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Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds

Shunyata: Creation without God

I’ve written before about defining shunyata, or ’emptiness’ as “the possibility of existence.”  The great philosophical and scientific question is, why does anything exist at all? The Buddhist answer is shunyata or “emptiness,” the possibility (space, potentiality) of something coming into existence. Even Dzogchen Ponlop once said that emptiness is “room”; Chogyam Trunpa called it “spaciousness.”

Yeah? So what? That’s always been my response to conundrum of emptiness. Even if you figure out what it is, or what it means, what difference does it make?

But I realize now that shunyata became an essential proposition for Buddhist philosophers because they had to explain how the universe began, how the universe was created without a creator-god. If there was no creator-god, then how did it get here?

Their answer: shunyata, emptiness, the possibility of existence. Emptiness as ‘the possibility of existence’ is an essential condition for creation-without-god.

That’s why in the Mahayana, shunyata takes on a divine quality. She becomes the Buddhist deity, Prajnaparamita, Wisdom, the Mother of the Buddhas.

Shunyata is not a “first cause”, which would be a violation of Buddhist cosmology, which claims no Singular First Cause (i.e. creator-god), but multiple causality. Shunyata is, however, a primary condition, a threshold condition for anything to exist at all.

But shunyata had lots of problems, even in its day when it was hotly debated amongst Buddhists, and many other faiths and philosophies. And it still has lots of problems today, the biggest one being that many contemporary Buddhists think of “emptiness” as some kind of absolute, essential quality that obliterates material reality. That the word we see around us has no substantial reality, it’s all just a dream, an image in a mirror. . . and so on, blah, blah, blah.

And as I’ve written before: Emptiness is always a relative condition. Emptiness is relative to existence as a lack of something. Emptiness is always a comparison between two states: empty of something and full of something. “Emptiness” is cognizable as a condition because, by contrast, “something” exists in relation to it. If nothing existed in relation to it, then it would not be cognizable as a quality and there would be no one to cognize it.

So then I go back to science, science tells us the nature of the universe, how it began, and where, when and how it all ends. We’re getting pretty close to answering those questions.

I recently learned that the universe is flat. (See Scientific American.) It has multiple dimensions, but it’s topography is flat, and it is infinitely expanding.

So that made me think, hey man ! the universe is like a pizza, a giant, ever-expanding pizza. And all the stars and planets and galaxies are the mushrooms and sausages and pepperonis. And the creator-god is the Great Pizzaiolo, the guy who spins the pizza dough forever and ever.

Bada-bing!

5 comments on “Shunyata: Creation without God

  1. John Willemsens
    2016/12/30

    Reblogged this on Advayavada Buddhism.

  2. napalama
    2017/01/27

    Reblogged this on Simple Forms.

  3. don socha
    2020/02/09

    I apologize in advance for the following question, not simply for its late arrival, and my not having sat with the question much before asking, but, because, as you’ve made clear, you’ve little interest in mere speculation.

    Nevertheless, while considering emptiness or the absence of inherency as possibility might suggest, as you say, ‘possible’ as distinct from indisputable causes and effects, doesn’t this put less emphasis on the relative conditions of reality than on the relativity of our perceptions and/or merely our understanding of that reality?

    To indulge this further, I recommend, if only for the sake of further contrast, the work of Bernardo Kastrup, who, while probably not a Buddhist, offers a theory suggesting that given an original oneness, let us say, something like ignorance could only dissociate itself, and extending dissociation further, trigger the rest of the twelve fold path.

    Still, Kastrup’s argument is idealist, so again, I doubt you will have any tolerance for it, that is if you could even get beyond its apparent lack of empirical applications.

    • Shaun Bartone
      2020/02/09

      @don socha: the question remains: Ignorant of what? It must be ignorant ‘of something’. Of itself? (dissociation)? Then “it” exists prior to ignorance of its own existence??

  4. don socha
    2020/02/10

    Yes. Maybe. Bizarrely, the best advice I’ve yet to find in a Chinese fortune cookie reads, “Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or nation.” Might we add, “in the course of anything ‘real”? Only what is not the eye can see the eye? Also, as Joaquin Phoenix implied last night, the earth and nearly every creature on it suffers chiefly from human egocentrism…. I don’t know. My favorite zen saying is, “not knowing is most intimate.” And so I want to advocate for that kind of intimacy. Surely you appreciate the sense that there is too much pressure put on any individual to conform to various authorities of the past and to ignore the present. Somehow, I don’t think this is an entirely metaphysical problem. But everything is empty because nothing is without cause. Only that without cause is not empty. Emptiness is empty. It is not a completely accurate perception. No perception is independent of some kind of contamination?

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This entry was posted on 2016/12/30 by and tagged .

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