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’.