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Buddhist concept of emptiness

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

‘Emptiness’ or ‘voidness’ is an expression used in Buddhist thought primarily to mark a distinction between the way things appear to be and the way they actually are, together with attendant attitudes which are held to be spiritually beneficial. It indicates a distinction between appearance and reality, where the paradigm for that distinction is ‘x is empty (śūnya) of y’, and emptiness (śūnyatā) is either the fact of x’s being empty of y or the actual absence itself as a quality of x. It thus becomes an expression for the ultimate truth, the final way of things. Śūnya is also a term which can be used in the nontechnical contexts of, for example, ‘The pot is empty of water’. These terms, however, are not univocal in Buddhist thought. If x is empty of y, what this means will depend upon what is substituted for ‘x’ and ‘y’. In particular, any simplistic understanding of ‘emptiness’ as the Buddhist term for the Absolute, approached through a sort of via negativa, would be quite misleading. We should distinguish here perhaps four main uses of ‘empty’ and ‘emptiness’: (1) all sentient beings are empty of a Self or anything pertaining to a Self; (2) all things, no matter what, are empty of their own inherent or intrinsic existence because they are all relative to causes and conditions, a view particularly associated with Nāgārjuna and the Mādhyamika school of Buddhism; (3) the flow of nondual consciousness is empty of hypostasized subject–object duality, the Yogācāra view; (4) the Buddha-nature which is within all sentient beings is intrinsically and primevally empty of all defilements, a notion much debated in Tibetan Buddhism.

Citing this article:
Williams, Paul. Buddhist concept of emptiness, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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