Research Project 2023
Emptiness: Śūnyatā, Kenosis, Fanā'
Though having been developed in different religions, the Buddhist śūnyatā, the Christian concept of divine kenosis, and the Sufi concept of fanā’ have a common denominator: all three mean “emptiness” and are related to transitoriness and nothingness.
The originally Pali word suññatā is an Indian concept most commonly translated as emptiness or non-substantiality and represents the state of undifferentiation preexisting all dualities. The Sanskrit word is śūnyatā, and it is most fully developed in the Buddhist Mahāyāna tradition. The philosophical development of śūnyatā is very much due to the Indian philosopher and co-founder of Mahāyāna Buddhism Nāgārjuna (ca. 150–250 CE). Śūnyatā corresponds to the Japanese kū and the Chinese kong (空), and in philosophical contexts, it is often used interchangeably used with nothingness (無, Japanese mu; Chinese wu) or even other central Zen-Buddhist notions such as impermanence ( 無常, Japanese mujō; Chinese wúcháng). In relation with negation and nihilism, śūnyatā is often understood as the emptying of the self to attain non-self (Pali anattā; Sanskit anātman; 無我 JPN. muga; CHN. wúwǒ). Anattā means that there is no phenomenon that has a “self” or essence.
The verb κενόω (kenos) means “to empty,” and kenosis signifies God’s abasement to the level of humanity. Kenosis is the self-emptying or self-renunciation of Christ, that is, Christ’s giving up the form of God and taking the form of a servant and ultimately dying on the cross. Similar to śūnyatā, kenosis is not simply emptiness but rather a “self-emptying.” Neither Śūnyatā nor kenosis are God but they are state that are achieved through the emptying of God.
The Christian apostle St. Paul uses the word ἐκένωσεν (ekenosen) in Philippians 2:5-9 where he writes that “Jesus made himself nothing” and “emptied himself”:
Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient [even] unto death, yea, the death of the cross.
Because God becomes human and Christ dies on the cross, kenosis can be understood as both the emptying of God and as the emptying of humans. Metaphorically, kenosis can refer to people who willingly humiliate and debase themselves. For example, in some characters in Dostoevsky’s novels, the self-humiliation takes place in order to receive exaltedness in return. In philosophical terms, kenosis is a form of nihilism because it negates certain values. However, the moderate and apparently weak element will ultimately be overcome and rule over those who appear to be strong.
Both śūnyatā and kenosis manifest a parallel with the old mystic Jewish theme of tsimtsum, which signifies that out of love God empties himself of his divinity and retires, with the result that creation can only happen through this retreat, that is, through God’s spatial and temporal distance. If only a strong god exists, nothing can exist beside him. The world can only be created in a universe emptied of God. When everything is “God,” there is no space for the world.
In Sufism, fanā’ is used to describe the extinction of the self in the Universal being, which is why for Izutsu (1994: 12) fanā’ is the equivalent of sūnyatā. Fanā’ means that the ego-substance is dissolved or absorbed into existence, which leads to the recognition of unity (Izutsu: 77). The concept of fanā’ was first elaborated on by the Persian solitary mystic from Bayazid Bastami (Abu Yazid of Bistam, d. 848 or 874) from Bistam. It means cessation of existence or the total destruction of the individual ego in becoming one with Allah. The term is also attributed to the Baghdadi 'Isā al-Kharrāz (b. Abu Sa'id Ahmad, d. 899). Neither Bastami nor al-Kharrāz coined or invented the term, but Sufis had most probably used it earlier (Wilcox 2011: 97).
We find the concept in Sufism also in the context of the “Extinction in Love” (fanā’ fi’l-hubb), which leads to a realization of unity. Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) considers fanā’ the highest stage in understanding the meaning of tawḥīd. It is achieved by “those who see only unity when they regard existence, which is the witness of righteous ones and those whom the Sufis call ‘annihilated’ by faith in divine unity” (Al-Ghazali 2001: 13).
Ibn Al-’Arabī uses fanā’ to describe the final joining of the soul to the Real: “Through being joined (ittisal) to the Real, man is annihilated (fanā’) from himself. Then the Real becomes manifest so that He is his hearing and his sight” (Chittick 1989: 328).
In the Quran, fanā appears only once, in the middle of the verse of The All Merciful (Surah ar-Rahman), where it is said that all that is created perishes (fānin). As such, the use of the word in the Quran does not suggest the philosophical connotations that it would gain later.
To understand the full meaning of fanā', the Hindu and Buddhist connections seem to be important. Zaehner, in his Hindu and Muslim Mysticism, suggests that mystical master Abu ‘Ali al-Sindi (9th century), who was a convert from another (unknown) religion, derived the concept of fanā’ from the Chandogya Upanishad (Zaehner: 94). Abu Yazid of Bistam would later benefit from Abu ‘Ali al-Sindi’s teachings.
In Hindi, fanaa can be used to describe a state of complete absorption in an activity or emotion, or the loss of one’s individual identity in the presence of something greater. Even today, in Hindi, fanaa means to annihilate or to lose oneself in something.
Schimmel points to Buddhist influences that she believes to be more direct than the Hindu ones: the transmission of the Buddha legend to the prominent Sufi saint Ibrahim Ibn Adham (718-782). Schimmel believes that Hindu philosophy and practice were added only later (Schimmel 2000: 17). Fanā’ has also been likened to the Buddhist and Hinduist notion of samadhi, which is a state of meditative consciousness, contemplation, or absorption (Bennett: 23).
A Comparative Study
The study aims to elucidate how these three different philosophical traditions deal with emptiness. Kenosis and śūnyatā have frequently been compared (see my own studies, Botz-Bornstein 2015 and 2016). The śūnyatā-kenosis exchange is even one of the most original Buddhist-Christian dialogues in philosophy of religion in the twentieth century. In Japan, kenosis has generated a rich discourse on Buddhist-Christian parallels showing that both Buddhism and Christianity can see self-emptying as an ideal of human perfection. The kenosis-śūnyatā parallel has been addressed by Kyoto School philosophers Nishida Kitaro (1945 ), Nishitani Keiji (1961 ) and by many other Japanese thinkers. Nishitani wrote that “the Buddhist way of life as well as its way of thought are permeated with kenosis and ekkenosis” (1982: 288 note 4).
Associating fanā’ to this intercultural analysis of religious or metaphysical emptiness is new. While relatively sporadic allusions Buddhist and Hindu connections with fanā’ do exist, there seem to be no studies on fanā’ and kenosis.
At first sight, the Buddhist prerogative of impermanence and its insistence on the relative, relational, non-substantial, and changeable character of the world do not seem to match with the idea of the strong, strengthening, and creating God that is typical for monotheistic religions. Fanā’ appears to be the emptying of the self as it faces God, thus implying a strengthening of God; whereas śūnyatā and kenosis (as well as tsimtsum) suggest a weakening of God that will eventually lead to His strength. Despite this apparent contradiction, it remains a fact that fanā’ is influenced by Hindu and Buddhist sources. The right interpretation requires a disentanglement of various links.
I will examine the following points:
What precisely is for the three traditions the relationship between reality and emptiness?
Are they only meditative features or do they also stand for an ontological feature of reality?
How do the three traditions define the position of the Self, the human and the divine?
Is fanā’, similar to what has sometimes been said about kenosis and śūnyatā, removed from both metaphysical realism and Platonic essentialism. Does it avoid primary, “metaphysical” ways of being that remain dependent on a Cartesian ego cogito? Or is it still committed, like most Christian theology, to a static Greek metaphysics of unchanging being or eternal substance? Does it create a strong form of reality, in the way most Christian theologians wanted to see kenosis when formulating kenosis in terms of the self-realization of Christ and resurrection?
Is fanā’ simply a retreat or a simple resignation, or rather a positive coming back into life, similar to what some Zen Buddhists (Abe or Hisamatsu for instance) want to see Buddhism? Is it not fleeing reality and merely settling in an “unreal” sphere?
Christian theologians like von Brück equate kenosis with love because love is the result of a depersonalizing experience. Does this match the conception of fanā’ in Sufism?
I will read the interpretations of Abe Masao, developed in Ch. Ive’s Divine Emptiness and Historical Fullness (1995), in the context of the juxtaposition of fanā’ (annihilation in God) and baqā’ (permanence, fullness in God).
The thinking of God based on kenosis, śūnyatā, and fanā’ deconstructs the idea of faith as a matter of “fullness.” I will show that all three concepts run counter to Platonic-philosophical metaphysical frameworks that support such a view of fullness.
Further, it will be shown that scientism and nihilism are not the only alternatives to faith. In three different ways, emptiness can create a religious feeling.
The “kenosis and fanā’” theme allows both Christianity and Islam to appear in another light. Physico-mechanical visions of the world as well as authoritarian metaphysical structures become weakened. Being less anthropocentric and insisting on interrelatedness, all three concepts also indirectly criticize the view that humans are made in the image of God. Given the emphasis that śūnyatā discussions lay on the necessity to deconstruct all centrisms (Christocentrism, theocentrism, egocentrism, anthropocentrism, cosmocentrism, etc.), the kenosis-śūnyatā-fanā’ topic can be read in the context of post-metaphysical and self-critical versions of religious thought such as weak theology, deconstructivist religion, or Death of God theology.
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