In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Emptiness (Śūnyatā)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks

Buddhism Emptiness (Śūnyatā)
Guy Newland
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0007


Emptiness literally translates the Sanskrit śūnyatā. While variously interpreted, it always points to the absence of some ontological feature of substance or essence that living beings mistakenly superimpose upon phenomena. Many but not all types of Buddhism teach that the ultimate nature of all things is in fact just this absence. The path to liberation from cyclic rebirth involves encountering this ultimate nature in meditation, thereby ending the delusion that is the root of needless misery. Emptiness appears but is infrequently mentioned in the Pali suttas that are the core scriptures of non-Mahayana forms of Buddhism, including the Theravada tradition and the historically important Sautrāntika and Vaibhāṣika systems. However, emptiness is directly linked to Buddhist teachings on the lack of self (anātman/anatta). The “self” that things lack is not mere personality or personhood but precisely the exaggerated nature that living beings, in delusion, habitually superimpose. Many non-Mahayana sources hold that there are analytically irreducible factors of existence. It is to collections of such factors, such as the collection of personal mental and physical elements, that living beings erroneously attribute a sense of substantial reality. The term and concept appear much more frequently in the Mahayana scriptures (sutras). In Mahayana Buddhism, Madhyamaka sources argue that all phenomena are devoid of any ultimately determinable or essential character. At the same time, emptiness is differentiated from nothingness through being linked to the teaching of dependent arising (pratītya-samutpāda). Insofar as things are empty of some substantial or essential nature, they arise interdependently, contingent upon other equally contingent phenomena. Other highly influential Mahayana teachings known as Yogācāra or Cittamātra (Mind Only) take emptiness as the lack of any substantial difference between consciousnesses and their objects of apprehension. One particularly important set of Mahayana texts takes the ultimate as a primordially pure buddha-nature (tathāgata-garbha) rather than sheer emptiness. Emptiness is significant in a very wide range of Buddhist literatures throughout the world. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries dozens of writers have argued for deep connections between Buddhist concepts of emptiness and a diverse array of non-Buddhist discourses.

General Overviews

There is no overview that is both comprehensive to the scope of Buddhism and yet specific to emptiness. Williams and Tribe 2000 is a good historical introduction that elucidates how the concept of emptiness emerged. Bronkhurst 2009 is an excellent scholarly overview of Buddhist doctrine in India, placing the philosophy of emptiness in context. Williams 2009 is the best source for the big picture of the diverse meanings of emptiness in Mahayana. Of several recent treatments introducing Buddhism as philosophy, Siderits 2007 offers the most cogent analysis. Edleglass and Garfield 2009 anthologizes many selections pertaining to emptiness, each with a brief, sophisticated introduction.

  • Bronkhurst, Johannes. Buddhist Teaching In India. Somerville, MA: Wisdom, 2009.

    An excellent study of Buddhist philosophy as it developed in India, placing emptiness within this context.

  • Edleglass, William, and Jay Garfield, eds. Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    A rich anthology illustrating the sophistication and diversity of Buddhist ontologies and epistemologies.

  • Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2007.

    A high-level introduction that approaches Buddhism via analytic philosophy.

  • Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    The best general overview of Mahayana philosophy.

  • Williams, Paul, and Anthony J. Tribe. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. London: Routledge, 2000.

    A good introduction to Indian Buddhist philosophy.

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