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The Mystery of the Void

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 27: The Mystery of the Void

Friends, As you all know, at present we are in the midst of Easter, of the Easter holidays, and Easter, as I hardly need remind most of you, Easter commemorates, according to Christian tradition and belief, the crucifixion and also the resurrection of Christ. Now a number of Christians, if not the majority of orthodox, of practising Christians, take these two events which Easter commemorates, that is to say the crucifixion and the resurrection, quite literally. They regard them as being essentially historical facts. They believe that Christ was quite literally crucified, and that quite literally in his physical body he was resurrected, and subsequently of course ascended into heaven.

Now Buddhists don't believe that. So far as we can see, the crucifixion may actually have occurred. It may be a historical fact; there's nothing intrinsically improbable or impossible in someone being crucified in those days for whatsoever reason. It was a well-known form of punishment under the Roman government, the Roman empire of those days. But the resurrection and the ascension, a Buddhist would say, are most certainly myths. Now, one must be a little careful how one uses the word myth. When we say that something is a myth, or that something is mythical, we don't mean, or at least we shouldn't mean, that it isn't true. When we say that the crucifixion or the resurrection is essentially or primarily a myth, we don't mean that they're not true. We mean rather that whatever truth they possess is spiritual rather than scientific. Most people think that truth is necessarily factual, necessarily, as it were, scientific, but we can also say that truth in the deeper sense, spiritual truth, is poetic, is non-factual, even non-scientific.

So from a Buddhist point of view we may say that the crucifixion, the resurrection, the whole festival of Easter in fact, represents a spiritual rebirth after a spiritual death. It really represents what we may describe as a triumphant emergence of a new mode of being, even a new mode of awareness, from the old. Those of us who are familiar with Zen, for instance, will know that Zen speaks, very often, in terms of dying the great death before one can attain the great Enlightenment. So perhaps we may say, perhaps we may be permitted to say, that from a Buddhist point of view the festival of Easter represents, spiritually speaking, something of this sort, an association of spiritual rebirth, of new spiritual life, following upon spiritual death.

It is, incidentally, quite significant that the festival of Easter takes place in the spring, when summer is about to begin, when the trees are bursting into new leaf, when we begin to hear the birds singing again after they have been silent for so long during the long winter months.

According to the Venerable Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the word `Easter' is from an old Anglosaxon word Eostre, which apparently, according to him, was the name of a pre-Christian, British goddess - most likely it was a fertility goddess. And it is in fact rather interesting to note that in connection with Easter, the festival of Easter, not only in this country but in a number of Christian countries, quite a number of pagan customs are still being continued - for instance the giving of Easter eggs. This has really nothing to do with Christianity at all. There's nothing about the giving of Easter eggs in the Bible, for instance. You don't read in the Bible story of the crucifixion and the resurrection that the Apostles, or any other of the disciples of Christ, gave one another Easter eggs on that occasion.

But what it means, what it symbolizes, what it represents, is quite clear. The egg, the unbroken egg, is a symbol of life, especially a symbol of new, renascent life. And this symbol of the egg, representing a new birth, a new life, a resurrection in the widest sense, is of universal occurrence.

We don't find it only in Christianity. We don't find it only in connection with Easter. We find it in practically all religions, all traditions, all over the world. Just to give one simple example, if one goes to Italy one finds in the Etruscan tomb paintings representations of the dead. And one finds that the dead are very often depicted on the walls of their own tombs reclining on classical couches and holding in their hands, in their outstretched hands, an egg, a symbol of their belief that death was not the end, that death would be followed by a new life. All this from about 1000 to 700 BC.

And in Buddhism too we have in the literary sources, the scriptural foundations of Buddhism, the same sort of figure of speech, the same sort of symbolism. In Buddhism, especially in the Mahayana, the Bodhisattva, the one who is bent upon Enlightenment, the one who has produced the Bodhicitta, the thought of or the will to, the aspiration towards Enlightenment for the benefit of all, is spoken of the Buddha in the scriptures as one who has emerged or as one who is in process of emerging from the eggshell of ignorance.

So this shows us that even this Christian festival of Easter has overtones or undertones of which the ordinary Christian, the orthodox Christian, is quite oblivious. In fact, one might even go so far as to say that despite the Bishop of Woolwich, most Christians know nothing of all this at all.

One might even say that they think still or at least that they think that they think that Christ was not only crucified literally but that even he was resurrected literally and ascended into heaven in his physical body. That still is the official doctrine of the churches. For instance, in the 39 articles of the Church of England, one reads that he ascended into heaven together with his flesh, blood and bones, and all that apertains thereto. They all went up into heaven quite literally and physically and sat down, presumably on a physical seat, at the right hand of the Father.

So so long as these rather crude literal beliefs are still officially entertained and current, it isn't of course possible for Buddhists to celebrate Easter as Christians do, and that presumably is why we are all here this afternoon instead of being decently in church. But though we are not celebrating Easter, we're certainly not unmindful of Easter. We're certainly taking advantage of the fact that Easter in this Christian land is a holiday, and we're observing it Buddhistically. We have, as most of you know, our own programme, over this long weekend, of meditation and lectures and other functions.

Now today, which is Easter Sunday, we have the twelfth talk in our series introducing Buddhism.

But though it's a talk in this series, it isn't, at the same time, unconnected with this festival of Easter. The crucifixion and the resurrection, these are regarded or were regarded in ancient times, in apostolic times, as among the mysteries of Christianity. It's rather significant that in the history of Christianity one talks of dogmas only at a later stage. In the earlier, the more primitive stages, as represented to some extent still by the Eastern Orthodox churches, one speaks of the mysteries of Christianity.

Now we may say that Buddhism has also its mysteries. And today we propose to speak on one of the greatest of all these Buddhist mysteries, perhaps the greatest of all, insoluble to many people: that is to say, the mystery of the void. The void is of course the Sanskrit and the Pali word sunyata, and this is usually translated into English by the word `emptiness', very often `voidness'. Now emptiness or voidness is literally correct. It's quite an exact, quite a correct philological translation of this word sunyata. One could even make out a good case for translating sunyata as `nothingness', as Dr H.V. Guenther does. One could even translate it as `zero'. In modern Indian languages zero is sunya - as in 1, 2, 3 and so on, zero - sunya. But all these more or less literal philological translations can be most misleading, as we shall see.

Now it will have been noted already perhaps that we don't speak of the theory of sunyata. We don't speak of the doctrine of sunyata. We don't even speak of the philosophy of sunyata. We speak instead of the mystery of sunyata, the mystery of the void or the mystery of emptiness - because this, quite truly, is what it really is. It's a mystery. One might even go further than that and one might say, in a very famous phrase used in a quite different context, that the void is not just a mystery; it's a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. That's what the void, that's what emptiness, sunyata, really is.

And it is a mystery, a great mystery, the greatest even of all mysteries so far as Buddhism is concerned - not just because it's an abstruse theory or a very difficult doctrine or a particularly involved piece of Buddhist philosophy. It's a mystery, a deep mystery, because it's not a theory or a doctrine or a philosophy at all. Sunyata or voidness or emptiness - these are just the words, these are just the labels that we use - sunyata is essentially an experience, what we can only describe as a spiritual experience, even a transcendental experience. And as such the mystery of sunyata as an experience, it is incommunicable. That's why we describe it as a mystery. We know that usually in popular books, even scholarly books, lectures, discussions, articles about Buddhism, sunyata is usually spoken of as though it were a doctrine, a theory, a philosophy, and nothing more than that. But that's a very great mistake indeed. One might even say it's a catastrophic mistake, because it precludes all possibility of greater understanding.

Now by this I don't mean that there is no doctrine of sunyata, or theory of sunyata, or philosophy of sunyata. We have all those things, quite definitely, in Buddhism. But what ...

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