Emptiness (Pāli suññatā, Sanskrit śūnyatā) is a shocking word to use about the nature of all things including our own lives and yet that is the word the Buddha chose to use on several occasions. Some people have suggested that it should perhaps be translated with the gentler term “openness” or perhaps the more abstract “non-substantiality” but I think that the word was meant to be disconcerting even in the language and dialect the Buddha actually spoke. I believe the teaching of emptiness was meant to shake us up and drive home the point that there is no self or graspable substance to be found in any conditioned phenomena nor is the unconditioned any kind of self or graspable either. The teaching that all is empty is also often thought of as a Mahāyāna innovation, but in fact it is found in the Pāli canon, and in fact the Buddha seemed to view the teaching of emptiness as quite profound and something of great importance. On one occasion he said:
“Therefore, monks, 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.’ Thus should you train yourselves.” (Bodhi 2000, p. 709)
There are in fact several discourses in the Pāli canon where emptiness is the theme. In one discourse the Buddha taught that a virtuous monk should carefully attend to the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness that are all subject to clinging “as impermanent, as suffering, as a disease, as a tumor, as a dart, as misery, as an affliction, as alien, as disintegrating, as empty, as non-self.” (Ibid, p. 970) Here emptiness is synonymous with non-self and non-self is a term meant to show that none of the aggregates are fully subject to our control, none of them are permanent, none of them can exist on their own, and none of them can bring us complete or lasting satisfaction so none of them are what we can call a self that is eternal, independent, and truly happy and at ease. In another discourse the Buddha compares each of the aggregates to something that is obviously ephemeral, non-existent, or illusory. He compares form to a lump of foam on the Ganges River, feeling to a water bubble that rises on the surface of a body of water when rain falls upon it, perception to a mirage seen at high noon during the hot season, mental formations to the lack of heartwood in a plantain tree, and consciousness to a magical illusion created by a magician. In the case of any of the aggregates the Buddha states that upon investigation it will be revealed as void, hollow, and insubstantial. In verse this teaching is summarized as follows:
“Form is like a lump of foam,
Feeling like a water bubble;
Perception is like a mirage,
Volitions like a plantain trunk,
And consciousness like an illusion,
So explained the Kinsman of the Sun.
“However one may ponder it
And carefully investigate it,
It appears hollow and void
When one views it carefully.”
(See ibid, pp. 951-952)
The five aggregates that comprise sentient beings are all empty and so are the six sense bases, the twelve sense fields, and the eighteen elements that are all components of the Buddhist analysis of human existence. All of our senses, all the things we can sense, and all the forms of consciousness that arise based on sensory experience are all empty of a self as a fixed, independent entity or underlying substance. In short, the world and everything and everyone in it are empty.
Then the Venerable Ānanda approached the Blessed One … and said to him: “Venerable sir, it is said, ‘Empty is the world, empty is the world.’ In what way, venerable sir, is it said, ‘Empty is the world’?”
“It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’ And what is empty of self and of what belongs to self? The eye, Ānanda, is empty of self and of what belongs to self. Forms are empty of self and of what belongs to self. Eye-consciousness is empty of self and of what belongs to self. Eye-contact is empty of self and of what belongs to self… Whatever feeling arises with mind-contact as condition – whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant – that too is empty of self and of what belongs to self.
“It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’” (Ibid, pp. 1163-1164)
In other words, one must develop a perspective that recognizes that due to the impermanent and thoroughly contingent nature of all things there are no fixed or permanent signs of individual existence to grasp, that all things are empty of a self or what will establish a self, and therefore there is nothing to be wished for or desired.
“Monks, for direct knowledge of lust three things are to be developed. What three? Emptiness concentration, markless concentration, and wishless concentration. For direct knowledge of lust, these three things are to be developed.
“Monks, for full understanding of lust … for the utter destruction … for the abandoning … for the destruction … for the vanishing … for the fading away … for the cessation … for the giving up … For the relinquishment of lust these three things are to be developed.
“Monks, for direct knowledge … for full understanding … for the utter destruction … for the abandoning … for the destruction … for the vanishing … for the fading away … for the cessation … for the giving up … for the relinquishment of hatred … delusion … anger… hostility … denigration … insolence … envy … miserliness … deceitfulness … craftiness … obstinacy … vehemence … conceit … arrogance … intoxication … heedlessness, three things are to be developed. What three? Emptiness concentration, markless concentration, and wishless concentration. For the relinquishment of heedlessness, these three things are to be developed.”
This is what the Blessed One said. Elated, those monks delighted in the Blessed One’s statement. (Bodhi 2012, pp. 376-377)
The Abhidharma calls this perspective the triple gateway to liberation: the empty, the markless, and the wishless. They are three different contemplations that consider how all conditioned things are empty of self, that there are no marks or characteristics of things that can be permanently grasped, and that there are no conditioned things that can be wished for that would ever be able to bring ultimate lasting satisfaction. Through contemplating the empty, the markless, and the wishless one arrives at nirvāna, the unconditioned, that is empty of self, without any conditioned marks, and a state of total contentment wherein there is no need to wish for anything else. To abide in nirvāna, then, is to abide in the empty, the markless, and the wishless. In the Shorter Discourse on Emptiness (P. Cūlasuññata Sutta) in the Middle Length Discourses there is the following exchance between Ānanda and the Buddha:
“Venerable sir, on one occasion the Blessed One was living in the Sakyan country at a town of the Sakyas named Nagaraka. There, venerable sir, I heard and learned this from the Blessed One’s own lips: ‘Now, Ānanda, I often abide in emptiness.’ Did I hear that correctly, venerable sir, did I learn that correctly, attend to that correctly, remember that correctly?”
“Clearly, Ānanda, you heard that correctly, learned that correctly, attended to that correctly, remembered that correctly. As formerly, Ānanda, so now too I often abide in emptiness. (Ñānamoli and Bodhi, p. 965)
There are other discourses about and references to emptiness in the Pāli canon but I think the passages cited above are enough to show that emptiness is not just a Mahāyāna innovation but is regarded highly even in the pre-Mahāyāna teachings as a way to consider the emptiness of conditioned things and as a way of talking about nirvāna and the way in which arhats and buddhas abide in nirvāna.
There are two important Mahāyāna sūtras that are familiar to most Buddhist practitioners around the world today whose main theme is the teaching of emptiness. These are the Diamond Sūtra and the Heart Sūtra. These two sūtras were believed by the scholar and translator Edward Conze (1904-1979) to be summaries of the larger Perfection of Wisdom sūtras written in the fourth century CE. Today, some would argue that the Diamond Sūtra may actually have been one of the earliest of the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras and go back to the first century BCE and that later works were expanding upon its themes. In any case, Kumārajīva (344-413) translated the Diamond Sūtra into Chinese in the year 401. The earliest printed book that can be dated is actually a Chinese copy of the Diamond Sūtra from the year 868. Kumārājiva also supposedly translated the Heart Sūtra but this may be just an attribution and no copy of it has been dated prior to the 7th century. It is possible that it was a Chinese creation, being composed of excerpts from the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra. In my view, neither of these sūtras say anything that departs radically from what was taught in the Pāli canon except insofar as the teachings of emptiness are set into a Mahāyāna context.
In the Diamond Sūtra, The monk Subhūti asks the Buddha, “How then, O Lord, should a son or daughter of good family, who have set out in the Bodhisattva-vehicle, stand, how progress, how control their thoughts?” (Conze, p. 13) Those who set out in the bodhisattva vehicle are those who aim not to merely escape samsāra, the cycle of birth and death, as arhats but to remain in samsāra for as long as it takes to accumulate sufficient merit and wisdom for the attainment of buddhahood so that they too can lead sentient beings into nirvāna. The rest of the sūtra is the Buddha’s answer to Subhūti’s inquiry. The Buddha’s first answer is in terms of the bodhisattva’s initial resolve.
The Lord said, “Here Subhūti, someone who has set out in the vehicle of a bodhisattva should produce a thought in this manner: ‘As many beings as there are in the universe of beings, comprehended under the term ‘beings’ – egg-born, born from a womb, moisture-born, or miraculously born; with or without form; with perception, without perception, and with neither perception nor non-perception – as far as any conceivable form of beings is conceived: all these I must lead to nirvāna, into that realm of nirvāna which leaves nothing behind. And yet, although innumerable beings have thus been led to nirvāna, no being at all has been led to nirvāna.’ And why? If in a bodhisattva the notion of ‘being’ should take place, he could not be called a ‘Bodhi-being.’ And why? He is not to be called a Bodhi-being, in whom the notion of a self or of a being should take place, or the notion of a living soul or of a person.” (Ibid, pp. 15-16 adapted)
The term emptiness is not used here and yet it is the emptiness of all beings that the bodhisattva realizes. On the one hand, the bodhisattva compassionately resolves to save all beings and yet the bodhisattva also has the wisdom to recognize that there is no-self, nor are there any substantial entities such as a being, soul, or person for the reasons given in the above discourses. The Buddha then explains that bodhisattvas who practice the perfection of generosity (the first of the six perfections, the other five being morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom) should do so without depending upon any phenomena, including sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touchable objects, or mental objects. Further in the sūtra the perfection of patience is spoken of as possible only if one relinquishes thinking in terms of self, beings, souls, or persons. Presumably all six perfections (which this sūtra does not enumerate or otherwise explain) should be practiced without clinging to any notions or objects. This is again to emphasize that the bodhisattva is motivated by compassion but is guided by the wisdom that recognizes the empty nature of all things.
Other categories are also mentioned and exposed as not something to be grasped as an entity including the Buddha’s 32 marks, the various states of liberation culminating in arhatship, and buddhahood itself. Often in the sūtra it is said that something such as marks or merit is spoken of as “no-marks” or “no-merit” and therefore it can be spoken of as “marks” or “merit.” One can speak truthfully of things only if one recognizes the provisional nature of language and that there are no such things as substantial permanent, independent entities. In short there is no dharma, in other words phenomena, even awakening, that is not empty though also not completely nonexistent.
The Lord asked, “What do you think Subhūti? is there any dharma which the Tathāgata has has fully known as ‘perfect complete awakening’ or is there any dharma which the Tathāgata has demonstrated?
Subhūti replied, “No, not as I understand what the Lord has said. And why? This dharma that the Tathāgata has fully known or demonstrated – it cannot be grasped, it cannot be talked about, it is neither a dharma nor a no-dharma. And why? Because the unconditioned exalts the holy persons.” (Ibid, p. 30 adapted)
It should be remembered that the Buddha taught the Middle Way between asserting a substantial existence or a nihilistic nothingness. So what is being denied here is that there are any dharmas with a self-nature, but this is not to say that there is a sheer nothingness to be clung to either. There are contingent dharmas that we experience as the world of phenomena but ultimately there is no self in them. There is also nirvāna, the unconditioned, but that is not an object or thing that can be grasped as a self either. This again is no different from the Pāli canon discourses on emptiness wherein emptiness is taught to point out the lack of a self-nature in the aggregates and is also an aspect of nirvāna. The Diamond Sūtra finally ends with a verse that uses the same kinds of analogies for the ephemeral, illusory, and empty nature of things found in the discourse cited above from the Pāli canon about the five aggregates.
As stars, a fault of vision, as a lamp.
A mock show, dew drops, or a bubble,
A dream, a lightning flash, or cloud,
So should one view the conditioned.
(Ibid, p. 69)
The Heart Sūtra is very terse but does in fact use the word emptiness, over and over, to negate all the categories used in the Buddha’s earlier discourses to analyze the human condition. The five aggregates, the six sense bases, the eighteen elements, the four noble truths, the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination are all emptied out in turn. But here again this is no different from what has already been said in the Pāli canon, though in the Heart Sūtra Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva delivers the discourse to Śāriputra and it ends with a mantra that means, “Gone, gone, gone beyond, perfectly gone beyond, awakening, hurrah!” The sūtra is very short so I will simply share my own translation of it.
deeply practicing the perfection of wisdom at this time,
clearly sees that all five aggregates are empty
and delivered from all suffering and distress.
Form is no other than emptiness.
Emptiness is no other than form.
Form is emptiness.
Emptiness is form.
Feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness
are also like this.
All phenomena are empty of characteristics.
They neither appear nor disappear.
They are neither defiled nor pure.
They neither increase nor decrease.
Thus, in emptiness there is no form,
nor is there feeling, perception, mental formations, or consciousness;
no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or [mental] phenomena;
no realm of seeing
and so on until no realm of mental discrimination;
no end of ignorance,
and so on until no old age and death,
and no ending of old age and death;
no suffering, origination, cessation or way;
no wisdom and no attainment.
Since there is nothing to attain
relies upon the perfection of wisdom, whereby
the mind is unhindered.
Because there is no hindrance
there is no fear.
Far removed from all inverted delusions
nirvāna is realized at last.
The past, present and future buddhas all
rely on the perfection of wisdom in
attaining the supreme perfect awakening.
Therefore, know that the perfection of wisdom
is the great sacred mantra,
the great illuminating mantra,
the unsurpassed mantra,
which is able to remove all suffering.
It is true not false.
Therefore expound the perfection of wisdom mantra.
Now expound this mantra, saying:
Gate Gate Pāragate Pārasamgate Bodhi Svāhā!
In closing I’d like to stress that these discourses, from the earlier Pāli selections to these two Mahāyāna sūtras are not as nihilistic as they sound – far from it. They are in fact negating nihilism as much as they are negating the belief that there are eternal essences or unchanging independent substances. The point of talking about emptiness is to get the practitioner to stop clinging to their notions that there are things to cling to, including the notion that there is a self or some underlying essence to things beyond the dynamic flux of causes and conditions – each cause and condition itself being caused and condition and so on. Sheer nothingness or non-existence would also be viewed as a mistaken notion of an essence (or anti-essence) that should be seen as empty and therefore not something to be clung to. Where does this leave the practitioner? It leaves the practitioner free to experience liberation, no longer clinging unhappily to ephemeral conditions empty of any lasting self-nature. This may itself sound flat or negative to simply be free from clinging by seeing all things as empty, and yet there is something about the two Mahāyāna sūtras that really bears noticing. The Diamond Sūtra is a dialogue between the Buddha and the monk Subhūti who was one of the ten major śrāvaka disciples and the one renowned for dwelling without conflict due to his cultivation of boundless loving-kindness. The Heart Sūtra is a discourse given by Avakokiteśvara Bodhisattva, whose name means the Regarder of the Cries of the World and who is known as the Bodhisattva of Compassion. I do not think this is an accident. I think that what is being suggested is that to be free is also to be free to love without attachment and to have a fearless and boundless compassion for all.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.
___________________. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Anguttara Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012.
Ñānamoli, Bhikkhu and Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya. Botson: Wisdom Publications, 1995.
Conze, Edward, trans. Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. New York: Vintage Books, 2001.