Are there different types of emptiness (Śūnyatā)?
Even though emptiness (Śūnyatā) seems like it should just be one thing (concept/experinece/realisation) does it in fact have different types? Can it be categorised in any way? I know Buddhism is very keen on lists. Is there a list of different types of emptiness in any tradition?
The motivation for this question is that I remember hearing that there were 32 types of sūnyatā. However I can't remember where I heard this so I'm hoping that this question might cast some light on that issue.
If anyone could provide reference to canonical texts, commentaries or other sources about this, that would be particularly good.
In Tibetan Buddhism, emptiness is analyzed in many different ways. Madhyamakavatara by Candrakirti lists 16 types of emptiness. These include emptiness of emptiness, emptiness of the unobservable etc. I will not list them all here, but if you are interested you can find detailed explanations in Chandrakirti's Madhyamakavatara with Commentary by Ju Mipham.
All objects are imputations of the mind. If we start with any form (a generic object of thought) and engage into analytical decomposition we will never find any stable reference point; everything is defined against of, and in terms of, something else.
There is nothing to work on, no one to make a reference point, nothing whatsoever."
Yet another way to explain the same progression is the Four Emptinesses of Completion Stage Meditation:
Emptiness, experienced when the first five consciousnesses (of sense-organ experiences) dissolve into the sixth (the consciousness of mental experiences).
Great Emptiness, experienced when the sixth consciousness dissolves into the seventh (emotional consciousness).
Extreme Emptiness, experienced when the seventh consciousness dissolves into the eighth (ground consciousness).
Total Emptiness, experienced when the eighth consciousness dissolves into primal wisdom.
- According to some scholars, the Buddha nature discussed in some Mahāyāna sūtras does not represent a substantial self (ātman); rather, it is a positive language and expression of emptiness (śūnyatā) and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices.
- Prior to the period of these sūtras, Mahāyāna metaphysics was dominated by teachings on emptiness, in the form of Madhyamaka philosophy.
The language used by this approach is primarily negative, and the Buddha nature genre of sūtras can be seen as an attempt to state orthodox Buddhist teachings of dependent origination and on the mysterious reality of nirvana using positive language instead, to prevent people from being turned away from Buddhism by a false impression of nihilism. In these sūtras the perfection of the wisdom of not-self is stated to be the true self; the ultimate goal of the path is then characterized using a range of positive language that had been used in Indian philosophy previously by essentialist philosophers, but was now transmuted into a new Buddhist vocabulary that described a being who has successfully completed the Buddhist path.
- Emptiness Main article: Śūnyatā Mahayana Buddhism received significant theoretical grounding from Nagarjuna (perhaps c. 150–250 CE), arguably the most influential scholar within the Mahayana tradition.
The concept of emptiness brings together other key Buddhist doctrines, particularly anatta and dependent origination, to refute the metaphysics of Sarvastivada and Sautrantika (extinct non-Mahayana schools).
For Nagarjuna, it is not merely sentient beings that are empty of ātman; all phenomena (dharmas) are without any svabhava (literally "own-nature" or "self-nature"), and thus without any underlying essence; they are "empty" of being independent; thus the heterodox theories of svabhava circulating at the time were refuted on the basis of the doctrines of early Buddhism. Nagarjuna's school of thought is known as the Mādhyamaka.
He may have arrived at his positions from a desire to achieve a consistent exegesis of the Buddha's doctrine as recorded in the Canon. In the eyes of Nagarjuna the Buddha was not merely a forerunner, but the very founder of the Mādhyamaka system.
- Sarvastivada teachings—which were criticized by Nāgārjuna—were reformulated by scholars such as Vasubandhu and Asanga and were adapted into the Yogacara (Sanskrit: yoga practice) school.
While the Mādhyamaka school held that asserting the existence or non-existence of any ultimately real thing was inappropriate, some exponents of Yogacara asserted that the mind and only the mind is ultimately real (a doctrine known as cittamatra).
- Besides emptiness, Mahayana schools often place emphasis on the notions of perfected spiritual insight (prajñāpāramitā) and Buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha). There are conflicting interpretations of the tathāgatagarbha in Mahāyāna thought.
The Pali canon uses the term emptiness in three ways: "(1) as a meditative dwelling, (2) as an attribute of objects, and (3) as a type of awareness-release."  The Suñña Sutta, part of the Pāli canon, relates that the monk Ānanda, Buddha's attendant asked,
- It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?" The Buddha replied, "Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ānanda, that the world is empty.
If I relate emptiness to my own practice, what I first see is there are many types of emptiness, but as I sit quietly with this, I realize it is not emptiness that is multiple, but it is my changing perception that creates the illusion that emptiness is changing.
This might fit better as a comment to the question, only because this answer is highly personal and subjective.
I respect your point of view and value facts based answers.
However if I cannot include my own meditation experience along the path from any sharing, then I see limitations to speaking only about others opinions that could also be personal and subjective to the best of our knowledge. Happy practicing to you. – soulsings Sep 29 '14 at 0:01
I didn't mean to offend you, my intention was to help this SE conform to its main purpose: to provide expert answers to questions. Maybe I'm wrong, and personal answers have a place here after all. I don't know. – Anthony Sep 29 '14 at 0:35 1
I think I have taken it further than necessary in attempting to moderate. May the best answer get the most votes. That is the true spirit of SE. As for my original objection, it seems this site is still trying to figure out where it stands on that issue. Thanks for bearing with me. – Anthony Sep 29 '14 at 0:49 1
Thanks for the answer - appreciated. I personally think that generally experiential answers are very valid however I have to say for this one I was hoping for some textual reference (i didn't specify so my fault).
I won't upvote this question (yet) - not because I don't think it's valid - but because I would like this to stay on the unanswered list for a while to see if anyone can give sanother answer with sources.
The answer is No, there are not different types of emptiness.
It tells us that there is existence, but that phenomena are empty of svabhava, a Sanskrit word that means self-nature, intrinsic nature, essence, or "own being." And sunyata has no intrinsic nature that one could call a "type".