Apophaticism is employed as a Way of Nothingness, not in a morose and nihilistic fashion, but simply as a vehicle that points to what is ineffable. In Christian parlance it bespeaks the unknowable qualities of the Godhead; the best way to come to this understanding is to UN-know all nominal paradigms and thus come to the Absolute under Its own terms—THAT which is devoid and self-empty of all knowable constructs. In Buddhism this Way is engaged as śūnyatā, also one of self-emptying but not in the Christian sense in the “theistic understanding of the ineffability of God”:
The Buddhist notion of śūnyatā does not have anything to do with the theistic understanding of the ineffability of God. In the Christian tradition, the negative way comes to play a role in knowing God, a knowing in unknowing, whereas in the Buddhist parlance, śūnyatā is an operator; it is a device or stratagem that calls for an avoidance or ‘cessation of hypostatization’ with regard to what is purportedly real and purportedly unreal. (C.D. Sebastian, ibid, pg.19)
“Hypostatization” (mistaking something abstract as a material thing) is employed here as a relational unknowing of the Godhead, as opposed to Nagarjuna’s utilizing a non-relational de-constructive “device.” Sebastian returns to this qualifier time and time again:
Śūnyatā is an operator, it is a device, and it is not an entity and not even a theory. It calls for an avoidance or ‘cessation of hypostatization’ (Siderits and Katsura 2013 : 194) with regard to what is real and unreal (MK 18, 8: 157–160). Whatever way one tries, one cannot discover the real as it is (tathatā) and put forward the same in propositions, for the real or the ‘truth is not primarily a property of propositions’. (ibid, pg. 29)
As a device śūnyatā defies all norms of conventionality, something we will undertake when considering Nāgārjuna on his own turf:
.… śūnyatā (Sanskrit, emptiness) in Mahāyāna tradition, epitomizes the Buddhist view of the limits of conventional knowledge, and especially the limits of knowledge, for it ‘is too poor to express the real nature of the Absolute Truth or Ultimate Reality which is Nirvāṇa’ (Rahula 1974 , 35). 23 Nirvāṇa/ Truth/ Reality eludes discursive, propositional, and calculative thinking… Thus, it is often expressed via-negativa, with negative appellations, given that it is not like anything we know in ordinary reality, though this does not imply that it is a negative state – it transcends all dualities like positive/negative. (Numrich 2008 :14) (ibid, pg. 30)
Returning to the “apothatic tradition”, Sebastian states that it has a “long history with its ‘metaphors of negativity’.” One of its earliest advocates was Pseudo-Dionysius, the great Granddaddy of all negans mysticae. Once again Sebastian utilizes a quote from Panikkar that provides an interesting “twist” when contrasting apophaticism and atheism:
In order to understand what the real purport of the via-negativa in Pseudo-Dionysius and others, we have to understand the import and intent of the negative way presented by such thinkers. Panikkar would address this concern in a different way:
‘The morphological difference between apophaticism and atheism consists in this, that atheism proclaims its incompatibility with any theistic, deistic, or pantheistic assertion, but apophaticism allows room for the most diverse affi rmations concerning divinity. It will only beg that these affirmations not be absolutized and converted into idols. In other words: atheism takes its position on the cataphatic level and from there develops a destructive critique of all affi rmations concerning God; apophaticism takes an antecedent stand, from which any affirmation or negation of God loses all absolute, definitive signification – hence its recourse to nothingness, the void, and nonbeing.’ (Panikkar 1989 : 134)
This is a clear assertion that atheism itself is crucified to its own cataphatic-cross, thus failing to consider the dark-way of the via-negativa that would free one from such self-defeating and self-limiting vexations of mind and spirit. Atheists and their angst would be better served if they paid special heed to John of the Cross when he writes, “I entered into unknowing, and there I remained unknowing, transcending all knowledge.” This is taken from his Stanzas concerning an Ecstasy experienced in high Contemplation. There is an older translation of this poem from an earlier collection of John’s Works, published in 1864. This is from Vol 2, The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross, of the Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel:
From ECSTASY OF CONTEMPLATION
I entered, but I knew not where,
And there I stood nought knowing,
All science transcending.
I knew not where I entered,
For, when I Stood within.
Not knowing where I was,
I heard great things.
What I heard I will not tell:
I was there as one who knew not,
All science transcending.
Yea, not knowing where one is during this Dark Contemplation, all prefabrications of the samsaric-realm are forever stilled; thus all-known attributes are rendered void in this Dark Science of Unknowing. This Dark Science of Unknowing is the Illuminative Science of Apophaticism itself. It Is within this Dark-Wonder that the contemplative adept will discern great and ineffable divine dimensions, empowering one to forget one’s cares within this bleak samsaric realm, leaving them all as John states, “forgotten among the lilies.”