Monday, May 08, 2006

Just finished reading... Nagarjuna

I've just finished reading Jay L Garfield's
The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way : Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika, which seems to be the best rated commentary on Nagarjuna's most important work. It's quite dense reading but very rewarding - Garfield's insight is penetrating and Nagarjuna's philosphy is powerful, rigorous and sublime.

Nagarjuna is probably the most influential Buddhist philosopher after Gautama Buddha himself and the chief proponent of the early Mahayana Madhyamaka philosophy, which emphasises the 'Middle Way' between philosophical extremes particularly Eternalism and Nihilism. Nagarjuna is also the developer of Gautama Buddha's concept of sunya ('void') into the concept of Sunyata ('emptiness of self-nature'). This logical approach to Buddhist philosphy, although very powerful was often misunderstood as a form of Nihilism and probably for this reason was generally supplanted with more poetic, metaphorical approaches.

Much like Wittgenstein, Nagarjuna is logically rigorous yet manages to indicate a 'sublime' reality which transcends logic and language. He even refutes the views of philosophers without proposing or holding any view whatsoever - successfully as far as I can tell.

He covers pretty much every aspect of philosphy and metaphysics - reducing beliefs and problems (again like Wittgenstein) to errors of thought and language - and reading him clarifies a great many confusing aspects of Buddhist philosophy such as the nature of the self, which are glossed over by so many others.

One of the concepts I really wanted to get to grips with when I started this was the idea that not only are entities 'empty' but that 'emptiness itself is empty' (and so on). And this book certainly helped me to understand this. Emptiness is not to be mistaken as an essential characteristic of entities or reality - it is not itself the self-existent nature of things - it is only a reference to the lack of self-existence in things. That lack is not a property just as nothing is not a thing.

Here are a few choice extracts.

He opens with this little corker:

Neither from itself nor from another,
Nor from both,
Nor without a cause,
Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.

Although this sounds Nihilistic, it is not, but this can only be properly understood in the context of the rest of the work. And refuting the view of emptiness as a an inherent property or a view to be clung to is perhaps the core and final message of the text.

On emptiness he says:

Whatever is the essence of the Tathagata [Buddha],
That is the essence of the world.
The Tathagata has no essence.
The world is without essence.

Everything is real and is not real,
Both real and not real,
Neither real nor notreal.
This is Lord Buddha's teaching.

Many problems in Western philosphy as well as Buddhism can be seen in terms of a confusion between conventional and 'ultimate' categories of truth.

The Buddha's teaching of the Dharma
Is based on two truths:
A truth of worldly convention
And an ultimate truth.

Those who do not understand
The distinction drawn between these two truths
Do not understand
The Buddha's profound truth.

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.

The human tendency to reify - to treat abstract concepts as inherent entities or properties - is difficult to escape. Even emptiness becomes something that Buddhist's cling to and regard as some sort of inherent or transcendent reality or a nihilistic view of the universe as non-existent.

By a misperception of emptiness
A person of little intelligence is destroyed.
Like a snake incorrectly seized
Or like a spell incorrectly cast.

For that reason - that the Dharma is
Deep and difficult to understand and to learn -
The Buddha's mind dispaired of being able to teach it.

You have presented fallacious refutations
That are not relevant to emptiness.
Your confusion about emptiness
Does not belong to me.

"Empty" should not be asserted.
"Nonempty" should not be asserted.
Neither both nor neither should be asserted.
They are only used nominally.

What is dependently co-arisen
That is to be explained to be emtiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.

The victorious ones [ie. Buddhas] have said
That emptiness is the relinquishing of all views.
For whomever emptiness is a view,
That one has accomplished nothing.

For those, like myself who desire logical thoroughness, Nagarjuna is ideal, yet he leaves us with a vision of the world in which logic and language are peripheral and provisional and in which 'absolute truth' is absent - a view of reality in which everything is just as it is. I'll finish with this excerpt from Wittgenstein which resonates extremely well with Nagarjuna.

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

What can be said can be said clearly
What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence.

Given that Nagarjuna has only become visible to western philosophers in the last two or three decades, it seems, I imagine that Wittgenstein was entirely unaware of Nagarjuna.


At May 08, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

I read Nagarjuna on holiday and enjoyed it. I wrote a post on my blog Enlightenment that references a lot of the same verses as you have quoted for the same reasons.

Nagarjuna is very clear on emptiness and the fact that even emptiness itself is dependantly arising.

At May 08, 2006, Blogger me said...

Emptiness I still don't understand - I mean, there's all this stuff here! (which, of course, is simply termporary patterns of mass/energy - but it ain't nothin, that's fo sho)

Or does he mean 'emptiness=everything'?

In other words, there is no remainder to the mathematics of infinity?

But why use the word emptiness? I'm not sure what is gained by this word - why not say everythingness? Or nonduality?

At May 08, 2006, Blogger Jules said...

What's emptiness? I don't know.
Maybe emptiness == don't-know

At May 08, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Lot's of practicing Buddhists don't know the meaning of 'emptiness' (Sunyata), which is a key Buddhist concept. It's not surprising because it's not an easy idea and it's often misrepresented.

Emptiness is not a vague mystical concept - it is precisely defined. It definitely does not mean total non-existence, although sometimes it is described as ultimate non-existence.

The concept of emptiness (Sunyata) was developed primarily by Nagarjuna - it is a reference to the absence of self-nature of all things. The reality of things is dependent on causes and conditions, on relations with the rest of reality and on the mind that perceives. It does not arise from and is not inherent in itself. Ideas of self or essence are provisional concepts rather than real entities. And even emptiness itself is not an inherent characteristic.

Sunyata is exactly the same as Dependent Origination - one is framed negatively and one is framed positively. This is why in the Heart Sutra we have the stanza 'form is not different to emptiness, emptiness is not different to form'. Form is not different from emptiness because emptiness is just the absence of self-nature in form - it is not something different or additional to form. Emptiness is the same as dependent origination and form is the same as dependent origination.


For a better understanding, I recommend reading Nagarjuna himself.

There is also a secondary meaning - mainly in Zen I think - which refers to emptiness as a mental state - being one free from duality and, mental imputation and attachment.

At May 09, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

justin: Thanks for this clear definition of emptiness and your nagarjuna notes.

In Zen (and some tibetan traditions) when they talk about emptiness as a mental state they are referring to a state of meditation where they are conscious that their ego/self is no longer there. This can be achieved by either lots of Zazen or by doing a smoke-and-mirrors meditation of 'looking' for 'I' and not finding it.

Emptiness is itself empty because Nagarjuna argues that no objects have inherrent characteristics. Emptiness is a characteristic. If objects had emptiness then they would have characteristics.

So, when we see objects and people as empty, we are no further forward.

When we see that objects are neither empty nor non-empty as are people then we are a step forward.

As for enlightenment, well, all the authors agree that initially it is perceived as a state of emptiness (the absence of self) but after a while this perception changes to the more accurate one that the emptiness itself is also just another construct of the mind and so fades into something that is neither empty nor non empty.

Emptiness is a topic that few people understand (and I make no claims to understanding). It is also not really necessary to understand it.

At May 09, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Emptiness is a topic that few people understand (and I make no claims to understanding). It is also not really necessary to understand it.

I've been thinking about this. Nagarjuna and the other Madhyamaka philosophers used the concept of emptiness as a vehicle for enlightenment. But Zen (and to an extend other schools) more or less abandons the philosphical route. It is certainly true that having a merely intellectual understanding is of no use in itself and if 'emptiness' is something that is clung to in any way it can become a hinderance.

Yet in a sense it seems that enlightenment can only be achieved by realising it, directly for oneself.

The text of the Heart Sutra - probably the core text for Zen - describes such a realisation:

When the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.
Was Coursing in the Deep Prajna Paramita.
He Perceived That All Five Skandhas Are Empty.
Thus He Overcame All Ills and Suffering.
Oh, Sariputra, Form Does not Differ From the Void,
And the Void Does Not Differ From Form.
Form is Void and Void is Form;
The Same is True For Feelings,
Perceptions, Volitions and Consciousness.
Sariputra, the Characteristics of the
Voidness of All Dharmas
Are Non-Arising, Non-Ceasing, Non-Defiled,
Non-Pure, Non-Increasing, Non-Decreasing.
Therefore, in the Void There Are No Forms,
No Feelings, Perceptions, Volitions or Consciousness.
No Eye, Ear, Nose, Tongue, Body or Mind;
No Form, Sound, Smell, Taste, Touch or Mind Object;
No Realm of the Eye,
Until We Come to No realm of Consciousness.
No ignorance and Also No Ending of Ignorance,
Until We Come to No Old Age and Death and
No Ending of Old Age and Death.
Also, There is No Truth of Suffering,
Of the Cause of Suffering,
Of the Cessation of Suffering, Nor of the Path.
There is No Wisdom, and There is No Attainment Whatsoever.
Because There is Nothing to Be Attained,
The Bodhisattva Relying On Prajna Paramita Has
No Obstruction in His Mind.
Because There is No Obstruction, He Has no Fear,
And He passes Far Beyond Confused Imagination.
And Reaches Ultimate Nirvana.

However, as you said Mike, complete enlightenment is beyond empty and non-empty, beyond samsara and nirvana. These distinctions are themselves traces of samsara.

At May 10, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

"Yet in a sense it seems that enlightenment can only be achieved by realising it, directly for oneself."

Yes. Realisation is different from an intellectual understanding.

The two can be indepedent of each other and can arise in any order. Intellectual understanding is not a pre-requisite.

At May 10, 2006, Blogger karen said...

I had an opposite experience. I studied text's for years and intellectually I knew what was being referred to and knew that it made sense. It wasn't until I actually experienced this "emptiness" that I knew what the text's meant and it was not what I had previously thought. What happened could not be described except to say that I felt very unburdened of things, thoughts and conflicts that I had previously sought solutions to through thinking. Aside from the routine everyday decisions that need to be made such as when to eat lunch (and even that sometimes does not need to be decided)there were really no decisions to agonize over. All this does not mean that I don't get caught up in matters over which I have no control, it just means that I get out of it a lot faster than I ever would have before and I don't bother to search for the answer.

At May 10, 2006, Blogger Jinzang said...

Something is empty if it only exists by stipulation. That is, only because people call it so and not in any sense outside of this. For example, national boundaries. Seeing that all phenomena only exist in this way takes some argument, ehich is what Nagarjuna supplies in the MMK. Basically there are five classic arguments used to establish emptiness, but don't ask me to explain them.

The philosophical explanation of emptiness leads to the understanding that comes from meditation. As Karen says, this is different, though related. It's important to distinguish between a coarse understanding of emptiness, which is the unfindability of the self in either the body or mind and the subtle understanding, which is the emptiness of the body and mind. Also one must distinguish between a meditative experience that is mixed with conceptual thought (so-called concordant emptiness) and an expirience that is utterly free of conceptual thought.

At May 10, 2006, Blogger Jules said...

very nice, jz

At May 10, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

jz: [Thank's for the clarity] "Also one must distinguish between a meditative experience that is mixed with conceptual thought (so-called concordant emptiness) and an expirience that is utterly free of conceptual thought. "

Ah! This gives me a way to explain two different meditations practices ;-)

In Zazen, it is possible to experience emptiness free of conceptual thought.
I would argue that as such things go it is a more 'true' experience.

The alternative way (which the Tibetan Sangha that I attend practices) is to meditate on looking for "I" and where it resides. They do it using thoughts and so when they meet emptiness it is not absent of thought. I have called this in the past "smoke and mirrors".

This latter practice looks like you meet the same thing unless you have an understanding of both.

Of the two practices, I would suggest that Zazen is akin to learning to relax into the presence of emptiness where all you do is stop ignoring it.

The TS approach is more of a hunt for emptiness, but there is not the same sense of relaxtion with it. I think the TS is sailing very close to creating a 'false' mental construct of emptiness since there is no need to hunt for it.

On a pragmatic side, what we all call emptiness is I would argue a construct of the mind - as is everything else we experience. It is however the construct of the mind as the mind sees the body and itself, so it is probably the 'only' remaining construct when the others have gone.

This then gives a 'direction' to head if you wish to 'find' emptiness.

When you do zazen what you are actually doing is training yourself to become more aware of yourself. To stop hiding from yourself. So, you are becomming more aware of your thoughts and how they chase around, you are becomming more aware of your emotions and how they and your thoughts are often entwined. You are becomming fully aware of your body and the richness of all the sensations and input that it is always giving you.

As someone who used to be an introvert, when I did zazen I would focus heavily on bringing awareness into my body to attempt to become my body rather than having a body.

An extrovert might want to instead concentrate on becomming more aware of their mind.

Introverts tend to deny the bodyand emotions. Extroverts tend to deny the mind and conscious thought.

As always, this is based on my own experience and I trust that I have not now made things less clear for others..

At May 11, 2006, Blogger Jinzang said...

The alternative way (which the Tibetan Sangha that I attend practices) is to meditate on looking for "I" and where it resides. They do it using thoughts and so when they meet emptiness it is not absent of thought. I have called this in the past "smoke and mirrors".

I hope I'm not giving away any secrets, but you never "meet" emptiness. The big joke here is what you are looking for is what is doing the looking. So this sort of search is never successful, at least in any conventional sense. It's when you look as hard as you can and then give up that you "see" it. Of course, what you see is that there's nothing to see.

Any genuine gimpse of emptiness is going to be free from thought. The problem is what happens next. We frame the experience and in this way it's mixed with conceptuality. I'm just guessing, but when you get to the real deal, I'm thinking you never come out of the experience.

At May 12, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

"I hope I'm not giving away any secrets, but you never "meet" emptiness. It's when you look as hard as you can and then give up that you "see" it. Of course, what you see is that there's nothing to see.

I know.

It is a point of sadness for me with this Sangha that one of the key meditation exercises will only give them a false taste of what they are seeking.

I have spoken with one of the teachers there and taught her an alternative way to meditate towards emptiness (zazen). She now does include zazen in her practice.
Meanwhile, she keeps testing my understanding. I am happy for her to do this. It is very sensible.

"Any genuine gimpse of emptiness is going to be free from thought."


Anything that involves intense concentration [on the body, on the moment, on an action or an object] can act as a gateway to this.

Some things such as Zazen, Tai Chi, Aikido, Yoga, Kung Fu and (less so) traditional Karate are designed so that intense concentration is required and will allow glimpses of emptiness.

I have found in the past that anything that requires intense concentration and the body (moving or not) is a good practice for glimpsing emptiness. But, if in Zazen you concentrate on the body (as much as the mind), you can glimpse it. Sometimes, even concentrating on TV or radio can do it!!!!

"I'm just guessing, but when you get to the real deal, I'm thinking you never come out of the experience"

Time for an analogy.

Let's imagine that you live in a house where the TV is on all of the time. There is always background noise.

After years of training you find that sometimes you mute the TV to concentrate on what you are doing.

The lack of background TV is so strange to you that you give it a name "emptiness".

After a few seconds of this, you rush to return the TV to its normal volume.

By default the TV is always on. Meditations on emptiness mute the TV, they don't switch it off.

You can switch off the TV at any point but don't do so because the silence would be overwhelming. You can never accidentally switch off the TV.

So, with this as an analogy I would say (I cannot be certain of this) that meditation on emptiness will not accidentally cause you to enter into it never to return. This is why Dogen keeps banging on about "... just Wake Up" and the Lotus(?) sutra talks about Stream enterers, and never-returners.

I don't know if a trip into Emptiness is a one-way thing. I assume that you can always go and buy another TV.

I would also say that all these glimpses of emptiness that meditation can give are nothing more than a preparation for the day if it comes when you choose to switch the TV off.

My guess it is not wise to switch the TV off unless you are already comfortable with silence.

This particular TV of course features lots of programs about what living without a TV might be like where people talk incessantly about it...

[Of course, the TV is analogous to the Ego (jungian), the whole "I"]


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