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Thinking in Buddhism:
Nagarjuna's Middle Way

by Jonah Winters

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Chapter 5

The Philosophy of Madhyamika

In the previous chapter an attempt was made to present and explain the main themes of each section of Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika. It is hoped that this was accomplished with clarity, and that the reader now has a cursory grasp of the karika, its themes, and its method of argumentation.

The reasons for and implications of focusing solely on the karika to present Madhyamika thought should be repeated here. This work represents the core of the entire school. Though Nagarjuna wrote somewhere between thirteen and one hundred other texts, and though his commentators were numerous and disparate, and though the possible interpretations of the meaning and intent of Madhyamika thought are quite varied, nonetheless one can point to this work as being both the sole cornerstone of the school's philosophy and the vital influence which literally provided the school with its very life-breath. Choosing this work alone may present a limited understanding of the mind and intent of Nagarjuna (e.g. it will shed no light on the question of whether Nagarjuna was a Theravadin or a Mahayanist) and it certainly will not illuminate the subsequent developments of Madhyamika thought in all its variety. What a focus on this work alone will provide is the purest and cleanest possible presentation of the fundamentals of the school.

Note: The Buddhist tradition agrees that this is the place of this treatise, for the work became known as ``The Fundamentals of the Middle [Way].''

A disclaimer must be forwarded in advance: it must be cautioned that any exposition of Nagarjuna's thought ultimately must be somewhat tentative. The terse form of the treatise's verses, their often cryptic quality, and the subtlety of the thought of both the Buddha and Nagarjuna all conspire to prevent any final certainties about what exactly Nagarjuna's philosophy was. Moreover, it is not always clear which of Nagarjuna's verses were meant to be an opponent's position which he then refuted, and which represented Nagarjuna's own position. Translators and interpreters of the karika, ancient and modern, frequently disagree on whether any specific verse is meant to be the right view being defended or the wrong view being negated. The above difficulties have not prevented books from being written which claim to offer definitive interpretations of Nagarjuna and Madhyamika — -on the contrary, it seems that most commentaries and studies have claimed to be conclusive. Such allegations of certainty must be suspected even if only because the studies in question often have arrived at quite diverse interpretations. This necessary caveat aside, a discussion of the main elements and significances of Madhyamika thought as expressed in the karika will now be offered.

The primary themes of Madhyamika thought as detailed in the karika are three:

    1. the refutation of self-nature (svabhava),
    2. the examination of dependent arising pratitya samutpada),
    3. and the teaching of emptiness sunyata).
These three are implicitly examined throughout the entire treatise, but were never isolated and scrutinized on their own. There was, it is true, a separate section devoted to each of self-nature and dependent arising, but these sections scarcely exhausted the topics nor even attempted to explain their full significance. The reason these three were not made explicit in Nagarjuna's treatise is that they were not simply three subjects among many which he wanted to investigate. Rather, they are the very substrata on which Madhyamika is based.
  • Self-nature runs throughout the karika as the insidious nemesis of Buddhist philosophy. A refutation of it was the initial inspiration for this treatise, for all false philosophical positions are based on its often subtle influence.
  • Dependent arising is the chief causal principle and is as well the shaping factor of the severe use of dialectics for which Madhyamika is so famous. It was a unique interpretation of dependent arising by Nagarjuna that provided the means by which to refute self-nature.
  • Interpreting causation in such a way as to preclude self- nature led Nagarjuna to emphasize emptiness , the concept for which he is most famous. If no entities, events, or personalities have self-nature, then they are "empty." Emptiness is the closest that the otherwise apophatic Madhyamika comes to advancing a doctrinal tenet. It is the only possible description of the ontological status of the world, and it is as well the sword which the Madhyamika uses to slash through all false views and counter all opposition.
(Dependent arising is not a cataphatic assertion: it is a description, an abstract theory.) Now that a broad outline of the karika and its surface themes has been presented, these three all-pervading and heretofore largely tacit topics may be examined. Their significance will be shown to be profound and subtle and their ramifications vast.

Nagarjuna's Motivation and Mission

The Dedicatory Verses

Nagarjuna appears to have been motivated by two factors.
  • First, certain interpretations of the Buddha's teachings had been proposed with which he disagreed. A careful reading of the karika points to the notion of self-nature as being his primary focus. This was not simply a metaphysical doctrine which Nagarjuna disagreed with. The notion of self-nature with all its ramifications would have far-reaching repercussions on the Buddha's philosophy, calling into question the applicability of the Eightfold Path, the veracity of the four Noble Truths, and the attainability of nirvana.
  • The second motivation both caused and explains the first — - Nagarjuna was a devout Buddhist. It was paramount to him to defend the Buddha's teaching against all misinterpretations, to clarify the teachings for his fellow Buddhists, and to spread the teaching to those outside the community.
Note: The rather antinomian character of much of later Buddhism tends to disguise these two aspects of early Buddhism which many Buddhists today, especially in America, would find unappealing:
  • One, the Buddha's teaching was basically fundamentalist in requiring "right views" before anything else. The only right view is the Saddharma, the Buddha's "True Law." Granted, the right view is a "moderate" view, but this does not negate its dogmatism.
  • Two, Buddhism was one of the most missionary- and conversion-oriented religions in world history, second only to Christianity. (On the latter, cf. Kulke and Rothermund, 64-67) Nagarjuna's devotional attitude and his dedicatory verses of the karika will be discussed first, and a detailed treatment of self-nature will follow.
It cannot be stressed too much that Nagarjuna was, first and foremost, a Buddhist. This devotional attitude does not necessarily shed light on the philosophy of Madhyamika, but it was the dominant reason for Nagarjuna to write the treatise. The karika opens with a two-verse dedication to the Buddha, it contains almost twenty direct invocations of the Buddha variously extolled as the Supreme Ascetic, the Victorious One, the Perfectly Enlightened One, and the Blessed One, and it closes with Nagarjuna saying "I reverently bow to Gautama who, out of compassion, has taught the true doctrine."

Note: karika XXVII.30

This aspect of Nagarjuna seems to be overlooked curiously often by modern scholars. His work tends to be treated as a philosophical system based on ratiocination and expounded solely for the purpose of clearing up misunderstandings. This is true, but it is not the whole picture. Nagarjuna's frequent homages to the Buddha display his devotional attitude, and the volume of hymns and devotional literature attributed to him demonstrate that the Buddhist tradition did not see him in such a purely philosophical light. He was also seen as an apologist motivated by faith and greatly concerned with the dissemination of the Buddha's word.

Nagarjuna's religious piety and his trenchant philosophy are in no way contradictory. This harmony between his faith and his intellect is expressed by the  two dedicatory verses with which he opens the karika:

"I salute him, the fully-enlightened, the best of speakers,
who preached the non-ceasing and the non-arising,
the non- annihilation and the non-permanence,
the non-identity and the non- difference,
the non-appearance and the non-disappearance,
the dependent arising,
the appeasement of obsessions and the auspicious."
Note: karika, introductory verses
This introduction demonstrates, not only that Nagarjuna's faith and intellect are not contradictory, but that they are complementary. The soteriological path of the Buddha both explains and engenders the rational dialectical philosophy of Nagarjuna.

These laconic verses may at first sight seem to express little more than a simple rejection of extremes. In actuality, their significance is great, for they summarize, in a mere eighteen words (in Sanskrit), the entirety of the Madhyamika philosophical approach. All of the philosophical aspects contained in these verses have been or will be discussed at length elsewhere in this thesis. Notwithstanding, since Nagarjuna saw fit to state them in a preview to his work, so shall they be briefly explained here.

  • First, the Buddha is extolled as the fully enlightened (sambuddhah). This, obviously, immediately tells the reader what religious system is going to be explained in the following treatise, but it also encapsulates the soteriological goal, "full enlightenment."
  • The Buddha is then credited with preaching the "non- ceasing" and the "non-arising" and, later, "dependent arising." These three terms state a sort of table of contents, but their significance is far greater. They detail, in a mere three words, the full Madhyamika interpretation of dependent arising.
    • Early Buddhist schools saw dependent arising as the mutual conditioning of interrelated elements and events. These elements and events were seen as being mutually conditioned but still real in themselves.
    • The Madhyamika school gave a wholly new twist to dependent arising, stating that, if mutually conditioned, elements and events can not be real. Things are thus not explained by ceasing and arising, but are characterized as non-ceasing and non-arising. Seen this way, one could almost call Nagarjuna's theory "non-dependent non-arising." The fact that the normal casual order is reversed in this pair further foreshadows the subversionary method so peculiar to Madhyamika.
  • Two more pairs flesh out Nagarjuna's interpretation of dependent arising: "non- annihilation and non-permanence" and "non-appearance and non- disappearance."
    • As things arise dependently, they cannot have any real temporal location.
    • They cannot be annihilated, for they were never really originated.
    • Nor can they be permanent, for this would require that they have self-nature, an assertion that does not withstand logical analysis.
    • The perceiving and conceptual reifying faculties of the individual are illuminated by the non-appearance and non-disappearance of things. This pair shows that the existence of things is illusory, and hence any perceptions of them are evanescent and imputations of existence to them are false.
  • Any conceptions that are held must be based on thoughts of identity and difference. E.g., "I" am different from this "desk" which is front of me; only thus can there be a subject relating to it as a different object. Further, I know that there is a "me," for I have identity — the me who existed last night is identical to the me who exists today. Since the Buddha taught "non-identity and non-difference," all such thoughts are wrong.
  • Finally, these introductory verses point out the means of salvation, which are "the appeasement of obsessions and the auspicious." By abandoning clinging to obsessions, that is, one finds the auspicious, the good (siva). One finds enlightenment. The fact that Nagarjuna did not state his dedication to the Buddha and then follow it separately with the above summary of Madhyamika thought shows that his devotional attitude and his philosophical agenda are wholly intertwined.

Self-Nature Theories

The concept of self-nature, svabhava , has been repeatedly discussed in passing in the above three chapters. It has not yet been examined in isolation because Nagarjuna did not present a single, comprehensive presentation of it in the karika. He did devote section fifteen to an "Examination of Self-nature," but this presentation of it was not exhaustive.

In it he only discussed three aspects of self- nature theories:

    1. the character of svabhava as necessarily non-made and independent (karika XV.1-3),
    2. the fact that svabhava cannot be related to thoughts of existence or non-existence (XV.4-5, 8-11),
    3. and the incompatibility of svabhava with the Buddha's teachings (XV.6-7).
The full significance of self-nature is hinted at by the fact that the karika can be seen as being structured around a discussion of self-nature.
    The first fourteen sections of the treatise dealt mostly with refutations of certain Realist interpretations of the elements and factors comprising objective, external reality. For example, examinations in the first half of the work were of causes and conditions pratyayas), elements, action, and the conglomerating relations and forces. The placement of this important section near the middle of the treatise, instead of at the beginning, hints that a clarification and refutation of self- nature concludes this examination of the elements and factors of reality.
    The sections of the treatise following this seem to deal more with an examination of the individual and his or her internal subjective reality. For example, examinations following it are of bondage and release, self and time, enlightenment and hindrances thereto, and right and wrong views. It was necessary for Nagarjuna to have refuted notions of self- nature before he could examine these latter issues.

Non-Buddhist Notions of Self-nature and the Soul

The three aspects of self-nature theories discussed in section fifteen seemingly were chosen because they were of the most direct relevance in the theories Nagarjuna was refuting and the teachings he was upholding in the treatise. What he did not discuss, then, and for obvious reasons, was a more sympathetic account of self- nature, i.e. the reasons it was formulated as a concept in the first place, what the theory meant, and what problems it solved.
    The concept had a long history of usage and a variety of meanings throughout that history.
    There were definite reasons for some schools of thought, Buddhist and otherwise, to posit self-nature.
    Further, there are more significances of the concept which Nagarjuna did not as explicitly touch upon; these significances were only implicit in his refutation of the concept.
A brief discussion of the history of the concept, reasons for its assertion, and its significance needs to be taken up now. This is not an irrelevant aside, but is important for two reasons.
    • First, a fuller understanding of self- nature theories will shed greater light on Nagarjuna's enterprise.
    • Second, it will demonstrate the ground for his philosophy. The two most important concepts of Nagarjuna's philosophy, dependent arising and emptiness, will only make sense against the backdrop of the theories he was criticizing.
One cannot point to a conclusive beginning of self-nature theories. Surely, they were first posited whenever individuals reflected on the fact that there is a causal regularity between events and an apparent continuity of identity in individuals and things. 

By the time of the early classical period in India, two distinct camps of self-nature theories had become clear:

    • a) those of orthodox Hinduism (1),
    • b) and those of the three heterodoxical systems of
      • Materialism (2),
      • Jainism (3),
      • and Buddhism (4).
The central fact agreed upon by almost all of Hinduism (1) is the reality of an eternal, immutable, immanent soul, the atman. This led Hinduism to assert the reality of self-nature in one form or another.
    For example, Aghamarsana, one of the earliest Hindu philosophers, considered "warmth" to be the first creative principle. From this primal warmth originated, respectively, law, truth, darkness, water, time, and finally the physical universe.
      Note: Kalupahana 1975, 6

     The Sankhya-Yoga system later postulated a general material principle (prakrti) which was the primal cause of the universe and from which all else evolved.
    • Theistic interpretations of the above posited a primum mobilum which initiated the causal process,
    • and nontheistic interpretations declared that the primal matter contained an inherent energy which obviated the need for a primum mobilum.
Note: ibid., 7
    Either way, though, it was clear that the omnipresence and the eternality of the soul declared that nothing really new could come into existence; all change was, in some form or another, based on self-nature.
    Note: The Nyaya-Vaisesika theory of asatkaryvada is not an exception to this, for the effect, while empirically a new creation, is nonetheless potential in and hence inherent in the cause. Cf. Hiriyanna, 239
The "Materialist" philosophies of the early classical period (2) were even more clear about the reality and function of self-nature, for they denied the existence both of controlling, inner soul and of a transcendent primum mobilum. "Without doubt," says Kalupahana, "it was the Materialists who first put forward a systematic theory of inherent nature svabhava)."
    Note: Kalupahana 1975, 28 <

Since the regularity of causation could be attributed neither to a God nor to an inner soul, only inherent self- nature could be invoked to account for it. This self-nature became elevated to the status of fixed, universal law: self-nature is the only determinant of and force behind causation. Since self-nature took the place of both the soul and God for the Materialists, they were often grouped under the broad heading of Svabhava-vada, the "School of Self- nature."

    Note: cf. Hiriyanna, 103- 106<

Generally speaking, they held that only matter is real. Any forms of life or consciousness are byproducts of material forces, the theory of hylozoism. These material elements have an inherent nature which manifests itself in a fixed pattern of causation. Since sentience is epiphenomenal and self-nature invariable, free will is necessarily an illusion.

    The main difference between Hindu svabhava and Materialist svabhava boils down to morality.
    • First, the Hindu was more transcendental. The eternal all-pervasiveness of atman required that nothing really new come into existence — -causal change was always ultimately superficial. The Hindu tradition emphasized the spiritual quality of ultimate reality, a corollary of which was that morality is real. One's action determined one's fate, and so it was paramount to make causality and self-nature two halves of the same coin. The Bhagavad- Gita summarizes well the connections between self- nature and morality in Hinduism. Its final chapter states clearly that each person has a self-nature which determines his or her duties in life. Each of the four castes is said to have its own intrinsic nature, svabhava, which prescribes specific duties incumbent upon each person. One can only obtain freedom by properly living out and manifesting one's svabhava.
Note: Cf. Bhagavad-Gita, XVIII.40-48 
    • The Materialist recognizes no such transcendent self-nature, for self- nature is a blind physical force found in the material elements only. Religion then boils down only to morality, and morality in turn reduces to simple hedonism. One text defines heaven as nothing more than "eating delicious food, keeping company of young women, using fine clothes," etc.
Note: Sarvasiddhantasamgraha 9, in Radhakrishnan and Moore, 235
    Certain Materialists did at least elevate morality to include cultural cultivation, discipline, and education, but this was for no other reason but to develop a greater capacity to enjoy the world's delights.
Note: Satischandra Chatterjee and Dhirendramohan Datta, An Introduction to Indian Philosophy (Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1960), 69

    Morality is further obviated by the complete absence of free will in certain of these Materialist systems. The text quoted above declares that even one's potential for pleasure is determined by the lifeless self-nature: "A person is happy or miserable through [the laws of] nature: there is no other cause."

        Note: Sarvasiddhantasamgraha 4, in Radhakrishnan and Moore, 235

Jainism (3) , whose founder was a contemporary of the Buddha, adopted a middle ground between the above two opposing theories. The Hindus held a modalistic philosophy; they saw the universe as nothing but modes of the living atman. The Materialists saw the universe as nothing but manifestations of non-living matter. The Jains attempted to reconcile the two by postulating a living being with a soul acting in a universe comprised of non-living matter, space and fate (karma). Both permanence (spirit) and change (matter) are equally real. This led to what seems to be the rather confusing doctrine that "things are partly determined and partly undetermined," that both determinism and free will are real and operative.
    Note: Kalupahana 1975, 50<

As might be expected from this, they attempted to both accept and deny self-nature. This was accomplished by asserting that, on one hand, individual human exertion was capable of effecting change. On the other hand, past extrinsic karma caused the individual to become associated with a deterministic type of self-nature.

The Buddha's Theory of Soullessness

The Buddhist theory of self-nature (4), both in its original formulation and its later developments, is unlike any of the above three. There are few references to self- nature to be found in the early Buddhist writings. This is not because the Buddha was unaware of or was ignoring the issue, but because he saw self- nature as included in the larger issue of selfhood (atman) as a whole. About this, he had very clear teachings. Any ideas of self are false and imaginary beliefs which have no objective ground. Further, the illusory beliefs in self-hood are the direct cause of selfishness, craving, and greed. "In short," says Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula, "to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world."
Note: Rahula, 51

However, and this is crucial, the Buddha also taught that one must not conceive of the self as non-existent. He clearly stated that there is no self, but he did not intend for this to be interpreted as a negation of something that once existed.

An anecdote will explain this apparent ambivalence between denying and asserting the soul. The Buddha was once asked by his disciple Vacchagottagotta whether or not there was a self. The Buddha declined to answer, and the disciple left. He later explained his refusal to respond:

    "If I had answered 'There is a self,' [that would not have been] in accordance with my knowledge that all things are without self… If I had answered 'There is no self,' then that would have been a greater confusion to the already confused Vacchagottagotta. For he would have thought: 'Formerly indeed I had a self, but now I haven't got one.'"
Note: quoted in ibid., 62-3.
 The Buddha's dilemma is the same as that presented by the famous, albeit distasteful, joke from Western philosophy: ``Have you stopped beating your wife yet?'' As soon as one attempts to answer the question, one is forced to give misleading information. The only escape is to refrain from answering.
  • The Buddha was thus careful not to be too adamant about either answer. Saying that there is a self would lead people to interpret him as being eternalist , i.e. asserting the eternal atman of Hinduism.

  • The moral result of eternalism is selfishness and, ultimately, excessive desires.
  • Saying that there is no self would lead people to interpret him as being annihilationist, i.e. denying any sort of self-hood in the same way that the Materialists denied it.

  • The moral result of annihilationism is a state of distress over losing that which one believes one now has and, further, annihilationism would undermine moral accountability.
  • Neither could the Buddha say that there both is and is not a soul, for that would echo the Jaina theory.

  • Morally, he probably saw the Jaina fatalistic determinism as another threat to accountability; if one's nature and actions are determined as inexorably by previous karma as the Jains held, then the efficacy of individual initiative is greatly lessened.
A few hundred years after the Buddha's death some schools undertook the task of systematizing his ontology in the face of his teaching of anatman, soullessness. The result was the Abhidharma , a classificatory analysis of human experience into physical elements, sense- faculties, and the aggregates comprising the individual.
    In this process of analysis, two old pre-Buddhist theories crept back in:
    • self-nature (svabhava ) and
    • other-nature ( parabhava ).
    It was in response to these insidious heresies that Nagarjuna formulated his refutation of the two.
    • 4.1 Theories of self-nature found their host in the Realist ( Sarvastivada ) school.
    • 4.2 Theories of other- nature found a host in the "Sutra School" ( Sautrantika), so called because they saw themselves as being the most faithful to the original writings, the sutras.
The Realists (4.1) reduced all phenomena to ultimate atomistic entities.
    The systematization of these atoms and the relations between them was complete enough to account for all phenomenal things, events, and individuals without any recourse to theories of a transcendent self, such as atman. However, since these atoms were irreducible and discrete, both temporally and spatially,
    • there remained a difficulty of accounting for the influencing effect of one momentary atom on another.
    • Further, the perceived continuity of existence was not fully explained.
    • To resolve these difficulties, the Realists asserted that each atom has its own self- nature.
    • However, since these atoms are the ultimate building blocks of reality, and since each has self- nature, they cannot be associated with arising and ceasing. As such, they must exist in all three phases of time, past, present, and future. It is not clear how exactly the atoms can be momentary but their self-nature eternal. It seems that the phenomenal manifestation of an atom is but momentary, while the potential existence of an atom and its eternal character, its self-nature, are trans-temporal.
      Note: Cf. Kohn, 188

    Such a self-nature may not have been explicitly contrary to the Buddha's teachings, but it seemed to other schools of Buddhism to come dangerously close to the Hindu atman-theories which the Buddha was assuredly and clearly negating.
    Note: Kalupahana 1986, 32
    In response to these theories which seemed to border on heresy, a group of monks split off of the Realists around 150 C.E.
Note: Kohn, 189
This, the "Sutra School," (4.2) intended to reject the heresies of the Realists and return to the original Buddhism as found in the earliest scriptures. They denied the eternal self-nature of the otherwise momentary atoms by going to the other extreme of denying the atoms any temporal duration. They did not merely confine the atom to existence in the present alone, but literally reduced its duration to zero. A result of this nontemporal instantaneity was that the atoms could have no spatial extension, either.

The atoms were seen as arising and perishing in the same instant. Since the atoms partook of neither time nor space, their causal efficiency was negated. Causation was not denied, for regular continuity of phenomena was observed to exist. However, the all-but-nonexistent atoms had no such power to influence or cause. There was thus seen to be a difference between cause and effect, and the Sutra School was forced to recognize other-nature, parabhava.

    Note: Kalupahana 1986, 23 <

The "other" in their other-nature was the series of atoms of which any one atom was a part. The atoms succeed one another in a contiguous, uninterrupted sequence. While no atom on its own lasts long enough to have causal efficacy, the series of atoms does last long enough to influence other atomic series.

    Note: Lamotte, 607<

 It is the self-nature of one series, which series is "other" than each atom within it, that interacts with and conditions pratyayas) other series.

    Note: The Sautrantika philosophy of instantaneity led to another, even more heretical doctrine, which, being unrelated to the topic at hand, was not mentioned above. Briefly, the Sautrantikas were another school of Personalists. If an atom is infinitesimally short-lived, then it cannot be perceived directly. The act of perception would have to be once-removed from the object of perception. Yet perception exists. To account for this, consciousness was seen as underlying and supporting all phenomena. This consciousness creates from succession the illusion of continuity. This illusion is self-conscious, and a subtle self comes to be.

Nagarjuna's Response

    Nagarjuna's position seems to be that the above two schools were led to posit a form of self-nature because they took the Abhidharma agenda of analysis too far. By so enthusiastically making lists of all the elements and factors by which the Buddha explained reality and drawing correspondences and relations between these factors they failed to realize that, though the Buddha explained his philosophy using such conceptions as psychophysical aggregates, material elements, and sense perceptions, he was not reifying these factors. Such elements and factors provided for a complete description of reality, but they were not intended to be taken as real. They are all dependently-arisen, not autonomous. Further, the doctrine of momentariness, as explained above, led the Realists to posit the existence of self-nature in all three phases of time and led the Sutra School to deny any temporal duration to the elements. But this notion of momentariness is not to be found in the Buddha's teachings, either. Nagarjuna's position is that, had these schools understood dependent arising in the right way, they would not have been led to hold such beliefs.
    Nagarjuna's attitude towards self-nature is wholly explained by one fact: the theory of dependent arising necessarily upholds the Buddha's doctrine of soullessness (anatman), which soullessness can never be compatible with self-nature theories.
The self-nature of a thing is its "identity," that which makes it unique, autonomous, and differentiable from any and every other thing.
    The meaning of identity can be illuminated by examples from the English language. If someone points to me and asks "Who is that?" and they are told "That is Jonah Siegel," then I have been "identified." I have been distinguished solely on the basis of my "identity."
    Further, this identity requires temporal identical-ness. For the person who is now reading this to have an identity, that person must at this moment be identical to the person who got out of bed this morning, and both must be identical to that person who was born one year or fifty years earlier.
    Identity theories therefore require that there be an enduring and unchanging substance residing within the entity, event, or individual being identified. If a substance either changed or did not endure, then it would not be identical from one moment to the next, and thus would not have identity, and thus could not be self-nature.
Nagarjuna saw that self-nature, by necessity, must have two qualities:
    • it must be unchanging (i)
    • and it must be enduring (ii).
  • The Buddha's theory of dependent arising, however, is incompatible with such identity on both accounts.
  • First, as explained above, self-nature must be unchanging (i) and identical from one moment to the next.

  • However, it would then never be associated with change, and cause-and-effect would be meaningless.
    "Because of the perception of change, the absence of self- nature is [recognized]," says Nagarjuna.
    The example he used previously to deny change of identity was that a person cannot be said to age. Who is it that ages, the young person? No, for youthfulness and agedness cannot exist in the same identity. Is it the old person who ages? No, for an old person is already aged, and thus cannot again partake of the process of aging.
Note: Cf. karika XIII.4
     Is the person distinct from the discrete process of aging, which process is a mere temporal attribute of the enduring subject? No, for then subject and attribute would be separate and individually autonomous. Aging would exist as an abstraction apart from any thing that ages, and the subject would exist but have no association with either youthfulness nor agedness, and would thus be equally abstract. Thus, if a thing has self-nature as a sort of substance, then that thing can never participate in change or, by extension, causality. A tempting alternative would be to posit a distinction between a thing's identity and its substantial self-nature. This is wrong for two reasons. One, such a distinction is meaningless. Self-nature is identity, and vice-versa. Two, if a thing's identity and its self- nature were distinguished, then it would have to be said to have "other-nature." This is metaphysical nonsense, and Nagarjuna repeatedly makes it clear that, without self- nature, there can be no such thing as other-nature.
  • The second quality of self-nature is that it must be eternally enduring (ii), for its autonomy would require that it not be causally conditioned. "The occurrence of self- nature through causes and conditions (pratyayas) is not proper," declared Nagarjuna.
Note: karika XV.1
     If self-nature arose due to a cause or through the influence of conditions (pratyayas), then it would be artificial, it would be made. But "how could self-nature be made?"
Note: karika XV.2
     If made, it would be at least partially dependent and self-nature, by definition, is independent. If made, its identity would be potentially or explicitly in its cause, its maker. One may object that it is still theoretically possible to declare self-nature to be eternal and unmade, and thus a real and autonomous identity. A Buddhist would say that there are two philosophical problems with such eternalism. (There is a moral one, too: see below.) One, no such unmade identity is evident. The Buddha saw that the nature of all conditioned things is transitory and he announced this transitoriness. Asserting eternalism contradicts the Buddha's enlightened observation. Two, such an eternal identity would be pure metaphysical speculation. If eternal, it would be uncaused and unconditioned, and wholly autonomous. As such, it could have absolutely no influencing effects on the rest of the universe, and so it could never be known. The theoretical denial of self-nature is further upheld by an empirical fact: self-nature is never observed to exist, and so its assertion must be pure metaphysical speculation. The very third verse in the treatise states "the self-nature of existents is not evident."
Note: karika I.3 The Buddha, with all of his perspicacity and philosophical acuity, who was "adept in existence as well as in non-existence,"
    Note: karika XV.7

said that he found there to be no substantial identity in things.

    Even Nagarjuna, who did not claim to have the same enlightened wisdom as the Buddha, observed the empirical evidence that self- nature is simply not found to exist. It is na vidyate, "not seen."
    Those who do claim to perceive immutable and eternal identity are simply myopic, filtering their perceptions through defilements, grasping, and dispositions.
    "Those who perceive self-nature as well as other-nature, existence as well as non- existence, they do not perceive the truth embodied in the Buddha's message."
Note: karika XV.6
    As mentioned, a supranatural transcendent identity could be posited theoretically but, as explained above, this theory could never leave the realm of pure speculation, and so is pointless.
    The final reason that Nagarjuna refuted self-nature theories is the moral one.
    • The potential of things to change and to be changed is prerequisite for personal growth, change, and escaping from suffering.
    • If one's substantial identity were immutable, then change would obviously be simply superficial.
    • For one to escape suffering by changing and appeasing the defilements, self- nature must necessarily be mutable.
Note: The common Vedantic solution to this is that, since one's substantial nature (atman) is immutable and eternal, the defilements are but adventitious and temporal.
    Change is not change of substance, but change of the accidentals; bondage is removable because it is extrinsic. A Madhyamika response to this likely would be that, if truly extrinsic, the adventitious elements could never really affect or bind the substance. More drastic, a person is only confined to the cycle of birth-and-death if he or she has dispositions like passionate attraction and aversion and if he or she grasps onto these passions or grasps onto existence itself. If things had self-nature, then these dispositions and graspings would themselves have self-nature. Since self- nature is unchanging, then the dispositions and grasping themselves would be permanent, unappeasable, and eternally binding. One could never break free from them, and enlightenment could never be found.
    Note: Cf. karika XXII.9 <

Finally, self-nature would be incompatible with causation , an individual's ability to effect real change would be impossible, all moral action would be nullified, and the Buddha's path would become meaningless. "If you perceive the existence of the existents in terms of self-nature, then you will… contradict [the notions of] effect, cause, agent, performance of action, activity, arising, ceasing, as well as fruit [i.e. the results of moral action]," Nagarjuna concludes.

    Note: karika XXIV.16-17

Dependent Arising, the Foundation of Madhyamika

Dependent Arising as a Central Notion in Buddhism

The Buddha's theory of dependent arising has an immediately obvious significance — -

it is the only positive ontological theory expounded by the Buddha.

    The formulations of the four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are of course positive teachings, but they are not really philosophical dogmas. They are descriptions of the condition of humankind, the ultimate goal of humankind, and teachings about how to achieve that goal.
    Only dependent arising describes
    • the ontic status of the universe (dependence),
    • its mode of creation (dispositions conditioned by ignorance),
    • its future fate (the appeasement of dispositions which reverses the cycle of arising),
    • the ontic nature of the individual (impersonal aggregates conditioned by ignorance),
    • and the future fate of the individual (extinction through enlightenment).
    Scholar Gunapala Malalasekera has expressed the status of these various formulations well in saying that
    • "Just as the Four Noble Truths… form the heart of the Buddha's teaching,
    • so does the doctrine of dependent arising constitute its backbone."
Note: Gunapala Piyasena Malalasekera, "Aspects of Reality taught by Theravada Buddhism," in Moore, 78
    Dependent arising was likewise of supreme importance for Nagarjuna. As explained above, Nagarjuna opened his treatise with a dedication that placed dependent arising at the center of his appreciation of the Buddha and as central for Madhyamika thought. Indeed, renowned scholar of Buddhism Gadjin Nagao has gone so far as to say that Nagarjuna "regarded Sakyamuni as the great master precisely because of his elucidation of dependent arising."
Note: Gadjin M. Nagao, The Foundational Standpoint of Madhyamika Philosophy (New York: State University of New York Press, 1989), 5 (italics mine)
     As with the above discussion of self- nature, a prefatory presentation of the doctrine and its development is necessary.
Dependent arising is not a theory that the Buddha developed, but one that he saw.
    As he sat under the Bodhi tree on the night of his full awakening he discovered the fact of the mutual contingency of all existent things. This awareness led him to the "threefold knowledge" that marked his station as one who had achieved full enlightenment sambuddhah).
    • First, he saw, through his new- found knowledge of dependent arising, the origin of suffering in ignorance and the end of suffering in wisdom.
    • Second, fixing "his mind upon the chain of causation, in direct and reverse order,"
Note: Mahavagga, quoted in Radhakrishnan 1929, 410
     he obtained the knowledge of all of his previous existences. This provided him with the recollection of his previous actions and their karmic consequences, enabling him to see that he had lived out all of his accrued karma and that this would be his last existence.
    • Third, having so clearly perceived the origin of the cycle, he knew with certainty that he had fully erased the binding ignorance, and would surely never return to existence. He knew himself to be "Thus Gone;" he was a Tathagata.
A key to the Buddha's teaching is that he was not the only one privileged to see dependent arising.
    Anyone who follows the path he recommended can realize its nature and workings. More than this, individual freedom requires that one verify these truths for him- or herself. The importance of and possibility of perceiving dependent arising is exemplified by the story of the conversion of Sariputta and Moggallana related in chapter one, above: all that was needed for each of them to realize nirvana was to be told " all things that arise will cease."
    The duty of the Buddhist monk who is aware of the Buddha's formulation of dependent arising is to examine each of the links for him- or herself, discover how they are conditioned, how they arose, and how they can be ceased.
Note: Warder, 133
    This is the key to the Buddhist path. The import of this duty is far greater than merely verifying one aspect of the Buddha's teachings. Rather, one who follows this will understand the entirety of the Buddha's teachings, his "dharma," and, more, one who follows this is guaranteed to see the Buddha himself. He once said "those who see dependent arising will see the dharma; those who see the dharma will see dependent arising," and another time he said "those who see the dharma will see me; those who see me will see the dharma."
    Note: Majjhima-nikaya and Samyutta- nikaya, respectively, quoted in Nagao, 1991, 104

The Meaning of Dependent arising

There are two main formulations of dependent arising,
    • one general (i)
    • and the other specific (ii).
  • In its most abstract form (i), the theory holds that
      "That being, this comes to be;
      from the arising of that, this arises;
      that being absent, this is not;
      from the cessation of that, this ceases."
Note: Samyutta-nikaya, quoted in Harvey, 54
  • The more specific formulation (ii) details the process by which links in the chain arise, one after the other, and which links directly influence which others. The most common of these specific formulations is the twelve-link one described in chapter two, but there are minor variations on this.
  • The crux of all formulations of the theory is the mutual interdependence of all things.
  • Every element is both conditioned and is a conditioner, so every element is both an effect and a cause.
  • There is no transcendent law of cause-and-effect ruling the process, for there is only a relative "before" and "after," only a relative causal sequence.
  • On the one hand no element is individually autonomous, and on the other hand neither is there a higher force ruling the process.
  • Since no thing exists on its own, no thing is real in itself.
  • A thing is dependent on another, then, not just for its identification, as "tallness" is dependent on "shortness," but for its very existence, as the piece of clothing is dependent upon the threads which constitute it.
    Thus far, the doctrine of dependent arising may seem clear and obvious. If so, it is only because one does not yet understand it in all of its implications. The Buddha's attendant, ananda, once said to his master, "It is surprising, sir, it is wonderful, sir, how profound this dependent arising is and how profound is its illumination. Yet it seems to me as if very simple." "Say not so, ananda, say not so," admonished the Buddha in reply.
    Note: Mahanidana Sutra, quoted in Warder, 108 The theory is abstruse and its ramifications vast.
    In the eyes of Buddhism, the doctrine of dependent arising solves all metaphysical philosophical problems.
  • Etiology is solved because there is, not an absolute beginning, but an temporally indeterminate welling up of mutually-conditioned factors. Since no factor is temporally prior, as such, the discussions of genesis manage to avoid positing an absolute beginning without recourse either to a metaphysical entity like a transcendent God or to causal priority ad infinitum.
  • Eschatology is solved because, since the ultimate end of existence is merely the appeasement of arising through appeasement of ignorant dispositions, there is no need to predict apocalypses or nihilistic destruction of existence. Things arose, but there was no ultimate cause, and things will cease, but there is no ultimate fate.
  • Soteriology is likewise solved; one need not face either a final Judgment Day nor mere annihilation, but rather one will just face the self-caused abandonment of equally self-caused afflicted existence. When ignorance ceases, birth ceases, and death ceases.
  • Karma, metempsychosis, and the nature of the soul are also all solved without recourse to abstract soul-theories.
  • Karma is neither an adventitious elemental defilement, like it is for the Jains, nor a subtle and transcendental deterministic fate, like for certain schools of Hinduism. Karma is simply the correlation between cause and effect. Karma is determined by one's actions and dispositions, and when one appeases one's dispositions then, when eventually the lingering effects of prior causes have come to fruition, existence will be no more. The simple conditioning of one link by another link enables the Buddhist karma to be determined without being deterministic, and subtle without being transcendental.
  • Reincarnation is similarly solved with no recourse to atman-theories. Death is conditioned by birth, which is in turn conditioned by ignorance.
  • This contiguous contingency obviates the need to posit a substantial and transcendently-enduring soul. The perceived existence and continuity of the individual is likewise explained without recourse to atman: since the aggregates of the individual arise together, and these aggregates account for the entire nature of the individual, there is no need to posit an extraneous metaphysical entity like the self.
  • The debate of free will versus determinism is also solved. There can be no "free" will, for no element of existence is independent. All things are dependent upon other things, and so is the will. This does not mean that the universe is bound by inexorable determinism: the Buddha declared himself to be an upholder of "free action,"
    Note: Malalasekera in Moore, 80
    for it is one's will in the form of volitional dispositions which both caused existence in the first place and will ultimately bring about appeasement and freedom.
    Note: That both free will and determinism are operative in Buddhism's dependent arising is not to be confused with the compatibility of the two in Jainism. In the former, neither is ultimately real, but in the latter, both are real.
    Two more theories repugnant to the Buddha, the extremes of eternalism and annihilationism, are obviated by dependent arising. Nothing is eternal, for, when a thing's conditioning factors cease, then it will cease. Neither is anything destined to face destruction in non-existence for, as contingent upon other things, it was never independently real in the first place.
  • Finally, dependent arising solves ontology. Things are empirically real, for they were arisen. However, they are not ultimately real, for there is no substance on which they are founded. There is Becoming, but no Being. Since things are not ultimately real, the affliction of suffering can be vanquished; if suffering were ultimately real, then it could never be abolished.
The Abhidharma schools (1) were the first to offer an interpretation of the doctrine of dependent arising, but interpretation probably was not their intent. They understood the doctrine to mean the temporal succession of momentary and discrete elements (dharmas) which were in themselves real.
    Note: Santina, 6
    They did not see dependent arising to mean that the elements were only relatively real, but rather they saw it as describing the interactions between already-existing elements. The point of the doctrine dependent arising, they felt, was solely to negate soul-theories, not to negate the elements themselves.
The Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) (2) writings criticized the Abhidharma theory of relations as being, not an explanation of dependent arising, but an interpretation of it, and an interpretation with which they disagreed. The systematic hierarchy of relations was seen as being no less metaphysical than the speculative theories of causality which the Buddha was trying to avoid.
Note: Cf. Kalupahana 1975, 154-155
    A further problem was that, while it was not explicitly wrong to describe the universe as made up of discrete elements, it was misleading. To isolate an element temporally was to take a first step towards conceptually reifying that element.
    The approach adopted by the Perfection of Wisdom school was to elevate the theory of dependent arising from the empirical to the conceptual by formulating a two- truth theory , a theory later embraced by Nagarjuna.
    • i) This approach declared that the Abhidharma schools saw reality from the standpoint of lower, conventional truth, and so they saw all as being composed of real elements which are mutually dependent in terms of causal efficacy.
    • ii) The Perfection of Wisdom, on the other hand, believed themselves to have access to perfect prajna, "wisdom" (hence the name of this school, Prajnaparamita). From the standpoint of higher, ultimate truth afforded by such wisdom, elements were seen as being, not just causally conditioned, but even ontologically conditioned. That is, the elements did not merely constitute conglomerate things which, as an assemblage, had no inherent identity and real existence; moreover, rather, the elements themselves had no inherent identity or real existence.
        The result of this interpretation of dependent arising is that
        • the elements are "empty;" as dependent arisen,

        • they are not real and are without self-nature.
        • Furthermore, concepts, too, are unreal.
Note: Santina, 12
      All concepts are based on dualities as "tallness" is dependent on "shortness." The ultimate implication of this interpretation is a shift from emphasis on logical reasoning, as evidenced in the Abhidharma, to non-dual intuition, or prajna. This non-dual intuition prefigured Nagarjuna's use of comprehensive four-fold negations and the later mysticism of Zen.
Note: On the latter, cf. Shunryu Suzuki, "No Dualism," in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1983), 41-43
      In the writings of both the Perfection of Wisdom school and Nagarjuna, all propositions regarding a subject are negated (e.g. something is, is not, both is and is not, neither is nor is not), but no alternative proposition is offered. The only way to grasp the subject is through non-dual, non-conceptual intuition. 

Madhyamika Interpretations and Re-interpretations

The Perfection of Wisdom school of thought was to have so great an influence on Nagarjuna that he was even credited with having founded the school.
Note: Cf. chapter three
    Indeed, his interpretation of dependent arising is identical with that of the Perfection of Wisdom. However, while in the former this interpretation of dependent arising was pervasive but implicit, Nagarjuna fleshed it out and gave systematization to its implications. In doing so, the notion of dependent arising became radically different and more profound than it had been in its earlier incarnations. It has been argued that Nagarjuna instigated a "Copernican revolution" in both Buddhism and Indian philosophy as a whole by expanding the meaning of dependent arising from being mere elemental relations to defining a full dialectical method.
Note: Cf. Murti, 1960, 123-4 and 274.
    This may or may not be the case — -it is in no way clear that Nagarjuna was revolutionizing the philosophy of the Buddha as the Buddha meant it — -but it is certainly true that Nagarjuna's interpretation of dependent arising was wholly unlike that of the Buddhism which preceded him.
Briefly, Nagarjuna's interpretation of dependent arising of elements focused on the nature of each element on its own.
    He found that nothing can be conceptualized in isolation,
    but neither can it be conceptualized in association.
    Two things, if dependently arisen, can be neither identical nor different.
    Yet, the concept of relation requires that they be both identical and different.
Note: ibid., 138
    They must be identified as separate, for, if not separate, one cannot speak of their relating. A thing cannot interact with itself; plurality is required. Conversely, they must be identified as not being different, for, to relate, they must have a connection. If truly separated, then they can never interact. Water, for example, cannot interact with burning, and fire cannot interact with freezing. "In identity," Nagarjuna points out, "there is no co- existence. That which is associated does not arise together." That is, if identical, the "co-" of "co-existence" is meaningless. Dependent arising requires two distinct elements for there to be relation and hence arising. Yet, on the other hand, "in discreteness, how can there be co- existence?"
Note: karika VI.4
     That is, if separate, the "co-" doesn't apply, either, and the relation that is required for arising is again precluded. The only conclusion is that "whatever arises depending on whatever, that is not identical nor different from it."
Note: karika XVIII.10
     One cannot avoid the above difficulty by positing a type of causality that is other than dependent arising, such as eternalism or simple phenomenalism. Things cannot be eternally existing and hence unarisen for, if they had an eternal identity, then they would be devoid of change, devoid of action, devoid of all phenomenality, and hence meaningless in their metaphysicality. Neither can there be a type of causality in which things are temporally new phenomenal creations for, if the effect is discrete from its cause, then ultimately it is not connected to the cause and hence is uncaused. Dependent arising, which explains causation without recourse either to eternalism or to simple phenomenalism, is the only coherent theory. As Nagarjuna says in relation to agent and action, a cause proceeds depending upon its effect and the effect proceeds depending on the cause. "We do not perceive any other way of establishing [them]," he says.
    Note: karika VIII.12
The main complication in thinking of things as independent is self- nature, svabhava.
    Any thing that is dependently arisen, Nagarjuna said, must be without self-nature, incapable of being isolated and, ultimately, not even real.
    Maria Ruth Hibbets, a recent thesis student of Madhyamika, has clarified the incompatibility of self- nature and relativity with a most apt analogy. Seeking to discover the essential meaning of a word, i.e. its one true and unique meaning, one looks up the word in a dictionary. Here one finds a series of relations, e.g. X is like Y, unlike Z, etc. Still wanting to pinpoint the word's identity, one looks up the secondary relational words Y and Z, where entirely new sets of relations are given. One could continue ad nauseam and never find the word's essence, its svabhava. It is only defined in relation to other words, all of which are likewise without self- nature.
Note: Maria Ruth Hibbets, "An Investigation into the Negative Dialectics of Nagarjuna and Candrakirti" (Bachelor's thesis, Reed College, 1991), 20
    The constituents of existence are both brought into manifestation and defined in the same way — -they have neither essential nor empirical independence, but can only arise and be defined in relation to other constituents. Had the earlier Buddhists not analyzed reality into discrete momentary elements, Nagarjuna likely would not have responded by so drastically disproving the reality of elements in themselves. It was in the light of these self-nature theories that he responded with this teaching of relativity. If all things are dependently arisen, then they are not arisen independently, on their own. If not arisen on their own, then they cannot be said to exist on their own. This is identical to the Buddha's formulation of dependent arising as explained above: their conceptual distinction is relative as "tallness" depends on "shortness," and, further, their very ontological existence depends on relative arising, as fire cannot exist without fuel and fuel cannot exist without fire. The only reason for Nagarjuna to repeat the Buddha's doctrine, then, was to negate the misconception of self-nature that had arisen since the Buddha's time.
The shift in emphasis from mere elemental relativity to both ontological and conceptual relativity is exemplified by the exegesis of the term pratitya-samutpada, dependent arising, by two Buddhist philosophers. The Abhidharma notion of momentary elements required that the universe at each moment be quantitatively and qualitatively a new creation. With this understanding, a proponent of the Realist school, Srilabha , interpreted the term with the following etymology:
"Pratitya denotes the sense of momentary destruction and it qualifies the term samutpada as a derivative adjective. 'Prati + iti + yat,' which means 'fit to disappear in every succeeding moment.' [sic] The suffix yat connotes 'fitness,' iti means 'perishing,' 'destruction,' 'annihilation,' 'cessation.' The prefix prati is used, according to [the Abhidharmas], in the sense of repetition. They mean by 'pratitya-samutpada,' 'origination by repetitive destruction.'"

Note: Ramendranath Ghose, The Dialectics of Nagarjuna (Allahabad, India: Vohra Publishers and Distributors, 1987), 183, quoted in ibid., 34

    The insight afforded by this exegesis is that the Abhidharma saw dependent arising as just the interplay of relations between real elements, which elements enjoy ephemeral but real manifestation. Candrakirti, a later commentator on Nagarjuna, disagrees with the interpretation of those "who hold that the term means the arising of things which vanish in the moment. This is bad etymology," he says.
Note: Prasannapada in Sprung, 34.

    A note may be added here. It may not be clear why the Abhidharma theory of elements requires that an element be destroyed after its momentary "flash" of existence. The reason is two-fold. First, they held that a cause must cease utterly before its effect could manifest, or cause and effect would overlap. This would allow there to be at least one moment in which an element is still being caused while its effect has already materialized. Two, a change in time must be a change in identity; if a thing lasted two moments with the same identity, then it would endure, and, by extension, could be eternal.

    To counter this "bad etymology," Candrakirti offers his own: "The root i means motion; the preposition prati means the arrival or attainment. But the addition of a preposition alters the meaning of the root… So, in this case, the word pratitya, as gerund, means 'attained' in the sense of dependent or relative. Again, the verbal root pad [to go] preceded by the preposition samut [out of] means to arise or to become manifest. The full meaning of the term pratitya-samutpada is therefore the arising, or becoming manifest of things in relation to or dependent on causal conditions pratyayas)."

      Note: Prasannapada, 33

    The above two exegeses may not seem contradictory and, indeed, the only obvious difference is that Srilabha's etymology mentions both arising and ceasing, while Candrakirti's focuses only on arising. The important differences are those between the underlying assumptions, which assumptions can be gleaned from the quotes. The Abhidharma interpretation of dependent arising is little more than the interaction of distinct parts to form new wholes.
The Madhyamika interpretation, as hinted at by Candrakirti, is more radical. 
    It is not just that composite things which are made up of momentary parts are arisen depending on the parts and have new identities in each time- moment. More, the parts themselves have no real existence outside of the mutual interaction which causes them to become manifest. The momentariness of the Realist conception requires that each element arise, endure for a moment, and then cease. This is not possible, says Nagarjuna's Madhyamika. "When the triad consisting of arising, [enduring, and ceasing] are discrete, they are not adequate to function as characteristics of the conditioned."
    Note: karika VII.2
    These three characteristics cannot be real, explains Nagarjuna in the following verses, for then each one would itself have to partake of arising, enduring, and ceasing. That is, if "arising" is a hypostatized process, then "arising" itself will have to arise, endure, and cease before the next hypostatized process, "enduring," can come to be manifest, and so forth. Nagarjuna will not accept this, for the result is infinite regress. On the other hand, these three processes must be characteristics of existent things. If not, it would be possible for a thing to arise but not endure or cease, for a thing to endure but not arise or cease, or for a thing to cease but not arise or endure.
There is another problem regarding the arising, enduring, or ceasing of existent things.
    What is it that arises, the existent thing?
    No, for an existent thing already exists, and cannot arise again.
    Does the non-existent thing arise?
    No, for, if non-existent, it is not a "thing," and there is no possible nominal subject of the verbal predicate. "
    As such," Nagarjuna concludes, "neither the arising of an existent nor the arising of a non-existent is proper." Likewise the both existent and non-existent and the neither existent nor non-existent are improper.
Note: karika VII.20
 In the same way, mutatis mutandis, Nagarjuna refuses to accept the enduring or the ceasing of existent or non-existent things.
    He has no choice but to conclude that dependent arising has no function, no reality. 
    "With the non- establishment of arising, duration, and destruction, the conditioned does not exist.
    With the non-establishment of the conditioned, how could there be the unconditioned?"
    Dependent arising can have no relation either to existence or to non-existence.
    Arising, duration, and cessation are "an illusion, a dream."
Note: karika VII.33-34
    Following such a radical and comprehensive denial of dependent arising and its three characteristics, arising, enduring and ceasing, it would seem that Nagarjuna has completely annihilated the Buddha's central doctrine.
    However, there is one verse which demonstrates that this is not the proper explanation of Nagarjuna's agenda: "Whatever that comes to be dependently, that is inherently peaceful. Therefore, that which is presently arising as well as arising itself are peaceful."
Note: karika VII.16
 The only way to reconcile this cataphatic statement with Nagarjuna's relentless denial of dependent arising presented above is to question the subject of the dilemma, namely conceptions of existence itself. What he is denying, then, are the very notions of existence or non- existence .
Note: David Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (Boston: Shambhala, 1987), 82-83
    Reality must be devoid of conceptual dichotomies. Nagarjuna made this clear in demonstrating that fire and fuel or lust and the lustful one cannot be thought of as independently real, and now declares that even existence and non-existence are but illusory conceptions with no empirical basis. "A thing that is existent or non-existent is not produced." Further, if existence is unreal, then so is non-existence, for "existence and non-existence are, indeed, dependent upon one another."
Note: karika I.7 and XXV.12, respectively
    All that can be said to be real is the "inherently peaceful." This was, in fact, enunciated by Nagarjuna in the opening dedicatory verses, where dependent arising was linked with "the appeasement of obsessions and the auspicious." This is in fact nothing less than nirvana itself, the "blown-out," the appeasement of defiling dispositions and graspings through the appeasement of passionate desires. The conceptual reality left when dispositions and conceptions are "blown out" corresponds exactly with the Buddha's original message: there is no soul in the individual and no self-hood of the universe but those conceived in ignorance. If one is to ask "Of whom is there old age and dying, and of what is there dependent arising," both the Buddha and Nagarjuna would answer that the question is wrongly formulated.
Note: Warder, 119
     Nagarjuna's interpretation of dependent arising, then, holds that all that can be said to have any reality is the process, not the fluctuating elements comprising the process. Wrong views arise when one, through ignorance, believes there to be absolute objects, absolute temporality, absolute spatiality. "Those who posit the substantiality of the self as well as of discrete existents — -these I do not consider to be experts in the meaning of the [Buddha's] message."
    Note: karika X.16
A key to understanding Nagarjuna's distinction between reifying the elements versus seeing only the process is the two truths.
  • From the standpoint of conventional truth, arising, enduring, and ceasing are seen.

  • Where existents are observed, one has no choice but to say that they are dependently-arisen through these three characteristics.
  • It is only from the standpoint of ultimate truth that dependent arising is peaceful.

  • From this standpoint, when the notions of permanent being and identity are "blown out," all that is perceived is the flow of becoming.
    This flow is inherently without static objects such as elements or the individual self.
This is fully compatible with and, indeed, explains the philosophical core of Buddhism: impermanency and soullessness.

Emptiness, the Ultimate Cosmology

Pre-Madhyamika Use of the Concept

The Buddha perceived that all things are transitory, that nothing endures. This was the logical basis for his declaration that nothing has an essence, that all is anatman. 
  • The Theravada tradition interpreted this to mean that no persons have a self beyond that constructed by the five fluctuating aggregates, but that the individual elements constituting existence did have an essence; this is what made the elements individual and irreducible.
  • Mahayana offered a broader definition of soullessness and declared that, not only are persons devoid of a self, but that all of the elements comprising existence are also without essence. They are empty, sunya, of self-nature.
    Note: An analogy from the history of Western physics (Western) will clarify these two conflicting notions of emptiness. Classical Newtonian physics saw everything as comprised of irreducible atoms with a determinable location and momentum. Belief in the determinism made possible by such a reified existence led French mathematician Pierre de Laplace to declare that, could he theoretically know the location and momentum of every monad in the universe, he could predict the exact future history of the entire cosmos. Quantum physics revolutionized this view by describing the qualities of the monadic elements of existence as being inherently unknowable.<

Further, the utter smallness of the particles and the sheer distances between them shows matter to be little more than empty space and existence ultimately nothing more than interactions of abstract energy fields. That the truest cosmological quality of things is emptiness, sunyata, came to be regarded as the central notion of Buddhism.

    Note: Kohn, 203
The base formulation of emptiness comes from Nagarjuna , and it is the concept for which he is most famous, so much so that the Madhyamika school was often referred to as the Sunyata-vada, the "School of Emptiness."
Notwithstanding, the concept was not original with him.
The term "sunyata" appears a few places in the Pali Canon, but only a few.
Here it tends to have the simple meaning of a lack of something.
    In the "Lesser Discourse on Emptiness," the Buddha says that, in a hall where there are monks gathered but in which there are no elephants or cows, one can say that the hall is "empty" of elephants and cows. Likewise, when a monk is meditating in a solitary forest, the forest is "empty" of villages and villagers. "When something does not exist there, the latter [the place] is empty with regard to the former," the Buddha defines.
Note: Culasunnata-sutta, quoted in Nagao 1991, 52
    This meaning of a lack is extended to also mean a lack of disturbances for the meditating mind. Emptiness is both an object for contemplation and a method of quietism; one can "practice emptiness" both by meditating on the emptiness of the self and by freeing oneself from disturbances.
    The philosophical formulation of emptiness in the Theravada tradition is usually taken to be that expressed by the Abhidharma writings.
    The Realist school of the Abhidharma held that the elements of existence must not be empty, or else they would not be able to interact. It was just compounded objects, like the individual, that are empty, in that they have no enduring soul.
The Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) school disagreed,
    pointing out that the elements, like the things they compound, must also be seen as empty. By applying emptiness to all things, this school used the concept much more systematically and frequently and expanded its meaning. The Abhidharma quest to define the true nature of things was replaced by a stress on non-dual, intuitive apprehensions of reality through wisdom, prajna. The highest achievement of wisdom, this school held, was the realization that all things, not just compound ones, are empty of an essence.
Taken far enough, the mystical Perfection of Wisdom insight into emptiness produced
a paradox.
    Not only are things empty, the school declared, but emptiness is a thing (rupa = sunyata).
    This meaning of this equation was not made entirely clear until Nagarjuna offered an interpretation of it. The equation is not to be taken too literally, but it seems just to express the notion that emptiness should not be seen merely as a negation. This was hinted at in the "Lesser Discourse on Emptiness," where the Buddha said that, "through abiding in emptiness, [I] am now abiding in the fullness thereof." Further, the text continued, it is comprehended that, when a place is empty of something like cows or a village, there is "something [which] remains there that does exist as a real existent." 
Note: Culasunnata-sutta, quoted in Nagao 1991, 52 (italics mine)
    On the one hand, early Buddhism saw emptiness as a lack of being but, on the other, something remains which cannot be negated. These statements will not make sense in Buddhist terms unless reconciled with the Buddha's absolute rejection of an ultimate ground of reality. The meaning of the paradox, according to the Perfection of Wisdom writings, is that emptiness is both and neither being and non-being, both and neither negation and affirmation. Emptiness is not really a thing any more than a thing is really empty, for reality cannot be pinned down in concepts.
Note: Harvey, 99
     This paradoxical, non-conceptual use of the notion of emptiness is reflected in the fact that certain of the Perfection of Wisdom writings used the notion without ever mentioning the term. The Diamond Sutra, for example, taught that the notion of emptiness was to be used like a hard diamond to "cut away all unnecessary conceptualization,"
Note: Vajracchedika, quoted in Kohn, 57
    including the idea of emptiness itself. The discourse accomplished this by presenting a series of paradoxes that demonstrated emptiness without using the word. For example, the Buddha is made to say:
"As many beings as there are in the universe of beings, …all these I must lead to nirvana, into that realm of nirvana which leaves nothing behind. And yet, although innumerable beings have thus been led to nirvana, no being at all has been led to nirvana."

Note: Vajracchedika 3, Edward Conze, trans., in Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, The Diamond Sutra (Poona, India: Ma Yoga Laxmi Rajneesh Foundation, 1979), 3.

(The similarity of such paradoxes with Zen teachings may be noted. The Vajracchedika is, indeed, the locus classicus of Zen. Cf. "Silent Meditation and Ch'an," in Kalupahana 1992, 228- 236)

    A paradox like this will only make sense if the elements of it are not taken either as real or nonreal, but as, in terms of Perfect Wisdom, "empty."
    The actual use of the term "emptiness" (sunyata) was likely avoided in the Diamond Sutra because, even though the paradoxes were half affirmative and half negatory,
    • the potential for misunderstanding and seeing only the negative side of the equation was great.
    • Equally dangerous was the possibility of clinging to the notion of emptiness as yet another, albeit apophatic, theory.
    • These were dangers the Buddha was quite aware of. He said that, following his death, "the monks will no longer wish to hear and learn [my teachings], deep, deep in meaning, …dealing with the void (sunyata), but will only lend their ear to profane [teachings], made by poets, poetical, adorned with beautiful words and syllables."
Note: Samyutta- nikaya, quoted in Santina, 7
    What was crucial, the Buddha taught, was to use the teaching of emptiness as a provisional tool, a way to cut through illusion and achieve insight. His teachings were to be seen as a raft which gets one across a stream but which, upon reaching the other side, should be discarded. The Perfection of Wisdom school used the method of teaching with nonsensical paradoxes to show the final nature of things as empty and then to prevent one from grasping onto the concept of emptiness itself.
Nagarjuna adopted the Perfection of Wisdom teaching that the highest form of intuitive wisdom is insight into the emptiness of all things.
    His innovation was to clarify this insight and apply it to all philosophical concepts in a more systematic way than had his predecessors. The result of this was that the notion of emptiness, though not new to Buddhist thought, suddenly became seen as a revolutionary concept. It is common for mystical expression to speak negatively of the Absolute, noumenal sphere; the mystical side of every religion in history has witnessed this apophaticism in some degree. Nagarjuna's innovation was
    • to apply the via negativa to the phenomenal sphere,
    • as well, and thereby to deny the essential reality of even relative dualities.

Emptiness as a Via Negativa, a Way of Negation

It may be helpful to precede a presentation of Nagarjuna's philosophy of emptiness with a discussion of his school's peculiar use of negation. As a philosophy of emptiness, the functions of refutation and negation are central to Madhyamika, and if the function of negation in the school is not understood, radical misinterpretations are likely. Even as reputable a scholar as Austin Waddell dismissed Madhyamika as "essentially a sophistic nihilism" which advocated the "extinction of Life."
    Note: L. Austin Waddell, Tibetan Buddhism (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1972), 11<

The Madhyamika philosophy of emptiness is much more than just a method of negation or a declaration of negativity. However, since this is how both the West and Nagarjuna's fellow Orientals have often viewed it, that must be addressed first. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who pertinaciously misunderstood Nagarjuna as an absolutist,

    Note: "The whole show of Nagarjuna's logic is a screen for his heart, which believed in an absolute reality." (Radhakrishnan 1929, 656)<

Based on other, likely spurious, writings attributed to Nagarjuna, one could perhaps make such a claim. However, in the works which modern scholarship believes to be authentically Nagarjuna's, there is found no justification for Radhakrishnan's claim. expressed well the standard rationalist opinion of negation: "All negation depends on a hidden affirmation. Absolute negation is impossible. Total skepticism is a figment, since such skepticism implies the validity of the skeptic's judgment."

    Note: ibid., 662<

Classical Hindu thinkers, too, dismissed Nagarjuna's extreme use of the via negativa as self-condemned. The negation of everything is inconceivable without implying a positive ground thereby, they held, and so the ultimate truth cannot be negative; nothing can be proved false if nothing is taken as true.

    Note: Hiriyanna, 221<

The act of negation itself proves the existence of the negator, one could say.

Shin-ichi Hisamatsu has delineated five general uses of negation which are to be distinguished from Nagarjuna's. These are:
    • 1) the negation of the existence of a particular, e.g. "there is no desk," or "there is no such thing as self-nature;"
    • 2) a negative predicate, e.g. "pleasure is not pain," or "self-nature is not an existent;"
    • 3) the abstract concept of "nothingness," as the opposite of being or of a general existent "somethingness;"
    • 4) a blank of consciousness which would be equal to a state of dreamless sleep or, by conjecture, death, e.g. the Upanisadic analogy that "when one is in deep sleep, composed, serene, dreamless — -that is the Self;"
        Note: Chandogya Upanisad, quoted in Ainslee T. Embree, ed., Sources of Indian Tradition, volume one (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 35
    • 5) a hypothetical negation whereby something which is usually considered to exist is denied, e.g. "self-nature is an illusion which does not really exist."
Note: adapted from Shin-ichi Hisamatsu, "The Characteristics of Oriental Nothingness," in Streng, 162
    It was claimed above (see Introduction) that all religious philosophies save Madhyamika are, to some degree, Absolutisms which posit a really existing substratum in the cosmos.
    This substantialism is reflected both in the dismissal of the Madhyamika negative method by many Western scholars and classical Hindu thinkers, as well as in the above five uses of the concept of negation, for all directly assume the quality of essential existence or, by positing non-existence, indirectly assume the quality of existence. All non-Madhyamika uses of negation, in Murti's words, affirm a real thing "existing in some form or in some place other than what and where it was mistaken for." For example, to say "A is not B" is usually tantamount to saying "A is C."
    Note: Murti 1960, 154
In contrast with such substantialist-oriented uses of negation is Nagarjuna's concept of emptiness, sunyata.
    Emptiness is the description of things as having no self- nature. Nagarjuna's emptiness was arrived at through a use of dialectics such as those exemplified in the above five, but its meaning was different. Emptiness is neither the denial of an existing thing or quality nor merely the negation of a concept. It is a call to shift one's perceptions to reconceive the nature of reality.
    The fifth option given above, negation as the cancellation of an illusion, is the closest to Nagarjuna's use, save one difference. The cancellation of an illusion is usually taken to mean that one is piercing phenomenal reality to perceive true ontological reality. An oft- repeated analogy is that of a person walking on a path at twilight who is startled to see a snake lying curled up in the middle of the path; on closer examination, the snake is seen to be nothing more than an abandoned piece of rope. The illusion that has been dispelled was never real. The snake never existed, and so the negation of it amounts to nothing more than a clearer perception of what always was.
    For Nagarjuna's Madhyamika, in contrast, the snake, or self-nature, is not such a simple illusion. Things do exist, even if only as dependently-arisen phenomena. That they have self- nature is not so much an illusion as it is the result of a misguided or improperly-trained faculty of conceptualization. One holds to a theory of self-nature not because of primal ignorance, like Advaita Vedanta's avidya, nor because of a clouded perception, like that of the rope, but because one cognizes falsely. "When the sphere of thought has ceased, that which is to be designated also has ceased," says Nagarjuna, and when one ceases to adhere to a metaphysical theory like self-nature, it disappears. Emptiness is not so much the means to dispel an illusion as it is the correction of an error.
Nagarjuna's method of negation is by means of a logical use of the concept of emptiness.
    This is hinted at by the first appearance of the term in the karika which is in section four. Nagarjuna has just spent the first seven verses of this section discussing the relation of the five psychophysical aggregates to their causes, concluding that cause and effect are neither identical nor different and that there is no self- nature in any of the aggregates. He concludes the examination by saying that:
"when an analysis is made in terms of emptiness, whosoever were to address a refutation, all that is left unrefuted by him will be equal to what is yet to be proved.

"When an explanation in terms of emptiness is given, whosoever were to address a censure, all that is left uncensured by him will be equal to what is yet to be proved." 

Note: karika IV.8-9

(The crypticness of these verses is not the fault of the translation, for other translations are equally or more unclear.) What Nagarjuna seems to be saying here is that the concept of emptiness, when used as a method of negation, is exhaustive. When an analysis is made in terms of emptiness, all bases have been covered and no loopholes remain. Nagarjuna's negation of self-nature is thorough, and the burden of proof for further analysis lies with the opponent. When an explanation in terms of emptiness is given, there is no room for criticism by the opponent. The Madhyamika description of all things as empty is also exhaustive, and anyone offering a positive counter theory must provide an equally-exhaustive metaphysic. 
This far-ranging value of the concept of emptiness is expressed succinctly in a later section. "Everything is pertinent for whom emptiness (sunyata) is proper," Nagarjuna says. Conversely, "everything is not pertinent for whom the empty (sunyam) is not proper."
    Note: karika XXIV.14<

This verse can be explained in terms of the two truths. Conventional truth deals with, not theories, but with the interaction of individual existents. These things, by virtue of having arisen dependently, are "the empty." In conventional truth, emptiness is used as an adjective to describe the arisen existents, "the empty." Only if these things are seen as "empty" can everything be "pertinent," that is, can one formulate coherent and valid thoughts about reality.

    Note: There may be confusion about this verse due to the fact that the primary translation of the Mulamadhyamakakarika prior to Kalupahana's, i.e. Streng's, contains an error here. The third and fourth padas of this verse are translated by Streng as "If emptiness does not 'work,' then all existence does not 'work'" (italics in original). The error is the term "emptiness" instead of "the empty" here. That the original word is "the empty" is proven by the fact that only "sunyam" fits the meter. The term " sunyata" would make this line seventeen, not sixteen, beats long.<

Ultimate truth relates more to abstractions that go beyond everyday particulars. From this broader vantage point, the fact that all arisen things as well as the process of arising are empty is encompassed by the abstract theory of "emptiness." This theory is comprehensive, encompassing any and all other concepts by virtue of showing how any description of reality must ultimately itself be negated and thus be empty. Only if one includes the notion of "emptiness" in one's worldview can one's theory be "pertinent." As a method of negation, then, emptiness is, like the diamond, an incisive and effective tool. It does not merely refute false concepts, but it refutes them so comprehensively that the ball is in the opponent's court, so to speak. "All that is left unrefuted by him will be equal to what is yet to be proved." 

Another aspect of using emptiness as a method of logical refutation is that, as a somewhat mystical concept based on intuitive wisdom (prajna), it does not merely negate. Emptiness also affirms.
    Substantialist methods of negation implicitly assert the opposite of what is negated, as in the above example where saying "A is not B" means "A is C." Madhyamika negation, to continue this example, would say that "A is not B, nor is A not not B." It is true that the Buddha leads innumerable beings to nirvana, but it is also true that no being at all has been led to nirvana. Such paradoxes are not meant to imply that ultimate reality transcends conceptual thinking, such that the relation of A to B cannot be conceived. Rather, since A and B are both empty of self-nature, and since both the beings led to nirvana and nirvana itself are empty of self- nature, equations are neither valid nor invalid. A cannot be B nor not B, for there is no essence of A which can either be identical with or different from the essence of B.
    That the negatory aspect of emptiness is usually emphasized does not mean that emptiness is negative; rather, since Nagarjuna felt there to be more affirmative ontologies in need of refutation than annihilationist ones, he responded with negation more often than affirmation. However, both the Buddha and Nagarjuna make it quite clear that one should not stress negativity any more than one should affirm positivism. As Edward Conze puts it, "The Buddhist sage… should never really commit himself to either 'yes' or 'no' on anything." Since the Buddhist path is a middle one which renounces all extremes, if the sage "once says 'yes,' he must also say 'no.' And when he says 'no,' he must also say 'yes.'"
    Note: Conze 1975, 132<

Emptiness is a middle view which, by denying essences and identities, stands between the extremes of being and non-being, between negation and affirmation. Since negation is no more real than affirmation, even the concept of emptiness must in the end be denied reality. After emptiness has shown the falsity of wrong views like self-nature, its job is done, and negation itself must be negated.

    Note: As if to answer this very question and tie it in with theory of two truths, Neils Bohr said ``There are trivial truths and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.'' (quoted in Malaclypse the Younger, p. 9)

Emptiness is Perceived, not Invented

Emptiness is not a theory which Nagarjuna invented, nor even one which he clarified — it is not a theory as such. Emptiness is just the description of the way things are, i.e. impermanent and without essences or self-natures. It is only the opposites of emptiness that are concepts. That is, metaphysical theories like self-nature, permanency, the soul, or God are concepts that require definition and defending by those who hold them. Emptiness requires no defending. When obscurities are cleared away, one sees, through intuitive wisdom, the nature of things as they always have been. This nature, before the addition of defiling concepts, is, the Buddha described, like the clean water of a clear pool, "self-luminous through and through."
Note: (source not noted) quoted in Conze 1975, 162

The Diamond Sutra expressed this by having the Buddha say that nothing has ever been taught by him. "If a man should say that the Law [Dharma] has been taught by the Tathatagata, he would say what is not true."

Note: Vajracchedika, quoted in Zimmer, 522

Nagarjuna echoed this in saying that "the Buddha did not teach… some thing to some one at some place."

Note: karika XV.24

What the Buddha and Nagarjuna did was to show that concepts are false and distort the true nature of reality. They did not offer thoughts of their own to replace false ones, but taught that all ideas, including even the philosophy of Buddhism, must be appeased, or not grasped on to. When notions like self-nature, the soul, or permanency are "blown out" (nir - vana), the true nature of reality, emptiness, is seen.

Note: Kohn, 245

The Visuddhimagga, the most important post-canonical work of the Older School, delineated seven stages of purification and the development of insight. Each stage is one of greater perception of the soullessness of reality culminating in, in the seventh and final stage, perception of the "signless," the "wishless," and "emptiness," which are three qualitative descriptions of the unconditioned nature of reality. This insight is the Perfect Wisdom of pre-Madhyamika Buddhism, which insight Nagarjuna found to be the supreme expression of Buddhist knowledge. The heart of this Perfect Wisdom is nothing more than a perception of emptiness.

  • Both the Perfection of Wisdom school and Nagarjuna agree that a proper understanding of the Buddha's philosophy as reported by the original discourses inevitably leads to seeing all things as empty.
  • This was in contrast to the Abhidharma attitude that a study of the scriptures can allow one to formulate a neat set of concepts to define and describe the nature of reality.
  • It must be admitted, though, that Nagarjuna's idea that emptiness is seen, not invented, is only implicit in the karika, for he never expressly describes the nature or the importance of this insight. What he does make clear is that emptiness is empirically evident. That emptiness is perceptible is only a manner of speaking, for it is explained that emptiness is not a "thing" which can be defined and perceived. Rather, it is a lack, as, for example, one can speak of the concept of darkness even though it is nothing more than a lack of light. The term Nagarjuna uses most frequently is pasyati, "perceives."
Note: Kalupahana 1986, 82
    What is perceived is the non- existence of self-nature in things, and an awareness of this non-existence is referred to as the perception of emptiness.
One may ask, if the original nature of all things is unconditioned emptiness, then why was it ever hidden in the first place? On one level, this question can be answered by pointing to the first link of the chain of dependent arising, ignorance.

On the basis of ignorance,
concepts and consciousness arise.

    Concepts by their very nature and function create artificial divisions in the otherwise undivided, seamless reality, and thus obscure its true nature. Existence and essence, though seemingly ultimate concepts, are nonetheless themselves artificial divisions which thus distort the "self-luminous pool of clear water." The Madhyamika stress on emptiness is one way to demonstrate the unreality and falseness of concepts.
Note: Williams, 62
 On another level, the question cannot be answered. If one further inquires, "and what created ignorance?" the Buddhist can only point out that, in the twelve-link circular chain of dependent arising, ignorance is causally conditioned by previous karma and death. More cogent, though, one should not even ask such a question; since ignorance is a "lack" and not a "thing," it is not proper to ask how it was created. Beyond these replies, further speculation is not fruitful.

Some schools of Buddhism, especially Zen, would offer the above explanation and then stop. The mind cannot possess anything, a modern Zen teacher says, and if one continues questioning, the teacher has nothing to say but "in Japan in the spring we eat cucumbers."

Note: Shunryu Suzuki, 138

Nagarjuna's philosophy supports the same conclusions, but arrives at them by a quite different way.

    One way to counteract the conceptualizing tendency is by offering alternative concepts. Notions of self-nature and the soul are root causes of suffering. As a means of "fighting fire with fire," Nagarjuna offers a systematic philosophy of emptiness as a conceptual antidote to these notions. 

Dependent Arising + Emptiness = tattva (The Union of Both Truths)

The Perfection of Wisdom school taught that emptiness is a fact of reality that is indirectly perceived by virtue of non-empty things not being perceived. Nagarjuna's innovation was to expand the meaning of emptiness by applying the notion to the conceptual sphere as well as the experiential one. That is, whereas earlier Buddhism saw all composite things as empty of soul, Nagarjuna declared them to be empty of existence, as well.

The crux of the Madhyamika philosophy of emptiness is a reinterpretation of dependent arising by a distinction between conventional and ultimate truths.

  • The Theravada definition of dependent arising was the interdependency of irreducible atoms which, through mutual contingency, create a world of phenomenal things. Things are empty of self- nature in that they are not self- subsisting, but were brought into being only through the action of dependent arising. Nagarjuna said that, from the point of view of conventional truth, this theory is applicable.
  • Perfect wisdom, though, allows one the insight that even the causal process itself is empty, for there is no self-nature to be found anywhere, in any thing. A greater understanding of dependent arising shows things to be more than just causally interdependent; they are interdependent for their very definition and essential self-nature, too. "In the absence of self-nature, there is no other-nature," Nagarjuna declares numerous times,
Note: karika I.3, XV.3, XXII.2, XXII.4, XXII.9
     the meaning of which is that, without dependency, things cannot even have an individual identity and essence.
Note: This idea that things are relative for, not just their arising, but their very identity has led some interpreters of Madhyamika to translate sunyata as, not "emptiness," but "relativity" or "non-exclusiveness." (Cf. Stcherbatsky, 242, and Ramana, 42, respectively)
 There are thus no things, but only the process by which things came to be, and this process, too, is empty. The main reason for declaring things to be without essence is empirical, as explained above. Self-nature simply is not observed. More than this, though, logic leads to the same conclusion. If the identity of dependent arising with emptiness were just an expression of mystic intuition, the function of Madhyamika as a philosophy would be precluded.
The logical argument that leads to the theory of emptiness is this:
    The nature of reality is dependently arisen; that is attested to by the Buddha, by observation, and by logic. "A thing that is not dependently arisen is not evident," Nagarjuna declares.
    If things are dependently arisen, then they are phenomenal, not real, entities. Self-nature must, by definition, be a really-existent and permanent essence. A permanent essence never changes nor acts, so self-nature will never interact, hence things that interact or are the product of interaction have no essence. "A non-empty effect will not arise; a non-empty effect will not cease."
    Dependently arisen things have no self-nature. Both their arising and their very essential definition are the result of causal interdependence. They are thus empty of existence, of self-nature, and of any other type of hypothetical essence. "A thing that is non-empty is indeed not evident," he concludes, but he does not stop there. If things are empty of essence, then the whole process of dependent arising is also called into question. If things are empty, then what even is the point of saying that they arise and cease? "If something is empty, it follows that it is non-ceased and non- arisen."
    There is no "it" which can partake of arising or ceasing. Both arisen things and the process of dependent arising itself are but "an illusion, a dream, a [mythical city]."
      Note: karika VII.34

    This relentless negation is the revolutionary aspect of Nagarjuna's Madhyamika. He is not content just to refute the self-nature of composite things, nor even of the individual elements comprising things, but goes so far as to refute the reality of the entire process of interaction itself. With the negation of any kind of self-nature, anywhere, all sense of real and unreal, of cause and effect, of identity and difference is lost. The only way left to speak of things is in terms of emptiness. The bold consistency with which this via negativa "has been carried through every phase of thought and feeling, to the very limit," says Heinrich Zimmer, "keeps a wonderful, really sublime wind of detachment blowing through" the entire philosophy.

    Note: Zimmer, 521
However, this negative method must not overshadow positive affirmation, or the Madhyamika would surrender to its opponent's accusations that the philosophy of emptiness is mere nihilism.
    Note: Much of the misunderstanding of Nagarjuna's philosophy as nihilism especially by Westerners, could have been avoided if the etymology of sunya had been kept in mind. The word likely comes from a root which means "to swell," the interpretation of which is probably that something which appears swollen is hollow, empty, on the inside. Sunyata would then be not a mere nothingness, but a certain potentiality, an internal openness within apparently full entities. Cf. Conze 1975, 130f.<

Instead of saying simply that dependent arising is empty or that only empty things dependently arise, Madhyamika declares that the formula dependent arising = emptiness is an affirmative equation. The Perfection of Wisdom formula that matter is emptiness and emptiness is (matter rupa = sunyata) had a similar purpose, but its meaning was slightly different. There, the equation was made to demonstrate the paradoxical non-dual nature of intuitive wisdom. For Nagarjuna, the formula dependent arising = emptiness was meant to be taken literally. One must not lean to either side of the equation; over-emphasizing dependent arising or being would lead to a sort of positivism, and too much stress on emptiness or non-being could engender nihilism. This equation must be carefully explained. If the declaration that dependent arising is identical with emptiness or that being is identical with non-being is not properly understood, then it would seem to be, in Nagao's words, "the raving of a madman."

    Note: Nagao 1989, 9
(emptiness of the duality dependent-arising-and-emptiness)
If things were not empty, then they could in no way arise, dependently or otherwise. Conversely, if things arise, they could in no way have a self- nature. Both being and non-being are real in one sense; there is being, for things do arise, even if but phenomenally. That the chain of arising has, not one, or two, but twelve links of existential causality demonstrates the at-least-partial reality of being. However, as these things are not absolutely real but have not always existed and will one day cease to exist, they are non-being. This idea of non-being is not a nothingness, for it does not deny that things do, in some way, exist. Rather, non-being is the denial of an essential self-nature in things. From another angle, being and non-being are unreal concepts which can only exist dependently. They are thus empty, devoid of any independent definition.
Note: Thus is the foundation and explanation of the wonderful outlook of Zen, which manages to teach the utter purposelessness and futility of all things and yet at the same time to find in that meaninglessness of life the very motivation for joy, humor, love, and compassion. Cf., for example, Alan Watts, "The Secret of Zen," in The Spirit of Zen (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1960), 46-64

This equal status of each half of the dependent arising/emptiness equation is reflected in the status of the two truths. Ultimate truth is no more real than conventional truth, but is just a different way of looking at the same thing. They are each truth, even though their verdicts conflict, and neither level of truth could exist alone. Without relying upon conventional truth, ultimate truth is not taught, Nagarjuna said, and without the existence of a higher truth, there could be no such thing as Perfect Wisdom and knowledge of emptiness. Conventional truth is that things arise, endure, and cease, and are thus real. Ultimate truth is that, as transitory phenomena, things are empty of self-nature, and are thus unreal. Each one of these statements is true, and neither should be asserted to the exclusion of the other, else either positivism or nihilism would result.

A final reason that the formula dependent arising = emptiness must be clearly understood is that it may seem, prima facie, to evidence a contradiction in Madhyamika philosophy. The relation between things has been demonstrated to be neither one of identity nor one of difference. A is not B, nor is A not not B. Yet, Nagarjuna here appears to be declaring an identity relation. The resolution of this discrepancy is that the equation is not one of simple identity. Neither dependent arising nor emptiness has a nature which can relate to something else; neither has any form of real existence. Thus, their relation, as well as their own nature, is empty and indefinable. They are equal only in the fact that neither has self- nature. The formula is a practical guide, not a dictum of logic.


Though dependent arising and emptiness, cataphaticism and apophaticism, are said to be equally valid and important, Nagarjuna understood that there is still a tendency for spiritually insecure, unenlightened individuals to reify emptiness and become distressed thereby. In a further attempt to prevent this, he offered yet another reason why dependent arising must be seen as empty.
    An opponent, misunderstanding the meaning and use of emptiness, may object that the concept undercuts the entire Buddhist philosophy and path. If all is empty, the opponent objects, there exists no dependent arising, and the four Noble Truths, the teaching of the Buddha, the community of monks, and the Buddha himself are invalidated. "Speaking in this manner about emptiness, you contradict the three jewels [Buddha, his Law, and his community], as well as the reality of the fruits, both good and bad, and all worldy conventions," charges the opponent.
Note: karika XXIV.6
    On the contrary, responds Nagarjuna, it is the opponent's theory of self- nature that contradicts all of these things. It is the philosophy of emptiness that makes possible causality, the Buddha's teaching and the Buddhist path, all change and growth, and nirvana itself. It is only the fact that things do not have an immutable essence and identity that makes them able to change, interact, and condition new events. Further, it is only the fact that the defilements and suffering are empty of self-nature that makes them susceptible to eradication. If there were self- nature in things, then defilements would be eternal and suffering inescapable. Emptiness is thus not only the description of dependently arisen things nor only the nature of the process of dependent arising itself. Rather, emptiness is the very thing which makes dependent arising and hence the entire phenomenal world possible. Thus, whatever one's attitude towards the world, emptiness is a positive theory. If one dislikes the world, it is emptiness which makes it possible to change the world or escape from it. If one likes the world, it is emptiness which allowed it to come into being. Later Mahayana philosophy used emptiness as a springboard for its very positive doctrines of Love and Compassion, declaring that, only after the world is negated and selflessness is seen, can one truly empathize with the plight of one's fellow humans and desire earnestly to help them.
    Note: Nagao 1991, 49. Cf. also 33-34

Emptiness is a Theory of No-Theory

One of the more disturbing results of the doctrine of emptiness is that it would seem to deny the possibility of enlightenment. It is relatively easy to accept the position that all existent, mundane, and hence unpleasant things are empty, for one can still hope for a pleasant enlightenment or, in certain types of Buddhism, afterlife. If, as Nagarjuna claims, all things, both worldly as well as transcendent, are empty, then how can one retain hope and aspire to the ultimate goal of freedom, nirvana? In response to one who expresses such concerns, Nagarjuna says that
    "you do not comprehend the purpose of emptiness.
    As such, you are tormented by emptiness and the meaning of emptiness."
    Note: karika XXIV.7
There are two significances implied by this statement of Nagarjuna.
    • One, there is a meaning of emptiness besides the obvious one of lack of self- nature.
    • Two, the concept has a pragmatic value as well as a logical one.
  • The former, the fact that emptiness has a greater meaning, was already discussed. This meaning is that, besides referring merely to the lack of essential reality in things, emptiness also betokens the potential of things to interact and change, to arise and cease. Reality is not "nothingness," but an indefinable mix of being and nonbeing and both and neither.
      Note: The reader's patience is requested in this improper and perhaps misleading continual use of the term "reality." No alternatives were found.
  • The latter, the pragmatic value of emptiness, is that it prescribes a method by which unpleasantries can be appeased.
    • Suffering is caused by dispositions, desires, expectations, and graspings, all of which in turn are caused by an improper understanding of the world and the way things are.
    • If one comprehends emptiness, one ceases to cling to desires, for the things one would desire are shown to be empty and thus not desirable;
    • one would cease to grasp and cling, for the pleasant things which one would want to hold on to are seen as unreal;
    • one would cease to form false theories and concepts about reality, for the theory of emptiness precludes the tendency to theorize;
    • one would not entertain false hopes for a concrete afterlife and a real Savior-figure, for the Buddha and his teachings are both seen as provisional;
    • and, finally, one would have an incentive to appease suffering, for, being empty, suffering is susceptible to change and, hence, can be vanquished.
    The pragmatic function of emptiness is intimately tied to its non-theoretical nature. Part of the nature of nirvana is the appeasement of the tendency to theorize excessively and grasp onto theories. It is thus crucial to make as clear as possible, before examining nirvana, the anti-theoretical character of emptiness
    • From the standpoint of conventional truth, emptiness is the declaration that dependently arisen things have no independent identity. They are "the empty."
    • From the standpoint of ultimate truth, emptiness is the description of all things, events, processes, and life-forms as having no real existence. All is "emptiness." Both "the empty" and "emptiness" are descriptions, not attributes. A thing or event does not partake of emptiness, but rather, since it assuredly does not partake of self-nature, it is described as empty. "'Empty,' 'non-empty,' 'both,' or 'neither' — -these should not be declared," Nagarjuna explains. They "are expressed only for the purpose of communication."
Note: karika XXII.11
The true reality, the "suchness" (tathata) of the cosmos, must be seamless.
    Conceptualizing it imposes artificial divisions and distinctions on that which is undivided. Notions like existence or nonexistence, self-nature or other- nature, emptiness or fullness, are wholly improper. There are times, however, when one would wish to refer to this "suchness." No manner of speaking or means of cognizing is proper, but, in light of the inveterate tendency of humans to seek and grasp onto supposed positive notions like "soul" and "existence," the most proper designation is a negative one.
    Nagarjuna therefore uses such a notion as a means of communication only. This is referred to, in the Buddhist tradition, as "skillful means" (upaya), the ability of a teacher to tailor his or her speech and philosophical system to the ears and understanding of his or her audience.
Note: Williams, 143
    The teacher communicates thoughts and formulates theories only insofar as they would be helpful to the student. This was Nagarjuna's intent in expounding the idea of emptiness; it is a useful way of speaking, for it is less misleading than ideas like "God" or "permanency," but it still has no ultimate applicability.
Nagarjuna's use of emptiness as a "skillful means" has a specific function and purpose.
    One of the chief causes of bondage is, not so much the faculty of conceptualization, but rather the propensity to grasp onto the products of that faculty. The rational nature, like the dispositions Nagarjuna discussed in section seven of the karika, has a value. Concepts are an important and necessary tool to be used in ordering one's world and acting within it. The problem is that rational creatures, be they humans or Gods, tend to ascribe excessive validity to these concepts.
    This is done for two reasons.
    • One is ignorance: the rational creature does not know or ignores the fact that his or her mental nature is only a tool and has limited applicability.
    • The other, and perhaps foundational, reason that sentient creatures cling to the mental processes is desire. Desiring pleasure, the mind reifies the apparently pleasurable things in the hope of thereby possessing them and preventing them from ceasing. Fearing death, the individual reifies the apparent existence of life itself and thereby acts with excessive and unjustified selfishness.
    Note: The Buddha did uphold the importance of self-preservation, not because the self is real, but only out of compassion — -compassion for oneself as well as compassion for others. Self-preservation must be tempered by "other-preservation."

    The Buddha taught that these two tendencies, desire and the faith in the results of mentation, are, indirectly, the cause of bondage.
      "Desire, know I thy root," he is reported to have said.
      "From conception thou springest;
      No more shall I indulge in conception;
      I will have no desire any more."
      Note: quoted in Candrakirti's Prasannapada, quoted in Murti 1960, 223 (samkalpa translated as "conception." Cf. Monier- Williams, 1126)
There are, as explained, two significances of the notion of emptiness.
  • One is simply that, when one is enlightened, one sees things as empty. It is not a concept, but an observation.
  • The other significance is the pragmaticone.

  • As a "skillful means," emptiness is an antidote to an excessive emphasis on mentation. Having demonstrated that all things are empty, Nagarjuna explains that it is pointless to hypostatize anything. "When all things are empty, why [speculate on] the finite, the infinite, both…, and neither…? Why [speculate on] the identical, the different, the eternal, the non-eternal, both, or neither?" Note: karika XXV.22-23
    Emptiness, as a concept, acts as an antidote to this misuse of the rational faculty in two ways.
    • One, if all things are empty, then no speculation is worthwhile. Excessive belief in concepts is misguided and, ultimately, debilitating, for it distracts one from the proper path, which is tranquillity and appeasement of desires.
    • The other use of the concept of emptiness is a positive one. The neophyte who has not developed the Perfect Wisdom which allows him or her to see all things as empty may need to use concepts as a temporary guide. The mind, by its very nature, needs to think. The trained mind can dwell in peaceful wisdom (prajna), but the untrained one needs a system to direct its thoughts properly. The theory of emptiness can act as an object for contemplation, an abstraction on which meditation can be focused. Once the mind in training achieves perfect wisdom, then even the notion of emptiness itself must be abandoned. In this context, the notion has pragmatic value only; it is like, in Streng's words, "a phantom destroying another phantom."
      Note: Streng, 92 Once the phantom of real existence has been appeased, then the phantom of empty existence must also be released.
That Nagarjuna's philosophy is a middle path must be kept in mind to understand properly the function of emptiness as a concept. Madhyamika is, obviously, not a philosophy that declares there to be a real structure in the universe which can be defined in rational formulas, so emptiness is clearly not a positive theory. Neither is Madhyamika a nihilism, so
  • Nagarjuna is not advocating the destruction of concepts or the stifling of ratiocination.
  • The middle path rather advocates the appeasement of conceptualization.
  • Thoughts have a certain function — -they are useful and necessary in relation to the mundane world — -but they must not be applied to ultimate truth; they must be appeased.
  • The point of the idea of emptiness, Nagarjuna says, is "the relinquishing of all views." Note: karika XIII.8
    This pragmatic function of emptiness for Nagarjuna is indicated by the fact that he did not devote a section of his karika to it; if emptiness were a description of Ultimate Reality, or if it were an absolute concept, then he certainly would have explained it more fully. What he does devote a section to (section XXIV, "On Truth") is an explanation that emptiness is, not a nihilism or an Ultimate Reality, but only the principle of relativity and the best description of conditioned things.
    Note: Sprung, in translating the Prasannapada, wrote that the term sunyata should be read as "the absence of both being and non-being in things." Sprung, 13 (italics mine)
Nagarjuna's philosophy of emptiness, no matter how clear and precise, still could never prevent all misunderstanding. C. W. Huntington points out the dangers of misconceiving it with the following example: Buddhist teachers often remind their students that while mistaken beliefs concerning the mundane are relatively easy to correct, like dousing a fire with water, if one reifies the notion of emptiness, then it is as if the water intended to extinguish the blaze has itself caught fire. Note: Huntington, 22
    To reify the concept of emptiness is a blatant error, for it is an idea whose function is to prevent reification of concepts. "Those who are possessed of the view of emptiness [as a theory] are said to be incorrigible," Nagarjuna wrote. Note: karika XIII.8
    To hypostatize emptiness would be both ridiculous and an insult to the Buddha's doctrine. It would be ridiculous because emptiness is not a thought but the absence of thoughts, not a theory but a criticism of theorizing. Candrakirti demonstrates the absurdity of reifying emptiness by saying that it would be like one person saying to another "I have no wares to sell you," and the other person responding "give me what you call those 'no wares.'"
Note: Prasannapada, in Sprung, 150
    Since emptiness is not a thing, it cannot be thought of in positive terms. It is nothing more than a lack of theories, not a theory itself.
    Note: In the Vigrahavyavartani, verse 29, Nagarjuna writes: "If I were to advance any proposition whatsoever, from that I would incur error. On the contrary, I advance no proposition. Therefore, I incur no error. " (pratijna translated as "proposition." Cf. Monier-Williams 664)

Emptiness Is Freedom Itself

The relationship between the anti-theoretical function of emptiness and freedom, nirvana, is quite close.
    • Thoughts are useful, but the results of these thoughts, namely concepts , are not ultimately real.
    • Similarly, desires and dispositions have a specific function, for they assist the individual in acting in and interacting with his or her world, 
    • but, if too much emphasis is placed on any of these, i.e. thoughts, desires, or dispositions, then one will hold a false view of the world.
    • This will lead to desiring and grasping onto things which do not exist,
    • which, finally, will bind one to the phenomenal cycle of birth-and-death.
    • Enlightenment is achieved when the true nature of things as transitory and as having no real self-nature is seen, understood, and accepted.
    • Nirvana is nothing more than the "blowing out" of false thoughts and their concomitant desires.
    This may seem to be a surprisingly simplistic account of the way to achieve enlightenment. Nagarjuna would say that, yes, it may seem simplistic. And it is. There is no transcendent realm that must be discovered, no ultimate knowledge that must be obtained, no psychic or spiritual powers that must be won. To become free, one need do no more than release, or appease, the things onto which one is grasping and see reality as it truly is, as it always has been.
Nagarjuna discussed four stages in explaining the cause of bondage and the way to release :
  • 1) "Those who are of little intelligence, who perceive the existence as well as the non-existence of [things …], do not perceive the appeasement of the object, the auspicious."
Note: karika V.8
      Nagarjuna has here referred to appeasing "things" because this quote is the conclusion to section five, the examination of the material elements. The formula is identical, though, with the appeasement of dispositions and thoughts, of things as well as sentient creatures. As long as one obstinately clings to thoughts of existence and non- existence, one will never see the way things truly are, which does not fall into either category. Until one sees things and individuals as empty, one can never release the binding forces.
  • 2) "From the appeasement of the modes of self and self-hood, one abstains from creating the notions of 'mine' and 'I'.'"
Note: karika XVIII.2
      One of the words for ego is ahamkara, which means, literally, "I-making." (The word ``ego'' in Greek means nothing more than ``I.'') Self-hood is not a really-existing thing, for the nature of reality does not allow for permanency and individuality. An individual is "in-dividual:" it is the monad which cannot be further reduced into constituent elements. Such a monad must, by definition, have self- nature, or it would be neither definable in independence nor be enduring. Since such a monad could not exist, there can be no such thing as an in-dividual.
  • 3) "When views pertaining to 'mine' and 'I' …have waned, then grasping comes to cease. With the waning of [grasping], there is waning of birth."
Note: karika XVIII.4
      It is the false belief in a real ego that underlies and creates all problems. The self does exist in a conventional way, for the five aggregates have come together to form a temporary composite. However, to believe that this self is ultimately real or will endure will cause one to grasp onto pleasant things and avoid unpleasant ones, both of which will bind one to the cycle of repeated deaths. To escape rebirth, one need only appease the views pertaining to "mine" and "I."
  • 4) "On the waning of defilements of action, there is release. Defilements of action belong to one who discriminates, and these in turn result from obsession. Obsession, in its turn, ceases within the context of emptiness."
Note: karika XVIII.5
      When one ceases to desire for and grasp onto things and concepts, nirvana follows. Why the five aggregates came together to produce the illusion of self-hood in the first place is not entirely clear, and a comprehensive answer to that question can never be known. What is clear is that, having come together, the notion of self-hood arises. This self is real, in a limited way. Without the benefit of wisdom, however, this self-hood reflects on its existence and believes itself to be real and permanent, and it begins to seek pleasure and avoid pain. One of the primary ways it continues to fool itself is through the use of concepts. It reifies notions like mine, existence, and possession. The teaching of emptiness allows it to see the impossibility of real possession, the lack of an essential nature within itself, and the empty relativity of all dependently arisen things. The notion of emptiness allows it to extinguish its false notions. The self is not completely extinguished, for the limited existence that it does have is true. What is extinguished is defiling passion, any expectation of permanency, and excessive "selfishness."
To summarize, the four stages are as follows :
    • 1) ignorance causes one to reify things and the self;
    • 2) appeasing the thought of self-hood puts an end to the process of "I-making;"
    • 3) when the ego is appeased, grasping is released, and rebirth ends;
    • 4) with the waning of grasping and dispositions and the cessation of transmigration, freedom is won.
    These four steps delineate both how belief in the self comes to be, i.e. through ignorant perceptions of existence and non-existence, and how freedom can be realized, i.e. through a proper perception of emptiness. It would be a mistake to see this process as a linear one. In the form Nagarjuna presents it, ignorance causes bondage and wisdom releases one from it. This is only one way to understand the process, for wisdom does not necessarily follow the release of dispositions; looked at from the other direction, it is wisdom which allows one to release the dispositions in the first place. The whole process must be seen as one whose elements dependently arise.
Perfect wisdom, the insight of emptiness, provides one with a certain sort of power — -not power to make, but power to refrain from making.
Note: Streng, 159
    It is ignorance that causes one to construct dispositions and passionate desires, and so, indirectly, it is ignorance which has the power of bringing the entire phenomenal world into manifest existence. Wisdom provides one with the power to appease this process and release the world. Lest this sound like an inversion of good and evil, it must be pointed out that the power of ignorance is not a real power, for the world it brings into existence is but a phantom. Similarly, the function of wisdom as extinguishing the world is not a negative one, for wisdom merely causes the phenomenal world to revert to its truest state.
The function of the conceptualizing faculty has a broader impact than merely creating false views about self-hood. The faculty of thought is that which applies distinctions to the perceived cosmos, which differentiates between subject and object, noun and verb, past and future, motion and rest, and any such dualities. Nagarjuna says that "when the sphere of thought has ceased, that which is to be designated also has ceased."
Note: karika XVIII.7
    It is thus the sphere of thought which, in a way similar to the Idealism of Berkeley or Bradley, creates the observed world and, in a way similar to the Sapir-Whorf linguistic hypothesis, defines the elements of that world. Nagarjuna says that the truest description of reality, i.e. the world as it is without the hypostatized notions of the ignorant mind, is "independently realized, peaceful, unobsessed by obsessions, without discriminations and a variety of meanings."
Note: karika XVIII.9
    The character of reality is not differentiated ; all divisions are artificial and imposed by the mind. Without the passionate clinging of the unenlightened mind, the best possible description of this reality is that it is at peace and restful. There is process and flux, for elements continue to arise and cease dependently. Without the imposition of the insecure mind, though, this process is undisturbed by obsessions. Moreover, were the insecure mind not to attribute essences to the process and its products, there would not even be a need to refer to them as "empty."
    When one's dispositions and obsessions are extinguished, one sees this nature of reality as it is, i.e. empty, undifferentiated, and undisturbed. Since self-hood is no longer reified, the tranquillity of the world becomes the tranquillity of the individual, and nirvana can be described in very positive terms indeed. An early scripture says that the individual who has appeased ideas, false views, and passions "enters the glorious city of Nirvana, stainless and undefiled, secure and calm and happy, and his mind is emancipated as a perfected being."
Note: Milindapanha, quoted in Embree, 114
    Nirvana is not happy etc. by its nature; since it is not a thing, no adjectives can be applied to it. Rather, since the status of the unenlightened person is suffering, the release of suffering is, subjectively, pleasant. Similarly, nirvana is not calm by its nature; since the flux of elements is a non-real and empty one, it can be described as peaceful. Though nirvana is said to be empty, this apparently negative term is actually the foundation for the most positive of descriptions.
No matter how much one may stress that nirvana is not a thing but is a lack of thing- ness, there is much likelihood that unenlightened people would think of it as a concrete goal or a tangible heaven. Seeing nirvana in this way would be yet another false concept and form of grasping, and would erect yet another obstacle to freedom. To preclude this possibility, Nagarjuna enunciated what could perhaps be the most controversial verse in the karika: "The life-process (samsara) has no thing that distinguishes it from freedom (nirvana). Freedom has no thing that distinguishes it from the life- process."
Note: karika XXV.19
    The term used to refer to the life- process, samsara, can be translated as "wandering" or "transmigration." It is a term for the cycle of birth-and-death in its imprisoning, pre-enlightenment aspect. To say that the world of suffering is identical with the highest and most honored of goals of Buddhism would seem to be flagrant blasphemy.
    There are two main significances of Nagarjuna's equating the life-process with freedom,
    • one theoretical and one practical.
  • First, it is only blasphemy from the standpoint of essentialism. If there is a self- nature in either, then the two would assuredly be different. Bondage, as a real thing, would have to be broken free from, and enlightenment, as a true state, would have to be achieved. However, the refutation of self-nature applies to these notions as well; both are empty. Nirvana and the phenomenal world do not exist, as such. They only are separate due to their being differentiated and named by the hypostatizing mind.
Note: Streng, 45
    The tendency to see them as concrete things actually would deny a person the possibility of ever releasing one and obtaining the other. If the life-process had a self- nature, and if one were bound within that life-process, then one could never leave. Similarly, if nirvana were a real attribute of which the unenlightened individual were not yet partaking, and if it had an essence, then it could never be achieved. It is only because both nirvana and the life-process are empty that they can be said to be identical. Again, Nagarjuna's attitude towards identity and difference must be kept in mind to prevent a misunderstanding of this equation. In saying that they are identical, he is not saying that they have an identity-relation, for neither has an essence which can relate. Rather, as empty, they can each be said to lack self-nature, and are identical in that neither is real. This relation is made clear in the discussion of the nature of the Buddha in section twenty-two. "Whatever is the self-nature of the Tathagata, that is also the self- nature of the universe," Nagarjuna says. The two are equal because and only because "the Tathagata is devoid of self-nature. This universe is also devoid of self-nature."
    Note: karika XXII.16
  • The pragmatic value of equating nirvana and the cycle of birth-and-death is that it demonstrates the attainability of enlightenment. Freedom and bondage are not identifiable things with separate and distinct spheres of influence. To borrow a simplistic view of theism, if the world comprised one plane and freedom another, transcendent one, then the feasibility of escaping one and attaining the other would be highly suspect. Nagarjuna's declaration that freedom is the world and the world is freedom demonstrates that enlightenment is readily at hand. One need do no more than shift one's perceptions to find it.
    • The unpleasant world is one constructed through ignorance and grasping dispositions.
    • The pleasant (or not-unpleasant) world is found simply by understanding the meaning of emptiness and ceasing to reify the phenomenal one.
    • Seen from the conventional or unenlightened vantage point, the cosmos is a cycle of birth-and-death characterized by suffering.
    • Seen from the vantage point of wisdom or of ultimate truth, the cosmos is an ever-flowing, ever-changing empty process.
    Note: Cf. Nagao 1991, 177-179
The notion of emptiness may, at first, seem negative and limiting. It seems to deny the cosmos the option of having existence, of being real. When comprehended properly, though, the paradox of emptiness is seen as the most liberating of all possible teachings. In teaching that the self is empty and that the universe is empty, it demonstrates that both are one and the same, and that their distinction was based on nothing more than obscured understanding. The limitations caused by the notion of self-hood are destroyed. The true nature of the enlightened one is seen to be the true nature of the universe, for both are empty. In enlightenment, one becomes the universe.
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