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‘Emptiness and Boundlessness’ by Sarah Kokai Thwaites

I’ve been experimenting with words recently. Not deliberately but rather noticing how different translations of some of the words that we use in talking about practice or in our chants bring a very different feel. I’m going to be exploring here just one of these – the biggest – emptiness.

I’m not going to really be covering emptiness itself – I’d fail miserably, I think that’s an almost impossible task – but the word itself and an alternative translation of boundlessness that I’ve come across and which I’m finding to be a useful supplement.

There are various reasons why we respond to words in the way we do. As well as their meaning (actual, intended or perceived), words come with associations, sometimes cultural and sometimes personal and these affect our reaction to them. A word might bring up a completely different reaction in me than it does in you. And a different reaction in me one day than another. That makes our choice of words tricky. We don’t know how the words we use will be received by the hearer. In Zen there is the added complication that many of the terms that we use come to us in a translated form from other times and places. Translation is an art rather than a science and there are often multiple words that could be used, each with a slightly different connotation.

In terms of the word emptiness as a translation of the Sanskrit term shunyata this seems to me to have some drawbacks. In the west, outside of Buddhist terminology, the word empty usually has negative connotations. If someone describes their life as feeling empty they are usually giving a description of itas feeling depressing and meaningless. We talk about pessimistic people seeing a glass as “half empty”. And because we often see empty as the opposite to full we tend to wonder “empty of what?”. The sometimes used translation of voidness also has similar connotations. With those connotations of empty in our heads it is perhaps not surprising that some people have a rather nihilistic take on emptiness. I’m involved in various online communities of meditators and I’ve come across various people who insist that there is nothing real in the world, except themselves. I’ve known people who argue that they can act anyway they like because there is no-one to hurt. And people who have felt themselves to be in a depressing, meaningless void. I wonder if their mental associations were a factor in this. They knew the wordemptiness before their first (known) experience of it and so their experience was perhaps cast in the light of their prior expectations. I have no idea whether another translation might have led to a different experience for them.

In contrast I didn’t hear the term emptiness until after I’d experienced it. This meant that I had no wording to describe it but also no expectation of how it should be. When I did hear the word it just seemed useful that there was a word that could be used as a kind of a shorthand. The experience, and its lasting effect on me (kick starting my perhaps somewhat obsessive sitting habit), was an overwhelmingly positive and joyous one and I’m lucky that nihilism was not something I had to deal with. I felt instead more connected, more concerned to act responsibly because it was more obvious that my actions, as part of the vast web of life, affected everyone else.

It strikes me that words work at different levels. There is the word itself, what it means, or rather what we take it to mean. We tend to process this in our heads through thought. There is also the feel of a word. I tend to appreciate that most in my body. There can be times when a word just doesn’t sit well, it jars and I find that useful to explore. With other words there can be a feeling of “rightness” or maybe a resonance. When I heard the alternative translation of shunyata as “boundlessness” there was that sort of bodily resonance. This alternative translation comes from Kaz Tanahashi, an artist, calligrapher, Dogen scholar, translator and a teacher at UpayaZen Center where the word boundlessness now seems to be used as often as emptiness. I’ve recently been reading his book on the Heart Sutra and I admit I was hoping that as a translator he had an intelligent and linguistic reasoning for this alternative wording. We like confirmation and I guess I wanted an expert to give me a rationale for liking the word. I didn’t find one. Instead his reasoning seems to be more along the lines of my gut feeling that the word boundlessness just fits with the experience.

I suspect that framing our experiences of the absolute in the language of boundlessness might help reduce some of nihilism I mentioned before.  It might be harder to think you can behave without regard in a boundless universe than in an ‘empty’ one. Nothing exists in quite the individualised way we usually assume but our actions still have consequences and in a boundless world where we are not separate from anything else it is harder to turn away from these.

On the recent sesshin I found the Heart Sutra running repeatedly through my head. Sometimes it included the word emptiness as in the version we chant, sometimes the alternative of boundlessness in its place. Once there was another alternative of “unfixedness” included (this term was suggested to another sangha member by Tenshin Roshi). Each version seemed to have a slightly different feel and together they somehow led to another layer of letting go, a deepening of practice. I don’t know what word did what but I’m grateful for all of them. I’m also more aware now that experimenting with different wording can be productive. If words in Zen are pointers, a tool to help us in our practice, then if one word creates rather than removes barriers for us, maybe one of the alternatives might be a better tool to help us find a way through. Sometimes sitting with those barriers (which I’m sure I create for myself) lets them fall away by themselves but it is also I think worth seeing how an alternative feels.

There is another reason why I like the word boundlessness. The vast, interconnectedness of life is always there, always visible but despite that we often don’t notice it. I’m convinced though that we all have experiences of it. I’m thinking of those moments of great absorption when we “lose ourselves” in a task or activity. Or when we are outdoors and particularly receptive to the world around us and the boundaries between us and the natural world seem more porous. Or at times of great emotion, exhaustion or other intensity. I remember in the moments after the births of my children when despite the pain and exhaustion suddenly there seemed to be nothing except an overwhelming love, not just for my new babies but also for everything else too. I spot such moments more easily now than I did in the past and as a result it seems like they happen more frequently. In reality I think I’m just better at allowing myself to see them. Practice, especially intensive sitting on retreats allows some of our usual preoccupations to settle, our barriers to drop and allows more space to spot and appreciate the vast and wide world we are part of.  I’ve a gut instinct that the word boundlessness is easier to associate with these micro-experiences than the word emptiness. I’m curious as to whether we can use the feel of the word boundlessness to help us spot these more easily and allow them to influence the way we lead our lives. I think I’m now an enthusiast for a flexible and experimental approach to words.