śūnyatā (T. stong pa nyid སྟོང་པ་ཉིད་; C. kong; J. ku 空) is translated as "emptiness," "openness," "voidness," etc. This term has multiple meanings:
- In the Sanskrit Mahayana tradition, śūnyatā refers to the absence of inherent existence in all phenomena, as presented in the Prajnaparamita sutras and related texts.
- In the Pali tradition, the Pali term suñña ("empty") has two main meanings:
- empty of self and what pertains to self
- empty attachment, anger, and confusion
The term śūnyatā consists of:
- śūnya, means "empty," etc.
- tā, indicates the noun form of the verb śūnya; it is typically translated as "ness"
Sanskrit Mahayana tradition
Meaning of emptiness
- In its developed usage in the Madhyamaka school, as set forth by Nāgārjuna and his commentators, emptiness becomes an application of the classical doctrine of no-self (anātman) beyond the person (pudgala) and the skandhas to subsume all phenomena (dharma) in the universe. Emptiness is the lack or absence of intrinsic nature (svabhāva) in any and all phenomena, the final nature of all things (dharmatā), and the ultimate truth (paramārthasatya). Despite its various interpretations among the various Madhyamaka authors, emptiness is clearly neither nothingness nor the absence of existence, but rather the absence of a falsely imagined type of existence, identified as svabhāva. Because all phenomena are dependently arisen, they lack, or are empty of, an intrinsic nature characterized by independence and autonomy. Nāgārjuna thus equates śūnyatā and the notion of conditionality (pratītyasamutpāda).
Karl Brunnhölzl states:
- The prajñāpāramitā sūtras talk about this fundamental experience of coming back to our mind just as it is, without going anywhere, without doing anything, without manipulating anything, just letting our mind be as it is. We usually do not do that, but instead always try to make our mind do something.
- Therefore, emptiness is about the nowness of all phenomena, being in the present moment without any sense of solid or lasting things, the sheer experience of the mind’s infinite display without anything to pinpoint or hold on to.
- When we look at the meaning of emptiness... the Sanskrit word is śūnyatā. One of the literal meanings of śūnya is “empty” and another one is “zero.” In Indian mathematics, the zero sign is śūnya, but it has quite a different meaning from “zero” in the west. When we think of zero, we think “nothing,” but in India the circle of śūnya, or zero, means “fullness,” “completeness,” or “wholeness.” In the same way, “emptiness” does not mean “nothingness,” but rather “fullness” in the sense of full potential—anything can happen in emptiness and because of emptiness. A lot of people think that if nothing really exists, how can anything function? However, Nāgārjuna said that it is precisely because everything does not really exist that everything functions. If everything were truly existent, existing in and of itself and thus being unchanging, things would not depend on anything. But then they could not interact with each other either because that entails change. Therefore, it is only due to everything changing all the time that interaction and functioning is possible.
- The root of the word śūnya means “to swell,” which implies the notion of hollowness. In this way, the phenomena of seeming reality outwardly appear to be real and solid, while actually resembling empty balloons which are only inflated by our ignorance. Through our ignorance we inflate a lot of nothings into very big somethings. When they swell up, that is the circle, or balloon, of śūnya. Thus, śūnyatā is not just nothingness, but everything coming out of the infinite space of phenomena in which nothing can be pinpointed but everything can happen. In this sense śūnyatā means the complete potential for everything to arise and it also means dependent origination. Everything that seems to be real is just like blown-up balloons—a lot of hot air and not much else, if anything. This is also what the etymology of “to swell” for śūnya points to. As long as it is unquestioned, our seeming reality seems to be “swell,” but when we reflect and meditate on emptiness, all those balloons that we usually entertain ourselves with become punctured and are revealed as what they really are, which is just the hot air within them.
- When we look at the concept of zero in mathematics, if we just take one zero, it seems to be nothing, but many zeros following any other number mean a lot, such as “one hundred,” “one thousand,” or “one billion.” This shows that infinite quantities can come from zero. Therefore, it is not just nothing. Likewise, emptiness is not “nothing,” which is emphasized in many Buddhist texts over and over again. However, it is not “something” either. Usually we think that if a given phenomenon is not something, it must be nothing, and if it is not nothing, it must be something. But emptiness is just a word for pointing out the fact that no matter what we say or think about something, it does not really correctly characterize that something because our dualistic mind just gets stuck in one extreme or the other. Thus, we could say that emptiness is like thinking outside of the box, that is, the box of black-and-white thinking or dualistic thinking. As long as we stay within the ballpark of dualistic thinking, there is always existence, nonexistence, permanence, extinction, good, and bad. Within that frame of reference, we will never get beyond it, no matter if we are religious, a scientist, a Buddhist, an agnostic, or whatever. Emptiness tells us that we have to step out of that ballpark altogether. Emptiness points to the most radical transformation of our entire outlook with regard to ourselves and the world. Emptiness not only means the end of the world as we know it, but that this world never really existed in the first place. If we really understand what that means, it is so scary we may freak out or have heart attacks like those arhats. Not necessarily, of course, because there are also reports of people who actually got it and had no heart attacks. Nevertheless, the main point is to dare to step into the infinite space of groundlessness, which is frightening because it questions everything that we are and everything that we think.
Emptiness, dependent origination, and quantum physics
Karl Brunnhölzl states:
- In a sense, the teachings on emptiness have a lot of parallels with quantum physics. Quantum physicists tell us that there is really no world out there, nor a body. There is actually not much, if anything. They are still looking for something, because it sounds better and we do not have to be scared that there is really nothing at all to hold on to. When physicists talk about a quantum field, it almost entirely consists of space and some energy in it, not even particles. They may talk about “particles,” but this term does not refer to any kind of substance anymore, just statistical probabilities of relationships. This is also very much what emptiness is about, meaning that there is no single phenomenon whatsoever that exists independently on its own. The description of a quantum field is very much like the Heart Sūtra’s formula “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Emptiness is nothing other than form, and form is nothing other than emptiness.” Everything is interrelated and constantly changing in every moment, yet entirely ungraspable.
- In quantum physics, they have found that if one electron or one subtle particle on one end of the universe changes, another one at the other end of the universe also changes. Thus, it is not that this principle of interdependence is limited to a certain domain or area in space; it is truly infinite and all-pervasive. The Buddha said the same—dependent origination is an infinite web of causes and conditions. However, “causes and conditions” does not refer to little things that spin around each other and do stuff because if we take a close look, none of them can really be found. If we do not analyze all those causes, conditions, and their results, everything seems to work fine (at least most of the time). But when we take a deeper look into how things actually work or what things actually are, it gets very fuzzy. This same phenomenon is found in quantum physics too—the more the physicists look and the more subtle particles they find, the smaller and smaller and more elusive these particles become until they cannot even call them “particles” any more. They just apply names and schemata to an ongoing process, which sort of freezes this inconceivable and constantly changing process into something a little bit more tangible, such as mathematical equations or formulas. Similarly, when the Buddha spoke from the perspective of emptiness, he was doing so in a way similar to physicists talking about quantum mechanics, using the formula “Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form.” Fundamentally, we can never really describe exactly what is happening. We can observe the process in the lab and say, “Wow!” and that’s about it. Later, we try to express what happened, the same way the Buddha did when he described to his students how things are from the perspective of his awakening into true reality.
Benefits of understanding emptiness
The 14th Dalai Lama states:
- By understanding emptiness, by clearly perceiving the empty nature of all phenomena, including ourselves, we can liberate ourselves from negative emotions, and thus from the creation of unwholesome karma and the power of the internal enemy. Through this process, we can begin to undo the harm we've caused by our grasping, and the derivative strong emotions to which it gives rise. The moment we begin to develop insight into the empty nature of self and all reality, the process of releasing our deluded grasp begins. At the moment of our first insight into the empty nature of self and reality, we start to break free of the enslavement of ignorance and the attack of the internal enemy. By reducing our grasping, we start to undo the causal chain of unenlightened existence. By undermining self-grasping ignorance, the first link of dependent origination, you prevent the arising of the second link, and ultimately become free of the endless cycle of suffering lifetimes.
- But what does all this mean exactly? If we arrive at the knowledge that the self at which we grasp is empty, we may imagine this means that we as individuals with personal identities do not exist. But of course this is not the case--our own personal experiences demonstrate that as subjects and agents of our own lives, we certainly exist. So how, then, do we understand the content of this insight into absence of self? What follows from this insight? We must be very clear that only the self that is being grasped as intrinsically real needs to be negated. The self as a conventional phenomenon is not rejected. This is a crucial aspect of the Buddha's teachings on emptiness.
Gyurme Dorje states:
- In all Buddhist philosophical systems from Madhyamaka onwards, emptiness (Skt. sunyata) refers to the lack of inherent existence with respect to both mind and external phenomena. Its synonyms, therefore, include ultimate truth (Skt. paramarthasatya), actual reality (Skt. dharmata), and suchness (Skt. tathata). The characteristic which mind and external phenomena lack, i.e. that which they are empty of, is that they do not exist independently from the cognizing awareness in dependence upon which they are perceived. When all levels of conceptual awareness dissolve and the relationship between subject and object is correctly recognised, the natural, non-dual dynamic space, which is regarded as the true nature of mind and external phenomena is revealed. Although the term is known also in the literature of the Lesser Vehicle, it is in the philosophical speculations of the Madhyamaka school that the different interpretations of emptiness were greatly elaborated. This school is named after the doctrine of the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) which avoids the extremes of eternalism and nihilism, and which was expounded by Buddha Shakyamuni.There exist different views of emptiness within the Madhyamaka school—that of the Svatantrika who utilise independent syllogisms in proof of emptiness, that of the Prasangika who utilise the consequentialist logic of negation and reductio ad absurdum to destroy conceptual elaborations concerning emptiness, and that of the Great Madhyamaka which in the course of meditative insight distinguishes between the intrinsic emptiness of phenomena and the extrinsic emptiness of pure buddha attributes. In the sūtras of the Greater Vehicle, sixteen kinds of emptiness are differentiated, while in the tantras, four modes of emptiness are further clarified.
In the Pali suttas
The 14th Dalai Lama states:
- In the Pāli suttas, “selfless” (anattā) is found more frequently than “empty” (suñña), and both words are used more often as adjectives than in their noun forms. Also, “emptiness” does not necessarily indicate the ontological status of objects as it does in the Sanskrit tradition. Rather, “empty” has two main meanings: “empty of self or what pertains to self” and “empty of attachment, anger, and confusion.” There are other meanings as well; for example, each meditative state in a series is empty of the features of the previous, lower state (MN 121).
- The Buddha considers emptiness an important topic and encourages monastics to pay attention to it. He expresses concern about the long-term survival of the profound teachings and advises (SN 20:7):
- You should train yourselves thus: “When those discourses spoken by the Tathāgata that are deep, deep in meaning, supramundane, dealing with emptiness, are being recited, we will be eager to listen to them, will lend an ear to them, will apply our minds to understand them; and we will think those teachings should be studied and mastered.”
- The Dhammapada in verse 93 speaks of emptiness as meaning nibbāna, the object of an arahant’s meditation. The Paṭisambhidāmagga says (2.179):
- What is the supreme emptiness (agga suñña)? This dhamma is supreme…the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all attachments, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbāna.
- Nāgārjuna (MMK 15.7) indicates that emptiness of inherent existence is taught in the Pāli canon, even though the term inherent existence was not used there.
- The Transcendental Lord, through understanding
- “it exists” and “it does not exist,”
- refuted both existence and nonexistence
- in the Katyāyana Sūtra [Kaccānagotta Sutta].
- In the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12:15) the Buddha said:
- This world, Kaccāna, for the most part depends upon a duality—upon [the notion of] existence [eternalism] and [the notion of] nonexistence [nihilism]. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no [notion of] nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no [notion of] existence in regard to the world.
- Here the Buddha refutes incorrect metaphysical assumptions in the minds of people who wonder if the world exists or not. Those with an eternalist view believe that if the world exists, it exists forever, permanently. Seeing some continuation of identity between a cause and its effect, they believe a permanent entity bridges the cause and its result. This view does not arise in a person who has right view, who knows that each moment in a continuum of cause and effect arises due to causes, ceases, and is followed by a new moment in the continuum.
- A person with a nihilistic view sees something cease and concludes it has no continuation whatsoever; when a person dies, no being is reborn. Someone who thinks that the self and body are the same or that the mind is an emergent property of the brain concludes that when the body ceases at death, the person also totally ceases; there is no rebirth, no experience of kammic results, and no possibility of liberation.
- A person with right view knows that after death, someone new arises due to causes and conditions; the death of a person and the ending of the world serve as causes for what subsequently arises. This process of continuous, dependently arising change occurs without there being an enduring entity that goes from the previous time to a later time. To refute both eternalism and annihilation the Buddha speaks of dependent arising:
- “All exists”: Kaccāna, this is one extreme. “All does not exist”: this is the second extreme. Without veering toward either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: “With ignorance as condition, formative actions [come to be].…Such is the origin of this whole mass of dukkha. But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance, comes cessation of formative actions.…Such is the cessation of this whole mass of dukkha.
Three perspectives on emptiness
- (1) as a meditative dwelling,
- (2) as an attribute of objects, and
- (3) as a type of awareness-release.
- Emptiness as a meditative dwelling is most fully discussed in MN 121. Essentially, it boils down to the ability to center the mind in a particular mode of perception, to maintain it there, and then to notice the absence and presence of disturbance within that mode. The process starts with perceptions of one’s external surroundings—village, wilderness, the earth property—and then moves internally to the four formless states, the “themeless concentration of awareness,” and finally to release from all effluents. Each step is compared to the one preceding it to see how its more refined perception engenders less disturbance. For instance, if you move from a perception of the wilderness to a perception of earth, the first step is to settle and “indulge” in that perception. Then you notice what types of disturbance have been abandoned in the move from the perception of wilderness to the perception of earth—for example, all thought of the dangers of wilderness are gone—and then to see what disturbances remain based on the latter perception. Then you abandon the perception causing those disturbances and move on to a more refined level of perception. This process is pursued until it arrives at the “themeless concentration of awareness.” When noting that even this refined level of concentration is fabricated, inconstant, and subject to cessation, one gains total release from all mental effluents and the disturbances that would arise based on them. This is the level of emptiness that is “superior and unsurpassed,” and is apparently what the Buddha is referring to in this sutta when he says that by “not attending to any themes, he enters & remains in internal emptiness.”
- Notice that in every step along the way of this process, the emptiness is the lack of disturbance experienced in a particular mind state. This means that the mind state is to be perceived simply as an example of the presence and absence of stress. In other words, emptiness in this sense relates directly to the second of the three characteristics—stress or suffering. The pursuit of this emptiness relates to the four noble truths, as it looks for the causes of stress and uses tranquility together with insight to abandon those causes in a quest to put a total end to suffering.
- Emptiness in its second meaning, as an attribute of objects, is most fully discussed in SN 35:85. That sutta describes emptiness as meaning the lack of self or anything pertaining to a self in the internal and external sense media. Whatever sense of self that may surround these objects is not inherent in them, and is instead simply the result of one’s own penchant for “I-making” and “my-making.” Seeing the artificiality of “I-making” and “my-making” in this way helps lead to a sense of disenchantment with these “makings,” thus helping to abandon any clinging associated with them.
- Thus emptiness in this sense relates directly to the third of the three characteristics: not-self. However, just as the three characteristics are not radically separate from one another—everything stressful is for that reason not-self—the practical application of this sense of emptiness is not radically different from the first. As SN 12:15 points out, when one no longer latches onto any idea of “my self,” one sees phenomena within and without simply as examples of stress arising and passing away. To practice meditation from this perspective—seeing each state of concentration as an example of stress arising and passing away—is to develop emptiness as a meditative dwelling.
- Emptiness in its third meaning, as a type of awareness-release, is an application of emptiness in its second meaning. MN 43 describes this state of concentration as follows: “There is the case where a monk—having gone into the wilderness, to the root of a tree, or into an empty dwelling—considers this: ‘This is empty of self or of anything pertaining to self.’” It adds that this awareness-release is different from the awareness-release that results when one doesn’t attend to any themes. Thus this state of concentration cannot be entirely equated with the emptiness as a meditative dwelling mentioned in this sutta. MN 106 further adds that if one frequently abides in the emptiness awareness-release, one may either attain the dimension of nothingness—one of the formless states—or be committed to the discernment that will lead to awakening. The first of these two alternatives is another way in which emptiness as an awareness-release differs from emptiness as a meditative dwelling as defined in MN 121. However, because the standard definition of discernment is seeing phenomena in terms of the four noble truths, the second alternative—being committed to discernment—would apparently follow the same pattern suggested by SN 12:15, above. In other words, as one no longer perceives phenomena in terms of self, one tends to view them simply as examples of stress arising and passing away. So, again, this third meaning of emptiness, like the second, eventually leads in practice back to the first. As MN 43 notes, when one attains full awakening, the themeless awareness-release and the emptiness awareness-release come to differ only in name, and not in actuality.
- [...] it is important to remember that in the course of practice, all three meanings are related and all will inevitably play a role in awakening.
- Brunnhölzl, Karl (2012), The Heart Attack Sutra: A New Commentary on the Heart Sutra, Snow Lion
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Dalai Lama; Thubten Chodron (2014), Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions, Wisdom Publications
- Dalai Lama (2015), Jinpa, Thubten, ed., Essence of the Heart Sutra, Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu, ed. (2005), The Greater Discourse on Emptiness: Mahā Suññata Sutta (MN 122), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Dhammatalks.org