A Mahayana-practising member wrote this comment:

With respect, the Theravada generally has a much more coarse understanding of emptiness and anatta and is confused as to the object of negation. In much the way that placing a bag of ice on a gushing head wound has some efficacy, yet is utterly incapable of actually curing the wound the Theravada understanding anatta doctrine is very helpful, but insufficient to provide a genuine antidote to ignorance and hence suffering ..... The Mahayana tenet systems ... believe Theravada adherents are not ready to understand, but will understand the selflessness of phenomena eventually as they continue to progress on the path.

I would like to understand the perspective of Mahayana Buddhists on why Theravada's anatta (and dependent origination) doctrine is "insufficient to provide a genuine antidote to ignorance and hence suffering" compared to Mahayana's sunyata (emptiness) doctrine?

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    I want to criticize Mahayana but I don't know it's subtleties and things I might be over looking. Even if one is enlightened doesn't necessarily mean one will understand all approaches to the Buddha's teaching.
    – Lowbrow
    Aug 18, 2018 at 14:33
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    Ruben and I have sussed out a seemingly genuine and respectful disagreement between the two of us and also between what we think many of our respective Theravada adherents and Mahayana adherents believe. Not that all Theravada adherents or Mahayana adherents believe or agree with all the contours we are putting forth. In sussing out this disagreement, we are both obviously setting forth our own views in contrast to others and you can call this criticism, but it is done respectfully and is two-sided with a mutual goal of understanding. At least that is what I think is going on. Aug 18, 2018 at 15:34

4 Answers 4


why anatta is insufficient to uproot suffering? Here is a simple answer:

One type of suffering comes from craving. In other words, if I am sitting over here and in my mind I crave for something over there that I can't obtain - that very experience of painful mismatch between the two is suffering. Another type of suffering comes from fear of losing something. This is the same mechanism at play as with craving, just in reverse: I sit over here having something nice, feeling good - and I know that over there in the future I will inevitably lose it. Hence, that experience of the painful mismatch between the two is suffering.

Oftentimes (but not always!) these two scenarios occur with our sense of "I" as the object of craving or loss. In case of craving, let's say I want to become a great Buddhist teacher, or a successful businessman, or a big boss, or a father of a big happy family. The mismatch between what I want to be and what I am now is experienced as suffering. Or, in the case of a loss, let's say I already feel that my state of being is good, however what if I know that in the future, due to a sickness or war or simply due to old age - I will lose my happy peaceful state of being. Again, there is a mismatch in the mind, and this mismatch is experienced as suffering.

Anatta can help us become immune to this type of suffering. If we stop identifying ourselves with any social role or any lifestyle or even with this body or this mind - then, if we start losing any of it, we will not regret and we will not suffer. If we are not attached to any idea of "I", any particular manner of being, we will be at peace with who we are now and with whatever happens in the future.

However, there is another type of suffering that cannot be fixed with anatta! This type of suffering comes from attachment to forms other than oneself, forms that have nothing to do with "I". For example, consider the situation when your teenage son suddenly declares that he is a gay person (a homosexual). Because you are so attached to an idea that your son should be a proper man, there is a great mismatch in your mind between expectation and reality. Because of this mismatch you experience dukkha, suffering. This type of dukkha has nothing to do with your sense of "I", it is about your son. But because you have a fixed idea of how things are supposed to be, you suffer whenever there is a mismatch.

So anatta can't help with this type of suffering. But shunyata can. According to shunyata, an idea (a form) such as "man" is a stereotype or a reified generalization. In reality, there are all kinds of qualities: such as strength, rationality, joy, sense of beauty etc. - that are present in both man and woman to various degrees and should not be lumped into "man qualities" or "woman qualities". The example of "man" vs "gay" is just one example. Our everyday social life is full of examples when we attach to some form, some idea, some concept of how things are supposed to be, some idea of "rightness" that is based on some overgeneralization - and then from this attachment there comes all kind of conflict and suffering.

When you understand shunyata, you understand the principle behind all generalization, all delineation of entities. You clearly see that every human concept in this civilization is some kind of convention, abstraction, or generalization. You also see that our subjective perception, from our limited experience and single point of view, is always partial - it never includes everything that possibly exists. Because we don't know that our experience partial, we assume that our understanding of the world is how it really is - and then based on this we engage in action that leads to conflict and suffering. Deep understanding of shunyata uproots this source of trouble.

And even at the basic everyday level, anatta does not always help to stop impossible desires that lead to suffering. Let's say I met a beautiful woman that meets all my criteria: she is smart, beautiful, sexy, and has a great character. However, she is already married to another man. Because I'm so deeply in love with her and craving to see her, hug her etc. -- I have a huge mismatch between how things are and how I want them to be. From this craving comes suffering. Can anatta help me with this suffering? It might. If I think about my fantasies about being with her as "my future", "this is how I want to live" - then may be by meditating on anatta I can drop that fantasy of living with her. However in practice, this craving is not entirely based on thoughts about I and "my future". This craving is mostly based on the idea that she is perfect, including her physical, mental, and emotional qualities. This craving is based on overgeneralization of her as a perfect object (in my mind). Here again, shunyata can help. By clearly seeing that my idea of her is mere idealization, a generalization - that in real life she cannot possibly be always looking perfect, always being in happy mood, always attracted to me - as she is in my imagination - by seeing how her image is a creation of my mind - I can liberate myself from craving and suffering of unrequited love.

To summarize all of the above, suffering can be classified as a two-dimensional two-by-two matrix. On one dimension we have 1) suffering that comes from craving and 2) suffering that comes from fear of losing. On the other dimension we have A) suffering that comes from some kind of overgeneralized idea about "I" (my state of being in the past, present or future) and B) suffering that comes from some kind of overgeneralized idea about something else (some external object or even an abstract concept of how things are supposed to be). Anatta can provide liberation from suffering caused by 1A and 2A - but not from suffering caused by 1B and 2B. only shunyata can provide liberation from that.

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    Ah! Now this argument makes sense, which has led me to create this question.
    – ruben2020
    Aug 18, 2018 at 17:26
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    @IlyaGrushevskiy - you're right, the son example does have this emphasis on "my son" that may still have too much connection with "I". Perhaps I should have taken an example of aversion to a political or philosophical position of some other people. Although as you implied, in a way all our attitudes about external things are really about our desire or aversion to living in a world influenced by presence of those things, so in a way all our attitudes are still about self. Indeed, in one sense our ideas of "world" and "self" are mirror reflections of each other.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Aug 18, 2018 at 19:39
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    Still, I hold that to understand that "I" is a non-entity projected (imputed) onto a bunch of physical and informational processes is not enough for uprooting suffering that comes from the conflict that comes from attachment that comes from naive reification of abstractions and overgeneralization of subjective observations.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Aug 18, 2018 at 19:44
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    @AndreiVolkov I think we can explore this in the question that I have created. In my view, all types of suffering must have something to do with the self, however obscure this connection is. Why would I feel anger or revulsion at a concept or idea if it doesn't have anything to do with ME?
    – ruben2020
    Aug 19, 2018 at 3:53
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    @AndreiVolkov I have added this answer that tries to provide an alternative perspective.
    – ruben2020
    Aug 19, 2018 at 8:53

From what I read, the issue is that although Theravada realizes emptiness of self, it is still attached to dharmas where Mahayana strives to realize emptiness of self and dharmas.

I remember a quote like this: emptiness is like a bubble in the sea of great enlightenment. I can look it up if you want.

The practical implication is the goal (Arhat vs. Bodhisattva/Buddha) and range of practices (afaik Mahayana has a wider range of practices that can be used for a lot more situations).

  • I on the other hand, think that it actually is best of short and concise answers. If I were to post up the shortest possible answer, that'd be something like it. For the first sentence alone, you can see clear aim of Mahayana, emptiness of all forms is the liberation, and realisation of Bodhicitta is compliment to it.
    – user13383
    Aug 20, 2018 at 22:13
  • Hi Yeshe, thanks for your comments but unfortunately I'm not learned enough to comment much more than that. I'm still wrapping my head around Pali/Sanskrit terms, and even my practice isn't good enough to provide an answer with more insight. I just provided a quote I read from Ven. Master Hsuan Hua, which I think describes the differences, up to my current level of understanding. @bodhihammer thanks for the kind words. Aug 22, 2018 at 10:48

When talking about the distinction between the selflessness of persons and the selflessness of phenomena you've stated that Theravada does not necessarily believe the selflessness of phenomena is an important topic:

Whether non-self phenomena are truly existent from its own side or not, is (probably) not important towards the path to the end of suffering.

I'm editing my previous answer as it was full of unnecessary exposition and elaboration. The simple answer is that depending upon ignorance of the selflessness of phenomena, clinging and craving arises. You can find myriad cases on this very forum where adherents venomously object to the idea of the selflessness of phenomena because of this clinging. Clinging after the reality of phenomena necessarily leads to suffering. This is precisely why the Buddha taught the Phena sutta:

Evameva kho, bhikkhave, yaṁ kiñci viññāṇaṁ atītānāgatapaccuppannaṁ …pe… yaṁ dūre santike vā, taṁ bhikkhu passati nijjhāyati yoniso upaparikkhati. Tassa taṁ passato nijjhāyato yoniso upaparikkhato rittakaññeva khāyati, tucchakaññeva khāyati, asārakaññeva khāyati. Kiñhi siyā, bhikkhave, viññāṇe sāro?

It remains a mystery to me why (some) Theravada adherents object so strenuously to the straightforward selflessness of phenomena if not for this clinging? Why else would it be a point of contention if not for clinging to the reality of phenomena?

The Buddha himself says in the sutta above that clinging to the reality of phenomena is a killer and people should treat this desease as though their head was on fire which seems to me a good indication that understanding the unreality of phenomena is important to the elimination of dukkha.

  • IMO someone who experiences the young girl's dreams might see for themselves that, as we fabricate dreams, so we fabricate waking life. Is Mahayana doctrine a necessary addition to that experience? But saying it's "an illusion holding no objective reality whatsoever" may seem too extreme, unless perhaps in some technical "knife-edge" sense that Mahayana carefully explains -- a wrong view per the suttas (MN 117: "There is nothing..."), maybe Mahayana too (Nothing Exists).
    – ChrisW
    Aug 18, 2018 at 16:01
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    @YesheTenley Here's Snake Allegory 2: Two friends walk on a moonlit night. Suddenly, one of the friends gives a jump and yells, “snake!” The other looks in the same direction and notices the (real) snake, but also a big glass wall separating them from the snake. She begs her friend to look closer. He does and now sees the glass wall and is relieved as his heart slows. In both versions of the allegory, he is not afraid because the snake was real. He is afraid because the snake can harm him. He is afraid, because he clings to his five aggregates, not because the snake was real or unreal.
    – ruben2020
    Aug 18, 2018 at 16:09
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    @YesheTenley In Theravada, it doesn't matter whether the snake is real or unreal. As long as he clings to his five aggregates, he will suffer. He has the instinctive fear that "oh no! the snake will harm me!" What is "me"? The body. That is assuming the self is the form. It's an identity view. The problem is with the "me", not with the "snake".
    – ruben2020
    Aug 18, 2018 at 16:23
  • @YesheTenley Actually, a conceptual understanding of anatta is insufficient in Theravada. One has to "see it through wisdom" using vipassana. This is explained in the Khemaka Sutta (SN 22.89).
    – ruben2020
    Aug 18, 2018 at 16:37
  • Yeshe the Phena Sutta does not mean what you think it means yesterday

In both Theravada and Mahayana, strong sense of Self is present in observer, sense that pollutes the object with Self grasping and reference. This ignorance is the root of perceiving objects in a deluded or intrinsically existent way, way that does not subject itself to Three marks of existence of a conditioned thing. Example, the right perception is:

  • Seeing that chair is an impermanent phenomenon
  • Seeing that experiencing a chair is inherently unsatisfactory
  • Seeing that chair is neither Self (me), nor truly mine

Mahayana elaborates the last point of perception (Anatta) because we cannot escape such view of things quick enough, not before we are fully liberated from Self. Achieving Arahantship is not easy. To stop suffering practitioner needs to go beyond concepts, as the afflictive ones are typically rooted in ignorance of Self.

Therefore, great mind expansion happens in Mahayana school as it attempts to describe how our conceptual reality occurs by the faculty of Self (by grasping and craving, by prejudice...). Such expansion encompasses all the material and immaterial things, since perception of any phenomena may afflict suffering. For each phenomena to stop causing affliction one has to realise it voidness or emptiness of Self-centered, inherent essence. If coming by a train station [outer phenomenon concept] gives one a traumatic memory - just image of a train might trigger a panic response due to historical background. There has to be something immediate to do about clinging to concept of a train, such as more realistic realisation. By realisation, the example of a train loses its footing - it is not the same train, but recollection of concept itself that causes affliction.

It is a given in Mahayana that meditative experience gives something simply beyond prajna - an intuition past conceptuality (also referred to as jnana). The root here is that prajna is still discriminative and dualistic whereas jnana (intuition) is free of it. So alayavijnana (elaboration of bhavaṅga) is a key point of interest in all Mahayana schools since it is a point of contact with something beyond the dualistic, conceptual perception, and that is Tathata (suchness). Thus, here all beings are said to have Buddha nature, just removing obscurations is process available to ordinary beings. And realisation of Emptiness means reaching this "mundane" state and ultimately - entirely losing oneself in it.

Emptiness is form, form is Emptiness.

It might be realised by non-analytical means, like insight into Emptiness, by koans, or Tibetan chöd. At the same time, it might be accompanied by analytical methods, like paratantra. The latter, analytical methods consider firstly outer phenomena dependent origination that mark something lacking intrinsic essence and secondly, realising non-duality beyond extremes of aversion or strong inclination via understanding both deeply (middle way). Thich Nhat Hanh often says that without experience and teaching suffering (Samsara) gives us, we cannot reach Nirvana.

Conclusion arises in Mahayana that the mind should be expansive, including all the things:

  • sentient, by developing relative Bodhicitta, as it uproots Selfishness and thus vanquishes Self.
  • non-sentient (mostly), by developing realisation of Emptiness, as it uproots ignorance of Self (of the way things are).

That leads to ultimate Bodhicitta. Note that this standard Mahayana approach, approach of relative shortcuts.

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