Sunyat‚, the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness

- What does H.P. Blavatsky say?

The metaphysics of Buddhism center around the conception of emptiness. Much quoted is: "emptiness is form and form is emptiness". This even comes back into popsongs. Let us see what H.P. Blavatsky says about this. First, in the Theosophical Glossary she says under "Sunyat‚": "Void, space, nothingness. The name of our objective universe in the sense of its unreality and illusiveness."

This sums it all up. She links Sunyat‚ to Space, her first principle in the Secret Doctrine, to emptiness or nothingness, which is the excepted translation of the term and to unreality and illusiveness, which are the same as the Hindu term maya.

Before turning to the way a few Buddhists explain the term, let us look at H.P. Blavatsky's position in a bit more detail. Starting with what she says in the Proem to the Secret Doctrine (p. 7):

"In the sense and perceptions of finite "Beings," THAT is Non-"being," in the same sense that it is the one BE-NESS; for, in this ALL lies concealed its coeternal and coeval emanation or inherent radiation, which, upon becoming periodically Brahm‚ (the male-female potency), becomes or expands itself into the manifested Universe. N‚r‚yana moving on the (abstract) waters of Space, is transformed into the Waters of concrete substance moved by him, who now becomes the manifested WORD or Logos."

also on p. 8:

"the One All is, like Space - which is its only mental and physical representation on this Earth, or our plane of existence - neither an object of, nor a subject to, perception."

Going backward in time, we find that in 1882, in the Theosophist H.P. Blavatsky says the following on the Buddhist secret doctrine:

"The Buddhists, on the other hand, deny either subjective or objective reality even to that one Self-Existence. Buddha declares that there is neither Creator nor an ABSOLUTE Being. Buddhist rationalism was ever too alive to the insuperable difficulty of admitting one absolute consciousness, as in the words of Flint - "Wherever there is consciousness there is relation, and wherever there is relation there is dualism." The ONE LIFE is either "MUKTA" (absolute and unconditioned) and can have no relation to anything nor any one; or it is "BADDHA" (bound and conditioned), and then it cannot be called the ABSOLUTE; the limitation, moreover, necessitating another deity as powerful as the first to account for all the evil in this world. Hence, the Arahat secret doctrine on cosmogony admits but one absolute, indestructible, eternal, and uncreated UNCONSCIOUSNESS (so to translate), of an element (the word being used for want of a better term) absolutely independent of everything else in the universe; a something ever present or ubiquitous, a Presence which ever was, is, and will be, whether there is a God, gods or none; whether there is a universe or no universe; existing during the eternal cycles of Maha Yugas, during the Pralayas as during the periods of Manvantara: and this is SPACE, the field for the operation of the eternal Forces and natural Law, the basis (as our correspondent [Subba Row] rightly calls it) upon which take place the eternal intercorrelations of Ak‚sa-Prakriti, guided by the unconscious regular pulsations of Sakti - the breath or power of a conscious deity, the theists would say - the eternal energy of an eternal, unconscious Law, say the Buddhists. Space then, or Fan, Bar-nang (Mah‚-SŻnyat‚) or, as it is called by Lao-Tze, the "Emptiness" is the nature of the Buddhist Absolute. (See Confucius' "Praise of the Abyss.")(1)

The emptiness is getting closer. In a footnote she says in the same article in the Theosophist:

Or, in other words, "Prakritie, Svabhavat or Akasa is - SPACE as the Tibetans have it; Space filled with whatsoever substance or no substance at all; i.e., with substance so imponderable as to be only metaphysically conceivable. Brahman, then, would be the germ thrown into the soil of that field, and Sakti, that mysterious energy or force which develops it, and which is called by the Buddhist Arahats of Tibet - FO-HAT. "That which we call form (rupa) is not different from that which we call space (SŻnyat‚) . . . . Space is not different from Form. Form is the same as Space; Space is the same as Form. And so on with the other skandhas, whether vedana, or sanjna, or samskara or vijnana, they are each the same as their opposite." (Book of the Sin-king or the Heart Sutra. Chinese translation of the Maha-Prajna-Paramita-Hridaya-Sutra. Chapter on the Avalokiteshwara, or the manifested Buddha.) (2)

Searching the internet on explanations of emptiness, I find that the focus of Buddhism in this respect is more on the practical everyday use, than on the metaphysical. This does not make comparison easier, but I find it is still possible. Here goes:

Buddhism and Thai culture


Central to buddhism is the concept of Three Characteristics (Trilaxana) which proposes that all composite things (matter or mind, i.e. everything excluding Nirvana) are:

1. Impermanent (anicca)
2. Of suffering/unsatisfactory nature (Dukkha)
3. Without Self entity/Empty (Anatta/Sunyata)

(1) is by now almost universal in the scientific world. But sciences only address the materialistic part of things whereas Buddhism claims anicca in the mental world as well. Implicit in this is also that there is no (permanent) soul in Buddhism.

(2) is a corollary of (1). If things are changing every moment then they are not as they appear to be (permanent) , thus they are unsatisfactory by nature. Both material and mental entities change continually according to causes and conditions. This is buddhist's objective way of looking at things as they are; it's not pessimistic nor optimistic. If one doesn't see 'sufferings' in all these changing conditions of things then one is not mentally suit to be a buddhist. To see 'sufferings', however, does not mean that one has to feel suffered for that. A true buddhist will enjoy life in a much more objective way than others because s-he realizes that happiness itself is the result of interplays of causes and conditions which are bound to change over time. Suffering will definitely ensue if one does not understand the ever changing nature of causes and conditions of happiness.

(3) is unique to Buddhism and is very difficult to understand. There are two types of Emptiness: Ontological and Psychological. Buddhism claims that a thing cannot exist INHERENTLY by its own self. Its existence depends on the existences of other things, ad infinitum. In other words, there is no permanent, pure element as a basis for the existence of anything. Things exist because of the inter-dependency on one another. This is the basic argument behind 'ontological Emptiness'. It should be clear now that Emptiness in Buddhism is not 'nothingness.' In fact, Emptiness means All and Everything being co-dependent, co-arising. On the coarsest level, one can argue that material thing exists only if mind exists first. Material is thus dependent on mind. Mind is also dependent on its own self. Some buddhists refer to the primordial Truth as 'the original mind.' This is simply a mind devoid of all attachments, which is often regarded as the 'core' of a living entity or 'Buddha nature'; but this is just a way of language and should not be confused with Self or Atman in Hinduism for even the Buddha nature is also Empty. ...

Sunyata (Pali: Sunnata)

Sunyata (Pali Sunnata) = Emptiness; The belief that all phenomena are dependent on and caused by other phenomena, thus without intrinsic essense.

(From : a Buddhist Glossary)

The heart of Buddhadasa's teaching is that the Dhamma (Sanskrit,Dharma) or the truth of Buddhism is a universal truth. Dhamma is equated by Buddhadasa to the true nature of things It is everything and everywhere. The most appropriate term to denote the nature of Dhamma is sunnata (Sanskrit, sunyata) or the void. The ordinary man considers the void to mean nothing when, in reality, it means everything--everything, that is, without reference to the self. (3)


(1)Collected Writings III, p. 422,423.

(2)Collected Writings III, p. 405,406. Henk Spierenburg, in his work "The Buddhism of H.P. Blavatsky" found two other translations of this same text (p. 160 footnote):

The translation of Leon Hurvitz, also from the Chinese, we find in Lewis Lancaster (ed.), Prajnaparamita and Related Systems: Studies in honor of Edward Conze, Berkeley 1977, p. 107: "Visible matter is not different from Emtiness nor is Emtiness different from visible matter. Sensation, notion, action and cognition are also like this."

Edward Conze himself, translating from the Sanskrit: The Short Prajnaparamita texts, London 1973, gives on p. 140: "There are five skandhas, and those he sees in their own being as empty. Here, O Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness is no other than form, form is no other than emptiness; whatever is form that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness that is form. The same is true of feelings, perception, impulses and consciousness."

(3)(from, A Buddhist Response to the Nature of Human Rights by Kenneth Inada [This article was first published in Asian Perspectives on Human Rights, eds. Claude E.Welch, Jr., and Virginia A. Leary (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1990), pp.91-103. The editors are grateful to Claude E.Welch, Jr. and Kenneth Inada for permission to republish it. The orthography of the original version has been retained.] )

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