Buddhism A–Z
What is Emptiness in Buddhism?

In Mahayana Buddhism, the term “emptiness” (sunyata in Sanskrit) describes how things do—do not—exist. By saying the phenomena are “empty” of solid, separate, and permanent existence, the teaching of emptiness points us toward their true nature, which is impermanent, always changing, and dependent on causes and conditions. Emptiness is a core teaching of Mahayana Buddhism and is summarized in the famed Heart Sutra.

Emptiness means that all things lack—are empty of—inherent or independent existence. Neither we, other beings, nor any phenomenon in the universe has a permanent, separate, and independent core, soul, or identity. Nothing exists in isolation or on its own—everything is interdependent and exists only in relation to other causes and conditions. This includes physical objects, mental states, and the very concept of self.

Buddhism teaches that the fundamental cause of our suffering is ignorance—our misunderstanding of the true nature of ourselves and the world we experience. So understanding emptiness, which describes reality accurately, is key to enlightenment. When we see ourselves and all phenomena as impermanent and empty of inherent reality, we realize the futility of attachment and holding onto things and discover joy in the ever-changing, interdependent nature of reality.

The Two Truths

Emptiness is sometimes explained through the “two truths” doctrine. These are: conventional or relative truth (samvriti-satya) and ultimate or absolute truth (paramartha-satya). Conventional truth deals with relative phenomena, while ultimate truth points to the underlying, unchanging reality of emptiness. Absolute truth is seen as the true nature of relative truth, and relative truth is seen as the manifestation of absolute truth.

Path to Liberation

Understanding emptiness is considered crucial on the path to liberation from suffering and the cycle of birth and death (samsara). It is said that clinging to a fixed, inherent self and mistaking transient phenomena for enduring reality is an ultimate cause of suffering. By realizing the emptiness of all things, one can break free from these delusions and attain enlightenment.

Emptiness vs. Nihilism

Emptiness should not be confused with nihilism, which asserts that nothing has any intrinsic value or meaning. Buddhism does not deny the conventional reality of the world nor the importance of ethical conduct; Its doctrine of emptiness simply asserts that the true nature of things is characterized by interdependence and lack of solid, independent existence. It doesn’t deny that things exist; it describes how they exist.

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Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.