In the Mūlamadhamaka kārikas attributed to Nagarjuna, Śūnyatā is qualified as "...void, unreal, and non-existent". Eliot et al. (1993: p.81) in commenting on the aforecited qualification of Śūnyatā from De la Valée Poussin, furthers that:
None of these translations of śûnya is, however, quite satisfactory and there is much to be said for Stcherbatsky's [Stcherbatsky (1927). The Conception of Nirvana.] rendering - relative or contingent. Phenomena are śûnya or unreal because no phenomenon when taken by itself is thinkable: they are all interdependent and have no separate existence of their own.
Śūnyatā signifies that everything one encounters in life is empty of absolute identity, permanence, or an in-dwelling 'self'. This is because everything is inter-related and mutually dependent - never wholly self-sufficient or independent. All things are in a state of constant flux where energy and information are forever flowing throughout the natural world giving rise to and themselves undergoing major transformations with the passage of time.
This teaching never connotes nihilism - nihilism is, in fact, a belief or point of view that the Buddha explicitly taught was incorrect - a delusion, just as the view of materialism is a delusion (see below). In the English language the word emptiness suggests the absence of spiritual meaning or a personal feeling of alienation, but in Buddhism the realization of the emptiness of phenomena enables liberation from the limitations of form in the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth.
Rawson states that: "[o]ne potent metaphor for the Void, often used in Tibetan art, is the sky. As the sky is the emptiness that offers clouds to our perception, so the Void is the 'space' in which objects appear to us in response to our attachments and longings." The Japanese use of the Chinese character signifying Shunyata is also used to connote sky or air.
Over time, many different philosophical schools or tenet-systems (siddhānta in Sanskrit) have developed within Buddhism in an effort to explain the exact philosophical meaning of emptiness.
After the Buddha, Śūnyatā was further developed by and the Madhyamaka school, which is usually counted as an early Mahayana school. Śūnyatā ("positively" interpreted - see Tathagatagarbha section below) is also an important element of the Tathagatagarbha literature, which played a formative role in the evolution of subsequent Mahayana doctrine and practice. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, detailed dialogs between the perspectives of the various schools are preserved in order to train students. For example, in the Tibetan tradition some of the main philosophical schools are listed as: Vaibhasika, Sautrantika, Cittamatra, and several schools within Madhyamaka (such as Svatantrika-Madhyamika and Prasangika-Madhyamika).
It should be noted that the exact definition and extent of shunyata varies within the different Buddhist schools of philosophy which can easily lead to confusion. These tenet-systems all explain in slightly different ways what phenomena 'are empty of', which phenomena exactly are 'empty' and what emptiness means.
For example, some members of the Cittamatra school have held that the mind itself ultimately exists (the most prominent members of the school did not), but other schools like the Madhyamaka deny that either this statement or its negation has any validity.
In the Mahayana Tathagatagarbha sutras, in contrast, only impermanent, changeful things and states (the realm of samsara) are said to be empty in a negative sense - but not the Buddha or Nirvana, which are stated to be real, eternal and filled with inconceivable, enduring virtues.
Further, the Lotus Sutra states that seeing all phenomena as empty (sunya) is not the highest, final attainment: the bliss of total Buddha-Wisdom supersedes even the vision of complete emptiness.
Sunnata (Sanskrit: Śūnyatā, "Emptiness", is the noun form of Shunya (zero) in Sanskrit, literally zero "ness") in Pali contexts is not the metaphysical Zero (non-being as a principle of being, infinite possibility as distinguished from indefinite actuality), but a characteristic of this world.
In S IV.295 96, it is explained that the Alms-man experiences a deathlike contemplation in which consciousness and feeling have been arrested. When he returns he recounts "three touches" that touch him, "emptiness" (suññato), "formlessness"(animito) and "making no plans (appanihito phasso)," and he discriminates (viveka) accordingly. The meaning of the "emptiness" as contemplated here is explained at M 1.29 as the "emancipation of the mind by Emptiness (sunnata ceto vimutti) being consequent upon the realization that `this world is empty of spirit or anything spiritual' (suññam idam attena vā attaniyena vā)".
The term is also used in two suttas in the Majjhima Nikaya, where it is used in the context of a progression of mental states to refer to each state's emptiness of the one below.
The stance that nothing contingent has any inherent essence forms the basis of the more sweeping 'sunyavada' doctrine. In the Mahayana, this doctrine, without denying their value, denies any essence to even the Buddha's appearance and to the promulgation of the Dhamma itself.
In the Patisambhidamagga, many meanings are given, including nirvana. Formations are said to be empty in/of/by own-nature, a similar expression to one used in Mahayana literature.
Emptiness is not taught as often by Theravada teachers as it is by Mahayanists. One reason for this is that emptiness is seen as a liberating insight in the Theravada tradition, rather than a philosophical view one needs to understand intellectually; emptiness is often not taught until the teacher decides the student is ready. Another is that in some circumstance where a Mahayanist would use the word "shunyata," a Theravadin would instead use the words "impermanence" or "anatta" to mean the same thing. A third is that in the Theravada tradition, understanding emptiness is subordinated to the ultimate goal of liberation.
Another view is that in advancing personal growth, it is not metaphysics but phenomenology that is required. Metaphysical views are often irrelevant, or even harmful if the intrinsic emptiness of the fruits of an unskillful act provide a rationale for performing that act.
The 'Vajracchedika Sutra' states the following: 'Those who see me in the body (rupena) and think of me in sounds (ghosaih), their way of thinking is false, they do not see me at all. ... The Buddha cannot be rightly understood (rjuboddhum) by any means (upayena)."
Not that "means" are not dispositive to a right understanding, but that if regarded as ends, even the most adequate means are a hindrance. What is true of ethics is also true of the supports of contemplation on emptiness: as in the well known Parable of the Raft (Alagaddupama Sutra), the means of crossing a river are of no more use when the goal of the other shore has been reached.
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 fullness)--i.e., that this is an emptiness which is at the same time not different from the kind of reality which we normally ascribe to events; it is not a nihilistic emptiness that undermines our world, but a "positive" emptiness which defines it.
For Nāgārjuna, who provided the most important philosophical formulation of śūnyatā, emptiness as the mark of all phenomena 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.
This enables Nāgārjuna to put forth a bold argument regarding the relation of nirvāna and samsāra. If all phenomenal events (i.e., the events that constitute samsāra) are empty, then they are empty of any compelling ability to cause suffering. For Nāgārjuna, nirvāna is neither something added to samsāra nor any process of taking away from it (i.e., removing the enlightened being from it). In other words, nirvāna is simply samsāra rightly experienced in light of a proper understanding of the emptiness of all things.
The class of Buddhist scriptures known as the Tathagatagarbha sutras presents a seemingly variant understanding of Emptiness. To counteract a possible nihilist view of someone who is disconcerted by the predominantly negative language of Madhyamaka, these sutras portray emptiness of certain phenomena in a positive way. According to some scholars, the "tathagatagarbha"/Buddha-nature these sutras discuss does not represent a substantial self (atman); rather, it is a positive language expression of emptiness and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices. In this view, the intention of the teaching of 'tathagatagarbha'/Buddha nature is soteriological rather than theoretical. According to others, the potential of salvation depends on the ontological reality of a salvific, abiding core reality (the Buddha-nature, empty of all mutability and error) fully present within all beings.
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 cognition ("jnana") which perceives 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 Buddhism:
"The wise perceive Emptiness and non-Emptiness, the Eternal and the Impermanent, Suffering and Bliss, the Self and the 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 Tathagatagarbha (which is the indwelling, immortal Buddha-element) in each being as empty. The sutra states how the Buddha declares that they are effectively committing a form of painful spiritual suicide through their wrongheaded stance:
"By having cultivated non-Self in connection with the Tathagatagarbha and having continually cultivated Emptiness, suffering will not be eradicated but one will become like a moth in the flame of a lamp."
(The 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), in which the Buddha is "fully peaceful" (Dharmakshema "Southern" version). Perhaps, the clearest statement of Tathagatagarbha Buddhism's understanding of Emptiness is found in the Angulimaliya Sutra, where we read the following clarifying explanation:
" ... by cultivating extreme emptiness and continually considering things to be empty, one will behold the utter destruction of all phenomena. Though Liberation is not empty, one will see and think it to be empty. Thus, for example, having thought hail-stones to be jewels, one comes to think that real gems are empty [śūnya]. Likewise, you too think of phenomena which are not empty [aśūnya] to be empty [śūnya], for viewing phenomena as empty, you dissolve into emptiness (śūnya) even those phenomena which are not empty. Some phenomena are empty [of existence] and some phenomena are not empty [of existence]. Just like the hail-stones, the billions of kleshas [mental and moral afflictions] are empty [of existence], like the hail-stones, those phenomena appertaining to ignorance are empty [of existence] and swiftly fade away. Like the real beryl gems, the Buddha is eternal. Liberation is like the real beryl gems."
Thus in the distinctive Tathagatagarbha sutras a balance is drawn between the empty, impermanent and coreless realm of samsara and the everlasting, liberative Reality of the Buddha and Nirvana. The Lotus Sutra (Chapter 4) likewise suggests that seeing all things as empty is not the ultimate Buddhic realisation, not the final "gain" or "advantage": Buddha-Wisdom is indicated there to transcend the perception of emptiness.
In the period of the Tathagatagarbha genre, Mahayana metaphysics had been dominated by teachings on emptiness in the form of Madhyamaka philosophy. The language used by this approach is primarily negative, and the Tathagatagarbha genre of sutras can be seen as an attempt to state orthodox Buddhist teachings of dependent origination using positive language instead, to prevent people from being turned away from Buddhism by a false impression of nihilism. In these sutras the perfection of the wisdom of not-self is stated to be the true self; the ultimate goal of the path is then characterized using a range of positive language that had been used in Indian philosophy previously by essentialist philosophers, but which was now transmuted into a new Buddhist vocabulary to describe a being who has successfully completed the Buddhist path.
Roger R. Jackson writes; "A nihilistic interpretation of the concept of voidness (or of mind-only) is not, by any means, a merely hypothetical possibility; it consistently was adopted by Buddhism's opponents, wherever the religion spread, nor have Buddhists themselves been immune to it..." And later; "In order to obviate nihilism, ... mainstream Mahayanists have explained their own negative rhetoric by appealing to the notion that there are, in fact, two types of truth (satyadvaya), conventional or "mundane superficial" (lokasamvriti) truths, and ultimate truths that are true in the "highest sense" (paramartha)."
In the words of Robert F. Thurman; "... voidness does not mean nothingness, but rather that all things lack intrinsic reality, intrinsic objectivity, intrinsic identity or intrinsic referentiality. Lacking such static essence or substance does not make them not exist - it makes them thoroughly relative.
This relativity of all phenomena contrasts to materialism, the notion that phenomena exist in their own right, in and of themselves. Thus, the philosophy of the Buddha is seen as the Middle Way between nihilism and materialism.
According the Madhyamaka, or Middle Way philosophy which is central to Mahayana Buddhism, ordinary beings misperceive all objects of perception in a fundamental way. The misperception is caused by the psychological tendency to grasp at all objects of perception as if they really existed as independent entities. This is to say that ordinary beings believe that such objects exist 'out there' as they appear to perception. Another way to frame this is to say that objects of perception are thought to have svabhava or 'inherent existence' - 'own being' or 'own power' - which is to say that they are perceived and thought to exist 'from their own side' exactly as they appear.
Sunyata - translated as Emptiness - is the concept that all objects are Empty of svabhava, they are Empty of 'inherent existence'.
Note that it is completely incorrect to think as Emptiness as being the same as Nothingness, a mistake which is often made. Emptiness does not negate the play of appearances which manifest to a multitude of sentient beings, it asserts that they are insubstantial.
The Dalai Lama (2005: p.?) states that:
"One of the most important philosophical insights in Buddhism comes from what is known as the theory of emptiness. At its heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own experience in it, and the way things actually are.
In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possessed self-enclosed, definable, discrete and enduring reality. For instance, if we examine our own conception of selfhood, we will find that we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterises our individuality and identity as a discrete ego, independent of the physical and mental elements that constitute our existence.
The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error but also the basis for attachment, clinging and the development of our numerous prejudices.
According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is simply untenable.
All things and events, whether ‘material’, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence.
To intrinsically possess such independent existence would imply that all things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with or exert influence on any other phenomena.
But we know that there is cause and effect – turn a key in a car, the starter motor turns the engine over, spark plugs ignite and fuel begins to burn…
Yet in a universe of self-contained, inherently existing things, these events could never occur!
So effectively, the notion of intrinsic existence is incompatible with causation; this is because causation implies contingency and dependence, while anything that inherently existed would be immutable and self-enclosed.
In the theory of emptiness, everything is argued as merely being composed of dependently related events; of continuously interacting phenomena with no fixed, immutable essence, which are themselves in dynamic and constantly changing relations.
Thus, things and events are 'empty' in that they can never possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence.