Sunyata (Emptiness) in the Mahayana Context
1. Sunyata (Emptiness) is the profound meaning of the Mahayana
Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha was able to realise
"emptiness" (s. sunyata). By doing so he freed himself from
unsatisfactoriness (s. dukkha). From the standpoint of enlightenment,
sunyata is the reality of all worldly existences (s. dharma). It is the
realisation of Bodhi - Prajna. From the standpoint of liberation,
sunyata is the skilful means that disentangle oneself from defilement
and unsatisfactoriness. The realisation of sunyata leads one to no
attachment and clinging. It is the skilful means towards enlightenment
and also the fruit of enlightenment.
There are two ways for us to understand this concept of sunyata in the
Mahayana context. One way is to try to understand the explanation about
its true nature. The other way is the realisation through practice.
What we are going to discuss now is about its true nature.
Mahayana teachings have always considered that the understanding of
sunyata is an attainment which is extremely difficult and
extraordinarily profound.
For example, in the Prajna Sutra it says "That which is profound, has
sunyata and non-attachment as its significance. No form nor deeds, no
rising nor falling, are its implications."
Again in the Dvadasanikaya Sastra (composed by Nagarjuna, translated to
Chinese by Kumarajiva A.D. 408) it says: "The greatest wisdom is the
so-called sunyata."
This sunyata, no creation, calmness and extinction (s. nirvana) is of a
profound significance in the Mahayana teachings. Why do we see it as
the most profound teaching? This is because there is no worldly
knowledge, be it general studies, science or philosophy, that can lead
to the attainment of the state of sunyata. The only path to its
realisation is via the supreme wisdom of an impassionate and
discriminating mind. It is beyond the common worldly understanding.
2. The Significance of Sunyata and Cessation
The Buddha always used the terms void, no rising and falling, calmness
and extinction to explain the profound meaning of sunyata and
cessation. The teachings of the Buddha that were described in words are
generally common to worldly understandings. If one interprets the
teachings superficially from the words and languages used, one will
only gain worldly knowledge and not the deeper implication of the
teachings. The teachings of the Buddha have their supra-mundane
contexts that are beyond the worldly knowledge.
For example, sunyata and the state of nirvana where there is no rising
nor falling, are interpreted by most people as a state of non-existence
and gloom. They fail to realise that quite the opposite, sunyata is of
substantial and positive significance.
The sutras often use the word "great void" to explain the significance
of sunyata. In general, we understand the "great void" as something
that contains absolutely nothing. However, from a Buddhist perspective,
the nature of the "great void" implies something which does not
obstruct other things, in which all matters perform their own
functions. Materials are form, which by their nature, imply
obstruction. The special characteristic of the "great void" is
non-obstruction. The "great void" therefore, does not serve as an
obstacle to them. Since the "great void" exhibits no obstructive
tendencies, it serves as the foundation for matter to function. In
other words, if there was no "great void" nor characteristic of
non-obstruction, it would be impossible for the material world to exist
and function.
The "great void" is not separated from the material world. The latter
depends on the former. We can state that the profound significance of
sunyata and the nature of sunyata in Buddhism highlights the "great
void's" non-obstructive nature.
Sunyata does not imply the "great void". Instead, it is the foundation
of all phenomena (form and mind). It is the true nature of all
phenomena, and it is the basic principle of all existence. In other
words, if the universe's existence was not empty nor impermanent, then
all resulting phenomena could not have arisen due to the co-existence
of various causes and there would be no rising nor falling. The nature
of sunyata is of positive significance!
Calmness and extinction are the opposite of rising and falling. They
are another way to express that there is no rising and falling. Rising
and falling are the common characteristics of worldly existence. All
phenomena are always in the cycle of rising and falling. However, most
people concentrate on living (rising). They think that the universe and
life are the reality of a continuous existence.
Buddhism on the other hand, promotes the value of a continuous
cessation (falling). This cessation does not imply that it ceases to
exist altogether. Instead, it is just a state in the continuous process
of phenomena. In this material world, or what we may call this "state
of existence", everything eventually ceases to exist. Cessation is
definitely the home of all existences. Since cessation is the calm
state of existence and the eventual refuge of all phenomena, it is also
the foundation for all activities and functions.
The Amitabha Buddha who was, and is, revered and praised by Buddhists
around the world, radiates indefinite light and life from this "state
of cessation". This state is a continuous process of calmness. It will
be the eventual refuge for us all. If we think carefully about the
definitions of calmness and extinction, then we can deduce that they
are the true natural end-points of rising and falling. The true nature
of the cycle of rising and falling is calmness and extinction. Because
of this nature, all chaos and conflicts in the state of rising and
falling will eventually cease. This is attainable by the realisation of

3. Contemplating the Implications of Sunyata and Stillness
(Nirvana) by Observing Worldly Phenomena
All existences exhibit void-nature and nirvana-nature. These natures
are the reality of all existence. To realise the truth, we have to
contemplate and observe our worldly existence. We cannot realise the
former without observing the latter. Consider this Heart Sutra extract,
"Only when Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva practised the deep course of
wisdom of Prajna Paramita did he come to realise that the five skandhas
(aggregates, and material and mental objects) were void."
Profound wisdom leads us to the realisation that all existences are of
void-nature. The sutras demonstrate that the profound principle can be
understood by contemplating and observing the five skandhas. We cannot
realise the truth by seeking something beyond the material and mental
world. The Buddha, using his perfect wisdom, observed worldly existence
from various implications and aspects, and came to understand all
In summary, there are three paths to this observation:
a) We should observe the preceding state and the current state of
conditions. i.e., Observation according to the concept of time.
b) We should observe existences according to their interrelationships.
i.e., Observation via the concept of space (either two or
c) We should observe the true nature of all myriad beings. This is like
observing the worldly existences of a point, a line and an area. Those
with supreme wisdom understand the true nature of all worldly
existences by observing vertically the relationships between the
preceding and current conditions, and horizontally the
interrelationships. Then we can understand the true meaning of
void-nature and nirvana-nature.
3.1 By observing the preceding-stage and the current-stage conditions,
we can verify the Law of Impermanence of all worldly existences. All
existences, be they material or mental, be they the material world, or
the physical or mental states of sentient beings, are subject to
continuous change.
The world may have certain states of beings where they stay static or
are in equilibrium on a temporary basis (for example hibernation). But
when we observe them with supreme wisdom, we will find that not only do
they keep changing on a yearly basis, but also that this change applies
to even every briefest moment. After the current state of conditions
have ceased to exist, the newly-formed state materialises. This is the
state of rising and falling. The rising and falling of each small
moment reveals that all existences are ever-moving and ever-changing.
Conventional scholars have a very good explanation of these
ever-changing worldly conditions. However they, including the
practitioners of dharma, try to make sense of the reality from the
ever-changing worldly existences. That is, they are fooled by the
material existences and are not able to understand the deeper truth of
all existences.
Only those with the supreme wisdom of the Buddha and Mahabodhisattvas
realise and understand that all existences are illusions. They
understand that existences are not real from the observation of the
flow of changing existences. The numerous illusionary existences may
well be diverse and confusing, arising and decaying. But when we look
into their true nature, we will find them void and of nirvana-nature.
On the other hand, since all existences are of nirvana-nature, they
appear from the perspective of time, to be ever-changing. They never
stay the same even for the briefest moment. Impermanence implies
existences do not have a permanent entity. This is another implication
of the nature of sunyata and stillness.
3.2 From observations of existence via inter-relationships, we can
conclude that nothing is independent of the Law of Causation, and that
everything is without ego. For example, the Buddha explains that the
individual sentient being is composed of physical, physiological and
psychological phenomena. The so called ego is a deluded illusion which
does not exist in reality. Its existence depends on the combination of
both physical and mental factors. It is a union of organic phenomena.
Thus we call it the empirical ego. It is a mistake to cling to it as an
infatuated ego.
The Indian concept of the supreme spirit implies someone who rules. The
spirit is the ruler who is independent of is self-dependent and all
causes. In other words, the spirit is the one who is free from all
primary and secondary causes (for physical and mental aspects). The
spirit is the one who has the soul of his own body and mind. This is
the ego or supreme spirit that the theologists cling to. From their
view point, the only way to avoid physical and mental decay is to be
self-determined and self-sovereign. In this way, the supreme being can
stay permanent in the cycle of reincarnation, and return to the
absolute reality by liberating himself from life and death.
But from the profound contemplation and wisdom of the Buddha and
Mahabodhisattvas, we know there is no such reality. Instead,
egolessness (non-self) is the only path to understand the reality of
the deluded life. All existences are subject to the Law of Causes and
Conditions. These include the smallest particles, the relationship
between the particles, the planets, and the relationship between them,
up to and including the whole universe! From the smallest particles to
the biggest matter, there exists no absolute independent identity.
Egolessness (non-self) implies the void characteristics of all
existence. Egolessness (non-self) signifies the non-existence of
permanent identity for self and existence (Dharma). Sunyata stresses
the voidness characteristic of self and existence (Dharma). Sunyata and
egolessness possess similar attributes. As we have discussed before, we
can observe the profound significance of sunyata from the perspective
of inter-dependent relationships. Considering dharma-nature and the
condition of nirvana, all existences are immaterial and of a
void-nature. Then we see each existence as independent of each other.
But then we cannot find any material that does exist independent of
everything else. So egolessness also implies void-nature!
3.3 From the observation of all existences, we can infer the theory of
nirvana and the complete cessation of all phenomena. From the viewpoint
of phenomena, all existences are so different from each other, that
they may contradict each other. They are so chaotic. In reality, their
existence is illusionary and arises from conditional causation. They
seem to exist on one hand, and yet do not exist on the other. They seem
to be united, but yet they are so different to one another. They seem
to exist and yet they do cease! Ultimately everything will return to
harmony and complete calmness. This is the nature of all existence. It
is the final resting place for all. If we can understand this reality
and remove our illusions, we can find this state of harmony and
complete calmness.
All our contradictions, impediments and confusion will be converted to
equanimity. Free from illusion, complete calmness will be the result of
attaining nirvana. The Buddha emphasised the significance of this
attainment and encouraged the direct and profound contemplation on
void-nature. He said, "Since there is no absolute self-nature thus
every existence exhibits void-nature. Because it is void, there is no
rising nor falling. Since there is no rising nor falling, thus
everything was originally in complete calmness. Its self-nature is
From the viewpoint of time and space, we can surmise that all
existences are impermanent, all existences have no permanent self, and
nirvana is the result of the cessation of all existences - the Three
Universal Characteristics. But there are not three different truths.
Instead, they are the characteristics of the only absolute truth and
the ultimate reality. This is the explanation of Dharma-nature and the
condition of nirvana. The three characteristics are the one
characteristic, and vice versa!
We may cultivate our meditation, contemplating the impersonality of all
existences. This will lead us to enlightenment via the path of
voidness. Contemplating nirvana and complete calmness leads to
enlightenment by the path of immaterial form. Contemplating the
impermanence of all existences, leads us to enlightenment by the path
of inactivity (no desire).
The Three Universal Characteristics are the other implications of
Dharma-nature and nirvana. The paths to enlightenment are also the same
cause of absolute reality. All of them return to the Dharma-nature and
the condition of nirvana. In short, the teachings of the Buddha start
from the observation and contemplation of all worldly phenomena. They
are like thousands of streams of water competing with each other, and
flowing from the top of the mountains to the bottom. Eventually, all of
them return to the ocean of voidness and nirvana.
4. Sunyata and Cessation is the Truth (Nature) of All Existences.
All existences that are recognised by worldly understanding, whether
materially, spiritually or intellectually, have always been
misunderstood by us. We cling to them as real, physically existing and
permanent. Actually, they are only unreal names.
The more precise meaning of the term "unreal name" is "assumption" or
"hypothesis". It is an empirical name. It is formed by the combination
of various causes and effects. (These include the effects of mental
consciousness.) It does not exist by itself. Everything exists
relatively. Thus, what is the ultimate truth? If we investigate
existence further, we realise that all existences are empty. This is
the fundamental characteristic and reality of all existence. It is
ultimate and absolute. But we should not think that empty means
nothing. It implies the disentanglement from the worldly
misunderstanding of the existence of self, identity, and the
realisation of the absolute.
In the Sutras and Abhidharma, the worldly understandings are sometimes
referred to as all phenomena (Dharma). Sunyata is referred to as
"Dharma-nature", and hence there is a distinction between "phenomena"
and "Dhamma-nature". However, this is only an expedient explanation
that helps us to realise the truth of sunyata through the phenomena of
all existences.
We should not think that "existence" and "nature"; or the "phenomena of
Dharma" and "Dharma-nature" are something contradictory. They are just
concepts needed to understand the implication of sunyata.
We may analyse the expedient explanation of "existence" and the "nature
(voidness)" from two aspects:
a) The truth of sunyata is the nature of each individual existence.
Each step we make in understanding that each minor form has a nature
that is not describable by words, are steps to the realisation of the
truth of sunyata. The sunyata of Dharma nature is the same for all, it
is non distinguishable. However, from our deluded viewpoint, we assume
that it is the nature of each individual existence and not an abstract
common nature.
b) Dharma-nature is best described as the characteristic of equanimity
of sunyata. It cannot be described as many or one and absolute. (One is
relative to many!) We cannot say that the Dharma-nature is different to
existence. But at the same time, we cannot say that it is equal to
existence. All in all, sunyata is the nature of existence. Although the
realisation of supreme wisdom may seem to be abstract superficially, it
embodies very substantial and compelling ideas.
5. The Relationship between Phenomena and the Sunyata of
From our discussions above, it is very clear that existence and nature
cannot be described as the same or different. In the Mahayana teaching,
the theory of "not the same nor different" is indisputable. However, in
order to adapt to the different spiritual foundations and thinking, the
ancient great practitioners have different explanations.
a) The Dharmalaksana Sects emphasise the "phenomena or characteristics
of things". Their theory is, "the appearance of karmic seeds nurtures
the rising of things and vice versa." The Law of Dependent Origination
of karmic seeds explains all worldly (mundane) and out-worldly
(supramundane) Dharma. When this sect explains impermanence and the
rising and falling of all existence, they omit to mention its
relationship with the Dharma nature that is not rising nor falling.
According to them, under the definitions of impermanence and rising and
falling, "karmic seeds" appear and nurture the rising of things and in
return, can be formed. Therefore, the nature of "no rising nor falling"
cannot be the foundation of any existence.
This school is famous for its detail and careful observation. However,
there is a tendency to misunderstand the theory of no-rising nor
failing (the eternal Dharma-nature) and the theory of rising and
falling (the causative Dharma) as two separate identities.
This is definitely not the intention of the scholars of the
Dharmalaksana Sect. This is because as we detach ourselves from the
illusion of rising and falling, and the Law of Cause and Effect, we
will see the truth of Dharma-nature. We will realise that the Dharma
and Dharma-nature are neither the same nor different. This is nature of
the individual existence that is beyond description. It has no
difference from the Dharma. To differentiate the Dharma from aspects of
rising and falling, is to emphasise the difference between "nature" and
"phenomena" only.