Buddhists say that everything is empty.

Is mathematics empty?

I thought that "empty" meant conceptually constructed. But how can the fact (not the expression) 2 + 3 = 5 not be a fact which is true regardless of how we are counting?

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    Empty in the context of Buddhism means conditioned. The equation 2+3=5 works in Euclidean universes. In other universes, 2+3 may equal something else. In the same way, the interior angles of a triangle contain 180 degrees on a plane, but not on a sphere. Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 1:29
  • Experiences are empty, wagons are empty, but only in the sense that they don't have a soul, wagons still exist. I think when you apply emptiness, annata to abstractions, you get nonsense, particularly when you apply it to things of ethical consequence, like, is the act of killing empty and the act of not killing empty and thus all morally the same. Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 1:38
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    I'm not quite inclined to vote as "off-topic" as I can see this as a valid philosophical question (to those inclined on buddhist philosophy, even though practitioners simply disregard it). My rationale is that the Sarvāstivādins regarded conditioned arising as anatta (opposing the Mahāsanghikas), so whether concepts were anatta or not seems to have played a part in the history of buddhist thought. But I think, as it is, the question empowers opinion based answers.
    – user382
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 3:38
  • yeah you're totally not understanding that i'm asking about theory of buddhism not practice !!!
    – user2512
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 3:49

8 Answers 8


In 'pure' mathematics, the truth of an expression like 2+3=5 depends on the definition of the addition operator and the definitions of the numbers such as 1 and 2 and 3 and so on. I think these definitions are 'axiomatic'.

In 'applied' mathematics e.g.when you're adding physical objects (such as apples), then the truth depends on your ability to identity "one apple" (which isn't obvious: in the real world, some apples are smaller, some are attached to the tree, some are rotting, etc.).

Furthermore mathematics is something which you do (sometimes) and which you stop doing: therefore IMO it's conditioned and impermanent.

More generally I think it's a category of knowledge. Here's a (slightly rude or brusque or plainspoken) quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance -- this quote is talking about Aristotle's "dialectic" but it could IMO equally be talking about "mathematics":

"As best I know, Aristotle's opinion is that dialectic comes before everything else."

"And from the dialectic come the forms," Phædrus continues, "and from. - - " But the Chairman cuts it off. He sees it cannot go his way and dismisses it.

He shouldn't have cut it off, Phædrus thinks to himself. Were he a real Truth-seeker and not a propagandist for a particular point of view he would not. He might learn something. Once it's stated that "the dialectic comes before anything else," this statement itself becomes a dialectical entity, subject to dialectical question.

Phædrus would have asked, What evidence do we have that the dialectical question-and-answer method of arriving at truth comes before anything else? We have none whatsoever. And when the statement is isolated and itself subject to scrutiny it becomes patently ridiculous. Here is this dialectic, like Newton's law of gravity, just sitting by itself in the middle of nowhere, giving birth to the universe, hey? It's asinine.

Dialectic, which is the parent of logic, came itself from rhetoric. Rhetoric is in turn the child of the myths and poetry of ancient Greece. That is so historically, and that is so by any application of common sense. The poetry and the myths are the response of a prehistoric people to the universe around them made on the basis of [etc.]

  • i get what you are saying, "2+3=5" is an expression, a thought. i just wonder if there is no reality to mathematics; i have interesting (i hope!) reasons but won't post them rn
    – user2512
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 4:59
  • actually i will post n: simply that applied mathematics is empirically adequate but doesn't deal in unique particulars.
    – user2512
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 5:01
  • Oh God, Dialectic, in the sense of the back and forth exploration of truth... DOES come before everything else: all that is is Experience! Even in one self there is the dialectic of event and awareness of it, leading to actions, and the results of them... And Dialectic DOES arise from Rhetoric: "Story", which is what all of phenomenal reality is: an all-encompassing story, Play, Experience. There really is nothing else at all. Thank you both for your illuminating question and answer!
    – user2341
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 13:09
  • @ulmo I think maths was invented (and is a fabrication, a thought, sense-objects of the mind).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 2:31

Emptiness in eastern philosophies usually have a more subtle meaning than we use in the west. Check this wikipedia article on Emptiness. And there are many answers regarding emptiness (sunyata) like this one. There is also an article in wikipedia on Śūnyatā.

The most common understanding on emptiness (on Buddhism) is that it is dependently originated. It means that it does not have inherent meaning or value, but it relies on other things. In mathematics the numbers two, three, five and so on just has meaning because of the number one. And also, the number one only has meaning relying on the other numbers.

In a more practical sense, numbers only has meaning because of the objects, like apples, rocks or sheep. Now, emotions, that have no clear bounds, can't be numerically described. You could say that you felt happy twice today, but you can't express its intensity and form numerically. Then math is true not because it has inherent meaning, but because it works for what it is used.

There is another interpretation I read on this QA (and also in some wikipedia article but I couldn't find it):

[Emptiness is] a flashy way of reminding us that we only define things in relation to what they are not.

In math words, the number one only exist because there is the zero. And there is zero only because of the one. (Although the zero was "created" much after the integer numbers). If we couldn't distinguish between zero and one, no numbers would make sense. There is only happy because there is not-happy. There is only "self" because we define our bounds, we define what is not-me.

Likewise we can only perceive suffering if we know what is not-suffering.

So, when we say that math is empty, we don't mean that it is false or is meaningless. But we mean that is not absolutely true, that it is true in relation to something. Truth is a relation, not an absolute thing.

  • no i don't mean false or meaningless, i mean lacking in svabhava etc. i've done a tonnnnnee of research on this so your post is getting a downvote for being kinda wrong
    – user2512
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 3:50
  • 1
    Then, could you improve your question? If you are specific on the question, you will probably get specific answers. And also, if you tell me what is wrong in my answer, I can try to fix it.
    – eric
    Commented Mar 3, 2015 at 22:28
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    I liked in the movie "Lucy" where she said, "There are no numbers." Truer words were never spoken. We can see what is false, but can't put in to words what finally reveals itself to be true. Best to not try!
    – user2341
    Commented Mar 4, 2015 at 13:12

There is a mathematician Gödel who stated back around the 1920s using something we might imagine as "meta-math" that any axiomatic system (so any mathematical system you can create or imagine) cannot satisfy simultaneously two properties. Which two?

  • That the system is complete
  • That the system is consistent

I shall try and state in a useful metaphor these key insights. I like to imagine a wheel and at the center of the wheel are some basic operations like multiplication, addition, subtraction. However, it could be anything. We are basically trying to figure out all the infinite possible combinations of our basic fundamental rules and then see if we can make this infinite variety of conclusions both internally consistent and completely exhaustive of every possible outcome.

This is like trying to build a house with some basic pieces: a roof, a chimney, a floor, a basement, a fridge, a garage, a kitchen. Now say you try every combination of possibilities such that the fridge ends up on top of the place and the roof ends up on the ground. This is us trying to make all the exhaustive combinations possible, but in doing so we contradict the terms we have used: fridge is now roof and roof is now floor.

In short: if we tried to make our system demonstrably "complete" then we would invariably end up with a plethora of contradictions. That is, we could say 1 = 1 and 2 = 2 but once we start saying 2 = 1 and 1 = 2 to get "completeness" then we have contradiction (non-consistency)

Likewise, if we want to have consistency (1 = 1 and 2 = 2 and 5 = 5 and 4-3 = 1) we cannot have completeness guaranteed, because we omit terms and therefore don't know if there is a true term we have not yet discovered.

So the basic idea of Gödel's incompleteness and completeness theorems are that mathematics cannot be both consistent (or coherent) and complete which means that mathematics, is in fact, empty.

Any postulate is empty of its own being because it is necessarily dependent on other terms to relatively define its value/position/significance.

Any postulate is also empty of an absolutely true nature because there is no way to have absolutely true consistency, for that would require completeness, and Gödel showed that you can only have one or the other, like a scrambled egg or an unbroken egg, you cannot have both unless you sacrifice consistency (the egg is both unbroken and scrambled?) or completeness (just one or the other).

So in short, all mathematical systems must abide as either incomplete or inconsistent which is [another reason] why mathematics in itself is not graspable and not inherent.

This, however, is a long way to arrive at the basic truth that all phenomena are empty of their own being (they have inter-being as Thich Naht Hanh says).

  • 1
    Love the post, I'd add Tarski's undefinability theorem en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarski%27s_undefinability_theorem to Gödel's incompleteness one too - may be a bit simpler for non math heads as well! :) Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 23:05
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    @IlyaGrushevskiy "math cannot prove math" is a recent realization! how splendid Tarski figured it out (infigured it?) in 1936!
    – sova
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 0:09

One does not really exist, changes, falles appart. How illusionary that 3+5=8 and to play with it, as if it would be something real.

May one be able to show my person a single thing, one thing?

"Now suppose that in the last month of the hot season a mirage were shimmering, and a man with good eyesight were to see it, observe it, & appropriately examine it. To him — seeing it, observing it, & appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in a mirage? In the same way, a monk sees, observes, & appropriately examines any perception that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near. To him — seeing it, observing it, & appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in perception?

SN 22.95

And now even play further:

"Now suppose that a man desiring heartwood, in quest of heartwood, seeking heartwood, were to go into a forest carrying a sharp ax. There he would see a large banana tree: straight, young, of enormous height. He would cut it at the root and, having cut it at the root, would chop off the top. Having chopped off the top, he would peel away the outer skin. Peeling away the outer skin, he wouldn't even find sapwood, to say nothing of heartwood. Then a man with good eyesight would see it, observe it, & appropriately examine it. To him — seeing it, observing it, & appropriately examining it — it would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in a banana tree? In the same way, a monk sees, observes, & appropriately examines any fabrications that are past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near. To him — seeing them, observing them, & appropriately examining them — they would appear empty, void, without substance: for what substance would there be in fabrications?

Can one provide a number for Sūnyatā?

Mathematic like philosopy is just the undertaking to manage around as possible needed till the error is either no more seen or falls into an allowed agreed spectrum of tolerance = convention.

[Note: This is a gift of Dhamma and not meant for commercial purpose or other low wordily gains by means of trade and exchange.]


2+3=5 is only a mental construct.

In practice, depending on the situation, the numbers are represented by degree of accuracy.eg 2.000001+3.000001

Einstein has also proven in a black hole, time stops. Physics cannot apply.

Until it can be disproved. everything is empty..


Is mathematics empty?

Everything that is not Nibbana, thereby belonging to Conditioned Reality, is empty of any inherent existence.


What is emptiness? just other concept of empti-less.Do you agree with me.yes yes think deep in to emptiness and you will see empti-less.


It seems that there are certain relationships among forms and phenomena that we call "mathematical" relationships. These relationships can be seen to be consistent and without any need for axioms to support them, they are tautologies and ontological. Axiomatic systems fail at some point due to their eventual self referential nature and containing axioms that cannot be proved within the given system. The relationships that are referred to above existed long before any human mind appeared on the scene to discover them and give them a rational form...



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    – THelper
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 9:45

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