From The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen translated by Michael H. Kohn; © 1991 by Shambhala Publications, Inc. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., www.shambhala.com
(śūnyatā), Skt. (Pali, sunnatā; Jap., kū), lit., “emptiness, void”; central notion of Buddhism. Ancient Buddhism recognized that all composite things are empty, impermanent (anitya), devoid of an essence (anātman), and characterized by suffering (duhkha). In the Hīnayāna emptiness is only applied to the “person”; in the Mahāyāna, on the other hand, all things are regarded as without essence, i.e., empty of self-nature (svabhāva). All dharmas are fundamentally devoid of independent lasting substance, are nothing more than mere appearances. They do not exist outside of emptiness. Shūnyatā carries and permeates all phenomena and makes their development possible. One should not, however, take this view of the emptiness of everything existing simply as nihilism. It does not mean that things do not exist but rather that they are nothing besides appearances. Shūnyatā is often equated with the absolute in Mahāyāna, since it is without duality and empirical forms. Beyond that, the individual schools present differing interpretations of shūnyatā.