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Śūnyatā, शून्यता (Sanskrit), or "Emptiness," is a term for a concept or set of concepts playing an important role in some versions of the Buddhist metaphysical critique, but also having important implications for Buddhist epistemology and phenomenology. Shunyata is most often associated with Nagarjuna and the Madhyamaka school, which is usually counted as an early Mahayana school, but according to a number of accounts within the Mahayana, modern Theravada Buddhism, and also Western scholarship, Shunyata, at least in the hands of Nagarjuna, follows directly from (or simply summarizes) the older doctrines of Anatta (Pali, Sanskrit:Anātman – the rejection of Ātman), and Paticcasamuppada (Pali, Sanskrit: pratītyasamūtpāda) (Interdependent Arising).

Shunyata signifies the nonsubstantiality or lack of essential nature of everything one encounters in life. (i.e., that everything is empty of substance, being, soul, essence, etc.) Everything is inter-related, never self-sufficient or independent; nothing has independent reality.

It should be noted that the exact definition and extent of shunyata varies within the different Buddhist schools of philosophy.In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, detailed dialogs between the perspectives of the various schools are preserved in order to train students.

As explained by Walpola Rahula, the Sunna Sutta (, part of the Pali Canon, relates that the monk Ananda, the attendant to Gautama Buddha said, "People say the word Sunya. What is Sunya?" The Buddha replied, "Ananda, there is no self, nor anything pertaining to self in this world. Therefore, the world is empty."

Table of contents

Shunyata in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras

In the Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra declares that the skandhas, which constitute our mental and physical existence, are empty in their nature or essence, i.e., empty of any such nature or essence. But it also declares that this emptiness is the same as form (which connotes fulness)--i.e., that this is an emptiness which is at the same time not different from the kind of reality which we normally subscribe to events; it is not a nihilistic emptiness that undermines our world, but a "positive" emptiness which defines it.

Shunyata in Nagarjuna

For Nagarjuna, who provided the most important philosophical formulation of sunyata, emptiness as the mark of all phenomena means is a natural consequence of dependent origination; indeed, he identifies the two. In his analysis, any enduring essential nature (i.e., fullness) would prevent the process of dependent origination, would prevent any kind of origination at all, for things would simply always have been and always continue to be. That things happen is proof that things lack the kind of nature attributed to them in mainstream Indian metaphysics.

An interesting consequence of this is that this enables Nagarjuna to put forth a bold argument regarding the relation of nirvana and samsara. If all phenomenal events (i.e., the events that constitute samsara) are empty, then they are empty of any compelling ability to cause suffering. For Nagarjuna, nirvana is neither something added to samsara nor any process of taking away from it (i.e., removing the enlightened being from it). In other words, nirvana is simply samsara rightly experienced in light of a proper understanding of the emptiness of all things.

Sunyata in the "Tathagatagarbha" Sutras

The class of Buddhist scriptures known as the "Tathagatagarbha" sutras presents a seemingly variant view of Emptiness, according to which the Buddha and Nirvana, unlike compounded, conditioned phenomena, are not empty of intrinsic existence, but merely of the impermanent, the painful and the selfless. In the "Srimala Sutra" the Buddha is seen as empty of all defilement and ignorance, not of intrinsic Reality. The "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra" supports such a vision and views Ultimate Emptiness as the Buddhic Knowledge which sees both Emptiness and non-Emptiness, wherein "the Empty is the totality of Samsara and the non-Empty is Great Nirvana". The Buddha in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra further indicates that to view absolutely everything as empty is an unbalanced approach and constitutes a deviation from the middle path of Dharma: "The wise perceive Emptiness and non-Emptiness, the Eternal and the Impermanent, Suffering and Bliss, the Self and non-Self. ... To perceive the Emptiness of everything and not to perceive non-Emptiness is not termed the Middle Way; to perceive the non-Self of everything and not to perceive the Self is not termed the Middle Way." Moreover, this particular sutra contains a passage in which the Buddha castigates those who view the inner Buddha-Principle ("Tathagatagarbha"/ "Buddha-nature") within each being as empty, declaring of them thay they are effectively committing a form of painful spiritual suicide through such a stance: "By having cultivated non-Self in connection with the Tathagatagarbha [Buddhic Essence] and having continually cultivated Emptiness, suffering will not be eradicated but one will become like a moth in the flame of a lamp." (Tibetan version of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra). The attainment of nirvanic Liberation ("moksha"), by contrast, is said to open up a realm of "utter bliss, joy, permanence, stability, [and] eternity" (ibid).

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