"Whatever can be conceptualized is therefore relative, and whatever is relative is Sunya, empty. Since absolute inconceivable truth is also Sunya, Sunyata or the void is shared by both Samsara and Nirvana. Ultimately, Nirvana truly realized is Samsara properly understood."


sunyata: literally, emptiness

sunya: means zero, nothing

ta: in context, a suffix, means "-ness"

the Wanderling

SUNYATA: As can be seen, the meaning behind the word sunyata comes about by sunya being cojoined with the suffix ta. Sunya meaning zero, nothing --- the total absence of something. When cojoined as thus used it is taken to mean empty. When that junction is fulfilled and ta is added, it has the same function as the suffix -ness, making the adjective into a noun. So sunyata means Emptiness.

SAMSARA: basically translates into the day-to-day world of those whose attainment is unrealized.

NIRVANA: considered by some as the Enlightened state, is generally thought of as being directly opposite of what Samsara is.

SUNYATA although typically carrying the meaning "emptiness" ahead of itself it remains, thanks to Nagarjuna, steadfastly related to Buddhism's "middle way" --- so much so the two are often thought of as being the samething. It is one of those chronically misunderstood and misinterpreted words whose meaning continues to plague both Buddhism and things-Zen to this day. The primary reason being because Sunyata is so intertwined in both Mahayana and the generally accepted Buddhist concept of the "middle way" it is taken to mean the "middle way."

As the "middle way" Sunyata is thus taken as being in the middle, half-way between the Samsara and Nirvana because it is the "middle way." Sunyata ends up being pictured, for example, like the fulcrum in the middle of say a teeter-totter, with everyday common Samsara balanced at one end, Sunyata in the middle, and Enlightened Nirvana on the other end.

The problem with such an anology, besides being patently NOT so, is that it creates a dualism that isn't there...Samsara being at one end, Nirvana at the other. Sunyata is NOT the fulcrum balancing both equally, Sunyata is the WHOLE, encompassing, encompassed and THE encompassing. Enlightenment is NOT Nirvana, Nirvana is NOT Enlightenment. Sunyata, on the other one hand clapping, what? Well, lets find out.

The following somewhat more indepth view regarding Sunyata, which had been presented here previously under "author unknown" and with "minor restructuring," has been returned to it's orginal format in that the author, Professor of Religious Studies at Humboldt State University, Wiliam Herbrechtsmeier, has been identified and the material most graciously made available to us for our purposes here:

Sunyata ("Emptiness"). The Mahayana tradition has put a special emphasis on sunyata. This was necessary, in part, because of the tendency among certain early Buddhist schools to assert that there were aspects of reality that were not sunya, but which had inherent in them their "own-being". Several important Buddhist philosophers dismantled these theories by arguing for the pervasiveness of sunyata in every aspect of reality. (Nagarjuna was among the most important of these.) The specific arguments are too complicated for us to deal with here. But it is important to appreciate that understanding absolutely everything as sunya could imply that even those things most revered by Buddhists (such as the arhant ideal and the rules laid down in the vinaya) were empty. Mahayanists tended to argue that members of the Hinayana traditions were attached to their ideal forms as if they were not sunya.

To some extent, sunyata is an extension of the concepts made explicit in The Three Flaws. All things being impermanant, nothing can be seen as having an independent, lasting form of existence. And this is, in essence, what sunyata is all about. Strictly speaking, sunyata can be defined as "not svabhava". The concept svabhava means "own being", and means something like "substance" or "essence" in Western philosophy. Svabhava has to do with the notion that there is a form of being which "is" and "exists" in a form that is not dependent on context, is not subject to variation, and has a form of permanent existence. As such, the "soul" as understood in Abrahamic religions would have svabhava. God would certainly have svabhava. The Platonic forms (such as those described in the allegory of the Cave) would have svabhava.. Certain abhidharma teachings conclude that the building blocks of reality have such svabhava. But Mahayana philosophers like Nagarjuna concluded that sunyata is the fundamental characteristic of reality, and that svabhava could be found absolutely nowhere.


One of the images used to illustrate the nature of reality as understood in Mahayana is The Jewel Net of Indra. According to this image, all reality is to be understood on analogy with Indra's Net. This net consists entirely of jewels. Each jewel reflects all of the other jewels, and the existence of each jewel is wholly dependent on its reflection in all of the other jewels. As such, all parts of reality are interdependent with each other, but even the most basic parts of existence have no independent existence themselves. As such, to the degree that reality takes form and appears to us, it is because the whole arises in an interdependent matrix of parts to whole and of subject to object. But in the end, there is nothing (literally no-thing) there to grasp.

Pratitya-samutpada ("Dependent Co-arising"). The flip side of sunyata is pratitya samutpada. They are two sides of the same coin. They mean the same thing, but from two different perspectives. To the extent that sunyata is a negative concept (i.e., not svabhava), pratitya-samutpada is the positive counterpart. Pratitya-samutpada is an attempt to conceptualize the nature of the world as it appears to us, not (as with sunyata) by saying what the world is not, but by characterizing what is. I would say that pratitya-samutpada is probably just about my favorite religious-philosophical concept from within the traditions of the world. It is wonderfully subtle, and Buddhist philosophers have developed it beautifully.

As mentioned above, this concept is understood in two quite different ways in Theravada and Mahayana thought. In Theravada dependent co-arising (usually designated by its form in Pali, paticca-samuppada) is understood as a logical-causal chain which illustrates in a linear fashion the preconditions of suffering that can be analyzed and eliminated according to a strictly codified pattern of behavior. In Mahayana, on the other hand, which emphasizes the emptiness of things, dependent co-arising as a concept is used to clarify the nature of sunyata by showing that all things that appear to have independent, permanent existence are really the product of many forces interacting. Thus, in Mahayana it is stressed that all things are dependently co-arisen, because their seemingly independent existence really depends on the coming together simultaneously (the co-arising) of the various parts and forces that go into making them up. As such, pratitya-samutpada is more a metaphysical concept in Mahayana, and it is nonlinear inasmuch as it attempts to picture a universe in which all things are inextricably linked in a cosmic wholeness that cannot be unwoven into independent threads or pieces.

One illustration of sunyata and pratitya-samutpada is the Jewel Net of Indra (see above). Another is a rainbow.(see) We know that a rainbow is real in some sense, because we can see it, locate it, measure it, and so forth. However, it is also clear that a rainbow is no "thing", but rather the product of various forces interacting as sunlight shines through an atmosphere that has water droplets in suspension. Mahayana thinkers have asserted that all phenomena, including especially individual human beings, are like this, inasmuch as it is impossible to locate any basic particle or entity that is dependent in no way for its definition and existence on the relationship that it has to other things. All things are, therefore, "empty" and "dependently co-arisen".

Many great Buddhist philosophers have thought through with great care the nature of shunyata and pratitya-samutpada. This is but a simple illustration of much more complex reasoning, such as that found in the writings of Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, and other subtle thinkers. (See Smith, 82-112. See also Paul Ingram. 1990. "Nature's Jeweled Net: Kukai's Ecological Buddhism" on Electronic Reserve. )

It may seem that the articulation of such ideas "tends not to edification", or that it resembles absurd philosophical speculation such as "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" However, the study of these (and other) philosophical concepts has typically been linked with practices that train Buddhists to release themselves from attachment to or striving after "things" that might seem to offer some lasting sort of satisfaction. One of the most basic forms of attachment is the mind's tendency to grasp after objects of thought and perception as real (i.e., as having svabhava), and this tendency is reinforced in ideas that we have about the world. The use of philosophical reasoning to deconstruct such misconceptions (as they are understood within Buddhism) is a powerful vehicle for eliminating seeds that can eventually grow into very serious obstacles in one's orientation to the world.

Among the most important applications of these ideas with Mahayana has been to expose the emptiness and the co-dependently arisen qualities of even Buddhism itself. Mahayana claims itself to be an important vehicle to liberation, but it also points to its own provisional character. Mahayana does not see itself as an end, but as means to an end. That end is liberation, enlightenment, and an end to suffering. However, as with all religions, there is a tendency for the religion to reinforce itself as real, as an end in itself, within the minds of its adherents. The philosophical traditions of emptiness and dependent co-origination are important correctives to this tendency. There is an important saying within Zen: "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." When people come to see the Buddha as a being to be revered merely for the sake of piety itself, or when Buddhism itself becomes the chief focus of its practitioners, then it is time to "kill the Buddha", to point to the emptiness and provisional quality of Buddhism itself.(source)


Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.






(please click)

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The three flaws which characterize all elements of the phenomenal world are:

  1. anitya (Pali anicca) "impermanence." Impermanence has to do with the transient quality of existence. No "thing" has any lasting quality beyond the temporary qualities that arise as various constituent parts come together in the moment. Our belief that there are permanent entities of any kind (e.g., material objects, ideas, personality traits, souls, spirits, angels, and demons) is an illusion. We don't pay close enough attention to the nature of things, and we make false conclusions about their nature. Things that we believe to be permanent are not, claim Buddhists. Ideas supportive of permanence break down under close analysis.

  2. anatman (Pali anatta) "no-self, no-soul, no-ego". This truth articulates the doctrine of "impermanence" from another angle. It focuses on the nature of the "self", but not just the "self" in human beings. This refers to the absence of "self" or "substance" for any existent entity. One might conclude that there is an unchanging substance lying at the core of reality that remains unchanged in the face of apparent impermanence. The Buddha claimed (and argued) that there exists no such substance, and beliefs that such a "self" exists collapse under close scrutiny. See: ANATTA: The Concept Of No-Self In Buddhism

  3. duhkha (Pali dukka) "suffering, misery, sorrow" Suffering is the inevitable result of attaching one's self to false ideas and concepts. Just as people hope that the world is permanent, and that they have selves with an eternal quality, we also would like to believe that there is an "escape from" suffering. Buddhists argue that dukka is inevitable within the realm of samsara. The only means of overcoming suffering is through a transformation of consciousness that allows experience to be different as perceived. This transformation of consciousness does not alter, for example, the inevitability of death or loss, but it does allow one to overcome the sorrow of this loss by giving Buddhists the ability to abandon attachments to states of being that cannot continue to exist permanently.


    When I was a young boy with my mother ill and near death I was assigned to live with a foster couple. The couple, without my father's tacit approval or any approval, took me almost immediately to the ashram of the venerated Indian holy man the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharahi in Tiruvannamalai south India for several months. While there I met another young boy basically living at the ashram my same age named Adam Osborne, the son of Arthur Osborne the prolific writer of numerous books on the Maharshi.

    On the Osborne page linked above I discuss how as a young boy at the Ramana ashram I did not want to leave because for me, like in a movie I had seen, the world had, from black and white, TURNED INTO COLOR. The movie I was refering to was, of course, the Wizard of Oz.

    Interestingly enough, others have seen fit to draw similar conclusions in relation to the Wizard of Oz and Enlightenment. John Wren-Lewis, the author of DAZZLING DARK: A Near-Death Experience Opens the Door to a Permanent Transformation writes that following a near death experience he was suddenly thrust into a permanent altered state of consciousness similar to that typically attributed to the ancient classical masters. His perspective is considered unique not only because his awakening was thrust upon him basically out of nowhere without seeking it, but also because of that fact, he questions many commonly held beliefs about spiritual awakening. However, thrust upon or sought out, the end result, when put into words by the experiencer, are hauntingly the same.

    "(W)hereas mystical awakening for me has been like Dorothy's in The Wizard of Oz: the realization that I never really left home and never could."

    Evan I. Schwartz, author of the just published book Finding Oz wherein he discusses the Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum and where and how he created the Oz books writes:

    "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is less than a coming-of-age story, as some have suggested, and more a transformation-of-consciousness story. Like the Buddha, Dorothy attains Enlightenment."

    How I, as the young boy was, would have ever concieved of such a thing on my own is beyond me. An interesting sidelight from Schwartz's book --- as it applies to me being at the ashram in the first place --- is that the mother-in-law of Oz author Baum was a Theosophist. Through her, Baum and his wife were drawn into that belief system. If you recall from the above, and of which I have elaborated more in The Last American Darshan, the couple that took me to India were Theosophists. The events of that visit to the ashram, which I give title to as my first visit, led directly to my second visit as a grown man and all the interesting aspects therein. Please see: