greggorious wrote:How does the concept of emptiness in Theravada differ from the Mahayana concept?
In my opinion, there's ultimately no real, fundamental difference; although I think there's a difference in emphasis and application.
As a doctrinal term, emptiness (adj. sunna
, noun sunnata
)in and of itself is used in a couple of different but related ways in Pali Canon. In one context, emptiness is used as a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience that's utilized in meditation (e.g., MN 121
, MN 122
). In another context, emptiness refers to the insubstantiality of the five clinging-aggregates and the six sense media (e.g., SN 22.95
, SN 35.85
). In this sense, it's synonymous with not-self, or as Richard Gombrich sums it up in What the Buddha Thought
, the idea that, "Nothing in the world has an unchanging essence."
Mahayana teachings on emptiness build this view, and are most often expressed from the 'ultimate' point of view that things have no inherent existence. This idea, while philosophically complex and seemingly implicit in the teachings on dependent co-arising, may have actually developed over time as a distinct doctrine, however. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu notes, emptiness as it's used in the early teachings "is a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience" (Emptiness
). Moreover, "... the idea of emptiness as lack of inherent existence has very little to do with what the Buddha himself said about emptiness. His teachings on emptiness — as reported in the earliest Buddhist texts, the Pali Canon — deal directly with actions and their results, with issues of pleasure and pain" (The Integrity of Emptiness
The evolution of emptiness into the nonexistence of phenomena possibly began with Nagarjuna — a famous 1st-2nd century Buddhist teacher and philosopher — who I believe was attempting to deconstruct all of the prevalent metaphysical views of the time via logical analysis in an attempt to show how these views were ultimately illogical from the standpoint of emptiness, especially in regard to the Abhidhammika's idea that things exist by way of intrinsic characteristics. The own-nature (sabhava
) of dhammas
(what's often translated as 'phenomena,' but I think better understood as 'an existing cognizable experience or event'), which is a concept that was introduced in the later substrata of Abhidhammic and commentarial literature, was answered (skillfully might I add) by Nagarjuna with the lack of own-nature or emptiness (nihsvabhava
) of dhammas. However, this was mainly directed at the Sarvastivadins, who held a more realist position. For example, in his Introduction to Buddhism
, Peter Harvey explains:
'They are dhammas because they uphold their own nature [sabhaava]. They are dhammas because they are upheld by conditions or they are upheld according to their own nature' (Asl.39). Here 'own-nature' would mean characteristic nature, which is not something inherent in a dhammas as a separate ultimate reality, but arise due to the supporting conditions both of other dhammas and previous occurrences of that dhammas. This is of significance as it makes the Mahayana critique of the Sarvastivadin's notion of own-nature largely irrelevant to the Theravada.
Nevertheless, I think that Nagarjuna's logic of emptiness was a much needed counter to the growing body of speculative metaphysics dominating Buddhist thought at the time, and, like the Buddha's teachings on emptiness, was directed towards the removal of clinging. In fact, I believe that clinging to views was what Nagarjuna considered to be the biggest obstacle on the path to awakening, and I think this idea is supported by the verse: "When there is clinging perception, the perceiver generates being. When there is no clinging perception, he will be freed and there will be no being." (MMK 26:7). In other words, he was using logic simply as a tool in order to help people realize emptiness, and consequentially, awakening. Essentially, my view is similar to that of David Loy in Derrida and Negative Theology
, who sums it up nicely by saying
The MMK offers a systematic analysis of all the important philosophical issues of its time, not to solve these problems but to demonstrate that any possible philosophical solution is self-contradictory or otherwise unjustifiable. This is not done to prepare the ground for Nagarjuna's own solution: "If I were to advance any thesis whatsoever, that in itself would be a fault; but I advance no thesis and so cannot be faulted." [Vigrahavyavartani, verse 29].
Unfortunately, I think that at some point in time, Nagarjuna's logic of emptiness was taken a little bit too far and unintentionally reified by others into some kind of ultimate viewpoint. But to be fair, I don't think that Nagarjuna can be faulted for this. As Nagarjuna warns in MMK 13.8:
The Victorious Ones have announced that emptiness is the relinquishing of all views. Those who are possessed of the view of emptiness are said to be incorrigible.
Nevertheless, I'm not an expert on the subject, so take whatever I say with a grain of salt.