Pratitya-samutpada (Tachikawa)

Pratitya-samutpada (from An Introduction to the Philosophy of Nagarjuna, by Prof. Musashi Tachikawa, 1986, Delhi 1997)

In the doctrine of dependent co-arising (pratitya-samutpada) belonging to the period of Primitive (or Early) Buddhism, the question of whether or not the individual members of the causal nexus possess any perduring and immutable reality (svabhava) hardly arose. This was because when considered from the viewpoint of the early doctrine of dependent co-arising, maintaining as it did that the ‘world’ had not been created by some eternal and imperishable god or similar entity, it was only natural that human ignorance, cognition and action, all pertaining to the world of transmigration, should be impermanent and without intrinsic reality.

But by the time of Nagarjuna the doctrine of dependent co-arising, with its denial of any eternal and immutable reality, was no longer fulfilling its purpose. This was because, as a result of the emphasis placed on the reality of the individual constituent elements of the world in the course of developments within Abhidharma philosophy in the period succeeding that of Early Buddhism, the doctrine of dependent co-arising, which ought to have been an expression of the negation of own-being (svabhava), had become instead an expression of the affirmation of own-being. According to Abhidharma philosophy, dependent co-arising means that a certain constituent element or combination of elements of the world (x) arises, or is arising, from another constituent element or combination of elements (y) in accordance with a consistent relationship obtaining between cause and effect. In other words, dependent co-arising in Abhidharma philosophy represents the causal relationship obtaining among a limited number of constituent elements of the world. In this case, x is considered to act as the cause from which y is born, and this presupposes the fact that x and y must exist each with their separate own-being. In Abhidharma philosophy a certain thing possessing within itself its own existential base enters into a relationship with another thing, different from itself, also possessing within itself its own existential base. Thus the causal relationship posited by Abhidharma philosophy is a relationship between a certain thing endowed with own-being and another thing also endowed with own-being. On the basis of such ideas, Abhidharma philosophy further systematized and disseminated the doctrine of the twelvefold chain of dependent co-arising.

In the view of Nagarjuna, this interpretation of causal relationships in Abhidharma philosophy ran counter to the spirit of Early Buddhism.. Although Abhidharma philosophy had not abandoned the basic thesis of Buddhism which declared that “all things are impermanent”, in the view of Abhidharma philosophy it was ‘man’ (pudgala, the centre of personality considered to reside within the individual) as a complex of constituent elements that was impermanent, but the individual elements constituting ‘man’ were eternal and unchanging. Nagarjuna, on the other hand, held not only ‘man’ but also the individual elements (dharma) of which he is composed to be impermanent. This is why Nagarjuna’s standpoint has been defined as advocating that “both pudgala and dharma are without self”. Seeking as he did to attain to emptiness through the radical negation of the profane, he could not admit the reality of the constituent elements.

Being-determined and Self-determination are One (Nishitani)

Being-determined and Self-determination are One (from Religion and Nothingness, by Prof. Keiji Nishitani, translated with an introduction by Prof. Jan van Bragt, and with a foreword by Prof. Winston L. King, 1982, Berkeley 1983)

An attempt has been made in the preceding to explain that our existence, our behaviour, and our becoming all come about within a world-nexus that is unlimited not only with regard to time but also with regard to space. Already on the standpoint of karma as well, the Dasein of the dynamic nexus of being-doing-becoming comes about within time without beginning or end, while opening up the infinite openness of nihility directly beneath the present. But inasmuch as this dynamic nexus appears only as a perpetual relating to something, our Dasein, in being determined by that world-nexus, becomes one with it in ‘fate’.

Dasein is always and at each occasion becoming manifest as one particular roll of the waves that gathers up into itself the whole ebb and flow of the world-nexus since time without beginning or end. Our doing in that context is free with the freedom of attachment determined by causal necessity within the total nexus and, at the same time, is also free with the arbitrary freedom that contracts the total nexus into the one center of the self.

That is why our doing is karma standing on nihility. In that doing, nihility, even as it becomes manifest from the ground where self and the world are one, nullifies the being of the self, sets the self adrift in transitory becoming, and transforms the self and all other things into a samskrta [samskrita, interdependently conditioned = pratityasamutpada] existence.

It was noted earlier in this chapter that being-determined in the world-nexus and self-determination are one. But on the standpoint of karma this self-determination makes the infinite drive that originates from the self-centered elemental source of avidya its essence and becomes manifest in taking the form of will as attachment and control. And being-determined means being conditioned through causal necessity in that total, unlimited nexus.

Further, it was noted that the free exercise of will, consisting of attachment and control in its relations with any given thing, is in its very freedom a configuration determined by ‘fate’ – which is after all what karma is. In this karmic mode of being, then, nihility becomes manifest from the ground where self and world are one. And the reason for this, as we went on to explain, is that avidya, as an infinite self-enclosure elemental to karma, rises to awareness only in unison with the nihility on which it stands. In karma we can only have our being through being constantly engaged in doing something. That is, in order to be, we are obliged to be relating to something. This means that our being is a debt unto itself, and that our doing as a settlement of that debt is equivalent to the direct instatement of a new debt. This means, on the one hand, that our being is passing away and coming to be at every fleeting instant and that therein the nihility that is constantly nullifying our being is revealed. On the other hand, at the same point that the continuous cancellation of debt is a continuous reinstatement, there appears something that urges us on endlessly from within. In that infinite drive, our Dasein is never able to divest itself of its own home-ground, and our self within that dynamic nexus of being-doing-becoming is always itself – in incessant becoming.

Avidya comes to awareness as the home-ground of the self, where the self is caught in incessant becoming and unable to take its leave, that is, as the outermost extreme of self-centeredness. As a result, in avidya, the persistence of the self at being itself and emerging into the nature of self-centered being, always comes about as a simultaneous whole with the disclosure of nihility in avidya in its very process of nullifying the being of the self. The inability of the self to detach itself from the home-ground of its own transitory becoming – or, conversely, the self’s being ever itself, while its being is nonetheless in constant change – also has its base here. That is what karma means. Dasein in the dynamic nexus of being-doing-becoming is but the being of the self being constituted directly beneath the present as an emergence from nihility into the nature of avidya.

The Philosophy of Emptiness (Abe)

The Philosophy of Emptiness (from Zen and Western Thought, by Prof. Masao Abe, edited by Prof. William R. LaFleur, 1985, Honolulu 1989)

In early Buddhism the theory of dependent origination and the philosophy of emptiness were still naively undifferentiated. It was Abhidharma Buddhism which awakened to a kind of philosophy of emptiness and set it up in the heart of Buddhism. But the method of its process of realization was to get rid of concepts of substantiality by analysing phenomenal things into diverse elements and thus advocating that everything is empty. Accordingly, Abhidharma Buddhism’s philosophy of emptiness was based solely on analytic observation – hence it was later called the ‘analytic view of emptiness’. It did not have a total realization of emptiness of the phenomenal things. Thus the overcoming of the concept of substantial nature or ‘being’ was still not thoroughly carried through. Abhidharma fails to overcome the substantiality of the analysed elements.

Beginning with the Prajñaparamita-sutra, Mahayana Buddhist thinkers transcended Abhidharma Buddhism’s analytic view of emptiness, erecting the standpoint which was later called the ‘view of substantial emptiness’. This was a position which did not clarify the emptiness of phenomena by analysing them into elements. Rather, it insisted that all phenomena were themselves empty in principle, and insisted on the nature of the emptiness of existence itself. The Prajñaparamita-sutra emphasizes ‘not being, and not not being’. It clarified not only the negation of being, but also the position of the double negation – the negation of non-being as the denial of being – or the negation of the negation. It thereby disclosed ‘Emptiness’ as free from both being and non-being, i.e. it revealed prajña-wisdom.

But it was Nagarjuna who gave this standpoint of Emptiness found in the Prajñaparamita-sutra a thorough philosophical foundation by drawing out the implications of the mystical intuition seen therein and developing them into a complete philosophical realization. Nagarjuna criticized the proponents of substantial essence of his day who held that things really exist corresponding to concepts. He said that they had lapsed into an illusory view which misconceived the real state of the phenomenal world. He insisted that with the transcendence of the illusory view of concepts, true Reality appears as animitta (no-form, or non-determinate entity). But Nagarjuna rejected as illusory, not only the ‘eternalist’ view, which took phenomena to be real just as they are, but also the opposite ‘nihilistic’ view that emptiness and non-being are true reality. He took as the standpoint of Mahayana Emptiness an independent stand liberated from every illusory point of view connected with either affirmation or negation, being or non-being, and called that standpoint the ‘Middle Way’.

Two Types of Negation (Huntington)

Two Types of Negation (from The Emptiness of Emptiness, by Prof. C.W. Huntington Jr., with Geshe Namgyal Wangchen, 1989, Delhi 1992)

Within the Madhyamika system, soteriology plays an integral role as the practical application of philosophical reflection. Although things do not bear their individual existence within themselves, as they appear to do, they are nevertheless quite real insofar as they are efficacious. The eminent Tibetan scholar Tsong kha pa has referred to the concept of causal efficacy – the sole determining criterion for conventional truth and reality – as “the most profound and subtle matter within the Madhyamika philosophy”. One needs, then, to appreciate the interdependent nature of appearances and to adjust attitudes accordingly in order to avoid a considerable amount of suffering.

Indian philosophers traditionally define two distinct types of negation: (i) Negation which indirectly affirms the existence of something else (paryudasa); and (ii) Negation which leaves nothing in its place (prasajya). The Madhyamika has assigned a particular significance to each of these. The first type of negation is “relative”, “implicative”, or “presuppositional” negation. Taken as a philosophical principle, it leads to the opposed ontological positions of nihilism and absolutism. The second type, “nonimplicative” or “nonpresuppositional” negation, is used by the Madhyamika to express the radical, deconstructive negation effected through application of the concept of emptiness. When one negates the reality of a reflection he necessarily affirms the reality of the reflected entity, but when the Madhyamika philosopher negates the reality of the world, he affirms neither a “something” nor a “nothing” in its place. In other words, he does not supply the old, reified concept “reality” with a new, more refined and abstract referent, a metaphysical substrate of some novel and convincing variety. On the contrary, in order to know and accept the world as it is both in its everyday appearance and in the paradox and mystery of this appearance, he steps entirely outside the language game that can be played only by holding onto propositions (pratijñas) and views (dristis). In taking this step he makes the first critical move away from a form of life caught up in the anxious and generally manipulative attitude associated with this way of thinking and acting.

This is a very subtle point, and it lies at the heart of the Madhyamika philosophy for, as Candrakirti and others have often indicated, no matter what ingenious things may be written or said about emptiness by the cleverest philosopher, ultimately it must be “seen by nonseeing” and “realized by nonrealization”. It is not an epistemic or ontic fact dissociated from everyday life, ensconced “out there” somewhere waiting to be discovered and possessed through the power of critical rationalism. “Emptiness” is a conventional designation (prajñapti), an ordinary word used, like all words, to accomplish a specific purpose registered in the intention of the speaker. In accordance with what the texts say, it is perhaps best understood as a way of being, a way of existing, knowing, and acting with complete freedom from clinging and antipathy. In the direct (noninferential) realization of emptiness, the claims of the part or individual are immediately experienced as harmonious with the claims of the whole world of sentient and insentient being. The direct realization of emptiness, what I call the “actualization” of emptiness, is the source of the bodhisattvas’s universal compassion.

The Emptiness of Phenomena is not Nonexistence (Garfield)

The Emptiness of Phenomena is not Nonexistence (from Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika, by Jay L. Garfield, in Buddhist Philosophy, Essential Readings, edited by William Edelglass and Jay L. Garfield, Oxford and New York 2009)

That all phenomena are dependently originated is the heart of Buddhist ontological theory. In the Mahayana tradition, this dependency is spelled out in three ways: all phenomena are dependent for their existence on complex networks of causes and conditions; a dollar bill, for instance, is dependent on the printing press that printed it, the miners who extracted the ore out of which the metal for the press was smelted, the trees that were pulped for the paper, the United States Treasury, and so on. All wholes are dependent on their parts, and parts on the wholes they help make up. The dollar bill depends for its existence on the particles of paper and ink that constiture it but also, for its existence as a dollar bill, on the entire economic system in which it figures. Finally, all phenomena are dependent for their identities on conceptual imputation. The dollar bill is only a dollar bill, as opposed to a bookmark, because the United States Treasury so designates it. To exist, according to Buddhist metaphysics [sic], simply is to exist dependently in these senses, and hence to be merely conventionally existent.

To exist dependently is, importantly, to be empty of essence. For a Madhyamika, like Nagarjuna, this emptiness of essence is the final mode of existence of any phenomenon, its ultimate truth. For to have an essence is to exist independently, to have one’s identity and to exist not in virtue of extrinsic relations, but simply in virtue of intrisic properties. Because all phenomena are interdependent, all are empty in this sense. Just as the conventional truth about phenomena is made up by their interdependence, their ultimate truth is their emptiness. These are the two truths that Nagarjuna adumbrates throughout his corpus.

It follows immediately that the emptiness of all phenomena that Nagarjuna defends is not nonexistence: to be empty of essence is not to be empty of existence. Instead, to exist is to be empty. It also follows that emptiness is not a deeper truth hidden behind a veil of illusion. The emptiness of any phenomenon is dependent of the existence of that phenomenon, and on its [inter]dependence, which is that in which its essenceless consists. Emptiness is itself dependent, and hence [also] empty. This doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness, and of the identity of interdependence, or conventional truth, and emptiness, or ultimate truth, is Nagarjuna’s deepest philosophical achievement. The two truths are different from one another in that the ultimate is the object of enlightened knowledge and liberating, while the conventional is apprehended by ordinary people through mundane cognitive processes. Nonetheless, they are in a deep sense identical. To be empty of essence is simply to exist only conventionally. The conditions of conventional existence are interdependence and impermanence, which, as we have seen, for Nagarjuna, entail essencelessness.

The Origins of the Madhyamaka Philosophy (Della Santina)

The Origins of the Madhyamaka Philosophy (from Madhyamaka Schools in India – A Study of the Madhyamaka Philosophy and of the Division of the System into the Prasangika and Svatantrika Schools, by Peter Della Santina, 1986, Delhi 1995)

We have suggested that the Madhyamaka philosophy is founded upon an interpretation of the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of interdependent origination. While the Abhidharmika schools, the Vaibhasikas and the Sautrantikas understood the doctrine of interdependent origination propounded by the Buddha Shakyamuni to mean the temporal succession of momentary and discrete existences which were in themselves real, the Madhyamika interpreted the doctrine of interdependent origination to signify the universal relativity and unreality of all phenomena. According to the Madhyamika, the doctrine of interdependent origination is meant to indicate the dependence of all entities upon other entities. This is equivalent to their lack of self-existence (svabhava) and emptiness (shunyata).

The interpretation advocated by the Madhyamika is in complete agreement with some of the utterances of the Buddha recorded in the Pali canon. The following passage from the Majjhima Nikaya may be offered as evidence of this fact. The Buddha declared that form, feeling and the like are illusory, mere bubbles: “Dependent on the oil and the wick does light in the lamp burn; it is neither in the one nor in the other, nor anything in itself; phenomena are, likewise, nothing in themselves. All things are unreal, they are deceptions; Nibbana is the only truth.”

In the Shunyatasaptati Nagarjuna writes: “Since the own-being of all entities is not in (the individual) causes and conditions, nor in the aggregation of causes and conditions, nor in any entity whatsoever, i.e. not in all (of these), therefore all entities are empty in their own being.” In the Ratnavali it is also stated: “When this exists that arises, like short when there is long. When this is produced, so is that, like light from a flame. When there is long there must be short; they exist not through their own nature, just as without a flame light too does not arise.” Again Nagarjuna points out that the Buddha declared that elements are deceptive and unreal. Therefore he says: “The Buddha simply expounded the significance of emptiness (shunyata).” He has also said in the Shunyatasaptati that whatever originates dependently as well as that upon which it depends for its origination does not exist. Nagarjuna precisely indicates the standpoint of the Madhyamika in the following stanza found in the Mulamadhyamakakarika: “We declare that whatever is interdependently originated is emptiness (shunyata). It is a conceptual designation of the relativity of existence and is indeed the middle path.” “No element can exist,” he writes, “which does not participate in interdependence. Therefore no element which is not of the nature of emptiness can exist.”

Emptiness or the Void (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 Heart and Soul of Awakening (Batchelor)

The Heart and Soul of Awakening (from Buddhism without Beliefs, by Stephen Batchelor, London 1997)

Insight into emptiness and compassion for the world are two sides of the same coin. To experience ourselves and the world as interactive processes rather than aggregates of discrete things undermines both habitual ways of perceiving the world as well as habitual feelings about it. Meditative discipline is vital to dharma practice precisely because it leads us beyond the realm of ideas to that of felt-experience. Understanding the philosophy of emptiness is not enough. The ideas need to be translated through meditation into the wordless language of feeling in order to loosen those emotional knots that keep us locked in a spasm of self-preocupation.

As we are released into the opening left by the absence of self-centered craving, we experience the vulnerability of exposure to the anguish and suffering of the world. The track on which we find ourselves in moments of centered experience includes both clarity of mind and warmth of heart. Just as a lamp simultaneously generates light and heat, so the central path is illuminated by wisdom and nurtured by compassion.

The selfless vulnerability of compassion requires the vigilant protection of mindful awareness. It is not enough to want to feel this way towards others. We need to be alert at all times to the invasion of thoughts and emotions that threaten to break in and steal this open and caring resolve. A compassionate heart still feels anger, greed, jealousy, and other such emotions. But it accepts them for what they are with equanimity, and cultivates the strength of mind to let them arise and pass without identifying with or acting upon them.

Compassion is not devoid of discernment and courage. Just as we need the courage to respond to the anguish of others, so we need the discernment to know our limitations and the ability to say ‘no’. A compassionate life is one in which our resources are used to optimum effect. Just as we need to know when and how to give ourselves fully to a task, so we need to know when and how to stop and rest.

The greatest threat to compassion is the temptation to succumb to fantasies of moral superiority. Exhilarated by the outpouring of selfless altruism toward others, we may come to believe that we are their savior. We find ourself humbly assuming the identity of one who has been singled out by destiny to heal the sorrows of the world and show the way to reconciliation, peace, and Enlightenment. Our words of advice to those in distress imperceptibly change into exhortations to humanity. Our suggestions of a course of action for a friend are converted into a moral crusade.

When subverted in this way, compassion exposes us to the danger of messianic and narcissistic inflation. Exaggerated rejection of self-centeredness can detach us from the sanity of ironic self-regard. Once inflation has taken hold – particularly when endorsed by supporters and admirers – it becomes notoriously difficult to see through it.

[True] compassion is the very heart and soul of awakening. While meditation and reflection can make us more receptive to it, it cannot be contrived or manufactured. When it erups within us, it feels as though we have stumbled across it by chance. And it can vanish just as suddenly as it appeared. It is glimpsed in those moments when the barrier of self is lifted and individual existence is surrendered to the well-being of existence as a whole. It becomes abundantly clear that we cannot attain awakening for ourselves: we can only participate in the awakening of life.

The Doctrine of Pratitya-samutpada (Narain)

The doctrine of pratitya-samutpada (from The Madhyamika Mind, by Prof. Harsh Narain, Delhi 1997)

The doctrine of universal relativity (pratitya-samutpada) is the stepping stone to the doctrine of sunyata. The knowledge of the former at once leads to the knowledge of the latter. Their relation is so intimate that Nagarjuna has no hesitation in identifying the two. He observes, “What is relativity we call sunyata. It [sunyata] is relative being (upadaya prajñapti). It is the middle path”. This proposition is pregnant with implications. The Madhyamika turned pratitya-samutpada, literally and originally conditioned/dependent origination, into pratitya-samutpada as dependent or relative being, as relativity. He had better replace the term with pratitya-samutpapada. In this sense, however, he expresses pratitya-samutpada otherwise as upadaya-prañapti (relative appearance, relative being, relativity). In fact, pratitya-samutpada, which emerged in the Pali canon as a theory of causation, became at the Madhyamika´s hands tantamount to a veritable denial of causation. Indeed, Nagarjuna´s verdict is that what has come into being through causes and conditions has in fact not come into being at all, and, since it has not come into being, it is sunya, void, pure and simple. It is significant that Candrakirti interprets pratitya-samutpada to mean ´non-origination by nature´ (svabhavenanutpadah).

Nagarjuna’s suggestion is that his denial of the world does not imply belief in another order of reality like the Absolute, immanent in or transcendent to phenomena. It is quite in conformity to the spirit of the Prajñaparamita texts, which refuse to set sunyata over against the dharmas and to acknowledge positive knowledge of any such reality in the highest wisdom conceived by them. Nagarjuna himself expresses the view that sunyata is nothing other than existents and that there is no existent without sunyata. Advayavajra follows suit. Prajñakaramati expresses himself categorically against the attempt to install sunyata over against the realm of being: “Sunyata is not different from being, for being itself is of the nature of that; otherwise, in the event of sunyata’s being different from being, there would be no essencelessness of the dharmas.”

The Conventional Reality of Phenomena (Garfield)

The Conventional Reality of Phenomena (from The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, by Prof. Jay L. Garfield, New York 1995)

The central topic of Mulamadhyamakakarika (literally Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way) is ‘emptiness’ – the Buddhist technical term for the lack of independent existence, inherent existence, or essence in things. Nagarjuna 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, conventionally real.

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 Nagarjuna’s greatest philosophical contribution. If the analysis in terms of emptiness is the substantive heart of Mulamadhyamakakarika, the method of reductio ad absurdum is the methodological core. Nagarjuna, like Western sceptics, systematically eschews the defense of positive metaphysical doctrines regarding the nature of things, arguing 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 on our conventions (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 Nagarjuna’s system that it is impossible to speak coherently of reality independent of conventions).

For Nagarjuna and his followers this point [that what counts as real depends on our conventions] 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 is does not exist ‘from its own side’ – that its existence as the object that it is – as a table – depends not on it, nor on any purely nonrelational characteristics, but depends on us as well. That is, if our culture had not evolved this manner of furniture, 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!