Sunyata Buddhism


Śūnyatā, Sanskrit term, (devanāgarī: शून्यता; in Pāli suññatā, in Chinese kōng 空, in Tibetan : སྟོང་པོ་ཉིད་, Wylie: stong pa nyid, THL: tongpa nyi), refers in Buddhism to the "ultimate emptiness of intrinsic realities."

That is, the emptiness of beings and things, their absence of being-in-itself (anātman) and of proper nature (svabhāva), in other words, the non-existence of any essence, of any fixed and unchanging character. It applies to things as well as to thoughts and states of mind. It is very much related to ainsity (tathātā).

Attempt at an approach
Emptiness is a term that can be misinterpreted. Thus, Ringu Tulku Rinpoche speaks of it in these terms:

"According to Buddhism, everything is in essence emptiness (śūnyatā), both samsâra and nirvāṇa. Śūnyatā does not mean "emptiness". It is a very difficult word to understand and define.

It is with reservation that I translate it as "emptiness". The best definition, in my opinion, is "interdependence", which means that everything depends on others to exist. "Everything is by nature interdependent and therefore empty of its own existence."

- Ringu Tulku Rimpoche, "Et si vous m'expliquiez le bouddhisme?" Publisher J'ai Lu, August 2004

Other French-speaking Buddhists say that "Emptiness does not empty things of their content, it is their true nature. "

It is therefore not nihilism. In the Prajñānāma mūla madhyamaka kārikā, known as the Treatise of the Middle, Nāgārjuna states that "we call emptiness that which appears in dependence, " and in the Vigrahavyāvartanī, he affirms that "śūnyatā is not of the order of privation or absence."

which is why Alexis Lavis prefers to the commonly used translation by vacuity that of vacancy, which points more towards a form of availability, of open freedom that corresponds better to Sanskrit and to the more specific meaning given to it by Buddhism.

According to the thesis of emptiness, phenomena are not defined by their own nature, a thing in itself that belongs to them, but only by the set of relations they have with each other: they do not hold their own characteristics from themselves.

From this point of view, speaking of an isolated phenomenon is therefore only the effect of a language convention. Although our mind cannot do without such a convention, this disjunction has no being of its own, its existence depends on other phenomena that cannot be simultaneously apprehended because of cognitive limits.

According to Francisco Varela "there is nothing to grasp that would make people and phenomena what they are ".

However, it would be a mistake to reduce Buddhist emptiness exclusively to the idea of interdependence or relativity: emptiness is not a concept that belongs only to discursive thought, it is intended first and foremost to open up the practitioner's metaphysical intuition (prajñā).

It is about understanding that there is a fundamental difference between the way we perceive the world, including ourselves, and the reality of that world.

Naive realism, which sees the world as populated by autonomous, separate, enduring, objectively existing entities, is here declared to be a metaphysical error that prajñā, as it develops, allows to dispel, through the direct view of śūnyatā; for example by means of vipassana bhavana. It is a direct, non-dual, non-intellectual perception of the nature of phenomena:

"Emptiness is neither nothingness nor an empty space separate from or external to phenomena. It is the very nature of phenomena. And this is why a fundamental text of Buddhism, the Heart Sutra, says: "Emptiness is form and form is emptiness".

From an absolute point of view, the world has no real or concrete existence. So the relative aspect is the phenomenal world, and the absolute aspect is emptiness. Phenomena arise from a process of interdependence of causes and conditions, but nothing exists in and of itself.

The direct contemplation of absolute truth transcends all intellectual concepts, all duality between subject and object.

- The Monk and the Philosopher, Jean-François Revel, Matthieu Ricard, 1997

The absence of one's own nature is in fact a possible interpretation of the notion of emptiness. This is the most common interpretation, taught by the Madhyamaka. Other Buddhist schools propose different interpretations.

For example, in the idealist school of Cittamātra, emptiness corresponds to the absence of duality between subject and object, this duality being only a conceptual construction (parikalpita), phenomena having neither inherent characteristics (lakshana-nihsvabhavata), nor inherent production (utpatti-nihsvabhavata), nor inherent ultimate character (paramartha-nihsvabhavata) [ref. desired].

In Buddhism

For the 14th Dalai Lama, śūnyatā is the most important teaching that the Buddha gave.

In Theravāda Buddhism

Emptiness, a translation of suññatā, teaches that all sensations, perceptions, consciousness are devoid of personality (anātman) and devoid of permanence (anitya). The term emptiness is treated in several suttas, as

Quality, characteristic of things;
Object to which attention is directed;
Contemplation of emptiness: suññata vipassana.
Similarly, in the Visuddhimagga, emptiness corresponds to the absence of self, or anatta. Emptiness in Theravāda thus refers to the three characteristics of existence:

"The simple phrase 'emptiness of self' summarizes the words impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha), and selfless (anattā). When something is constantly changing, devoid of any permanent, stable element, it can also be said of itself as 'empty'."

- Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Handbook for Humanity, 1964

Emptiness also corresponds to the Buddhist middle way, which stands at a distance from the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Ajahn Brahm gives the comparison of the mathematical point:

"A point has no size: it is smaller than anything measurable, and yet it is larger than nothing at all. In a sense, we cannot say that it exists, because it does not persist, it is not continuous in space. But one cannot say that it does not exist, since it is clearly different from "nothing". It is similar to the instantaneous nature of conscious experience. Nothing is permanent, so it is not something, but something happens, so it is not nothing. "

The theme of emptiness appears in the Suñña Sutta of the Pali Canon: "Since it is devoid of a self or anything belonging to a self, the world is said in this sense to be empty.

The Cula-suññata Sutta sees this as an object of meditation: "You must train yourself by saying, 'Entering this emptiness which is completely pure, incomparable and supreme, I abide there. Similarly, Edward Conze emphasizes its soteriological aspect:

"Emptiness is not a theory, but a ladder that leads to infinity. A ladder is not meant to be discussed, but to be climbed. It is a practical concept, embodying an aspiration, not a point of view.

It serves only to help us get rid of this world and the ignorance that attaches us to it. It has not one meaning, but many meanings, which are successively revealed in stages in the process of transcending the world through wisdom.

- Selected Sayings from the Perfection of Wisdom, 1978

Emptiness is also one of the three samadhis, or gates to nirvāṇa: emptiness, signlessness (animitta), and grasplessness (apranihita).

In Mahâyâna Buddhism

In Mahâyâna Buddhism, emptiness is the subject of the Prajñaparamita, the Perfection of Wisdom, a group of Mahâyâna sutras dealing with transcendent wisdom, centered around emptiness.

It was studied in particular by Nagarjuna, who founded the Madhyamaka school which is entirely based on the notion of emptiness. Among other things, Nagarjuna enunciates eighteen particular forms of emptiness, the main one, which summarizes all the others, being the emptiness of all dharma (sarvadharmaśūnyatā).

Indeed, in his Rātnavalī, Ārya Nāgārjuna says that as long as one has apprehension of aggregates (or phenomena = dharmas), one will have apprehension of the personal self (skt. skandhagrāho yāvad asti, tāvad evāham ity api). This is why his dialectical works are concerned with deconstructing any form of reification.

What is empty? And empty of what? These are essential questions for Buddhism because the answers are of inescapable soteriological interest.

Everything is empty, from the smallest speck of dust to the whole universe and everything in it.

But empty of what?

Empty of an intrinsic, inherent or independent existence; empty of a proper nature, resistant to analysis; empty of any objective essence. Therefore, this emptiness and the Middle Way which teaches it, transcend the extremes of eternalism and nihilism:

"To equate the absence of being in itself with nonexistence is a view of annihilation that leads to unfortunate existences. On the other hand, to superimpose a being-in-itself on emptiness is a view of eternalism that perpetuates the cycle."

Indeed, things exist but not in the way they appear to us, not in themselves. This is why this typically Buddhist ontology is called self-emptiness (skt. svabhāva-śūnyatā, tib. rangtong).

According to the very subtle Prāsaṅgika branch of the Middle Way, the existence of all things is purely nominal (tib. ming tsam) because it depends on a name or concept (tokpai tak tsam) that designates them on the basis of their characteristics or "basis for imputation" (tak shi).

The very specific Mahâyâna teachings on emptiness are merely developments of the non-self taught in the Fundamental Vehicle because everything is already written there explicitly or implicitly.

The Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamika considers that the Arhats have realized exactly the same profound emptiness as the Buddhas. The only difference lies in the vastness of the Way.

See the Dalai Lama's many teachings, such as Seeing Yourself as You Are, or One Hundred Elephants on a Blade of Grass, among others.

Four Emptinesses

Bhāva-śūnyatā: emptiness of substantial things
Abhāva-śūnyatā: emptiness of non-things: space, nirvāṇa
Prakṛti-śūnyatā: emptiness of inherent nature
Parabhāva-śūnyatā: other emptiness, i.e., the transcendent character of phenomena.

Eighteen vacuities

The Prajñaparamita Sutra expounds sixteen vacuities that Candrakîrti commented on. Other texts give 18 or 20. Nagarjuna distinguishes:

Adhyātma-śūnyatā: emptiness of internal phenomena (eye, ear, nose and other sense faculties), emptiness of the subject

Bahirdha-śūnyatā: emptiness of external, perceived phenomena, emptiness of the object

Adhyātma-bahirdha-śūnyatā: internal and external emptiness at the same time (the distinction between internal and external, between subject and object, is illusory)

Śūnyatā-śūnyatā: emptiness of emptiness (emptiness itself is not an essence)
Mahā-śūnyatā: emptiness of vastness (emptiness and unreality of space) or emptiness of the distinction between conditioned and unconditioned (depending on interpretations)

Paramārtha-śūnyatā: emptiness of the ultimate (of the ultimate Truth, of the thing-in-itself: "nirvana is empty of nirvana")

Samskṛta-śūnyatā: emptiness of compound phenomena, which exist by the law of causality, see conditioned coproduction

Asamskṛta-śūnyatā: emptiness of incomposed, uncreated phenomena (space, nirvana)

Atyanta-śūnyatā: emptiness of that which is beyond extremes (of nothingness and permanence), emptiness of the infinite

Anavaragra-śūnyatā: emptiness of that which has neither beginning nor end, samsara, time, or eternity

Anavakara-śūnyatā: emptiness of the indestructible, or of dispersion, or of non-repudiation

Prakṛti-śūnyatā: emptiness of nature of phenomena
Sarvadharma-śūnyatā: emptiness of all "dharmas" (conditioned or unconditioned phenomena)

Svalakṣana-śūnyatā: emptiness of one's own characters, of individuation
Anupalambha-śūnyatā: emptiness of the unapprehendable, the imperceptible (no reality can be perceived in phenomena)

Abhāva-śūnyatā: emptiness of non-being, of "non-things"
Svabhāva-śūnyatā: emptiness of proper nature, of beingAbhāvasvabhāva-śūnyatā: emptiness of proper nature and non-being, the opposition between being and non-being is itself denied.

Two vacuities

The anagārika Prajñānanda indicates two possible meanings for emptiness, expressed for example in writings such as the Sūtra of the Heart:

"On the one hand, the phenomenal quality denoting the non-essence of phenomena; better than by emptiness, it could be translated as bubbliness. Phenomena are comparable to bubbles that are born, inflate, deflate or burst. This notion of emptiness-bubbliness is always to be coupled with tathatā, the tellity, the quiddity. Each bubble is empty but such. The second meaning is what we might call absolute emptiness, e.g., "śūnyatāyam na rūpam, na vedanā, na samjñā, na samskāra, na vijñānam" ("in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no notion, no factor of existence, no discriminative knowledge"). The negation is total. (Gnostic Buddhism, 1981)"

By total negation, the Middle Way does not deny the existence of phenomena or their relative, illusory existence, but on the other hand this total negation completely denies any proper or intrinsic nature of phenomena. One could say that there is existence, but no essence.

Phenomena are not denied, what is denied is their essence which we wrongly and innately conceive as intrinsic or independent. And since it is the independent existence of phenomena that is denied, their dependent or purely nominal existence (tib. tokpai tak tsam) is affirmed.

Hence the two types of emptiness expressed by the Prajñānanda anagārika are united into one by the Prāsaṅgika exegetes of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras.

The distinction between relative emptiness and absolute emptiness parallels Nagarjuna's distinction between conventional truth and absolute truth, a distinction that is itself conventional. Rather than speaking of two types of emptiness, we will speak of two types of truths:

"The first is the absolute truth, the second that of appearance. Deprived of the first, things empty of their own being fully possess the second. They exist as a veil behind which there is nothing, but they exist as a veil. The doctrine professed within the veil affirms that there is nothing beyond it in absolute truth, but also professes the truth of the veil as such. According to the point of view from which it considers things, it denies the existence or it affirms it. It thus stands between affirmation and negation, in a middle proposition hence the name that commonly designates it alongside that of śūnyavāda and which is aimed precisely at this proposition: Madhyamaka, the Middle. (Jean Filliozat, Les philosophies de l'Inde, PUF, 1987) "

The relative emptiness of phenomena does not ultimately constitute a nature of its own, emptiness of emptiness, and conditioning cannot be unconditioned:

non-duality does not lead to any kind of monism, for if it is true that beings are empty, non-being is empty, and the Absolute itself is empty, and the distinction between relative and absolute is ultimately irrelevant. We are therefore no different from the Absolute, and that is why liberation (nirvāṇa) is possible:

"All phenomena are similar to a rainbow: free from any tangible reality. Once you realize the true nature of reality, which is to be empty and yet to manifest in the form of the world of phenomena, the mind becomes free from the grip of illusion. When you know how to let your thoughts dissolve by themselves as they arise, they will pass through your mind in the same way that a bird passes through the sky: without leaving a trace."

- Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

This Absolute has no absolute existence because nothing has an absolute existence; it is an omnipresent reality and it is in this that we can say that we are no different from this empty reality.

And ultimately, neither Nāgārjuna nor his subsequent prāsaṅgikas differentiate between the two types of emptiness because denying the inherent existence of form, for example, is tantamount to asserting that it does exist but only in a dependent way.

In Hinduism

Buddhism is not the only doctrine to have developed the notion of emptiness. Some Hindu schools also refer to it. Kashmiri Shivaism has particularly developed this notion. For example, the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra states:

"This whole universe is deprived of reality like a fictional show. What is the reality of such a show? If one is firmly convinced of this truth, one acquires peace. How can there be knowledge or activity for a Self that is free from modality? External objects are dependent on knowledge and hence this world is empty.

For them, emptiness is a necessary but not sufficient step. It is meant to be overcome. So there are several stages of emptiness, from the lowest (starting with deep sleep), to the highest stages. There are seven kinds of emptiness, as described in a writing such as the Svacchandatantra:

the lower emptiness: it "puts an end to the impressions of duality with regard to one's limited person and body" ;

the intermediate emptiness: pure self-consciousness, "active samâdhi of pure interiority", "intuition of the fourth state (nirvikalpasamâdhi)";

the superior emptiness: the purified I puts an end to individual limits, the Self reveals itself;

the universal emptiness of the omnipenetrating energy: "spontaneous harmony between inner and outer life", vyoman or cosmic immensity;

the emptiness of equality (samanâ) : "appeased foundation of the universal manifestation", "impassible and equal energy";

the supramental emptiness (unmanâ) : "absolute non-emptiness which eliminates emptiness and its opposite";

the seventh emptiness: "the perfect Void, the absolute, the fullness, the cosmic bliss, the supreme Peace or Paramaçiva non-different from its free energy".

Emptiness is conceived there as a kind of void or hole characteristic of an insufficient development of consciousness. It is therefore better not to dwell on it, or else one risks getting lost without remedy.

Thus, they developed a critical principle of Buddhist emptiness, against which they issued strong warnings. However, the definition used varies between the two movements: while Buddhists consider emptiness to be the true nature of things, Kashmiri Shivaism considers it to be a means of spiritual development. Although the terms are similar, they do not cover the same concepts.

Indeed, what is called "emptiness" is not necessarily that non-affirmative negation (prasajya-pratiseddha) or that emptiness of self (skt. svabhava-shunyata) of which Buddhism speaks with its consequentialist philosophy of the Middle Way (Prasangika-Madhyamika).

From a Hindu point of view, one can be in a void, but this void can simply be a void of otherness (parabhava-shunyata), a void that denies phenomena other than the empty object, but not necessarily the void of the object's own nature.

In his Brahmasutrabhasya, Shankara does not even attempt to refute Buddhist emptiness, even as he attempts at length to refute two other Buddhist conceptions, that of the Sarvāstivādins and that of the Vijnanavadins:

"As for the third view, that of the Sunyavādins (Mādhyamakas), who hold that everything is empty (sunya), it does not merit discussion, for the pramanas clearly refute this thesis, and the Sunyavādins have not put forward any new positive reason to justify their view."

Vedantist masters (e.g., Swâmi Siddheswarânanda) occasionally refer to Buddhist emptiness, relating it to the mystical experience of nirvikalpa samadhi:

"The nirguna-brahman of the Vedānta and the 'sūnya' of the Mādhyamikas presumably refer to the same spiritual experience that we call 'nirvikalpa samādhi'."


Critique by Nyâya Hindu philosophy

Hindu Nyâya philosophy refutes the emptiness of all objects, seen as an idealism unrelated to reality:

"If everything were a non-entity, by saying 'cow', it is an absence, something non-existent that would be perceived, that would be signified by the word 'cow'. But from the fact that by using the word "cow", it is indeed a particular positive substance and not something non-existent that is signified, it follows that < your thesis > is not legitimate. (...) < If you want to say that things are non-existent >, why not say: "A horse is a non-horse, a cow is a non-cow"? Since you can't say it, the positively existent character of a particular substance in its own form is established."

- Vâtsyâyana, Nyâya-Bhâshya.

Nyâya philosophy challenges emptiness by also asserting that things and the world have real existence, that impermanence is relative, that the single and original cause endures, is the source of everything, that there is a unifying and organizing continuity of the multitude of parts;

for Nyâya philosophy, it is illogical to advocate an emptiness in which "the existent arises from the non-existent because < nothing > can appear without destroying < its cause >".

If there are indeed sequences, they are formed from a substance that maintains itself within visible or subtle changes and is the primordial foundation of them; Vâtsyâyana thus takes the example of the seed and the shoot:

"The parts of the seed lose their first structure, accede to another and it is from this new < structure > that the shoot is born. We observe, moreover, that the constituent parts and their conjunction are indeed the causes of the appearance of the shoot. Consequently, it is not true that something appears from nothing. Moreover, there is no other cause for the appearance of the shoot than the constituent parts of the seed, and we must admit the rule that <a shoot > has a seed as its substantial cause."

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