July 2019

“Emptiness and the Middle Way” By Gerett Treas

The Buddhist tradition’s first assertion that all things are śūnya, “empty,” occurs in the Mahāyāna sutras jointly identified as Prajñāpāramitā, starting near the first-century B.C.E. Before this time the Buddhist view focused on the specific postulation that the person is empty. Professors Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura promulgate that the Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK) is the “foundational text of the Madhyamaka school of Indian Buddhist philosophy” [Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way (2013)].  One cannot overstate Nāgārjuna’s contribution to Buddhist thought. Douglas Berger of Southern Illinois University refers to Nāgārjuna as “the second Buddha” in his 2019 Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry: “Nāgārjuna (c. 150—c. 250).”

Magnifying the exhaustive form of emptiness, which likewise includes the narrower mirage of the empty person, everything, in its entirety, may be said to be vacuous. Nullity, therefore, is not something ultimately real; to say a thing is void is only to deny its ultimate reality. Moreover, such a lack of ultimate reality is also not ultimately real [Siderits and Katsura, Nāgārjuna’s   Middle Way (2013)]. Nagarjuna’s methodology was not to give conclusive proof of emptiness, but rather to refute all viewpoints which hold that there are non-empty things, possessing intrinsic nature. Inborn essence is only possible if quality has not arisen, and even conventional wisdom informs that all items are dependent on causes and conditions, and thus appear—consequently, what emerges is not ultimately real.

Dharmas, as the interrelated elements that constitute the empirical world, further cannot be ultimately real according to Madhyamaka. That said, the Abhidharma schools, which aim to complete the metaphysical details of the Buddha’s teachings, believe in their actuality. The reason the dharmas are lastly unreal is that they originate in dependence on causes and conditions. Anything liable to Pratītyasamutpāda, “dependent origination,” tends towards cessation, thence it is impermanent. In his Seventy Stanzas, Nagarjuna remarks that mutually caused things are not established in intrinsic being, because they are dependent on one another for their existence [Peter Della Santina, Causality and Emptiness (2002)].

In effect, there can conclusively be no such thing as the Tathāgata, the Buddha’s honorific appellation. That is, the Buddha is no more actual than the psychophysical elements which carried him into the world. All of his teachings are, in like manner, empty, for they are neither destroyed nor eternal [Siderits and Katsura, Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way (2013)]. The Buddha extinguishes in terminal nirvāṇa, and one may not say that he either exists or does not exist. Those who hypostatize him who is beyond hypostatization misfire in their endeavor to see the Tathāgata. As all else, granting no privilege to the awakened one, lacks intrinsic nature and is thereby impermanent, so is the Tathāgata.

To maintain things are neither destroyed nor eternal is precisely the stance of Madhyamaka. Accompanying the lack of intrinsic nature is the Buddha’s rejection of eternalism and annihilationism. The Buddha refers to these as the two extreme views in “The Instructing of Kātyāyana.” Nagarjuna attests that “it exists” is an eternalist view, and contrastingly, that “it does not exist” is an annihilationist notion [Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way (2013)]. As a result, the wise should not accede to either existence or nonexistence. Once more, things are not eternal because they lack intrinsic nature, expressly they dependently arise, yet avoid annihilation because they are not ultimately real and undergo change. A negation of metaphysical and empirical views occurs on these grounds. 

In his MMK, Nagarjuna enunciates that emptiness is expedient to render one deficient of all metaphysical views, advancing that those who, having once heard of it, aver emptiness a preternatural position, are incurable. Since metaphysics concerns itself with the ultimate nature of reality, and Nagarjuna’s stance is that all things are empty—changing and absent of intrinsic nature—he deems that nothing can be said absolutely about actuality. As reported by the philosopher Jan Christoph Westerhoff in his “Nāgārjuna” 2019 article via the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Emptiness is not some kind of primordial reality ante rem but a corrective to a mistaken view of how the world exists.” Emptiness, as a consequence, should not be seen as an account of the ultimate truth, given that it is itself empty by its report. 

Metaphysical communities espouse that the Eternal Self is everyone’s true identity. That view is justifiable, but its defense must occur elsewhere. As Siderits and Katsura tell it, no Buddhist consents there is any such entity as the self [Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way (2013)]. All Buddhists deny any legitimate factors by which the sense of “I” and “mine” are tenable. Such stances, they remark, make the mistake of attempting to look beyond the appearances of “I” and “mine” and result in suffering. Rather than conceiving a self distinct from one’s body and psychological states, as an unvarying unifier of disparate beliefs, desires, and sensory impressions, the Buddha envisioned it as an ever-changing group of five psychophysical accumulates (consciousness, intellect, perception, sensation, and the physical body) minus an inward nucleus [Westerhoff, “Nāgārjuna” (2019)]. 

Based on Nagarjuna’s explanation in the Seventy Stanzas, neither one nor many are ultimately real, whereby, “Without one, many does not occur.  Without many, one does not occur. Therefore, interdependently originated entities are without signs.” Hence, the one and the many, like all other dichotomous pairs, exist in dependence on one another. For this reason, they cannot subsist on their own, lacking intrinsic nature. Śāntarakṣita, the great Madhyamaka commentator responsible for the neither-one-nor-many argument, professes in his Madhyamakālaṃkāra:  “We have found with analysis that no entity, whatsoever, has an [inherently] single nature. Those that have no single nature must also not have a manifold nature.” Being that objects lack inherent existence, Śāntarakṣita concludes it is best to avoid extremes when classifying them [James Blumenthal and James Apple, “Śāntarakṣita” (2019)].

Nirvāṇa is the paramount attainment for the Buddhist practitioner. Nonetheless, it is imperative to realize nirvāṇa is not a mystical dissolution of the ego into the self; it is a release from saṃsāra, the world allied with causal conditions and rebirth. The cessation of birth requires the relinquishment of all associations with “I” and “mine.” It follows that statements such as “I Am” are empty since anything recognized as “I” is subject to change. One who apprehends this attains liberation. In the end, nirvāṇa, like all else, proves vacant. It is the manner of personal description henceforward not reliant on the psychophysical elements and a mode of defying dichotomous classification along with the conceptions of existence and nihility [Siderits and Katsura, Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way (2013)]. Madhyamaka brings adherents to this point beyond categorization.

About Gerett: Gerett Treas, D.D., Ph.D. is an ardent metaphysician engaged in creative and world-changing thought. He is a writer, minister, counselor, and teacher; he is, also, a certified Muay Thai instructor. Gerett achieved a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Religious Thought from a traditional university. Successively, he attained a master’s degree in Metaphysical Sciences, along with two doctorate degrees, one as a Philosopher of Metaphysical Sciences and the other in Metaphysical Counseling from the University of Metaphysical Sciences in Arcata, CA. Gerett is concerned with the evolution of human consciousness and the recognition of the sacredness of all life. He is from Clarksville, TN