I’ve been thinking again about my poetical “translation” of śūnyatā – again, ordinarily translated as “emptiness” or “voidness” – into intimacy. There are some peculiar qualities of śūnyatā that are difficult to convey in any one translation. Although this isn’t so great of a problem (it is, as far as I can tell, quite true in the Sanskrit original, as well), nevertheless there is a certain quality I think it would be helpful to carry across and, further, I think it would be beneficial to have a translation that can be shown to contain those various peculiar qualities.
If I remember correctly, I’ve spoken about the relation between “dependent co-arising” (pratītyasamutpāda) and “emptiness” – Nāgārjuna equates them – but somehow those two translations fail to help (me) generate a discourse explicating that relation. This is one such peculiar quality of śūnyatā; namely, that it is pratītyasamutpāda. How so? Well, very superficially, we can make two declarations: (1) things arise together in dependence on one another, and (2) things are empty of a wholly unique, isolated nature or being. Of course, the former is “dependent co-arising,” and the latter “emptiness.” But the important fact for our current concern is that, again superficially, we can say that (1) and (2) are different ways of saying the same thing. Choose which way you want to look at it, it’s the same truth.
This points us back to my poetical translations: “relating” and “intimacy,” respectively. Now, if I say (1) that things (or, to turn Nāgārjuna momentarily into a psychologist, people) exist naturally in relation to others (and do not and can not ever exist in any other way), and (2) that things (again, people) exist intimately, which is to say bound up with, others, and, finally, (3) that these are two ways of saying the same thing – at least one thing is clear: the terminology seems compatible. Whether statements (1) and (2) are true, whether they relate as I say they do in (3), and (most significantly) whether they in fact correspond to (1) and (2) in the paragraph above – these are all up for debate. I’ll do my best to defend them later on. For now I just have one quick thought. A potentially major obstacle for my choice of “intimacy” as a translation for śūnyatā is that the word ‘intimacy’ does more, especially on an emotional level, than merely state a lack of a certain quality (non-intimacy, lack of interpersonal connection, isolation – to use psychologically-oriented descriptions), but states a positive condition (more fitting, perhaps, of pratītyasamutpāda, in a way) generally considered to imply familiarity, emotional connection, love… For example, we might choose to say, again focusing on people, that śūnyatā only tells us that I am not a certain way, implying that I am “made up” of networks of matter, of cultural significations and norms, intimate and non-intimate relationships, and so on. Intimacy, on the other hand, is a quality I ascribe to certain relationships: my girlfriend, family, close friends. But this latter fact is actually an extremely curious aspect of śūnyatā, even if an implicit one (about which I’ll have to do more pondering and research). How so? Well, it may be (philosophically) easy to deny me any isolated existence, any from-my-own-side-ness. But it is impossible, it seems to me, to deny that my conventional sense of self is rooted on networks of relations that exist, and that, even more significantly, those relations are not equal in determining what we all conventionally agree to call me. Now, those relations, too, cannot be said to exist permanently or in isolation. Thus the streams and networks with which I am bound up are shifting in relation to one another – day to day, even moment to moment. The “me” I am at any given moment is bound up not only with the streams of matter, consciousness, and relationship that have led me to that particular moment, but also with the specific (even if somewhat unspecifiable) network of relations from and in response to which I am acting.
My contention, finally, is that śūnyatā is implicated in everyday life, that understanding śūnyatā in a significant way entails understanding what role it plays in how we function in our everyday lives. In that sense, intimacy seems like a fitting and fittingly challenging translation. I am, for example, closer with Sarah partly because my relationship with her is, we can say, more intimately bound up with my everyday sense of self than is, say, my relationship with the person from whom I bought a loaf of gluten-free bread this morning. Further, there was also a degree of intimacy, in that moment of buying bread, with the baker that was of greater significance (in an everyday sense) than whatever sense in which my life and the baker’s are “bound up,” say, every other day of our respective lives. This suggests that at the very least in an everyday sense śūnyatā does not suggest the truism that “everything is connected” – or, at least, it doesn’t suggest that we say this if that’s where we wish to start and stop. It’s more complex than merely that it all, that we all are connected. How our connections work, how they connect with other connections and finally do in some sense entail a kind of “everything is connected,” is worthy of serious thought. ‘Intimacy,’ the term, already suggests relationship (which I think is true philosophically of the concept śūnyatā), but it also already suggests a potential for closeness and distance of relationships. This, it seems to me, surely fits with our psychological experiences, with our everyday experiences, and, if I had the time to yammer on infinitely, I’d want to say it also gibes with what we might want to call the “ultimate” or “absolute” perspective – but of that I’ll just have to think (and write!) another day. I think this has been a long enough “quick thought,” don’t you? Plus, I’m sure I’ve already gotten myself into quite enough trouble….