What is Suñyāta or Suññāta (Emptiness)?

Revised December 28, 2015; November 26, 2017; December 16, 2017

1. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, there are books written about Suñyāta (actually it is Suññāta in Pali) or emptiness. Mahāyāna Buddhism tries to make a big deal out of suñyāta, because their forefathers  (those who started Mahāyāna tradition) could not understand the concept of Nibbāna. It is unfortunate that many people who are only introduced to Mahāyāna teachings (and are not aware of the original teachings of the Buddha) believe that Nibbāna is an abstract concept.

2. What is emptiness?

  • When an entity A is devoid of entity B, then it can be said that entity A is devoid of B, or empty of B. That is the emptiness or suñyāta.
  • For example, if we take a water bottle and pour the water out, we say we have an empty bottle. But in reality there is air in the bottle, so the bottle is empty only with regard to water; it is not empty regard to air.
  • Emptiness is relative. One has to say what it is empty of. There is no absolute “emptiness”. It is meaningless to say “this is emptiness”, because there may be something there that we are not aware of.
  • For example, up until recently scientists thought deep space is “empty”. But now they know that it is full energy. Still, one could say that “deep space is empty of tangible matter” to a good approximation.

3. The Buddha said when the mind becomes empty of greed (rāga), hate (dōsa), and ignorance (mōha) it becomes empty of those defilements: “rāgakkhayō Nibbānan, dosakkhayaō Nibbānan, mohakkhayō Nibbānan“, and that mind has attained Nibbāna. That is emptiness, suñyāta with respect to defilements, and also with respect to anything material in this world of 31 realms; see below. VERY SIMPLE explanation, even though it is not easy to get there.

  • When one attains the Arahant phala, one’s mind becomes sunya of rāga, dōsa, mōha. But one still has saññā (perception), vēdanā (feelings), etc. and lives like a normal human being until death.
  • But his/her mind is devoid of greed, hate, and ignorance, so that he/she will not do any immoral act, under any circumstance.
  • At the death of an Arahant, “this world of 31 realms” becomes devoid of any trace of that lifestream, except for the Arahant‘s nama gotta (manō imprints or memory records, for previous lives; see, “Difference Between Dhamma and Sankhara (Sankata)“); there is no rebirth. So that is another suñyāta.

4. There is a sutta in Tipitaka that is about sunnata (emptiness), and was delivered by the Buddha, called the Cula-Suññāta sutta. I actually wrote the original post before I knew about this sutta. When a friend of mine told me about the sutta, I was glad to see that the sutta described emptiness very similar to the way I described it above. This does show that the Dhamma is internally self-consistent.

 The highlighting in the link below is mine, and I have made some comments:

Cula-Suññāta Sutta

There is no need to write books on emptiness that are full of meaningless words. The above sutta says it all.

5. In an online discussion forum in 2014, I saw a comment saying that emptiness describes paticca samuppāda. This was really a surprise, because in Mahāyāna texts it is not explained what paticca samuppāda is.

  • I have not seen the paticca samuppāda explained in even a remotely sensible way in a Mahāyāna text, Zen, Vajrayana, or any other form. If you know of such a book, please send me a comment giving the name of the book (or any other source), and I would appreciate it.

6. Anything in this world of 31 realms arise due to avijjā (ignorance of the real nature of that world): This is the step, “bhava paccayā jāti” in paticca samuppāda. See the Paticca Samuppāda section for details.

  • When avijjā is dispelled through the removal of greed, hate, and ignorance via comprehending Dhamma, NOTHING in this material world can arise, because it all starts with “avijjā paccaya sankhara“, i.e., via thinking, speaking, and doing things with avijjā.
  • At Arahanthood, even the slightest bondage to anything material in the 31 realms is discarded, and all causes for anything material (which is the cause of suffering at a deeper level) to arise. This is real emptiness or Nibbāna. Also see, “What Are Rupa? (Relation to Nibbāna)“.

7. “Yo paticca samuppādam passati, so Dhammam passati” or, “One who understands paticca samuppāda, understands Dhamma”

  • The Mahāyāna sects have moved so far away from Buddha Dhamma, I cannot fathom why they still call it Buddha’s Dhamma.
  • It is very easy to get the idea behind paticca samuppāda, because it is in the words; see, “Paticca Samuppāda – “Pati+ichcha”+”Sama+uppada”“, and follow-up posts. Buddha Dhamma is all about cause and effects, and that is what is described in paticca samuppāda.

8. There is a deeper way to analyze Suññata. However, one needs to know the meanings of the Three Characteristics of Nature (Tilakkhana or anicca, dukkha,anatta) first. It is not possible to attain Nibbāna without knowing Tilakkhana or the real nature of this world; see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta“.

  • One can get to Nibbāna (also called vimokkha) via contemplating on anicca, dikkha, or anatta (of course they are inter-related).  Contemplation of anicca leads to animitta vimokkha. Contemplation of dukkha leads to appanita vimokkha. Contemplation of antta leads to suññata vimokkha.
  • However, regardless of the path taken, the end result is the same: one gets to Nibbāna, release (or freedom) from this world.

9. Finally, at the very basic level, Nibbāna means getting rid of greed, hate, and ignorance. That REQUIRES comprehension of anicca, dukkha,anatta or the real nature this world.

  • Put in a different way, greed, hate, and ignorance need to be removed via Anāpāna and Satipatthāna meditations; see, “Satipatthāna Sutta – Structure“. But those meditations need to be done with the comprehension of anicca, dukkha,anatta.
  • More details on the correct versions of those meditations can be found at: “Bhāvanā (Meditation)” and “Maha Satipatthana Sutta“.

Next, “Incorrect Thēravada Interpretations – Historical Timeline“, ……….

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