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Book: Buddhism in Five Minutes

Chapter: 46. What are the Meanings of "Emptiness" in Mahāyāna Buddhism?

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.40785


Few aspects of Mahayana Buddhism have attracted as much attention as teachings about emptiness (Sanskrit: śūnyatā), or otherwise the claim that all phenomena that we experience are somehow empty (śūnya). Most traditions of Mahayana Buddhism accept in some fashion the assertion that “all things are empty,” even though there are many ways, in India and elsewhere, in which this claim has been developed and expounded. The Yogacara (or Vijñānavāda) school of philosophy understands emptiness in terms of the non-duality of “perceiving subject” and “perceived object,” and teaches a mental continuum that only imagines these to be separate realities. Some types of Mahayana literature, such as those concerned with Buddha-nature, attempt to square emptiness teachings with their own affirmative claims about what does, ultimately, exist; the true nature of the mind is adorned with positive qualities, but is fundamentally “empty” of any number of unwholesome characteristics that accrue and are “other” to it. The discussion that follows privileges a particularly influential understanding of teachings about emptiness associated with the Madhyamaka school of thought, which interprets emptiness as a “middle” (madhyama) between the erroneous view that things exist as we commonly perceive them, and that they are complete fictions that do not exist at all.

Chapter Contributors

  • Christopher Jones ( - cjones1) 'University of Cambridge'