A Note on the Concept of ??nyat? in Huayan Teaching*

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    There cannot be a proper understanding of Huayan teaching without Śūnyatā thought. Of course, the latter is not the essential part of the former. In order to get a complete picture of Huayan teaching, however, it is very important to understand how the concept of Śūnyatā has developed, after having analyzed and examined the meaning of Śūnyatā from the standpoint of Huayan. In the Huayan tradition, though the primary meaning of Śūnyatā is negation (否定), one tries to see the archetypal aspect of things from a level that transcends both ‘being’ and ‘non-being.’ That is, while acknowledging a thing before our eyes to have specific features, the thing itself is not a fixed and unchanging object and is accepted without any limitations. It is, therefore, not forcibly argued that a thing does not exist; what is asserted is that from the beginning it was non-existent. Śūnyatā and ‘being,’ in the sense of the perfect interfusion (圓融) of Huayan, are mutually interpenetrative (相卽) and non-obstructing (無碍). When viewed from the doctrinal aspect of Huayan teaching, the basis of the ‘non-obstruction of all phenomena’ (事事無碍) is the ‘non-obstruction of noumenon and phenomenon’ (理事無碍), and what supports the latter is none other than the ‘non-obstruction of Śūnyatā and being (空有無碍).’ Śūnyatā as the ultimate concept of Huayan is not valid unless it relies on the teaching of perfection (圓敎), for the concept that Dependent Origination infinitely overlaps phenomena (重重無盡緣起) is, indeed, Śūnyatā.


    ??nyat? , Huayan , Non-Self-Nature , Fazang , Zongzhiyiji , Wujiaozhang

  • I. Introduction

    One would not raise any objection to the assertion that the basic foundation of Mahāyāna Buddhism is Śūnyatā (空). The concept of Śūnyatā (空觀) is fundamental to Buddhism, and is not only propounded in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Since the earliest days of Buddhism, the role of Śūnyatā in Buddhist doctrine has been consistent. Some maintain, after having studied the concept of Śūnyatā in the early Buddhist canon, that the latter contains the thought of the Prajñā Sūtras (般若經). Furthermore, there is also an opinion that the division of Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna is not quite necessary in terms of Śūnyatā. It is, therefore, to be seen that the doctrine of Śūnyatā is the gateway to Buddhism as well as the basic thought underlying all of Buddhism.

    Looking at the trend in the field of Buddhist studies, it seems that there is rather a difference between the Śūnyatā of the Madhyamaka School of Indian Buddhism and the concept of Śūnyatā in Chinese Buddhism, especially in regards to Huayan teaching. This is because an understanding of Śūnyatā and the way it is interpreted could not have been identical among the different schools of Buddhism since the concept itself has been a constant pivot of Buddhist teaching from the earliest days of Buddhism up to the appearance of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

    We cannot have a proper understanding of Huayan teaching without Śūnyatā thought being considered―though it is not a fundamental concept in the teachings (Yasda 1936, 60). Examining and analyzing Śūnyatā thought from the perspective of Huayan is important to have a complete picture of Huayan teaching. The objective of this paper, therefore, is to understand the concept of Śūnyatā in the Huayan tradition and its relationship to Chinese Buddhism. For this purpose, this paper deals with Fazang’s concept of Śūnyatā extensively because he was the patriarch of the Huayan School who systematized Huayan teaching.1

    1See also my earlier article “Dharmadhātu Pratītyasamutpāda theory (法界緣起論) of Hua-yen Doctrine (華嚴敎學)” (Chang 2002).

    II. The Development of ??nyat?

      >  A. The Concept of ??nyat?

    One is apt to think that Śūnyatā is what was propounded for the first time in the Prajñā Sūtras (般若經). However, that is not so. The doctrine of the Anātman of all Dharmas (諸法無我說) in early Buddhism implies Śūnyatā thought, and the doctrine of Dependent Origination (緣起說) elucidates the world of Anātman; it is merely that the belief in the prominence of Śūnyatā has been expounded by the expression ‘Śūnyatā of all Dharmas’ (諸法皆空) ever since the advent of the Prajñā Sūtras.

    Śūnyatā, then, was understood as ‘non-existence,’ a kind of ‘negation,’ i.e., ‘absence’ (無); or people insisted that all negation denotes Śūnyatā. In various ways, the relationship between Śūnyatā and ‘negation’ was regulated. When it comes to the Ch’an School, as concepts such as mindlessness (無心) or thoughtlessness (無念) appeared, the concept of ‘absence’ gained prominence. The historical situation of the times seems to have preferred the use of the expression ‘absence’ (無) over Śūnyatā.

    Generally speaking, there is a tendency to use the word ‘absence’ as an opposing concept of ‘being’ (有). The tradition of Buddhism, therefore, sees Śūnyatā as a concept that corresponds to and is expressed by the word ‘absence’ since then.2

    Śūnyatā, however, can be characterized as that which transcends the opposition of ‘being’ and ‘non-being,’ and directs oppositional negation to negation in the true sense.

    For example, in the chapter Kuanssutipin (觀四諦品, Āryasatya-parīkṣā) of the Zhonglun (中論, Madhyamaka-śāstra), it is said: “All Dharmas (everything) are accomplished since there is the principle of Śūnyatā (空義); everything would not be accomplished were there no principle of Śūnyatā” (T. 30, 33a).

    This tells us that Śūnyatā is not just a negation of denial but a negation that makes affirmation possible. Since, however, both Śūnyatā and Dependent Origination possess aspects of affirmation and negation, it is only a difference of expression. The important thing to know is that Śūnyatā is nothing other than Dependent Origination.

    This tells us that Śūnyatā is not just a negation of denial but a negation that makes affirmation possible. Since, however, both Śūnyatā and Dependent Origination possess aspects of affirmation and negation, it is only a difference of expression. The important thing to know is that Śūnyatā is nothing other than Dependent Origination.

    To put it differently, although the doctrine of Dependent Origination, which means ‘mutual dependence,’ has positive and affirmative aspects, it cannot stand by itself and has to depend on the power of others. Dependent Origination, therefore, is a concept that already implies a negative aspect. It is said that this is due to its historical background in which one had to criticize severely any theory advocating the real existence of Dharma, such criticism supported mainly by the Sarvāstivādins of sectarian Buddhism (Yasmoto 1987, 224). where one could not but reveal the negative aspect of Śūnyatā.

    The sum and substance of the Śūnyatā of the Prajñā Sūtras is ‘Śūnyatā of self-nature’ (自性空) and ‘Śūnyatā by origin’ (本來空). That is, all existence is devoid of its own nature and has no inherent nature in itself, for everything is conditional and exists as the result of causes and conditions. This means, since Śūnyatā is devoid of its own nature, one should not even conceive of a fixed Dharma because, the elements that constitute a human being such as the Five Aggregates (五蘊), the Twelve Bases (十二處) and the Eighteen Elements (十八界), those things which are understood in sectarian Buddhism as being real, are all intrinsically empty (空, Śūnya).

    As such, Śūnyatā is a negative concept that negates the self-nature of all Dharmas, but is at the same time positive, forming both internal and external aspects of all Dharmas together with Dependent Origination.

      >  B. ??nyat? and A??nyat?

    According to the Madhyamaka School, Śūnyatā (空性) is synonymous with Dependent Origination. Since Śūnya (空) means ‘arisen interdependently’ (Pratītyasamutpanna), Aśūnya (不空) means ‘not arisen interdependently.’ Moreover, as the appellation 'the upholders of the doctrine of non-self-nature' (無自性論者) indicates, they consider the meaning of Śūnya to be ‘non-self-nature’ (無自性) (Nakamura 1964, 175). In other words, the followers of Madhyamaka School (Mādhyamikas) are not simply negating ‘being’ (有) and affirming ‘non-being’ (無), but rejecting ‘substantial being’ (實有) and asserting the ‘non-self-nature’ of things. Both Śūnyatā and ‘non-self-nature’ stand for Dependent Origination. What has to be noted here is that Mādhyamikas are neither denying all phenomena nor regarding them as vacuous. On the contrary, they are constructing and establishing such phenomena. From this viewpoint we can see that because everything is Śūnya, everything is established. If everything is Aśūnya and is also a ‘substantial being’ (實有), then everything cannot be established.

    The reason Śūnyatā simultaneously becomes Aśūnyatā, in spite of its primary meaning being negation, is because of the effects of our experiences through the practice of meditation. Of course, there is no natural reason for Śūnyatā to equate to Aśūnyatā, as they are contradictory. However, just as both Śūnyatā and the Aśūnyatā of ‘thusness’ (眞如) are propounded in the Awakening of Faith (起信論, Qixinlun), Śūnyatā does not remain Śūnyatā alone when our experience of meditating it becomes truth itself. Once something becomes ‘thusness,’ Śūnyatā is not Śūnyatā any more, but Aśūnyatā. Only the practice of Śūnyatā meditation allows one to penetrate the true meaning of Śūnyatā.

    In the Chinese concept of Śūnyatā, however, there is the significance of ‘mysterious being’ (妙有), as in the expression ‘true Śūnyatā is the mysterious being’ (眞空妙有) (Hirai 1970, 500). It is like absolute affirmation being obtained through absolute negation, or that which can be attained only after having reached the ultimate state of the infinite eradication of Śūnyatā through a dialectic understanding of the expression: ‘Śūnyatā also is again Śūnyatā’ (空亦復空).

    Then, when and how could the concept of Aśūnyatā, which is not found in India, have been established in China? The oldest example of the use of the word Aśūnyatā is in the Fangguangpanruojing (放光般若經, Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā) translated by Wuluocha (無羅叉, Mokṣala) of West-Jin (西晉): “And Aśūnyatā is also not Aśūnyatā” (T. 8, 36a). More than twenty kinds of Śūnyatā are listed in the Guangzanpanruojing (光讚般若經, Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā) translated by Zhu fahu (竺法護, Dharmarakṣa), but there is no mention of Aśūnyatā. Aśūnyatā, as translated by Wuluocha, however, is that which possesses self-nature (有自性) and is accepted as the counterpart of Śūnyatā. That is, Aśūnyatā, in the Chinese translations of the Prajñā Sūtras, is understood only in the literal sense of the word (Hirai 1970, 501).

    The explanation of Aśūnyatā in the Chinese sense is not found in the Śāstras (scientific treatises) except in the chapter Kuan-cheng-huai-pin (觀成壞品; Saṃbhava-vibhava-parīkṣā) of the Zhonglun (中論), where it is stated: “Aśūnyatā is the determined ‘being’ (有) and is not subject to formation or destruction” (T. 30, 28a). Here, it is used only in a narrow sense as meaning the nature of ‘substantial being’ (實有) which is not subject to Dependent Origination. We can see that in China, from the very beginning, there was a strong tendency to view Śūnyatā as one extreme, and this is evident when Kumārajīva (鳩摩羅什) used it in the sense of meaning ‘possessed of self-nature’ (有自性) (T. 30, 18c).

    2Although it is necessary to examine the interpretation of Śūnyatā in Ge-yi-ho-jiao (格義佛敎) to clarify the position of Śūnyatā and ‘non-being’ in the history of Buddhist thought, with the intention of dealing with the discussion of Śūnyatā and ‘non-being’ in the history of Chinese Buddhism in a separate case, it is excluded here.

    III. The Concept of ??nyat? in Huayan Teaching

      >  A. Non-obstruction (無碍) of ??nyat? and ‘Being’

    As is well known, Fazang (法藏) defines the Avataṃsaka Sūtra (華嚴經) as ‘One Vehicle different from Three Vehicles’ (別敎一乘) and regards it as the supreme sutra. The belief that Huayan is a teaching different from that of Three Vehicles (華嚴別敎) corresponds to the realm of the Dharma of the non-obstruction of all phenomena (事事無碍法界), one of the four realms of Dharma (四法界). It denotes a state where each and every phenomenon does not hinder any other, and they harmonize together perfectly. That is to say the reality itself is absolutized.

    In this portion of my paper, the concept of Śūnyatā in Huayan teaching (華嚴空觀) will be examined focusing on the Shiermenlun Zongzhiyiji (十二門論宗致義記; hereafter Zongzhiyiji 宗致義記), which is also known as Xinsanlun (新三論), ascribed to Fazang, a great personage of the Huayan tradition (Chang 1989, 238‒40).

    There are two reasons for selecting this text as the main reference of our examination. One is that the Shiermenlun (十二門論), consisted of Kārikās (verses) and self-commentary, is one of the eminent works of Nāgārjuna (龍樹) from among the treatises of the Madhyamaka School. The other reason is that Fazang tried to make his understanding of Śūnyatā clear after having heard from Rizhaosancang (日照三藏) about the controversy regarding Śūnyatā and ‘being’ (空有). Although what he heard from Rizhaosancang is evident in the Tanxuanji (探玄記) and the Qixinlunyiji (起信論義記), they are known to be later works than the Zongzhiyiji (宗致義記) (Takamine 1942, 211).

    When we compare the Zongzhiyiji with the Wujiaozhang (五敎章), we can see a slight difference in the understanding of Śūnyatā. This is because while the former is a work written from the standpoint of the ‘integrational fusion of form and nature’ (性相融會), the latter is a work written from the viewpoint of the Śūnyatā concept. Moreover, we must note that the latter is the work of Fazang in his intellectual prime. In the chapter titled Shixuanyuanqi (十玄緣起) from the Wujiaozhang (五敎章), it is said:

    In other words, in both texts, it says that Śūnyatā exists due to ‘non-self-nature,’ and that by the ‘Śūnyatā of non-self-nature’ (無自性空) the one and the many are reconciled and do not hinder each other. However, as long as it remains the ‘Śūnyatā of non-self-nature’ there will not be much difference from the Madhyamaka Śūnyatā.

    Therefore, Śūnyatā and ‘being’ should be mutually interpenetrative and, furthermore, non-obstructing, when seen from the viewpoint of the ‘perfect interfusion’ (圓融) of Huayan. From the doctrinal standpoint of Huayan teaching, the ‘non-obstruction of all phenomena’ (事事無碍) is based on the ‘non-obstruction of noumenon and phenomenon’ (理事無碍), and what supports the latter is nothing but the ‘non-obstruction of Śūnyatā and being’ (空有無碍). This last statement is the doctrine that forms the basis of Huayan teaching, and it clearly reveals Fazang’s concept of Śūnyatā.

    In the Zongzhiyiji (宗致義記) (T. 42, 215b), concerning the understanding of the Three Aspects (三性, Trisvabhāva) from the viewpoint of the Śūnyatā concept, it states that because ‘not being’ (非有, or 無 ‘non-being’) and ‘not non-being’ (非不有, or 有 ‘being’) in the ‘illusory being’ (幻有) are themselves complete Śūnyatā, it is referred to as ‘non-possession’ (無所有). Furthermore, it states that even though there are ‘not Śūnyatā’ (非空 or 有 ‘being’) and ‘not non-Śūnyatā’ (非不空 or 無 ‘non-being’) in the ‘true Śūnyatā’ (眞空) here, the sphere of ‘being’ and ‘non-being’ (有無) should be transcended.

    On the other hand, in the Wujiaozhang (五敎章), Fazang does not simply delve into the relationship between ‘being’ and ‘absence.’ His profound understanding from the standpoint of perfect interfusion (圓融) that shows the state of non-hindrance is expressed here. In short, the following statement regarding the ‘non-duality’ (不二) of ‘being’ and Śūnyatā in the fundamental sense demonstrates well the 'mutual interpenetration of ‘being and Śūnyatā’:

    Here, we can see Fazang’s doctrinal standpoint in the respect that the logic of ‘being not different from Śūnyatā’ and ‘Śūnyatā not different from being’ seems to be that which is applicable to the Perfected Aspect (圓成實性) rather than the Dependent Aspect (依他起性). The Perfected Aspect is ‘thusness’ (眞如) in the sense that the practice of meditation has been accomplished; in the realm of Dharma (法界), the Dependency is already merged in the Perfected Aspect.

    In the case of ‘true Śūnyatā’ also, there is the opinion that it should not be called Śūnyatā because it has no specific appearance such as the ‘characteristic (相) of Śūnyatā’; and there is another opinion that there is nothing that is not Śūnyatā since everything is included in Śūnyatā (T. 42, 215b). The point is that there is no such thing as Śūnyatā in genuine Śūnyatā. A characteristic of ‘true Śūnyatā’ is that it is neither simply Śūnyatā nor not Śūnyatā, because there is nothing of phenomena that is not Śūnyatā.

    The identification of Śūnyatā with ‘non-being,’ however, is one of the big misconceptions of Chinese Buddhism. It is true that Śūnyatā infers ‘non-being,’ but that is different from mere ‘absence’ (無, Abhāva) and ‘nothingness’ (虛無, Nāsti). The term Śūnyatā is applicable when that which has been negated is revived and comes back to become a ‘being of Dependent Origination’ (緣起有) as well as a cause (因) (Nagao 1956, 516).

    In this context, there is a similarity to Fazang’s view also. For example, although he defines ‘thusness’ (眞如) as being ‘none other than Śūnyatā,’ we find there is no difference from the concept of ‘non-being’ or ‘absence’ (無) when a comparison is made with other similar matters. When Fazang uses the word Śūnyatā as it relates to ‘thusness,’ the terms used in the Awakening of Faith, such as ‘Śūnyatā of thusness’ and ‘non-Śūnyatā of thusness’ are also used. Fazang considers ‘non-self-nature’ as ‘thusness’ and thus states in the Tanxuanji (探玄記):

    It is, therefore, fully understandable that Fazang’s concept of Śūnyatā is in line with the principle of Śūnyatā as understood from the viewpoint of the ‘perfected aspect of thusness’ (圓成眞如). Fazang tried to solve the underlying contradiction in both the Panruokong (般若空) that is to be accepted as the first teaching of Mahāyāna Buddhism (大乘始敎) and the Zhongguankong (中觀空) that emphasizes the necessity of changing negation into affirmation and accepted reality itself as true. Furthermore, it turns out that Fazang has affirmed all phenomena through the medium of ‘thusness’ (眞如).

      >  B. The Concept of ??nyat? as the Concept of Dependent Origination

    Even though any given phenomenon may appear to be simple and trifle, never does it stand by itself alone. It occurs in a relationship interlinked with an infinite number of other phenomena. The logical basis of this concept is naturally the concept of Dependent Origination, more precisely, the concept of the Dependent Origination of the realm of Dharma (法界緣起) which is a characteristic feature of Huayan teaching. The Dependent Origination of the realm of Dharma in this case has a distinctive aspect that views Dependent Origination from the viewpoint of the realm of Dharma. When viewed from the viewpoint of Dependent Origination, however, it presupposes ‘non-self-nature.’

    The above is an explanatory statement that elucidates the Two Truths of the Middle Path (二諦中道) of the Dependent Aspect (依他起性). That is to say, all things are without substance, and the absence of substance is the true aspect of all things. ‘Illusory being’ (幻有), therefore, cannot be a feature of a persistant thing. The assertion is that a thing cannot exist in any other aspect than as ‘true Śūnyatā’ (眞空).

    Dependent Origination is already explained in the Wujiaozhang (五敎章) (T. 45, 499b) under the explanation of Dependent Aspect. That is, since the existence of a thing is not dependent on itself, it is dependent on conditions (緣). If a thing itself exists, but not the ‘non-self-nature,’ that thing cannot be dependent on conditions, because a thing that does not have to be dependent on conditions is not a ‘pseudo being’ (似有) (Kaginusi 1988, 746).

    So-called ‘pseudo being’ is a thing dependent on various conditions. If a thing does not become a ‘pseudo being’ due to the same conditions, it will be that the thing itself does not exist. So, it can be said that a thing becomes a ‘pseudo being’ because of its ‘non-self-nature,’ and that any ‘pseudo being’ necessarily is of ‘non-self-nature.’

    One has to be cautious about saying, “That which is of Dependent Origination is of ‘non-self-nature’.” The Madhyamaka School refers to that of such characteristic as ‘temporary being’ (假有) or ‘illusory being’ (幻有), but never uses the term ‘pseudo being’ (似有). That which arises interdependently is an illusion-like existence, being a ‘temporary being.’ If we call this ‘non-self-nature,’ our understanding of ‘temporary being’ (假有) and the ‘non-nature’ (無性) will be clearer.

    IV. Conclusion

    Up to now we have examined the concept of Śūnyatā in Huayan teaching. Naturally, behind the way we perceive the relationship between things as being dependent on the concept of Dependent Origination, there is a basic mindset of looking at things in a fluid manner. If it is ‘self-nature’ that contributes to the fixed nature of things, it is Śūnyatā that negates ‘self-nature’ as ‘non-self-nature.’ This is an important concept that forms the basis of Buddhism. There, however, arises one problem that cannot be solved by this concept alone. That is related to the common but abstruse viewpoint that forms a characteristic aspect of the concept of Śūnyatā in Huayan teaching. That is that the essential meaning of Śūnyatā comprises not only Śūnyatā but also what transcends it.

    Fazang, therefore, tried to see the archetypal aspect of things that transcends ‘being’ and ‘non-being,’ although the primary meaning of Śūnyatā is negation (否定). While acknowledging a thing before our eyes as having specific features, he accepted it without any limitations, making it not a fixed entity. That does not mean he forcibly asserted that things did not exist; it means that we should see things more clearly as not having had existence from the beginning.

    In other words, what Fazang did was continuously try to perceive the specific features of things without losing sight of their aspect of ‘Śūnyatā of non-self-nature’ (無自性空). Sūnyatā in this sense is the Śūnyatā which sustains itself autonomously but which does not become stagnant. Furthermore, it also embodies the nature of Dependent Origination. Here, we can see the concept of Śūnyatā in Huayan teaching as that of the Dependent Origination of the realm of Dharma (法界緣起).

    In this context, the assertion that though the Śūnyatā of the Wujiaozhang (五敎章) is ‘non-self-nature,’ the concept of Śūnyatā in the Zongzhiyiji (宗致義記) as meaning ‘unlimitedness’ becomes understandable. Therefore, Śūnyatā and ‘being’ in the sense of the perfect interfusion (圓融) of Huayan are mutually interpenetrative (相卽) and moreover non-obstructing (無碍). Because from the doctrinal standpoint of Huayan teaching, the basis of the ‘non-obstruction of all phenomena’ (事事無碍) is the ‘non-obstruction of noumenon and phenomenon’ (理事無碍), and what supports the latter is none other than the ‘non-obstruction of Śūnyatā and being’ (空有無碍). In short, Śūnyatā as the ultimate concept in Huayan teaching cannot stand alone unless it relies on the teaching of perfection (圓敎). This is because Dependent Origination infinitely overlaps phenomena (重重無盡緣起) and affirms all reality. That is Śūnyatā.

      >  Glossary

      >  Abbreviations

    T Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo (大正新脩大藏経, Japanese edition of the Buddhist Canon) [followed by volume, page, and horizontal column]. (Tokyo: Taishō Issaikyō Kankōkai, 1924‑35)


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