This question arises from a comment in a related post.

  1. Is there any mention in the sutras on the Buddha speaking of sunyata as a dhamma? How is sunyata defined? As a phenomena by itself or is it an idea, a concept, a perception, a realization, etc?

  2. Is emptiness a characteristic of the Deathless i.e. the Unconditioned as alluded in this answer?

Thank you.

5 Answers 5


I'm not an expert on Theravada Abhidhamma, but as far as I know, in Theravada the universal characteristics such as anicca, dukkha, anatta are not dhammas but are "paññatti" - notions aka concepts.

Indeed, if e.g. anicca were a dhamma it would mean that all conditioned dhammas "have" the anicca-dhamma. This makes no sense because dhammas don't "have" other dhammas.

This makes me think that suññatā, being a kind of the deeper layer of the three universal characteristics, is also like that, a paññatti.

Furthermore, if emptiness were a distinct dhamma, it would have to be impermanent, since all conditioned dhammas are impermanent and (according to Theravada) the only unconditioned dhamma is Nibbana. Now, if emptiness is impermanent, how does it arise and cease? And does it mean the self comes back when the emptiness ceases?

Nonsense, isn't it? But that's what happens when one tries to reify concepts, including the concept of "dhamma" and "emptiness". Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamikakarika is exactly this kind of proof by contradiction, showing how reification of concepts leads to all kinds of nonsensical outcomes.

As to the second part of your question, whether emptiness a characteristic of the Deathless, the Cula Sunnata Sutta, for example, describes the final Liberation as abiding (vihara) in emptiness. Therefore even in Pali Canon the Emptiness is a way to describe the Deathless or Nibbana, not something abandoned on the way to Nibbana.


From the New Concise Pali English Dictionary entry on Dhamma, some of the senses of Dhamma are:

  1. how the world of experience works, the processes by which it works and is explained (especially as formulated in Four Noble Truths and Dependent Origination), and the possibility and way of transcending it, as understood by the Buddha and taught by him (so that knowledge and understanding of it might bring awakening, arhantship, to others)
  2. a constituent of experience; an aspect or quality of existence; physical sensation; a mental state or quality (good or bad); (sometimes merely) thing, phenomenon, matter; the nonindependent, conditioned constituents of processes and events, progressively more and more minutely analyzed into fundamental types of event or fundamental regularities
  3. mental constructs, concepts, ideas, what is to be cognized by the mind, that which is the object of mental activity
  4. the way things are; a natural law, custom, tradition; the essential nature, the way, of men or animals.

There are also a few types of sunyata:

  • emptiness of self, from SN 35.85
  • emptiness of phenomena, from Mahayana's Madhyamaka philosophy
  • emptiness of defilement, from MN 121

Emptiness of self as related to the third mark of existence ("all phenomena is not self"), is definitely a natural law as defined in AN 3.136.

Emptiness of phenomena is considered a natural law by Madhyamaka philosophy.

We can say that emptiness of self and emptiness of phenomena as natural laws are related to the Dhamma definition #4. According to AN 3.136, natural laws are not impermanent.

Any kind of emptiness as a mental concept, an idea of the mind, is #3 and is therefore impermanent.

All 3 types of emptiness mentioned, as types of experiences, are #1 and #2, and also part of #3 (what is cognized by the mind). As such, they are also impermanent.

So, whichever way you look at it, emptiness is a dhamma.

  • Agreed if defined as natural law because self and phenomena lack inherently independent nature. As in my comment to @DhammaDhatu, I observed a potential logical conflict. However, #3 doesn’t make sense as a natural law as emptiness of defilements is not guaranteed. Lastly, by not treating #3 as a natural law or ultimate reality, it is more useful and relevant to most people as it highlights efforts are needed to eradicate our defilements. Upvoted as relevant, thanks!
    – Desmon
    Oct 11, 2023 at 10:17

As a phenomena by itself or is it an idea, a concept, a perception, a realization, etc?

If it is described as a "dhamma" I don't think that the word "dhamma" is very precise or that it tries to distinguish.

This dictionary definition includes both "thing, phenomenon, matter", and, "mental constructs, concepts, ideas, what is to be cognized by the mind, that which is the object of mental activity", and many others.

Is emptiness a characteristic of the Deathless

Perhaps go to the Mahayana texts for that, since I think that's the primary source of doctrine about "emptiness".

According to this sutra for example,

Therefore, Śāriputra, [in true reality] pure spiritual trainees do not enter nirvāṇa, and bhikṣus with grave sins do not fall into hell. They are neither worthy nor unworthy of offerings, neither ending nor not ending their afflictions. Why not? Because [in emptiness] all dharmas abide in equality.”

  • Thanks @ChrisW, I agreed that the definition is too broad. MN121 did touch on this topic of emptiness.
    – Desmon
    Oct 10, 2023 at 8:01

Sunnata (the state of emptiness of self) is synonymous with anatta (not-self). About not-self, the Suttas say:

Uppādā vā, bhikkhave, tathāgatānaṁ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṁ, ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā.

Mendicants, whether Realized Ones arise or not, this law of nature persists, this regularity of natural principles, this invariance of natural principles:

‘sabbe dhammā anattā’”ti.

‘All things are not-self.’”

AN 3.136

The word 'dhamma' does not exclusively mean 'phenomena'. Regardless, sunnata is an ultimate reality therefore it is obviously a dhamma rather than a paññatti (subjective thought concept).

Also, emptiness is a characteristic of the Deathless because all things are not-self.

  • Thanks for trying to answer the question, I am upvoting for the effort. Supposedly, a non-Buddhist approach me and ask, “If all things are not-self, therefore, has this emptiness within (i.e. emptiness is synonymous with not-self). Furthermore, emptiness is a characteristic of the Deathless then why are everything impermanent, subjected to death and decay? Shouldn’t they be Deathless too?”. How should we answer them?
    – Desmon
    Oct 10, 2023 at 7:53
  • Buddhism does not say all things are impermanent. Only conditioned things are impermanent. Oct 11, 2023 at 3:46
  • Just pointing out that treating emptiness as an ultimate reality can result in logical conflicts. E.g. conditioned things are not self (void or empty of inherent nature). Emptiness is a property of the Deathless. So, if conditioned things shared the same ultimate reality (emptiness) as the Deathless, why aren’t conditioned things Deathless? Perhaps, a better way is to treat emptiness as a perspective and byproduct of attaining certain consciousness (see Appendix A of my answer).
    – Desmon
    Oct 11, 2023 at 9:59
  • nothing was pointed out. Oct 11, 2023 at 23:38

(www.suttacentral.net is not working for mobile browsers for 3 days so I will not be able to provide links. I am referring to MN 121.)

While doing meditation of Emptiness or Sunyata Buddha reaches a stage where he says there is nothing at all. He begins with house being empty of elephants,cows, horses etc and then he says there is only this that is not emptiness,namely, the oneness dependent on Sangha.

Then ignoring perceptions of village and people focuses on wilderness. So we regard it as empty of what is not there but as to what remains they understand it is present. That’s how emptiness is born in them - genuine , undistorted and pure.

Then focuses on Earth ,Infinite space, Infinite consciousness, nothingness,neither perception nor non-perception, signless immersion of heart.

It was produced by choices and intentions therefore it is impermanent and liable to cessation. Knowing and seeing like this their mind is freed from the defilements of sensuality , desire to be reborn and ignorance. When they are freed , they know they are freed. Rebirth is thus ended , spiritual journey has been completed.

We see that through meditation on emptiness there is cessation of ignorance possible.

Emptiness is liable to cessation. The ultimate aim is cessation of ignorance, cessation of desire to be reborn. Once cessation of ignorance is achieved there is no rebirth.

Emptiness is a Dhamma like body and it needs to be discarded. I am not emptiness, emptiness is not mine , emptiness is not myself. Emptiness is born, Nibbana is unborn.


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