Sunyata & Kenosis:
Search of ‘Ultimate Truth’ in the light of the wisdom of Jesus and Buddha
Dr Aniruddha Babar
“The true value of a human being can be found in the degree to which he has attained liberation from the self.”
~ Albert Einstein
The historical Buddha- Siddhartha Gautama taught that we humans are made up of five aggregates or five heaps. Very briefly, these are form, sensation, perception, mental formation, and consciousness. If you study the aggregates, you might recognize that the Buddha was scientifically describing our bodies and the functions of our nervous systems. This includes sensing, feeling, thinking, recognizing, forming opinions, and being aware.
As recorded in the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta of the Pali Tipitaka (Samyutta Nikaya 22:59), the Buddha taught that these five “parts,” including our consciousness, are not “self.” They are impermanent, and clinging to them as if they were the permanent “me” gives rise to greed and hate, and to the craving that is the source of suffering. This is the foundation for the Four Noble Truths (The truth of suffering, The truth of the origin of suffering, The truth of the cessation of suffering, The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering). The teaching in the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta is called “anatta,” sometimes translated “no self” or “not self.” This basic teaching is accepted in all schools of Buddhism, including Theravada.
Anatta is a refutation of the Hindu belief in atman — a soul; an immortal essence of self. This is how Buddhism blasts off the fundamental belief of Hinduism which is based on the existence of soul.
However; Mahayana Buddhism goes further than Theravada. It teaches that all phenomena are without self-essence.
This is Sunyata. Of all Buddhist doctrines, possibly the most complex, intellectually challenging, difficult and misunderstood is Sunyata. Often translated as “emptiness,” is at the heart of all Mahayana Buddhist teaching. In the Mahayana among Six Perfections (paramitas), the sixth perfection is prajna paramita –that is the ‘perfection of wisdom’. It is said of the perfection of wisdom that it contains all the other perfections, and without it no perfection is possible. “Wisdom,” in this case, is nothing other than the realization of sunyata.
This realization is said to be the door to enlightenment. “Realization” is emphasized because an intellectual understanding of a doctrine of emptiness is not the same thing as wisdom. To be wisdom, as a necessary condition, emptiness first must be intimately and directly perceived and experienced. Even so, an intellectual understanding of Sunyata is the usual first step to realization. So, what is it? Nagarjuna (150 CE-250 CE), who is regarded as the greatest Buddhist philosopher (who was an alumnus of Nalanda University), founded Madhyamika philosophy, the philosophy of the Middle Way.
At the heart of the Middle Way is the concept of Sunyata, perhaps Nagarjuna’s single most important contribution to Buddhist thought. The whole philosophy, in fact, can be viewed as different aspects of Sunyata. The whole of the present work of Nagarjuna may be said to be an attempt to lay bare the different meanings of the central, the most basic concept, Sunyata. After all, it has been rightly believed that; motivated by compassion, the wise teach sunyata as a remedy for suffering. According to Madhyamika, the root of all suffering lies in the ignorance of clinging, the error of mistaking the relative for the absolute, the conditioned for the unconditioned. We take imagined separation as real, supposed division as given. By virtue of self- consciousness, we have an awareness of the unconditioned reflected in our conditioned nature, a sense of the real. But under ignorance we do not discriminate between the unconditioned and conditioned, causing us to confuse them and take the relative as absolute. “The error of misplaced absoluteness, the seizing of the determinate as itself ultimate, is the root-error.” Sunyata is the antithesis to this error, the antidote for suffering.
Sunyata-emptiness is extremely relevant to the Christian concept of the four dimensions of God’s Kenosis:- Its relation to creation, its dynamic of love, its relation to the word of God and its trinitarian structure. According to Nagarjuna, Sunyata is not nothingness, but it is truth or absolute reality of things or suchness (tathata) of the universe. Sunyata-emptiness is not being as distinguished from beings, nor is it a transcendent God distinguished from this world, nor is it nothingness distinguished from the somethingness of ordinary life. It is not to be found outside oneself, nor it is to be found inside oneself. If it were any of these things, or if it were found in any particular place, it would be a relative emptiness, not ultimate reality. In this context it is pertinent to examine what St. Paul wrote to the Philippians:
“Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of man; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself becoming obedient even unto, yea, the death of the cross”.
In Christianity, one can also say that we all have an original union with God, given the creative kenosis of God at the ground of our being, and that we can obtain a realisation of this fact through a redemptive union with God. But there is a major difference here between Buddhism and Christianity. In Buddhism one can become a Buddha in the realisation of emptiness. But in Christianity, one cannot say that one can become a Christ in the realisation of the redemption. Rather, this Christian realisation is a participation in Christ’s ‘redemptive kenosis’. Therefore one does not become a Christ in the same way as one can become a Buddha.
Cynthia Bourgeault in her book titled “The Wisdom Jesus” explains that the path of inner transformation taught by Jesus was one of kenosis, from a Greek verb meaning “to let go” or “to empty oneself’:
“Underlying all his teaching is a clarion call to a radical shift in consciousness: away from the alienation and polarization of the egoic operating system and into the unified field of divine abundance that can be perceived only through the heart.”Jesus Christ, who underwent a divine void, a letting go of divinity in order to be fully human (Phil.2), a kenosis, becomes the model and exemplar of what a “virgin”, that is a truly emptied person, is like.
A truly emptied person is so vulnerable to beauty and truth, to justice and compassion, that he or she becomes a truly hollow and hallowed channel for divine grace. Jesus emptied and he was emptied, and thus he becomes a source of wisdom, a royal person, a prophet through who the divine word can gush and flow with intensity and sensitivity. Through him God, the underground river, bursts above ground into human lives and human history.
But only because Jesus, so fully grounded himself, is a hollow conduit in full contact with the divine source and wellspring underground. And we too are invited to be patterned after this same emptied and hollowed image of God.
Loving whatever God has handed you. This is the teaching of the Jesus Christ perfectlyresonating with the message of the Buddha. The Christian term kenosis, from the Greek verb kenosein, meaning “to let go” or “to empty one’s self.” Kenosis is the emptying of one’s own will and becoming entirely receptive to the Divine Will of God. It is active and dynamic. It moves from the inside out-milk poured from the pitcher, honey from the pot. This reminds us of Buddhism’s Sunyata, or emptiness, that place of no-place, that source- of no source, that origin-of no origin, from which all things arise and to which they return. Kenosis and Shunyata. By their fundamental nature, both are empty of self, both embody that bathwater maxim: loving is about turning over, about letting go and giving away. And both connect us to the ceaseless flow between form and void, between everything and nothing.
In this flow, all things are possible. The rise and fall are eternal. “The only constant is change and subsequent transformation.” It is absolutely immaterial as to how you name this endless process/cycle of creation and destruction.
A Christian can embrace the hope that we do not have to allow our lives to be dominated by lust, ignorance, craving, violence and anger. There is an alternative lifestyle of WISDOM and COMPASSION, but it demands a transformation of our fundamental assumptions about ourselves and our world, worldviews, a change of behavior, and a practice of mental discipline leading to a wisdom that cannot be defined or measured. The traditional Buddhist virtues of the Brahma-viharas ( i.e.Four divine abodes and they are loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, equanimity) the dwelling places of the Buddha, resonate deeply with Christian values. World greatly appreciate the Buddhist teachings on loving-kindness, compassion, sharing, appreciative joy, and equanimity as well as the application of these virtues to contemporary life. These are all values that Christiansand Buddhists can cherish together.
The Buddha finds the absolute freedom of Nirvana ((in Buddhism) a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, It represents the final goal of Buddhism.) where one is “profound, immeasurable, unfathomable” (MN 72.20). The apostle Paul writes of the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, and John of the Cross tells us that atop Mount Carmel, in the state of union with God, there is an experience of freedom, compassion, and truth that no formula can define (Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez [ICS Publications, 1991], 111). Each tradition insists that only those who have experienced can speak; no verbal formulation could contain the content of either experience, let alone univocally define the relationship between them. The voices of Shakyamuni Siddhartha Gautama ‘Buddha’ and Jesus Christ are clearly not the same, but their overtones and undercurrents and core messageperfectly resonate, complement, support and defend each other.
The Paths given by the ‘Two Flames of Wisdom’ directs us not to the outward illusion but to the inner reality. Kenosis and Sunyata are mere words. True liberation, true bliss, true grace lies in the ‘experience of ultimate truth’ that both the Jesus and Buddha spoke of.
Jesus said “the Kingdom is Within You”.How many of us tried to understand the true meaning of ‘inner kingdom’? Have we discovered that Kingdom? Or have we lost our way somewhere in the kaleidoscopic tesseract of the world-that arises and perishes every nano-second? At the end, everything that has been created must perish and returnto the non-source and non-origin-for the beginning of non-beginning. Let us learn to see TRUE as TRUE and UNTRUE as UNTRUE, this knowledge alone will take us to the subtle, ultimate reality, where ‘emptiness’-the non-nothingness, non-selfnature of physical reality prevails.
(Much gratitude to all the people who freely provided Online and Offline sources; and also the Authors of those sources who were instrumental in developing this article)
The writer is Asst. Professor, Dept of Political Science, Tetso College, Dimapur, NL