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.