Emptiness or the Void (Frederick Copleston)

Emptiness or the Void (from Religion and the One, by Prof. Frederick Copleston, London 1982)

Denial of the existence of a permanent substantial self, underlying all passing psychical states or mental phenomena, goes back to the beginning of Buddhism. The adherents of the Madhyamika school insisted that all things, both mind and external things, were insubstantial, not in the sense that they were absolutely non-existent or unreal, but in the sense that there was no abiding substance or core in any of them. In other words, they applied a phenomenalistic analysis to all things. This view was expressed by saying that all things, including selves or minds, were ’empty’. They were not only causally dependent but also essentiallly changing and transient, devoid of any permanent substantial core or self-nature. They were all manifestations of emptiness.

This view, taken by itself, did not of course entail the hypostatization of Emptiness or the Void as an all-pervasive reality. One might assert that all things are causally dependent, changing and transient, and at the same time deny that there is any reality beyond these causally dependent and changing things. But Buddhism is essentially a spiritual path, a path to Nirvana. And if Emptiness or the Void is simply a collective name for the changing Many, considered in regard to certain characteristics, it seems to follow that Nirvana, which involves transcending the world of time and change, is equivalent to annihilation. This was indeed what some Buddhists believed that it was. Others, however, regarded Nirvana as a positive state of bliss, not indeed describable or even conceivable, but none the less not equivalent in an absolute sense to non-existence. Given this point of view, there was naturally a tendency in the Madhyamika school to refer to Emptiness or the Void as though it were the Absolute, the One.

For Nagarjuna, the great Madhyamika philosopher, it was incorrect to say that Emptiness did not exist. It was equally incorrect to say that it existed. It was also incorrect to say both that it existed and that it did not exist. Finally, it was incorrect to say that it neither existed nor did not exist. In other words, one could really say nothing at all.. Nagarjuna developed an elaborate dialectic to expose the fallacies in all positive metaphysical systems and made no claim to expound a metaphysical system of his own. This clearing away, so to speak, of metaphysics was thought of as facilitating or preparing the way for an intuitive apprehension of Emptiness. This intuition can hardly be interpreted simply as an assent to the conclusion of an agreement, namely the conclusion that all things are insubstantial. For this conclusion can be established philosophically, according to Buddhist thinkers. The intuition might perhaps be interpreted as a more lively awareness of what is already known, as a personal realization of the emptiness of all things which goes beyond mere intellectual assent to the conclusion of an argument and which influences conduct, promoting detachment for an example.

At the same time the idea of philosophical reasoning as a preparation for an intuition of Emptiness naturally tends to suggest that Emptiness or the Void is the Absolute, the ultimate reality which is called ‘Emptiness’ because it transcends conceptual thought and all description.. Some scholars are sharply opposed to any such interpretation. In their opinion terms as ‘Emptiness’ and the ‘Void’ do not refer to any ultimate reality. They do not refer even to the inner reality of phenomena. They have no inner reality. We should not allow ourselves to be misled by the use of nouns and proceed to assimilate the philosophy of Nagarjuna to that of Shankara. The Madhyamika system is simply a faithful development of the teaching of the Buddha, who did not postulate any metaphysical reality.

The Three-Treatise School (Wing-tsit Chan)

The Three-Treatise School (from The Philosophy of Emptiness: Chi-tsang of the Three-Treatise School, in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, by Wing-tsit Chan, Princeton 1963, 1969, 1973)

The Three-Treatise School and the Consciousness-Only School [Vijñanavada] represented the two major developments of Mahayana or Great Vehicle philosophy in India. The former insists that dharmas (elements of existence) and their causes are unreal and has therefore been known as the School of Non-being, while the latter insists that they are real and has therefore been known as the School of Being. Both were introduced into China by outstanding philosophers. Both had something profound and subtle to offer which China had never known. Both lasted for several centuries. But both failed to exert lasting influence on Chinese thought. It is important to understand why this has been the case.

The Three-Treatise School, called Madhyamika (Middle Doctrine) in Sanskrit, was founded in India by Nagarjuna (c.100-200 A.D.). Kumarajiva (344-413) introduced it into China by translating Nagarjuna’s two most important treatises, the Madhyamika sastra (Treatise on the Middle Doctrine) and the Dvadasanikaya sastra (Twelve Gates Treatise) and his disciple Aryadeva’s Sata sastra (One Hundred Verses Treatise). Hence the school is called the Three-Treatise School.

The central concept of the school is Emptiness (Sunyata) in the sense that the nature and characters of all dharmas, together with their causation, are devoid of reality. Thus all differentiations, whether being or non-being, cause or effect, or coming-into-existence or going-out-of-existence are only ‘temporary names’ and are empty in nature. The only reality is Emptiness itself, which is the absolute, Ultimate Void, the Original Substance, or in Chinese terminology, the correct principle (cheng-li). As such it is equivalent to Nirvana and the Dharma-body.

The doctrine was transmitted in China through Kumarajiva’s pupil Seng-chao (384-414) and played a dominant role there from the fourth to the seventh century. It had a tremendous attraction for the Chinese because its philosophy of Emptiness suited the temper of Chinese intellectuals of Wei-Chin times (220-420), who were then propagating the Taoist doctrine of non-being. Its highly developed and systematic method of reasoning was a stimulating novelty to the Chinese. Its spirit of criticism and refutation gave the rebellious Chinese philosophers, including the Neo-Taoists, a sense of emancipation. Its nominalism reinforced the Chinese opposition to the Confucian doctrine of ranks and names, especially in the sixth century. In addition to all this, it had the great fortune [sic] of having as its systematiser the outstanding figure, Chi-tsang (549-623). […]

Ironically, Chi-tsang’s success was at the same time the failure of his school, for it became less and less Chinese. As mentioned before, Seng-chao was still a bridge between Taoism and Buddhism. He combined the typical Chinese concept of identity of substance and function, for example, with the Buddhist concepts of temporary names and Emptiness. In Chi-tsang, substance and function are sharply contrasted instead. In that, he was completely Indian in viewpoint, although he quoted Taoists. As a systematiser and transmitter of Indian philosophy, he brought about no cross-fertilization between Buddhist and Chinese thought. And it happened that the Indian thought which he promoted was so utterly unacceptable to the Chinese that the school declined in the ninth century. […]

To this [the Middle Doctrine] school, refutation of erroneous views is essential for and indeed identical with the elucidation of right views. But when a right view is held in place of a wrong one, the right view itself becomes one-sided and has to be refuted. It is only through this dialectic process that Emptiness can be arrived at, which alone is free from names and character and is ‘inexplicable in speech and unrealizable in thought’.  The specific method in this dialectic process is Nagarjuna’s Middle Path of Eightfold Negations, which denies that dharmas come into existence or go out of existence, that they are permanent or come to an end, that they are the same or different, and that they come or go away. The basis of all arguments is the so-called Four Points of Argumentation. By the use of this method of argument, a dharma as being, as non-being, as both being and non-being, and as neither being nor non-being are all refuted and proved to be untrue. Chi-tsang illustrates this method fully in his refutation of causation.

It is obvious that this approach is as nihilistic as it is destructive. The school had little new substance to offer and nothing constructive. It is true that Emptiness as the Absolute is as pure and perfect as anything conceivable, but being devoid of specific characters and divorced from mundane reality, it becomes too abstract for the Chinese. It might be hoped that its novel and radical method of reasoning at least aroused the Chinese mind and led to a new approach to life and reality, but it did not. That opportunity was left to the Zen (Meditation, Ch’an) School.

The Term Shunyata (Zimmer)

The Term Shunyata (from Philosophies of India, by Dr. Heinrich Zimmer, edited by Prof. Joseph Campbell, 1952, London 1967)

The term shunyata, as applied to the metaphysical reality, insists on the fact that reason and language apply to only the finite world; nothing can be said of the infinite. But the term is applied also to all things of the phenomenal sphere, and here is the great stroke of Shunyavada. “As applied to the world of experience,” writes Dr. Radakrishnan in his Indian Philosophy, “shunyata means the ever-changing state of the phenomenal world. In the dread waste of endlessness man loses all hope, but the moment he recognizes its unreality he transcends it and reaches after the abiding principle. He knows that the whole is a passing dream, where he may sit unconcerned with the issues, certain of victory.”

In other words, the concept of emptiness, the void, vacuity, has been employed in the Madhyamika teaching as a convenient and effective pedagogical instrument to bring the mind beyond that sense of duality which infects all systems in which the absolute and the world of relativity are described in contrasting, or antagonistic terms. In the Vedanta Gitas, as we have seen, the non-duality of Nirvana and Samsara, release and bondage, is made known and celebrated in rhapsodic verses; but in this Buddhist formula, one word, shunyata, bears the entire message, and simultaneously projects the mind beyond any attempt to conceive of a synthesis. Philosophically, as a metaphysical doctrine, the formula conduces to a thoroughgoing Docetism: the world, the Buddha, and Nirvana itself become no more than the figments of an absolutely empty dream. This is the point that has been attacked, always, in argument, and, of course, it is an easy point to make seem absurd if one takes absolutely the usual categories of reason. But the circumstance to be borne in mind is that this Buddhist philosophy is not primarily an instrument of reason but an instrument to convert reason into realization; one step beyond the term is the understanding of what it really means. And as a device to effect such a transformation of knowledge – first standing between all the contrarities of ‘the world’ and ‘release from the world’, then standing between the moment of preliminary comprehension and that of realized illumination – it would be difficult indeed to find a more apt and efficient term.

This is why the doctrine is called Madhyamika, the ‘Middle Way’. And actually, it brings, as far as possible, into systematic philosophical statement the whole implication of the ‘Middle Doctrine’ of the Buddha himself. For as we read in the orthodox Pali Samyutta-Nikaya: “That things have being, O Kaccana, constitutes one extreme of doctrine; that things have no being is the other extreme. These extremes, O Kaccana, have been avoided by the Tathagata, and it is a middle doctrine that he teaches.” The Buddha continually diverted the mind from its natural tendency to posit an abiding essence beyond, or underlying, the endless and meaningless dynamism of the concatenation of causes. And this is the effect also of Nagarjuna’s metaphysical doctrine of the void.

Nirvana truly realized is Samsara properly understood (Iyer)

Nirvana truly realized is Samsara properly understood (from Buddha and the Path to Enlightenment, by Raghavan Iyer, Theosophy Library Online, Internet 1986)

The Madhyamika school traces its origin to Nagarjuna, the brilliant philosopher and formidable dialectician who flourished in the late second century A.D. Taking Buddha’s advocacy of the Middle Way between harmful extremes, between avid indulgence and austere asceticism, and between sterile intellectualization and suffocating mental torpor, Nagarjuna developed a rigorous dialectical logic by which he reduced every philosophical standpoint to an explosive set of contradictions. This did not lead to the closure of scepticism, as the less vigorously pursued pre-Socratic philosophies did, but rather to the elusive standpoint that neither existence nor non-existence can be asserted of the world and of everything in it. The Madhyamikas, therefore, refused to affirm or deny any philosophical proposition. Nagarjuna sought to liberate the mind from its tendencies to cling to tidy or clever formulations of truth, because any truth short of shunyata, the voidness of reality, is inherently misleading. Relative truths are not like pieces of a puzzle, each of which incrementally adds to the complete design. They are plausible distortions of the truth and can seriously mislead the aspirant. They cannot be lightly or wholly repudiated, however, for they are all the seeker has, and so he must learn to use them as aids whilst remembering that they are neither accurate nor complete in themselves.

By the fifth century two views of Nagarjuna’s work had emerged. The followers of Bhavaviveka thought that Madhyamika philosophy had a positive content, whilst those who subscribed to Buddhapalita’s more severe interpretation said that every standpoint, including their own, could be reduced to absurdity, which fact alone, far more than any positively asserted doctrine, could lead to intuitive insight (Prajña) and Enlightenment. Chandrakirti’s remarkable defence of this latter standpoint deeply influenced Tibetan Buddhist traditions as well as those schools of thought that eventually culminated in Japan in Zen. Nagarjuna’s dialectic revealed the shunya or emptiness of all discursive, worldly thought and its proliferating categories.

For the Madhyamikas, whatever can be conceptualized is therefore relative, and whatever is relative is shunya, empty. Since absolute inconceivable truth is also shunya, shunyata or the void is shared by both Samsara and Nirvana. Ultimately, Nirvana truly realized is Samsara properly understood. The fully realized Bodhisattva, the enlightened Buddha who renounces the Dharmakaya vesture to remain at the service of suffering beings, recognizes this radical transcendental equivalence. The Arhant and the Pratyeka Buddha, who look to their own redemption and realization, are elevated beyond any conventional description, but nonetheless do not fully realize or freely embody this highest truth. Thus for the Madhyamikas, the Bodhisattva ideal is the supreme wisdom, showing the unqualified unity of unfettered metaphysics and transcendent ethics, theoria and praxis, at the highest conceivable level.

Weighing the Butter, Levels of Explanation, and Falsification (Newland)

Weighing the Butter, Levels of Explanation, and Falsification: Models of the Conventional in Tsongkhapa’s Account of Madhyamaka (by Guy Martin Newland, in  Moonshadows – Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy, by The Cowherds, Oxford 2011)

Following Candrakirti’s interpretations of Nagarjuna, Tsongkhapa (LRC [Byang chub lam rim che ba, Xining 1985] 606-607) argues that if things had any sort of essence or intrinsic nature [svabhava] of their own, this nature would have to be located under ultimate analysis. Therefore, the fact that things are not found under ultimate analysis means that they utterly lack intrinsic nature (not that they are nonexistent). Things lack the sort of existence that would be found, were it there, through ultimate analysis. For Tsongkhapa, not existing under ultimate analysis, not existing ultimately, and not existing intrinsically or essentially are three ways of saying the same thing. The knowledge that things lack essential reality is a liberating insight into emptiness, the absence of intrinsic existence [nisvabhava].

(The difference between Prasangika and Svatantrika, according to Tsongkhapa, is that Svatantrikas, while recognising that nothing withstands ultimate analysis, regard things as having an intrinsic nature conventionally, while Prasangikas take intrinsic nature to be just that which would be found by ultimate analysis if it existed, concluding from the fact that nothing withstands ultimate analysis that nothing has any intrinsic nature at all, even conventionally.)

Thus, the deeper and ultimate ‘level of explanation/analysis’ in Madhyamaka is in fact that level upon which we see the utter lack or absence of any core or pith to which all matters can be reduced. This very lack, emptiness, is all that is ever discerned at that level. It is the entirety of what can be observed from that perspective – but is certainly not on that account the only thing that exists. Still, it must give us pause to consider that ultimate analysis – the mind that knows the final nature of things – does not at all find persons or cars. When persons and cars cannot withstand such rational analysis, when their vivid and seemingly solid presence recedes and finally evaporates as they are scrutinized, then does this not suggest that scrupulous investigation has at last refuted them? And if so, then how can anyone talk about things having any kind of meaningful existence at all once they have been refuted by reasoning?

Tsongkhapa has an interlocutor pose this very question (LRC 606). In response, he argues that this question comes about through conflating (1) the inability to withstand rational analysis with (2) invalidation or refutation by reason. While it would be foolhardy to claim that things are refuted by reason and nonetheless exist, he argues, things may very well exist although being unable to withstand rational analysis. To ask whether something can withstand rational analysis is to ask whether it is ‘found’ or demonstrated by a line of reasoning that analyses what exists ultimately. This kind of analysis is intent upon seeking out the essential nature that is the core reality behind an appearance. When such reasoning analyses a car, it does not find any such essential reality, and this is what it means to say that a car is ‘unable to withstand rational analysis’ (LRC 606-610).

Thus, the unfindability of a car under ultimate analysis is not a sign of a car’s nonexistence; it is only a sign of a car’s not existing in the manner sought by this sort of analysis. That is, it is a sign of the utter nonexistence of an essentially real car. We do not expect to see Saturn looking through a microscope; we do not expect a sociologist to find quarks; we do not expect rational analysis to find conventional existence and so do not conclude that there is none just because it is not found thereby. As Tsongkhapa says, we cannot expect to see sounds even when we look with utmost care.

The So-Called Narrative View of the Self (Westerhoff)

The So-Called Narrative View of the Self (from Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka, A Philosophical Introduction, by Jan Westerhoff, Oxford 2009)

Nagarjuna’s rejection of entities existing by svabhava is not restricted to the study of the external world around us. At least as important as refuting the existence of fundamental substances which provide the basis for a world independent of human interests and concerns is the refutation of a substantial self, which constitutes the fixed point around which our internal world revolves. Such a substantial self is an essentially unchanging entity, distinct from our physical body and psychological states, which unifies our sensory input and mental life and acts as a foundation of our agenthood in the world. Nagarjuna wants to replace this prima facie plausible and compelling view of a self, which, however, he claims to be mistaken, by a conception of the self as a set of causally interconnected physical and psychological events. He sets out to account for the fact that we normally do not see ourselves in this way by arguing that this set of events is usually under the misapprehension of its own properties: it sees itself as a substantial self, even though it is not.

It is interesting to note that this alternative view of the self presented here (which, to be sure, is not a Madhyamaka specialty but widely shared between different Buddhist traditions), despite its intuitive implausibility, finds a surprising amount of support in recent research on cognitive science. Of particular interest in this context is the so-called narrative view of the self, a theory that has been explored in detail by Daniel Dennett [most famously in his Consciousness Explained, London 1991], who also presents supporting evidence from our current knowledge of how the brain works. One of Dennett’s central observations is that the processing of neurophysiologically encoded information is spread across the entire brain. There is no place in the brain where “it all comes together”, no “Cartesian theatre” where the stream of sensory information is unified into mental content and presented to consciousness. He argues that not only is there no neurophysiological analog to the self anywhere in the spatial organization of the brain, also the temporal sequence of events in the brain cannot be used as a foundation of a continuous self. Dennett shows that in certain cases the order of events as the appear in our consciousness does not line up with the temporal order of their underlying neurophysiological bases. The view of our selves as continuous, temporally extended entities therefore cannot be seen as a mere reflection of a series of events in the brain, but requires a significant deal of conceptual construction. Our subjective feeling of spatial and temporal location cannot be grounded on the spatially and temporally spread out, discontinuous series of events in the brain in a straightforward manner. Our view of the self as an essentuially unchanging unifier and agent cannot be based on the structure of the piece of matter that occupies the space where we locate the center of gravity.

Dennett argues instead that the self is a product of our linguistic capacities. The capacity to use language is hard-wired into our brain, and once we start using language, we tell stories, including stories about ourselves which continuously create that very self. The self emerging on this theory is not the author, but the authored. Dennett notes that “our tales are spun, but for the most part we don’t spin them; they spin us. The human consciousness, and our narrative selfhood, is the product, not their source”. For this reason there is no fundamental difference between the self created by our own narrative and the selves created in works of fiction. It is not the case that the former are intrinsically more real than the latter; in fact they belong fundamentally to the same class of things (even though the fictional selves, unlike our own narrative selves, are usually not open ended). Both are conceptual constructs produced by our brain regarding a narrative, our own or that in some text, as revolving around a single fixed point.

Nagarjuna and the Madhyamika School (Ling)

Nagarjuna and the Madhyamika school (from A History of Religion East and West, by Prof. Trevor Ling, 1968, Basingstoke 1988)

We have seen that one of the earliest developments in Buddhist thought in the Mahayana direction was the idea that even dhammas (regarded by the Theravadins as the indivisible ultimate events of which all existence is composed) are in fact substanceless; all things, even dhammas, are void of substance, or shunya. This idea is first found in a Mahayana text which was translated into Chinese at the end of the second century C.E. and which may therefore be regarded as having had its origin somewhere in north-west India in the first century C.E.

Those who assert (vadin) this doctrine of the voidness of substance (shunya) even in dhammas, are called shunyavadins. Another name for this school of thought is the Madhyamika school, or school of the ‘middle position’ (madhya is cognate with Latin media). The middle position referred to was not that of the earlier period of Buddhism, when the Buddha’s teaching was known as ‘the Middle Way’, that is, between self-mortification and sensuality, but between the complete realism of the Sarvastivadins who asserted that all dhammas, past, present and future, were real; and the absolute idealism of the Yogacharin school.

The Madhyamika school is generally regarded as having been founded by Nagarjuna in the second century C.E. It is significant that Nagarjuna was a brahman from south central India (Andhra) who had thrown in his lot with Buddhism. The school of thought which he developed certainly has affinities with brahman philosophical thought; although it was developed in opposition to certain of the orthodox brahman philosophies (Sankhya and Vaishesika), it was generally more akin to these schools than to the early Abhidhamma of Pali Buddhism. An excellent account of the Madhyamika school has been provided by T.R.V. Murti (1955). His view of the development of this school is that it may be described in terms of a dialectic. The original thesis was the atma-affirming doctrine of the Upanishads; the antithesis to this was the denial of any enduring atta (atma) in early Buddhism, formalised in the Abhidhamma; the synthesis is found in the Madhyamika.

According to Murti is was the inadequacy and inconsistency of the Abhidhamma system, especially the Sarvastivadin Abhidhamma, which led to the development of the Madhyamika. The essential concern of the Madhyamika is with the relation between the empirical world of the senses, which in Buddhist thought generally is known as Samsara (the continued round of existence), and the transcendental reality Nirvana. According to the Madhyamika, Nirvana is present in Samsara, but men are prevented from recognising this and entering into it because of the false constructions they put upon the world. The removal of these false constructions (the negation of the negation) and the attainment of Nirvana is the religious goal, in the Madhyamika Buddhist view. The way to do this is by cultivating a view of the substanceless nature of things. To accomplish this, they hold, needs a long course of meditational training.