Japanese Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Japanese language. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Feel free to participate to the meta-discussion on whether this type of question (relying on buddhist terms) should be allowed on JLU.

A while back, looking at a reproduction of some famous zen buddhist scrolls in a nearby Kyoto temple, I was somewhat surprised to see that the quintessential notion of "void, emptiness" is represented by '空', rather than '無', to which my eminently non-scholar mind always gave a more spiritual overtone (beyond its everyday prosaic use).

A typical example would be the common sentence:

色即是空【しきそくぜくう】→ "form is emptiness, matter is void"

Can anybody better versed in Japanese and/or buddhist terms explain to me the nuances in meaning between these two kanji/words in a religious context?

Are there other cases where "void, emptiness" would be translated with '無' in a buddhist context?

Edit: to give a famous example of why '無' would seem a good candidate for the same concept, Yasujiro Ozu's grave in Kamakura famously bears nothing but the kanji '無', ostensibly standing for the buddhist concept of 'nothingness'.

share|improve this question
Absence of anything is not necessarily nothing; even a void is something. – Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Jun 30 '11 at 5:22
@Dave: see my updated link to meta and feel free to post your opinion over there. – Dave Jun 30 '11 at 5:54
Just as a side note, Japanese Buddhist terms are directly carried over from Chinese, so the choice of 空 over 無 may have to do more with what the original monks from India were thinking when translating Sanskrit to Chinese. Just a thought. – Kafka Fuura Jun 30 '11 at 8:34
up vote 14 down vote accepted

I have a feeling someone smarter than me will provide an answer with better references, but I still hope this answer helps.

Not long ago I was out on a walking tour of Aoyama Cemetery and the exact same question came up. The tour guide, who has studied religion and history offered this explanation:

無 (usually な・い, but the on-yomi ム is used in this Buddhist context) means a complete absence of anything, which I think in English we would equate with void, so it would seem like the right choice.

空 (usually から, but the on-yomi クウ is used in this Buddhist context) means an emptiness as well, however, and was used to refer to the air from back before the more modern and scientific concept that the air is not in fact empty but contains molecules.

The difference between them is that the emptiness referred to by 空 is, as our guide explained, like the emptiness inside a cup. It is empty, but is conceptually bounded by the cup so that it is a space that could hold something, such as a drink.

無い on the other hand means a complete absence, without even any implication of potential. In other words, no cup.

In the Buddhist use, then, when you see it on the top layer of the five elements, (地,水、火、風、空, earth, water, fire, air, void), implies an emptiness that has a potential to contain something.

Of course, it gets a little tricky because there is no "cup" for the concept of all of existence. The void being referred to by 空 doesn't imply that anything particular should occupy that space. There is no automatic equivalent for the universe to hold like a drink would seem to be the natural thing to fill a cup. Just that the void is a vessel into which existence can happen. And from here the philosophical discussion takes over from the linguistic one.

Side note: 風 (usually かぜ, but the on-omi フウ is used in this Buddhist context), or wind, in this context actually means "air", as back in the day, the "air" was only experienced when you could feel the wind. Before I had this discussion on the tour, I always thought they were simply differentiating wind from air.

share|improve this answer
Great answer, here's just a little more. 空 is usually pronounced から when it's referring to void or emptiness in general, and くう when referring to the Buddhist concept. / en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shunya (English Wikipedia Page that corresponds to 空[仏教] Japanese Wikipedia Page) – Kafka Fuura Jun 30 '11 at 8:30
Thanks for the great answer and fascinating bits on elements kanji. – Dave Jul 2 '11 at 16:07

form is emptiness emptiness is not a question

share|improve this answer
That sounds really interesting, but perhaps you could explain it a little more? – silvermaple Oct 3 '12 at 14:29
I have this answer tattooed on my lower back. (srsly though it does sound interesting) – yadokari Oct 3 '12 at 16:18

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.