Several Sanskrit terms have made it into Western vocabularies. Some, such as karma and samsara, require no translation, and are considered by many to be undeniable facets of our experience. We may deplore the uncaring behavior of many ‘successful’ people and conclude that karma (the legacy of our actions) has failed to give them their just deserts. But in our own minds and hearts we can affirm that being at peace with our thoughts and actions feels a lot better than when we treat our world and the lives of others like a commodity to exploit. And samsara (the unsatisfactory nature of ordinary life) is familiar, whether or not we use that word to describe our human condition.
Sunyata is another Sanskrit term, which mostly is translated as “emptiness”. The idea that experience is empty of substance certainly gets at something important–as does the statement that waking life is like a dream. But something is left out in this translation. It’s not only an incomplete inventory of what makes life worth living, but we all know that our experience is not empty when we feel alive and present. The empty vacuum of deep space fails to invoke the aspirations and interests that motivate, inspire and draw us into the intimacy of lived life.
Christianity advises us not to place our faith in the trinkets of this world, and reminds us that we can’t take them with us; sunyata reminds us that all the external objects we covet or fear are not truly what they seem. When we assign characteristics and labels to physical objects, we are blindly pinning donkey tails, as in the children’s party game, to a realm that is at base a spinning galaxy of atoms and lightning bolts of light.
This realm of illumination bears little resemblance to the forms that our interests and aversions assign, but it is not empty. In fact this realm appears to be remarkably full of content. What could fill space more fully than light, which never stops, never slows down, and never congeals into the hard surfaces that will one day return to dust?
The image of emptiness provides an antidote to our cluttered minds and the cluttered world that we keep spinning out in our frantic attempts to remain secure and to solve the unending problems by which we feel threatened; it offers absolution for the way we treat our own concerns so seriously; and it brings into relief an alternative to living in a world that has nailed down every corner in a maze of interlocked concepts.
While emptiness conjures up the cold and inhospitable void of cosmic space, vastness brings to mind abundant realms of being that our concepts only refer to in a superficial way. Doesn’t it make sense to treat our painstakingly constructed ‘reality’ (built of concepts, in place of feelings and pulsing sensation) as empty? Concepts can only differentiate one thing from another; but the heart is at home in the undifferentiated realm of Being. A rain gage cannot know the life of a seed sprouting and reaching into the damp earth; but the falling rain reaches out for and finds that new life.
Emptiness gets at something about how our perceptions and experiences here in our human lives on Planet Earth hover at a distance from the intimacy we sense is present at the heart of everything.
So what does it mean to say that sunyata is full as well as empty? Is it full of the ceaseless flow of thoughts in our minds, and the hard-edged objects that fill every corner of our cities and of our cyber-space? Is it full of the deluge of opinion and controversies that drive our political and social lives? Perhaps even those busy preoccupations point to fullness. But the kind of fullness that coexists with emptiness cannot be confined to the bottled water standing on a shelf in a grocery store; it is fully present in the cycle of ocean, rain and rivers flowing back to the sea. When we objectify, label and separate out of that wholeness, which is present in every instance of Being, it can be helpful to remember that everything is a dance of light and that our human lives are not just the rigid gestures of conformity that we so often take them to be.
We can be grateful for whatever wisdom has come into our lives; be it through the vehicles of Christianity or Buddhism, through a spiritual vision such as the Time, Space, Knowledge vision, or in the giving and receiving of simple care.
What I appreciate most about the TSK vision is that at its heart it explores fullness. It explores emptiness as a way to recognize the fullness that gets obscured when we hold on too tightly to the objects of our desire. Linear, sequential time–with its separation into past, present and future–is unable to express the fullness of a dynamic connection that joins what was, is, and will be. Space— when seen as merely the absence of objects–cannot fathom the boundless medium that accommodates everything that appears, including all those objects of interest. And knowledge, when it is treated as the contents of databases and the facts we strive to memorize, is a pale cousin of the irrepressible and intimate connection we have with every facet of our experience.
How could linear time, with its fleeting present moment, wedged between a past that is dead-and-gone and a not-yet-here future, possibly hold all of life with its dynamic fullness? How could geometric space, as an empty and therefore uninteresting void that merely serves to separate interesting things from one another, account for the intimate relationship that joins all facets of our world in a greater wholeness? And how could a concept of knowledge, which considers the human mind the only dim light of knowing in an otherwise brick-and-mortar, brain-dead cosmos, begin to fathom the spirit of knowing that animates all the natural cycles and all the harmonious relationships that exist at every level in a universe brimming with fullness?