tato vihīnaṁ kapilāhvayaṁ puraṁ mahātmanā tena jagadd-hitātmanā |
krameṇa tau śūnyam-ivopajagmatur-divākareṇeva vinā-ktaṁ nabhaḥ || 8.5
And so, the city called after Kapila,
The city forsaken by that mighty soul
whose soul was given to the welfare of the world,
The two approached, step by gradual step,
as if approaching emptiness –
as if approaching emptiness –
An emptiness like the sky bereft of the day-making sun.
If a thinking human being's slow self-conscious movement represents sitting with the mind (BC8.1-2), and a horse's natural unthinking response to a stimulus represents sitting with the body (BC8.3-4), then the two approaching the city together, step by gradual step, might represent movement in the direction of body and mind spontaneously dropping off and original features emerging.... but do not call it śūnya-tā.
The MW dictionary gives śūnya-tā as: nothingness, non-existence, non-reality, illusory nature (of all worldly phenomena). Aśvaghoṣa, however, as far as I know never uses the term. In general, he is not one for Buddhist philosophical jargon. The term he does use in today's verse is śūnyam, which I have read as a neuter noun (“emptiness”) but which can also be read as describing the city (with iva) as seeming to be empty. Hence:
Slowly they two at last came back to the city called after Kapila, which seemed empty when deserted by that hero who was bent on the salvation of the world, — like the sky bereft of the sun. (EBC)
Then in due course they approached the city named after Kapila, which seemed empty like the sky without the sun, now that it was deserted by the magnanimous prince, whose being was concentrated on the weal of the world. (EHJ)
Then in due course the two approached the city named after Kapila that now seemed empty without that noble man who was dedicated to the welfare of the world, like the sky without the sun. (PO)
So the ostensible meaning is as per the three professors' translations. And if, noticing what the professors failed to notice, we read today's verse as being pivotal to the evolution of the Mahāyāna teaching of śūnyatā, that also might be to miss the real point.
The ostensible meaning of the simile in the 4th pāda is to suggest that the city seemed empty in the sense of being desolate, sad, forlorn, bereft of what rightly belonged to it, like the day-time sky without the sun. And, again, if we infer that Aśvaghoṣa's conception of emptiness is of a state that is necessarily desolate, that might also be to miss the real point.
Ostensibly the 4th pāda does not compare emptiness to something as beautiful and warm as a full harvest moon being seen in the utter transparency, following the rains, of a sky in a late summer night. But reading behind the lines I think it might be Aśvaghoṣa's intention not to rule such a reading out.
The point might be that what we are pursuing, in steps, by moving slowly while thinking of separateness, and by just being who we instinctively are, is not emptiness in the abstract. The point is not to arrive at a philosophical or intellectual conclusion about emptiness, or to chase emptiness as a fantastic goal of esoteric practice. The point might rather be to approach emptiness as an everyday reality which is regularly accessible to us, like the night sky.
Understood like this both krameṇa (step by gradual step; methodically) and śūnyam (emptiness) accord with Aśvaghoṣa's description in Saundara-nanda of the path to the ultimate state of being without, arhathood, as a methodical process:
Just as gold, washed with water, is separated from dirt in this world, methodically (krameṇa),And just as the smith heats the gold in the fire and repeatedly turns it over, /Just so is the practitioner's mind, with delicacy and accuracy, separated from faults in this world,And just so, after cleansing it from afflictions, does the practitioner temper the mind and collect it. // SN15.68 // Again, just as the smith brings gold to a state where he can work it easilyIn as many ways as he likes into all kinds of ornaments, /So too a beggar of cleansed mind tempers his mind,And directs his yielding mind among the powers of knowing, as he wishes and wherever he wishes. // SN15.69 //Thus, by methodically (krameṇa) taking possession of the mind, getting rid of something and gathering something together, /The practitioner makes the four dhyānas his own, and duly acquires the five powers of knowing: // SN16.1 //
Having attained to the seat of arhathood, he was worthy of being served. Without ambition, without partiality, without expectation; /Without fear, sorrow, pride, or passion; while being nothing but himself, he seemed in his constancy to be different. // SN17.61 //
tataḥ: ind. then
vihīnam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. entirely abandoned or left &c ; destitute or deprived of , free from (instr. abl. , or comp.)
kapilāhvayam (acc. sg.): n. (with or without pura) the city of kapila-vastu, Bcar.
āhvaya: m. appellation , name (generally ifc)
puram (acc. sg. ): n. city
mahātmanā (inst. sg. m.): mfn. " high-souled " , magnanimous , having a great or noble nature , high-minded , noble; mighty, eminent
tena (inst. sg. m.): by him
jagadd-hitātmanā (inst. sg. m.): mfn. quite intent upon the welfare of the world
jagad: n. the world
hitātman: mfn. quite intent upon the welfare of (comp.) Bcar.
hita: n. anything useful or salutary or suitable or proper , benefit , advantage , profit , service , good , welfare , good advice
ātman: essence , nature , character , peculiarity (often ifc. e.g. karmā*tman , &c )
krameṇa: ind. (inst. ) in regular course , gradually , by degrees ; according to order or rank or series
tau (nom. dual): those two
śūnyam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. empty ; n. a void , vacuum , empty or deserted place , desert ; n. (in phil.) vacuity , nonentity , absolute non-existence (esp. with Buddhists)
iva: like, as if
upajagmatur = 3rd pers. dual perf. upa- √ gam: to go near to , come towards , approach , arrive at , reach , attain , visit
divā-kareṇa (inst. sg.): m. " day-maker " , the sun
vinā-kṛtam (acc. sg. n.): mfn. " made without " , deprived or bereft of , separated from , left or relinquished by , lacking , destitute of , free from (instr.
nabhaḥ (acc. sg.): n. mist, clouds; the sky or atmosphere