Thursday, March 11, 2010

Shunyata - Emptiness in Buddhist Philosophy Part 3

Emptiness of natural things.
Maybe we can rescue Plato's ideas of the inherent existence of perfect forms if we assume there is a strict demarcation between man-made and natural objects, with the former existing in dependence upon the 'judgement' of the observer, but the latter existing 'from their own side'. For having come to accept that man-made things such as chariots and cars owe some of their existence to dependence on our mind, we may suspect that this is somehow because they are originally products of the human mind - as first conceived by the designer.

We find it more difficult to accept the natural things in the world, such as flowers and trees are dependent upon our minds. A rose would smell as sweet by any other name. A rose bush is a rose bush is a rose bush, and is different in its inherent nature from a plum or a cherry tree. There is no continuum between these three species and thus no necessity for our mind to make a judgment of the borderline. But is this really the case?

Leaving aside nightmare genetic engineering scenarios of octophants, elepuses and all stages in between, we may consider that there is (or was) a continuum of form between all living things. If we were to examine the fossil records of the ancestors of cherry trees and plum trees we would find that they diverged from one common ancestor. Looking back through the fossils we would seen a continuous gradation of characteristics from the ancestors of the cherry to to the ancestors of the plum, leading back to a time when they were indistinguishable. But the decision as to where ancestor ended and plum or cherry began would be totally arbitrary. And if we were to trace the common ancestor of the cherry and plum we would find convergence with the ancestors of the rose, strawberry, raspberry etc. What Darwin did for creationism he also did for biological Platonism - the biological species concept does not encapsulate any underlying truth [BROOKES 1999], and each individual species is unfindable

The ultimate unfindability of the real nature of all phenomena - their lack inherent existence, is usually referred to by English-speaking Buddhists as 'emptiness', which is a translation of the Sanskrit word shunyata (sometimes spelled Sunyata). According to David Loy the English word emptiness has a more nihilistic connotation than the original Sanskrit. The Sanskrit root su also conveys the concept of being swollen with possibility [LOY 1996]. It is therefore most important not to confuse emptiness with total nothingness. Emptiness implies the potential for existence and change. The mathematical analogy of emptiness is not zero, but the empty set.