Śūnyatā – ‘emptiness’

What Is Emptiness?

The Sanskrit term, sunyata, (often translated as ‘emptiness’) is a key tenet of Mahayana Buddhism. It is also often misunderstood. Too often, people assume it means that nothing exists, that the universe is void or empty. But this is not the case. The current Dalai Lama has said, “The existence of things and events is not in dispute; it is the manner in which they exist that must be clarified.”

‘Sunyata’, refers to the insight that no entity (object or idea) exists in, or for, itself. In Buddhism existence is considered as a web of mutually dependent or relational phenomena – none of which have any autonomous identity or self-existence. In other words, all things are empty of self-existence (emptiness), that is, they have no fixed essence and no existence independent of everything else.

Sunyata and anicca (impermanence) are closely related, for if all entities (including ideas, feelings and perceptions, as well as objects and beings) are impermanent, they cannot have an enduring essence or self-existence – they cannot be considered as entities separate from everything else. Entities are always conditional upon one another. In the flux of existence all things arise and decay – they are always changing from one state to another, becoming something else. In Buddhist terms everything that exists is interdependent upon everything else – this is the idea of dependent origination or mutual co-arising. If we cling to the notion that some things, beliefs or ideas, (for instance, ourselves), have independent existence we will always be frustrated, dissatisfied and feel a sense of loss. Buddha taught that right understanding of the way things are, can lessen our suffering and lead to greater tranquillity and enjoyment.

If all phenomena are empty (of self-existence) and are interwoven with and inter-related to everything else, then any distinctions we make between things are arbitrary and relative. Because nothing has self-existence, nothing is autonomous or separate from everything else, therefore any distinctions we make between things are arbitrary, conventional and relative, for instance: up/down, large/small, dog/cat, mammal/insect, wise/foolish, past/future, Buddhist/Christian. We use language to label things and categorise the world – which is useful, it helps us to think about the world and to do things – but it can also give us a false sense of separateness and permanence. Language and discrimination can add to our misunderstanding and suffering/dissatisfaction. It is important not to become attached to labels, names and forms as if they are permanent and actual – when they are not.

All of this applies to us, as much as to everything else. We also, are empty of self-existence and are impermanent. We are a stream of ever-changing currents of feeling, thought, mood, perception and aspiration. We have no fixed essence, soul or self, and we have no clear and permanent boundaries. What we call the ego, my-self, me and I, are conventions, names and labels for fluid and always changing phenomena. In mindfulness meditation we observe these passing phenomena without judgment, commentary or clinging – seeing and accepting them for what they. The self in Buddhist terms is a process, not a thing, it has no fixed ego-centre or essence. We make and re-make ourselves from moment-to-moment.