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Śūnyatā, शून्यता (Sanskrit), Suññatā (Pāli) or stong pa nyid (Tibetan), generally translated into English as "Emptiness" or "Voidness", is a concept of central importance in the teaching of the Buddha, as a direct realization of Sunyata is required to achieve liberation from the cycle of existence (samsara) and full enlightenment. Widely misconceived as a doctrine of nihilism, the teaching on the emptiness of persons and phenomena is unique to Buddhism, constituting an important metaphysical critique of theism with profound implications for epistemology and phenomenology.

Śūnyatā signifies that everything one encounters in life is empty of absolute identity, permanence, or 'self'. This is because everything is inter-related and mutually dependent - never wholly self-sufficient or independent. All things are in a state of constant flux where energy and information are forever flowing throughout the natural world giving rise to and themselves undergoing major transformations with the passage of time. This teaching never connotes nihilism - nihilism is, in fact, a belief or point of view that the Buddha explicitely taught was incorrect - a delusion, just as the view of materialism is a delusion (see below). In the English language the word emptiness suggests the absence of spiritual meaning or a personal feeling of alienation, but in Buddhism the emptiness of phenomena enables liberation from the limitations of form in the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth.

Rawson (1991: p.11) states that: "[o]ne potent metaphor for the Void, often used in Tibetan art, is the sky. As the sky is the emptiness that offers clouds to our perception, so the Void is the 'space' in which objects appear to us in response to our attachments and longings."

Origin and development of Śūnyatā

The theme of śūnyatā emerged from the Buddhist doctrines of Anatta (Pali, Sanskrit:Anātman—the nonexistence of the self, or Ātman) and Paticcasamuppada (Pali, Sanskrit pratītyasamūtpāda, Interdependent Arising). The Suñña Sutta, part of the Pali Canon, relates that the monk Ananda, the attendant to Gautama Buddha asked, "It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?" The Buddha replied, "Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ananda, that the world is empty."

Over time, many different philosophical schools or tenet-systems (siddhānta in Sanskrit)[1] have developed within Buddhism in an effort to explain the exact philosophical meaning of emptiness.

After the Buddha, Śūnyatā was further developed by Nāgārjuna and the Madhyamaka school, which is usually counted as an early Mahayana school. Śūnyatā ("positively" interpreted - see Tathagatagarbha section below) is also an important element of the Tathagatagarbha literature, which played a formative role in the evolution of subsequent Mahayana doctrine and practice. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, detailed dialogs between the perspectives of the various schools are preserved in order to train students. For example, in the Tibetan tradition some of the main philosophical schools are listed as: Vaibhasika, Sautrantika, Cittamatra, and several schools within Madhyamika (such as Svatantrika-Madhyamika and Prasangika-Madhyamika).

It should be noted that the exact definition and extent of shunyata varies within the different Buddhist schools of philosophy which can easily lead to confusion. These tenet-systems all explain in slightly different ways what phenomena 'are empty of', which phenomena exactly are 'empty' and what emptiness means.

For example in the Cittamatra school it is said that the mind itself ultimately exists, but other schools like the Madhyamika deny this.

In the Mahayana Tathagatagarbha sutras, in contrast, only impermanent, changeful things and states (the realm of samsara) are said to be empty in a negative sense - but not the Buddha or Nirvana, which are stated to be real, eternal and filled with inconceivable, enduring virtues.

Further, the Lotus Sutra states that seeing all phenomena as empty (sunya) is not the highest, final attainment: the bliss of total Buddha-Wisdom supersedes even the vision of complete emptiness.

Śūnyatā in presectarian Buddhism, in the Nikayas

Sunnata (Sanskrit: Śūnyatā, "Emptiness", is the noun form of Shunya (zero) in Sanskrit, literally zero "ness") in Pali contexts is not the metaphysical Zero (non-being as a principle of being, infinite possibility as distinguished from indefinite actuality), but a characteristic of this world.

In S IV.295 96, it is explained that the Alms-man experiences a deathlike contemplation in which consciousness and feeling have been arrested. When he returns he recounts "three touches" that touch him, "emptiness" (suññato), "formlessness"(animito) and "making no plans (appanihito phasso)," and he discriminates (viveka) accordingly. The meaning of the "emptiness" as contemplated here is explained at M 1.29 as the "emancipation of the mind by Emptiness (sunnata ceto vimutti) being consequent upon the realization that `this world is empty of spirit or anything spiritual' (suññam idam attena vā attaniyena vā)".

The term is also used in two suttas in the Majjhima Nikaya, where it is used in the context of a progression of mental states to refer to each state's emptiness of the one below.

The stance that nothing contingent has any inherent essence forms the basis of the more sweeping 'sunyavada' doctrine. In the Mahayana, this doctrine, without denying their value, denies any essence to even the Buddha's appearance and to the promulgation of the Dhamma itself.

Later Theravada texts

In the Patisambhidamagga, many meanings are given, including nirvana. Formations are said to be empty in/of/by own-nature, a similar expression to one used in Mahayana literature.


The 'Vajracchedika Sutra' states the following: 'Those who see me in the body (rupena) and think of me in sounds (ghosaih), their way of thinking is false, they do not see me at all. ... The Buddha cannot be rightly understood (rjuboddhum) by any means (upayena)."

Not that "means" are not dispositive to a right understanding, but that if regarded as ends, even the most adequate means are a hindrance. What is true of ethics is also true of the supports of contemplation on emptiness: as in the well known Parable of the Raft (Alagaddupama Sutra), the means of crossing a river are of no more use when the goal of the other shore has been reached.

Śunyata in the Heart Sutra

Śūnyatā is a key theme of the Heart Sutra (one of the Mahayana Perfection of Wisdom Sutras), which is commonly chanted by Mahayana Buddhists worldwide.

The Heart Sutra declares that the skandhas, which constitute our mental and physical existence, are empty in their nature or essence, i.e., empty of any such nature or essence. But it also declares that this emptiness is the same as form (which connotes fullness)--i.e., that this is an emptiness which is at the same time not different from the kind of reality which we normally ascribe to events; it is not a nihilistic emptiness that undermines our world, but a "positive" emptiness which defines it.

  • "The noble bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara, engaged in the depths of the practice of the perfection of wisdom, looked down from above upon the five skandhas (aggregates), and saw that they were empty in their essential nature."
  • "Hear, O Sariputra, emptiness is form; form is just emptiness. Apart from form, emptiness is not; emptiness, form is not. Emptiness is that which is form, form is that which is emptiness. Just thus are perception, cognition, mental construction, and consciousness."
  • "Hear, O Sariputra, all phenomena of existence are marked by emptiness: not arisen, not destroyed, not unclean, not clean not deficient nor fulfilled."

Śūnyatā in Nāgārjuna's Madhyamaka school

For Nāgārjuna, who provided the most important philosophical formulation of śūnyatā, emptiness as the mark of all phenomena is a natural consequence of dependent origination; indeed, he identifies the two. In his analysis, any enduring essential nature (i.e., fullness) would prevent the process of dependent origination, would prevent any kind of origination at all, for things would simply always have been and always continue to be.

This enables Nāgārjuna to put forth a bold argument regarding the relation of nirvāna and samsāra. If all phenomenal events (i.e., the events that constitute samsāra) are empty, then they are empty of any compelling ability to cause suffering. For Nāgārjuna, nirvāna is neither something added to samsāra nor any process of taking away from it (i.e., removing the enlightened being from it). In other words, nirvāna is simply samsāra rightly experienced in light of a proper understanding of the emptiness of all things.

Sunyata in the Tathagatagarbha Sutras

The class of Buddhist scriptures known as the Tathagatagarbha sutras presents a seemingly variant understanding of Emptiness. According to these scriptures, the Buddha and Nirvana, unlike a compounded conditioned phenomena, are not empty of intrinsic existence, but merely empty of the impermanent, the painful and the Self-less.

In the "Srimala Sutra" the Buddha is seen as empty of all defilement and ignorance, not of intrinsic Reality. The "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra" supports such a vision and views Ultimate Emptiness as the Buddhic cognition ("jnana") which perceives both Emptiness and non-Emptiness, wherein "the Empty is the totality of Samsara and the non-Empty is Great Nirvana". The Buddha in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, further, indicates that to view absolutely everything as empty is an unbalanced approach and constitutes a deviation from the middle path of Buddhism:

"The wise perceive Emptiness and non-Emptiness, the Eternal and the Impermanent, Suffering and Bliss, the Self and the non-Self. ... To perceive the Emptiness of everything and not to perceive non-Emptiness is not termed the Middle Way; to perceive the non-Self of everything and not to perceive the Self is not termed the Middle Way."

Moreover, this particular sutra contains a passage in which the Buddha castigates those who view the Tathagatagarbha (which is the indwelling, immortal Buddha-element) in each being as empty. The sutra states how the Buddha declares that they are effectively committing a form of painful spiritual suicide through their wrongheaded stance:

"By having cultivated non-Self in connection with the Tathagatagarbha and having continually cultivated Emptiness, suffering will not be eradicated but one will become like a moth in the flame of a lamp."

( The Tibetan version of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra). The attainment of nirvanic Liberation ("moksha"), by contrast, is said to open up a realm of "utter bliss, joy, permanence, stability, [and] eternity" (ibid), in which the Buddha is "fully peaceful" (Dharmakshema "Southern" version).

Perhaps, the clearest statement of Tathagatagarbha Buddhism's understanding of Emptiness is found in the Angulimaliya Sutra, where we read the following clarifying explanation:

" ... by cultivating extreme emptiness and continually considering things to be empty, one will behold the utter destruction of all phenomena. Though Liberation is not empty, one will see and think it to be empty. Thus, for example, having thought hail-stones to be jewels, one comes to think that real gems are empty [śūnya]. Likewise, you too think of phenomena which are not empty [aśūnya] to be empty [śūnya], for viewing phenomena as empty, you dissolve into emptiness (śūnya) even those phenomena which are not empty. Some phenomena are empty [of existence] and some phenomena are not empty [of existence]. Just like the hail-stones, the billions of kleshas [mental and moral afflictions] are empty [of existence], like the hail-stones, those phenomena appertaining to ignorance are empty [of existence] and swiftly fade away. Like the real beryl gems, the Buddha is eternal. Liberation is like the real beryl gems."

Thus in the distinctive Tathagatagarbha sutras a balance is drawn between the empty, impermanent and coreless realm of samsara and the everlasting, liberative Reality of the Buddha and Nirvana. The Lotus Sutra (Chapter 4) likewise suggests that seeing all things as empty is not the ultimate Buddhic realisation, not the final "gain" or "advantage": Buddha-Wisdom is indicated there to transcend the perception of emptiness.

Shunyata versus nihilism and materialism

Roger R. Jackson writes; "A nihilistic interpretation of the concept of voidness (or of mind-only) is not, by any means, a merely hypothetical possibility; it consistently was adopted by Buddhism's opponents, wherever the religion spread, nor have Buddhists themselves been immune to it..."[2] And later (p.58); "In order to obviate nihilism, ... mainstream Mahayanists have explained their own negative rhetoric by appealing to the notion that there are, in fact, two types of truth (satyadvaya), conventional or "mundane superficial" (lokasamvriti) truths, and ultimate truths that are true in the "highest sense" (paramartha)."

In the words of Robert F. Thurman; "... voidness does not mean nothingness, but rather that all things lack intrinsic reality, intrinsic objectivity, intrinsic identity or intrinsic referentiality. Lacking such static essence or substance does not make them not exist - it makes them thoroughly relative."[3]

This relativity of all phenomena contrasts to materialism, the notion that phenomena exist in their own right, in and of themselves. Thus, the philosophy of the Buddha is seen as the Middle Way between nihilism and materialism.


  1. Klein, Anne C., Knowing Naming & Negation a sourcebook on Tibetan, Sautrantika, Snowlion publications 1991, ISBN 0-937938-21-1
  2. Jackson, Roger R. Is Enlightenment Possible? (p.57) Snow Lion Publications 1993, ISBN 1-55939-010-7
  3. Foreword of Mother of the Buddhas by Lex Hixon, Quest Books, 1993, ISBN 0-8356-0689-9

See also




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