What is the difference between the concept of emptiness (Śūnyatā in Sanskrit, or suññatā in Pali) in the Theravada tradition and the concept of emptiness in the Mahayana tradition?

From my basic understanding, Theravada emptiness is only regarding the self, while Mahayana emptiness is regarding all things. Is this true?

Or does Theravada also teach the emptiness of all things (e.g. in the sutta about foam and bubbles)?

Are these (Theravada emptiness and Mahayana emptiness) really completely different, or at some level, do they allude to the same thing?

For Theravada, could it be, that the emptiness of self is important for the path to ending suffering, but the emptiness of all things is not important for the path to ending suffering (as per the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow and the Parable of the Leaves in the Forest)?

I found the following quote from this answer interesting:

It is said that beginner practitioners ("hinayana") only understand corelessness of beings (anatta), but still assume various stuff to be objectively/ontologically existing. This results in them erroneously reifying such concepts as the five skandhas, 12 nidanas, 4 noble truths, nirvana, and enlightenment. Advanced practitioners ("mahayana") clearly understand that all knowable phenomena without exception are contextually defined composites.

  • from the mahayana persecptve i believe that you generally are right. not sure from the theravada perspective. also, i believe that zhiyi taught that for "tripitaka buddhism" all dharmas are empty, but only when the arhat / solitary buddha / transformation body realises that
    – user2512
    Sep 3, 2017 at 21:07
  • 2
    A nice summary of Pali Canon's view on emptiness can be found in book: "The Concept of Emptiness in Pali Literature" available here.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Sep 3, 2017 at 22:07
  • Another nice summary of the Pali Canon's view on emptiness can be found in Ven. Thanissaro's commentary or translator's introduction of MN122.
    – ruben2020
    Sep 4, 2017 at 2:49
  • Edited question to add this: For Theravada, could it be, that the emptiness of self is important for the path to ending suffering, but the emptiness of all things is not important for the path to ending suffering (as per the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow and the Parable of the Leaves in the Forest)?
    – ruben2020
    Sep 4, 2017 at 5:49

3 Answers 3


The following answer is informed by Insight into Emptiness by Khensur Jampa Tegchok who was a former abbot of Sera Je Monastery.

Presentation of Tenets

According to what is currently taught in contemporary Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, the view of selflessness differs between proponents of the Fundamental Vehicle school (which includes Theravada) and the Universal Vehicle school (or Mahayana). The common delineation is given as four different (ancient) tenet systems regarding selflessness:

  1. Vaibhashika
  2. Sautrantika
  3. Chittamatra
  4. Madhyamaka

The first two tenet systems belong to members of the Fundamental Vehicle school while the latter two are ascribed to the Universal Vehicle.

Here is a brief breakdown of the view of selflessness as it differs among these tenet systems:

Selflessness of persons (from course to subtle)

  1. Emptiness of a permanent, unitary, and independent person
  2. Emptiness of a self-sufficient, substantially existent person
  3. Emptiness of an inherently existent person

Selflessness of phenomena

  1. Emptiness of existing by its own characteristics as the basis or referent of its name

  2. Emptiness of the form and so forth and a valid cognizer of it being different substances (different substantial entities)

  3. Emptiness of true existence (existing without being posited by the force of appearing to a nondefective consciousness)

  4. Emptiness of inherent existence (existing from its own side, existing by its own characteristics, and so on)


  • Permanent means something that does not change from one moment to the next

  • Impermanent means that something changes under the influences of causes and conditions

  • Unitary is something that is one seamless whole that has no parts

  • Independent has different definitions given different contexts:

    1. Independent is something not being affected by or not relying upon causes and conditions
    2. In the context of a person it means being independent of the aggregates as well
    3. In Prasangika it means existing without depending on being merely imputed by name and concept
  • Self-sufficient means being able to exist independently in a self-supporting manner, without depending on anything else, such as the aggregates

  • Substantially existent person means being able to know such a person exists without the appearance of the aggregates

In general, it is said that the Fundamental Vehicle systems do not subscribe to the selflessness of phenomena. Furthermore, the Vaibhashikas only subscribe to the lack of a permanent, unitary and independent person. That is they do believe that a self-sufficient, substantially existent person exists. The Sautrantikas on the other hand do not believe in a self-sufficient, substantially existent person nor do any of the other tenet systems.

All of that is to say, it is my understanding that the modern day Theravada is most closely aligned with the Sautrantika tenet system.


Emptiness in Pali refers to 'empty of self & anything pertaining to/belonging to self' (SN 35.85).

Mahayana argues things are empty of independent existence because they are dependent on causes & conditions. Mahayana says dependent origination is emptiness but this does not match the Pali because, in Pali, dependent origination explains the arising of suffering.

The Mahayana is different to the Pali because, in Pali, Nirvana is not dependent on causes & conditions but Nirvana is empty. In Pali, everything is empty (of self) when seeing clearly. It is not required to discern causes & conditions. This is why SN 35.85 states the sense spheres are empty, without going into any other explanation.

The sutta about foam (Phena Sutta) is not about emptiness (sunnata). It is best to read a proper translation of it, such as Bhikkhu Bodhi's at Sutta Central.

Mayahana ideas about emptiness are only intellectual and not meditative because, in Pali or meditation, phenomena arise according to their function. While consciousness, for example, is impermanent & arises & ceases based on causes & conditions, whenever consciousness functions, it performs the function of consciousness, namely, seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling & cognising. Consciousness, when it functions, is always consciousness. Consciousness is never empty of being consciousness. Thus the Pali teaches: "Why do you call it consciousness? Because it cognises, thus it is called consciousness" (MN 43; SN 22.79).

To believe consciousness really does not exist because it is dependent on neurons, atoms, electricity, sense organs, the body, etc, is merely intellectual and unrelated to meditation. In real meditation, consciousness is discerned as being consciousness but empty of self and also impermanent & dependent on sense bases. However, when consciousness arises, it functions as consciousness rather than is not consciousness or functions as something else. Consciousness is consciousness but is void of self because consciousness is sense awareness where as 'self' is a thought (sankhara aggregate).

Mahayana ideas are the product of thinking rather than direct seeing. This Mahayana ideas should not even be labelled as "beginners" because they do not even arise from meditation but arise from reading books.

  • 1
    To all Mahayana practitioners here: please refrain from debating in the comments. If you disagree with something said, or wish to make a point - please consider posting your own answer. Thank you.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Sep 3, 2017 at 22:03

An emptiness in theravāda tipitaka:

  1. Anattā = no monopoly power in everything. Just being/having by own special character that must depending on many various external causes. This is right view.
  2. Attā vanishing = there is some monopoly power person vanishing. This is wrong view.
  3. General adjective/adverb/predicate = just a predicate of some words in the sentence that maybe in the context about view or maybe not.

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