“Isn’t ‘nothingness’, as the basis of ajata teachings, an outgrowth of nihilism?”
Nihilism is, generally, a word used by philosophers. In the nothingness of which ajata speaks, there are no words, ideas, definitions or labels which apply. In nothingness, there is not any thing—even “nihilism” has no reality there.
Nihil is Latin for “nothing”. Theologians consider whether the universe was created ex nihilo, which means “out of nothing”. But, as stated above, there is not anything which comes out of nothing. From the standpoint of nothingness—and the teachings of ajata— not anything has ever been created (starting with the universe).
Ajata is unsettling to religionists; it undercuts every doctrine that could be promulgated. Further, it indicates that there is no meaning or purpose since there has not been anything created which could have such values.
When it is possible to give up the attachment to “something”—anything—then nothingness (nihility) can be understood. But when the attempt is to try to envision nothingness in relationship to something else (“Then what’s here?”), there is still an attachment to the idea that there is some thing other than nothing which “exists”.
The teaching of nihility, like it or not, is that reality does not exist. In fact, “nothing” itself can be said neither to exist or not exist. Not anything can be said of nothing. But that doesn’t mean that the premise can’t be understood, empty as it is.
In fact, emptiness is a synonym for nothingness, as long as you can envision emptiness outside of something that is empty. So, one could say of nihility that “all is emptiness,” in a like manner—denying the reality of the “all”.
Where most people go astray in attempting to understand nothingness is this: nothing is nothing. There is not anything which nothing can be compared to, because you have nothing that you can bring to the comparison. Nothing is devoid of characteristics or questions.
In Buddhism, the synonym is called the void. But the mind immediately evokes a “void”, which is to say “not a non-void”. This is why the word “nothing” must be comprehended: we are not talking about a void that stands away somewhere from something that is not a void.
Nagarjuna says, “If there are things that are not empty, ‘voidness' may exist. If everything is empty, how can even emptiness exist?” His point: “There is nothing that is not empty”. This means “void” and “non-void” are both empty!
Shantideva says clearly, “There is nothing…how can absence—lacking all support—remain before the mind, as something present?”
Nothing does not mean something. It means nothing at all, not anything. Nothing to behold.
Is nothingness empty “like space”? Nothing is empty of space. We could say that it was nothing before empty space. Nothing does not have, or occupy, space.
All thought—particularly about nothingness—is empty.