Naagaarjuna, who lived in South India in approximately the first
century C.E., is undoubtedly the most important, influential, and widely studied
Mahaayaana Buddhist philosopher. He is the founder of the Maadhyamika, or Middle Path,
schools of Mahaayaana Buddhism. His considerable corpus includes texts addressed to lay
audiences, letters of advice to kings, and the set of penetrating metaphysical and
epistemological treatises that represent the foundation of the highly skeptical and
dialectical analytic philosophical school known as Maadhyamika. Most important of these is
his largest and best- known text, the Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa--in English, Fundamental
Stanzas on the Middle Way. This text in turn inspires a huge commentarial literature in
Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Divergences in interpretation of the
Muulamaadhyamikaakarikaa often determine the splits between major philosophical schools.
So, for instance, the distinction between two of the three major Mahaayaana philosophical
schools, Svaatantrika-Maadhyamika and Praasa^ngika-Maadhyamika, reflect, inter alia,
distinct readings of this text, itself taken as fundamental by scholars within each of
The treatise itself is composed in very terse, often cryptic verses,
with much of the explicit argument suppressed, generating significant interpretative
challenges. But the uniformity of the philosophical methodology and the clarity of the
central philosophical vision expressed in the text together provide a considerable?
fulcrum for exegesis. The central topic of the text is emptiness--the Buddhist technical
term for the lack of independent existence, inherent existence, or essence in things.
Naagaarjuna relentlessly analyzes phenomena or processes that appear to exist
independently and argues that they cannot so exist, and yet, though lacking the inherent
existence imputed to them either by naive common sense or by sophisticated, realistic
philosophical theory, these phenomena are not nonexistent--they are, he argues,
This dual thesis of the conventional reality of phenomena together with
their lack of inherent existence depends upon the complex doctrine of the two truths or
two realities---a conventional or nominal truth and an ultimate truth--and upon a subtle
and surprising doctrine regarding their relation. It is, in fact, this sophisticated
development of the doctrine of the two truths as a vehicle for understanding Buddhist
metaphysics and epistemology that is Naagaarjuna's greatest philosophical contribution. If
the analysis in terms of emptiness is the substantial heart of Muulamaadhyamikaarikaa. the
method of reductio ad absurdum is the methodological core.
Naagaarjuna, like Western skeptics, systematically eschews the defense
of positive metaphysical doctrines regarding the nature of things, demonstrating rather
that any such positive thesis is incoherent, and that in the end our conventions and our
conceptual framework can never be justified by demonstrating their correspondence to an
independent reality. Rather, he suggests, what counts as real depends precisely upon our
conventions.(1) For Naagaarjuna and his followers, this point is connected deeply and
directly with the emptiness of phenomena. That is, for instance, when a Madhyamika
philosopher says of a table that it is empty, that assertion by itself is incomplete. It
invites the question, "empty of what?" And the answer is: "empty of
inherent existence, or self-nature, or, in more Western terms, essence."
Now, to say that the table is empty is hence simply to say that it
lacks essence and, importantly, not to say that it is completely nonexistent. To say that
it lacks essence, the Madhyamika philosopher will explain, is to say, as the Tibetans like
to put it, that it does not exist "from its own side"---that its existence as
the object that it is, as a table, depends not only upon it or on any purely nonrelational
characteristics, but upon us as well. That is, if this kind of furniture had not evolved
in our culture, what appears to us to be an obviously unitary object might instead be
correctly described as five objects: four quite useful sticks absurdly surmounted by a
pointless slab of stick-wood waiting to be carved. It is also to say that the table
depends for its existence on its parts, on its causes, on its material, and so forth.
Apart from these, there is no table. The table, we might say, is a purely arbitrary slice
of space-time chosen by us as the referent of a single name, and not an entity demanding,
on its own, recognition and a philosophical analysis to reveal its essence. That
independent character is precisely what it lacks, on this view.
And this analysis in terms of emptiness--an analysis refusing to
characterize the nature of any thing, precisely because it denies that we can make sense
of the idea of a thing's nature--proceeding by the relentless refutation of any attempt to
provide such a positive analysis, is applied by Naagaarjuna to all phenomena, including,
most radically, emptiness itself. For if Naagaarjuna merely argued that all phenomena are
empty, one might justly indict him for in fact merely replacing one analysis of things
with another; that is, with arguing that emptiness is in fact the essence of all things.
But Naagaarjuna, as we shall see, argues that emptiness itself is empty. It is not a
self-existent void standing behind the veil of illusion represented by conventional
reality, but merely an aspect of conventional reality. And this, as we shall see, is what
provides the key to understanding the deep unity between the two truths. While Naagaarjuna
is a powerfully original thinker, he is clearly and self-consciously operating squarely
within the framework of Buddhist philosophy.
Therefore, Naagaarjuna accepts, and takes it as incumbent upon him, to
provide an account of the Four Noble Truths. Moreover, he takes it as a fundamental
philosophical task to provide an understanding of what Buddhist philosophy refers to as
pratiityasammutpaada--dependent co-origination. This term denotes the nexus between
phenomena in virtue of which events depend on other events, composites depend upon their
parts, and so forth. Just how this dependency is spelled out, and just what is its status
is a matter of considerable debate within Buddhist philosophy, just as the nature of
causation and explanation is a matter of great dispute within Western philosophy.
Naagaarjuna is very much concerned to stake out a radical and revealing position in this
debate. I will argue that this position provides the key to understanding his entire text.
The Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa is divided into twenty-seven chapters. The
first chapter addresses dependent origination. While many Western commentators assert that
this chapter opens the text simply because it addresses a "fundamental doctrine of
Buddhism" (Kalupahana 1986), I will argue that Naagaarjuna begins with causation for
deeper, more systematic reasons. In chapters 2 through 23, Naagaarjuna addresses a wide
range of phenomena, including external perceptibles, psychological processes, relations,
and putative substances and attributes, arguing that all are empty. In the final four
chapters, Naagaarjuna replies to objections and generalizes the particular analyses into a
broad theory concerning the nature of emptiness itself and the relation between the two
truths, emptiness and dependent arising itself. It is generally, and in my view correctly,
acknowledged that chapter 24, the examination of the Four Noble Truths, is the central
chapter of the text and the climax of the argument.
One verse of this chapter, verse 18, has received so much attention
that interpretations of it alone represent the foundations of major Buddhist schools in
East Asia: Whatever is dependently co-arisen That is explained to be emptiness. That,
being a dependent designation Is itself the middle way. Here Naagaarjuna asserts the
fundamental identity of (1) emptiness, or the ultimate truth, (2) the dependently
originated--that is, all phenomena--and (3) verbal convention. Moreover, he asserts that
understanding this relation is itself the middle-way philosophical view he articulates in
the Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa. This verse and the discussion in the chapters that follow
provide the fulcrum for Candrakiirti's more explicit characterization of the emptiness of
emptiness as an interpretation of Naagaarjuna's philosophical system--the interpretation
that is definitive of the Praasa^ngika-Maadhyamika school. In what follows I will provide
an interpretation of this central verse and its context that harmonizes with
Candrakiirti's and argue that, in fact, this doctrine is already to be found in the
opening chapter of the text--the examination of conditions.
Reading the text in this way, I will argue, locates the doctrine of the
emptiness of emptiness not only as a dramatic philosophical conclusion to be drawn at the
end of twenty-four chapters of argument, but as the perspective implicit in the argument
from the very beginning, and only rendered explicit in chapter 24. Reading the text in
this way, I will suggest, also shows us exactly how 24: 18 is to be understood, and just
why a proper understanding of causality is so central to Buddhist philosophy. I will begin
by offering a philosophical reading of chapter 1. I will argue that Naagaarjuna
distinguishes two possible views of dependent origination or the causal process--one
according to which causes bring about their effects in virtue of causal powers and one
according to which causal relations simply amount to explanatorily useful
regularities--and defends the latter.
This, I will argue, when suitably fleshed out, amounts to Naagaarjuna's
doctrine of the emptiness of causation. I will then turn immediately to chapter 24,
focusing on the link between emptiness, dependent origination, and convention, and
developing the theory of the emptiness of emptiness. With this in hand, we will return to
chapter 1, showing how this doctrine is anticipated in the initial discussion of
causation. Finally, I will show quickly how this way of reading the texts changes the way
we would read subsequent chapters, and I will make a few general remarks about the moral
of this textual exercise for an understanding of the centrality of causation to
metaphysics and for an understanding of the remarkably pragmatic outlook of Maadhyamika
2. Chapter 1--Examination of
Central to this first chapter is the distinction between causes and
conditions (Skt hetu and pratyaya [Tib rGyu and rKyen]. This distinction is variously
drawn and is controversial, (2) and is arguably differently understood in Sanskrit and
Tibetan. The way I will understand it here, I argue, makes good, coherent sense not only
of this chapter, but of the Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa as a whole. Briefly, we will
understand this distinction as follows: When Naagaarjuna uses the word "cause"
(hetu [rGyu]), he has in mind an event or state that has in it a power(kriyaa [Bya Ba]) to
bring about its effect, and has that power as part of its essence or nature (svabhaava
[Rang bZhin]). When he uses the term "condition," on the other hand (pratyaya
[rKyen]), he has in mind an event, state, or process that can be appealed to in explaining
another event, state, or process, without any metaphysical commitment to any occult
connection between explanandum and explanans. In chapter 1, Naagaarjuna, we shall see,
argues against the existence of causes and for the existence of a variety of kinds of
conditions.(3) The argument against causation is tightly intertwined with the positive
account of dependent arising and of the nature of the relation between conditions and the
conditioned. Naagaarjuna begins by stating the conclusion (1: 1): neither are entities
self-caused nor do they come to be through the power of other entities. That is, there is
no causation, when causation is thought of as involving causal activity.(4) Nonetheless,
he notes (1:2), there are conditions--in fact four distinct kinds-- that can be appealed
to in the explanation and prediction of phenomena. An example might be useful to
illustrate the difference between the four kinds of condition, and the picture Naagaarjuna
will paint of explanation. Suppose that you ask, "Why are the lights on?" I
might reply as follows: (1) Because I flicked the switch. I have appealed to an efficient
condition. Or (2) because the wires are in good working order, the bulbs haven't burned
out, and the electricity is flowing. These are supporting conditions. Or (3) the light is
the emission of photons each of which is emitted in response to the bombardment of an atom
by an electron, and so forth. I have appealed to a chain of immediate conditions. Or (4)
so that we can see. This is the dominant condition. Any of these would be a perfectly good
answer to the "Why?" question. But note that none of them makes reference to any
causal powers or necessitation. The next three verses are crucial. Naagaarjuna first notes
(1:3) that in examining a phenomenon and its relations to its conditions, we do not find
that phenomenon somehow contained potentially in those conditions. Now, on the reading of
this chapter, I will suggest, we can see conditions simply as useful explanans. Using this
language, we can see Naagaarjuna as urging that even distinguishing clearly between
explanans and explanandum as distinct entities, with the former containing potentially
what the latter has actually, is problematic. What we are typically confronted with in
nature is a vast network of interdependent and continuous processes, and carving out
particular phenomena for explanation or for use in explanations depends more on our
explanatory interests and language than on joints nature presents to us. Through
addressing the question of the potential existence of an event in its conditions,
Naagaarjuna hints at this concealed relation between praxis and reality. Next, Naagaarjuna
notes (1:4) that in exploiting an event or entity as a condition in explanation, we do not
thereby ascribe it any causal power. Our desire for light does not exert some occult force
on the lights. Nor is there anything to be found in the flicking of the switch other than
the plastic, metal, movement, and connections visible to the naked eye. Occult causal
powers are singularly absent. On the other hand, Naagaarjuna points out in the same breath
that this does not mean that conditions are explanatorily impotent. In a perfectly
ordinary sense--not that which the metaphysicians of causation have in mind---our desire
is active in the production of light. But not in the sense that it contains light
potentially, or some special causal power that connects our minds to the bulbs.(5) What is
it, then, about some sets of event pairs, but not others, that make them dependently
related, if not some causal link present in some cases but not in others? Naagaarjuna
replies (1: 5) that it is the regularities that count. Flickings give rise to
illuminations. So they are conditions of them. If they didn't, they wouldn't be. Period.
Explanation relies on regularities. Regularities are explained by reference to further
regularities. Adding active forces or potentials adds nothing of explanatory utility to
the picture.(6) In reading the next few verses we must be hermeneutically cautious, and
pay careful attention to Naagaarjuna's use of the term "existent" (satah [Yod
pa]) and its negative contrastive "nonexistent" (asatah [Med pal). For
Naagaarjuna is worried here about inherent existence and inherent nonexistence, as opposed
to conventional existence or nonexistence. Though this will become clearer as we go along,
keep in mind for the present that for a thing to exist inherently is for it to exist in
virtue of possessing an essence; for it to exist independently of other entities, and
independently of convention. For a thing to be inherently nonexistent is for it to not
exist in any sense at all--not even conventionally or dependently. With this in mind, we
can see how Naagaarjuna defends dependent arising while rejecting causation. He notes
(1:6) that if entities are conceived as inherently existent, they exist independently, and
hence need no conditions for their production. Indeed, they could not be produced if they
exist in this way. On the other hand, if things exist in no way whatsoever, it follows
trivially that they have no conditions. This verse and the several that follow (1:6-10)
make this point with regard to each of the four kinds of conditions. What is important
about this strand of the argument Naagaarjuna is drawing attention to the connection
between a causal-power view of causation and an essentialist view of phenomena on the one
hand, and between a condition view of dependent arising and a conventional view of
phenomena on the other. Here is the point: if one views phenomena as having and as
emerging from casual powers, one views them as having essences and as being connected to
the essences of other phenomena. This, Naagaarjuna suggests, is ultimately incoherent,
since it forces one at the same time to assert the inherent existence of these things, in
virtue of their essential identity, and to assert their dependence and productive
character, in virtue of their causal history and power. But such dependence and relational
character, he suggests, is incompatible with their inherent existence. If, on the other
hand, one regards things as dependent merely on conditions, one regards them as merely
conventionally existent. And to regard something as merely conventionally existent is to
regard it as without essence and without power. And this is to regard it as existing
dependently. This provides a coherent, mundane understaning of phenomena as an alternative
to the metaphysics of reification that Naagaarjuna criticizes. Verse 10 is central in this
discussion. If things did not exist Without essence, The phrase, "When this exists so
this will be," Would not be acceptable.
Naagaarjuna is replying here to the causal realist's inference from the
reality of causal powers to their embodiment in real entities whose essences include those
powers. He turns the tables on the realist, arguing that it is precisely because there is
no such reality to things--and hence no entities to serve as the bearers of the causal
powers the realist wants to posit--that the Buddhist formula expressing the truth of
dependent arising(7) can be asserted. It could not be asserted if in fact there were real
entities. For if they were real in the sense important for the realist, they would be
independent. So if the formula were interpreted in this context as pointing to any causal
power, it would be false. It can only be interpreted, it would follow, as a formula
expressing the regularity of nature. In the next three verses (1:11-13) Naagaarjuna
anticipates and answers the causal realist's reply.
First, the realist argues that the conclusion Naagaarjuna draws from
the unreality of causal power--the nonexistence of things (where "existence" is
read "inherent existence")--entails the falsity of the claim that things
dependently arise (1:11). For if there are no things, surely nothing arises. This charge
has a double edge: if the argument is successful it shows not only that Naagaarjuna's own
position is vacuous, but also that it contradicts one of the most fundamental tenets of
Buddhist philosophy: that all phenomena are dependently arisen. Moreover, the opponent
charges (1:11), on Naagaarjuna's view that the explanandum is not to be found potentially
in the explanans, there is no explanation of how the former is to be understood as
depending upon the latter. As Naagaarjuna will emphasize, however (1: 14), the very
structure of this charge contains the seeds of its reply.
The very emptiness of the effect, an effect presupposed by the opponent
to be nonempty, in fact follows from the emptiness of the conditions and of the
relationship between conditions and effect. Hence Naagaarjuna can reply to the opponents'
attempted refutation by embracing the conclusion of his reductio together with the
premises it supposedly refutes.
How, the opponent asks, are we to distinguish coincidental sequence
from causal consequence? And why (1: 12) don't things simply arise randomly from events
that are nonconditions, since no special connection is posited to link consequents to
their proper causal antecedents? Finally, the opponent asks (1: 13), since the phenomena
we observe clearly have natures, how could it be, as Naagaarjuna argues, that they proceed
by means of a process with no essence, from conditions with no essence? Whence do the
natures of actual existents arise? Naagaarjuna again replies to this last charge by
pointing out that since on his view the effects indeed have no essence, the opponent's
presupposition is ill-founded. This move also indicates a reply to the problem posed in
(1:12); that problem is grounded in the mistaken view that a phenomenon's lack of inherent
existence entails that it, being nonexistent, could come into existence from nowhere. But
"from nowhere," for the opponent, means from something lacking inherent
existence. And indeed, for Naagaarjuna, this is exactly the case: effects lacking inherent
existence depend precisely upon conditions which themselves lack inherent existence.
Naagaarjuna's summary of the import of this set of replies (1: 14) is terse and cryptic.
But unpacking it with the aid of what has gone before provides an important key to
understanding the doctrine of the emptiness of causation that is the burden of this
chapter. First, Naagaarjuna points out, the opponent begs the question in asserting the
genuine existence of the effects in question.
They, like their conditions, and like the process of dependent
origination itself, are nonexistent from the ultimate point of view. Hence the third
charge fails. As a consequence, in the sense in which the opponent supposes that these
effects proceed from their conditions--namely that their essence is contained potentially
in their causes, which themselves exist inherently--these effects need not be so produced.
And so, finally, the effect-containing conditions for which the opponent charges
Naagaarjuna with being unable to account are themselves unnecessary. In short, while the
reificationist critic charges the Maadhyamika with failing to come up with a causal link
sufficiently robust to link ultimately real phenomena, for the Maadhyamika philosopher,
the core reason for the absence of such a causal link is the very absence of such
phenomena in the first place. We are now in a position to characterize explicitly the
emptiness of causation, and the way this doctrine is identical with the doctrine of
dependent origination from conditions adumbrated in this chapter. It is best to offer this
characterization using the via media formulation most consonant with Naagaarjuna's
We will locate the doctrine as a midpoint between two extreme
philosophical views. That midpoint is achieved by taking conventions as the foundation of
ontology, hence rejecting the very enterprise of a philosophical search for the
ontological foundations of convention (Garfield 1990) . To say that causation is nonempty
or inherently existent is to succumb to the temptation to ground our explanatory practice
and discourse in genuine causal powers linking causes to effects. That is the
reificationist extreme which Naagaarjuna clearly rejects. To respond to the arguments
against the inherent existence of causation by suggesting that there is then no
possibility of appealing to conditions to explain phenomena--that there is no dependent
origination at all--is the extreme of nihilism, also clearly rejected by Naagaarjuna. To
assert the emptiness of causation is to accept the utility of our causal discourse and
explanatory practice, but to resist the temptation to see these as grounded in reference
to causal powers or as demanding such grounding.
Dependent origination simply is the explicability and coherence of the
universe. Its emptiness is the fact that there is no more to it than that. Now this is
certainly philosophically interesting stuff in its own right. But as I suggested at the
outset, there is more to it than just an analysis of causation and dependent arising. For,
as we shall see, for Naagaarjuna, among the most important means of demonstrating the
emptiness of phenomena is to argue that they are dependently arisen. And so the claim that
dependent arising itself is empty will turn out to be the claim that the emptiness of
phenomena is itself empty---the central and deepest claim of Maadhyamika ontology.
3. Chapter 24--Examination of
the Four Noble Truths
While Chapter 24 ostensibly concerns the Four Buddhist Truths and the
way they are to be understood from the vantage point of emptiness, it is really about the
nature of emptiness itself, and about the relation between emptiness and conventional
reality. As such, it is the philosophical heart of the Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa. The first
six verses of the chapter (24: 1-6) present a reply to Naagaarjuna's doctrine of emptiness
by an opponent charging the doctrine with nihilism. The next eight verses (24: 7-14) are
primarily rhetorical, castigating the opponent for his misunderstanding of Maadhyamika.
The important philosophical work begins with 24: 15. From this point
Naagaarjuna offers a theory of the relationship between emptiness, dependent origination,
and convention, and argues not only that these three can be understood as co-relative, but
that if conventional things (or emptiness itself) were nonempty, the very nihilism would
ensue with which the reificationist opponent charges Maadhyamika. This tactic of arguing
not only against each extreme but also that the contradictory extremes are in fact
mutually entailing is a dialectical trademark of Naagaarjuna's philosophical method.
Because of the length of this chapter, I will not provide a verse-by-verse reading here,
but only a general gloss of the argument, with special attention to critical verses.
The opponent opens the chapter by claiming that if the entire
phenomenal world were empty nothing would in fact exist, a conclusion absurd on its face
and, more importantly, contradictory to fundamental Buddhist tenets such as the Four Noble
Truths (24:1-6) as well as to conventional wisdom. The implicit dilemma with which
Naagaarjuna confronts himself is elegant (24:6). For as we have seen, the distinction
between the two truths, or two vantage points--the ultimate and the conventional--is
fundamental to his own method. So when the opponent charges that the assertion of the
nonexistence of such things as the Four Noble Truths and of the arising, abiding, and
ceasing of entities is contradictory both to conventional wisdom and to the ultimate truth
(namely, on one straightforward interpretation, that all phenomena are impermanent, that
is, merely arising, abiding momentarily, and ceasing) , Naagaarjuna is forced to defend
himself on both fronts and to comment on the connection between these standpoints.
Naagaarjuna launches the reply by charging the opponent with foisting the opponent's own
understanding of emptiness on Naagaarjuna. Though this is not made as explicit in the text
as one might like, it is important to note that the understanding Naagaarjuna has in mind
is one that, in the terms of Maadhyamika, reifies emptiness itself.
Verse 24:16 provides a clue. If the existence of all things Is
perceived in terms of their essence, Then this perception of all things Will be without
the perception of causes and conditions. The opponent is seeing actual existence as a
discrete entity with an essence. it would follow that for the opponent, the reality of
emptiness would entail that emptiness itself is an entity, and at that an inherently
existing entity. To see emptiness in this way is to see it as radically different from
conventional, phenomenal reality. It is to see the conventional as illusory and emptiness
as the reality standing behind it. To adopt this view of emptiness is indeed to deny the
reality of the entire phenomenal, conventional world. It is also to ascribe a special,
nonconventional, nondependent hyperreality to emptiness itself. Ordinary things would be
viewed as nonexistent, emptiness as substantially existent. (It is important and central
to the Maadhyamika dialectic to see that these go together--that nihilism about one kind
of entity is typically paired with reification of another.) This view is not uncommon in
Buddhist philosophy, and Naagaarjuna is clearly aware that it might be suggested by his
own position. So Naagaarjuna's reply must begin by distancing himself from this reified
view of emptiness itself and hence from the dualism it entails. Only then can he show that
to reify emptiness in this way would indeed entail the difficulties his imaginary opponent
adumbrates, difficulties not attaching to Naagaarjuna's own view. This brings us to the
central verses of this chapter (24: 18 and 24: 19): Whatever is dependently co-arisen That
is explained to be emptiness. That, being a dependent designation Is itself the middle
Something that is not dependently arisen, Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a non-empty thing Does not exist. These verses demand careful scrutiny. In
24:18, Naagaarjuna establishes a critical three-way relation between emptiness, dependent
origination, and verbal convention, and asserts that this relation itself is the Middle
Way towards which his entire philosophical system is aimed. As we shall see, this is the
basis for understanding the emptiness of emptiness itself.
First, Naagaarjuna asserts that the dependently arisen is emptiness.
Emptiness and the phenomenal world are not two distinct things. They are rather two
characterizations of the same thing. To say of something that it is dependently co-arisen
is to say that it is empty. To say of something that it is empty is another way of saying
that it arises dependently. Moreover, whatever is dependently co-arisen is verbally
established. That is, the identity of any dependently arisen thing depends upon verbal
conventions. To say of a thing that it is dependently arisen is to say that its identity
as a single entity is nothing more than its being the referent of a word. The thing
itself, apart from conventions of individuation, is nothing but an arbitrary slice of an
indefinite spatiotemporal and causal manifold. To say of a thing that its identity is a
merely verbal fact about it is to say that it is empty. To view emptiness in this way is
to see it neither as an entity nor as unreal--it is to see it as conventionally real.
Moreover, "emptiness" itself is asserted to be a dependent
designation (Skt praj~naptir-upadaya [brTen Nas gDasgs pa]). Its referent, emptiness
itself, is thereby asserted to be merely dependent and nominal--conventionally existent
but ultimately empty. This is, hence, a middle path with regard to emptiness. To view the
dependently originated world in this way is to see it neither as nonempty nor as
completely nonexistent. It is, viewed in this way, conventionally existent, but empty We
thus have a middle path with regard to dependent origination. To view convention in this
way is to view it neither as ontologically insignificant--it determines the character of
the phenomenal world--nor as ontologically efficacious--it is empty. Thus we also have a
middle way with regard to convention. And finally, given the nice ambiguity in the
reference of "that," (De Ni), not only are "dependent arising" and
"emptiness" asserted to be dependent designations, and hence merely nominal, but
the very relation between them is asserted to be so dependent, and therefore to be
empty.(8) These morals are driven home in 24:19, where Naagaarjuna emphasizes that
everything--and this must include emptiness--is dependently arisen. So
everything--including emptiness--lacks inherent existence.
So nothing lacks the three coextensive properties of emptiness,
dependent-origination, and conventional identity. With this in hand, Naagaarjuna can reply
to the critic. He first points out (24: 20-35) that in virtue of the identity of dependent
origination and emptiness on the one hand and of ontological independence and intrinsic
reality on the other, such phenomena as arising, ceasing, suffering, change,
enlightenment, and so on--the very phenomena the opponent charges Naagaarjuna with
denying--are possible only if they are empty.
The tables are thus turned: it appears that Naagaarjuna, in virtue of
arguing for the emptiness of these phenomena, was arguing that in reality they do not
exist, precisely because, for the reifier of emptiness, existence and emptiness are
opposites. But in fact, because of the identity of emptiness and conventional existence,
it is the reifier who, in virtue of denying the emptiness of these phenomena, denies their
existence. And it is hence the reifier of emptiness who is impaled on both horns of the
dilemma s/he has presented to Naagaarjuna: contradicting the ultimate truth, s/he denies
that these phenomena are empty; contradicting the conventional, s/he is forced to deny
that they even exist! And so Naagaarjuna can conclude (24: 36): If dependent arising is
denied, Emptiness itself is rejected.
This would contradict All of the worldly conventions. To assert the
nonemptiness of phenomena and of their interrelations, Naagaarjuna suggests, when
emptiness is properly understood, is not only philosophically deeply confused, it is
contradictory to common sense. We can make sense of this argument in the following way:
common sense neither posits nor requires intrinsic reality in phenomena or a real causal
nexus; common sense holds the world to be a network of dependentiy arisen phenomena. So
common sense holds the world to be empty. Again, the standpoint of emptiness is not at
odds with the conventional standpoint, only with a particular philosophical understanding
of it--that which takes the conventional to be more than merely conventional. What is
curious--and, from the Buddhist standpoint, sad--about the human condition, on this view,
is the naturalness and seductiveness of that philosophical perspective.(9)
4. The Emptiness of Emptiness
Let us consider now what it is to say that emptiness itself is empty.
The claim, even in the context of Buddhist philosophy, does have a somewhat paradoxical
air. For emptiness is, in Mahaayaana philosophical thought, the ultimate nature of all
phenomena. And the distinction between the merely conventional nature of things and their
ultimate nature would seem to mark the distinction between the apparent and the real.
While it is plausible to say that what is merely apparent is empty of
reality, it seems nihilistic to say that what is ultimately real is empty of reality, and,
as we have seen, the Maadhyamika are quite consciously antinihilistic. But again, when we
say that a phenomenon is empty, we say, inter alia, that it is impermanent, that it
depends upon conditions, and that its identity is dependent upon convention. Do we really
want to say of each phenomenon that its emptiness--the fact that it is empty--is itself
impermanent, itself dependent on something else, itself dependent upon conventions? It
might at least appear that even if all other properties of conventional entities were so,
their emptiness would be an eternal, independent, essential fact. It may be useful to
approach the emptiness of emptiness by first asking what it would be to treat emptiness as
nonempty. When we say that a phenomenon is empty, we mean that when we try to specify its
essence, we come up with nothing. When we look for the substance that underlies the
properties, or the bearer of the parts, we find none. When we ask what it is that gives a
thing its identity, we stumble not upon ontological facts but upon conventions. For a
thing to be nonempty would be for it to have an essence discoverable upon analysis; for it
to be a substance independent of its attributes, or a bearer of parts; for its identity to
be self-determined by its essence. A nonempty entity can be fully characterized
nonrelationally. For emptiness to be nonempty would be for it to be a substantial entity,
an independent existent, a nonconventional phenomenon. On such a view, arguably held by
certain Buddhist philosophical schools, emptiness is entirely distinct from any
conventional phenomenon. It is, on such a view, the object of correct perception, while
conventional phenomena are the objects of delusive perception. While conventional
phenomena are dependent upon conventions, conditions, or the ignorance of obstructed
minds, emptiness, on such a view, is apparent precisely when one sees through those
conventions, dispels that ignorance, and overcomes those obstructions. It has no parts or
conditions, and no properties. Though such a position might appear metaphysically
extravagant, it is hardly unmotivated. For one thing, it seems that emptiness does have an
identifiable essence--namely the lack of inherent existence. So if to be empty is to be
empty of essence, emptiness fails on that count to be empty. Moreover, since all
phenomena, on the Maadhyamika view, are empty, emptiness would appear to be eternal and
independent of any particular conventions, and hence not dependently arisen. The Two
Truths, on such an ontological vision, are indeed radically distinct from one another. But
this position is, from Naagaarjuna's perspective, untenable. The best way to see that is
as follows. Suppose that we take a conventional entity, such as a table. We analyze it to
demonstrate its emptiness, finding that there is no table apart from its parts, that it
cannot be distinguished in a principled way from its antecedent and subsequent histories,
and so forth. So we conclude that it is empty. But now let us analyze that emptiness--the
emptiness of the table-to see what we find. What do we find? Nothing at all but the
table's lack of inherent existence.
The emptiness is dependent upon the table. No conventional table---no
emptiness of the table. To see the table as empty, for Naagaarjuna, is not to somehow see
"beyond" the illusion of the table to some other, more real entity. It is to see
the table as conventional, as dependent. But the table that we so see when we see its
emptiness is the very same table, seen not as the substantial thing we instinctively
posit, but rather as it is. Emptiness is hence not different from conventional reality--it
is the fact that conventional reality is conventional. Therefore it must be dependently
arisen, since it depends upon the existence of empty phenomena. Hence emptiness itself is
empty. This is perhaps the deepest and most radical step in the Madhyamika dialectic, but
it is also, as we shall see, the step that saves it from falling into metaphysical
extravagance and brings it back to sober, pragmatic skepticism. Now, this doctrine of the
emptiness of emptiness emerges directly from 24: 18.
Whatever is dependently co-arisen That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation Is itself the middle way. For the emptiness of
emptiness, as we have just seen, simply amounts to the identification of emptiness with
the property of being dependently arisen, and with the property of having an identity just
in virtue of conventional, verbal designation. It is the fact that emptiness is no more
than this that makes it empty, just as it is the fact that conventional phenomena in
general are no more than conventional, and no more than their parts and status in the
causal nexus that makes them empty.(10) So the doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness can
be seen as inextricably linked with Naagaarjuna's distinctive account of the relation
between the two truths. For Naagaarjuna, as is also evident in this crucial verse, it is a
mistake to distinguish conventional from ultimate reality--the dependently arisen from
emptiness--at an ontological level. Emptiness just is the emptiness of conventional
To perceive conventional phenomena as empty is just to see them as
conventional, and as dependently arisen. The difference--such as it is--between the
conventional and the ultimate is a difference in the way phenomena are conceived/
perceived. The point must be formulated with some delicacy, and cannot be formulated
without a hint of the paradoxical about it: conventional phenomena are typically
represented as inherently existent. We typically perceive and conceive of external
phenomena, ourselves, causal powers, moral truths, and so forth as independently existing,
intrinsically identifiable and substantial. But though this is, in one sense, the
conventional character of conventional phenomena---the manner in which they are ordinarily
experienced--to see them this way is precisely not to see them as conventional. To see
that they are merely conventional, in the sense adumbrated above and defended by
Naagaarjuna and his followers, is thereby to see them as empty, and this is their ultimate
mode of existence.
These are the two truths about phenomena: On the one hand they are
conventionally existent and the things we ordinarily say about them are in fact true, to
the extent that we get it right on the terms of the everyday. Snow is indeed white, and
there are indeed tables and chairs in this room. On the other hand, they are ultimately
nonexistent. These two truths seem as different as night and day--being and nonbeing. But
the import of 24: 18 and the doctrine we have been explicating is that their ultimate
nonexistence and their conventional existence are the same thing. Hence the deep identity
of the two truths. And this is because emptiness is not other than dependent-arising, and
hence because emptiness is empty. Finally, in order to see why chapter 1 is not only an
essential groundwork for this central argument, but in fact anticipates it and brings its
conclusion to bear implicitly on the whole remainder of the text, we must note that this
entire account depends upon the emptiness of dependent origination itself. To see this,
suppose for a moment that one had the view that dependent arising were nonempty (not a
crazy view, and not obviously incompatible with, and arguably entailed by, certain
Buddhist doctrines) . Then from the identification of emptiness with dependent arising
would follow the nonemptiness of emptiness. Moreover, if conventional phenomena are empty,
and dependent arising itself is nonempty and is identified with emptiness, then the two
truths are indeed two in every sense. Emptiness-dependent arising is self-existent, while
ordinary phenomena are not, and one gets a strongly dualistic, ontological version of an
appearance-reality distinction. So the argument for the emptiness of emptiness in chapter
24 and the identity of the Two Truths with which it is bound up depend critically on the
argument for the emptiness of dependent origination developed in chapter 1.
5. Simple Emptiness versus the
Emptiness of Emptiness
We can now see why real causation, in the fully reified
cement-of-the-universe sense, as the instantiation of the relation between explanans and
explananda could never do from the Maadhyamika standpoint. For though that would at first
glance leave phenomena themselves empty of inherent existence, it would retain a nonempty
feature of the phenomenal world, and lose the emptiness of emptiness itself. Moreover, a
bit of reflection should lead us to recognize the deep tension in this metaphysics: if the
causal powers of things are ultimately real, it is hard to see how one could maintain the
merely conventional status of the things themselves. For they could always be individuated
as the bearers of those ultimately real causal powers, and the entire doctrine of the
emptiness of phenomena would collapse. Substituting conditions for causes solves this
problem. For, as we have seen, by shifting the account in this way we come to understand
the relation between conditions and the conditioned as obtaining in virtue of regularity
and explanatory utility. And both of these determinants of the relation are firmly rooted
in convention rather than in any extraconventional facts. Regularity is always
regularity-under-a-description, and descriptions are, as Naagaarjuna puts it, "verbal
designations." Explanatory utility is always relative to human purposes and
theoretical frameworks. Dependent origination is thus on this model a thoroughly
conventional and hence empty alternative to a reified causal model, which nonetheless
permits all of the explanatory moves that a theory committed to causation can make.
For every causal link one might posit, an equivalent conditional
relation can be posited. But the otiose and ultimately incoherent posit of causal power is
dispensed with on Naagaarjuna's formulation. But if the foregoing interpretation is
correct, we can make a more radical interpretative claim regarding the structure of
Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa: the entire doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness and the unity
of the Two Truths developed in chapter 24 is already implicit in chapter 1. Recall the
structure of the argument so far, as we have traced the complex doctrinal web Naagaarjuna
spins: the central thesis of chapter 1 as we have characterized it is that there is no
inherently existent causal nexus. The link between conditions and the phenomena dependent
upon them is empty. To be empty is, however, to be dependent. Emptiness itself is,
therefore, as is explicitly articulated in chapter 24, dependent arising. Hence the
emptiness of dependent arising is the emptiness of emptiness. And the emptiness of
emptiness, as we have seen, is equivalent to the deep identity between the Two Truths. So
the entire central doctrine developed in the climactic twenty-fourth chapter is present in
embryo in the first. And this is why Naagaarjuna began with causation. Now, to be sure, it
is not apparent on first reading the opening chapter of the Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa that
this is the import of the argument. The rhetorical structure of the text only makes this
clear in retrospect, when enough of the philosophical apparatus is on the table to make
the entire framework clear. But once we see this framework, a rereading of the text in
light of this understanding of the opening chapter is instructive. For it is one thing to
argue for the emptiness of some phenomenon simpliciter and quite another to argue for that
emptiness with the emptiness of emptiness in mind. If we read the opening chapter in the
first way, we are likely to miss the force of many of the particular analyses in the text
the depth of which only emerges in light of the deeper thesis of the emptiness of
emptiness. If one argues simply that a phenomenon is empty of inherent existence, one
leaves open the possibility that this is in contrast to phenomena that are inherently
existent, and hence that the force of this argument is that the phenomenon in question is
not actually existent. If, on the other hand, one argues that a phenomenon is empty in the
context of the emptiness of emptiness, one is explicitly committed to the view that its
emptiness does not entail its nonactuality.
Emptiness in this context is not nonexistence. The lack of inherent
existence that is asserted is not the lack of a property possessed by some entities but
not by others, or a property that an entity could be imagined to have, but rather the lack
of an impossible attribute. This reorientation of the argument gives what might appear to
be a series of starkly nihilistic analyses a remarkably positive tone. We have time here
to consider briefly one example of the difference that this reading of chapter 1 induces
in reading the subsequent text. We will consider the analysis of motion and rest in
chapter 2. I will not provide a verse-by-verse commentary on the chapter here. But let us
note the following salient features of Naagaarjuna's analysis: the target of the argument
is a view of motion according to which motion is an entity, or at least a property with an
existence independent of that of moving things, or according to which motion is part of
the nature of moving things.
These are versions of what it would be to think of motion as nonempty.
Naagaarjuna argues that from such a view a number of absurd consequences would follow:
things not in motion but which were in motion in the past or which will be in the future
would have to undergo substantial change, effectively becoming different things when they
changed state from motion to rest or vice versa; a regress would ensue from the need for
the entity motion itself to be in motion; motion would occur in the absence of moving
things; the moment at which a thing begins or ceases motion would be indescribable.
Naagaarjuna concludes that a reification of motion is incoherent.
Motion is therefore empty. So far so good. But then, is motion nonexistent? Is the entire
universe static according to Maadhyamika philosophy? If we simply read this chapter in
isolation, that conclusion might indeed seem warranted. It would be hard to distinguish
emptiness from complete nonexistence. We would be left with an illusory world of change
and movement, behind which would lie a static ultimate reality. But such a reading would
be problematic. For one thing, it would be absurd on its face. Things move and change.
Second, it would contradict the doctrine of dependent origination and change that is the
very basis of any Buddhist philosophical system, and which Naagaarjuna has already
endorsed in the opening chapter. How, then, are we to read this discussion more
positively? Answering this question is hermeneutically critical not only for an
understanding of this chapter, but--take my word for it--for a reading of the entire text,
which, if not read with care, can appear unrelentingly nihilistic.
And on such a nihilistic reading, the appearance/reality distinction
that is forced can only coincide with the conventional reality/emptiness distinction,
resulting in a denial of reality to the mundane world and a reification of emptiness
itself. The positive account we are after emerges when we recall the emptiness of
emptiness and read this second chapter in the context of the reinterpreted first chapter:
emptiness itself, as we have seen, according to the analysis of dependent arising, is
dependently arisen. It is nothing but the emptiness of conventional phenomena, and is the
fact of their being dependent and conventional. If emptiness itself is understood as
nonempty, on the other hand, then for a phenomenon to be denominated empty is for it to be
completely nonexistent. For then its merely conventional character would stand against the
ultimate reality of emptiness itself.
We have just seen how this would play out in the case of motion, and a
moment's reflection would indicate that any other phenomenon subjected to this analysis
would fare about as well. But consider, on the other hand, how we interpret the status of
motion in light of the emptiness of its emptiness: the conclusion that motion is empty is
then simply the conclusion that it is merely conventional and dependent, like the
putatively moving entities themselves. Since there is no implicit contrastive, inherently
existent ultimate reality, this conclusion does not lead us to ascribe a "second
class" or merely apparent existence to motion or to movers. Their nonexistence--their
emptiness---is hence itself non-existent in exactly the sense that they are. Existence--of
a sort--is thus recovered exactly in the context of an absence of inherent existence. But
existence of what kind? Herein lies the clue to the positive construction of motion that
emerges. The existence that emerges is a conventional and dependent existence. Motion does
not exist as an entity on this account, but rather as a relation--as the relation between
the positions of a body at distinct times, and hence is dependent upon that body and those
Moreover, it emerges as a conventional entity in the following critical
sense: only to the extent that we make the decision to identify entities that differ from
each other in position over time, but are in other respects quite similar, and which form
causal chains of a particular sort, as the same entity can we say that the entity so
identified moves. And this is a matter of choice. For we could decide to say that entities
that differ in any respect are thereby distinct. If we did adopt that convention for
individuation, an entity here now and one there then would ipso facto be distinct
entities. And so no single entity could adopt different positions (or different
properties) at different times, and so motion and change would be nonexistent. It is this
dependence of motion on the moved, of the status of things as moved on their motion, and
of both on conventions of individuation that, on this account, constitutes their
emptiness. But this simply constitutes their conventional existence, and provides an
analysis of the means by which they so exist.
The emptiness of motion is thus seen to be its existence as
conventional and as dependent and hence as not other than its conventional existence. And
this just is the emptiness of emptiness. But in understanding its emptiness in this way,
we bring motion, change, and movable and changeable entities back from the brink of
extinction. It is thus that seeing Naagaarjuna's analysis of the emptiness of phenomena in
the context of the emptiness of emptiness allows for a non-nihilistic, nondualistic,
constructive reading of the Maadhyamika dialectic, but a reading which for all of that is
rich in its explication of the structure of reality and of our relation to it. But this
reading is only accessible in the chapters analyzing particular phenomena if we already
find it in chapter 1. And this, I have argued, is possible once we reread that initial
chapter in light of the analysis in chapter 24. The Naagaarjuna who emerges is a subtle
6. The Importance of Causation
The analysis of causation can often look like a highly technical aside
in philosophy. It might not seem at first glance to be one of the really "big"
questions, like those concerning what entities there are, what the nature of mind is, what
the highest good is. By contrast, causation often appears to the outsider or to the
beginner like one of those recherche corners of philosophy that one has to work one's way
into. But of course even in the history of Western metaphysics and epistemology it has
always been central. One has only to think of the role of a theory of causation for Hume,
Kant, Schopenhauer, or Wittgenstein to see this. This study of the
Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa shows why: a clear understanding of the nature of the causal
relation is the key to understanding the nature of reality itself and of our relation to
For causation is, as Hume, Kant, and Schopenhauer as well as
Naagaarjuna emphasize, at the heart of our individuation of objects, of our ordering of
our experience of the world, and of our understanding of our own agency in the world.
Without a clear view of causation, we can have no clear view of anything. Naagaarjuna
begins by examining the causal relation for this reason generally. But for Naagaarjuna
there is a further, more specific reason, one which has no explicit parallel in the work
of other systematic philosophers, though it is, to be sure, hinted at darkly in the work
of those just mentioned. For Naagaarjuna, by examining the nature of dependent arising,
and by showing the emptiness of causation itself, we understand the nature of emptiness
itself, and thereby push the Maadhyamika dialectic of emptiness to its conclusion. By
showing causation to be empty, we show all things to be empty, even emptiness itself.
Naagaarjuna begins here because, by beginning with causation, the important conclusions he
drives at are ready at hand throughout the examination, even if they are not made explicit
until much later.
7. Antimetaphysical Pragmatism
When a Westerner first encounters the Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa or other
Maadhyamika texts, the philosophicai approach can appear highly metaphysical and downright
weird. The unfamiliar philosophical vocabulary, the highly negative dialectic, and the
cryptic verse form are indeed forbidding. Most bizarre of all, however, at first glance,
is the doctrine that all phenomena, including self and its objects, are empty. For indeed
Naagaarjuna and his followers do argue that the entire everyday world is, from the
ultimate standpoint, nonexistent. And that does indeed appear to stand just a bit deeper
into philosophical left field than even Berkeley dares to play. But if the interpretation
I have been urging is adopted, the real central thrust of Maadhyamika is the
demystification of this apparently mystical conclusion. While it might appear that the
Maadhyamika argue that nothing really exists except a formless, luminous void, in fact the
entire phenomenal world, persons and all, are recovered within that emptiness.
And if what I have said is correct, the principal philosophical move in
this demystification of emptiness is the attack on a reified view of causality.
Naagaarjuna replaces the view shared by the metaphysician and the person-in-the-street--a
view that presents itself as common sense, but is in fact deeply metaphysical--with an
apparently paradoxical, thoroughly empty, but in the end actually commonsense view not
only of causation, but of the entire phenomenal world.
- TRANSLATION OF CHAPTERS 1, 2, AN D 24 OF THE
- (TRANSLATED FROM THE TIBETAN TEXT)
Chapter 1--Examination of Conditions
1. Neither from itself nor from another Nor from both, Nor from a
non-cause Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.
2. There are four conditions: efficient condition; Percept-object
condition; immediate condition; Dominant condition, just so. There is no fifth condition.
3. The essence of entities is not evident in the conditions, and so
forth. If these things are selfless, There can be no otherness-essence.
4. Power to act does not have conditions, There is no power to act
without conditions. There are no conditions without power to act. Nor do any have the
power to act.
5. These give rise to those, So these are called conditions. As long as
those do not come from these, Why are these not non-conditions?
6. For neither an existent nor a nonexistent thing Is a condition
appropriate. If a thing is nonexistent, how could it have a condition? If a thing is
already existent, what would a condition do?
7. Neither existents nor Nonexistents nor existent nonexistents are
produced. In this case, how would there be a "productive cause?" If it existed,
how would it be appropriate?
8. Certainly, an existent mental episode Has no object.
Since a mental episode is without an object, How could there be any
9. Since things are not arisen, It is not acceptable that they cease.
Therefore, an immediate condition is not reasonable. If something has ceased, how could it
be a condition?
10. If things did not exist Without essence, The phrase, "When
this exists so this will be," Would not be acceptable.
11. In the various conditions united, The effect cannot be found. Nor
in the conditions themselves. So how could it come from the conditions?
12. However, if a nonexistent effect Arises from these conditions, Why
does it not arise From non-conditions?
13. If the effect is the conditions' essence, Then the conditions do
not have their own essence. So, how could an effect come From something that is
14. Therefore, conditions have no essence. If conditions have no
essence, there are no effects. If there are no effects without conditions, How will
conditions be evident?
Chapter 2--Examination of Motion
1. What has been moved is not moving. What has not been moved is not
moving. Apart from what has been moved and what has not been moved, Movement cannot be
2. Where there is flux, there is motion. Since there is flux in the
moving, And not in the moved or not-moved, Motion is in that which is moving.
3. If motion is in the mover, Then how would it be acceptable When it
is not moving, To have called it a mover?
4. The motion of what moves? What motion does not move? Given that that
which has passed is gone, How can motion be in the moved?
5. If motion is in the mover, There would have to be a twofold motion:
One in virtue of which it is a mover, And one in virtue of which it moves.
6. If there were a twofold motion, The subject of that motion would be
twofold. For without a subject of motion, There cannot be motion.
7. If there is no mover It would not be correct to say that there is
motion. If there is no motion, How could a mover exist?
8. Inasmuch as a real mover does not move, And a nonmover does not
move, Apart from a mover and a nonmover, What third thing could move?
9. When without motion, It is unacceptable to call something a mover,
How will it be acceptable To say that a moving thing moves?
10. For him from whose perspective a mover moves, There is no motion.
If a real mover were associated with motion, A mover would need motion.
11. If a mover were to move, There would be a twofold motion: One in
virtue of which he is a mover, And one in virtue of which the mover moves.
12. Motion does not begin in what has moved, Nor does it begin in what
has not moved, Nor does it begin in what is moving. In what, then, does motion begin?
13. If motion was begun in the past, When should we say it began? Not
in the nongoing, not in the gone. How could it be in the nonmoved?
14. Since the beginning of motion Cannot be conceived, What gone thing,
what going thing, And what nongoing thing can be conceived?
15. A moving thing is not at rest. A nonmoving thing is not at rest.
Apart from the moving and the nonmoving, What third thing is at rest?
16. If without motion It is not appropriate to posit a mover, How could
it be appropriate to say That a moving thing is stationary?
17. One does not halt from moving, Nor from having moved or not having
moved. Motion and coming to rest And starting to move are similar.
18. That motion is the mover Itself is not correct. Nor is it correct
that They are different.
19. It would follow from The identity of mover and motion That agent
and action Are identical.
20. It would follow from A real distinction between motion and mover
That there could be a mover without motion And motion without a mover.
21. When neither in identity Nor in difference, Can motion and the
mover be established as existent, How can they be established as entities at all?
22. The motion by means of which a mover is manifest Cannot be the
motion by means of which he moves. He does not exist before that motion, So what and where
is the thing that moves?
23. A mover does not carry out a different motion From that by means of
which he is manifest as a mover. Moreover, in one mover A twofold motion is unacceptable.
24. A really existent mover Does not move in any of the three ways. A
nonexistent mover Does not move in any of the three ways.
25. Neither an entity nor a nonentity Moves in any of the three ways.
So movement and motion And Agent of motion are nonexistent.
Chapter 24--Examination of the Four Noble Truths
1. If all of this is empty, Not arising, abiding, or ceasing, Then for
you, it follows that The Four Noble Truths do not exist. 2. If the Four Noble Truths do
not exist, Then knowledge, abandonment, Meditation, manifestation, and action Will be
3. If these things do not exist, The four fruits will not arise. Then
there will not be the enterers into the path. If not, there will not be the eight [kinds
4. If so the assembly of holy ones Itself will not exist. If the Four
Noble Truths do not exist, There will be no true Dharma.
5. If there is no doctrine and assembly How can there be a Buddha? If
emptiness is conceived in this way The Three Jewels are contradicted.
6. The attainment of the real fruits And the Dharma will not exist, and
the Dharma itself And the conventional truth Will be contradicted.
7. This understanding of yours Of emptiness and the purpose of
emptiness And of the significance of emptiness is incorrect. As a consequence you are
harmed by it.
8. The Buddha's teaching of the Dharma Is based on two truths: A truth
of worldly convention And an ultimate truth.
9. Those who do not understand The distinction drawn between these two
truths Do not understand The Buddha's profound truth.
10. Without a foundation in the conventional truth The significance of
the ultimate cannot be taught. Without understanding the significance of the ultimate,
Liberation is not achieved.
11. By a misperception of emptiness A person of little intelligence is
destroyed. Like a snake incorrectly seized Or like a spell incorrectly cast.
12. For that reason--that the Dharma is Deep and difficult to
understand and to learn- That (the Buddha's) mind despaired of Being able to teach it.
13. If a fault in understanding should arise with regard to emptiness,
that would not be good. Your confusion about emptiness, however, Would not belong to me.
14. For him to whom emptiness is clear, Everything becomes clear. For
him for whom emptiness is not clear, Nothing becomes clear.
15. If you foist on us All of your divergent views Then you are like a
man who has mounted his horse And has forgotten that very horse.
16. If the existence of all things Is perceived by you in terms of
their essence, Then this perception of all things Will be without the perception of causes
17. Effects and causes And agent and action And conditions and arising
and ceasing And effects will be rendered impossible.
18. Whatever is dependently co-arisen That is explained to be
emptiness. That, being a dependent designation Is itself the middle way.
19. Something that is not dependently arisen, Such a thing does not
exist. Therefore a nonempty thing Does not exist.
20. If all this were nonempty, as in your view, There would be no
arising and ceasing. Then the Four Noble Truths Would become nonexistent.
21. If it is not dependently arisen, How could suffering come to be?
Suffering has been taught to be impermanent, And so cannot come from its own essence.
22. If something comes from its own essence, How could it ever be
arisen? It follows that if one denies emptiness There can be no arising [of suffering].
23. If suffering had an essence, Its cessation would not exist. So if
an essence is posited One denies cessation.
24. If the path had an essence, Cultivation would not be appropriate.
If this path is indeed cultivated, It cannot have an essence.
25. If suffering, arising, and Ceasing are nonexistent, If through the
path suffering ceases, In what way could one hope to attain it?
26. If through its essence non-understanding comes to be, In what way
will understanding arise, Is not essence stable?
27. In this way you should understand the activities of relinquishing
and realizing and Cultivation and the Four Fruits. It [essence] is not appropriate.
28. For an essentialist, Since the fruits through their essence Are
already realized In what way could it be appropriate to cultivate them?
29. Without the fruits, there are no attainers of the fruits, Or
enterers into that stream, From this it follows that the eight kinds of persons do not
exist. If these do not exist, there is no spiritual community.
30. From the nonexistence of the Noble Truths Would follow the
nonexistence of the True Doctrine. If there is no Doctrine and no Community, How could a
31. Your enlightened Buddha, Without relying on anything, would have
come to be; Your Buddha's enlightenment, Without relying on anything, would have come to
32. If by means of your essence Someone were unenlightened, Even by
practicing towards enlightenment He could not achieve enlightenment.
33. With neither entities nor nonentities There can be no action. What
could the nonempty do? With an essence there is no action.
34. With neither entities nor nonentities The fruit would arise for
you. So, for you a fruit caused by entities or nonentities Could not arise.
35. If, for you, a fruit Were given rise to by either entities or
nonentities, Then from entities or nonentities How could a nonempty fruit arise?
36. If dependent arising is denied, Emptiness itself is rejected. This
would contradict All of the worldly conventions.
37. If emptiness itself is denied, No action will be appropriate.
Action would not begin, And without action there would be no agent.
38. If there is essence, all of the flux Will be unarising, unceasing,
And static. And so, the entire sphere of Various arisen things would be nonempty.
39. If the empty does not exist, Then action will be without profit.
The act of ending suffering and Abandoning misery and defilement will not exist.
40. Whoever sees dependent arising Also sees Suffering And Misery and
its arising And the path to its cessation.
Thanks are extended to the Venerable Lobzang Norbu Shastri and Janet
Gyatso for a very thorough critical reading of and helpful critical comments on an earlier
draft of this essay and of the relevant fragments of the translation, and to G. Lee Bowie
and Meredith Michaels for sound suggestions regarding that draft.
This essay has also benefited from the insightful questions posed by an
audience at Mount Holyoke College, and from the sound suggestions of Tom Wartenberg on
that occasion. My deepest appreciation goes to the Venerable Geshe Yeshes Thap-Kas for his
patient and lucid teaching of this text and discussion of Naagaarjuna's position, and to
the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, to its director the Venerable Professor
Samdhong Rinpoche, and to my many colleagues there, including those just mentioned and the
Venerable Ngawang Samden and the Venerable Geshe Ngawang Sherab. Thanks also to my
research assistant both at the Institute and at Hampshire College, Sri Yeshe Tashi
Shastri, and to the Indo-American Fellowship program for grant support while I was working
on these ideas.
1 - A fine point, suggested by Janet Gyatso: Though in the end, as we
shall see, ultimate reality depends on our conventions in a way, it depends on our
conventions in a very different way from that in which conventional reality does. Despite
this difference in the structure of the relation between convention and reality in the two
cases, however, it remains a distinctive feature of Naagaarjuna's system that it is
impossible to speak coherently of reality independent of conventions.
2 - Some argue that there is no real difference between causes and
conditions; some that a cause is one kind of condition; some that efficient causes are
causes, and that all other causal factors contributing to an event are conditions. Some
like my reading. I have found no unanimity on this interpretative question, either among
Western Buddhologists or among Tibetan scholars. The canonical texts are equivocal as
well. I do not argue that the distinction I here attribute to Naagaarjuna, which I defend
on hermeneutical grounds, is necessarily drawn in the same way throughout the Buddhist
philosophical world, or even throughout the Praasa^ngika-Maadhyamika literature. But it is
the one Naagaarjuna draws.
3 - There are two kinds of case to be made for attributing this
distinction to Naagaarjuna in this chapter. Most generally, there is the hermeneutical
argument that this makes the best philosophical sense of the text. It gets Naagaarjuna
drawing a distinction that is clearly suggested by his philosophical outlook and that
lines up nicely with the technical terms he deploys. But we can get more textually
fine-grained as well: in the first verse, Naagaarjuna explicitly rejects the existence of
efficacy, and pointedly uses the word "cause." He denies that there are such
things. Nowhere in chapter 1 is there a parallel denial of the existence of conditions. On
the contrary, in verse 2 he positively asserts that there are four kinds of them. To be
sure, this could be read as a mere partitioning of the class of effects that are described
in Buddhist literature. But there are two reasons not to read it thus. First, Naagaarjuna
does not couch the assertion in one of his "It might be said" locutions. Second,
he never takes it back. The positive tone the text takes regarding conditions is continued
in verses 4 and 5, where Naagaarjuna asserts that conditions are conceived without
efficacy in contrast with the causes rejected in 1, and where he endorses a regularist
view of conditions. So it seems that Naagaarjuna does use the
"cause"/"condition" distinction to mark a distinction between the kind
of association he endorses as an analysis of dependent arising and one he rejects.
4 - The Venerable Lobzang Norbu Shastri has pointed out to me that this
verse may not in fact be original with Naagaarjuna, but is a quotation from sutra. It
appears in the Kamsika-praj~napaaramitaasuutra as well as in the
Maadhyamika-`Saalistambasuutra. Inasmuch as these are both late texts, their chronological
relation to Naagaarjuna's text is not clear.
5 - There is also a nice regress to be developed here that Naagaarjuna
does not explicitly note in this chapter, though he does make use of it later in the
Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa (chap. 7): Even if we did posit a causal power mediating between
causes and their effects, we would have to explain how it is that a cause event gives rise
to or acquires that power, and how the power brings about the effect. We now have two
nexuses to explain, and now each one has an unobservable entity on one end. In Garfield
1990 I explore this problem in more detail and note that it is explored both by Hume and
by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus.
6 - The Maadhyamika position implies that we should seek to explain
regularities by reference to their embeddedness in other regularities, and so on. To ask
why there are regularities at all, on such a view, would be to ask an incoherent question:
the fact of explanatorily useful regularities in nature is what makes explanation and
investigation possible in the first place, and is not something itself that can be
explained. After all, there is only one universe, and truly singular phenomena, on such a
view, are inexplicable in principle. This may connect deeply to the Buddha's insistence
that questions concerning the beginning of the world are unanswerable.
7 - A formula familiar in the sutras of the pali canon.
8 - Though this is beyond the scope of this essay, this last fact, the
emptiness of the relation between the conventional world of dependently arisen phenomena
and emptiness itself is of extreme importance at another stage of the Maadhyamika
dialectic, and comes to salience in the Vigrahavyaavartanii and in Candrakiirti's
Prasannapadaa. For this amounts to the emptiness of the central ontological tenet of
Naagaarjuna's system, and is what allows him to claim, despite all appearances, that he is
positionles. That is, Naagaarjuna thereby has a ready reply to the following apparent
reductio argument (reminiscent of classical Greek and subsequent Western challenges to
Pyrrhonian skepticism): You say that all things are, from the ultimate standpoint,
nonexistent. That must then apply to your own thesis. It, therefore, is really
nonexistent, and your words are hence only nominally true. Your own thesis, therefore,
denies its own ground and is self-defeating. This objection would be a sound one against a
view that in fact asserted its own inherent existence, or grounded its truth on an
inherently existing ontological basis. But, Naagaarjuna suggests here, that is not the
case for his account. Rather, on his analysis, everything, including this very thesis, has
only nominal truth, and nothing is either inherently existent, or true in virtue of
designating an inherently existent fact.
9 - This, of course, is the key to the soteriological character of the
text: reification is the root of grasping and craving, and hence of all suffering. And it
is perfectly natural, despite its incoherence. By understanding emptiness Naagaarjuna
intends one to break this habit and extirpate the root of suffering. But if in doing so
one falls into the abyss of nihilism, nothing is achieved. For then, action itself is
impossible and senseless, and one's realization amounts to nothing. Or again, if one
relinquishes the reification of phenomena but reifies emptiness, that issues in a new
grasping and craving--the grasping of emptiness and the craving for nirvana--and a new
round of suffering. Only with the simultaneous realization of the emptiness but
conventional reality of phenomena and of the emptiness of emptiness, argues Naagaarjuna,
can suffering be wholly uprooted.
10 - Paradox may appear to loom at this point. For, one might argue, if
emptiness is empty, and if to be empty is to be merely conventional, then the emptiness of
any phenomenon is a merely conventional fact. Moreover, to say that entities are merely
conventional is merely conventional. Hence it would appear optional, as all conventions
are, and it would further seem to be open to say that things are in fact nonconventional,
and therefore nonempty. This would be a deep incoherence indeed at the heart of
Naagaarjuna's system. But the paradox is merely apparent. The appearance of paradox
derives from seeing "conventional" as functioning logically like a negation
operator--a subtle version of the nihilistic reading Naagaarjuna is at pains to avoid,
with a metalinguistic twist. For then, each iteration of "conventional" would
cancel the previous occurrence, and the conventional character of the fact that things are
conventional would amount to the claim that really they are not, or at least that they
might not be. But in Naagaarjuna's philosophical approach, the sense of the term is more
ontological than logical: to say of a phenomenon or of a fact that it is conventional is
to characterize its mode of subsistence. It is to say that it is without an independent
nature. The fact that a phenomenon is without independent nature is, to be sure, a further
phenomenon--a higher-order fact. But that fact, too, is without an independent nature. It,
too, is merely conventional. This is another way of putting the strongly nominalistic
character of Maadhyamika philosophy. So, a Platonist, for instance, might urge (and the
Maadhyamika would agree) that a perceptible phenomenon is ultimately unreal. But the
Platonist would assert that its properties are ultimately real. And if some
Buddhist-influenced Platonist would note that among the properties of a perceptible
phenomenon is its emptiness and its conventional reality, s/he would assert that these, as
properties, are ultimately real. This is exactly where Naagaarjuna parts company with all
forms of realism. For he gives the properties a nominalistic construal, and asserts that
they, including the properties of emptiness and conventionality, are, like all phenomena,
merely nominal, merely empty, and merely conventional. And so on for their emptiness and
conventionality. The nominalism undercuts the negative interpretation of
"conventional" and so renders the regress harmless.
Garfield, Jay L. 1990. "Epoche and Suunyataa: Skepticism East and
West," Philosophy East and West 40: 285-307; reprinted in Glazer and Miller, eds.,
Words that Ring Clear as Trumpets. Amherst: Hampshire College Press, 1992.
Kalupahana, David. 1986. Naagaarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way:
Albany: State University of New York Press.