The Emptiness of Emptiness

The Madhyamika, or “Middle Way,” School of Mahayana was founded by Nagarjuna, who lived sometime during 150-250 C.E. ... [Since] Nagarjuna does not mention any Mahayana sutras, nor does he even use the word Mahayana, some scholars have doubted that he was a Mahayanist. However, his views are so close to those expressed in the Perfection of Wisdom Literature that most consider him part of the Mahayana movement.
          Nagarjuna taught that people are caught in duhkha and the samsaric chain of rebirth because of the power of karma that arises from unwholesome thoughts, words, and deeds that are motivated by negative mental dispositions. ... But the key question for Nagarjuna was, from where do these mental defilements come? The answer for Nagarjuna is that this negative condition is produced by the way people “conceive of” the world in which they live. People misconceive the world, and their “wrong views” lead them to misbehave in ways that bind them to a life of duhkha. ... He proposed that when one conceives such entities as an agent of action or a dharmic element, one ordinarily assumes that these entities exist as discrete and independent. ... This assumption of the substantial independence of phenomena is always at work in the human mind, determining how people experience life. By a person’s ordinary linguistic use of concepts that imply the existence of independent substantial entities, one actually experiences things as existing independently ... [which] keeps one from seeing that all things are really dependently arisen, they have no “own-being,” or substantial independent nature. With this incorrect view of life, Nagarjuna says, one becomes attached to things in ways that produce the negative dispositions and mental defilements that, in turn, produce duhkha. ...
The Problem of “Own-Being”

The Abhidharma schools analyzed reality in ways that expanded on the teachings of the Buddha. Their analysis focused on what they considered the fundamental constituents of reality, namely, the dharmas (Pali: dhammas). These primary elements are either material (rupa) or nonmaterial (arupa). ... Most Abhidharma philosophers considered these elementary factors of existence [i.e. the dharmas] to be like psychic and somatic “events” that exist only for a few moments in the processes of life. ... In the doctrine of momentaryness, it is claimed by most Abhidharma schools that even through the elements of existence are momentary events, they are each essentially self-existing. That is, they are said to have svabhava, or “own being,” that enables them each to exist. ... Thus, the popular Abhidharma view of existence was one of radical pluralistic realism. In other words, the world is constituted by many mental and physical elements or events that are real, self-existing, momentary, unique, and distinct from one another. (BIBE, 149-51)

The Pudgalavadins claimed the existence of a “person” (pudgala) despite the Buddha’s denial of an “eternal soul” (atman).
(cf. BIBE, 154-5)

The Sarvastivadins denied the existence of a “self,” but insisted on the existence of 75 dharmas (eternally existing, non-changing elements of existence that have svabhava or “own-being”).
(cf. BIBE, 152)


... What Nagarjuna did in his writings was to use a very sophisticated logical analysis of concepts such as causality, perception, motion, agency, selfhood, and elements of existence in order to show that any assumption of there being independent entities involved in these phenomena leads to absurd conclusions. Using the logical method of reductio ad absurdum (prasanga), Nagarjuna deconstructed the ordinary way or conceiving of reality. In so doing, he proposes that the Buddha teaches the correct view of life, namely that things are what they are because of the relatedness of life, their dependent arising. If things, including the dharmas, arise dependently, then they cannot be independent entities. Because they exist in function of dependent relatedness, they are “empty” of own-being; they are nothing by themselves. This does not mean that things do not exist or that processes like motion and perception do not take place. It just means that this movement, action, or perception does not imply the interaction of any substantially independent entities. Instead, existence, movement, action, and perception take place because of a relational matrix of dependent arising. ... With this wisdom insight into emptiness, one’s attachment to things and the negative mental formations that result in unwholesome thoughts, words, and actions are also brought to an end. This freedom results in the cessation of duhkha and the attainment of Nirvana. (BIBE, 156-60)
On the Four Noble Truths
Chapter 24

An Opponent Argues

1. If everything is empty, there can be no arising or passing away, and it follows that the Four Noble Truths [which involve the arising and passing away of suffering] do not exist.

2. And because the Four Noble Truths do not exist, there can be no understanding [of the truth of suffering], no abandonment [of the cause of suffering], no practice [of the Path], no realization [of nirvana].

3. Nor, without these, can there be any knowledge of the four fruits [of the Path: stream-winner, once-returner, nonreturner, and arhatship]; and without these, there can be no individuals who are established in the four fruits, and none who are on the four paths toward them.

4. And if these eight kinds of individuals do not exist, there can be no sangha. And since the Four Noble Truths do not exist either, no true Dharma can be found.

5. And if neither the sangha nor the Dharma exists, how can there be a Buddha? Thus, in speaking of emptiness, you contradict the Three Jewels [Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha].

6. And you deny the reality of the fruits, of good and bad, and of all worldly conventions.

Nagarjuna Replies

7. To this we say that you do not know what emptiness is all about. You are therefore distressed by emptiness and [what you wrongly see as the] implications of emptiness.

8. In teaching the Dharma, Buddhas resort to two truths: worldly conventional truth and ultimate truth.

9. Those who do not know the distinction between these two truths do not understand the deep reality in the Buddha’s Teaching.

10. The ultimate cannot be taught without resorting to conventions; and without recourse to the ultimate, one cannot reach nirvana.

18. Interdependent origination — that is what we call emptiness. That is a conventional designation. It is also the Middle Way.

19. There can be found no element of reality [dharma] that is not interdependently originated; therefore, there can be found no element of reality whatsoever that is not empty. (Experience of Buddhism, 159-60; cf. Original Buddhist Sources, 207-9)

...who’s the parasite?

On Nirvana

Chapter 25

An Opponent Argues

1. If everything is empty, there can be no arising or passing away; therefore, by what abandonment, by what cessation can nirvana be expected?

Nagarjuna Replies

6. [Nirvana is not a thing, for] if nirvana were a thing, how could it not be dependent on other things, for no independent thing has ever been found.

17. It is not asserted that the Blessed One exists after his passing away; nor is it asserted that he does not exist, that he both exists and does not exist, or that he neither exists nor does not exist.

18. Even while he is living, it is not asserted that the Blessed One exists; nor is it asserted that he does not exist, both exists and does not exist, or neither exists nor does not exist.

19. There is no distinction whatsoever between samsara and nirvana; and there is no distinction whatsoever between nirvana and samsara.

20. The limit of nirvana and the limit of samsara: one cannot find even the slightest difference between them.

21. Views about such things as the finitude or infinitude of the state coming after death, are related to the issue of nirvana having beginning and ending limits.

22. Given that all elements of reality are empty, what is infinite? What is finite? What is both finite and infinite? What is neither finite nor infinite?

23. What is just this? What is that other? What is eternal? What is noneternal? What is both eternal and noneternal? What is neither eternal nor noneternal?

24. Ceasing to fancy everything and falsely to imagine it as real is good; nowhere did the Buddha ever teach any such element of reality. (Experience of Buddhism, 161-2; cf. Original Buddhist Sources, 210-2)