views updated May 18 2018

Śūnyatā or Suññattā (Skt., Pāli, ‘emptiness’; Chin., kʾung; Jap., ; Korean, kong). In early Buddhism, the term suññatā is used primarily in connection with the ‘no-self’ (anatman) doctrine to denote that the Five Aggregates (skandhas) are ‘empty’ of the permanent self or soul which is erroneously imputed to them.

The doctrine of emptiness, however, received its fullest elaboration at the hands of Nāgārjuna, who wielded it skilfully to destroy the substantialist conceptions of the Abhidharma schools of the Hīnayāna. Since there cannot be anything that is not the Buddha-nature (buddhatā), all that appears is in truth devoid of characteristics. The doctrine of emptiness is the central tenet of the Mādhyamaka school, and a statement of Nāgārjuna's views in support of it may be found in his Mūla-Mādhyamaka-Nārikā.

Emptiness thus becomes a fundamental characteristic of Mahāyāna Buddhism. The teaching is subtle and its precise formulation a matter of sophisticated debate, since the slightest misunderstanding is said to obstruct progress towards final liberation. Emptiness is never a generalized vacuity, like an empty room, but always relates to a specific entity whose emptiness is being asserted. In this way up to twenty kinds of emptiness are recognized, including the emptiness of emptiness. The necessary indiscoverability of essences is the Mādhyamakan emptiness. It is important to distinguish this from nihilism. In Yogācāra (Vijñānavāda), emptiness is taught as the inability to think of an object apart from the consciousness which thinks of that object, i.e. the necessary indissolubility of subject and object in the process of knowing is the Yogācārin emptiness. It is important to distinguish this from idealism and solipsism.


views updated May 18 2018

sunyata in Buddhism, the doctrine that phenomena are devoid of an immutable or determinate intrinsic nature. It is often regarded as a means of gaining an intuition of ultimate reality. The word comes from Sanskrit śūnyatā ‘emptiness’.