The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism by Choong Mun-Keat

The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism

Rs. 525.00
  • Book Name The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism
  • Author Choong Mun-Keat
  • Language, Pages English
  • Last Updated 2022 / 08 / 08
  • ISBN 9788120816497, 8120816498

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The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism
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This book investigates the teachings of emptiness in early Buddhism, as recorded in the Pali and Chinese versions of the early Buddhist canon. In general, the finding is that these two versions, although differently worded, record in common that the teaching of the historical Buddha is connected with emptiness.

The general reader, with little or no prior knowledge of Buddhism, can discover in this book how early Buddhism provides a vision and a method to help in overcoming the ills of the mind.

About the Author

CHOONG MUN-KEAT (Wei-keat) studied Chinese and Pali Buddhism in Malaysia, Taiwan and Sri Lanka, before obtaining his Bachelor of Arts (1990) in the Faculty of Buddhist Studies at Komazawa University (Tokyo), and his Master of Arts in Studies in Religion (1994) and Ph.D. (1998) in the area of Buddhist Studies in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Queensland. His Ph.D. thesis topic is: The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism: A Comparative Study Based on the Sutra-anga Portion of the Pali Samyutta-nikaya and the Chinese Samyuktagama. His research interests lie in comparative studies of the Pali and Chinese versions of the early Buddhist canon.



When Choong Mun-keat first told me that he was planning a research project on “emptiness” in early Buddhism, I greeted the proposal with enthusiasm. I was happy to act as consultant during the research; and now that his report on that research has taken shape as a hook, I welcome this opportunity to comment on the outcome.

Research of the sort presented in this hook is all too rare in the field of Buddhist studies. While the notion of emptiness in Mahãyàna Buddhism has been studied in depth by many competent scholars, the antecedents of that notion in the early Buddhist schools have received little attention Also, there has been a widespread tendency for such studies of early Buddhist teachings to focus exclusively on what is found in the Pãli Nikãyas, the texts of the tradition that calls itself Theraváda. Such a narrow, one-sided approach has been avoided here, as I will now point out.

Dr. Choong has based his research on comparison of the Pãli Nikãyas with the corresponding texts of other early schools, as represented in the extant Chinese Agamas. Being translations, mainly from Sanskrit, of the now lost texts of the Sarvastivada and other long extinct early schools, the Chinese Agamas provide valuable material for comparative study. Comparison of the Pãli and Chinese versions of any particular sutra can reveal what is common and what is different. This enables the researcher to distinguish, with some confidence, between teachings that date from the period before the corresponding schools diverged and teachings that developed subsequently. If, for example, a sutra from Pãli Buddhism is compared with its Chinese counterpart from the Sarvàstivada canon, then one is probably justified in claiming that any shared elements of doctrine date from before the split that yielded the Vibhajyavàda and Sarvàstivada branches within the Sthavira tradition. Since that split is known to have occurred shortly before the third Council (mid third century B.C) one can draw soundly based though still tentative conclusions about the antiquity of the pieces of doctrine in question.

What this means in general terms is that any study of the early phases of Buddhist doctrinal development should be based not only on the Pali sutras but also on their Chinese counterparts. This methodological principle though recognized by a few Buddhist scholars is only rarely applied in actual research. That it forms the basis for the study reported here therefore enhances considerably the value of this book. The work presented here is more than a study of an important Buddhist doctrine it is also an exemplification of a research procedure that ought to be much more widely adopted in Buddhist studies.

Scholars will welcome the care and thoroughness with which the research reported here has been carried out and the light it throws on early doctrinal developments in Buddhism. And devotees will find in the book not only dharmic sustenance but also an excellent example of how the methods of the scholar can help elucidate at least at the intellectual level the meaning of an otherwise difficult aspect of the Buddha’s teaching.



This book presents an investigation into the teaching of emptiness according to the Pãli and Chinese versions of the early Buddhist Canon. The second edition of this book has been revised and expanded from the first edition of 1995 (on which the author’s name was given as Shi Wei-keat). I would like to express my gratitude to Associate Professor Dr. Rod BUCKNELL for his help in the revision process.

The notion of emptiness in early Buddhism is mainly concerned with the practical teaching for attaining in this very life a mind that is liberated (P. cittam vimuttam, Skt. cittarn vimuktam), a mind totally empty of (free from) affliction or distress. This is an essential teaching, relevant to elimination of “self-attachment” and “the two extreme views”, a teaching based on the path of wisdom (P. pannä, Skt. prajnã) or right view (P. sammã ditthi, Skt. samyagdrsti). In other words, the notion of emptiness in early Buddhism is about wisdom or right view, which leads to the mind becoming totally empty of self-attachment, empty attaining the highest peaceful state (nirvana), completely empty of affliction or distress. The teachings of the Buddha in both the Pall and Chinese versions of early Buddhist texts are therefore said to he connected with emptiness (P. samma ditthi, Ski. Samyagdrsti).

Another topic discussed in the early Buddhist texts is the teaching of faith, confidence (P. saddhà, Skt. sraddhã) or definite faith (P. avecca pasãda, Sk . avetya prasãda). For example, definite faith is equated with the faculty of faith (saddhã-indriya), which is one of the five faculties (P. Skt. panca-indriyãni: faith, effort, mindfulness, wisdom). Faith in early Buddhist texts is not passionate, fanatical, or blind faith, hut is closely related to wisdom. “Calmed faith” (P. pasàda, Skt. prasàda), cultivated in daily devotion to Buddha Dharma Sangha leads to confidence in and practice of the five moralities (panca-sila) in which the stream enterer should abide. The verbal form of pasada is pasidati which means not only to have faith but also to be clear and calm to become of peaceful heart to be purified reconciles or pleased faith in early Buddhism is essentially governed and stabilized by individual understanding.

The corresponding Chinese version Sa 654-656 has similar content the noble knowledge refers to the faculty of wisdom. This wisdom faculty in early Buddhism is entirely individual understanding of the dharma or the wisdom of right view. The two versions here record in common that cultivation of the wisdom faculty is regarded as fundamentally important for the development of the faculties of faith effort mindfulness and concentration. Thus faith in early Buddhism is clearly not a passionate fanatical or blind faith. It is based on individual understanding the wisdom of right view and as mentioned above this wisdom of right view is connected with the notion of emptiness.



“Emptiness” is a characteristically Buddhist teaching. The present study is concerned with this teaching of emptiness (P.1 sunnatã, Skt. sunyatá), as presented in the texts of early Buddhism. Its purpose is to clarify and evaluate the hypothesis that the doctrine of emptiness is not just a creation of early Mahãyãna Buddhism, but appears already in early Buddhist sutras, though not yet as a central notion.

1. Aim of the study, subject matter, and argument
The teaching of emptiness is recognized as the central philosophy of early Mahayana. However, this teaching exists in both early Buddhism and early Mahayana Buddhism, where it is connected with the meaning of conditioned genesis, the middle way, nirvana, and not-self (P. anatta, Skt. anãtman). The word “emptiness” in early Buddhist texts is not used as a special term for a central teaching. In contrast, the Prajna-pararmit-sutras of early Mahayana emphasize emptiness as a central teaching, repeatedly stating that “all dharmas are empty”, and using “emptiness” as a synonym for “nirvana”. Also Nàgãrjuna (founder of the Mãdhyamika school) in his Mt7la- madhyamaka-karika ( ) uses emptiness to express the meaning of the middle way of conditioned genesis;4 for him, emptiness is the same as conditioned genesis.

It seems to me that this early Mahayana emphasis on emptiness as meaning nirvana and the middle way of conditioned genesis is quite different from what we find in early Buddhism. Early Buddhism focuses on observing the nature of life as “impermanent” (anicca) and “suffering” (dukkha), in order to realize that all phenomena are “not-self’ (anatta), and thus attain nirvana (nibbãna).

The aim of this study, therefore, is to examine two questions: (1) Was the teaching of the Buddha concerned with the notion of emptiness as was the early Mahãyãna? (2) How did early Buddhism express the meaning of conditioned genesis, the middle way, nirvana, not-self, as they relate to the meaning of emptiness? I shall argue that the teaching of emptiness is not a creation of early Maháyãna, hut that it has clear antecedents in early Buddhism. That is, I shall identify the prototype of the notion of emptiness in Buddhism.

2. Sources and Methodology
There has been considerable research on emptiness in early Mahayana, hut not much on emptiness in early Buddhism. The reasons for this are: First, the early Buddhist texts often state that conditioned phenomena are “anicca” (impermanent), “dukkha” (suffering), “anatta” (not-sell), and that realisation of this is the fundamental way to the attainment of nirvana, and they use these three terms as keys to express the central teaching of the Buddha; hut they do not use “sunñatä” (emptiness) or “suñña” (empty) in this way. Second, although the terms “suññatà” and “sunña” do appear in early Buddhist texts, they usually mean simply “voidness” and “void”, or sometimes have the same meaning as “not-sell”; they do not denote an essential doctrine, as they do in early Mahayana.

In a 1982 article titled “Emptiness in Early Buddhism”16 FUJITA Kotatsu provides certain information on emptiness, focusing on how the terms “emptiness” and “empty” appear in the early Buddhist texts; hut he is not concerned with the meaning of emptiness or with why it is relevant to the Buddha’s teaching as expressed in early Buddhist texts. In his book Yin Shun also provides information on emptiness in Agama Buddhism bases on early Buddhist texts.




Foreword v
Preface to the second edition vii
Acknowledgment to the first edition xi
Abbreviations xiii
Introduction 1
1 Aim of the study subject mater and argument 1
2 Sources and Methodology 2
3 Presentation 7
Chapter One: The Meaning of Emptiness in early Buddhism 8
1.1 Emptiness and the place for practicing meditation 8
1.2 The Emptiness of Kong sanmei./sunnata vihara and Empty world 11
1.3 Conditioned Genesis Nirvana and Emptiness 16
1.4 A Emptiness from the Viewpoint of Conditioned Genesis as Impermanence 23
1.4.B. Emptiness form the viewpoint of conditioned genesis as the Middle way 32
Chapter Two: The Practice of Emptiness in early Buddhism 43
2.1 Emptiness and Samatha Vipassana (calm and Insight) 43
2.1.A Development I Bothe Samatha and Vipassana 43
2.2 B. Samadhi 46
2.3 C Panna 48
2.2 Emptiness and Mind liberation or mind concentration 51
2.3 Emptiness Three concentrations and three kinds of contact (phassa) 58
2.4 Small and great Emptiness 64
2.4.A Discourse on Small Emptiness 64
2.4.B Discourse on great Emptiness 79
Conclusion 85
Appendix three emptiness sutras in the Chinese Samyuktagama and their reconstructed Sanskrit versions 89
Notes 89
Bibliography 119
Index 128

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