Samsara, Nirvana and Sunyata

In Mahayana Buddhist philosophy these three words are connected. But in order to understand what this means, one has to know their individual meanings first.

Samsara is the classical Buddhist insight that nothing in this world can bring us lasting happiness. Sorrow, stress, apathy – they are part of our existence as human beings and their opposites don’t solve the human problem. The classic Mahayana image of this is that of a burning house. We live in it. We don’t realize that: we aren’t mature enough. This situation of combined danger and ignorance is what Buddhism points out and claims to have a solution to.

Nirvana is the state of freedom from all that. It’s current in both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. It probably goes back to the Buddha himself. Since Buddha turned from that state into a teacher of the world as he knew it, it’s not fair to describe Nirvana as indifference.

Sunyata is a term which literally means emptiness. What it refers to (I’m summarizing beyond what the experts are likely to agree with) is the emptiness of every phenomenon we know of staying power. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is as we think of it. None of our concepts of reality fit reality as well as we habitually think they do. (for those interested: here’s a whole bunch of articles about Buddhist philosophy focussing mainly on Sunyata or emptiness)

Now ultimately Nirvana and Samsara are Sunyata, according to Nagarjuna the main philosopher of this doctrine. John Hick explains it like this (again my paraphrase): The difference between nirvana and samsara is not in the way things are (because life is sunyata or empty), but in the way things are experienced.

4 thoughts on “Samsara, Nirvana and Sunyata”

  1. My understanding of sunyata (emptiness) is not the impermanence of things, but that things are empty of a self, that is they don’t exist independently from each other or from consciousness.

  2. The temporary nature of things is actually implicit in things being interdependent. Everything that is caused by outside forces is also likely to fall apart at some point.
    Sunyata is too complicated a subject to be fully grasped through just one blog article or even all the articles I put on my website. Stressing the temporary nature is natural from my theosophical background (I tend to equate sunyata and Maya – which isn’t totally fair, but for present purposes will do) – but from other perspectives it’s more natural to stress the limitations to concepts and words – or as you did, the lack of independence.

    Still, I did not just invent the impermanence issue. See:

    3.1 By observing the preceding-stage and the current-stage conditions, we can verify the Law of Impermanence of all worldly existences. All existences, be they material or mental, be they the material world, or the physical or mental states of sentient beings, are subject to continuous change.


  3. I agree impermanence is also a feature of form that Buddhist emphasize. I just didn’t realize it was associated with Sunyata (emptiness),

    I love the paradox that things are so impermanent that there is no impermanence, i.e., there are really no such things to be impermanent, because a thing implies some degree of permanence (something that persists to be called that thing).

    Blows your mind.

  4. for me, emptiness, sunyata, has only to do with “me”, nothing is here inside as i look .. and if that is the essence of me, and “me” is all there is, then emptiness is omnipresent.

    but my oh my, how full that emptiness is! 🙂 everywhere.

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