Sunyata (emptiness) of Buddha and Kenosis (emptying) of Christ

Emptiness of BuddhaIn Buddhism, there is no ultimate truth to know, no ultimate God to be responsible to, no omnipotent power to consider, and no ethical demands to fulfill. Only state or non-state to obtain is that of Sunyata. But even the obsession to Sunyata is not Sunyata. Rev. Daniel Deepak Yashvant makes a comparative study. 

Sunyata of Kyoto Buddhism 

Kyoto School of Buddhism was inspired by Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945). He was the first one to try rationalizing the Buddhist faith and making it intelligible to the western minds. He grappled with the Buddhist philosophy in the light of Hegelian and Kantian concepts. In the Kyoto world-view, there is neither Self, nor Being nor God. Sunyata is the ultimate truth of Kyoto Buddhism. Sunyata literally means nothingness or emptiness or zero-ness  (Sunya meaning void or nothing or zero in Sanskrit).

Absolute Reality in Buddhism is Absolute Nothingness. Though it may seem so Sunyata is not a nihilistic concept. It is not a denial of all reality existent. It lies at the basis of all the form and formless reality. At the essence of all the reality there is absolute nothingness to which all the form and the formlessness move. They are non- distinct at the level of Sunyata.  In Kyoto Buddhism, Sunyata is assumed to be the negation of nothingness or voidness. “Sunyata is non-Sunyata (asunyata); therefore it is the ultimate Sunyata (atyanta sunyata).”[1]

In other words, the ultimate Sunyata is the non-distinct state of emptiness and non-emptiness. At the most basic level, form and formlessness, self and non-self, emptiness and non-emptiness are non-distinct. Sunyata is beyond all the categorical distinctions. Sunyata is not passive emptying but an active ongoing process that underlies all the existence. Heart Sutra says, “Hear O Sariputra, all phenomena of existence are marked by emptiness; not arisen, not destroyed, not unclean, not clean, not deficient nor fulfilled.” Professor Masao Abe has written,  “True Sunyata being the negation of sheer emptiness as well as sheer fullness, is an active and creative emptiness…”[2]

It cannot be compared to nihilistic emptiness. It is a creative and dynamic emptiness. It is an ongoing process that is taking place in all that is there in which the form moves towards formlessness and vice versa. In the state of sunyata, form and the formlessness are the same. The Buddhist understanding of the world is of emptiness without any distinction at the essential level. There is no distinction in Buddhism between the cosmos and the divine, the human and the divine, the personal and the non-personal, transcendence and the immanence. “Sunyata is free not only from egocentrism but also from anthropocentrism, cosmocentrism of theocentrism.”[3]

Nothing is central to it and nothing peripheral. Any attempt to put things in the center or the periphery will lead to attachment. Non-attachment will free from the pain and suffering. In Sunyata nothing is distinct. Sunyata has no focus or a point of convergence. It does not have any point of divergence too. There is no relationship of dominance and subjugation, transcendence or immanence, the personal and the impersonal. Everything is transcendent and immanent to the other. Likewise the personal and the impersonal are reciprocal. The divine and the human are interdependent and inter-related. They are even reversible. The cosmos and the humans are interconnected and mutually dependent. So also the divine and the human are interconnected. At the heart of all reality there is neither being (human or divine), nor the nature nor self. Nothing is primary and secondary. In a Buddhist world-view this is the way the cosmos is. Sunyata is the realization of the “such-ness or as-it-is-ness of everything in the universe.”[4]

Sunyata is the primordial existence of the universe. True Sunyata is that towards which everything moves continually. It is neither external to oneself nor internal. The distinction of subject and object is lost when sunyata is realized. Sunyata goes beyond all forms and pervades all the being, God, nature and self. The personal and the impersonal loose their distinction. Sunyata is beyond the categories of personhood; it is trans-personal.  True Sunyata is also beyond all the ethical conceptions.

The moral and the immoral, the good and the bad, right and the wrong lose their distinctions in Sunyata. With everything being equal in sunyata, Buddhism tries to solve the human problems of pride, covetousness, anger, ego etc. They not only loose their distinction in Sunyata but they also are reciprocal and reversible. Sunyata is a state beyond the ethical judgments. So in Sunyata the evil person and the good are the same, all moving towards non-distinction. The dualistic thinking is innate to humans and it is the result of pain and suffering. To get rid of the pain one has to get rid of the dualistic conceptualization.

Sunyata cannot be grasped through rational analysis or cognitive thinking. It cannot be comprehended conceptually by mind. Sunyata is beyond any conceptualization of Sunyata. Anything comprehended as Sunyata, is not Sunyata. The awakening to the such-ness is called “nirvikalpa-jnana, non-discriminating wisdom.”[5] This does not mean wisdom that does not discriminate but that which is beyond or above discrimination.

For a Buddhist the dualistic way of thinking is ver

y much the cause of all the pain and suffering. The non-discriminating wisdom is prior to the categorical thinking. It is more of an observation than thinking. In order to get rid of concepts that lead to suffering and pain, one must attain the nirvikalpa-jnana that is beyond this type of thinking. Furthermore, it is beyond any type of thinking and not thinking. It is that thinking (or not-thinking) which is prior to the cognitive discrimination of the thinking and not- thinking and prior to the conceptualization of self, being, human, divine, etc.  In Buddhist understanding, nirvana can be fully realized amidst samasara and not by rejecting it like the Hindu notion. It is realization of true sunyata in the midst of samsara. It is not the realization of Self. But the realization of a wisdom that is beyond the discrimination of the self and the non-self, the personal and the non-personal, the human and the divine. Thus in Sunyata, the dichotomy between nirvana and samsara is lost. Not only that the distinction between the good and the bad karma is lost too. Hence the fruits of the karma in terms of nirvana or re-incarnation also loose distinction.

They are then inter-changeable and reversal. Also the notion of time and eternity is different from Christianity and Hinduism as well. The linearity or circularity of time and history is lost in Sunyata. “Buddhism has been depicted as ‘a non-historical religion’.”[6] The past, the present and the future can be concurrent. All times or timelessness can be realized in Sunyata. In Buddhism, there is no ultimate truth to know, no ultimate God to be responsible to, no omnipotent power to consider, and no ethical demands to fulfill. Only state or non-state to obtain is that of Sunyata. But even the obsession to Sunyata is not Sunyata. Every attempt will result in false notions of the ultimate reality.

In fact, Sunyata is the ultimate end of all things. It can also be the beginning of all things because in Sunyata, the beginning and the end cannot be discriminated.One of the most essential doctrines of Buddhism is Tathagatagarbha (meaning the essence of the one who has realized such-ness) that says that any one can become Buddha or acquire Bodhisatva, the essence of Buddha. Buddha is not different from others. “ In Buddhism it is even clearer that there are many Bodhistvas than it is that the Buddha is not unique. Thus it is easy for a Buddhist to see Jesus as a Bodhisattva.”[7] He is not more divine than others.

In actuality, everyone and everything is in the process of the making of the Buddha. This happens because everything is attaining Bodhisatva. The whole of the nature is moving towards absolute nothingness.

 Kenosis of Christ

 The concept of incarnational Kenosis of Christ is based upon the Letter to Philippians 2: 5-11:“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:Who, being in very nature God,did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,But made himself nothing,taking the very nature of a servant,being made in human likeness.And being found in appearance as a man. He humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross!Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every nameThat at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,In heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”[8] 

In the process of Kenosis (emptying), Christ who was in the form (morphe) of God did not count His equality something to be clung to. But He took on another morphe of a human and thus emptied Himself. Thus in the Kenosis of Christ the form of God was not put off but veiled. Christ was fully divine before and after Kenosis. And he was fully human after the Kenosis. Kenosis is neither in any way a subtraction from the deity of Christ, nor an addition to it.  In the Christian understanding, Kenosis in question is not the eternal attribute of Christ. It is the incarnational phenomena. Kenosis of Christ is not a pre-incarnational as some suggest. 

It is necessary to make a distinction between Kenosis as an attribute of God and as an act of God. In the sense of His eternal self-giving, self-revealing and humility God possesses the attribute of humility. But Kenosis in incarnational sense is an act of God in the Christian concept of space-time history. In the act of Kenosis, Christ did not act against His own nature because of His eternal humility.    

 Comparative Study The Ontological Reality 

Philosophers and theologians throughout ages have wondered about the great question, “Why is there something rather than nothing at all?” According to Kyoto tradition, everyone is a ‘Buddha in the making’. Sunyata is not getting rid of all existence. The ontological emphasis prior to Sunyata can be seen clear in Buddhism too. Christianity on the other hand has a strong permanent ontological emphasis and takes reality at its face value.

 Love in Buddhism and Christianity

 Love is an essential attribute of God in Christian world-view to the extent that Bible says that “God is love”[9]. Masao Abe, the Kyoto Buddhist philosopher sees that God’s love is non-discriminating. This he views as Sunyata. In God’s eye every thing is non-discriminated.  But the Christian understanding is that the love of God embraces all but not overcomes all the distinction. Love is the foundation of any meaningful relationship.

 Meaningfulness and conceptualization  

“Buddhism is anti-realism when it comes to the existence of anything that can be individuated.”[10] “What the Buddha and Nagarjuna did was to show that concepts are false and distort the true nature of reality.”[11] Sunyata denies the ultimate meaningfulness of life. The problem still needs to be answered whether Sunyata can be realized without conceptualizing and even desiring it? Logic must be used in order for a meaningful communication and comprehension. Even to deny it one must use it. It is inescapable.

Ethical Implications of Kenosis and Sunyata 

At the heart of Kyoto Buddhism there is no Ethical or Moral Being who is the ultimate reality. But Buddhism is also a system that demands good works. Buddha taught about the Eight-fold Noble Path. “Buddha embodies the Dharma just as the Dharma represents the Buddha.”[12]  With the concept of Holy God being the Creator and the Judge of the universe, ethics in Christianity is firmly planted in the Divine. Sunyata on the other hand gives no firm footage to the ethics. Christianity on the other hand has a strong emphasis and belief in the power of good and the ultimate victory in the metaphysical realm belongs to God who embodies all goodness. The conception of Sunyata will rob any incentive to view good as praiseworthy and worth achieving.  

The nature of Humanity

 In Sunyata, humanity has not permanence, no special significance and no distinction from other beings and existence. Whereas Bible reveals that we are projects of God’s love created for eternal God to love and enjoy Him forever. Bible reveals that we are immortal and are going to retain distinct individual existence which will allow for meaningful relationship with our Creator God.  

Soteriological Significance 

Redemption from suffering through the realization of Emptiness is the goal of Buddhist soteriology while redemption from the penalty and power of sin and restoration of the relationship with the Divine is the goal of Christianity. Suffering though an important one is not the primary problem of humanity for Christian world-view. The problem of sin is regarded as the root cause of suffering in traditional Christian view. Suffering is symptomatic because of the relational breach of humanity with its Creator. Buddha’s Sunyata is concerned with the redemption of all of the creation from the pain. According to the biblical emphasis, the moral and the spiritual corruption that has resulted from human alienation from God is primary and restoration to this relationship will ultimately save humanity from all the undesired effects of it. As Buddhism starts with the problem of suffering Bible does not start with the problem of sin. It starts with God who is love.  

The Problem of Evil   

“…the primary concern of Buddhism is…pragmatically emancipate people from the suffering caused by the fundamental ignorance innate in human existence, the ignorance of ultimate reality, ignorance derived from conceptual dualistic way of thinking peculiar to human existence.”[13] In Christian view, suffering is the result of human kind’s rejection of God. But God enters into our world of sin, pain, violence and mortality. He does not keep Himself from acting within our temporality and limitedness, but He participates in human struggles.

He does not just give a new understanding of the evil and suffering but actually enters the realm of evil and conquers it so that a new suffering free world can be realized at the culmination of God’s history. The problem of evil exists apart from human conception of it. It is real and independent of ones thinking. It is impossible to ignore it by philosophizing it.


The ontological emphasis has to be about being rather than non-being. One cannot escape conceptualizing or categorizing because any credible philosophy or theology is based on it. The world has to be perceived as is given. Buddhism tries to philosophically analyze the cause of suffering and tries to eliminate it by suggesting a change in the perception of it.   Buddhism has to learn to come to terms with the ontological reality and treat suffering in a concrete manner. The metaphysical basis of ethics is very weak in Buddhism compared to the notion of a moral Being as the absolute ground for human behavior. The non-distinction between good and evil, humans and other reality robs humans of any incentive for doing good. Hence kenosis of Christ is logically consistent with the nature of God, ethics, human nature and meaningfulness of life. It is not a mere philosophy it is a powerful act of God to shatter the divide of sin, alienation and ultimately pain, retaining the human- divine ontological distinction.***  

 Bibliography  C. W. Huntington, The Emptiness of Emptiness, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1989. Christopher Ives, Divine emptiness and Historical Fullness, Pennsylvania, Trinity Press International, 1995. Heinrich Domoulin, Christianity meets Buddhism, Illinois, Open Court Pub. Co., 1974. James Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2001. Ed. John Polkinghorne, The Work of Love, Creation as Kenosis, Michigan, William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2001. Masao Abe, review of Christianity and Encounter of world religions, by Paul Tillich, Eastern Buddhist, N.S.I., No. 1 1965. New International Version, Colorado, International Bible Society, 1984. Ed, Paul O. Ingram, Fredrick J. Streng, Buddhist-Christian Dialogue, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1986. Ed. Rita M. Gross & Terry c. Muck, London, Continuum, 2000.Prajnapar

amitta-sutra, Taisho shinshu daizokyo, ed. Junjiro Takakushu and Kaigyoku Watanabe, Tokyo Taisho Issaikyo Kankokai, 1924-32, vol. 3, no. 223. www www www   ***

[1] Prajnaparamitta-sutra, Taisho shinshu daizokyo, ed. Junjiro Takakushu and Kaigyoku Watanabe (Tokyo:  Taisho Issaikyo Kankokai, 1924-32), vol. 3, no. 223, p.223, p.250b.

[2] Masao Abe, review of Christianity and Encounter of world religions, by Paul Tillich, Eastern Buddhist, N.S.I., No. 1 (1965): 119.

[3]  Christopher Ives, Divine emptiness and Historical Fullness, (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1995) p.53

[4] Ibid. , p.59

[5] op.cit. p. 59                                                  

[6] Heinrich Domoulin, Christianity meets Buddhism, (Illinois: Open Court Pub. Co., 1974) p.152.

[7] Ed. Rita M. Gross & Terry C. Muck, Buddhist talk about Jesus, Christians talk about Buddha, (London: Continuum, 2000) p.47

[8] New International Version, (Colorado: International Bible Society, 1984), Philippians 2:5-11.

[9] I John 4:8

[10] www

[11]  www

[12] Heinrich Domoulin, Christianity meets Buddhism, (Illinois: Open Court Pub. Co., 1974) p.147.

[13] Christopher, p. 59


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2 Responses

  1. Before going after truth about Hinduism and budhism why not search for truth about Christanitity. Which religion is still holding to medieval structure and the answer is Christianity and the structure is church. Same church whose hand is there in uprooting thousands of people, starting countless wars and no wonder most bloodshed has been among the countries which practice or have Christian majority.

    I have studied in missionary school and that showed that Christianity is nothing less than firm or business and that is its only strength (organisation). For all the love and equality why don’t we have black or brown pope. I have seen mistreatment of Indian nuns by Irish nuns to know it first hand. Luckly there arent Irish nuns now so you can deny this.

    What you are mentioning a intolerance is the tolerance, cause no one claims to be prophet in Hinduism so not even highest priest’s word is the final word.

    Hinduism is democracy of religions which of course dictator religions cannot understand it is between me and my god and my karma. Not pseudo awakening of conscience after putting millions to death.

  2. Your understanding of Christianity as well as your representation of Hindusim is misplaced. Christianity is more than Catholicism. There are protestant Churches (which protested and formed a seperate group for some of the reasons cited by you), Eastern Churches, Minor Eastern Churches and Independent Churches. Catholicism has nothing to do with MAJORITY of the Christians.

    Christians have made mistakes but they admitted those and corrected those.

    In all the sins committed by the Church, she has no justification from the Bible. When Christians committed all these sins you named, they were acting contrary to the Bible.

    But can the same be told about Hinduism- the fascist religion which has inhumanly discrimated billions based (and not contrary) on its scriptures. Should we start speaking about the caste, women oppression that continued not just for decades but centuries and went unchallenged before the light of the Holy Bible challenged those in India?

    You may go and tell to Europe and US about the virtues of Hinduism (as your gurus do) but do not try that in India. We, Indian Christians, were once in the evil system of Hinduism and now have voluntarily chosen to reject it for the Biblical faith).

    What your religion does NOW in Orissa is evil than what Catholics or other christians did in medival centuries.

    So, please do not try to show off your religion to Indian Christians but parade those in the West and they out of thier ignorance may believe you.

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