What do Buddhists mean when they talk about emptiness?

Many Buddhist traditions and schools have developed their own symbols for the concept of emptiness. The enso, for example, is a sacred symbol commonly used in Japanese Zen calligraphy and artwork. Photo by The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

The English term “emptiness,” a translation of the Sanskrit word sunyata (sunnata in Pali), is one of the most misunderstood—and even off-putting—words used in Buddhism (right up there with rebirth!). It’s misunderstood because it’s not easy to grasp intellectually, and different schools of Buddhism interpret it differently. And it’s off-putting because it sounds so negative.

But “emptiness” doesn’t refer to a grim void or a kind of nihilism. In the Pali canon, which comprises some of the earliest Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha uses the term to describe how emptiness pertains to our conception of the self. In one famous story, the Buddha pointed to a chariot and asked, “Where is the essence of the chariot? Is it in the wheels? The seat? The axle? The cart?” Of course, none of the constituent parts contains the essence of the chariot, and each part broken down into smaller parts is devoid of that singular essence. Like the chariot, this “self” we cherish so devotedly is nothing more than a temporary coming together of various aggregates—empty.

Later Buddhist philosophical schools, perhaps most famously in a Mahayana scripture known as the Heart Sutra, expanded the concept of emptiness to include all phenomena in the world. Because everything depends on something else, nothing exists in any autonomous, enduring manner. Some schools go even further: everything we perceive depends on the mind that perceives it to “exist,” and is therefore empty of self-essence. Nothing—not even the tiniest particles imaginable nor the mind itself—has any substantial reality. It’s all relative, all “empty.”


Tricycle is more than a magazine

Gain access to the best in sprititual film, our growing collection of e-books, and monthly talks, plus our 25-year archive

Subscribe now