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Sunyata: A Reference Guide for the Western Reader

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James Bradley
Pratt Institute

“We assert that whatever arises dependently is as such empty.

This manner of designating things is exactly the middle path.”
- Nāgārjuna (as sited in Berger 2005)

From Nietzsche to Nishitani

Historically, sunyata is a word that has been the source of much confusion in the Western World. Friedrich Nietzsche, due in large part to his misunderstanding of the Sanskrit term, famously referred to Arthur Schopenhauer's doctrine of pessimism as "Western Buddhism," thus equating Buddhism in his own mind, and as a consequence in the minds of generations of readers and thinkers whom he has influenced, with a kind of passive spiritual nihilism (Nishitani 1982). In fact, the word sunyata, which is the noun form of the Sanskrit adjective sunya (translated as "empty" or "void"), simply means "emptiness" (Monier-Williams 1899). Though thanks to the massive contribution of Nietzsche, as well as subsequent philosophical schools such as Existentialism, toward the shaping of twentieth century Western thought, sunyata is just as often translated as "nothingness," a word with an entirely different set of connotations which are usually perceived in a much more negative light, leading to an inaccurate conception of Buddhism as a religion of nihilism, or a philosophical discipline of negation.

It is this historical confusion which has prompted me to compile this reference guide. In Nietzsche's intellectual heyday, that is, the latter half of the nineteenth century, Buddhist studies in Europe and America were still in their infancy. Since that time the West has experienced an unprecedented surge of interest in Eastern spiritual traditions, both academically and in practice, with Buddhism in its myriad forms near the top of the list. An important landmark in this progression was the publication in English in 1982 of Keiji Nishitani's Religion and Nothingness, a book that the culmination of the life's work of the Japanese philosopher, who had earlier studied under Martin Heidegger, which delved into the unfolding crisis of a Western Civilization sinking unconsciously into self-destructive nihilism.

One of the central arguments of his book is that a fuller, deeper understanding of the Buddhist doctrine of sunyata is of vital importance to the spiritual and cultural health of the Western World (Nishitani 1982). My personal interest in the topic has sprung from my own encounter with this work, and subsequently with the larger body of Nishitani's thought. It is my hope that this reference guide will contribute to the ongoing dialog between East and West which Nishitani and many others have seen as vital to the continued existence of both.


As stated above, sunyata is a Sanskrit word which means "emptiness." Over the centuries, Buddhist thinkers have interpreted emptiness in various ways, leading to divergent doctrines and entire schools of rival philosophical thought. Siddhārtha Gautama, the historical Buddha, can be seen as laying the groundwork for all subsequent understandings of the meaning of sunyata in the 6th century B.C., proclaiming that the self has no real, intrinsic existence (anatman, "no-self"), and that the universe itself is without ultimate substance (Wen 2012). Following the notion that all existence is transient, and no single being has true, independent essence, it can be said that the true nature of all things is emptiness, placing sunyata at the heart of Buddhist teaching. As a direct consequence of this centrality, an incredibly rich body of thought has accumulated from countries all across Asia, leaving the interested Western reader with about 2500 years worth of material to catch up on.

The Bibliographic Guide

Since my motivation for creating this guide was to compile a list of resources which would be of greatest interest to the Western student already possessed of at least some philosophic background, the sources I have chosen tend naturally to reflect this perspective, inclining steeply toward Western philosophical examinations and comparative studies, nearly all of which were written after the publication of the English translation of Nishitani's Religion and Nothingness, as stated previously, in 1982.

The bibliography that I have assembled for this guide is divided into seven sections. The first consists of preliminary sources providing introductory information on the topics of Buddhism and sunyata. The second section, which I consider to be the core of the list, consists of Buddhist, religious and philosophical studies, most of which originating from a Western vantage point, that delve more deeply into various aspects of sunyata and related topics. The third section is devoted to the Kyoto School of Philosophy, the group of mid-twentieth century Japanese thinkers which included Keiji Nishitani, and which attempted to bridge the intellectual divide separating East and West by applying the rigors of Western philosophical principles to ancient Buddhist beliefs and doctrines. The fourth section consists of historical studies of Buddhism and of the Buddha's teachings. The fifth section contains sources dealing with the Mahayana School (the "Great Vehicle") of Buddhism, one of the main branches of Buddhism today. The sixth section deals with Tibetan Buddhism, which employs a combination of Sanskrit and Tibetan terminology, and its interpretation of emptiness.

Finally, the seventh section is devoted to Nāgārjuna, the second century Indian Buddhist who, after the Buddha, is considered to be the primary historical authority on many Buddhist doctrines including, and perhaps especially, that of emptiness.
In order to keep the guide restrained to a manageable size, I have intentionally excluded sources that deal primarily with the Theravada School (the "Lesser Vehicle") of Buddhism, the Mahayana School's principal rival, which utilizes the Pali Canon. Pali is a language distinct from Sanskrit and thus, I reasoned, would provide an unnecessarily dimension of complication with regards to a guide that deals largely with the definition and translation of a Sanskrit term (the Pali equivalent of sunyata being sunnata, similar-seeming, yet distinct nonetheless). The Theravada School contains a wealth of material on the problem of emptiness in its own right, but since Nishitani, as well as Western

philosophers, tend to deal more often with Mahayana doctrine, and by extension with Sanskrit terminology, I thought it best to follow their lead.

The Compilation of Sources

This reference guide was compiled from multiple source types, of both the print and online varieties, including modern author's monographs, historical Buddhist sutras, encyclopedias, both specialized and general, dictionaries, web sites, scholarly periodicals, and proprietary academic databases.

The holdings of the New York Public Library system, accessed largely through its online catalog, proved to be a treasure trove for monographs of the subject in English. Sifting through dozens of entries with the subject heading sunyata in this catalog proved to be of great benefit in terms of helping me to define the scope of my topic. It soon became clear that there was more than enough source material out there for me to be fairly selective in my compilation, allowing me to favor more academic and philosophical sources, and to exclude more general interest, introductory, "pop," and even self-help style items. The NYPL was invaluable also due to the free access it provides to scholarly articles and databases. Such databases as Gale's Biography in Context, Hathi Trust, Academic Search Premier and Ebscohost provided me with full-text access to scholarly journals of immediate interest such as Philosophy East and West and Asian Philosophy, which contained articles arriving at the topics of sunyata and Buddhist philosophy from many different points of contact, and from multiple academic disciplines.

Other libraries consulted were the Brooklyn Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, and the Pratt Institute Library. I found that the BPL and SFPL both contained several of the same titles on the subject as the NYPL, though each with far fewer, but that each were also able to provide an additional few here and there which somehow slipped through the NYPL's extensive net. The Pratt Institute Library, with its emphasis on art and architecture, contained virtually nothing on the topic of sunyata, though it did provide online access to the database JSTOR, from which I was able to accrue additional articles of interest delving more deeply into the Kyoto School from journals such as Numen and Buddhist-Christian Studies.

The vast sea of the world wide web yielded further resources still, including a digitized Sanskrit-English dictionary from the year before Nietzsche's death, and full texts of English-translated Buddhist sutras. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy is one pearl adrift in this sea which I discovered through my internet research; a peer-reviewed online encyclopedia which can be accessed free of charge. The starting point of my interest was certainly Nishitani's Religion and Nothingness, but that seminal text aside, the internet provided some of the most general tools for laying the foundation of my research: encyclopedias, including the now seemingly-obligatory citations of the online Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia. These introductory sources constituted the base of my research pyramid as it rose from general to specific, with Nishitani's book serving as the honorary capstone.


I. Preliminary Sources

Monier-Williams, S.M. (1899). A Sanskrit-English dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.sanskrit- zuSkavraNa.jpg.

Nyanatiloka. (1983). Buddhist dictionary: manual of Buddhist terms and doctrines. New York, NY: AMS Press.
Soothill, W.E. (1995). A dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms with Sanskrit and English equivalents and a Sanskrit-Pali index. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press.
Sunyata. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from 574124/sunyata.
Śūnyatā. (n.d.). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from

II. Buddhist, Religious and Philosophical Studies

Baumer, B., & Dupuche, J. R. (Eds.). (2005). Void and fullness in the Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian - - New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.
Carter, R.E. (2009, January). God and nothingness. Philosophy East and West, 59(1), 1-21. DOI:
10.1353/pew.0.0042. Retrieved from 2048/ehost/detail?vid=4&hid=7&sid=842c2a7a-18e9-4de1-b041-b0743f359b25%40 sessionmgr4&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=hft&AN=509885216.

Dallmayr, F. (1992, January). Nothingness and śūnyatā: a comparison of Heidegger and Nishitani. Philosophy East and West, 42(1), 37-48. Retrieved From
Eckel, M.D. (1991). To see the Buddha: a philosopher's quest for the meaning of emptiness. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco.

Fernando, T. (2002). On voidness: a study on Buddhist nihilism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Glass, N.R. (1995). Working emptiness: toward a third reading of emptiness in Buddhism and Postmodern thought. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.
Hopkins, J. (1996). Meditation on emptiness. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Ichimura, S. (2001). Buddhist critical spirituality. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

King, W.L. (1970, August). Śūnyatā as a master-symbol. Numen, 17(2), 95-104. Retrieved from

Lama, D. (2006, January 14). The Om of physics: can the knowledge of the world that Buddhists have gained through meditation compare with what scientists have learned through deduction and experiment? New Scientist, 189.2534, 46+. Gale Document Number: GALE| A141438753. Retrieved from
Laycock, S.W. (2001). Nothingness and emptiness: a Buddhist engagement with the ontology of Jean- Paul Sartre. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Moore, R.J. (1995, Autumn). Dereification in Zen Buddhism. Sociological Quarterly, 36(4), 699-723.
Retrieved from

Richards, G. (1978, June). Śūnyatā: objective referent or via negativa? Religious Studies, 14(2), 251-260. Retrieved from
Tomasi, A. (2008, November). Technology from the standpoint of sunyata. Asian Philosophy, 18(3), 197-212. doi: 10.1080/09552360802439977. Retrieved from
Tsering, G.T. (2009). Emptiness. G. McDougall (Ed.). Boston, MA : Wisdom Publications.

III. The Kyoto School

Abe, M. (1995). Divine emptiness and historical fullness: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian conversation with Masao Abe. C. Ives (Ed.). Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International.
Heisig, J.W. (1990, March). The religious philosophy of the Kyoto School: an overview. Japanese

Journal of Religious Studies, 17(1), 51-81. Retrieved from

Nishitani, K. (1982). Religion and nothingness. (J. Van Bragt, Trans.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Nishitani, K. (1989). The religious philosophy of Nishitani Keiji: encounter with emptiness. T. Unno (Ed.). Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press.
Nishitani, K. (1990). The self-overcoming of nihilism. (S. Aihara & G. Parkes, Trans.). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Ornatowski, G. (1997, Winter). Transformations of `emptiness': on the idea of sunyata and the thought of Abe and the Kyoto School of philosophy. Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 34(1), 92-115.

Retrieved from f6ce-4449-a1a6-27796fba9df8%40sessionmgr115&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ %3d%3d#db=aph&AN=9706110857.
Seifert, F. (1984). The Kyoto School and the School of Consequent Eschatology. Buddhist-Christian Studies, 4, 125-134. Retrieved from

IV. Historical Studies

Cummings, M.D., & Kitagawa, J.M. (Eds.). (1989). Buddhism and Asian history. New York, London: Macmillan Pub. Co., Collier Macmillan.
Dunne, J. (2005). Buddhism, schools of: Mahāyāna philosophical schools of Buddhism. Encyclopedia
of religion, vol. 2, 1203-1213. L. Jones (Ed.). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424500436. Retrieved from

Hookham, S.K. (1991). The Buddha within: Tathagatagarbha doctrine according to the Shentong interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhaga. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Huong, G. (2004). B h v u ā h v p Bu h Delhi: Eastern Book Linkers.
Reat, N.R. (1994). Buddhism: a history. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press.
Thēpwisutthimēthī, P. (1994). Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree: the Buddha's teaching on voidness.
(Dhammavicayo, Trans.). Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Wen, H. (2012). Chinese philosophy. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.

V. In Mahayana Buddhism

Asanga. (1992). The summary of the Great Vehicle. T , 31(1593), 400-456. (J.P. Keenan, Trans.).
Berkley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research. Retrieved from

The Heart Sutra: Prajna Paramita Hrydaya Sutra. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Kosho, Y. (Trans.). (2007) The Mahayana mahaparinirvana sutra. Retrieved from

Newland, G. (2008). Introduction to emptiness. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.
Pandit, M.L. (1998). Śūnyatā, the essence of Mahāyāna spirituality. (J. Hopkins & L.L. Namgyel, Trans.). New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.
Rabten. (1983). Echoes of voidness. (S. Batchelor, Trans.). London: Wisdom Publications.
Rong, K. (Ed.). (n.d.). Sunyata (emptiness) in the Mahayana context. (S.N. Rong & L. Yang, Trans.). Retrieved from
Williams, P. (1989). M hā ā Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations. London, New York, NY : Routledge, 1989.

VI. In Tibetan Buddhism

Hopkins, J. (1999). Emptiness in the mind-only school of Buddhism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Hopkins, J. (2006). Mountain doctrine: Tibet's fundamental treatise on other-emptiness and the Buddha matrix. London: Snow Lion Publications.
Hopkins, J. (1999). The tantric distinction: a Buddhist's reflections on compassion and emptiness.
Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Lamrimpa, G. (1999). Realizing emptiness: the Madhyamaka cultivation of insight. (B.A. Wallace, Trans.). Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.
Magee, W.A. (1999). The nature of things: emptiness and essence in the Geluk world. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.

Stearns, C. (1999). The Buddha from Dolpo: a study of the life and thought of the Tibetan master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Tāranātha. (2007). Essence of other-emptiness. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.
VII. Nāgārjuna: Philosopher of Sunyata

Berger, D. (2010, January). Acquiring emptiness: interpreting Nagarjuna's MMK 24:18. Philosophy East and West 60.1, 40+. Gale Document Number: GALE|A214710573. Retrieved from
Berger, D. (2005). Nagarjuna (c. 150-c. 250). Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved from

Burton, D. (1999). E p pp c c u f Nāgā ju a's philosophy. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press.
Komito, D.R. (1987). Nāgā ju ' v z Bu h p ch g f p (T. Dorjee & G.S. Rinchen, Trans.), Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.

Nāgārjuna. (2010). Th p f pu Nāgā ju ' v g h v āv ī (J. Westerhoff, Trans.).
Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.
Nāgārjuna. (2002). The six perfections: an abridged version of E. Lamotte's French translation of Nāgā ju ' hāp jñāpā āśā ch p xv -xxx. (T. Skorupski, Trans.). Tring, UK: The Institute of Buddhist Studies.
Pandeya, R. C. (1991). Nāgā ju ' ph ph f -identity. Delhi, India: Eastern Book Linkers.
Streng, F.J. (1967). Emptiness, a study in religious meaning. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.