Lotus Buddhism / FAQ / Emptiness of Inherent Nature (Sunyata)

The field of Emptiness

There is no equivalent word in English language for the Sanskrit word “Sunyata” - a concept about: a field of information, which is perceivable by the mind, but not by the five sense organs.

When we observe an object, we use our senses and assign it a distinguished identity.  Information obtained through the senses is important to know how the object is different from its surrounding.

  • The senses, however, give a still image of an observed object at the time of observation. We do not have a sense organ to show us the changes in the object beyond the current moment. We cannot use the senses to know about its future potential.

For example: if we observe a tree in winter time, the senses do not show us the future potential of its branches flowering or bearing fruit - that will take place in spring. We do not have a sense organ to show us future changes and potentials of observed objects, and we have to use the mind and memory to complete the full information about the observed object.

  • Another aspect of vital information that we cannot see directly by the senses is information about objects interconnectedness with their surroundings. The example of an observed tree would show us rather how separate the tree is from other things. In reality, however, the tree could not have existed without soil, moisture, light and all what it is interconnected with.

To have full knowledge about an observed object we need a field of information, which completes the sense datum, a field which shows the effect of the truth of interconnectedness and the truth of change. Such a field of information is accessed only by the mind. It is a field of vibrant information about the observed object and its potentials. But the nature of this field of information is mental - like mind images, empty of physical medium. Contrary to the senses, which operate through physical mediums like molecules or photons - this field of Emptiness of the physical substance makes it a property that we can access only through the mind.

True Nature of reality vs Anthropomorphism

The senses give an “anthropomorphic view” of what an object “is” according to “us”.  But, for example, a tree - for us - is not the same thing as for birds or insects.  Our perception of a tree is anthropomorphic, it is “according to us” because we are using our own senses and judging through them. Nonetheless, to fully identify the ‘ultimate reality’ of an object, the information supplied by the senses is not enough.

Objects as functions

Any object fulfills a function through its interconnectedness with other objects. A function does not have individual nature or a personality. This is the true essence of an object: a function that has no inherent personal individuality. The concept of viewing the reality of things as mere functions without inherent individual identity - is called the field of Emptiness of inherent individual identity.

Sunyata was popularised by the English word Emptiness, which is a shortcut for its full designation of : Emptiness of Inherent Nature (of objects or entities).  It is a perspective of viewing the hidden essence of objects or entities; the essence, which is deeper than what we observe through using our five senses. 

Emmanuel Kant’s insight into how we observe reality led him to distinguish between our anthropomorphic perception and the way “the universe perceives an object”.  The terrific concept of the “thing in-itself” (Ding an sich) comes very close to the field of Sunyata.

The origin of the word Sunyata

The original Sanskrit word of Sunyata carries the meaning of “Zero Obstacle” – indicating a field which is beyond the constrains or limitations of time and space. The part “Sunya” of the word means “zero” as in “zero constraint” or “nothing” as in “nothing obstructing”. 

The Sanskrit root word of Sunya is ‘svi’, which means “full of possibilities” – indicating that - as one source explains it: “The word Sunyata technically means “full potential to go anywhere”.

Sunyata indicates: information without the constraints and limitations of the physical world (perceived by the senses).

The world of unrestricted Information: Sunyata

Buddhism teaches that any object is constantly changing.  Being a temporary existence of various components, it is also completely dependent on other things, hence it has no separate existence of its own.  Nothing can claim an individual identity of its own.

Nichiren quotes from Mahavariochana sutra:

“Emptiness [or Sunyata] is by nature removed from the sense organs and their objects. It has no form or boundaries; beyond any futile theory, it is equal to space [void]. It represents the ultimate in the absence of individual nature.” The Opening of the Eyes,

The above-mentioned passage identifies Sunyata with a field of information that is not conditioned by the physical domain of the five sense organs (which can imply a fixed individual identity to objects).  The world of objects becomes a field of vibrant information, empty of restrictions, pertaining to the deep essence of existence of things (beyond the surface views of fixed individuality of what exists).

Relying exclusively on the senses may lead to a mistaken view that objects exist in separation from each other, and that they are more or less fixed as we perceive them.  This view would lead to a mistaken view that objects are “complete and independent” as they are, neglecting the fact that any object is composed of various components, which are in constant change and which are interdependent on other factors - a fact which deprives objects of possessing inherent or fixed identity “of their own”. 

The eyes that perceive Sunyata:

The two Truths of Impermanence and Interconnectedness are the two eyes that can see the true nature of observed objects in reality. 

While the sense organs need physical molecules to absorb from the object to distinguish it, the field of Synyata is information that is empty of atoms, having no molecules or physical nature.  It is pure information of the true nature or the dynamic reality of the world.

Vibrant Void and Potentiality

Sunyata can be called a field of Vibrant Void of imagery - showing us the same world we live in but as being rife with possibilities.  It is a vision of the true nature of reality that is free from stagnation, and having no constraints of physical confinement. 

Another name equivalent to Sunyata is the field of Potentiality, because it reveals the possibilities of future changes of observed phenomenon.

The essence of world phenomena as Impersonal Functions:

If we observe - for example - a tree with ripe fruits, we may record its physical features as they appear to us.  The fruit, however, is better described by its function, offering birds necessary food spreading thus its seeds. The fruit itself is completely dependent on the branch, it sits on, and on the tree, which is dependent on the soil and environment etc. This means that the fruit is in fact a dynamic function, and it is one of many other fruits performing a function - none has an inherent personal identity (or a self-inherent nature).

The notion of the “absence of individual nature” indicates that objects or entities do not possess inherent individuality, they just perform functions. A “fixed or inherent self” requires having a ‘distinguished existence’ of its own, and ‘a independent-distinct unchanging identity’ - but this is an illusion. 

While through the senses we perceive things from our point of view, it is possible to say that Sunyata provides us with the perception of things from the eyes of impartial reality. regardless of any specific individuality, entities and objects perform their functions in life through dynamic interdependent relationships. 

The practical benefit of perceiving the field of Sunyata:

- No-Fixed-Self:  The perspective which views the existence of an object as constantly changing and as completely dependent on other objects  – leads to an outstanding concept about its true nature, which simply states that nothing can claim having a separate unchanging self-identity. 

No entity or object can claim to have continuous “selfhood, existing on its own”.  There is no inherent individual identity of any object, as its existence is dependent on things beyond itself.     

- Abolishing attachment to Ego-Self:

“The practical purpose behind the teaching of Non-substantiality or Emptiness lies in eliminating attachments to transient phenomena and to the ego, or the perception of self as an independent and fixed identity”.


“the Buddha was articulating a vision of a psyche freed from narcissism” 


- Empowering with fresh inner potentials

“An understanding of Sunyata [emptiness] helps us to see that, despite how we may see them, things, people, situations, relationships, our own lives are not fixed, but dynamic, constantly changing and evolving. They are filled with latent potential which can become manifest at any time.”


- Contribution to psychology

“…the overwhelming disease of the human condition is narcissism [focus on ego-self and denying interconnectedness]..…

“the Buddha [through Sunyata] was articulating a vision of a psyche freed from narcissism”.


The Concept of the MiddleWay

The Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna (c. 200 AD) - who explained the concept of Sunyata - warned of the danger of focusing on extremes in views.  The way we view the reality of things affects our reaction and has a deep impact on our life. 

- Viewing reality through the physical aspect only is the way of materialism.

- In the same time: exclusively dwelling on the aspect of Sunyata manifests focusing on the non material aspect in life. 

Both considerations are extremes, and neither alone reflects the full truth of reality.

Based on Nagarjuna’s explanation of the subject of Sunyata, Nichiren Buddhism views life as being the integration of both aspects together: the material and the non-material, and takes the view that reality is the result of their integration – a oneness called the MiddleWay.

The MiddleWay is a perspective of thinking which avoids extremes or bias to either way of seeing things. Identifying things through the senses and through Sunyata are both useful – but focusing on one of them and denying the value of others leads to falling into extremism.

One’s personal life itself is the MiddleWay because we are both Body (and sense organs) and Mind (vibrant field of information and potentials).

“The MiddleWay is a way of thinking that rejects extremes: Shakyamuni’s life exemplifies a basic interpretation of the Middle Way as the path between two extremes, close to Aristotle’s idea of the “golden mean” whereby every virtue is a mean between two extremes, each of which is a vice.

The concept of the Middle Way