Non-self (anātman) and emptiness (śūnya or śūnyatā) are very similar aspects of the Truth of Suffering. So similar that they are hard to distinguish apart. What is the difference between them? (Or what is purpose to have them as separate characteristics?)

Update: I did not specified that answers should be from Mahayana perspective, assuming that Theravada have the same list of 16 Aspects of Noble Truths, but it seems that Theravada list is quite different (see Visiddhimagga). And for some reason most answers was from Theravada perspective. I don't want to disregard Theravada explanations, and welcome them. But in Theravada, it seems, that suññata and anatta are never enumerated in the same list. Thus they don't imply distinction, and it's is quite possible that they are just synonyms (as pointed out by Unrul3r).

I will quote Abhidharmasamuccaya for more context:

What are the general characteristics of suffering? They are the characteristics of (1) impermanence (anitya), (2) suffering (duḥkha), (3) emptiness (śūnya) and (4) non-self (anātma).

Thus it's established that these are different characteristics.

Further Asanga provides some elaborations:

(3) What is the characteristic of emptiness (śūnyatā)? It is the non-existence (abhāva) of a certain thing, there. To see (samanupaśyanā) in this way is emptiness. Again, it is the existence (bhāva) of another thing, there. In this way there is true knowledge (yathābhūtajñāna). This is called emptiness perceived by penetration (avatāra). True knowledge denotes the informed meaning. What is the meaning of the non-existence of a certain thing, there? It is the non-existence in the aggregates, elements and spheres of a self or anything whatsoever belonging to a self of permanent, durable, eternal, immutable nature. In this way is their emptiness. What is the meaning of the existence of another thing, there? It is the fact that there is non-self in the aggregates, elements and spheres. It is the nonexistence of the self, and the existence of the non-self. It is in this sense that the Blessed One has said: ‘Existence is the true knowledge of an existent thing; non-existence is the true knowledge of a non-existent thing.’

(4) What is the characteristic of non-self (anātma)? It is the non-existence in the aggregates, elements and spheres of the characteristics postulated in the theory of the self (ātmavāda) as a result of the nonexistence of the characteristics of a self in the aggregates, elements and spheres. This is called the characteristic of non-self. For this reason the Blessed One said: ‘All things (dharmas) are without self.’122 Furthermore, the Blessed One has said: “(i) All of that is not mine, (ii) nor ‘I am’ nor my self”.123

So in light of this, what is the difference?

  • 1
    They are enumerated in a list but -not- the list you pointed to below. That is why I responded: "..the term emptiness was already an aspect of the truth of suffering". For example, "..should be envisioned as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a disintegration, an emptiness (suññato), selfless (anattato)." -MN 74. As you can see, all of these terms are synonyms of anicca, dukkha & anatta. This is another reason why there is no distinction in relation to non-self.
    – Unrul3r
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 19:59
  • Bear in mind, that this is in the early texts, not in the later ones. But from the text you mention above, they also seem synonyms.
    – Unrul3r
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 20:06
  • Where (which source/reference) did you find the quote of Asanga?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 3:31
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    @ChrisW THE COMPENDIUM OF THE SUPER-DOCTRINE (PHILOSOPHY) ABHIDHARMASAMUCCAYA by ASAṄGA. Translated and annotated by Walpola Rahula, second edition, 1980, translated from the French by Gelongma Karma Migme Chodron, 2000.
    – catpnosis
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 23:59

7 Answers 7


As I understand, Mahayana's shunyata (noun, because shunya is adjective) includes all Three Characteristics of Existence, as well as Nirvana (sometimes counted as the fourth!)

In this sense, Shunyata is the all-encompassing view, and as close as it gets to Ultimate Truth, while Anatta is but one aspect of this truth.

  • So, Anatta refers only to oneself, and shunyata refers to, well, everything. Yes?
    – user2341
    Commented Nov 12, 2016 at 1:38
  • 5
    Anatta refers to corelessness of sentient beings, and Shunyata to corelessness of all phenomena without exception.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 14:35

I would add to this, that in the reception of these two terms, there is a difference. While the two terms are possibly used synonymously in the second sermon of the Buddha (compare the answers already given for this), the terminus technicus in early buddhism is anattā/anātman, being as one of the three marks of existence a claim of the Buddha which marks the uncoupling of Buddhism from the philosophical mainstream of that time.

The word(s) suñña/śūnya have acquired a more refined philosophical sense, since they were to a great extent 'popularized' by Nagarjuna and the Śūnyatāvāda school of early Mahayana. In his main work Mūlamadhyamakakārikā Nagarjuna does in a (philosophically) much more thorough way than was done by the Buddha dissect certain supposed elements of existence, proving, that they are empty. By and large this is in response to the rival buddhist ontologies (Sarvastivada and Sautrantika) and in the end more or less re-states what the Buddha had already stated: anattā/anātman, but on a much more sound philosophical and argumentative basis. (By the way: it reiterates also the Buddha's contempt for metaphysics)

In short: In discourse, anattā/anātman makes one think of Buddhism and the Buddha, while suñña/śūnya incites more special associations to Nagarjuna and his school.

Please note, that the adjectives used in comparison of the words of the Buddha and Nagarjuna in no way constitute value-judgements. They just indicate, that Nagarjuna responded to different needs and not, that what he said is worth more.

  • 1
    Thanks, but sunyata teaching is not peculiar to Nagarjuna schools, it's common to any Buddhist school—Theravada (it's everywhere from the suttas up to commentaries), Sarvastivada, and Yogacara have it too (even though it's not Sunyavada/Madhyamaka branch of Mahayana). Common teachings, for example, is 16 aspects of Noble Truths and emptiness gateway to liberation.
    – catpnosis
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 21:30
  • I don't claim it's peculiar. As I stated it occurs in the Pali scriptures as well, but it is not as prominent there as in Śūnyatāvāda, the name speaks for itself. Pizza is also not peculiar to Italy, since you get Pizza in half of the world or more. Still, the concepts do have some immediate connection, don't they? I don't know your list, but if you are asking for something more specific, then consider specifiying your question.
    – zwiebel
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 21:41
  • I was wrong to say that 16 aspects are common teaching, it seems, while such named list is present in Theravada (in Visuddhimagga), its content are quite different, and lacks 'sunnata'.
    – catpnosis
    Commented Jul 6, 2014 at 13:41

1. What is the difference between them?

As far as I know, there is no difference. The world is said to be empty of self and what belongs to self.

Then the Venerable Ānanda approached the Blessed One … and said to him: “Venerable sir, it is said, ‘Empty is the world, empty is the world.’ In what way, venerable sir, is it said, ‘Empty is the world’?”

“It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’ And what is empty of self and of what belongs to self? The eye, Ānanda, is empty of self and of what belongs to self. Forms are empty of self and of what belongs to self. Eye-consciousness is empty of self and of what belongs to self. Eye-contact is empty of self and of what belongs to self…. Whatever feeling arises with mind-contact as condition—whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant—that too is empty of self and of what belongs to self.

“It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’”
-SN 35.85, World Emptiness (Suñña­ta­loka­-sutta)

Mogharaja: Twice now, O Sakyan, I've asked you, but you, O One with Eyes, haven't answered me. "When asked the third time, the divine seer answers": so I have heard. This world, the next world, the Brahma world with its devas: I don't know how they're viewed by the glorious Gotama. So to the one who has seen to the far extreme, I've come with a question: One who regards the world in what way isn't seen by Death's King?

The Buddha: Always mindful, Mogharaja, regard the world as empty, having removed any view in terms of self. This way one is above and beyond death. One who regards the world in this way isn't seen by Death's King.
-Sn 5.15, Mogharaja's Question (Mogharāja-māṇava-pucchā)

This is not the only meaning of emptiness in the early texts though.

  • Unrul3r, could you add some more of your own commentary to this. It's pretty much a copy-paste and answers are usually better if there's more of the answerer in them than quotes (see this discussion). For example, is there significance in the distinction being made between "empty of self" and "what belongs to self" in your first quote. Also, notice the "but you ... haven't answered me" in your second quote. Even back then it was obvious a subtle question. Can you elucidate?
    – tkp
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 18:28
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    @Tommy Why add my own to what is already perfect? This seemed a simple question with a straightforward answer which didn't need commentary. There are too many commentaries already which only obscure the teachings. So, whenever I can, I let the texts speak for themselves without speculating. And this "copy-paste" took work, it's not just copy-paste from google. These past few years I've been indexing suttas by themes to make their understanding easier & answering questions more accurately. I give answers with consideration. If you insist, I can speculate about those two points you mention. :)
    – Unrul3r
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 19:10
  • But your answers don't strike me as being straightforward. You make the assertion that the two concepts mentioned by the OP are the same ("no difference"), but then offer some text that doesn't, to my eyes, back up your assertion. If I was marking your text as an answer to a college question, I'd fail you :-)
    – tkp
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 19:53
  • Indeed, "to your eyes". I'd have no problem failing in your class then. If you have an alternative answer, feel free to post it, maybe I can learn something from you. May you be well.
    – Unrul3r
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 20:05
  • Thanks, but if there is 'no difference' why they are enumerated as separate aspects of Four Noble Truths? (From the list of 16 aspects.)
    – catpnosis
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 21:09

They are not the same. But Suñña is one aspect of Anatta. Suñña can mean devoid of any inherent value, goodness or a soul. Anatta means not under one's control. Something that is Anatta isn't always Suñña. ex: Nibbana. Nibbana is peaceful, devoid of suffering and permanent. So there's goodness to it. But it's still not a self or a soul since it's not under your control.

There are 40 meditative objects described in Patisambidhamagga under Vipassana meditation. Ten kinds from the view-point of anicca; twenty-five kinds from the view-point of dukkha; five kinds from the view-point of anatta. Suñña is one of those 40. The detailed explanations are in Visuddhimagga.

  • Thanks, but nibbāna is also suñña (see Patisambhidamagga ch. XX, on aggasuññaṃ and sampajānassa pavattapariyādānaṃ sabbasuññatānaṃ paramatthasuññaṃ)—this fails main point of your answer, IMHO.
    – catpnosis
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 21:17
  • Yes, suñña as in no-soul. But not as in devoid of goodness. Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 21:27
  • If 'nibbana is sunna' and 'sunna is devoid of goodness' then if follows that nibbana is devoid of goodness. Did you mean that?
    – catpnosis
    Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 21:34
  • 1
    No! Suñña can mean devoid of a self or a soul. So from that perspective Nibbana is suñña. But suñña can also mean devoid of any goodness. It is not suñña in that sense. Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 21:48
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    Anatta means having none of the four kinds of self 1. controlling self 2. continuous self 3. active agent self 4. experiencing self. So you are able to apply Anatta to Nibbana even when there's no Dukkha. But you can't do the same with Sunna because it implies no goodness as well. Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 22:40

I'm new here, thus have not acquired enough points to add my comments above, so I'll do so here. But I agree with the thrust.

I'll sharpen my answer by saying right off the top there is no difference between non-self and emptiness. They are one and the same thing. To comprehend emptiness you will already comprehend non-self, just different ways of looking at reality. Different vantage points.

Emptiness is the key concept in Buddhism. It lies behind everything in Buddhism. If a thing is empty it has no permanent substance. Why? Because it is always in transition, is in the midst of change, is not immutable. If it is in constant change it cannot satisfy, is therefore dukkha, suffering. We the observer are also in the midst of constant change, and therefore share the same characteristic this discussion began with — we are also empty. (Despite all appearances to the contrary.)

These three are the three characteristics of all phenomena. Everything is not only subject to change, but that change is constant. Anicca. Everything ultimately cannot satisfy. Dukkha. There is no permanent reference point, no self. Anatta.

The questioner makes an almost inevitable error. He/she assumes the puzzle of emptiness can be understood analytically, rationally. That by breaking it down into its parts and coming to understand each in turn, assemble a comprehensive understanding. It can't be done.

The only way is to confront it all at once, as a whole. Proceed by looking at what changes. I say that includes anything and everything. Am I right or am I wrong? Can you identify anything that is lasting? Perhaps a rock or a mountain. But these change as well, although not rapidly. Even a mountain is rising and/or falling.

Everywhere you turn there is impermanence. Everything is in process. Everything IS process.

I'll respond in your comments to the above.

  • I didn't talked about analytical splitting of śūnyatā, so you are projecting about my assumptions.
    – catpnosis
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 19:04

When we look for "impermanence" we find only a single instant - hence "impermanence" (the process of change from moment to moment in the form of a "continuity" comprised of past, present, and future) is not there. (There is no continuity as there is only a single instant).

When, within that single instant, we look for a thing, we find only non-thing parts - hence, that so-called "thing" is not there.

And when we look at those parts referred to as "self" in the theory of self, we find that each of them is not self - hence, that so-called "self" is not there.

And since none of those parts is "self", neither can any part be owned by a self - because there is no self there which could own any part.

  • How it's related to my question?
    – catpnosis
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 18:43


Is the reality that we cannot control the nature of Anicca and the result of it(Dkkha).


That mean nothing could gain from it. That hasnt any advantage towards the way of Nibbana.

  • What is the source of quotes?
    – catpnosis
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 14:09
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    Btw, nibbāna is also suñña (see Patisambhidamagga ch. XX, on aggasuññaṃ and sampajānassa pavattapariyādānaṃ sabbasuññatānaṃ paramatthasuññaṃ).
    – catpnosis
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 15:47

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