Shunyata or Infinity?
By Prashant Saxena
That man who uses the mind for reins and the knowledge for the driver, reaches the end of his road, the highest seat of Vishnu. Than the senses the objects of sense are higher; and higher than the objects of sense is the Mind; and higher than the Mind is the faculty of knowledge; and than that is the Great Self higher. And higher than the Great Self is the Unmanifest and higher than the Unmanifest is the Purusha: than the Purusha there is none higher: He is the culmination, He is the highest goal of the journey. (Katha Upanishad, Kena and other Upanishads, Page 115, 1.3.9-11)
A thought cannot be measured nor can it be known as to when it began. It can also be the effect of the remainder of all conditioning left in our unconscious, or it can be an intuitive thought, a natural inquiry into the nature and its working, or the whereabouts of a loved one. Where does this thought comes from, by whose will, why and when does the mind starts analyzing it because of which the senses which are also considered as divine or godly (e.g Prashna and Aitereya Upanishad) work accordingly?
Eye cannot seize, speech cannot grasp Him, nor these other godheads; not by austerity can he be held nor by works: only when the inner being is purified by a glad serenity of knowledge, then indeed, meditating, one beholds the Spirit indivisible. (Manduka Upanishad, 3.1.8)
The ultimate reality or the dream of Vishnu is often equated to the mental faculty, where the individual consciousness reflects the essence of supreme consciousness just like the moon reflects the light of the sun.
There are various stages of meditation. The first stage is encountered with innumerable and uncontrollable thoughts. There is a sense of "I" and thoughts of people e.g the loved ones or the society in general associated with emotions like hate, anger etc. The mind seems restless and thoughts uncontrollable even for a few seconds. Some may be associated with pleasant and some with bad memories. The unpleasant memories or a mind full of material attachment might lead to depression.
For the being who has conquered the mind; that beings mind is the best of friends; but for one whose mind is uncontrolled, that very mind acts as the worst of enemies. (Bhagvad Gita, 6.6)
As a person practices more and more, he becomes a detached witness to these thoughts. He experiences the thoughts, pleasant or unpleasant, but remains unwavered and detached from those thoughts. The final stage of meditation is experienced when a person is free from any thoughts and witnesses a blank, a void like state where the thoughts cease to exist. This stage is encountered with the disappearance of "I", where a person dissolves into that detached state of bliss experiencing a formless universe, without any shape, name, gender, space, time etc.
Is there any measure of that state, any depth, height or a frame of reference? Can we measure where it starts from or where it ends? It seems infinite if we analyze it through the framework of our logical mind and yet from the same approach it also looks "empty" i.e an infinite void. It cannot be called as existence as no singular thought can be experienced in that state, or in simple words nothing seems to be existing, nor can it be called as non-existence as the state itself is an experience!
In that final state of meditation or thoughtless state of awareness, a thought may enter by its own nature e.g an idea to teach, which can then multiply into many thoughts e.g how to teach, what to teach with the content etc. It is similar to the unmanifest and unborn ultimate reality called bhraman manifesting itself into various forms animate and inanimate which ultimately dissolve back into it or the waves rising from the ocean and dissolving back into it. Thus, what we call as born, i.e thoughts or bodily shape, is a brief period of manifest from the unmanifest and back to the unmanifest. (Refer BG 8.18-21). The body or the creatures rise (born) from food and energy or the infinite and unending universe, use it to sustain their temporary form on earth and become food and energy or dissolve into the same universe during their end.
The whole Universe, like an ocean, consists of such temporary waves, i.e human body, stars, galaxies etc, which rise and merge back into the same reality. It is the senses because of which the mind is able to differentiate and categorize, because of which we are able to perceive shapes, colors, forms, fragrances, taste, space, time etc. Are these waves apart from the ocean? Are these manifestation apart from the unmanifest or a part of the same unmanifest or the ultimate reality that the sages speak of?
“Form is emptiness; emptiness is form” - Buddhism
The nature of the ultimate reality has expounded by different people differently. The western material science uses tools which are nothing but an extension of the material senses. Can the boundary of the universe be identified? If yes, then what is beyond that boundary? Where did it come from? If it indeed has some boundary, then the universe must be having a definite shape or a form. Does that mean that the universe is itself rotating or revolving around something higher? Such questioning can go recursively and infinitely, which again means that the nature of the ultimate reality is infinite just like the final state of meditation. Similarly, in ancient times, some followed Saankhya and some Yoga to experience the ultimate reality. But do they give a different experience of the same ultimate reality?
Immature persons say that ‘Saankhya’ and ‘Yoga’ are different; but the wise do not. A person who perfectly follows one attains the result of both. That very state which is attained by the followers of ‘Saankhya’ is also attained by the followers of ‘Yoga’. One who sees ‘Saankhya’ and ‘Yoga’ to be one and the same, sees truly. (BG 5.4-5)
Sri Aurobindo writes
"The great Upanishads are written round one body of ancient knowledge; but they approach it from different sides. Into the great kingdom of the Brahmavidya each enters by its own gates, follows its own path or detour, aims at its own point of arrival. The Isha Upanishad and the Kena are both concerned with the same grand problem, the winning of the state of Immortality, the relations of the divine, all-ruling, all-possessing Brahman to the world and to the human consciousness, the means of passing out of our present state of divided self, ignorance and suffering into the unity, the truth, the divine beatitude. As the Isha closes with the aspiration towards the supreme felicity, so the Kena closes with the definition of Brahman as the Delight and the injunction to worship and seek after That as the Delight. Nevertheless there is a variation in the starting-point, even in the standpoint, a certain sensible divergence in the attitude." (Kena and Other Upanishads)
Therefore, the nature of the ultimate reality can only be arrived at through devotion in knowing its nature and detachment from materialism or mental conditioning. Thus, what the Buddhists call as Shunyata, the Vedic cannon describe it as the unmanifest, unborn, omnipresent, unnameable, featureless, genderless etc. Both imply completeness or perfection.
The Upanishads express it in the form of riddles :
He who is neither inward-wise, nor outward-wise, nor both inward and outward wise, nor wisdom self-gathered, nor possessed of wisdom, nor unpossessed of wisdom, He Who is unseen and incommunicable, unseizable, featureless, unthinkable, and unnameable, Whose essentiality is awareness of the Self in its single existence, in Whom all phenomena dissolve, Who is Calm, Who is Good, Who is the One than Whom there is no other, Him they deem the fourth; He is the Self, He is the object of Knowledge. (Mandoukya Upanishad, Kena and other Upanishads, Page 194)
That Wise One is not born, neither does he die; he came not from anywhere, neither is he anyone; he is unborn, he is everlasting, he is ancient and sempiternal, he is not slain in the slaying of the body. (Katha Upanishad, Kena and other Upanishads, Page 112)
Not woman is He, nor man either, nor yet sexless; but whatsoever body He take, that confineth & preserveth Him. (Svetasvatara Upanishad, 5.10)
But, is it appropriate to call the concept of shunyata as "nothingness"? The ancient sages call this ultimate reality as omnipresent, omniscient, perfect, immutable etc. One may ask, how can something higher come from something lesser or how can perfect come from imperfect?
Sri Aurobindo writes,
‘Nothing can arise from Nothing. Asat, nothingness, is a creation of our mind; where it cannot see or conceive, where its object is something beyond its grasp, too much beyond to give even the sense of a vague intangibility, then it cries out, "Here there is nothing." Out of its own incapacity it has created the conception of a zero. But what in truth is this zero? It is an incalculable Infinite... Our sense by its incapacity has invented darkness. In truth there is nothing but Light, only it is a power of light either above or below our poor human vision's limited range.' Sri Aurobindo, The Web of Yoga, Centenary Edition, Vol. 17, p. 48
Therefore, the concept of "nothingness" or “ordinary emptiness”, to represent ultimate reality, is logically flawed as it would negate the very meaning of "omnipresent, omniscient". A comparable example would be energy. It is present everywhere and can change from one form to another e.g kinetic energy to potential energy, solar energy to electrical etc, but we cannot say it is "nothing". Therefore, the buddhist conception of shunyata cannot be mapped to "nothingness" as it distorts the whole understanding. Nothingness cannot manifest to “something". Only an omnipresent, immutable, unborn, unmanifest reality is capable of taking any form or manifestation and to accommodate both manifest and unmanifest aspects of the cosmos.
Frifjof Capra writes, “In spite of using terms like empty and void, the Eastern sages make it clear that they do not mean ordinary emptiness when they talk about Brahman, Sunyata or Tao, but, on the contrary, a Void which has an infinite creative potential. Thus, the Void of the Eastern mystics can easily be compared to the quantum field of subatomic physics. Like the quantum field, it gives birth to an infinite variety of forms which it sustains and, eventually, reabsorbs.”
Kena and Other Upanishads By Sri Aurobindo
Tao Of Physics, By Frifof Capra