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SUNYATA: A Subject Guide for the Western Reader



A Subject Guide for the Western Reader


Sunyata is a Sanskrit word which translates as "emptiness." In Buddhist philosophy, sunyata refers to the non-dualistic,

impermanent nature of ultimate reality. This subject guide has been compiled as a tool designed to introduce students of Western philosophy to the concept of sunyata, particularly as it relates to modern philosophical concepts and figures. Links are provided for online sources, while all of the print sources can be found through the New York Public Library catalog (


1. Nishitani, K. (1982). Religion and nothingness. (J. Van Bragt, Trans.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Nishitani discusses the relationship between the Western concept of nihilism and Buddhist sunyata, as well as the

dangers of equating the two. A fascinating introduction to the topic of sunyata, or emptiness. See:

2. Nyanatiloka. (1983). Buddhist dictionary: manual of Buddhist terms and doctrines. New York, NY: AMS Press.

A valuable resource for filling in the gaps in one's knowledge of Buddhist teachings on an as-needed basis. See:

3. Reat, N.R. (1994). Buddhism: a history. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press.

A broad historical overview which provides the necessary context for our subject. The twentieth century wasn't built in a

day. See:

4. Sunyata. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from topic/574124/sunyata.

A concise encapsulation grounding the reader in the "standard" Western understanding of the term through an

established authority's perspective.

5. Dallmayr, F. (1992, January). Nothingness and śūnyatā: a comparison of Heidegger and Nishitani. Philosophy East and West,

42(1), 37-48. Retrieved From

A study on one of the major points of contact between Eastern and Western philosophical schools of the twentieth

century. Note: JSTOR is a proprietary website with restricted access.

6. Laycock, S.W. (2001). Nothingness and emptiness: a Buddhist engagement with the ontology of Jean-Paul Sartre. Albany, NY:

State University of New York Press.

Delving further into the East-West connection, this monograph examines the philosophy of Sartre from a Buddhist

standpoint, as well as the Buddhist underpinnings of Existentialism. See:

7. Nishitani, K. (1990). The self-overcoming of nihilism. (S. Aihara & G. Parkes, Trans.). Albany, NY: State University of New York


An earlier work by Nishitani in which several European philosophers are considered from a Buddhist perspective.

Contains his ideas on nihilism at an earlier state of development. See:

8. Ornatowski, G. (1997, Winter). Transformations of `emptiness': on the idea of sunyata and the thought of Abe and the Kyoto

School of philosophy. Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 34(1), 92-115. Retrieved from

/detail?vid=3&hid=105&sid= 4101a7cd- f6ce-4449-a1a6-27796fba9df8%40sessionmgr115&bdata=


Introduces the reader to the thought of the Kyoto School, a group of Japanese philosophers who utilized Western

philosophical principles to gain new insights into ancient Buddhist ideas.

9. Glass, N.R. (1995). Working emptiness: toward a third reading of emptiness in Buddhism and Postmodern thought. Atlanta, GA:

Scholars Press.

A study attempting to establish a link between Buddhist notions of emptiness and Post-Modern theories pioneered by

Heidegger and others. See:

10. Berger, D. (2005). Nagarjuna (c. 150-c. 250). Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved from

Considered by some to be the first "Post-Modern" thinker. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a peer-reviewed,

free site, provides an extensive entry on this important figure.

11. The Heart Sutra: Prajna Paramita Hrydaya Sutra. (n.d.). Retrieved from


One of the most popular and often-utilized Mahayana sutras is also one of the cornerstones in any understanding of the

Buddhist conception of emptiness.

James Bradley

December 2012

Posted by James Bradley on 12/9/12 | tags: sunyata buddhism nishitani existentialism nihilism

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