Sunyata is a characteristic of phenomena arising from the fact, as observed and taught by the Buddha, that the impermanent nature of form means that nothing possesses essential, enduring identity. In the Buddha’s spiritual teaching, insight into the emptiness of phenomena is an aspect of the cultivation of insight that leads to wisdom and inner peace. The importance of this insight is especially emphasised in Mahayana Buddhism.
The teaching on the emptiness of all phenomena is a core basis of Buddhist philosophy and has implications for epistemology and phenomenology. It also constitutes a metaphysical critique of Greek philosophical realism, Abrahamic monotheism and Hindu concept of atman. Moreover, contrary to widely misconceived equation to the doctrine of nihilism, grasping the doctrine of sunyata is seen as a step to liberation.
Sunyata signifies that everything one encounters in life is empty of absolute identity, permanence, or an in-dwelling self. This is because everything is inter-related and mutually dependent – never wholly self-sufficient or independent. All things are in a state of constant flux where energy and information are forever flowing throughout the natural world giving rise to and themselves undergoing major transformations with the passage of time.
This teaching does not connote nihilism. In the English language the word emptiness suggests the absence of spiritual meaning or a personal feeling of alienation, but in Buddhism the realization of the emptiness of phenomena, at basic level, enables one to realise that the things which ultimately have no substance are trivial and not worthy of worry, conflict or antagonism. Ultimately, true realisation of the doctrine can bring liberation from the limitations of form in the cycle of uncontrolled rebirth.
One potent metaphor for Sunyata, often used in Tibetan art, is the sky. As the sky is the emptiness that offers clouds to our perception, so Sunyata is the space in which objects appear to us in response to our attachments and longings. The Japanese use of the Chinese character signifying Shunyata is also used to connote sky or air.