Śūnyatā (/ʃuːnˈjɑːtɑː/ shoon-YAH-tah; Sanskrit: शून्यता, romanized: śūnyatā; Pali: suññatā), translated most often as “emptiness“, “vacuity“, and sometimes “voidness”, or “nothingness” is an Indian philosophical concept. Within Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and other philosophical strands, the concept has multiple meanings depending on its doctrinal context. It is either an ontological feature of reality, a meditative state, or a phenomenological analysis of experience.
In Mahāyāna Buddhism, śūnyatā refers to the tenet that “all things are empty of intrinsic existence and nature (svabhava)”, but may also refer to the Buddha-nature teachings and primordial or empty awareness. Which could be interpreted to refer to that which is associated with the observer in the double slit experiment.
Emptiness (“positively” interpreted) is also an important element of the Buddha-nature literature, which played a formative role in the evolution of the universe.
The Pāli Canon uses the term śūnyatā (“emptiness”) in three ways: “(1) as a meditative dwelling, (2) as an attribute of objects, and (3) as a type of awareness-release.”
According to Bhikkhu Analayo, in the Pāli Canon “the adjective suñña occurs with a much higher frequency than the corresponding noun suññatā” and emphasizes seeing phenomena as ‘being empty’ instead of an abstract idea of “emptiness.”
Much like a section of space which is devoid of matter.
One example of this usage is in the Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta (SN 22:95), which states that on close inspection, each of the five aggregates are seen as being void (rittaka), hollow (tucchaka), coreless (asāraka). In the text a series of contemplations is given for each aggregate: form is like “a lump of foam” (pheṇapiṇḍa); sensation like “a water bubble” (bubbuḷa); perception like “a mirage” (marici); and cognition is like “a magical illusion” (māyā). In neoBuddhism, this would be a reference to quantum foam and time being a somewhat localized phenomena, as such is more like a bubble than a field.
Further Tibetan philosophical developments began in response to the works of the influential scholar Dolpopa (1292–1361) and led to two distinctly opposed Tibetan Mādhyamaka views on the nature of emptiness and ultimate reality.
One of these is the view termed shentong (Wylie: gzhan stong, ‘other empty’), which is a further development of Indian Yogacara-Madhyamaka and the Buddha-nature teachings by Dolpopa, and is primarily promoted in the Jonang, Nyingma, and modern Kagyu schools. This view states that ultimate reality is empty of the conventional, but it is itself not empty of being ultimate Buddhahood and the luminous nature of mind. Dolpopa considered his view a form of Mādhyamaka, and called his system “Great Mādhyamaka“. In Jonang, this ultimate reality is a “ground or substratum” which is “indestructible, noncomposite and beyond the chain of dependent origination.”
This is to say, that the quantum fields (quark fields) exist outside of time, They are non-composite in that the fields themselves are not made of the combinations other field. A composite would be protons and neutrons, which are a composite of the quark fields. The timeless nature, that existed before time existed, They are beyond the chain of chain of dependent origination, in that they are the origin of dependent origination.
This can occur as the same time as form being like “a lump of foam” (pheṇapiṇḍa); In neoBuddhism is quantum foam, sensation like “a water bubble” (bubbuḷa); Time is also like a water bubble, in that it is a localized phenomena which arises when they come in contact with the information field, giving a particle it’s history and stable characteristics.
perception like “a mirage” (marici); which is to say, something the mind creates so that it can navigate reality, and exists only in the mind, and is not a feature of reality, only a representation of reality, limited by senses and imagination. and cognition is like “a magical illusion” (māyā). Or as Carl Sagan would say “An enchanted loom” which weaves together the noisy information from our senses, then processed by neurons in such a way, which is able to create “atoms of information” which combines the information from the senses with the information that the mind embeds in neurons, to form qualia of experience. It is often mistranslated to suggest cognition is a magical illusion, no, it is LIKE a magical illusion, that is a comparative metaphor.
They didn’t really have the language to talk about information processing.
In the grand tapestry of existence, the concept of ‘dependent origination’ serves as the intricate thread that weaves together the fabric of reality. This posits that all phenomena arise in dependence upon multiple conditions; nothing exists isolated from the web of dependent origination. These fields are not just abstract mathematical constructs; they are the very conditions upon which the illusion of separateness is predicated.Without time, there would be no separateness, just one giant superposition of fields, much like what the cosmic microwave background radiation represents.
When we perceive an object—a tree, a cloud, or even a thought—we are essentially observing a unique configuration of these underlying fields, momentarily tangled in the complex dance of existence. Each configuration is not an isolated entity but a nexus of conditions, a focal point in the grand web of dependent origination. It’s a composite, a confluence of countless influences, both temporal and spatial, that give rise to its apparent form.
In this light, the illusion of separateness dissolves. What we see as distinct entities are but ephemeral manifestations of the same foundational fields and time, forever bound by the interconnectedness of dependent origination.
In the ever-changing cosmos, where stars are born and galaxies collide, there exists a bedrock of stability—what we might term ‘ontological constants.’ These are the quantum fields that serve as the foundation for all phenomena. Unlike the transient entities they give rise to—particles, atoms, molecules—these fields are immutable. They do not change; they simply are.
Time, often considered the fourth dimension, is another fascinating layer in this complex tapestry. Unlike the quantum fields, which exist in a state of timelessness, time is ever-flowing, giving rise to the phenomena we observe. It’s the medium through which information travels, shaping the characteristics and histories of particles and systems.
In neoBuddhism, we can consider ‘information’ as another kind of field—a field that interacts with the quantum fields and time to give rise to the universe as we know it. This is much like the Buddha nature which serves as the bridge between the timeless and the temporal, between the immutable and the ever-changing. It’s what allows for the complexity and diversity of forms and phenomena, from the smallest quark to the largest galaxy.
When we speak of time and information, we’re delving into the mechanisms that allow for change, for evolution, and for the unfolding of dependent origination. They are the dynamic counterparts to the unchanging nature of the quantum fields, the ‘quantumness’ of the fields which is represented by discrete and differentiated energy tangles or nested standing whirlpools of energy, which are described as energy levels, and together, they create the balanced duality that is the essence of reality.
When we speak of ‘nothingness’ in the context of these fields, we refer to their lowest energy state. It’s a state devoid of matter, energy, and even the fluctuations of vacuum energy. Some might argue that this ‘nothingness’ is still ‘something,’ given that it’s a state of a field. However, it’s the closest approximation to ‘nothing’ that exists within the framework of our understanding. This lowest energy state serves as the canvas upon which the vibrant tapestry of existence is painted.
It’s a paradox, in a way. The only ‘constants’ in our universe are these fields, yet they give rise to an ever-changing, dynamic reality. They are the unchanging amidst the changing, the permanent amidst the impermanent. In this sense, they are the ultimate expression of śūnyatā, or emptiness, as they are empty of all attributes except their own existence.
In our quest to understand the universe, we often limit our scope to what exists within the boundaries of spacetime. However, the quantum fields—our ontological constants—transcend these limitations. They exist beyond what we conventionally understand as ‘the universe.’ They are both the boundary and the essence, the alpha and the omega, of all that is.
Shunyata is the ultimate emptiness that encloses all existence. In this grand tapestry of reality, ‘nothingness’ of the void is but a stage. It’s the backdrop upon which the universe arises.
When these fields interact, forming composites, it’s akin to bubbles rising from the bottom of heated water. These bubbles are transient, yet they arise from and are part of the water itself. Similarly, when composites form, they transition from existing outside of time to being within time, while still pervading all of time. This is the Buddha-nature in action: it grants these composites both their impermanent nature and their existence. It’s a beautiful paradox—impermanence and existence, emptiness and form, all coexisting interdependently.
In our previous discussions, we’ve touched upon the idea that these quantum fields exist in a state of timelessness. But what does ‘timelessness’ really mean? It’s a concept that defies our everyday understanding, as we are beings deeply entrenched in the temporal flow.
These fields are ’empty’ not in the sense of lacking substance, but in the sense that they ‘just are.’ They exist outside the constraints of time, in a state that is both eternal and immediate. This is a profound form of emptiness, one that is not devoid but full of potentiality.
Earlier we mentioned that without time, there would be no separateness—just a grand superposition of fields. This is exemplified by phenomena like the cosmic microwave background radiation, which offers us a glimpse into the universe’s primordial state. In that state, everything was a unified field, much like a cosmic symphony where every note is played at once.
So, when we speak of ’emptiness,’ we are referring to this state of pure potential, this timeless existence that serves as the canvas upon which the universe is painted. It’s a concept that challenges our conventional understanding, inviting us to look beyond the apparent and delve into the essence of where Buddha nature emerges, that which existed before dependent origination, where dependent origination, originated.
Now, let’s weave these threads of thought into the intricate tapestry of interconnectedness. The principle of ‘Pratītyasamutpāda,’ or ‘Dependent Origination,’ teaches us that all phenomena arise in dependence upon multiple conditions; nothing exists in isolation.
In this grand scheme, every particle, every ripple in the field, every moment in time is intrinsically linked to this original emptiness. They are not isolated events or entities but nodes in an interconnected web that spans across all dimensions of existence. This interconnectedness is not just a philosophical or spiritual concept; it’s a fundamental aspect of our reality.
So, when we contemplate the emptiness of Sunyata, we are essentially contemplating the very essence of Buddha nature and the origin of all things. It’s a humbling and awe-inspiring realization that invites us to live more mindfully, more compassionately, and more in tune with the universe.
In the quest for enlightenment, understanding the interconnectedness of all things—be it through the lens of Buddhism, quantum physics, or both—serves as a pivotal step. This understanding can profoundly affect how we approach life, relationships, and even the challenges we face.
When we grasp the concept of śūnyatā, or emptiness, as not just a philosophical abstraction but as a fundamental aspect of reality, we begin to see the world differently. We recognize that our actions, thoughts, and emotions are not isolated events but part of a grander scheme. This realization can lead to a more compassionate and mindful way of living, as we become aware that our actions have far-reaching implications and interconnected by the web of Karma.
For those on a spiritual journey, these insights offer a deeper understanding of the nature of reality and our place within it. They invite us to question our preconceived notions and to explore the boundaries of our understanding. They challenge us to live more authentically, to be more present, and to appreciate the beauty and complexity of the world around us.
In the realm of philosophy, these ideas invite us to reconsider the nature of existence and to question the limitations of our current paradigms. They offer a framework for exploring questions about the nature of consciousness, the origins of the universe, and the meaning of life.
So, as we navigate the complexities of existence, let us remember that the ultimate truth lays in the intricate tapestry of interconnectedness. Let us strive to live in harmony with this truth, embracing the paradoxes and mysteries that come our way. For in doing so, we come closer to understanding the essence of Buddha nature and the profound emptiness that is the origin of all things.