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Translations of
Englishemptiness, voidness, openness, thusness, etc.
(Dev: सुञ्ञता)
(Dev: शून्यता)
Burmesethone nya ta, သုညတ
(rōmaji: )
(RR: gong-seong)
(Wylie: stong-pa nyid
THL: tongpa nyi
VietnameseKhông ̣(空)
Glossary of Buddhism

Śūnyatā (Sanskrit: शून्यता, translit. śūnyatā; Pali: suññatā) – pronounced ‘shoonyataa’, translated into English most often as emptiness[1] and sometimes voidness[2] – is a Buddhist concept which has multiple meanings depending on its doctrinal context. It is either an ontological feature of reality, a meditative state, or a phenomenological analysis of experience.

In Theravada Buddhism, suññatā often refers to the non-self (Pāli: anattā, Sanskrit: anātman)[note 1] nature of the five aggregates of experience and the six sense spheres. Suññatā is also often used to refer to a meditative state or experience.

In Mahayana, Sunyata refers to the tenet that "all things are empty of intrinsic existence and nature (svabhava)," [4][5] but may also refer to the Buddha-nature teachings and primordial or empty awareness, as in Dzogchen and Shentong.


"Śūnyatā" (Sanskrit) is usually translated as "devoidness," "emptiness," "hollow, hollowness," "voidness." It is the noun form of the adjective śūnya, plus -tā:

  • śūnya means "zero," "nothing," "empty" or "void"[6] and derives from the root śvi, meaning "hollow"
  • -tā means "-ness"

Development of the concept[edit]

The concept of Sunyata as "emptiness", states Sue Hamilton, is related to the concept of anatta in early Buddhism.[7] Over time, many different philosophical schools or tenet-systems (Sanskrit: siddhānta)[8] have developed within Buddhism in an effort to explain the exact philosophical meaning of emptiness.

After the Buddha, emptiness was further developed by the Abhidharma schools, Nāgārjuna and the Mādhyamaka school, an early Mahāyāna school. Emptiness ("positively" interpreted) is also an important element of the Buddha nature literature, which played a formative role in the evolution of subsequent Mahāyāna doctrine and practice.

Early Buddhism[edit]

Pāli Nikāyas[edit]

A simile from the Pali scriptures (SN 22.95) compares form and feelings with foam and bubbles.

The Pali canon uses the term emptiness in three ways: "(1) as a meditative dwelling, (2) as an attribute of objects, and (3) as a type of awareness-release."[9]

The Suñña Sutta,[10] part of the Pāli canon, relates that the monk Ānanda, Buddha's attendant 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, Ānanda, that the world is empty.

According to Thanissaro Bhikku:

Emptiness as a quality of dharmas, in the early canons, means simply that one cannot identify them as one's own self or having anything pertaining to one's own self ... Emptiness as a mental state, in the early canons, means a mode of perception in which one neither adds anything to nor takes anything away from what is present, noting simply, "There is this." This mode is achieved through a process of intense concentration, coupled with the insight that notes more and more subtle levels of the presence and absence of disturbance (see MN 121).[11]

Emptiness of dhammas[edit]

According to Bhikkhu Analayo, the Pāli discourses use the adjective suñña with a much higher frequency than the corresponding noun suññatā. This reflects an emphasis on qualifying phenomena as 'being empty' rather than on an abstract state of empty-'ness' in early Buddhism, states Analayo.[12]}}

Meditative state[edit]

Emptiness as a meditative state is said to be reached when "not attending to any themes, he [the bhikku] enters & remains in internal emptiness" (MN 122). This meditative dwelling is developed through the "four formless states" of meditation or Arūpajhānas and then through "themeless concentration of awareness."[9]

The Cūlasuññata-sutta (MN III 104) and the Mahāsuññata-sutta (MN III 109) outline how a monk can "dwell in emptiness" through a gradual step by step mental cultivation process, they both stress the importance of the impermanence of mental states and the absence of a self.

In the Kāmabhu Sutta S IV.293, it is explained that a bhikkhu can experience a trancelike contemplation in which perception and feeling cease. When he emerges from this state, he recounts three types of "contact" (phasso):

  1. "emptiness" (suññato),
  2. "signless" (animitto),
  3. "undirected" (appaihito).[13]

The meaning of 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).[14][15]

The term "emptiness" (suññatā) is also used in two suttas in the Majjhima Nikāya, in the context of a progression of mental states. The texts refer to each state's emptiness of the one below.[16]

Chinese Āgamas[edit]

Some of the Sarvāstivādin Agama sutras (extant in Chinese) which have emptiness as a theme include Samyukta Agama 335 - Paramārtha-śunyatā-sūtra (Sutra on ultimate emptiness) and Samyukta Agama 297 - Mahā-śunyatā-dharma-paryāya (Greater discourse on emptiness). These sutras have no parallel Pali suttas.[17] These sutras associate emptiness with dependent origination, which shows that this relation of the two terms was already established in pre-Nagarjuna sources. The sutra on great emptiness states:

"What is the Dharma Discourse on Great Emptiness? It is this— ‘When this exists, that exists; when this arises, that arises.’"[18]

The phrase "when this exists..." is a common gloss on dependent origination. Sarvāstivādin Agamas also speak of a certain emptiness samadhi (śūnyatāsamādhi) as well as stating that all dharmas are "classified as conventional".[19]

Mun-Keat Choong and Yin Shun have both published studies on the various uses of emptiness in the Early Buddhist Texts (Pali Canon and Chinese Agamas).[20][21] Choong has also published a collection of translations of Agama sutras from the Chinese on the topic of emptiness.[22]

Early Buddhist schools and Abhidharma[edit]

Many of the early Buddhist schools featured sunyata as an important part of their teachings.

The Sarvastivadin school's Abhidharma texts like the Dharmaskandhapāda Śāstra, and the later Mahāvibhāṣa also take up the theme of emptiness vis a vis dependent origination as found in the Agamas.[23]

Schools such as the Mahāsāṃghika Prajñaptivādins as well as many of the Sthavira schools (except the Pudgalavada) held that all dharmas were empty (dharma śūnyatā).[23] This can be seen in the early Theravada Abhidhamma texts such as the Patisambhidamagga which also speak of the emptiness of the five aggregates and of svabhava as being "empty of essential nature".[24] The Theravada Kathavatthu also argues against the idea that emptiness is unconditioned.[25]

One of the main themes of Harivarman's Tattvasiddhi-Śāstra (3rd-4th century) is dharma-śūnyatā, the emptiness of phenomena.[26]


Theravada Buddhists generally take the view espoused in the Pali canon, that emptiness is merely the not-self nature of the five aggregates as well as a mode of perception which is "empty of the presuppositions we usually add to experience to make sense of it"[27] - especially that of unchanging selfhood. Therefore, some Theravadan teachers like Thanissaro Bhikku hold that emptiness is not so much a metaphysical view, as it is a strategic mode of acting and of seeing the world which leads to liberation:

The idea of emptiness as lack of inherent existence has very little to do with what the Buddha himself said about emptiness. His teachings on emptiness — as reported in the earliest Buddhist texts, the Pali Canon — deal directly with actions and their results, with issues of pleasure and pain. To understand and experience emptiness in line with these teachings requires not philosophical sophistication, but a personal integrity willing to admit the actual motivations behind your actions and the actual benefits and harm they cause.[28]

Some Theravadins such as David Kalupahana, see Nagarjuna's view of emptiness as compatible with the Pali Canon. In his analysis of the Mulamadhyamikakarika, Kalupahana sees Nagarjuna's argument as rooted in the Kaccānagotta Sutta (which Nagarjuna cites by name). Kalupahana states that Nagarjuna's major goal was to discredit heterodox views of Svabhava (own-nature) held by the Sarvastivadins and establish the non-substantiality of all dharmas.[29] According to Peter Harvey, the Abhidhamma theory of the Theravadins is not based on the kind of Svabhava that Nagarjuna was critiquing: "They are dhammas because they are upheld by conditions or they are upheld according to their own nature' (Asl.39). Here 'own-nature' would mean characteristic nature, which is not something inherent in a dhamma as a separate ultimate reality, but arise due to the supporting conditions both of other dhammas and previous occurrences of that dhamma. This is of significance as it makes the Mahayana critique of the Sarvastivadin's notion of own-nature largely irrelevant to the Theravada."[30]

Emptiness as an approach to meditation is seen as a state in which one is "empty of disturbance." This form of meditation is one in which the meditator becomes concentrated and focuses on the absence or presence of disturbances in their mind, if they find a disturbance they notice it and allow it drop away, this leads to deeper states of calmness.[28] Emptiness is also seen as a way to look at sense experience that does not identify with the "I-making" and "my-making" process of the mind. As a form of meditation, this is developed by perceiving the six sense spheres and their objects as empty of any self, this leads to a formless jhana of nothingness and a state of equanimity.[28]

According to Gil Fronsdal: "Emptiness is as important in the Theravada tradition as it is in the Mahayana. From the earliest times, Theravada Buddhism has viewed emptiness as one of the important doors to liberation."[31] Mathew Kosuta sees the Abhidhamma teachings of the modern Thai teacher Ajaan Sujin Boriharnwanaket as being very similar to the Mahayana emptiness view.[32]

Mahayana Buddhism[edit]

Prajna-paramita Sutras[edit]

The Prajna-paramita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutras taught that all entities, including dharmas, are only conceptual existents or constructs.[33][34]

Though we perceive a world of concrete and discrete objects, these objects are "empty" of the identity imputed by their designated labels.[35] The Heart sutra, a text from the prajnaparamita-sutras, articulates this in the following saying in which the five skandhas are said to be "empty":

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form
Emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness
Whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form.[36][note 2][note 3]


The emptiness of phenomena is often compared to drops of dew

Mādhyamaka is a Mahāyāna Buddhist school of philosophy established by the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna.[37] In Madhyamaka, to say that an object is "empty" is synonymous with saying that it is dependently originated, which means, it's affected by the three marks of existence: it is fated to be transient, unsatisfactory, and without inherent existence.

Madhyamaka states that impermanent collections of causes and conditions are designated by mere conceptual labels. This also applies to the principle of causality itself, since everything is dependently originated.[38] If unaware of this, things may seem to arise as existents, remain for a time and then subsequently perish. In reality, dependently originated phenomena do not arise as having inherent existence in the first place.[39][note 4] Thus both existence and nihilism are ruled out.[40][41]


Madhyamaka is retroactively seen as being founded by the monk Nāgārjuna. Nāgārjuna's goal was to refute the essentialism of certain Abhidharma schools.[42] His best-known work is the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, in which he used the reductio ad absurdum to show the non-substantiality of the perceived world.

Nāgārjuna equates emptiness with dependent origination:[43][note 5]

On the basis of the Buddha's view that all experienced phenomena (dharma) are "dependently arisen" (pratitya-samutpanna), Nagarjuna insisted that such phenomena are empty (sunya). This did not mean that they are not experienced and, therefore, non-existent; only that they are devoid of a permanent and eternal substance (svabhava). Since they are experienced elements of existence, they are not mere names (prjnapti).[44]

In his analysis, any enduring essential nature would prevent the process of dependent origination, or any kind of origination at all. For things would simply always have been, and will always continue to be, without any change.[45][note 6]

In doing so, he restores the Middle way of the Buddha, which had become influenced by absolute tendencies:[46]

Utilizing the Buddha's theory of "dependent arising" (pratitya-samutpanna) Nagarjuna demonstrated the futility of these metaphysical speculations. His method of dealing with such metaphysics is referred to as a "middle way" (madhyama pratipad). It is the middle way that avoided the substantialism of the Sarvastivadins as well as the nominalism of the Sautrantikas.[44]

Svatantrika-Prasaṅgika distinction[edit]

In Tibetan Buddhism, especially in the Gelugpa, a distinction is being made between Svatantrika and Prasaṅgika approaches to reasoning.

Svātantrika is attributed primarily to the 6th century Indian scholar Bhavaviveka, who argued for the use of syllogistical statements in the propagation of Madhyamaka, in line with the developing Buddhist logic. It is used in contrast with Prāsangika Madhyamaka. According to Tsonghkhapa, for the Svatantrika conventional phenomena are understood to have a conventional essential existence, but without an ultimately existing essence.

The name Prasangika is derived from prasanga, or reductio ad absurdum arguments, rather than svatantra-anumana, or independent syllogisms. Buddhapalita (470–550) are regarded as the main proponents of the Prasaṅgika, which argues that only arguments should be used which lay bare the logical inconstencies of their opponents.

Nihilism and eternalism[edit]

Some non-Buddhist and Buddhist writers state that the Sunyata concept in Madhyamaka philosophy is nihilistic.[47][48] For example, 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...[49]

This view has been challenged by other writers.[50] Some scholars interpret emptiness as described by Nāgārjuna as a Buddhist transcendental absolute such as Tathagata, while other scholars consider it a mistake.[51] According to Jorge Ferrer, Nāgārjuna presents the middle way, one between nihilism and absolute eternalism, and sunyata as emptiness is the soteriological middle way.[51]

Randall Collins states that for Nagarjuna, ultimate reality was "shunyata, emptiness".[52] In Nagarjuna's thesis, adds Collins, this emptiness is not a negation, but the premise that "no concepts are intelligible".[52] David Kalupahana states that this topic has been debated by ancient and medieval Buddhist metaphysicians, with a divergence of views; emptiness is a view, adds Kalupahana, but "holding up emptiness as an absolute or ultimate truth without reference to that which is empty is the last thing either the Buddha or Nāgārjuna would advocate".[53]

According to Ferrer, Nāgārjuna criticized those whose mind held any "positions and beliefs", suggesting liberation is "avoidance of all views", and explaining emptiness as follows:[54]

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.


Yogacara explains "emptiness" in an analysis of the way we perceive "things". Everything we conceive of is the result of the working of the five skandhas: form, perception, feeling, volition and discrimination.[note 7] The five skandhas together create consciousness. The "things" we are conscious of are "mere concepts", not 'das Ding an sich' or 'the thing in itself'.[55]

Buddha-nature and Yogacara-Madhyamaka[edit]

An influential division of 1st-millennium CE Buddhist texts develop the notion of Buddha-nature.[56][57] The Tathagatagarbha doctrine, at its earliest probably appeared about the later part of the 3rd century CE, and is verifiable in Chinese translations of 1st millennium CE.[58]

The notion of Buddha-nature was opposed within the later Tibetan Gelugpa school, because they imply a "self-like" concept.[56]

Tathāgatagarbha sūtras[edit]

The Tathāgatagarbha is the topic of the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras, where the title itself means a garbha (womb, matrix, seed) containing Tathagata (Buddha). In the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras sutras the perfection of the wisdom of not-self is stated to be the true self. The ultimate goal of the path is 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.[59]

These Sutras suggest, states Paul Williams, that 'all sentient beings contain a Tathagata' as their 'essence, core or essential inner nature'.[58] The Tathāgatagarbha sutras presents a further developed understanding of emptiness, wherein the Buddha Nature, the Buddha and Liberation are seen as transcending the realm of emptiness, i.e. of the conditioned and dependently originated phenomena.[60]

The Śrīmālā Sūtra is one of the earliest texts on tathagata-garbha thought, composed in 3rd century in south India, according to Brian Brown. It asserted that everyone can potentially attain Buddhahood, and warns against the doctrine of Sunyata.[61]

The Śrīmālā Sūtra posits that the Buddha-nature is ultimately identifiable as the supramundane nature of the Buddha, the garbha is the ground for Buddha-nature, this nature is unborn and undying, has ultimate existence, has no beginning nor end, is nondual, and permanent.[62] The text also adds that the garbha has "no self, soul or personality" and "incomprehensible to anyone distracted by sunyata (voidness)"; rather it is the support for phenomenal existence.[63]

Another seminal text, which was and is influential in Tibetan Buddhism, is the Ratnagotravibhāga sutra. It forms the basis of shentong, a further developed form of Madhyamaka, in which the realization of emptiness is a preliminary stage to realize the nature of mind, the self-reflexive nature of consciousness which shines through when it is freed from the defilements. Moderate shentong-views are still being taught in the Nyingma and Kagyu lineages, despite the fierce resistance and persecution by Gelugpas in previous centuries.

Scholarly opinions[edit]

While highly influential in Indian and east Asian Buddhism, for western scholars the Tathagatagarbha doctrine of an 'essential nature' in every living being appears to be confusing, since it seems to be equivalent to a 'Self',[note 8][65] which seems to contradict the doctrines in a vast majority of Buddhist texts. Some scholars, however, view such teachings as metaphorical, not to be taken literally.[60] Wayman and Wayman have also disagreed with this literalist view, and they state that the Tathagatagarbha is neither self nor sentient being, nor soul, nor personality.[66]

According to some scholars, the Buddha nature which these sutras discuss, does not represent a substantial self (ātman). Rather, it is a positive expression of emptiness, and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices. In this view, the intention of the teaching of Buddha nature is soteriological rather than theoretical.[67][68] 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.[69]

According to Matsumoto Shiro and Hakamaya Noriaki, the idea of an ontological reality of the Buddha-nature is an un-Buddhist idea:[68] Their "Critical Buddhism" approach rejects what it calls "dhatu-vada" (substantialist Buddha nature doctrines)

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. [Matsumoto Shiro] 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.[70]

The critical Buddhism approach has, in turn, recently been characterised as operating with a restricted definition of Buddhism. Paul Williams comments:

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 Mahāyāna Buddhism. Yet by their own self-definition they are Buddhist.[71]

Tibetan Buddhism[edit]

In Tibetan Buddhism, emptiness is often symbolized by and compared to the open sky[72] which is associated with openness and freedom.[73]

Tibetan Buddhism developed five main schools. The Madhyamika philosophy obtained a central position in all the schools, but with two distinct variations:[74]

  • Rangtong, c.q. Prasangika-Madhyamaka, which is taught by the Gelugpa, but also by the Nyingma and Sakya:
  • Tsongkhapa, and the subsequent Gelugpa tradition, lay emphasis on a strict Prasangika interpretation of emptiness. It sees its own interpretation as the final truth on sunyata.
  • The Nyingma and the Sakya-school teach that emptiness goes further than a mere denial of inherently existing, with the Dzogchen (Nyingma) tradition pointing to the nature of mind.
  • Shentong, which is a further developed Yogacara-Madhyamaka and influenced by Buddha-nature teachings, and taught in Jonang and Kagyu.

Strict emptiness – Gelugpa[edit]

The Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism is the most influential of the four Tibetan Buddhist schools. It was founded in the beginning of the 15th century by Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), who was "strongly scholastic in orientation and encouraged the study of the great Indian masters of philosophy".[75]

The 14th Dalai Lama, who generally speaks from the Gelugpa version of the Mādhyamaka-Prasaṅgika, states:

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 ... [T]hings and events are 'empty' in that they can never possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality or absolute 'being' that affords independence.[76]

Nature of mind[edit]


In Dzogchen, emptiness does not refer to the mere negation of inherent existence, but to profound emptiness, the Ground and nature of mind which is free from temporary characteristics.


The Tibetan Yungdrung Bon-tradition regards the Ma Gyu, or Mother Tantra, as the highest tantra. Its views are close to Dzogchen.[77][78] It sees waking life as an illusion, from which we have to wake up, just as we recognize dreams to be illusions.[79] Sunyata is the lack of inherent existence.[80] The Mother Tantra uses ...

...examples, similes and metaphors that we can ponder in order to better understand this illusory nature of both dream and waking life".[81]

These "examples, similes and metaphors" ...

...stress the lack of inherent existence and the unity of experience and experiencer. In the sutra teachings we call this "emptiness," in tantra "illusion," and in Dzogchen "the single sphere."[80]


The Sakya school originated in the 11th century. It rose to power in the 13th century.[82] Gorampa Sonam Senge (1429-1489), an important philosopher in the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, established an understandings of Prasangika which differs from Tsongkhapa. According to Gorampa, emptiness is not just mere emptiness, the absence of inherent existence, but profound emptiness, the absence of the four extremes in phenomena. In Gorampa's approach, ultimate truth is a liberating insight, that is free from even grasping the mind.[83]

Shentong (Buddha-nature)[edit]


The Jonang school originated in the 12th century. Tsongkhapa strongly opposed the Jonang school, whose views he "deemed to be ... dharmically incorrect".[75]

In the Tibetan Jonang school, only the Buddha and the Buddha Nature are viewed as not intrinsically empty, but as truly real, unconditioned, and replete with eternal, changeless virtues.[84] The Buddha Nature (tathagatagarbha) is only empty of what is impermanent and conditioned, not of its own self. The Buddha Nature is truly real, and primordially present in all beings.

An important Tibetan treatise on Emptiness and the Buddha Nature is found in the scholar-monk Dolpopa's voluminous study, Mountain Doctrine.[60] It...

... follows the format, inherited from India, of a presentation by way of both reasoning and scripture - the scriptural citations being so rich that the book can also be considered an inspiring anthology, a veritable treasure-trove of literature about the matrix-of-one-gone-thus.[85]

In this vast Mountain Doctrine, Dolpopa describes the Buddha Nature as ...

[N]on-material emptiness, emptiness that is far from an annihilatory emptiness, great emptiness that is the ultimate pristine wisdom of superiors ...buddha earlier than all buddhas, ... causeless original buddha.[86]

The Buddha-nature is filled with eternal powers and virtues:

[P]ermanent, stable, eternal, everlasting. Not compounded by causes and conditions, the matrix-of-one-gone-thus is intrinsically endowed with ultimate buddha qualities of body, speech, and mind such as the ten powers; it is not something that did not exist before and is newly produced; it is self-arisen.'[87]

Dolpopa also cites the Angulimaliya Sutra's contrast between empty phenomena such as the moral and emotional afflictions (kleshas), which are like ephemeral hailstones, and the enduring, eternal Buddha, which is like a precious gem:

Empty phenomena are other [different]; non-empty phenomena are other [different]. The tens of millions of afflictive emotions like hail-stones are empty. The phenomena in the class of non-virtues, like hail-stones, quickly disintegrate. Buddha, like a vaidurya jewel, is permanent ... The liberation of a buddha also is form ... do not make a discrimination of non-division, saying, "The character of liberation is empty".'[88]


The Kagyu teacher Khenpo Tsultrim, in Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, presents five strages of meditation, which he relates to five different schools or approaches:[89][90]

  • "Sravaka meditation on non-self" – meditation on the emptiness of the skandhas and the non-existence of a personal self;
  • "Cittamatra-approach" – meditation on the mind-stream, the ever-continuing process of perception, and the non-duality of perceived and perceiver;
  • "Svatantrika-Madhyamaka approach" – meditation on all dhammas, which are empty of self-nature, and the negation of any "substance";
  • "Prasangika-Mdhyamaka approach" – meditation on "the non-conceptual (nisprapanca) nature of both the appearance of phenomena and their self-emptiness." In this approach, all concepts are to be abandoned;
  • Shentong Madhyamaka – meditation on Paramarthasatya ("Absolute Reality"),[91][note 9] Buddhajnana,[note 10] which is beyond concepts, and described by terms as "truly existing."[93] This approach helps "to overcome certain residual subtle concepts,"[93] and "the habit – fosterd on the earlier stages of the path – of negating whatever experience arises in his/her mind."[94] It destroys false concepts, as does prasangika, but it also alerts the practitioner "to the presence of a dynamic, positive Reality that is to be experienced once the conceptual mind is defeated."[94]

Chinese Buddhism[edit]

When Buddhism was introduced in China it was understood in terms of its own culture. Various sects struggled to attain an understanding of the Indian texts. The Tathāgatagarbha Sutras and the idea of the Buddha-nature were endorsed, because of the perceived similarities with the Tao, which was understood as a transcendental reality underlying the world of appearances. Sunyata at first was also understood as pointing to transcendental reality.[95] It took Chinese Buddhism several centuries to realize that sunyata does not refer to an essential transcendental reality underneath or behind the world of appearances.[95]


The influence of those various doctrinal and textual backgrounds is still discernable in Zen. Zen teachers still mention the Buddha-nature, but the Zen tradition also emphasizes that Buddha-nature is Sunyata, the absence of an independent and substantial "self".[95]

Western Buddhism[edit]

Various western Buddhists note that sunyata refers to the emptiness of inherent existence, as in Madhyamaka; but also to the emptiness of mind or awareness, as open space and the "ground of being," as in meditation-orientated traditions and approaches such as Dzogchen and Shentong.[96][97][web 1][note 11]


Influence on Advaita Vedanta[edit]

Gaudapada is considered by some scholars to have been strongly influenced by Buddhism, as he developed his concept of "ajāta" from Nagajurna's Madhyamaka philosophy,[98][99] which uses the term "anutpāda":[100]

  • "An" means "not", or "non"
  • "Utpāda" means "genesis", "coming forth", "birth"[101]

Taken together "anutpāda" means "having no origin", "not coming into existence", "not taking effect", "non-production".[102]

According to Gaudapada, the Absolute is not subject to birth, change and death. The Absolute is aja, the unborn eternal.[103] The empirical world of appearances is considered Maya (unreal as it is transitory), and not absolutely existent.[103] Thus, Gaudapada's concept of ajativada is similar to Buddhist term "anutpāda" for the absence of an origin[98][100] or śūnyatā.[104][note 12]

But Gaudapada's perspective is quite different from Nagarjuna.[108] Gaudapada's perspective found in Mandukya Karika is based on the Mandukya Upanishad.[108] According to Gaudapada, the metaphysical absolute called Brahman never changes, while the phenomenal world changes continuously, so the phenomenal world cannot arise independently from Brahman. If the world cannot arise, yet is an empirical fact, than the perceived world has to be a transitory (unreal) appearance of Brahman. And if the phenomenal world is a transitory appearance, then there is no real origination or destruction, only apparent origination or destruction. From the level of ultimate truth (paramārthatā) the phenomenal world is māyā, "illusion",[108] apparently existing but ultimately not metaphysically real.[109]

In Gaudapada-Karika, chapter III, verses 46-48, he states that Brahman never arises, is never born, is never unborn, it rests in itself:

When the mind does not lie low, and is not again tossed about, then that being without movement, and not presenting any appearance, culminates into Brahman. Resting in itself, calm, with Nirvana, indescribable, highest happiness, unborn and one with the unborn knowable, omniscient they say. No creature whatever is born, no origination of it exists or takes place. This is that highest truth where nothing whatever is born.

— Gaudapada Karika, 3.46-48, Translated by RD Karmarkar[110]

In contrast to Renard's view,[98] Karmarkar states the Ajativada of Gaudapada has nothing in common with the Śūnyatā concept in Buddhism.[111] While the language of Gaudapada is undeniably similar to those found in Mahayana Buddhism, states Comans, their perspective is different because unlike Buddhism, Gaudapada is relying on the premise of "Brahman, Atman or Turiya" exist and are the nature of absolute reality.[108]

In Shaivism[edit]

Sunya and Sunyatisunya are concepts which appear in some Shaiva texts, such as the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra, which contains several verses mentioning voidness as a feature of ultimate reality - Shiva:

"The Absolute void is Bhairava who is beyond the senses and the mind, beyond all the categories of these instruments. From the point of view of the human mins, He is most void. from the point of view of Reality, He is most full, for He is the source of all manifestation."[112]

"The yogi should concentrate intensely on the idea (and also feel) that this universe is totally void. In that void, his mind would become absorbed. Then he becomes highly qualified for absorption i.e. his mind is absorbed in the absolute void (sunyatisunya)."[113]

In a series of Kannada language texts of Lingayatism, a Shaivism tradition, shunya is equated to the concept of the Supreme. In particular, the Shunya Sampadane texts present the ideas of Allama Prabhu in a form of dialogue, where shunya is that void and distinctions which a spiritual journey seeks to fill and eliminate. It is the described as a state of union of one's soul with the infinite Shiva, the state of blissful moksha.[114][115]

In Vaishnavism[edit]

Shunya Brahma is a concept found in certain texts of Vaishnavism, particularly in Odiya, such as the poetic Panchasakhas. It explains the Nirguna Brahman idea of Vedanta, that is the eternal unchanging metaphysical reality as "personified void". Alternate names for this concept of Hinduism, include shunya purusha and Jagannatha (Vishnu) in certain text.[114][116] However, both in Lingayatism and various flavors of Vaishnavism such as Mahima Dharma, the idea of Shunya is closer to the Hindu concept of metaphysical Brahman, rather than to the Śūnyatā concept of Buddhism.[114] However, there is some overlap, such as in the works of Bhima Bhoi.[114][117]

In the Vaishnavism of Orissa, the idea of Shunya Brahman or Shunya Purusha is found in the poetry of the Orissan Panchasakhas (Five Friends), such as in the compositions of 16th-century Acyutananda. Acyutananda's Shunya Samhita extols the nature of Shunya Brahman:

nāhi tāhāra rūpa varṇa, adṛsha avarṇa tā cinha.
tāhāku brahmā boli kahi, śūnya brahmhati se bolāi.

It has no shape, no colour,
It is invisible and without a name
This Brahman is called Shunya Brahman.[118][full citation needed]

The Panchasakhas practiced a form of Bhakti called Jnana-mishrita Bhakti-marga, which saw the necessity of knowledge (Jnana) and devotion - Bhakti.[citation needed]

Alternate translations[edit]

  • Emptiness
  • Interdependence (Ringu Tulku)[119]
  • Openness
  • Transparency (Cohen)
  • Spaciousness
  • Thusness[120]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ A common translation is "no-self", without a self, but the Pali canon uses anattā as a singular substantive, meaning "not-self".[3]
  2. ^ Original: "Rupan śūnyatā śūnyatāiva rupan. Rupan na prithak śūnyatā śūnyatā na prithag rupan. Yad rupan sa śūnyatā ya śūnyatā tad rupan."
  3. ^ The Five Skandhas are: Form, Feeling, Perceptions, Mental Formations and Consciousness.
  4. ^ Chapter 21 of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā goes into the reasoning behind this.[39]
  5. ^ Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 24:18
  6. ^ Nāgārjuna equates svabhāva (essence) with bhāva (existence) in Chapter 15 of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā
  7. ^ Translations do differ, which makes a difference. Vijñāna can be translated as "consciousness", but also as "discernement".[55]
  8. ^ Paul Williams: "Some texts of the tathagatagarbha literature, such as the Mahaparinirvana Sutra actually refer to an atman, though other texts are careful to avoid the term. This would be in direct opposition to the general teachings of Buddhism on anatta. Indeed, the distinctions between the general Indian concept of atman and the popular Buddhist concept of Buddha-nature are often blurred to the point that writers consider them to be synonymous."[64]
  9. ^ According to Hookham, non-dual experience is Ultimate Reality.[92]
  10. ^ According to Hookham, "The Chinese Tathagarba schools describe Buddhajnana as the totality of all that is, which pervades every part of all that is in its totality."[92] According to Hookham, for Shentong Buddhajnana is "the non-dual nature of Mind completely unobscured and endowed with its countless Buddha Qualities (Buddhagunas).[92]
  11. '^ Quotes:
    * John Snelling: "At the core of Mahayana philosophy lies the notion of Emptiness:
    Shunyata. This is very much in the spirit of anatta (Skt. anatman) as first taught by the Buddha. It is often used to imply, not mere or sheer nothingness (that would be the nihilistic view), but 'emptiness of inherent existence; that is, the absence of any kind of enduring or self-sustaining essence. There is also a sense in which it has connotations of 'conceptual emptiness': absence of thoughts. It could be regarded too as a non-term signifying the ineffable understanding arising within the practice of meditation. Although seemingly negative, it also has its positive uses - and of course ultimately points beyond the positive negative dichotomy."[96]
    * Hans Knibbe: "There are at least to important meanings of this concept of emptiness, namely:
    - empty of independent existence;
    - openness and space as grounf of being.[97]
    * Nigel Wellings:[web 1] "Thus we have two types of emptiness, the emptiness of self in the skandhas that reveals the absence of an empirical and metaphysical self. And the emptiness of the self in Nirvâ.na that reveals nothing of the empirical self existing within the Nirvâ.na consciousness.
    Harvey seems to confirm this view when he tells us that all conditioned dharmas are empty of self because they are impermanent and a source of suffering, while the unconditioned dharma, Nirvâ.na, is empty because it does not “support the feeling of ‘I-ness’”, that is, the impermanent skandhas. (1990:52). This is very similar to the teaching of the modern Kagyu Nyingma Lama, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, a Shentong exponent:

    All appearances are empty, in that they can be destroyed or extinguished in some way [...] The whole universe vanishes at some point, destroyed by the seven fires and one immense deluge. In this way, all appearances are empty.
    Mind is also ultimately empty, but its way of being empty is not the same as appearances. [My italics] Mind can experience anything but it cannot be destroyed. Its original nature is the dharmakaya of all Buddhas. You cannot actually do anything to mind – you can’t change it, wash it away, bury it or burn it. What is truly empty, though, is all the appearances that appear in the mind. (Tulku Urgyen (1999), As It Is vol.1 Rangjang Yeshe, Boudhanath, Hong Kong & Nasby. p.53)

  12. ^ The term is also used in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra.[105] According to D.T Suzuki, "anutpada" is not the opposite of "utpada", but transcends opposites. It is kenshō, seeing into the true nature of existence,[106] the seeing that "all objects are without self-substance [Sunyata]".[107]


  1. ^ Dale Mathers; Melvin E. Miller; Osamu Ando (2013). Self and No-Self: Continuing the Dialogue Between Buddhism and Psychotherapy. Routledge. p. 81. ISBN 978-1-317-72386-8.
  2. ^ Suñña - Palikanon.com,
  3. ^ Bronkhorst 2009, p. 124.
  4. ^ Paul Williams (2008). Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. Routledge. pp. 68–69. ISBN 978-1-134-25056-1.
  5. ^ Christopher W. Gowans (2014). Buddhist Moral Philosophy: An Introduction. Routledge. pp. 69–70. ISBN 978-1-317-65934-1.
  6. ^ Monier-Williams, Sir Monier (2nd edn, 1899) A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Reprinted Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1986: p.1085.
  7. ^ Sue Hamilton (2000). Early Buddhism: A New Approach : the I of the Beholder. Routledge. pp. 21–27. ISBN 978-0-7007-1357-8.
  8. ^ Klein, Anne C. (1991). Knowing Naming & Negation a sourcebook on Tibetan, Sautrantika. Snowlion publications, ISBN 0-937938-21-1
  9. ^ a b MN 122. See, e.g., Maha-suññata Sutta: The Greater Discourse on Emptiness translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu," Retrieved on 30 July 2013 from "Access to Insight" at www.accesstoinsight.org
  10. ^ Bhikkhu 1997d.
  11. ^ Thanissaro Bhikku, The Buddhist Religions: An Historical Introduction, P 96.
  12. ^ Analayo, Bhikkhu (2012). Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pali Discourses. Pariyatti. p. 272. ISBN 9781928706984.
  13. ^ SN 41.6. See, e.g., Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2004), "SN 41.6 Kamabhu Sutta: With Kamabhu (On the Cessation of Perception & Feeling)," retrieved Feb 4 2009 from "Access to Insight" at www.accesstoinsight.org
  14. ^ MN 43 and SN 41.7. See, e.g., respectively, Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2006), "MN 43 Mahavedalla Sutta: The Greater Set of Questions-and-Answers," retrieved February 4, 2009 from "Access to Insight"
  15. ^ Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2004), "SN 41.7 Godatta Sutta: To Godatta (On Awareness-release)," retrieved February 4, 2009 from "Access to Insight"
  16. ^ MN 121 and MN 122. See, e.g., respectively, Thanissaro (1997a) and Thanissaro (1997b).
  17. ^ Shì hùifēng, “Dependent Origination = Emptiness”—Nāgārjuna’s Innovation? An Examination of the Early and Mainstream Sectarian Textual Sources, page 26
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  41. ^ unclear
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External links[edit]