Shunyavada: Shunyavada is one of the most important schools of Buddhism. Nagarjuna cannot be called its founder because it was present before him in the Mahayana Sutras,
some of which are prior even to Ashvaghosa, and in Ashvaghosa. Nagarjuna is only the first systematic expounder of Shunyavada. However it is to the glory of Nagarjuna that he seized these threads and wove them into unity; it is to the greatness of Nagarjuna that he developed these more or less scattered ideas almost to perfection in a thoroughly consistent manner.
Shunyavadins call themselves Madhyamikas or the followers of the Middle Path realized by Buddha during his Enlightenment, which Path, avoiding the errors of existence and non-existence, affirmation and negation, eternalism and nihilism, also at once transcends both the extremes. It is a great irony of fate that the followers of such a path are condemned by some as nihilists.
Unfortunately the word ‘Shunya’ has been gravely misunderstood. The literal meaning of the word which is negation or void has been the cause of much misunderstanding. The word is used by the Madhyamikas in a different philosophical sense. Ignoring the real philosophical meaning of the word ‘Shunya’ and taking it only in its literal sense, many thinkers, eastern and western, ancient, medieval and modern have unfortunately committed that horrible blunder which has led them to thoroughly misunderstand Shunyavada and to condemn it as a hopeless scepticism and a self-condemned nihilism. Shunya, according to the Madhyamikas, we emphatically maintain, does not mean a ‘nothing’ or an ‘empty void’ or a ‘negative abyss’. Shunya essentially means Indescribable (avachya or anabhilapya) as it is beyond the four categories of intellect (chatuskoti-vinirmukta). It is Reality which ultimately transcends existence, non-existence, both and neither. It is neither affirmation nor negation nor both nor neither.
Empirically it means Relativity (pratityasamutpada) which is phenomena (Samsara); absolutely it means Reality (tattva) which is release from plurality (nirvana). The world is Indescribable because it is neither existent nor non-existent; the Absolute is Indescribable because it is transcendental and no category of intellect can adequately describe it.
Everything is Shunya: appearances are Svabhava Shunya or devoid of ultimate reality and Reality is Prapancha-shunya or devoid of plurality. Thus Shunya is used in a double sense. It means the relative as well as the Absolute. It means Relativity as well as Reality. It means Samsara as well as Nirvana.
That which is phenomenal, that which is dependent and conditional and therefore relative cannot he called ultimately real, even as borrowed wealth cannot be called real capital. All appearances (dharmas) being relative (pratityasamutpanna), have no real origination (paramarthato nutpanna) and are therefore devoid of ultimate reality (svabhava-shunya or nissvabhava or anatman). But they are not absolutely unreal.
They must belong to Reality. It is the Real itself which appears. And this Real is the Absolute, the Non-dual Harmonious Whole in which all plurality is merged (prapanchashunya or nisprapancha or advaya tattva). Shunya therefore does not mean ‘void’ ; it means, on the other hand, ‘devoid’, so far as appearances are concerned ‘of ultimate reality’, and so far as Reality is concerned, ‘of plurality’. It is clearly wrong to translate the word ‘Shunya’ as ‘nothing or void’; and even to translate it as ‘Relativity’ as Prof. Stcherbatsky has done, is but to represent only one aspect of it.
Ashvaghosa said that Tathata is neither Shunya nor Ashunya nor both nor neither because it transcends all categories of the intellect. ‘All things in the world from beginning are neither matter nor mind (empirical ego), nor consciousness (momentary and individual), nor non-being, nor being; they are after all, inexplicable. But this does not mean that there is no reality because it is the Real itself which appears. ‘The divine nature of the Absolute Reality is not unreal.
The Shunyavadins take ‘existence’, ‘is’, ‘affirmation’, ‘being’ in the sense of absolute existence or ultimate reality; it means Eternalism. Those who maintain that the world exists are committing a great error because when we penetrate deep we find that this entire world with all its manifold phenomena is essentially relative and therefore ultimately unreal. And those who advocate non-existence or non-being are also committing a great error because they are denying even the phenomenal reality of the world.
They are condemned by the Shunyavadins as nihilists (nastikas). Eternalism and Nihilism are both false. Intellect which is essentially discursive, analytic and relational involves itself in contradictions. All that can be grasped by it is essentially relative. It gives us four categories— existence, non-existence, both and neither— and involves itself in sixty-two antinomies. It cannot give us Reality.
Reality transcends all the categories and reconciles all the antinomies of intellect. It is to be directly realized through spiritual experience. It is the Non-dual Absolute in which all plurality is merged. We must rise above the subject-object duality of the intellect and the plurality of the phenomena.
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