Anarcheologos

The Creative Exploration of Language

Monthly Archives: November 2018

Sunyata

As I have been diving back into Buddhism, I am struck by how much my understanding of the idea of sunyata, the Sanskrit word usually translated as “emptiness,” has changed over the years, particularly in relation to meditation.  In the past I have interpreted the concept not so much as a nihilistic “void,” which seems to have been the tendency of many early western commentators, but rather as a point of equilibrium, a perfect balance between sleeping and waking, unencumbered by the contingent, physical world. 

Nowadays, though, I pay more attention to words and I recently stumbled across a bit of etymology that added layers of meaning to sunyata.  In digging for the roots of the word, I discovered that it ultimately comes from the Proto Indo-European root *svi– meaning “hollow.” 

This is interesting because the connotation of “hollow” is a bit different from “empty” and “void.”  In modern English, “empty” seems to be a general word for something being missing or lacking.  A cup can be empty, but so can a room or a head or a million other things.  And “void” seems to be used as an intensifier to indicate a sort of extreme form of absence, generally resulting from an action.  One “voids” a sale because a mistake was made, for example.

A better translation of sunyata might be “hollowness.”  If something is “hollow” it implies that there is an outer casing or shell that contains empty space within it.  In terms of meditation, this connotes not so much the total annihilation of the self implied in the terms “empty” and “void” but rather the opening up of space within.     

Here is where sunyata really gets interesting.  The root *svi– caught my eye because it contains two letters whose pronunciation and spelling toggle back and forth in different languages, “s” (often pronounced like “sh”) and “v” (often written or pronounced like “w” or represented by a vowel combination like “ui” or “eu.”  I began looking for words that had the rough form of “s/sh+w/v/ui” and came up with two observations.  

First, words that follow this pattern tend to focus on motion or change: swift, sweep, swoop, swell, swing, etc.  The most revealing word in this cluster though, comes from German.  In German, schwanger means “pregnant.”  So now we are dealing with a linguistic complex that includes both the sense of “hollowness,” as well as the sense of movement, growth and “becoming.” 

This is the key to the concept of sunyata.  The “hollowness” being referred to doesn’t exist for it’s own sake and it is not the end goal.  It is a means to an end.  One creates “hollowness” within oneself by removing the mental and emotional underbrush that hinders our progress.  This then creates space for something to grow and take shape. 

One might ask what it is that is being allowed to grow and I believe the answer is suggested by another PIE root in our complex, *s(w)e, which is connected to the word sui in Latin.  In English, this became “self.”  This interpretation may seem counterintuitive and inappropriately Jungian, but there is support for it in the Tibetan tradition.  

In The Essence of Tibetan Buddhism by Lama Thubten Yeshe, the author defines sunyata as the “way you break down the gross concepts of ego and eradicate the self-pitying image of yourself” (p. 34) that arise from being overly focused on attachment.  He then later makes the revealing comment that “The Buddha is within; that’s where we should seek” (p. 41).   

This makes sense on a practical level, that the realization and acceptance of sunyata is a necessary precursor to enlightenment, to finding your true self and the Buddha within.

 

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (and the Dao)

I recently noticed that words related to the passing on of knowledge tend to be built on a base consisting of the consonant combination r-d.   The thought occurred to me when I came across the archaic English word rede, which means “counsel” or “advice”.  I immediately made the connection to the German word reden, which means “to talk”.  Reden is used much like its English counterpart, to refer to a substantive communication, often where advice or counsel is given.  Think of the implication in a sentence like “We’ll talk when I get home.” 

The other place that rede survives in modern English is in the poorly understood name of the 9th century Anglo-Saxon monarch of Wessex, Æthelred the Unready.  His nickname does not mean “ill prepared” but rather “unadvised” or “lacking counsel” and is a play on words given that his actual name means “noble counsel.”  

Following my usual process, I started thinking about other words built on the r-d model (and adjacent sounds like t and th) that related to communicating knowledge and made an amusing discovery related to the formulation “reading, writing and arithmetic.”  At first glance this is simply an alliterative phrase tying together three skills one learns in school that, apparently randomly, share similar sounds. 

But the similarities between these words are not the result of randomness; the connection between the consonant combination r-d and the idea of knowledge and this goes back to Proto-Indo European (PIE).  The PIE root of both reading and writing is *red, meaning “to scratch or cut,” which brings to mind ancient forms of writing such as carving symbols into wood and bone, as with runic inscriptions.  Arithmetic is a bit more complicated, as it comes to English from Greek, but the r-d (or in this case, r-th) base is clearly there, though some sources, such as the American Heritage Dictionary, trace it back to the PIE root *re(i).

At this point I found myself in a familiar place.  I had uncovered an interesting and revealing PIE root and made connections to a complex of words that carried a concept forward from the darkness of the past.  

But something bothered me.  There is another cluster of words built around r-d, those coming from the PIE root *reidh from which we get ride, raid, road, ready, etc.  This other cluster, and indeed the letter r itself, clearly relates to the concept of motion. 

At first, I felt that these two different connotations, knowledge and motion, were discordant until the phrase “to read fluently” popped into my head and it all came together.  The concept of “fluency” is one of motion and the knowledge-related words coming from the r-d root relate to the passing on of that knowledge.  In other words, knowledge moves.  From a different angle, a common way to refer to an intelligent person is to say they are “quick” or “quick witted.”  Clearly, the concepts of knowledge and motion are intimately entwined.

This then, led me to Alan Watts’ explanation of the Dao as “a sort of rhythmic intelligence” (What is Tao?, page 37) which posits movement as being an intrinsic part of knowledge.  Put differently, knowledge exists in order to be communicated, to be passed on and to flow back and forth between people, cultures and eras.  

Toward the Future

I’ve been wondering about the word future for a while.  In other Germanic languages it tends to be made up of two parts, the first meaning something like “to” or “forward” and the second meaning “to come” in the Continental languages or “time” in Scandinavia.  Here are some examples:

  • zukunft (German)
  • toekomst (Dutch)
  • toekoms (Afrikaans
  • framtida (Swedish)
  • fremtid (Danish)
  • framtid (Norwegian)
  • framtíð (Icelandic)

Initially, I assumed that this was simply a case of English using a French loan word where its Germanic cousins had retained the native word.  This view was perhaps strengthened by my knowledge of the word futuro in Spanish.

I let the matter rest there for a few weeks until one day I recalled that there is another way to say future in Spanish, porvenir, which follows the Germanic model and can be read literally as “for to come”.  After a bit of research I discovered that the same situation exists in French, which has both futur and avenir.

This rekindled my interest in future and I began digging into its etymology.  I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as straightforward as I had expected.  It came into English through French, which got it from Latin.  It seems to have begun as an irregular form of the word esse, which means “to be” and can be seen in words such as essence and its derivatives.

Before the adoption of future, English had a native word for the concept, toweard, which follows the Germanic model and has some interesting connections.  The second element of the word, –weard, comes from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) root *wert, which means “to turn.”  Both the word and meaning survive in a functional way in modern English as the suffix –ward in words such as forward and backward.    So, in Old English the future was something that one turned into.

However, -weard has a far more interesting set of connections that radiate out from its PIE root.  In English, this is best exemplified by the word wyrd, which is generally translated as “fate” and is cognate with the Old Norse word urdr.  This allows a poetic reading of toweard as something like “turning into fate” which I find appealing.

The other connection that jumps out at me is the German word werden, which means “to become” and is used as an auxiliary verb to form the future tense.  For example, in German, “We are eating” is “Wir essen” while “We will eat” is “Wir werden essen.”

As regular readers will know, I love to keep digging and make these kinds of connections that allow me to consider the different angles and shades of meaning of a word.  However, this “archeological” approach sometimes leads me to miss the forest for the trees.

In this case, it was only at the end of my investigations that I realized the word toweard had, in fact, never left English at all.  It survives, very recognizably, as toward, shorn of its larger meaning and reduced to the status of a preposition.

Nightmare

Nightmare is a half understood word in the sense that the first half is clear, but the second half is not.  What is a mare in this context and what does it have to do with waking up in the middle of the night with your heart pounding?  As it turns out, both halves of the word are interesting and both have remarkably deep and consistent Indo-European roots.

Night is derived from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) word *nekwt, meaning “night”.  This word is remarkably stable across languages and follows a patter of n + vowel + palatal or velar consonant, generally fricative:

  • nacht (German)
  • nox (Latin)
  • naktam (Sanskrit)
  • natt (Swedish)
  • naktis (Lithuanian)

It is also seems to me to be connected to two other words, next and near.  As is often the case, this connection is a bit clearer in German where the words are nächste and nahe, respectively.  Other German words that fit this pattern are nach, which means “to” or “towards” and nachbar, which means “neighbor” in the literal sense of a “near dweller”.

The common thread linking all of these words that follow the form n + vowel + palatal or velar consonant seems to be the idea of proximity or closeness, which fits nicely with the constrictive nature of night and darkness in general.

Now for the second part of the word, mare.  This comes from the Old English word mare, meaning an evil spirit or an incubus.  This word also has deep and consistent Indo-European roots, with the word being mahr in German and mara, marra or mare in the Scandinavian languages.  While there are a couple of competing theories regarding which PIE root mare comes from, the leading contender is *mer, which means “to harm” or “to rub” with the connotation of “chafing”, “rubbing away” or “wearing out”.

Putting the word back together we get to something that seems to indicate an evil spirit in close proximity to the sufferer and putting them under duress with constant, wearying pressure.  Not a bad way to describe something that haunts your sleep and terrifies you while you are unconscious.

In the end, I’m left with thought that the original idea as to the cause of nightmares, a literal demon perched atop you while you sleep, pressing on you, wearing you down in the darkness, is nothing more than a poetic way to describe a phenomenon that would today be described in more prosaic terms using scientific psychological language related to things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I don’t think most people understand any better than they understand the term “demon”.

It seems to me that people in both eras attempted to define and describe something complex and poorly understood with terms that were appropriate to their times and cultures.  Ultimately, though, they are both using metaphors and, as usual, the older ones seem more vibrant and compelling.