Thursday, December 12, 2019

Translation of “Sunyata” into “Voidness” in English


About 18 years ago, I was among the first two or three Buddhist practitioners to translate the Sanskrit terms “Sunya” ( Chân Không) and “Sunyata” (Tánh Không) into English as “Void” and “Voidness”. I know, now, most likely, the first one who had also translated Sunyata as Voidness in 1997, is Dr. Harischandra Kaviratna, a Sri Lankan scholar. (1) It is a pleasure to see someone in the Theravada tradition come to the same rendering to mine. At least etymologically. I have checked translations on the Internet in Buddhist literature of very well-known scholars from Sir Monier-Williams (Sanskritist, professor, lexicongrapher), Max Muller (Sanskritist, professor, lexicongrapher), Edward Conze (Sanskritist, scholar, author); T R Murti ( Philosophy professor, Madhyamika scholar), Theodore Stcherbatsky ( Buddhist scholar), R. H. Robinson ( scholar), David Kalupahana ( scholar, author) Naniswar (Bengali author, teacher) to later lesser-known  researchers like Bhikkhu Analayo,  Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Bhikkhu Bohdi , Jay Garfield, and 
others in Mahayana, or Hinayana schools. They have
also joined in to translate it as emptiness.

Only recently, “Void” and Voidness have gained ground, traction within last 5-8 years or so (2)

Cf:  Article in Wikipedia with link below on “Sunyata”, Encyclopaedia Britannica  (3)

“Void”, as a noun, to translate, and write about “Sunya” can be seen here and there, to denote something empty, voided of any substance, component, since it is easy to describe such an unsubstantial entity, being in The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy(4) by Junjiro Takakusu. He did use the term “void” to mention the “sunyata” characteristic.

From the beginning and then after 20 years of studying and practicing Buddhism by 1999, I always felt that the term, the word “Emptiness” { this was used, adopted very much , I believe , due to the influence of the Buddhist scholar Edward Conze, and maybe to a much lesser degree , the Sanskritist Monier-Williams. Ed Conze was an outstanding, splendid scholar; his works on the Large Heart Sutra, on the Diamond Sutra have proven indispensable for at least 3 generations in the West from the latter of 1950s. Conze’s translations of Sanskrit texts have been much appreciated} does not really reveal, show the true essence, the true nature of Sunyata. Here are the whys:

1.   I believe and think: linguistically, it is too mechanistically applied/translated for the sake of finding an equivalence in another language. “Emptiness” is easily an earliest and very strong  “candidate” for translation, especially for the sense, the feeling it provokes in readers. Also in meaning and connotation it does the job well enough to signify, to denote something empty; some space, some feeling; some philosophical concept, some place, some region being taken away with their properties, or existential components.

2.   “Emptiness” always/often gives the sense of disappearance, loss of things that were previously there. As such , it is very “ontical” in its definition, very “physical”, “body-wise”, shape, form defined. Even when the things are gone, the feeling, perception for the loss is very “real”, very ontically-related and structured.

3.   In the mean time, “Voidness” , from its own essence, nature—from the beginning— there is Nothing in it, yes, there is Nothing, I repeat— from the very beginning. And it is ontologically-oriented [ philosophically in the Western philosophical sense]; its essence/nature shows us so, if we meditate, contemplate long enough. Speaking about it philosophically, it is the abstract extract from the real fact of “forming-disforming”

4.   The difference between Emptiness and Voidness is : Emptiness indicates the removal, disapearance of things, originally there in that "space", while Voidness, from the very beginning is “contained” in the very essence of things when they lose their binding components, when they disintegrate.

5. In a more sublime, sophisticated way, Emptiness does not carry what Voidness does, namely to deny the truth of the existence of any inherent characteristics, or features of all things, entities as having selves by their own— this human SElf included. The words Void and Voidness suggest “voidification”, suggest a void-out of any substantiating core, or self-built nucleus existing on its own charateristic , or quality. Logically they suggest the negation that any thing, any event, any fact as having any essence by its own, as not having composites.

Some explations/explications :

a)   Void can be seen readily in these examples:
-       Water vaporizes
-       Foods, fruits decompose
-       Chemicals disintegrate
-       Feelings subside and disappear
                 When things disintegrate, void will be more easily  
                 observed; the components, ingredients, elements,
                 attributes etc. subside, disappear

b)  That fact, that experience as we see, feel it can
    happen in a few minutes, a few seconds, an hour,
    or a whole day; a month, or even 10, 20 , 30  years.
   The process is  there and continuously moving,
    changing in all  those times. Therefore, it is said
    in the sastras ( discourses), Void is inherent in
    all things.

c)   In abstraction, Voidness is mentally formed for the sake of explaining in philosophical sense,  after long years of meditation on this essential feature of the forming and disappearing of all things. That’s what has been taught in the Prajna-paramita sutras ( long and fort forms), and enticed Nagarjuna Bodhisattva into writing “Madhyamika Karika”

d)  Therefore, philosophically Vois is abstracted,
“conceptualized” into Voidness for the sake of discussion.

e)   As an innate feature, property, from the very beginning of any forming of anything, physically or mentally, void /voidness is there. That’s the reason I chose to use “Voidness” and “Void” to translate “Sunyata” and “Sunya”. Because of this “beginning-ness”. The whole process will show the same feature. It is just hidden and at times intricate to observe, see.

Even though, it’s just one word, one term—
 “Voidness” for “Sunyata” – I am very glad I have translated into English, my second language, as such to contribute to the English speaking world that term, together with about a dozen of articles I wrote to explain, elucidate this essence, this essential characteristic and meaning of this most magnificent, profound representation of the experience in meditation and contemplation of Sunyata.

Notes :

* New finding by Jan. 2020: The first one to render Suññata (in Pali) { edited, revised by Bhikkhu Bodhi in 1995 } into to English as "Voidness" is Ñanamoli Thera, a monk and rather well-known translator, teacher of dharma, not Dr. Harischandra Kaviratna from Sanskrit.

1. Before 1997, then around 2001, there was no third one, (as I attempted to survey), who translated “Sunyata” as “Voidness” among the well-known authors, scholars, and also the lesser-known ones —as the Internet shows.


4. Takakusu, Junjiro. The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy. Univ. of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1947.

5. Max Muller and T. Stcherbatsky did not translate it, but leave it as “Sunyata”

6. Below, among many, some websites with translation Sunyata as Emptiness, as a continuous  trend in rendering the term as such where choice, meaning, “philosophical significance” have been considered somehow. Also in books, for example, The Logic of Unity: The Discovery of Zero and Emptiness in Prajnaparamita Thought, 1987, by H. Matsuo and K. Inada (trans.)

7. Evidence for who care to inquire  when I translated/used the term “Voidness” for “Sunyata” and “Void” for “Sunya” can be seen on my translation of Most Venerable Thich Tuệ Sỹ’s  book on Sunyavada : Triết Học về Tánh Không, 1970 and convesation messages on VN-buddhism in yahoo group, as pictured and given below

  7a) Translation by me of the first part of “The Philosophy of Voidness” was started in 2001 and sent to Ven. Thich Tuệ Sỹ. The complete introduction was done in 2008 , and the whole introduction  posted on my blogspot in Dec. 2014. So by 2001, I had translated the term Sunyata to Voidness.

  7b) The cause to get the book wholy translated did not get the stimulating element to grow to a full fruition . But it was a nice experience to me to work on it.

 7c) In yahoo group VN-Buddhism , under nickname eludy2001 ( TN= Tâm Nguyên) , I  commented in July 2004 on an article about an itchy monk

8. Translations of Sunyata into “openness”, “spaceness” in some recent books, or articles reflect a very silly translation, repugnant non-understanding of this beautiful, mesmerizing Essence/Nature

9. The Hrdaya Prajnaparamita Sutra ( Heart Sutra) translated from Sanskrit to English by Dr. Harischandra Kaviratna

Tâm Nguyên (CH)
December 2019


Below: from “The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana” by Theodore Stcherbatsky

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