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The Mystery of the Void

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by Sangharakshita

... what one means is that sunyata, or what is connoted by this word sunyata is not primarily a philosophy, not in the first place a philosophy, but an experience, a spiritual, a transcendental experience. And what we call for want of a better word the philosophy of sunyata, the theory of sunyata, is only a formulation of that experience, that spiritual or transcendental experience, in conceptual terms, in terms of thought, in terms of intellectual understanding. And this formulation, we may say, is mainly for purposes of communication, just for getting it across, for communication, that is to say, between the Enlightened, those who have the experience of sunyata, and the unenlightened, those who do not have any such experience; that is to say in the first place, initially, historically speaking, between the Buddha and his immediate disciples.

Now what we've just said, what we've just emphasized, in fact is true not just of sunyata. It holds good of all the important doctrines, as we like to call them, principles if you like, of Buddhism.

They're all based on, they all ultimately issue from, experience, originally the Buddha's experience, of Enlightenment. And they all point the way, in their own terms, within their own respective contexts, to our own experience of the truth they represent, which we usually designate by such words as `Enlightenment', `Nirvana', `emancipation', `spiritual freedom', and so on. And all these so-called doctrines, all these formulations, are all just parts of the raft, parts of that raft of the Dharma, the purpose of which is to take us across the waters of birth and death, the flood of conditioned existence, to the other shore of Nirvana. And as such, as parts of the raft, they are not an end in themselves, but only a means to an end.

So this we should bear in mind, in fact always bear in mind when we study Buddhism, especially with regard to this so-called doctrine or theory or philosophy - really experience -r sunyata, voidness, or emptiness. We should never forget that what is to be conveyed by this word, expressed by this word or even just hinted at by this word is essentially a mystery, and as such something to be experienced in the equal mystery of one's own personal spiritual life.

Now this sort of warning, as one may even call it, is particularly necessary in the West, because here in this country also our approach to Buddhism tends to be rather one-sidedly intellectual.

We tend to approach Buddhism too much with our brains, not even just with our minds. So I say just with our brains very often - not trying to feel it, not trying to experience it, but just trying to think it, to understand it, in a purely abstractly intellectual way. So when studying things like sunyata we have to bear this in mind and try to correct that one-sidedness. As a matter of fact, we can say that that sort of one-sidedness is already being corrected to some extent. It's becoming even less and less true to say, though true to some extent, but less and less true to say that the approach of English people to Buddhism is rather over-intellectual, because meditation - not just the theory of meditation, but the practice of meditation, in some of its forms at least - is now quite well established in this country. And we may even go so far as to say that the devotional, even the social elements are gradually also being introduced.

Now what we call sunyata is not just one thing, not even one experience. We may say it represents a whole vast range or spectrum if you like of experiences. Traditionally there are no less than thirty-two kinds of sunyata. And all these thirty-two kinds, I can assure you, are diligently studied in Mahayana countries. There the monks know at least the names of these thirty-two kinds of sunyata off by heart; they just rattle them off like that. And especially is this true of Tibet.

In this connection I remember a little incident, once again of course from Kalimpong, from my life and experience there. I remember that some time ago, quite a few years ago, I happened to be with a Tibetan friend of mine who had been at one time a high-ranking Tibetan government official, in fact he was governor of Gyantse? for a number of years, and he was subsequently married to Maharaj Kumari Kukulla, the eldest daughter of the Maharaja of Sikkim. So I remember once we were altogether, and this friend of mine's wife, Princess Kukulla, she just laughingly said `Well, when we're in Lhasa my husband is never at home. He's always in the monasteries discussing Buddhism with the lamas. I hardly ever see him' she said. So I said to Punkan Se ?, `Well, what is it that you discuss with the lamas? What are the favourite topics of discussion? Or what is even the favourite topic of discussion, when all the other sort of intermediate topics, preliminary topics have been exhausted, what do you usually get down to?' So he thought a while and he said, `Well, usually, after we've discussed one or two more or less ordinary things, what we really like to get down to and really go into' - and he said `Sometimes we discussed it all night - is the 32 kinds of voidness.' So this, it seemed, was the most popular topic for discussion between Buddhist monks and laymen also in the monasteries of Tibet. And that's why, apparently, that wives of Buddhist gentlemen in Lhasa apparently don't see much of their husbands for days together. They're busy exhausting the 32 kinds of voidness.

Now perhaps here in this place we may have one day a series of talks on all the 32 different kinds of voidness - we certainly couldn't do it all in one talk. But today we're confining ourselves to the four principal kinds of sunyata, because these are the most important. We shouldn't think too literally that you've got four kinds of sunyata, just as you might have four different kinds of cabbage, or four different kinds of daffodil and narcissus. But the four kinds, as we call them, really represent four successive stages in our experience, our progressively deepening experience, of the mystery of the void.

But before we go on to them I want to say a few words about the Perfection of Wisdom literature.

The Perfection of Wisdom literature, canonical literature or scriptures, represents we may say probably the most important group, single group, of Mahayana sutras. A sutra, as you may remember - sutra in Sanskrit, sutta in Pali - is a discourse of the Buddha, either long or short.

Now there are in the Buddhist canon, in its Chinese and Tibetan versions, also the original Sanskrit, more than 30 Prajnaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom sutras. Some of these are very long indeed - they're several bulky volumes long; others are very short, just a page or even in one case a sentence, and even just a letter, the letter A, in which the whole mystery is supposed to be summed up.

And all those, more than 30 of them, long and short, have been translated, luckily for us, into English by Dr Edward Conze. And this is really a very very epoch-making work. We can only say that we are most fortunate in English-speaking countries because we have to begin with practically the whole of the Pali canon in English, and then we've got the whole of the Perfection of Wisdom literature. If we have a few other works and a good collection of Tantras then we'll be well on our way to establishing the three yanas in this country. But for the time being we've got quite enough work to do assimilating the Pali canon and also these translations from the Perfection of Wisdom sutras.

Now among these sutras, these 30 odd sutras, there are three which are of particular spiritual and historical importance: first of all the Diamond Sutra, or Diamond-cutter Sutra, Vajracchedika, and the Heart Sutra, the Hridaya Sutra. These are comparatively short. The Diamond Sutra is about 30 or 40 pages only; the Heart Sutra is just a couple of pages, the longer version three pages. And these sutras, these two great works, summing up the message of all these magnificent texts, are recited daily in the Zen monasteries of Japan, as well as being very very frequently and constantly recited in Tibetan monasteries too. The third sutra, the third Perfection of Wisdom sutra of particular importance is the Ashtasahasrika, which means the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 lines. This is a much longer, and we may say richer work, and it covers a number of aspects of sunyata not covered in the shorter texts.

But all these three works - Diamond Sutra, Heart Sutra, Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 lines - they all deal basically, essentially, with just one topic. As Dr Edward Conze says in his introduction to a translation of one of them, it's just sunyata, the void, emptiness, over and over and over and over again, from different points of view. And they all deal with it not logically, not metaphysically; they deal with it as a direct spiritual experience. In most of these texts it's the Buddha who is speaking, they're his discourses, and he speaks out of the depths, as it were, of his own spiritual, his own transcendental experience. They're called, all these works, Perfection of Wisdom sutras because it's by means of prajna - wisdom or perfection of wisdom - which is a spiritual faculty, that the truth of sunyata is perceived or intuited. This is as it were to speak dualistically of course. One can say, perhaps more correctly, that sunyata, the voidness or emptiness, and prajna, transcendental wisdom or perfection of wisdom, represent between them the objective and the subjective poles of what is essentially the same non-dualistic experience.

However, let us get back now to our four kinds of sunyata. As we've said, mustn't take them too literally as four distinct kinds. One can say they represent four pinpointings in a continuous ever-deepening experience of reality.

Now first of all we have what is called samskrta-sunyata, ...

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