(101) Section 4: The Rise and Fall of Polytheistic Civilization II
Chapter 1: The Indus
7-2 Mahayana Buddhism’s “Emptiness” and “Zero”
In the previous installment, I introduce the “philosophical completeness” sought by theorists of Mahayana Buddhism.
But to begin to understand what this means, you have to understand the theory of “emptiness.” Originating from the Sanskrit word sunyata, the Buddhist concept of “emptiness” refers to the idea that no entity is independent in this world. This is the antithesis of the fundamental Jewish, Christian, and Islamic belief that God is the origin of everything.
Hinduism acknowledges the existence of Brahman (universal truth) and its identical counterpart, Atman (self), but the Buddha refuted this idea with his concept of “non-self.”
▲ Nagarjuna with 84 mahasiddha © The History Collection
This refutation was theorized through the concept of “emptiness” and was fully developed by Nagarjuna (AD 150-250), one of India’s most important Buddhist philosophers.
In the Middle Way, Nagarjuna writes that all things considered independently existent like existence and time are actually the product of “dependent origination”—there is no original absolute existence. This is what is referred to as “emptiness.” To put it in more modern terms, think of the celestial body that is the sun. It is made up of almost entirely hydrogen and helium; that is, the two elements combine to form the sun. Each component exists in association with each other—nothing exists absolutely. All things are “empty.”
But this leads to one major question. In Buddhism’s major premise, samsara (rebirth), if everything is “empty,” and the “self” does not exist, then what exactly is it that is reborn? Does “it” also not exist?
Two Buddhist monks and scholars who presented a cogent answer to this dilemma were two brothers who are believed to have been active between the fourth and fifth centuries AD, Asanga and Vasubandhu.
Their theory was “consciousness only.” As the theory of “emptiness” states, nothing in this world is “real,” everything is simply a representation of interaction. Objects may look real, but they are merely transitory phenomenon of interaction. It is our visual and auditory perception of this transitory phenomenon of interaction that is the “consciousness” in “consciousness only.” The sole existence of “consciousness” is what the theory of “consciousness-only” means.
Consciousness-only is comparable to the western concept of Idealism, which asserts that the physical world does not exist, only the perceiving mind. Yet Mahayana Buddhism goes even further, explaining even the existence of consciousness is somewhat precarious in that it is inadequate in perceiving material phenomena.
Equipped with this understanding, you will find the opening paragraphs of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, considered by many to be the essence of Mahayana Buddhism, significantly clearer.
When Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva was practicing the profound
prajna paramita, he illuminated the five skandhas and saw that
they are all empty, and he crossed beyond all suffering and
Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness; emptiness i tself is form. So, too, are feeling, cognition, formation, and
Shariputra, all dharmas are empty of characteristics. They are
not produced. Not destroyed, not defiled, not pure, and they
neither increase nor diminish. (Buddhist Text Translation
Society, trans. 2002. The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra.
Burlingame: Buddhist Text Translation Society.)
Transcending Time and Space
At the time the sutras were written, those involved in its creation considered themselves members of the “Mahayana” and referred to conventional Buddhism as “Hinayana.” They may not have used the term “Hinayana” explicitly, but they refuted the teachings of this type of Buddhism (i.e., they rejected the idea that it was possible to overcome birth, sickness, aging, and death).
The authors of these sutras also place significant importance on the bodhisattva (a term sometimes used to refer to the previous lives of Gautama Buddha) with one of their objectives being the transformation into a bodhisattva, irrespective of whether one is a priest or not. This is why the Heart Sutra details how the greatest and most respected of all bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara (Kannon Bodhisattva), preaches the entirety of Buddhist doctrine to Sariputta, one of the Arhats (a person in Hinayana Buddhism who has achieved Nirvana) and disciple of the Buddha considered to be the wisest of disciples.
More than any other ancient culture, it was Mahayana Buddhism, specifically with its idea of “emptiness,” that contributed to the elucidation of the concept of “zero” in the field of mathematics. In Sanskrit, sunyata is translated as both “emptiness” and “zero.” But rather than any technological contribution or attainment of theological perfection, Mahayna Buddhism’s main objective was leading ordinary people, those who may not be capable of devoting themselves to ascetic training like monks, to the path of enlightenment and, ultimately, salvation.
To do so, Mahayana Buddhism gave rise to volumes and volumes of new sutras designed to help ordinary people achieve enlightenment. Before Mahayana Buddhism, Buddhist texts were primarily records of the sayings and doings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. But Mahayana Buddhism treats the Buddha as a being transcendent of time and space, and believes that there existed many more tathagatas, that is individuals who were not the historical Buddha but who had still achieved enlightenment.
To Mahayanaists, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was a tathagata like the others who had achieved enlightenment. Mahayanaists were now poised to preach an entirely new Buddhism.
< Read the next installment May 15 >
Editor/ Noriko Knickerbocker , Aquarius Ltd.
Translator/ Matthew Hunter , Aquarius Ltd.
©Motohiko Izawa 2018-2019 All rights reserved. No reproduction or republication without written permission.