Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Nagarjuna's Theory of Emptiness

"There is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are.
There are no self-enclosed, definable, discrete and enduring entities.
If we examine our own conception of selfhood, we will find that we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterises our individuality and identity as a discrete ego, independent of the physical and mental elements that constitute our existence. The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error but also the basis for attachments, clinging and the development of our numerous prejudices.
Any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is untenable.
All things and events, whether material, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence.
To possess such independent existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena. But we know that there is cause and effect. In a universe of self-contained, inherently existing things, these events would never occur.
Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. This is because causation implies contingency and dependence, while anything that possesses independent existence would be immutable and self-enclosed.
Everything is composed of dependently related events, of continuously interacting phenomena with no fixed, immutable essence, which are themselves in constantly changing dynamic relations. Things and events are 'empty' in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality or absolute 'being' that affords independence.
Nagarjuna argued that grasping at the independent existence of things leads to affliction, which in turn gives rise to a chain of destructive actions, reactions and suffering.
In the final analysis, for Nagarjuna, the theory of emptiness is not a question of the mere conceptual understanding of reality. It has profound psychological and ethical implications.
The ideologies that divide humanity - racism, nationalism, class - originate from the tendency to perceive things as inherently divided and disconnected. From this misconception springs the belief that each of these divisions is essentially independent and self-existent."
New Scientist, January 2006

Acharya Nāgārjuna (c. 150 - 250 AD) was an Indian philosopher, the founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Path) school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and arguably the most influential Buddhist thinker after Gautama Buddha himself.
Coming from a scientific journal, as it does, the article above may be a slightly skewed view of Buddhist thought. There is an immutable essence inherent in all things - what Buddhist's would call the 'Buddha Nature', and Hindus would call 'Brahman' - but there are no individual owners of this essence.
Ownership is the salient issue.

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