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Śūnyatā, शून्यता (Sanskrit noun from the adj. sūnya - 'void' ), Suññatā (Pāli; adj. suñña), stong pa nyid (Tibetan), Kòng/Kū, 空 (Chinese/Japanese), Gong-seong, 공성(空性) (Korean), qoɣusun (Mongolian) meaning "Emptiness" or "Voidness", is a characteristic of phenomena arising from the fact (as observed and taught by the Buddha) that the impermanent nature of form means that nothing possesses essential, enduring identity (see anattā). In the Buddha's spiritual teaching, insight into the emptiness of phenomena (Pali: suññatānupassanā) is an aspect of the cultivation of insight (vipassanā-bhāvanā) that leads to wisdom and inner peace. The importance of this insight is especially emphasised in Mahayana Buddhism, and receives a more 'positive' explication in the Tathagatagarbha sutras.

Nomenclature and etymology

Śūnyatā (Sanskrit) is usually glossed as "emptiness" and is the noun form of the adjective "Shunya" (Sanskrit) which means "zero", literally zero "ness".

In the Mūlamadhamaka kārikas attributed to Nagarjuna, Śūnyatā is qualified as "...void, unreal, and non-existent". Eliot et al. (1993: p. 81) in commenting on the aforecited qualification of Śūnyatā from De la Valée Poussin, furthers that:

None of these translations of śûnya is, however, quite satisfactory and there is much to be said for Stcherbatsky's [Stcherbatsky (1927). ''The Conception of Nirvana.''] rendering - relative or contingent.
Phenomena are śûnya or unreal because no phenomenon when taken by itself is thinkable: they are all interdependent and have no separate existence of their own.


The teaching on the emptiness of all phenomena is a core basis of Buddhist philosophy and has implications for epistemology and phenomenology. It also constitutes a metaphysical critique of Greek philosophical realism, Abrahamic monotheism and Hindu concept of atman. Moreover, contrary to widely misconceived equation to the doctrine of nihilism, grasping the doctrine of sunyata is seen as a step to liberation. Unlike nihilism, emptiness maintains the Buddha's purpose.

Śūnyatā signifies that everything one encounters in life is empty of absolute identity, permanence, or an in-dwelling '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 does not connote nihilism. In the English language the word emptiness suggests the absence of spiritual meaning or a personal feeling of alienation, but in Buddhism the realization of the emptiness of phenomena, at basic level, enables one to realise that the things which ultimately have no substance are trivial and not worthy of worry, conflict or antagonism. Ultimately, true realisation of the doctrine can bring liberation from the limitations of form in the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth.

Rawson 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." The Japanese use of the Chinese character signifying Shunyata is also used to connote sky or air.

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." He goes on to explain that what is meant by "the world" is the six sense media and their objects, and elsewhere says that to theorize about something beyond this realm of experience would put one to grief.

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

After the Buddha, Śūnyatā was further developed by 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 Madhyamaka (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, some members of the Cittamatra school have held that the mind itself ultimately exists (the most prominent members of the school did not), but other schools like the Madhyamaka deny that either this statement or its negation has any validity.

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, it is explained that a bhikkhu can experience a deathlike contemplation in which perception and feeling cease. When he emerges from this state, he recounts three types of "contact" (phasso): "emptiness" (suññato), "signless" (animitto) and "undirected" (appa ihito). The meaning of the "emptiness" as contemplated here is explained at M I.297 and S IV.296-97 as the "emancipation of the mind by emptiness" (suññatā cetovimutti) being consequent upon the realization that "this world is empty of self or anything pertaining to self" (suññam ida 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.

Post-Canonical Theravada

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.

Emptiness is not taught as often by Theravada teachers as it is by Mahayanists. One reason for this is that emptiness is seen as a liberating insight in the Theravada tradition, rather than a philosophical view one needs to understand intellectually; emptiness is often not taught until the teacher decides the student is ready. Another is that in some circumstance where a Mahayanist would use the word "shunyata," a Theravadin would instead use the words "impermanence" or "anatta" to mean the same thing. A third is that in the Theravada tradition, understanding emptiness is subordinated to the ultimate goal of liberation.

Another view is that in advancing personal growth, it is not metaphysics but phenomenology that is required. Metaphysical views are often irrelevant, or even harmful if the intrinsic emptiness of the fruits of an unskillful act provide a rationale for performing that act.

For more on the Buddha's use of the idea of emptiness in its original phenomenological context and its use in the modern Thai Forest Tradition, see Thanissaro Bhikkhu, "Emptiness": [29305].


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)."

Note 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 emptiness. Apart from form, emptiness is not; apart from 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. To counteract a possible nihilist view of someone who is disconcerted by the predominantly negative language of Madhyamaka, these sutras portray emptiness of certain phenomena in a positive way. According to some scholars, the "tathagatagarbha"/Buddha-nature these sutras discuss does not represent a substantial self (atman); rather, it is a positive language expression of emptiness and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices. In this view, the intention of the teaching of 'tathagatagarbha'/Buddha nature is soteriological rather than theoretical. According to others, the potential of salvation depends on the ontological reality of a salvific, abiding core reality (the Buddha-nature, empty of all mutability and error) fully present within all beings. According to Matsumoto Shiro and HakamayaNoriaki, the latter is an un-Buddhist idea. This approach to Buddhism by Shiro and Noriaki (known as Critical Buddhism) rejects what it calls dhatu-vada (substantialist tathagatagarbha doctrines). Dr. Jamie Hubbard writes:

'According to Matsumoto, Buddhism is based on the principles of no-self and causation, which deny any substance underlying the phenomenal world. The idea of tathagata-garbha, on the contrary, posits a substance (namely, tathagata-garbha) as the basis of the phenomenal world. He asserts that dhatu-vada is the object that the Buddha criticized in founding Buddhism, and that Buddhism is nothing but unceasing critical activity against any form of dhatu-vada.'

This 'critical Buddhism' approach of Matsumoto's has, in turn, recently been characterised as operating with a restricted definition of Buddhism. Professor Paul Williams comments:

'It seems to me that where someone wishes to argue (as in the case of the Critical Buddhism movement) that a development within Buddhism (in terms of its own self-understanding) is not really Buddhist at all, that person or group is working with an intentionally and rhetorically restricted definition of "Buddhism" ... One issue is how legislative the teachings of not-Self and dependent origination, or the Madhyamika idea of emptiness, are for Buddhist identity. Clearly, from the point of view of a description of Buddhist doctrinal history, as Buddhism has existed in history, these doctrines cannot be. At least some ways of understanding the tathagatagarbha contravene the teachings of not-Self, or the Madhyamika idea of emptiness. And these ways of understanding the tathagatagarbha were and are widespread in Mahayana Buddhism. Yet by their own self-definition they are Buddhist.'

The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra contains a passage in which the Buddha is portrayed castigating 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) and (according to the Sanskrit version of the Mahaparinirvana Mahasutra) is 'immovable' (acala) like a mountain.

In the period of the Tathagatagarbha genre, Mahayana metaphysics had been dominated by teachings on emptiness in the form of Madhyamaka philosophy. The language used by this approach is primarily negative, and the Tathagatagarbha genre of sutras can be seen as an attempt to state orthodox Buddhist teachings of dependent origination using positive language instead, to prevent people from being turned away from Buddhism by a false impression of nihilism. In these sutras the perfection of the wisdom of not-self is stated to be the true self; the ultimate goal of the path is then characterized using a range of positive language that had been used in Indian philosophy previously by essentialist philosophers, but which was now transmuted into a new Buddhist vocabulary to describe a being who has successfully completed the Buddhist path.

Professor C.D. Sebastian writes that the author of the Uttaratantra, a tathagatagarbha text, claims that the Emptiness teachings of the prajnaparamita scriptures are true yet incomplete, and that Sunyata needs the elucidation of tathagatagarbha doctrine, which is claimed by the author of the Uttaratantra to be a superior teaching:

‘The Uttaratantra is a Mahayana text with emphasis on Buddhist metaphysics and mysticism.’. And: ‘Tathagata-garbha thought is complementary to sunyata thought of the Madhyamika and the Yogacara, as it is seen in the Uttaratantra. The Uttaratantra first quotes the Srimala-devi-sutra to the effect that tathagata-garbha is not accessible to those outside of sunya realization and then proceeds to claim that sunyata realization is a necessary precondition to the realization of tathagata-garbha. There is something positive to be realized when one’s vision has been cleared by sunyata. The sunyata teachings of the prajna-paramita are true but incomplete. They require further elucidation, which is found in the Uttaratantra.' And: 'The Uttaratantra speaks of Buddhahood or Buddha-nature. Thus it signifies something special and different when we take into consideration the term tantra in the Uttaratantra. Further, as stated earlier, the sunyata teachings in the Prajnaparamita are true, but incomplete. They require still further elucidation, which the Uttaratantra provides. Thus it assumes the Prajna-paramita teachings as the purva or prior teachings, and the tathagata-garbha teachings as the uttara, in the sense of both subsequent and superior.'

Professor Sebastian also indicates that the Srimala Sutra can be seen as critical of negatively understood sunyata and that both the Srimala Sutra and the Uttaratantra enunciate the idea that the tathagatagarbha is possessed of four transcendental qualities and that the tathagatagarbha is ultimately identifiable as the dharmakaya (most exalted nature of the Buddha). These elevated qualities make of the Buddha one to whom devotion and adoration could be given:

‘This text is, in a way, highly critical of the negative understanding of sunyata. This text is one of the earliest Buddhist scriptures to be dedicated specifically to an exposition of the concept of the tathagata-garbha. The garbha possesses four guna-paramitas [qualities of perfection] of permanence, bliss, self, and purity, which can be seen in the Uttaratantra too. In the text, the garbha is ultimately identified with the dharmakaya of the tathagata. Here there is an elevation and adoration of Buddha and his attributes, which could be a significant basis for Mahayana devotionalism.’

Shunyata, nihilism, and eternalism


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..." And later; "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."


Conversely, shunyata as described by Nagarjuna has been interpreted, notably by Murti in his influential 1955 work, as a Buddhist Absolute. This is now universally regarded as incorrect and in no way grounded on textual evidence. Nagarjuna defended the classical Buddhist emphasis on phenomena. For him shunyata is explicitly used as a middle way between absolutism and nihilism, and that is where its soteriological power lies. It does not refer to an ultimate, universal, or absolute nature of reality. Holding up emptiness as an absolute or ultimate truth without reference to that which is empty is the last thing either the Buddha or Nagarjuna would advocate. Nagarjuna criticized those who viewed shunyata as an Absolute: "The Victorious Ones have announced that emptiness is the relinquishing of all views. Those who are possessed of the view of emptiness are said to be incorrigible."

The Buddhist Concept of Emptiness

According the Madhyamaka, or Middle Way philosophy which is central to Mahayana Buddhism, ordinary beings misperceive all objects of perception in a fundamental way. The misperception is caused by the psychological tendency to grasp at all objects of perception as if they really existed as independent entities. This is to say that ordinary beings believe that such objects exist 'out there' as they appear to perception. Another way to frame this is to say that objects of perception are thought to have svabhava or 'inherent existence' - 'own being' or 'own power' - which is to say that they are perceived and thought to exist 'from their own side' exactly as they appear.

Sunyata - translated as Emptiness - is the concept that all objects are Empty of svabhava, they are Empty of 'inherent existence'.

Note that it is completely incorrect to think as Emptiness as being the same as Nothingness, a mistake which is often made. Emptiness does not negate the play of appearances which manifest to a multitude of sentient beings, it asserts that they are insubstantial.

The Dalai Lama (who generally speaks from the point of view of the Prasangika Madhyamaka) (2005: p. 46) states that:
"One of the most important philosophical insights in Buddhism comes from what is known as the theory of emptiness. At its heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own experience in it, and the way things actually are.

In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possessed self-enclosed, definable, discrete and enduring reality. For instance, if we examine our own conception of selfhood, we will find that we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterises our individuality and identity as a discrete ego, independent of the physical and mental elements that constitute our existence.

The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error but also the basis for attachment, clinging and the development of our numerous prejudices.

According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is simply untenable.

All things and events, whether ‘material’, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence.

To intrinsically possess such independent existence would imply that all things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with or exert influence on any other phenomena.

But we know that there is cause and effect – turn a key in a car, the starter motor turns the engine over, spark plugs ignite and fuel begins to burn…

Yet in a universe of self-contained, inherently existing things, these events could never occur!

So effectively, the notion of intrinsic existence is incompatible with causation; this is because causation implies contingency and dependence, while anything that inherently existed would be immutable and self-enclosed.

In the theory of emptiness, everything is argued as merely being composed of dependently related events; of continuously interacting phenomena with no fixed, immutable essence, which are themselves in dynamic and constantly changing relations.

Thus, things and events are 'empty' in that they can never possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence."

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