Defining ‘Emptiness’ (Sunnata) and ‘Nothingness’ (Akincanna)! (5.2.2023) 

I Was Recently Awarded the ‘Dust Whisk’ – So No Flies On Me!

There is a significant difference between the falling into the state of ‘dull’ nothingness (as warned against by Master Xu Yun) and the realisation of genuine ‘emptiness’ within traditional Chinese Ch’an training. The difference must be properly understood if progression is to be made. As I was asked to clarify this issue, I decided to use the fundamental ‘Pali’ terms from which all other interpretations proceed. These are the root-concepts which prove that a ‘distinction’ exists! As human-beings are quick to delude themselves – but slow to improve themselves – I decided a dialectical clarity is required regarding this issue!

a) ‘Nothingness’ (Pali ‘Akincanna’) – or ‘No-Something-Ness’ – is the falling into ‘dull’ nothingness often mistaken as the realisation of genuine ‘emptiness’ and ‘enlightenment’ – which is still ‘post-thought’ in manifestation. 

b) The realisation of genuine ‘Emptiness’ (Pali ‘Sunnata’) or relative enlightenment is ‘pre-thought’ – as the empty mind ground is what is perceived when no thoughts arise.

What does this mean? Dull nothingness (akincanna) is a thought form with a non-descript content. In other words, a thought is generated which is defined by the usual boundaries and parameters that constitute the average structured ‘thought’ form – but the meditator misunderstands this ‘non-descript’ content and mistakenly grasps it as being the empty mind ground. The trap here is that a manifest ‘thought’ (and stream of thought) is masquerading as the psychic fabric from which all structured thought arises – and which pre-exists all thought. This state is mistaken as complete and perfect enlightenment and those trapped within it start misleading others down the wrong path. 

By way of contrast, the state of genuine ‘emptiness’ (sunnata) is realised when all thought generation ‘ceases’ at its source – and the empty mind ground manifests and becomes apparent as its presence is no longer obscured by the continuous stream of thought which normally traverses the surface mind. No thoughts arise whatsoever and so the empty mind ground becomes perceivable. As there is a sense of ‘constriction’ – this genuine state of ‘emptiness’ realisation is termed ‘Sitting atop a hundred-foot pole’ (which is symbolic of Hinayana enlightenment), as it is accompanied by a sense of ‘peace’ and ‘tranquillity’ – but a further stage of training is required.