‘Sunn’ – Is it nothing or everything?Several religious philosophies such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Sikhism, although differ in many details, yet they all emphasize the basic unity of the universe. They point out that all phenomena in the world are the manifestation of an ultimate reality. The reality is seen as the essence of the universe, underlying and unifying the multitude of things and events we observe . The Hindus call it ‘Brahman’, the Buddhists ‘Tathata’ (Suchness), the Taoists ‘Tao’ and the Sikhs ‘Sunn’.
Dr. D. P. Singh
Dr. D. P. Singh
The highest aim for the followers of these religious philosophies is to become aware of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things, to transcend the notion of an isolated individual self and to identify themselves with the ultimate reality . The emergence of this awareness - known as ‘enlightenment’- is not only an intellectual act but is an experience which involves the whole person and is religious in its ultimate nature.
In modern physics, quantum theory has abolished the notion of fundamentally separated objects and has introduced the concept of the participator to replace that of the observer. It has even found it necessary to include the human consciousness in its description of the world. In atomic physics, also, the universal intervowenness always includes the human observer and his or her consciousness .
In the Eastern view, the reality underlying all phenomena is beyond all forms and defies all description and specification. It is therefore often said to be formless, empty or void. But this emptiness is not to be taken for mere nothingness. It is on the contrary, the essence of all forms and the source of all life . The Upanishads  say;
Brahman is life. Brahman is joy. Brahman is void.....
Joy, verily, that is the same as the void.
The void, verily, that is the same as joy.
Buddhists express the same idea when they call the ultimate reality Sunyata- ‘Emptiness’ or ‘the Void’ – and affirm that it is a living Void which gives birth to all forms in the phenomenal world. . The Taoists ascribe a similar infinite and endless creativity to the Tao and again call it empty. ‘The Tao of Heaven is empty and formless’ says the Kuan-tzu . Lao Tzu [4,7-8] uses several metaphors to illustrate this emptiness. He often compares the Tao to a hollow valley, or to a vessel which is forever empty and thus has the potential of containing infinity of things.
In the beginning was the Tao.
All things issue from it; all things return to it.
There was something formless and perfect,
before the universe was born.
It is serene. Empty. Solitary.
Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present.
It is the mother of the universe.
For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao.
It flows through all things, inside and outside,
and returns to the origin of all things.
The Sikh scriptures describe the ultimate reality as Sunn - the Primal Void. The Sanskrit root ‘su’ also conveys the concept of being swollen with possibility. Thus Sunn is not nothingness but represent a pregnant emptiness. In Sikhism ‘Sunn’ is also described as unmanifested (nirgun) state of One indescribable formless Absolute, the Timeless Consciousness [9-11].
In Sri Guru Granth Sahib [12-13] there are several such references available.
Everyone speaks of the Absolute Lord, the unmanifest void. How can one find this absolute void? (Raamkalee, First Mehl, Sidh Gosht, p 943)
In the Primal Void, the Infinite Lord assumed His Power. He Himself is unattached, infinite and incomparable. He Himself exercised His Creative Power, and He gazes upon His creation; from the Primal Void, He formed the Void. ||1|| (Maaroo, First Mehl: p 934)
ਸੁੰਨੇਅਲਖਅਪਾਰਨਿਰਾਲਮੁਸੁੰਨੇਤਾੜੀਲਾਇਦਾ॥੫॥ (ਮਹਲਾ1- ਪੰਨਾ 1037)
The Lord of this Primal Void is unseen, infinite and immaculate; He is absorbed in the Primal Trance of Deep Meditation. ||5|| (First Mehl: p 1037)
ਸਰਗੁਨ ਨਿਰਗੁਨ ਨਿਰੰਕਾਰ ਸੁੰਨ ਸਮਾਧੀ ਆਪਿ ॥ (ਮਹਲਾ5 - ਪੰਨਾ 290)
He possesses all qualities; He transcends all qualities; He is the Formless Lord. He Himself is in Primal Samaadhi. (Fifth Mehl: p 290)
ਘਟਿ ਘਟਿ ਸੁੰਨ ਕਾ ਜਾਣੈ ਭੇਉ॥ ਆਦਿ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਨਿਰੰਜਨ ਦੇਉ ॥(ਰਾਮਕਲੀ ਮਹਲਾ ੫,ਪੰਨਾ 943)
One who knows the mystery of God the Absolute, who pervades each and every heart, knows the Primal Being, the Immaculate Divine Lord. (Raamkalee, Fifth Mehl: p 943)
The conception of physical things and phenomena as transient manifestations of an underlying fundamental entity is the basic element of the Eastern world view. This underlying entity is the only reality: all its phenomenal manifestations are seen as transitory and illusory. It is seen as the essence of all phenomena in this world and consequently, is beyond all concepts and ideas.
According to the modern physics, the quantum field is seen as the fundamental physical entity; a continuous medium which is present everywhere in space. Particles are merely local condensations of the field; concentrations of energy which come and go, thereby losing their individual character and dissolving into the underlying field. Thus the conception of physical things and phenomena as transient manifestations of an underlying fundamental entity is also a basic element of quantum field theory .
Subsequent to the emergence of the field concept, physicists have attempted to unify the various fields (e.g. electromagnetic, strong nuclear force, weak interactions, and gravitational) into a single fundamental field - Unified Field - which would incorporate all physical phenomena. Recent developments in this direction have been proposed by David Bohm and Geoffrey Chew. Their approaches are based on the view that all the worldly phenomena are a dynamic web of relations; and the consciousness is an essential aspect of the universe . From the physicists point of view the Brahman of the Hindus, like the ‘Tathata’ (Suchness) or Sunyata of the Buddhists, the Tao of the Taoists and the Sunn of Sikhs, can be seen, perhaps, as the ultimate unified field from which spring not only the phenomena studied in Physics, but all other phenomena as well.
Despite using the terms such as empty and void, the sages of Eastern religions make it clear that they do not mean ordinary emptiness when they talk about Brahman, Sunyata, Tao or Sunn, but on the contrary, a Void which has an infinite creative potential. Thus the Void of the Eastern sages can easily be compared to the quantum field of subatomic physics. Like the quantum field, it gives birth to an infinite variety of forms which it sustains and eventually reabsorbs.
The Upanishads  say it;
Tranquil, let one worship it
As that from which he came forth,
As that into which he will be dissolved,
As that in which he breathes.
The phenomenal manifestations of the mystical Void, like the subatomic particles, are not static and permanent, but dynamic and transitory, coming into being and vanishing in one ceaseless dance of movement and energy. The Sikh Gurus have also emphasized this aspect of Sunn in Sri Guru Granth Sahib [12-13] as;
ਸੁੰਨਹੁ ਖਾਣੀ ਸੁੰਨਹੁ ਬਾਣੀ ॥….(ਮਾਰੂ ਮਹਲਾ ੧,ਪੰਨਾ 1037)
From this Primal Void, came the four sources of creation, and the power of speech. (Maaroo, First Mehl: p 1037)
ਸੁੰਨਹੁ ਉਪਜੀ ਸੁੰਨਿ ਸਮਾਣੀ ॥(ਮਾਰੂ ਮਹਲਾ ੧,ਪੰਨਾ 1037)
They were created from the Void, and they will merge into the Void. (Maaroo, First Mehl: p 1037)
In ‘Advaita Vedanta’  ‘ Sunyata’ is characterized as pregnant emptiness or vibrant void. It is described as the ultimate ground of everything, the utmost original condition of reality prior to all conceptualization and phenomenal distortion. It is a state of pure consciousness that one would revert to if one were able to empty oneself of any illusory constructions or impressions of an unchanging or permanent reality, whether of things or persons.
In ‘Vaisnava literature’  God (Visnu) is conceptualized as Shunya (emptiness, void) and is called Shunya Purusha or Shunya Brahman. In the holy scripture ‘Shunya Samhita’, the concept is described as;
Look at the whole world from the pedestal of shunya;
You will find everything manifested in the shunya,
Everything arises out of shunya and
Everything flourishes in the Shunya Brahman.
With the emergence of the quantum field theory two apparently contradictory concepts – matter having a discontinuous, ‘granular’ structure or having an underlying continuum – have been successfully unified and are seen to be merely different aspects of the same reality. In relativistic theory also the unification of the two opposite concepts (matter-granular, energy-continuum) takes place in a dynamic way. The two aspects of matter transform themselves endlessly into one another. Eastern sages emphasize a similar dynamic unity between the Void and the forms which it creates.
Lama Govinda  reports that the relationship of form and emptiness cannot be conceived as a state of mutually exclusive opposites, but only as two aspects of the same reality, which co-exist and are in continual co-operation.
Quantum field theory has been instrumental in successfully eradicating the distinction between material particles and the void. It points out that particles cannot be separated from the space surrounding them. They determine the structure of the space but cannot be regarded as isolated entities. They have to be seen as condensations of a continuous field which is present throughout space. Quantum field is seen as the basis of all particles and of their mutual interactions.
In the words of Thirring  the field exists always and everywhere; it can never be removed. It is a carrier of all material phenomena. It is the ‘void’ out of which particles are created. Being and fading of particles are merely forms of motion of the field.
The distinction between matter and empty space has finally been abandoned when it became evident that virtual particles can come into being spontaneously out of the void, and vanish again into the void. According to field theory, events of that kind happen all the time. The vacuum (Latin for emptiness) is far from empty. On the contrary, it contains an unlimited number of particles which come into being and vanish without end.
Thus here is closest parallel to the concept of Void (Sunyata, Sunn, Shunya, Emptiness) of eastern religions and modern physics. Like the mystical Void, the physical vacuum (as it is called in field theory) is not a state of mere nothingness, but contains the potentiality for all forms of the particle world. The forms, in turn, are not independent physical entities but merely transient manifestations of the underlying Void. The relation between the virtual particles and the vacuum is essentially a dynamic relation; the vacuum is truly a ‘living Void’, pulsating in endless rhythms of creation and destruction. The discovery of the dynamic quality of the vacuum is seen by many physicists as one of the most important findings of modern physics. From the role as an empty container of the physical phenomena, the Void has emerged as a dynamic quantity of utmost importance.
The Sanskrit term for meditation – Samadhi - means literally ‘mental equilibrium’. It refers to the balanced and tranquil state of mind in which the basic unity of the universe is experienced. Ashvaghosha  states that entering into the Samadhi of purity, (one obtains) all penetrating insight that enables one to become conscious of the absolute oneness of the universe.
In Sikh scriptures, Sunn Samadhi is described as the highest form of Samaadhi, leading to Self-realization. In it one is transcendental to all sorts of joy derived from the senses. In this state soul becomes absorbed in the Divine Wisdom and realizes that it and the Infinite Consciousness are one.
ਸੁੰਨ ਸਮਾਧਿ ਸਹਜਿ ਮਨੁ ਰਾਤਾ ॥ ਤਜਿ ਹਉ ਲੋਭਾ ਏਕੋ ਜਾਤਾ ॥ (ਰਾਮਕਲੀ ਮਹਲਾ ੧,ਪੰਨਾ 904)
My mind is intuitively absorbed in the state of deepest Samaadhi; renouncing egotism and greed, I have come to know the One Lord. (Raamkalee, Fifth Mehl; p 904)
In Sunn Samadhi, one sees the One Spirit in all beings and all beings in One Spirit. The emergence of this awareness in a being leads to his/her ‘enlightenment’.
Merging with the perfect, all-powerful Creator, one comes to know his own self. Then, he enters the celestial state of absolute Samaadhi, and speaks of the One and Only Lord. (Raag Wadahans, Fifth Mehl, p 578)
In Sikhism ‘Sunn’ (the Void) has been given the divine status in the form of ‘Sunn Samadhi’, which is described as God’s dwelling place.
The cave of deep Samaadhi is His sitting place; the unique, perfect Lord God dwells there. (Raamkalee, Fifth Mehl; p 894)
The words of Chinese sage Chang Tsai  appear to be most apt as a conclusion to the above discussion;
When one knows that the Great Void is full of ch’i*,
One realises that there is no such thing as nothingness.
*energy animating the cosmos
1. Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, 1991, Flamingo, Harper Collins Pub., London, p 209
2. ibid. p 29
3. ibid p 155
4. ibid p 234
5. Chandoga Upanishad, 4.10.4
6. Kuan-tzu, trans. W. A. Rickett,1965, Hong Kong University Press, XII, 36
7. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. by Stephen Mitchell
9. H. S. Virk, Scientific Vision in Sri Guru Granth Sahib & Interfaith Dialogue, 2007, Singh Brothers, Amritsar
12. Sri Guru Granth Sahib, 1983 reprint, S.G.P.C., Amritsar, p1-1430.
13. http://www.srigranth.org/servlet/gurbani.gurbani?S=y(English trans. of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji by Sant Singh Khalsa)
14. Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, 1991, Flamingo, Harper Collins Pub., London, p 233
15. ibid p 353-54
16. Chandogya Upanishad, 3.14.1
17. Bijoy H. Boruah, 2000, Atman in Śūnyatā and the Śūnyatā of Atman, South Asia Seminar, University of Texas at Austin, http://www.katinkahesselink.net/tibet/atmsun.htm
19. Lama Anagarika Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, 1973, Rider, London, p 223.
20. W. Thirring, op. cit., vol. IV, p 33.
21. Ashvaghosha, The Awakening of the Faith, trans. D. T. Suzuki, 1900, Open Court, Chicago, p 93.
22. Quoted in J. Needham, op. cit., vol. IV. p 33
*Center for Understanding Sikhism,2516, Pollard Drive, Mississauga, L5C 3H1, ON, Canada, email@example.com
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