Thinking in Buddhism:
Nagarjuna's Middle Way
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:
- the refutation of self-nature
- the examination of dependent
arising pratitya samutpada),
- and the teaching of emptiness
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
"I salute him, the
fully-enlightened, the best of speakers,
Note: karika, introductory verses
who preached the non-ceasing
and the non-arising,
the non- annihilation and
the non-identity and the
the non-appearance and the
the dependent arising,
the appeasement of obsessions
and the auspicious."
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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:
- the character of svabhava as necessarily
non-made and independent (karika XV.1-3),
- the fact that svabhava cannot be related
to thoughts of existence or non-existence (XV.4-5, 8-11),
- 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
A brief discussion of the history of
the concept, reasons for its assertion, and its significance needs to be
taken up now
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.
. 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
- a) those of orthodox
- 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)
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.
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
The "Materialist" philosophies
of the early classical period (2)
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
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-
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
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.
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
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."
, 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
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
, 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.,
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
- 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
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.
A few hundred years after the Buddha's
- 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.
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
- other-nature (
It was in response to these
insidious heresies that Nagarjuna formulated his refutation of the two.
The Realists (4.1)
- 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.
reduced all phenomena to ultimate atomistic
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
- 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
- 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,
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
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,"
intended to reject the heresies of the Realists
and return to the original Buddhism as found in the earliest scriptures.
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.
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.
(A. IT WOULD BE CONTRARY TO
BUDDHA'S TEACHING — IT IS A MISTAKE)
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.
(B. IT CONDUCT TO CONTRADICTION)
The self-nature of a thing is
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
- and it must be enduring
- 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
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."
(C. IT IS
NOT SEEN BY BUDDHAS AND BODHISATTVAS)
Note: karika I.3 The
, with all of his perspicacity and philosophical acuity,
who was "adept in existence as well as in non-existence,"
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,
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.
IT WOULD LEAD TO IMMORALITY)
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
- 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.
IT WOULD BE IMCOMPATIBLE WITH CAUSATION, AND THE PATH)
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.
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
- 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
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
- 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
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
- In its most
abstract form (i), the theory
"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.
(SHORT RESUME : NO EXTERNAL LAW, NO SELF-NATURE)
- 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
- 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.
(DON'T GET FOOLED BY ITS SUPERFICIAL LOOK)
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
- 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
- Reincarnation is similarly solved with no recourse
to atman-theories. Death is conditioned by birth, which is in turn conditioned
- 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
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.
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
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
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
The result of this interpretation
of dependent arising is that
- the elements are "empty;" as
they are not real and are without
concepts, too, are unreal.
Note: Santina, 12
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
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
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"
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],"
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,"
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
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."
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
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
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.
and cessation are "an illusion, a dream."
Note: karika VII.33-34
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
What he is
denying, then, are the very notions of existence or non- existence
Note: David Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (Boston: Shambhala,
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
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."
A key to understanding Nagarjuna's distinction
between reifying the elements versus seeing only the process is the
- From the standpoint of conventional
truth, arising, enduring, and ceasing
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
(FROM THE FIRST IDEA OF EMPTINESS)
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.
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
(TO SOME RESTRICTION IN ITS USE — AND THEN FALLING ON OLD HABITS)
Notwithstanding, the concept was not original
The term "sunyata" appears a few places
in the Pali Canon, but only
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,
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.
(TO SOME CORRECTION OF THIS MISTAKE — AND GENERALIZATION)
The Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) school
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.
(BUT NOT TOO FAR)
Taken far enough, the mystical Perfection of Wisdom insight into emptiness
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)
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
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),
(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."
(DANGER WITH THE EMPTINESS CONCEPT)
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,
- 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
(JUST A SKILFUL MEANS)
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
- as well, and thereby to deny the
essential reality of even relative dualities.
Emptiness as a Via Negativa, a Way of Negation
(IMPORTANCE — AND REJECTION OF NIHILLISM)
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."
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
The act of negation itself proves the existence of the negator, one could
(ORDINARY WAYS OF NEGATING — TAKING SIDE IN THE DUALITY)
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
Note: Chandogya Upanisad, quoted in Ainslee T. Embree, ed., Sources
of Indian Tradition, volume one (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988),
- 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
(AN ALTERNATIVE TO ELIMINATION OR TO TAKING SIDE : TRANSCENDENCE)
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.
(USING EMPTINESS AS A MEAN TO TRANSCEND ANY DUALITY — LEAVING NONE
OF THE PROBLEMS OF EITHER SIDE)
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
"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.
(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
"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
(NOT REJECTING OR ELIMINATING ANY SIDE — ALL IS EQUAL)
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."
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.'"
(EMPTINESS OF EMPTINESS)
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 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
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,
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,
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.
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]."
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
(NOT A SIMPLE NEGATION)
(BOTH NEED TO BE UNDERSTOOD : EMPTINESS AND CAUSE & EFFECT /
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."
(BEYOND BEING AND NON-BEING)
(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
(WE SHOULD LOOK AT THEM AS ONE IMPLYING THE OTHER (as with any duality)
DEPENDENT ARISING <==> EMPTINESS)
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."
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
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
- and, finally, one would have an incentive to appease suffering,
for, being empty, suffering is susceptible to change and, hence, can be
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
- 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."
true reality, the "suchness" (tathata) of the cosmos, must be seamless
Note: karika XXII.11
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
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
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.
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
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
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."
That Nagarjuna's philosophy
is a middle path
Note: Streng, 92 Once the phantom of real existence has been appeased,
then the phantom of empty existence must also be released.
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
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
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
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,
Since emptiness is not a thing, it cannot be thought of in positive
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
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
- 2) "From the appeasement of the modes of
self and self-hood, one abstains from creating the notions of 'mine' and
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
To summarize, the four stages are as follows
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."
- 1) ignorance causes one to reify things and the self;
- 2) appeasing the thought of self-hood puts an end to the process
- 3) when the ego is appeased, grasping is released, and rebirth
- 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
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
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
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
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
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."
- 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
- 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.