in this service and very soon after its construction [and predictably so], it took on a philosophical life of its own.

What happened with TátTáthātā is exactly what happened much later in the construction of the distinction: Shūnyam: Shūnyathā. 

Again and as before, one does not abstract ‘True Nothing’. Shūnyam itself is the leap from the limit of abstraction. It is ‘abstracted’ only by one who does not comprehend its intent or meaning.

But the derivative extension of Shūnyathā continued to firmly retain the original Logical Form of its parent. Its most consistent definition in the higher texts has been ShūnyathāShūnyathā: ‘The Emptiness of Emptiness itself’, a full-blown Self-Eating Expression.

The result was hugely consequential. Depending on the source,  Shūnyathā has been interpreted both as a synonym for a conceptualized Shūnyam and otherwise as a mystic expression for some special capture of Awareness, Consciousness, or the Whole. 

[Without getting into the details here, the later extensions, principally the Madhyamaka, pivot off the Principle Of Co-Dependence without reaching into the Axioms of Sight and ‘Self”, in parallel to the Vedanthic stop at ‘Being: Consciousness’.]

The English Translators of the Heart Sūtra did a stellar job with the word ‘Emptyiess’ for Śūnyathā. But they ran into trouble when looking for an English equivalent of the Sanskrit word Namarupa [literally: ‘Name and Shape’]. But  some effective English word needed to be found that carried the intuition through.

Unlike Śūnyam and derivative terms which had a ready link with the Empty Class of Logic, there was nothing similar for the word Namarupa. In fact by this time its interpretation in the Sanskrit itself had become entirely flaccid.

Then the Translators noticed the English word ‘Form’ which happened to be part of the extended vocabulary of Classical Logic. It had a nice ring to it and the meaning appeared very close to the word Namarupa. And so they went with ‘Form’, a palliative compromise. [The word first appears in Plato’s ‘Theory of Forms’ which is probably where it was noticed.]

But Namarupa is not exactly ‘Form’. And the two words are not perfect translation matches. And to see where and how they are different can make all the difference.

For Namarupa has a seriously slippery feature to it: Self-Reference.

‘Form’ as commonly used in Classical Logic is: ‘Something that is marked, has taken shape’. A line, a curve, a color, a smell, a melody, a scratch. Logic comes alive, is operative, only in the abstract, only in the world of Form.

But NamaRupa does not exactly overlap with the ‘Form’ as defined by the Logician. NamaRupa like Form, is ‘Something that is marked, has taken shape’. But NamaRupa, unlike the Logician’s Form, an ‘Objective’ presence, includes within its domain all ‘Subjective’ presence’ as well.

Feeling is NamaRupa, a mental-image is NamaRupa, internal-dialogue is NamaRupa. All that you see with your eyes closed or hear with your ears plugged are part of NamaRupa . If you can name it, mark it, express it, put a metaphorical finger on it, it is part of Nama Rupa.

All references to NamaRupa are already contained in NamaRupa as are all thoughts you have in response to it. If you slip on its self-referential feature you will confound NamaRupa with Awareness, Consciousness, Presence, World and other such heavy concepts, all of which are equally misleading.

[Next time a book-read teacher goes on about how ‘Form is Emptiness and Emptiness, Form’, do the class a favor and stop him in his tracks.]

How lightly can you touch on something without violating it by your touch?Why does the modern Logician not include the ‘Subjective’ presence so integral to NamaRupa within his own definition of ‘Form’? [ The Logician’s ‘Form’ as used here is not to be conflated with ‘Logical Form’, a different and very useful concept.]

He doesn’t, because the rules of Logic say that what happens in his Mental-Space belongs to him. In fact it is him. The Logician recognizes himself, has modeled himself from just that very mix of elements that stand in counter-point to the abstraction he has defined as ‘Form’.

Mental-Space is not in his field-of-vision because it is one with his field-of-vision. It is what makes him who he is. Its elements are part of his organic contact lenses and without them he will not be able to see as he see’s.

To expand on Descartes: I am Thinking, therefore I am; I am what I am now Thinking.

The Hridaya [‘Heart’] Sūtra

3 thoughts on “Shūnyathā: ‘Emptiness And Form’”

Comments are closed.