What is Zero (kuu), the core tenet of Buddhism?
This website is named zero = abundance. Based on the concept conceived by the ancient Indian philosophers, we believe that zero, or nothingness/emptiness, is not null as it appears, but is actually a boundless source of inspiration, creation, engagement, and ultimately happiness. The ramification of the zero concept was so profound that the Buddhists dedicated themselves for centuries, if not a thousand years, to cement its principle. Eventually, Zen, a school of Buddhism that thrived in Japan during the Middle Ages, crystallized the essence in the form of various arts, most notably the Zen garden. The beauty was so captivating that it influenced modern minimalist arts, design, architecture and even business philosophy around the world.
In Eastern Asia, the concept of zero is expressed using the Chinese character “空,” which is pronounced “Kuu” in Japanese, and means “sky”, “void” or “emptiness.”
Zero (kuu) and Buddhism
The “zero” (or mathematical zero) as we know it today was first developed in India around 650 AD. It was conceived as a placeholder to recognize “nothingness” to perform complex calculations. The original sign for zero, or dots under the numbers, was also called “sunya” — a concept from ancient Indian philosophy to describe “emptiness,” “void,” or “sky.” While mathematical zero emerged as an essential element to advance science in the modern world, “sunya” has always been a major interest of Asian philosophy and religions. Buddhists have especially devoted themselves to pursue the truth of zero.
Buddha, who found the Buddhism in the 5~6th century BCE, used the word “縁起”(engi) to describe the concept of zero. He used “engi” to teach that everything we perceive is established only because it has relative relationships with other elements or factors. He maintained that all the things we believe exist, do not actually exist, if the definition of “existence” requires uniquely definable substantiality permanently. Since everything constantly changes its status, nothing exists. The “me” of today is one day older than the “me” of yesterday. While I may believe I am sitting on a “chair” as I write this, there is no such thing as an absolute “chair,” because your chair cannot be a chair if mine is a chair. If we accept the general notion of “chair” that can be applied to mine and yours alike to avoid that situation, my chair will lose its unique substantiality. Then the word “chair” becomes empty because it fails to capture the essence that constitutes my chair.
Does this mean that everything on Earth is meaningless? No, it’s actually the opposite. because everything can only be defined through its relationships with other elements and factors. “I” can be non-existent at the same time that I am not non-existent. In the world of “engi,” everything we perceive – including words or our ego – can exist without inconsistency no contradiction because we are “empty.”
Keeping true to his engi teachings, Buddha never wrote down his beliefs. (What’s the point of doing so if everything is relative and would eventually change?) His teaching was passed down by his apprentices after he passed away, who gathered to record their dialogues with Buddha.
But keeping up with the teaching that “nothing is absolute and existential” is challenging. After many groups tried hard to practice exactly what they believed Buddha taught, his followers eventually separated into two major groups: one group pursued a strict religious life, and the other group sought ways to practice Buddhism without abandoning social activities such as working and supporting a family.
The Mahayana Buddhism and Zen
The latter group, the Mahayana (it means “great vehicle” in Sanskrit) branch, had a breakthrough in the 2-3 centuries AD with the emergence of a great philosopher called Nagarjuna who established the foundation of the next generation of Mahayana Buddhism . Nagarjuna produced a solid logic system surrounding “空,” one of the most complicated philosophical concepts.
He further developed Buddha’s “engi” concept and found that all the things around us – both tangible and intangible – can be perceived only because of the relative and mutually influencing relationships with other elements and factors. I exist only because my surroundings shape me, but each element that constitutes my surroundings can exist because my presence. And we collectively exist because of mutual relationships. This is the reason why everything is “empty (kuu).” And because all are kuu, they are inherently temporary, and because they are temporary, words and statements are always contingent. And within kuu emerges solid neutrality.
Just as a pencil or a railroad can be considered short or long depending on a perspective, everything we say is relative. In his most well-known work, “Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way”, Nagarjuna stated that “‘kuu’, as taught by Buddha, means a departure from any perspective. In his world of kuu logic, nothing contradicts or conflicts with each other, because no word has absolute materiality. If a word contains no materiality, no words or statements can collide with each other. As a result, we no longer have a need to argue, which was one of the most important teachings of Buddha.
But how do you practice such a complicated concept, when in reality we live in a world where everyone has their own “absolute” perspectives and does not want to compromise? What was the approach taken by Zen, which emerged in China in the 5~6th century as one of the new schools of Mahayana Buddhism?