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Śūnyatā and Pleroma

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From: Fountain Source of Occultism:

(This article is also posted under Philosophy)


What is it that ever is?” “Space, the eternal Anupa[pā]daka.” “What is it that ever was?” “The Germ in the Root.” “What is it that is ever coming and going?” “The Great Breath.” “Then, there are three Eternals?” “No, the three are one. That which ever is, is one, that which ever was is one, that which is ever being and becoming is also one: and this is Space.” The Secret Doctrine, I, II

Of all the truly wondrous teachings of the ancient wisdom, otherwise called the esoteric philosophy or theosophy, there is perhaps none so replete with suggestive thought as the doctrine concerning Space. In one of its aspects it is called Śūnyatā, a profoundly significant word found in the more mystical doctrines of Gautama the Buddha, meaning emptiness or the void; and in another aspect it is Pleroma, a Greek word frequently used by the Gnostics signifying fullness.

Modern astronomers often speak of empty space, and while this seems at first glance to be pretty much the same thing as Śūnyatā, we reject the idea if by empty space they mean absolute vacuity — something which is nonexistent. The extraordinary thing is that even the scientists, if driven into a corner by probing questions, would themselves acknowledge that this phrase merely signifies portions of space or cosmical fields which contain no ‘matter,’ i.e. no physical matter which they with their instruments can cognize or see.

When we examine the limitless expanse of boundless Space around us, as far as our vision and our imagination can carry us, we see fields of apparent cosmic emptiness sprinkled throughout with glittering stars, and with millions upon millions of wisps of light that are nebulae which, under the resolving power of the telescope, are seen to be universes themselves of other stars and star clusters — or again, vast bodies of cosmic gas. However, they are not gas in any single instance; but this need not concern us here except to remark that many, if not all, of these irresolvable nebulae belong to ranges of matter superior to the physical, which as yet have never been studied in the laboratory. In other words, they are composed of ethereal matter of a higher plane than our physical plane.

Wherever we look, we are cognizant that the universe is an immense fullness. When we add to this our knowledge of the structure of matter, composed as it is of molecules, atoms, and these again of electronic and protonic and other bodies, we realize that what seems to us to be empty space must actually be fields of cosmic ether which, because of its ethereality, neither our organ of vision, nor our sense of touch, nor our most delicate instruments, can subject to experimentation. Yet all these vast fields of glittering orbs are contained in the low cosmic plane which we know as the physical or material universe. We realize further that the physical sphere is but the outer garment hiding incomprehensibly immense inner or invisible worlds, ranging from the physical upwards into the ever-receding vistas of cosmic spirit which last, because it is to us formless, we call the spiritual Void or Emptiness, Śunyatā. Not only does Śūnyatā signify the highest and most universal ranges of the boundless Infinite, but so does Pleroma. It all depends upon which angle of vision we take.

The doctrine of the Void, then, is identic in fundamental conception with the doctrine of the Fullness. There is a distinction, however, in that the doctrine of the Void is the more spiritual of the two, as it treats chiefly of the superior element-principles of the kosmos, (1) of the inwards and the yet more inwards of the spaces of Space; whereas the doctrine of the Fullness treats of the kosmoi or worlds as they are in manifestation. We can more easily comprehend the fullness of things than we can the profoundly mystical thought that out of the illimitable Void spring into life all the innumerable manifestations of kosmic Being; and that back into the same Void they disappear when their life cycle has run.

In other words, the Void has reference to the divine-spiritual side of Being; whereas the Fullness, the Pleroma, (2) refers to the prakriti or matter side, the side of manifestation, which vanishes away like a dream when the great manvantara or period of world activity is finished.

Another important point is that every manifested being or thing, precisely because of its temporal existence as a phenomenon, is noneternal. It is in consequence māyā or illusion; and therefore it would be foolish to search for the cosmic Real in such phenomena. Whatever makes an appearance in the fields of the Boundless, whether a collection of galaxies or an atom, whatever it be which is thus an object or a form, and no matter how short or how long its life term, is nevertheless an appearance, a phenomenon, and therefore is de facto empty in the sense of nonreal — which is an exactly opposite use of the term empty or void employed before. However, this opposite sense is strictly legitimate in metaphysical philosophy; and we see therefore why esoteric Buddhism constantly speaks of all the manifested universe as Śūnyatā, because nonreal, nonenduring, therefore temporary and transitory.

In the Suraṅgama-Sūtran1 we find the following words of the Buddha to his disciple Ānanda:

“In this investigation, therefore, you must clearly understand that all mundane forms which enter into the composition of the phenomenal world are transitory and perishable. Ānanda! of all these forms which you see, of the fictile nature alluded to, what one is there not destructible? They are all destined to be burned up; but after their destruction there is one thing that can never perish, and that is the void of space.”

Nevertheless, it is these vast aggregates of worlds which form the Pleroma or Fullness of manifested space. The difficulty lies in the double usage of these two words, Śunyatā and Pleroma; and yet this is easily understood when the root-thoughts are grasped. As H. P. Blavatsky expressed it:

Space is neither a “limitless void,” nor a “conditioned fullness,” but both: being, on the plane of absolute abstraction, the ever-incognizable Deity, which is void only to finite minds, and on that of māyāvic perception, the Plenum [fullness], the absolute Container of all that is, whether manifested or unmanifested: it is, therefore, that ABSOLUTE ALL. — The Secret Doctrine, I, 8

Śūnyatā, as a word, can thus be taken with two different yet co-related meanings. When considered as a positive term, it stands for the boundless All, Space in its highest and most abstract sense, implying endless and limitless infinitude with no qualifications whatsoever, as well as the all-encompassing, endless, Fullness of the All.

It is the universe with everything that is in it seen from the standpoint of the spiritual-divine realms, which to intelligences living in lower spheres seems to be the Great Void  Mahāśūnya

When Śunyatā is considered negatively, it stands for the idea of kosmic illusion, the mahāmāyā. From the viewpoint of the divine-spiritual consciousness, the entire objective universe, visible or invisible, is unreal and illusive because it is so impermanent. It is empty in the sense of being evanescent. Not that the manifested universe does not exist; it does, or it could not provide an illusion, but it is not that which it seems to be. Thus both the positive and negative meanings of Śunyatā are founded upon the same basic idea, namely, the reality of the divine-spiritual, and the relative unreality of all that is objective. The manifested kosmos, being relatively false and deceptive, is empty of essential significance when compared with the Real which it hides as if with a veil. It possesses only a relative reality derivative from the noumenal Root of which this objective universe is the phenomenal aspect.

To turn again to the Suraṅgama-Sūtra (v, 8):

“The Pure Nature, as to its substantial Being, is empty; the influences, therefore, that produce birth are as a magical delusion. The absence of action, and the absence of beginning and end — these also are false ideas, like a sky-flower. The word ‘false’ does but originate (manifest) that which is true — false and true are together equally false; … Are not all things around us but as a bubble?”

The Boundless, the infinitude of encompassing Space, is obviously beyond reach of any human conception, because it is both formless and without confining frontiers, and yet is the cosmic womb of all the universes which appear from it like “sparks of Eternity.” Therefore have mystics of various ages and of all countries called it the Void.

This in fact was the original and truly sublime idea which the earliest Christian theological speculators seized upon and called ‘Nothing,’ thus not merely distorting but positively nullifying the conception as it was in its primeval grandeur. From that day to this, orthodox theology has made God Almighty create the world out of nothing, which is absurd. Had they conceived of this precosmic Utterness as No-Thing, then they would have preserved the correct idea. But they reduced it to nothingness. Preserving the verbal form, they lost the spirit.

Through the ages man in his uninitiated mind has degraded the intuitions of his spirit, confounding the objective and the illusory with the Real and, what is still more serious for his moral and spiritual well-being, ungearing the aspiring intellect from its root in the Boundless.

Let us not forget that we ourselves are offsprings of the Boundless, and urged by the impelling energy of our spirit are advancing through inner struggles and trials — always advancing to that ultimate consummation of our spiritual self with that limitless Wonder which is our inmost. Yet, most marvelous of paradoxes, this Wonder is throughout eternity unattainable, for it is limitless Space and frontierless Duration.

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  1. iv, 65; cf. Samuel Beal’s A Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese, 1871 []