Translations of
English emptiness, voidness, openness, thusness, etc.
Pali Suññatā
(Dev: सुञ्ञता)
Sanskrit Śūnyatā
(Dev: शून्यता)
Bengali শূন্যতা
Burmese thone nya ta, သုညတ
(Pinyin: Kōng)
(rōmaji: )
Khmer សុញ្ញតា
Korean 공성(空性)
(RR: gong-seong)
Mongolian хоосон
Tibetan སྟོང་པ་ཉིད་
(Wylie: stong-pa nyid
THL: tongpa nyi
Vietnamese Không ̣(空)
Glossary of Buddhism

Śūnyatā (Sanskrit; 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 can refer to an ontological feature of reality, a meditation state, or a phenomenological analysis of experience. In Buddhist texts, it is often described through metaphors such as illusions, dreams, mirages and so forth.[3]

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) [5][6] 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 or śhūnya, plus -tā:

  • śūnya means "zero," "nothing," "empty" or "void".[7] Śūnya comes from the root śvi, meaning "hollow".
  • -tā means "-ness";

Development of the concept

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

Pāli Nikāyas

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]

Emptiness of dhammas

According to Bhikkhu Analayo:

In the Pāli discourses the adjective suñña occurs with a much higher frequency than the corresponding noun suññatā. This is not a matter of mere philological interest, but points to an emphasis in early Buddhism on qualifying phenomena as 'being empty' rather than on an abstract state of empty-'ness'."[10]

One example of this usage is in the Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta (SN 22:95), which states that on close inspection, each of the five aggregates are seen as being void (rittaka), hollow (tucchaka), coreless (asāraka). In the text a series of contemplations is given for each aggregate: form is like “a lump of foam” (pheṇapiṇḍa); sensation like “a water bubble” (bubbuḷa); perception like “a mirage” (marici); formations like “a plantain tree” (kadalik-khandha); and cognition is like “a magical illusion” (māyā).[3]

According to Shi Huifeng, the terms void (rittaka), hollow (tucchaka) and coreless (asāraka) are also used in the early texts to refer to words and things which are deceptive, false, vain and worthless.[3] This sense of worthlessness and vacuousness is also found in other uses of the term māyā, such as the following:

“Monks, sensual pleasures are impermanent, hollow, false, deceptive; they are illusory (māyākatame), the prattle of fools.”[3]

The Suñña Sutta,[11] 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).[12]

Meditative state

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]


The Chinese Agamas contain various parallels to the Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta. One partial parallel from the Ekottara Agama describes the body with different metaphors: “a ball of snow”, “a heap of dirt”, “a mirage”, “an illusion” (māyā), or “an empty fist used to fool a child”.[3] According to Shi Huifeng, the Samyukta Agama parallel uses the same five metaphors as the Pali text, but uses four abjectives to describe each: "adding “nothingness” (wusuoyou 無所有 ; *akiṃcanya ) before solid (wulao 無牢; riktaka), unreal (wushi 無實; tucchaka) and insubstantial (wuyou jiangu 無有堅固; asāraka)."[3]

In a similar vein, the Mūla-Sarvāstivādin Māyājāla Sūtra, gives two sets of metaphors for each of the sensory consciousnesses to illustrate their vain illusory character, giving two for each:[3]

  1. Forms - a madman wandering naked, an illusory army.
  2. Sounds - a drunkard who sleeps with his mother, an echo
  3. Odors - man pursued by an assasin, a reflection in a mirror
  4. Tastes - a spiteful disciple, a mirage
  5. Tactiles - a man harassed by bandits, sense pleasures in a dream
  6. Mentals - a basket of snakes, illusory ornaments.

Other 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

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] Likewise, the Sarvāstivādin biography of the Buddha known as the Lalitavistara also contains various metaphors for the hollow, dependently originated nature of phenomena, like the following:

Complexes have no inner might, are empty in themselves;

Rather like the stem of the plantain tree, when one reflects on them,

Like an illusion (māyopama) which deludes the mind (citta),

Like an empty fist with which a child is teased.[3]

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] The Mahāvastu, an influential Mahāsāṃghika work, states that the Buddha

"has shown that the aggregates are like a lightning flash, as a bubble, or as the white foam on a wave."[26]

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

Shi Huifeng states that the sectarian Śālistamba Sūtra "describes dharma's without self as being mutually conditioning and thus “characterized as illusory”; with a connection between origination from causes and conditions and their illusory and deceptive nature, their lack of substantiality."[3]


Theravāda Buddhists generally take the view that emptiness is merely the not-self nature of the five aggregates. Emptiness is an important door to liberation in the Theravāda tradition just as it is in Mahayana, according to Insight meditation teacher Gil Fronsdal.[27] The classic Theravāda text known as the Patisambhidamagga (c. 3rd century BCE) describes the five aggregates as empty (suññam):

"Born materiality is empty of sabhava (sabhavena suññam); disappeared materiality is both changed and empty. Born feeling is empty of sabhava; disappeared feeling is both changed and empty...Born conceptualization...Born volitions...Born consciousness...Born becoming is empty of sabhava; disappeared becoming is both changed and empty. This is ‘empty in terms of change’."[28]

The Patisambhidamagga also equates not-self with the emptiness liberation in a passage also cited by Buddhaghosa in the Visuddhimagga (Vism XXI 70):

"When one who has great wisdom brings [volitional formations] to mind as not-self, he acquires the emptiness liberation" -Patis. II 58.[29]

The Visuddhimagga (c. 5th century CE), the most influential classical Theravāda treatise, states that not-self does not become apparent because it is concealed by "compactness" when one does not give attention to the various elements which make up the person. [30] The Paramatthamañjusa Visuddhimaggatika of Acariya Dhammapala, a 5th century Theravāda commentary on the Visuddhimagga, comments on this passage by referring to the fact that we often assume unity and compactness in phenomena and functions which are instead made up of various elements, but when one sees that these are merely empty dhammas, one can understand the not-self characteristic:

"when they are seen after resolving them by means of knowledge into these elements, they disintegrate like froth subjected to compression by the hand. They are mere states (dhamma) occurring due to conditions and void. In this way the characteristic of not-self becomes more evident."[30]

According to Peter Harvey, the Theravāda view of dhammas and sabhava is not one of essences, but merely descriptive characteristics and hence is not the subject of Madhyamaka critique developed by Nagarjuna (see below).[31]

The modern Thai teacher Buddhadasa referred to emptiness as the "innermost heart" of the Buddhist teachings and the cure for the disease of suffering. He stated that emptiness, as it relates to the practice of Dhamma, can be seen both "as the absence of Dukkha and the defilements that are the cause of Dukkha and as the absence of the feeling that there is a self or that there are things which are the possessions of a self."[32] He also equated nibbana with emptiness, writing that "Nibbana, the remainderless extinction of Dukkha, means the same as supreme emptiness."[32]

Emptiness is also seen as mode of perception which lacks all the usual conceptual elaborations we usually add on top of our experiences, such as the sense of "I" and "Mine". According to Thanissaro Bhikku, 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:[33]

Emptiness is a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience. It adds nothing to and takes nothing away from the raw data of physical and mental events. You look at events in the mind and the senses with no thought of whether there's anything lying behind them.

This mode is called emptiness because it's empty of the presuppositions we usually add to experience to make sense of it: the stories and world-views we fashion to explain who we are and the world we live in. Although these stories and views have their uses, the Buddha found that some of the more abstract questions they raise — of our true identity and the reality of the world outside — pull attention away from a direct experience of how events influence one another in the immediate present. Thus they get in the way when we try to understand and solve the problem of suffering.[34]

Some Theravādins 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.[35]

In Theravāda, emptiness as an approach to meditation is also 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.[33] 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.[33]

Mathew Kosuta sees the Abhidhamma teachings of the modern Thai teacher Ajaan Sujin Boriharnwanaket as being very similar to the Mahayana emptiness view.[36]

Indian Mahayana

There are two main sources of Indian Buddhist discussions of emptiness, the Mahayana sutra literature, which is traditionally believed to be the word of the Buddha in Mahayana Buddhism and the shastra literature, which was composed by Buddhist scholars and philosophers.

Prajñāpāramitā sūtras

The Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutras taught that all entities, including dharmas, are empty of self or essential core, empty of any intrinsic nature (svabhava), being only conceptual existents or constructs.[37][38] The notion of prajña (wisdom, knowledge) presented in these sutras is a deep non-conceptual understanding of this emptiness, the lack of self or intrinsic nature in all dharmas.[39] The Prajñāpāramitā sutras also use various metaphors to explain the nature of things as emptiness, stating that things are like “illusions” (māyā) and “dreams” (svapna). The Astasahasrika Prajñaparamita, possibly the earliest of these sutras, states:

If he knows the five aggregates as like an illusion, But makes not illusion one thing, and the aggregates another; If, freed from the notion of multiple things, he courses in peace— Then that is his practice of wisdom, the highest perfection.[3]

Perceiving dharmas and beings like an illusion (māyādharmatām) is termed the "great armor" (mahāsaṃnaha) of the Bodhisattva, who is also termed the 'illusory man' (māyāpuruṣa).[40] The Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra adds the following similes to describe how all conditioned things are to be contemplated: like a bubble, a shadow, like dew or a flash of lightning.[41] In the worldview of these sutras, though we perceive a world of concrete and discrete objects, these objects are "empty" of the identity imputed by their designated labels.[42] In that sense, they are deceptive and like an illusion. The Perfection of Wisdom texts constantly repeat that nothing can be found to ultimately exist in some fundamental way. This applies even to the highest Buddhist concepts:

No wisdom can we get hold of, no highest perfection, No Bodhisattva, no thought of enlightenment either. When told of this, if not bewildered and in no way anxious, A Bodhisattva courses in the Well-Gone’s [Sugata’s] wisdom.[39] (Conze 1973a: 9)

Even nirvana itself is said to be empty and like a dream, as the Astasahasrika Prajñāpāramitā says:

Even Nirvana, I say, is like a magical illusion, is like a dream. How much more so anything else! …Even if perchance there could be anything more distinguished, of that too I would say that it is like an illusion, like a dream. (trans. Conze: 99).[43]

In a famous passage, the Heart sutra, a later but influential prajñaparamita text, directly states that the five skandhas (along with the five senses, the mind, and the four noble truths) are said to be "empty" (sunya):

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.[44][note 2][note 3]

In the Prajñāpāramitā sutras the knowledge of emptiness, i.e. prajñāpāramitā is said to be the fundamental virtue of the bodhisattva, who is said to stand on emptiness by not standing (-stha) on any other dharma (phenomena). Bodhisattvas who practice this perfection of wisdom are said to have several qualities such as the "not taking up" (aparigṛhīta) and non-apprehension (anupalabdhi) of anything, non-attainment (aprapti), not-settling down (anabhinivesa) and not relying on any signs (nimitta, mental impressions).[45][46] Bodhisattvas are also said to be free of fear in the face of the ontological groundlessness of the emptiness doctrine which can easily shock others.[47]

Other Mahāyāna sutras

The 'Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra' states:

“Furthermore, the bodhisattva mahāsattvas perceive the emptiness of all dharmas in their true aspect. All things are unerring, unmoving, nonreturning, irreversible, and like empty space which lacks substance. They are beyond all language. They are not produced, nor do they emerge, nor do they arise. They do not have any name or mark, and in reality they have no substance. They are immeasurable, limitless, without obstacles or obstructions. They exist only through dependent origination, arising through error. That is why I teach the permanent joy of perceiving the aspects of all existent things in this way.”[48]

In the Śūraṅgama Samādhi Sūtra sutra, the Buddha says:

"All the dharmas are empty, like phantasms, and only exist in conjunction with each other. They have no creator, but arise entirely due to the discrimination of conceptual thought. Because there is no master [of consciousness, the myriad dharmas] appear according to one's thoughts."[49]

In the Pratyutpanna Samādhi Sūtra the Buddha says the following verses:

Mind does not know mind; With mind one cannot see mind. Mind giving rise to conceptions is stupidity;

Free of conceptions it is nirvana. There is nothing fixed or firm in these dharmas; They are forever located in thinking.

When one understands emptiness, One is altogether free of conceptual thinking.[50]

The Avataṃsaka Sūtra states:

The nature of things is fundamentally empty and null, with no grasping and no vision. The emptiness of inherent nature is Buddha; It cannot be assessed in thought. If one knows the inherent nature of all things is like this, This person will not be affected by any afflictions.[51]

The Avataṃsaka also elaborates on how a bodhisattva contemplates emptiness in their practice:

"Thus do enlightening beings benefit the living, yet without any concept of self or any concept of sentient beings, or any concept of existence, or any concept of life, without various concepts-no concept of personality, no concept of person, no concept of human being, no concept of doer or receiver-they only observe the infinity of the realm of reality and the realm of sentient beings, their emptiness, absence of existents, signlessness, insubstantiality, indeterminacy, non-dependence, and noncreation.

When they perform this contemplation, they do not see themselves, they do not see anything given , they do not see a receiver, they do not see a field of blessings, they do not see a deed, they do not see any reward, they do not see any result, they do not see a great result, they do not see a small result."[52]

Mādhyamaka school

Mādhyamaka is a Mahāyāna Buddhist school of philosophy established by the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna which focuses on the analysis of emptiness, and was thus also known as Śūnyatavāda.[53][54]

Nāgārjuna goal was to refute the essentialism of certain Abhidharma schools and the Hindu Nyaya school.[55] His best-known work is the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK), in which he used the reductio ad absurdum to show the non-substantiality of everything. Nāgārjuna equated the emptiness of dharmas with their dependent origination, and thus with their being devoid any permanent substance or primary, substantial existence (svabhava).[56][57][58][note 4] As Nāgārjuna writes in the MMK:

We state that conditioned origination is emptiness. It is mere designation depending on something, and it is the middle path. (24.18)

Since nothing has arisen without depending on something, there is nothing that is not empty. (24.19) [59]

Nāgārjuna's Mādhyamaka states that since things have the nature of lacking true existence or own being (niḥsvabhāva), all things are mere conceptual constructs (prajñaptimatra) because they are just impermanent collections of causes and conditions.[60] Because of this, Mādhyamaka is also known as Niḥsvabhāvavāda. This also applies to the principle of causality itself, since everything is dependently originated.[61] If one is 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 or remain as inherently existent phenomena and yet they still appear as a flow of conceptual constructs.[62][63][note 5] Thus both existence and nihilism are ruled out.[64][65] 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.[66][note 6] Like with other Buddhists, for Nāgārjuna, the realization of emptiness is a key understanding which allows one to reach liberation:

Liberation (moksa) results from the cessation of actions (karman) and defilements (klesa). Actions and defilements result from representations {vikalpa). These from false imagining (prapañca). False imagining stops in emptiness (sunyata). (18.5)[67]

As noted by Roger Jackson, non-Buddhist and Buddhist writers have argued that the Mādhyamaka philosophy is nihilistic.[68][69] This view has been challenged by other writers, who state that Mādhyamaka is not nihilistic but it is a middle way between nihilism and eternalism.[70] Some scholars interpret emptiness as described by Nāgārjuna as a Buddhist transcendental absolute, while other scholars consider it a mistake.[71] 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".[72] According to Paul Williams, Nāgārjuna associates emptiness with the ultimate truth but his conception of emptiness is not some kind of Absolute, but rather it is the very absence of true existence with regards to the conventional reality of things and events in the world.[73] For him the phenomenal world is the limited truth (samvrtisatya) and does not really exist in the highest reality (paramarthasatya) and yet it has a kind of conventional reality which has its uses for reaching liberation. This limited truth includes everything, including the Buddha himself, the teachings (Dharma), liberation and even Nāgārjuna's own arguments.[74] This two truth schema which did not deny the importance of convention allowed him to defend himself against charges of nihilism, understanding both correctly meant seeing the middle way:

"Without relying upon convention, the ultimate fruit is not taught. Without understanding the ultimate, nirvana is not attained."[75]

Because of his philosophical work, Nāgārjuna is seen by some modern interpreters as restoring the Middle way of the Buddha, which had become influenced by absolutist metaphysical tendencies of schools like the Sarvastivadins.[76][56] Nāgārjuna is also famous for arguing that his philosophy of emptiness was not a view, and that he in fact did not take any position or thesis whatsoever since this would just be another form of clinging. In his Vigrahavyavartani Nāgārjuna outright states that he has no thesis (pratijña) to prove.[77] Likewise in his Sixty Stanzas on Reasoning, Nāgārjuna says:

"By taking any standpoint whatsoever, you will be snatched by the cunning snakes of the afflictions. Those whose minds have no standpoint, will not be caught."[78]

Randall Collins states that for Nāgārjuna, ultimate reality was emptiness, which is not a negation, but the premise that "no concepts are intelligible".[79] 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:[80]

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.

This idea would become a central point of debate for later Madhyamika philosophers. After Nāgārjuna, other Madhyamikas like Āryadeva (3rd century CE) commented and expanded Nāgārjuna's system. An influential commentator on Nāgārjuna was Buddhapālita (470–550) who has been interpreted as developing the 'prāsaṅgika' approach to Nāgārjuna's works, which argues that Madhyamaka critiques of essentialism are done only through reductio ad absurdum arguments. Like Nāgārjuna, instead of putting forth any positive position of his own, Buddhapālita merely seeks to show how all philosophical positions are untenable and self contradictory without putting forth a positive thesis.[81]

He is often contrasted with the works of Bhāvaviveka (c. 500 – c. 578), who argued for the use of logical arguments using the pramana based epistemology of Indian logicians like Dignāga. Bhāvaviveka argued that Madhyamika's could put forth positive arguments of one's own, instead of just criticizing other's arguments, a tactic called vitaṇḍā (attacking) which was seen in bad form in Indian philosophical circles. He argued that the position of a Madhyamaka was simply that phenomena are devoid of an inherent nature.[81] This approach has been labeled the svātantrika style of Madhyamaka by Tibetan philosophers and commentators. Another influential commentator, Candrakīrti (c. 600–650), critiqued Bhāvaviveka's adoption of the pramana tradition on the grounds that it contained a subtle essentialism and argued that Madhyamikas must make no positive assertions and need not construct formal arguments.[82]

Yogacara school

The central text of the Yogacara school, the Saṃdhinirmocana-sūtra, explains emptiness in terms of the three natures theory, stating that its purpose is to "establish the doctrine of the three-own-beings (trisvabhāva) in terms of their lack of own-nature (niḥsvabhāvatā)."[83] According to Andrew Skilton, in Yogacara, emptiness is the "absence of duality between perceiving subject [grāhaka, 'dzin-pa] and the perceived object [grāhya, bzhung-ba]."[84] This is seen in the following quote from the Madhyāntavibhāga:

There exists the imagination of the unreal, there is no duality, but there is emptiness, even in this there is that.[83]

In his commentary, the Yogacara philosopher Vasubandhu explains that imagination of the unreal (abhūta-parikalpa) is the "discrimination between the duality of grasped and grasper." Emptiness is said to be "the imagination of the unreal that is lacking in the form of being graspable or grasper." Thus in Yogacara, it can be said that emptiness is mainly that subject and object and all experiences which are seen in the subject object modality are empty.[83]

Everything we conceive of is the result of the working of the Eight Consciousnesses.[note 7] The "things" we are conscious of are "mere concepts" (vijñapti), not 'the thing in itself'.[85] In this sense, our experiences are empty and false, they do not reveal the true nature of things as an enlightened person would see them, which would be non-dual, without the imputed subject object distinction.

The Yogacara school philosophers Asaṅga and Vasubandhu criticized those in the Madhymamika school who "adhere to non-existence" (nāstikas, vaināśkas) and sought to move away from their negative interpretation of emptiness because they feared any philosophy of 'universal denial' (sarva-vaināśika) would stray into 'nihilism' (ucchedavāda), an extreme which was not the middle way.[83] Yogacarins differed from Madhyamikas in positing that there really was something which could be said to 'exist' in experience, namely some kind of nonobjective and empty perception. This Yogacara conception of emptiness, which states that there is something that exists (mainly, vijñapti, mental construction), and that it is empty, can be seen in the following statement of Vasubandhu:

Thus, when something is absent [in a receptacle], then one, seeing that [receptacle] as devoid of that thing, perceives that [receptacle] as it is, and recognises that [receptacle], which is left over, as it is, namely as something truly existing there.[83]

This tendency can also be seen in Asanga, which argues in his Bodhisattvabhūmi that there must be something that exists which is described as empty:

Emptiness is logical when one thing is devoid of another because of that [other's] absence and because of the presence of the empty thing itself.[83]

Asanga also states:

The nonexistence of duality is indeed the existence of nonexistence; this is the definition of emptiness. It is neither existence, nor nonexistence, neither different nor identical.[83]

This "existence of nonexistence" definition of emptiness can also be seen in Asanga's Abhidharmasamuccaya where he states that emptiness is "the non-existence of the self, and the existence of the no-self."[83]

In the sixth century, scholarly debates between Yogacarins and Madhyamikas centered on the status and reality of the paratantra-svabhāva (the "dependent nature"), with Madhyamika's like Bhāvaviveka criticizing the views of Yogacarins like Dharmapāla of Nalanda as reifying of dependent origination.[83]

Yogacara-Madhyamaka synthesis

The eighth century saw a synthesis of the two schools, beginning with the work of the Buddhist philosopher Jñānagarbha who, like Bhāvaviveka, also adopted some of the terminology of the Buddhist pramana tradition, in his time best represented by Dharmakīrti.[81] Jñānagarbha and his student Śāntarakṣita were mainly Madhyamikas however, and regarded Yogacara and pramana theories as useful doctrines which could prepare one for the ultimate truth of Madhyamaka emptiness.[81]


An influential division of 1st-millennium CE Buddhist texts develop the notion of Tathāgatagarbha or Buddha-nature.[86][87] The Tathāgatagarbha 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.[88] The Tathāgatagarbha is the topic of the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras, where the title itself means a garbha (womb, matrix, seed) containing Tathāgata (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.[89] These Sutras suggest, states Paul Williams, that 'all sentient beings contain a Tathāgata as their 'essence, core or essential inner nature'.[88] 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.[90]

One of these texts, the Angulimaliya Sutra, contrasts 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:

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".'[91]

The notion of Buddha-nature and its interpretation was and continues to be widely debated in all schools of Mahayana Buddhism. Some traditions interpret the doctrine to be equivalent to emptiness (like the Tibetan Gelug schools), the positive language of the texts Tathagatagarbha sutras are then interpreted as being provisional, not ultimate. Other schools however, see buddha nature as being an ultimate teaching and see it as an eternal, true self (the Jonang school).

Likewise, western scholars have been divided in their interpretation of the Tathāgatagarbha, since the doctrine of an 'essential nature' in every living being appears to be confusing, since it seems to be equivalent to a 'Self',[note 8][93] 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.[90] 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.[94][95] 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.[96]

Tibetan Buddhism

Madhyamaka philosophy obtained a central position in all the main Tibetan Buddhist schools, all whom consider themselves to be Madhyamikas. In Tibet, a distinction also began to be made between the Autonomist (Svātantrika, rang rgyud pa) and Consequentialist (Prāsaṅgika, Thal ’gyur pa) approaches to Madhyamaka reasoning about emptiness. The distinction was one invented by Tibetan scholarship, and not one made by classical Indian Madhyamikas.[99] Tibetans mainly use the terms to refer to the logical procedures used by Bhavaviveka (who argued for the use of svatantra-anumana or autonomous syllogisms) and Buddhapalita (who held that one should only use prasanga, or reductio ad absurdum).

Influential early figures who are important in the transmission of Madhyamaka to Tibet include the Yogacara-Madhyamika Śāntarakṣita, and his students Haribhadra and Kamalashila (740-795) as well as the later figures of Atisha (982–1054) and his pupil Dromtön (1005–1064) who practiced mainly a prasangika style influenced by Candrakirti.[100]

The early transmission of Buddhism to Tibet saw these two main strands of philosophical views on emptiness face off. The first was the camp which defended the Yogacara-Madhyamaka interpretation centered on the works of the scholars of the Sangphu monastery founded by Ngog Loden Sherab (1059-1109) and also includes Chapa Chokyi Senge (1109-1169).[101] The second camp was those who championed the work of Candrakirti over the Yogacara-Madhyamaka interpretation, and included Patsab Nyima Drag (b. 1055) and Jayananda (fl 12th century).[101] According to John Dunne, it was the Madhyamaka interpretation and the works of Candrakirti which became dominant over time in Tibet.[101]

Further Tibetan philosophical developments began in response to the works of Dolpopa and led to two distinctly opposed Tibetan Madhyamaka views on the nature of ultimate reality:[102][103]

  • Rangtong (self-empty), which is taught by the Gelug who follow the interpretation of Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), but also by the Nyingma and Sakya schools. It states that ultimate reality is that which is empty of self nature in a relative and absolute sense, it is empty of everything, including itself. It is thus not a transcendental ground or metaphysical absolute.
  • Shentong (other empty), which is a further development of Indian Yogacara-Madhyamaka and the Buddha-nature teachings by Dolpopa, and is primarily taught in Jonang but also by some Kagyu figures like Jamgon Kongtrul, it states that ultimate reality is empty of conventional reality, but it is not itself empty of being ultimate Buddhahood and the luminous nature of mind.[104] In Jonang, this ultimate reality is a "ground or substratum" which is "uncreated and indestructible, noncomposite and beyond the chain of dependent origination."[105]


In the 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.[106] 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.[90] Basing himself on the Indian Tathāgatagarbha sūtras as his main sources, Dolpopa described 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.[107]

This "great emptiness" i.e. the tathāgatagarbha is said to be 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.'[108]

The Jonang position came to be known as "emptiness of other" (gzhan stong, shentong), because it held that the ultimate truth was positive reality that was not empty of its own nature, only empty of what it was other than itself.[109] Dolpopa considered his view a form of Madhyamaka, and called his system "Great Madhyamaka".[110]


The Gelug school was founded in the beginning of the 15th century by Tsongkhapa (1357–1419).[111] Tsongkhapa's conception of emptiness draws mainly from the works of "prāsaṅgika" Indian thinkers like Buddhapalita, Candrakirti, and Shantideva and he argued that only their interpretation of Nagarjuna was ultimately correct. According to José I. Cabezón, Tsongkhapa also argued that the ultimate truth or emptiness was "an absolute negation (med dgag)—the negation of inherent existence—and that nothing was exempt from being empty, including emptiness itself."[109] He also maintained that the ultimate truth could be understood conceptually, an understanding which could later be transformed into a non-conceptual one. However, this could only be done through the use of Madhyamika reasoning, which he also sought to unify with the logical theories of Dharmakirti.[109] Because of Tsongkhapa's view of emptiness as an absolute negation, he strongly attacked the other empty views of Dolpopa in his works.

The 14th Dalai Lama, who generally speaks from the Gelug version of the Prasaṅgika-Mādhyamaka, 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.[112]


The Sakya school has generally held a classic prāsaṅgika position following Candrakirti closely, though with significant differences from the Gelug. Sakya scholars of Madhyamika, such as Rendawa Shyönnu Lodrö (1349–1412) and Rongtön Sheja Kunrig (1367–1450) were early critics of the "other empty" view.[113]

Gorampa Sonam Senge (1429-1489) was an important philosopher which defended the orthodox Sakya Madhyamika position, critiquing both Dolpopa and Tsongkhapa's interpretations. According to Cabezón, Gorampa called his version of Madhyamaka "the Middle Way qua freedom from extremes" (mtha’ bral dbu ma) or "Middle Way qua freedom from proliferations" (spros bral kyi dbu ma) and claimed that the ultimate truth was ineffable, beyond predication or concept.[114] Cabezón states that Gorampa's interpretation of Madhyamaka is "committed to a more literal reading of the Indian sources than either Dolpopa’s or Tsongkhapa’s, which is to say that it tends to take the Indian texts at face value."[115] For Gorampa, emptiness is not just the absence of inherent existence, but it is the absence of the four extremes in all phenomena i.e. existence, nonexistence, both and neither (see: catuskoti), without any further qualification.[116] Hence, in contrast to the view of Tsongkhapa for example, Gorampa's Madhyamaka negates existence itself, instead of (as in Tsongkhapa), merely negating "ultimate existence" or "inherent existence".[116] Gorampa also saw the ultimate truth of emptiness as being divided into two parts:[116]

  1. The emptiness that is reached by rational analysis (this is actually only an analogue, and not the real thing).
  2. The emptiness that yogis fathom by means of their own individual gnosis, the real ultimate truth, which is reached by negating the previous rational understanding of emptiness.

Unlike most orthodox Sakyas, the philosopher Sakya Chokden, a contemporary of Gorampa, also promoted a form of shentong as being complementary to rangtong. He saw shentong as useful for meditative practice, while rangtong as useful for cutting through views. [117]


In the Kagyu tradition, there is a broad field of opinion on the nature of emptiness, with some holding the other empty view while others holding different positions. One influential Kagyu thinker was Rangjung Dorje, 3rd Karmapa Lama. His view synthesized Madhyamaka and Yogacara perspectives. According to Brunnholzl, regarding his position in the rangtong shentong debate he "can be said to regard these two as not being mutually exclusive and to combine them in a creative synthesis."[118] However, Rangjung Dorje never uses these terms in any of his works and thus any claims to him being a promoter of shentong or otherwise is a later interpretation.[119]

Several Kagyu figures disagree with the view that shentong is a form of Madhyamaka. According to Brunnholzl, Mikyö Dorje, 8th Karmapa Lama (1507–1554) and Second Pawo Rinpoche Tsugla Trengwa see the term "Shentong Madhyamaka" as a misnomer, for them the Yogacara of Asanga and Vasubandhu and the system of Nagarjuna are "two clearly distinguished systems". They also refute the idea that there is "a permanent, intrinsically existing Buddha nature".[120]

Mikyö Dorje also argues that the language of other emptiness does not appear in any of the sutras or the treatises of the Indian masters. He attacks the view of Dolpopa as being against the sutras of ultimate meaning which state that all phenomena are emptiness as well as being against the treatises of the Indian masters.[121] Mikyö Dorje rejects both perspectives of rangtong and shentong as true descriptions of ultimate reality, which he sees as being "the utter peace of all discursiveness regarding being empty and not being empty".[122]

One of the most influential Kagyu philosophers in recent times was Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Taye (1813–1899) who advocated a system of Shentong Madhyamaka and held that primordial wisdom was "never empty of its own nature and it is there all the time".[123][124]

The modern Kagyu teacher Khenpo Tsultrim (1934–), in his Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, presents five stages of meditation, which he relates to five tenet systems.[125][126] He holds the "Shentong Madhyamaka" as the highest view, above prasangika. He sees this as a meditation on Paramarthasatya ("Absolute Reality"),[127][note 9] Buddhajnana,[note 10] which is beyond concepts, and described by terms as "truly existing."[129] This approach helps "to overcome certain residual subtle concepts,"[129] and "the habit – fosterd on the earlier stages of the path – of negating whatever experience arises in his/her mind."[130] 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."[130]


In the Nyingma school, like in Kagyu, there is a variety of views. Some Nyingma thinkers promoted shentong, like Katok Tsewang Norbu, but the most influential Nyingma thinkers like Longchenpa and Ju Mipham held a more classical prāsaṅgika interpretation while at the same time seeking to harmonize it with the view of Dzogchen tantras which are traditionally seen as the pinnacle of the Nyingma view.

According to Sonam Thakchoe, the Ultimate truth in the Nyingma tradition, following Longchenpa, is mainly seen as being that "reality which transcends any mode of thinking and speech, one that unmistakenly appears to the nonerroneous cognitive processes of the exalted and awakened beings" and this is said to be "inexpressible beyond words and thoughts" as well as the reality that is the "transcendence of all elaborations.[131]

The most influential modern Nyingma scholar is Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso (1846–1912). He developed a unique theory of Madhyamaka, with two models of the two truths. While the adopts the traditional Madhyamaka model of two truths, in which the ultimate truth is emptiness, he also developed a second model, in which the ultimate truth is "Reality as it is" (de bzhin nyid) which is "established as ultimately real" (bden par grub pa).[131] This ultimate truth is associated with the Dzogchen concept of Rigpa. While it might seem that this system conflicts with the traditional Madhyamaka interpretation, for Mipham this is not so. For while the traditional model which sees emptiness and ultimate truth as a negation is referring to the analysis of experience, the second Dzogchen influenced model refers to the experience of unity in meditation.[132] Douglas Duckworth sees Mipham's work as an attempt to bring together the two main Mahayana philosophical systems of yogacara and madhyamaka, as well as shentong and rangtong into a coherent system in which both are seen as being of definitive meaning.[133]


The Tibetan Yungdrung Bon-tradition regards the Ma Gyu, or Mother Tantra, as the highest tantra. Its views are close to Dzogchen.[134][135] It sees waking life as an illusion, from which we have to wake up, just as we recognize dreams to be illusions.[136] Sunyata is the lack of inherent existence.[137] 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".[138]

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."[137]

East Asian Buddhism

Sānlùn school

When Buddhism was introduced in China it was initially understood in terms of indigenous Chinese philosophical culture. Because of this, emptiness (Ch., kong, 空;) was at first understood as pointing to a kind of transcendental reality similar to the Tao.[139] It took several centuries to realize that sunyata does not refer to an essential transcendental reality underneath or behind the world of appearances.[139]

Chinese Madhyamaka (known as Sānlùn, or the three treatise school) began with the work of Kumārajīva (344–413 CE) who translated the works of Nāgārjuna (including the MMK, also known in China as the Chung lun, “Madhyamakaśāstra”; Taishō 1564) to Chinese. Another influential text in Chinese Madhyamaka which was said to have been translated by Kumārajīva was the Ta-chih-tu lun, or *Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa Śāstra (“Treatise which is a Teaching on the Great Perfection of Wisdom [Sūtra]”). According to Dan Arnold, this text is only extant in Kumārajīva's translation and has material that differs from the work of Nāgārjuna. In spite of this, the Ta-chih-tu lun became a central text for Chinese interpretations of Madhyamaka emptiness.[140] Sānlùn figures like Kumārajīva's pupil Sengzhao (384–414), and the later Jizang (549–623) were influential in restoring a more orthodox and non-essentialist interpretation of emptiness to Chinese Buddhism. Yin Shun (1906–2005) is one modern figure aligned with Sānlùn.

Sengzhao is often seen as the founder of Sānlùn. He was influenced not just by Indian Madhyamaka and Mahayana sutras like the Vimalakirti, but also by Taoist works and he widely quotes the Lao-tzu and the Chuang-tzu and uses terminology of the Neo-Daoist "Mystery Learning" (xuanxue 玄学) tradition while maintaining a uniquely Buddhist philosophical view.[141][142] In his essay "The Emptiness of the Non-Absolute" (buzhenkong, 不眞空), Sengzhao points out that the nature of phenomena cannot be taken as being either existent or inexistent:

Hence, there are indeed reasons why myriad dharmas are inexistent and cannot be taken as existent; there are reasons why [myriad dharmas] are not inexistent and cannot be taken as inexistent. Why? If we would say that they exist, their existent is not real; if we would say that they don’t exist, their phenomenal forms have taken shape. Having forms and shapes, they are not inexistent. Being not real, they are not truly existent. Hence the meaning of bu zhen kong [not really empty, 不眞空] is made manifest.[142]

Sengzhao saw the central problem in understanding emptiness as the discriminatory activity of prapañca. According to Sengzhao, delusion arises through a dependent relationship between phenomenal things, naming, thought and reification and correct understanding lies outside of words and concepts. Thus, while emptiness is the lack of intrinsic self in all things, this emptiness is not itself an absolute and cannot be grasped by the conceptual mind, it can be only be realized through non-conceptual wisdom (prajña).[143]

Jizang (549–623) was another central figure in Chinese Madhyamaka who wrote numerous commentaries on Nagarjuna and Aryadeva and is considered to be the leading representative of the school.[144] Jizang called his method "deconstructing what is misleading and revealing what is corrective". He insisted that one must never settle on any particular viewpoint or perspective but constantly reexamine one's formulations to avoid reifications of thought and behavior.[144] In his commentary on the MMK, Jizang's method and understanding of emptiness can be seen:

The Abhidharma thinkers regard the four holy truths as true. The Satyasiddhi regards merely the truth of cessation of suffering, i.e., the principle of emptiness and equality, as true. The southern Mahāyāna tradition regards the principle that refutes truths as true, and the northern [Mahāyāna tradition] regards thatness [suchness] and prajñā as as true… Examining these all together, if there is a single [true] principle, it is an eternal view, which is false. If there is no principle at all, it is an evil view, which is also false. Being both existent and non-existent consists of the eternal and nihilistic views altogether. Being neither existent nor nonexistent is a foolish view. One replete with these four phrases has all [wrong] views. One without these four phrases has a severe nihilistic view. Now that [one] does not know how to name what a mind has nothing to rely upon and is free from conceptual construction, [he] foists “thatness” [suchness] upon it, one attains sainthood of the three vehicles… Being deluded in regard to thatness [suchness], one falls into the six realms of disturbed life and death.[142]

In one of his early treatises called "The Meaning of the two Truths" (Erdiyi), Jizang, expounds the steps to realize the nature of the ultimate truth of emptiness as follows:

In the first step, one recognises reality of the phenomena on the conventional level, but assumes their non-reality on the ultimate level. In the second step, one becomes aware of Being or Non-Being on the conventional level and negates both at the ultimate level. In the third step, one either asserts or negates Being and Non-Being on the conventional level, neither confi rming nor rejecting them on the ultimate level. Hence, there is ultimately no assertion or negation anymore; therefore, on the conventional level, one becomes free to accept or reject anything.[145]

Tiantai and Huayan

Later Chinese philosophers developed their own unique interpretations of emptiness. One of these was Zhiyi, the intellectual founder of the Tiantai school who was strongly influenced by the Lotus sutra. The Tiantai view of emptiness and dependent origination is inseparable from their view of the "interfusion of phenomena" and the idea that the ultimate reality is an absolute totality of all particular things which are "Neither-Same-Nor-Different" from each other.[146] According to Brook Ziporyn, in Tiantai:

every event, function, or characteristic occurring in experience is the action of all sentient and insentient beings working together. Every instant of experience is the whole of existential reality, manifesting in this particular form, as this particular entity or experience. But this “whole” is irreducibly multiple and irreducibly unified at once in the following way: all possible conflicting, contrasted, and axiologically varied aspects are irrevocably present—in the sense of “findable”—in each of these totality effects. Good and evil, delusion and enlightenment, Buddhahood and deviltry, are all “inherently entailed” in each and every event.[147]

The Huayan school understood emptiness and ultimate reality through the similar concept of interpenetration or "coalescence" (Wylie: zung-'jug; Sanskrit: yuganaddha), using the metaphor of Indra's net to illustrate this concept.[148]


Chan Buddhism was influenced by all the previous Chinese Buddhist currents. The Madhyamika of Sengzhao for example, influenced the views of the Chan patriarch Shen Hui (670-762), a critical figure in the development of Chan, as can be seen by his "Illuminating the Essential Doctrine" (Hsie Tsung Chi). This text emphasizes that true emptiness or Suchness cannot be known through thought since it is free from thought (wu-nien): [149]

Thus we come to realize that both selves and things are, in their essence, empty, and existence and non-existence both disappear.

Mind is fundamentally non-action; the way is truly no-thought (wu-nien).

There is no thought, no reflection, no seeking, no attainment, no this, no that, no coming, no going.

Shen Hui also states that true emptiness is not nothing, but it is a "Subtle Existence" (miao-yu), which is just "Great Prajña." [149] The Chan presentation of emptiness, influenced by Yogacara and the tathagathagarbha sutras, also used more positive language and poetic metaphors to describe the nature of emptiness. Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091–1157), the founder of the Caodong lineage, wrote:

"The field of boundless emptiness is what exists from the very beginning. You must purify, cure, grind down, or brush away all the tendencies you have fabricated into apparent habits. [Those tendencies are the clouds in our eyes.] Then you can reside in a clear circle of brightness. Utter emptiness has no image. Upright independence does not rely on anything. Just expand and illuminate the original truth unconcerned by external conditions. Accordingly, we are told to realize that not a single thing exists. In this field birth and death do not appear. The deep source, transparent down to the bottom, can radiantly shine and can respond unencumbered to each speck of dust [each object] without becoming its partner. The subtlety of seeing and hearing transcends mere colors and sounds. The whole affair functions without leaving traces and mirrors without obscurations. Very naturally, mind and Dharmas emerge and harmonize."[150]

The Tiantai and Huayan views of emptiness as interpenetration and interconnection also influenced the views of the Chan school, and is still discernible in modern Zen. One modern figure who has adopted an interpretation of emptiness influenced by these two schools is Thich Nhat Hanh, who explains emptiness through the similar idea of "Interbeing".[151]

Western Buddhism

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.[152][153][web 1][note 11]


Influence on Advaita Vedanta

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,[154][155] which uses the term "anutpāda":[156]

  • "An" means "not", or "non"
  • "Utpāda" means "genesis", "coming forth", "birth"[157]

Taken together "anutpāda" means "having no origin", "not coming into existence", "not taking effect", "non-production".[158]

According to Gaudapada, the Absolute is not subject to birth, change and death. The Absolute is aja, the unborn eternal.[159] The empirical world of appearances is considered Maya (unreal as it is transitory), and not absolutely existent.[159] Thus, Gaudapada's concept of ajativada is similar to Buddhist term "anutpāda" for the absence of an origin[154][156] or śūnyatā.[160][note 12]

But Gaudapada's perspective is quite different from Nagarjuna.[164] Gaudapada's perspective found in Mandukya Karika is based on the Mandukya Upanishad.[164] 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, then 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",[164] apparently existing but ultimately not metaphysically real.[165]

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[166]

In contrast to Renard's view,[154] Karmarkar states the Ajativada of Gaudapada has nothing in common with the Śūnyatā concept in Buddhism.[167] 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.[164]

In Shaivism

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 mind, He is most void. from the point of view of Reality, He is most full, for He is the source of all manifestation."[168]

"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)."[169]

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, where shunya is seen as that void which a spiritual journey seeks to fill. This fulfillment is described as a state of union of one's soul with the infinite Shiva, the state of blissful moksha.[170][171]

In Vaishnavism

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.[170][172] 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.[170] However, there is some overlap, such as in the works of Bhima Bhoi.[170][173]

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.[174]

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

Alternate translations

  • Emptiness
  • Interdependence (Ringu Tulku)[175]
  • Openness
  • Transparency (Cohen)
  • Spaciousness
  • Thusness[176]

See also


  1. A common translation is "no-self", without a self, but the Pali canon uses anattā as a singular substantive, meaning "not-self".[4]
  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. Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 24:18
  5. Chapter 21 of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā goes into the reasoning behind this.[62]
  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".[85]
  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."[92]
  9. According to Hookham, non-dual experience is Ultimate Reality.[128]
  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."[128] According to Hookham, for Shentong Buddhajnana is "the non-dual nature of Mind completely unobscured and endowed with its countless Buddha Qualities (Buddhagunas).[128]
    * 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."[152]
    * 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.[153]
    * 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.[161] 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,[162] the seeing that "all objects are without self-substance [Sunyata]".[163]


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