Buddhist Doctrine of Nothingness

By Ian Kluge

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #102
Bosch Baha'i School: Santa Cruz, California, USA
May 18–22, 2011
(see list of papers from #102)

    `Emptiness' is one of the key concepts of Buddhism and especially of Mahayana Buddhism where we find numerous sutras and schools of interpretation dedicated to this subject. The differences among these schools notwithstanding, they all agree that `emptiness' refers to the fact that nothing has intrinsic or inherent existence, that nothing exists independently by virtue of an ultimate ""built-in-power-to-be." (Newland, Introduction to Emptiness, p. 34). This position has consequences both for ontology or theory of reality and ethics. In the Madhyamaka school of Nagarjuna and his successors this means reality has two aspects. The first aspect is `conventional' in which things function as they appear to us and which provides the context of our daily lives. Within this viewpoint all things are completely `real.' The second aspect is `ultimate' and from this point of view all things exist as a result of `dependent arising,' i.e. all "things come into being in dependence upon causes and conditions" (Newland, p. 38). Nothing has inherent, completely self-dependent existence.

    This paper shows how there may be a rapprochement between the Buddhist concept of "emptiness" and its correlate `dependent origination' and the Bahá'í teachings. After all, the Writings posit the radical contingency of all created beings and the never-ceasing interaction which are "the causes of the existence, development and growth of created beings" (`Abdu'l-Bahá, i>Some Answered Questions, p. 178 — 179). This latter teaching reflects the concept of `dependent origination.' Additional grounds for comparison between `emptiness' and the Writings are also provided by the Bahá'í teaching that phenomenal creation is only a "shadow stretching out" (i>Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 178) and that "the world is even as a mirage rising over the sands, that the thirsty mistaketh for water" (i>Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 186). This paper explores not only the similarity of these statements to the Buddhist concept of conventional reality but also how these correlated ontological concepts lead to similar ethical conclusions.

    Inevitably with the subject of `emptiness' and its correlate `dependent origination' we come to the question of whether anything is not empty, i.e. free of `dependent origination.' In short, do at least some Buddhist and especially Mahayana schools have a concept that corresponds to the Bahá'í concept of God as absolutely independent? Our answer will be affirmative. This paper will provide additional evidence for the Bahá'í teaching of the essential unity of all religions.

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