Emptiness as a term finds itself in frequent use in reference to the Buddha’s teachings, especially by Mahayana schools. Yet even in Theravada, emptiness is a core tenet. In fact, emptiness (Sanskrit: śūnyatā; Pali: suññatā) can be traced back to the earliest teachings of the Pali Canon, wherein it has its origins.
According to the Buddha’s teachings, emptiness is not a negative, not a nothingness, not nihilism as might be implied upon initial reading of the term, with all its connotations in the English language. Emptiness is a lack of inherent existence, an absence of self-nature Sanskrit: स्वभाव; svabhāva). It is a teaching of both non-eternality and non-annihilation, a teaching that all things are without a substance of their own and instead arise out of manifold causes and conditions.
By “without substance,” what is meant is a full, self-existent, permanent nature, the existence of which the Buddha denies.
In the Pali, it is explained thus:
Atha kho āyasmā ānando … pe … bhagavantaṃ etadavoca: “‘ suñño loko, suñño loko’ti, bhante, vuccati. Kittāvatā nu kho, bhante, suñño lokoti vuccatī”ti? “Yasmā ca kho, ānanda, suññaṃ attena vā attaniyena vā tasmā suñño lokoti vuccati.
“Ven. Ananda went to the Blessed One and on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, “It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?”
“Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ananda, that the world is empty.”
Suñña Sutta (SN 35.85)
In the Buddha’s words, all phenomena are without self – “sabbe dhamma anatta.” There is nothing that can be said to be in any way solid and self-existent. All things depend on other things. Therefore, all things are said to be empty of self – “suññaṃ attena vā attaniyena vā tasmā suñño lokoti vuccati.”
In the Phena Sutta, the Buddha compares the aggregates, the phenomena that comprise a person, to foam in a river, bubbles in water, a mirage, and other illusory, impermanent phenomena. They are all empty, he asserts: “However you observe them, appropriately examine them, they’re empty, void to whoever sees them appropriately” (SN 22.95).
In the Lokavagga (“The World”) chapter of the Dhammapada, it is said, “One who looks upon the world as a bubble and a mirage, him the King of Death sees not” (Dhp 170).
Echoing the same sentiment, in the concluding chapter of the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha describes impermanance thus: “So you shall view this fleeting world: a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream” (Vajracchedika Sutra). Throughout the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha refers to things but denies the existence of a self in any of them.
Further, in the Lankavatara Sutra, this selfless or egoless emptiness is further characterized:
“By reason of the habit-energy stored up by false imagination since beginningless time, this world (vishaya) is subject to change and destruction from moment to moment; it is like a river, a seed, a lamp, wind, a cloud; [while the Vijnana itself is] like a monkey who is always restless, like a fly who is ever in search of unclean things and defiled places, like a fire which is never satisfied. Again, it is like a water-drawing wheel or machine, it [i.e. the Vijnana] goes on rolling the wheel of transmigration, carrying varieties of bodies and forms, resuscitating the dead like the demon Vetala, causing the wooden figures to move about as a magician moves them. Mahamati, a thorough understanding concerning these phenomena is called comprehending the egolessness of persons.”
(Lankavatara Sutra XXIV)
In the Godatta Sutta and Mahavedalla Sutta, the Buddha explains, “And what is the emptiness awareness-release? There is the case where a monk, having gone into the wilderness, to the root of a tree, or into an empty dwelling, considers this: ‘This is empty of self or of anything pertaining to self.’ This is called the emptiness awareness-release.” (SN 41.7, MN 43)
In the Sutta Nipata’s Mogharaja-manava-puccha (Magharaja’s Question), the Buddha gives this advice: “View the world, Mogharaja, as empty — always mindful to have removed any view about self.” (Snp 5.15)
We generally tend to identify with the body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, consciousness. None of these things (body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, consciousness) are in any way “full” in the sense of having a self. They are not self-existent. Instead, they depend on causes and conditions. To perceive a self in any of these things is like perceiving a mirage.
Emptiness is in actuality the realization that this conventional reality does not contain truly existent things. In fact, things expressly lack thingness, in that they contain no intrinsic nature. In the Buddha’s words, all things are empty of self or anything pertaining to a self.