Buddhist philosophy, Chinese

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G002-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

12. Sinicizing Buddhist concepts: emptiness

Before Buddhism entered China Daoists had already embraced a notion of emptiness which it took Buddhists several centuries to realize was significantly different from their own (see Daoist philosophy). Laozi had contrasted the empty or open (xu) with the solid. What made a wheel functional was its empty hub; what made a vessel or room functional was its open space. Hence emptiness (or openness) is not worthless but rather the key to functionality and usefulness (see Daodejing). Later Daoists contrasted existents (you) with nonexistence (wu), and claimed that all existence emerges from nonexistence and ultimately returns to nonexistence (see You–wu). Some Chinese metaphysicians, such as Wang Bi, wrote about primordial nonexistence (yuan wu, benwu) as the metaphysical source, destination and substratum for all existent things. Thus form and emptiness were opposed, contrasting poles, and emptiness had primacy.

Some early Chinese Buddhists interpreted Buddhist emptiness in the same fashion, especially in the Prajñāschools. Eventually Buddhists realized, as the Heart Sutra says, that form and emptiness are not opposed to each other, but that ‘form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself is form, form is not different from emptiness, emptiness is not different from form.’ In other words, Buddhist ‘emptiness’ did not mean ‘open’ or ‘nonexistence’. Emptiness (śūnyatā) signified the absence of an eternal, independent, self-causing, invariant, essential self-nature (svabhāva) or selfhood (ātman) in any thing or person. Whatever existed did so by virtue of a perpetually changing web of causes and conditions that themselves were products of other causes and conditions. Stated simplistically, emptiness does not mean that a table is unreal or nonexistent, or that its solid texture or colour are unreal; it does mean that the concept of tableness is unreal, and that the abstractions ‘solidity’ and ‘colour’ are unreal apart from the discrete and particular sensations one has at specific moments due to specific causes and conditions. Buddhist emptiness is not a primal void, but the absence of self-essence (see Buddhist concept of emptiness). To avoid being confused with Daoist concepts of emptiness, the Buddhists eventually chose a new term, kong, to render their ‘emptiness’.

Emptiness is neither the origin nor terminus for forms; forms themselves at any moment are emptiness. Since everything is causally connected with everything else, and there are no independent identities beyond or behind such causes and conditions, everything, according to Huayan, mutually interpenetrates and conditions everything else. Every thing defines and is defined by every other thing.

Citing this article:
Lusthaus, Dan. Sinicizing Buddhist concepts: emptiness. Buddhist philosophy, Chinese, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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