In what ways does the experience of "realisation of Sunyata" differ from the experience of "realisation of Anatta", for the practitioner?

The two aims are apparently non confirming, as far as I know, at least that is what their respective schools believe.

So in what ways does choosing one ideal over the other lead to a difference in experience for the practitioner?

  • 2
    What does "non confirming" mean? – ChrisW Apr 26 '17 at 15:11
  • 1
    One aim does not include the other @ChrisW – ARi Apr 26 '17 at 15:12
  • 1
    I think I'd call that "non-congruent", or just "different". – ChrisW Apr 26 '17 at 15:25
  • 2
    @ChrisW I seek a comparison of the experiances. The definitions of each per se is available in the canons and may be even a comparisom, I seek an answer from purely a practitioners veiwpoint. Any referances in this regard are of course welcome. – ARi Apr 26 '17 at 16:03
  • 1
    @ARi Answers from the practical point of view are also in texts. For instance glensvensson.org/uploads/7/5/6/1/7561348/… – Tenzin Dorje Apr 26 '17 at 17:15

There is no difference between anatta & sunnata in terms of realisation. If there was a difference then the Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta would be a lie & false because the five arahants in that sutta would not really be arahants (fully enlightened). They would only be partially enlightened.

The definitions of anatta & sunnata in the Pali suttas are basically identical, namely:

Therefore, surely, O monks, whatever form, past, future or present, internal or external, coarse or fine, low or lofty, far or near, all that form must be regarded with proper wisdom, according to reality, thus: 'This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.'

Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta

And what is the emptiness mind-release? There is the case where a monk, having gone into the wilderness, to the root of a tree, or into an empty dwelling, considers this: 'This is empty of self or of anything pertaining to self.'

MN 43

In terms of the teachings, anatta & sunnata are different because anatta was taught 1st, in the 2nd sermon of the Buddha, where a gradual sermon was given that associated anatta with anicca (impermanence). Here, it was reasoned because something is impermanent & subject to disease, it cannot be a 'self' or regard as 'mine' ('belonging to self'). When the minds of the listeners penetrated this reality, the self-views in the mind dissolved, which was enlightenment. (In addition, the teaching of 'dukkha' also helped extinguished the defilements, such as craving).

As for sunnata, it does not rely on impermanence because it simply, correctly & directly asserts there is no self within the five aggregates. This is easily observed in meditation. For example, observing the breathing itself or a body part or observing sense consciousness itself, in can be seen easily there is no 'self' in the breathing or in a finger or in sense consciousness; just as it can be seen easily there is no 'self' in a rock, tree or cloud.

In conclusion, anatta was a gradual teaching for beginners that used impermanence (anicca) to assist in the realisation. However, when the realisation itself occurs, there is no difference from sunnata.

  • 1
    Yes, I think this is what the OP wants to know. It is like two distinct faces of a mountain, very different approaches and experiences, which both get one to the same summit. Anatta says what is not, it is a "negative" teaching (don't believe in this thing) and sunnata says what is. This is like the difference between rangtong and shentong. Different approaches for two very different kinds of practitioners, One result. – user2341 Apr 27 '17 at 12:09
  • ... and when you interact with the practitioners say monks of the two 'approaches', one finds a perceptible difference in the mental make up or psyche of the two. This can Only come through a difference in experience along the path, including the conditioning. @nocomprende – ARi Apr 27 '17 at 14:52
  • 1
    @ARi so, your question is about this difference in experience, yes? If you have not yet read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", I strongly suggest that you do. The entire point of the book is in his phrase "a non-coalescence of reason and feeling", which is precisely what your term 'non-confirming' points at, as best I can see. I think that the difference is inherent in people's nature, not so much acquired. People have a predisposition in their perception and thought process, and they are compelled to follow that, until they can gain understanding of the other. (my theory) – user2341 Apr 27 '17 at 15:55

I guess I'm in a position to answer this one.

From my perspective, the experience of realization of Anatta is simpler and less profound. At some point in meditation or in the middle of some other activity accompanied by contemplation of the Twelve Nidanas, or the conditioned nature of all dharmas (the truth of impermanence) etc., one may realize that:

  • the thoughts follow a cyclic pattern of free association and do not come from an "I",
  • identification with an individual living organism is pretty arbitrary and relies on a rather conventional delineation of boundaries,
  • the universe is fully deterministic,
  • an immortal soul cannot exist unless it exists in absolute isolation from all interactions with anything else, which is nonsense,

As these conceptual understandings all come together and connect with first-hand meditation experience, there comes a moment when the notion of "I" no longer applies as anything but a designation, a convenient label. That's Anatta.

Then there is an intermediate stage, at least in my experience, when the notion of Anatta of sentient beings is generalized along the lines of the following realizations:

  • all entities are mind-made abstractions.
  • as times goes by and things transform, in any object there is no identity that stays the same through all stages of transformation. Any such identity is a mind-made overlay.

the above realizations arrive at a point when all inanimate objects and not just sentient beings are perceived as lacking any substance, or empty of any identity, and are mere conceptual designations.

And then... and then... there is the actual experience of Shunyata, which goes waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay beyond anything like the above. The experience of Shunyata comes only from very consistent and thorough research into all topics of Dharma, diligent application of Dharma in real life, and very sincere and truthful meditation.

The experience of Shunyata is the experience of loss of existential ground. It changes everything without really changing anything. It shatters one into a million pieces, then assembles back into a sentient being and abandons. From this moment on, the worst has happened and nothing can hurt you anymore. The world will never be the same.

Naturally, as I belong to a Mahayana school, I see Anatta as incomplete realization and Shunyata as fully matured. The two are really just phases of the same realization as it deepens through study and practice. From this standpoint, if you were to stop at Anatta and never go to Shunyata (never jump off the cliff) you would still have a ground under your feet, which would A) make you still be a jerk to people who disagree, since you'd still have an attachment, and B) due to the same attachment, make you vulnerable to conditions, hence no Nirvana for you.

  • Valuable insight. – ARi Apr 26 '17 at 19:58
  • 1
    Not sure why any essentialism, like determinism, arises with anatta - for me at least, arriving at anatta stopped my mind grasping for a self-complete description of the world - multiverse, fractal... Surely anatta is the understanding that the individual building blocks of experience are empty of conditional constructs in and of themselves, an endless list of refutal of conceptual constructions aimed at describing 'I', as in MN1. Shunyata is the understanding of the unconditionality of experience, a single positive affirmation of the 'total' abscence of conceptual construction. Mirror images? – Ilya Grushevskiy Apr 26 '17 at 22:48
  • 1
    Anatta doesn't sit well with determinism - building blocks abscent of valid self-referential descriptions can't build a totality that self-describes itself. – Ilya Grushevskiy Apr 26 '17 at 22:52
  • 2
    It was posted: "all entities are mind-made abstractions" (SN 12.2) & "mere conceptual designations" (MN 98). Indeed, this is what the Pali suttas explain. I encourage you to research the language used in the definition of 'jati' ('birth') in SN 12.2, which refers to the production of 'beings' ('satta'),which SN 23.2 and SN 5.10 classify as merely 'views' or mind-made abstractions. SN 5.10 states there is no "being" ("satta") to be found, apart from "view" & "convention". Regards – Dhammadhatu Apr 27 '17 at 0:17
  • 1
    The two kinds of understanding can occur in either order, and even be interleaved over time. Some people get "shattered" by a realization that they are completely unprepared for and have no conception of. These people need some "theory" (anatta) to avoid becoming New Age exponents! People tend towards one or the other kind of understanding, but eventually need both. I loved your "And then..." – user2341 Apr 27 '17 at 12:18

An analysis of experience using anatta is one of continuous denial - the denial of 'This is mine, this I am, this is my self', with regards to individually presented constructs, each and every one. Non-self is the end conclusion.

An analysis of experience using shunyata is one of a quick-step positive affirmation of such a list of denials. Kinda like a sum to a series in maths. Emptiness of self is the end conclusion.

Personally, shunyata still eludes me. Its seemingly somewhat positive description of actuality makes me weary, as I'm not comfortable with ultimate truth getting a definiton with any positive characteristic.

The difference is mostly a linguistic one though imo. Both lead to insight, but from different frames of reference.. In fact, i think its probably for the best if people examined experience using both concepts.

  • shunyata is found in the Pali suttas. Based on this, it did not arise after the Buddha – Dhammadhatu Apr 26 '17 at 23:55
  • 1
    Thank you - deleted the first bit.. Mahayana seems to have caught on to shunyata to a greater extent than anatta, of what I have read, hence my misconception (and a worse memory for the suttas for now!) – Ilya Grushevskiy Apr 27 '17 at 0:09

The School chooses the practitioner. Some are 'born' Hinayana, others Mahayana. They are unable to make a different choice.

Hopefully, both types grow to fully understand both perspectives, both realizations / experiences. It is said that when the Arhats who had realized Anatta heard the teaching of Sunyata (in the Heart Sutra) some of them had heart attacks and died on the spot.

Clearly, the two realizations are different, yet they are two sides of one thing. Samsara is Nibbana, there is just emptiness of thing, and emptiness. That is a stretch for most people. (ironic understatement) The realization of Anatta probably feels to most people like "completed understanding" of something they have thought through. The realization of Sunyata feels more like a direct, unmediated experience, with no thoughts or concepts. It seems impossible to fully describe an experiential state, especially generalized to many people. Hopefully this hint answers your question.

  • "The School chooses the practitioner." I like this your phrase :), it's indeed resonating with something I read in the Chinese Sutras. If I remember it correct, it is in the Lotus Sutra that the Buddha said, some who's not ready heard about the optimal of the teaching will be too fearful that all their hairs stood up: 汗毛皆豎, 恐怖畏懼. If anyone really got the Anatta/ Sunyata one definitely couldn't sit sipping the coffee fondling the keyboard to insert them carelessly anywhere as a hobby and pleasure :\ – Mishu 米殊 Apr 27 '17 at 16:31
  • @Bhumishu米殊 yes and no – user2341 Apr 27 '17 at 17:27
  • Good answer. I see @nocomprende your understanding have advanced far since the last time I checked :P – Andrei Volkov Apr 27 '17 at 18:45
  • 1
    @AndreiVolkov you should check more often, that would probably move me along faster :-) I have been appreciating your answers also. – user2341 Apr 27 '17 at 20:20

I try for a short hint, your demand is high for you're asking the "experience"! If the practitioner experienced authentic, discretionary, either Anatta even Sunyata, we have likely an Arhat walking among us! Anatta is for the Self, I, the subject of experience, Sunyata is for the world, the phenomena, the object to be experienced. Realization of Sunyata can only happened after Anatta. Realization of Anatta, one is indestructible, physically and mentally; realization of Sunyata, one is able to change the phenomenal world; either realization of Anatta or Sunyata, one can be invisible if wished ;).

Sunyata intrinsically implied Anatta, I wonder what your The two aims are apparently non confirming, as far as I know, at least that is what their respective schools believe. referred regarding non-conforming?

It is not the practitioner chose the ideal, it has to follow the procedure, like one must 1st break down the wall, then to tackle for all-encompassing visual field.

  • * in what ways does choosing one ideal over the other lead to a difference in experience for the practitioner?* not only the experience of these two (which Will be an accomplishment) , but even experiences on the path which lead to them; what you call the procedure. Thanks – ARi Apr 27 '17 at 18:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.