Nāgārjuna: The Freedom of Emptiness
From the BCBS Insight Journal

About 100 AD, in southern India, a man named Nāgārjuna was born into a Brahmin family. By the time he was 20, he was well known for his scholarly learning. He began studying the works of the Buddha, the early scriptures. Supposedly in three months he had mastered them, but they still left unanswered questions. At that point he encountered an old monk who followed the Mahāyāna tradition.

Nāgārjuna was so impressed by the Mahāyāna vision that he travelled throughout India, seeking other Mahāyāna texts. He was very skilled in debate, and eventually defeated all comers, whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist. He declared at one point, “I have no master.” He founded an order and rules for his monks.

He composed the Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā, or The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, and other commentaries to the Prajñāpāramitā Sutras, the discourses on wisdom. There is a lot we don’t know about Nāgārjuna; there are many legends. What we do know is that somebody composed The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way. And it is a rather remarkable set of teachings. There are twenty-seven short chapters, made up of verses. They attempt to elucidate emptiness.

Nāgārjuna wanted to take Buddhism back to its roots, back to the suttas. The only one of the suttas he actually mentions by name in The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way is the Kaccānagotta Sutta, in which the Buddha teaches the Venerable Kaccānagotta that everything is dependently originated. Here is the relevant part of the discourse:

This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality—upon the notion of existence and the notion of non-existence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of non-existence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world.

This world, Kaccana, is for the most part shackled by engagement, clinging, and adherence. But one with right view does not become engaged and cling through that engagement and clinging, mental standpoint, adherence, underlying tendency; he does not take a stand about ‘my self’…

All exists’: Kaccana, this is one extreme. ‘All does not exist’: this is the second extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teachers the Dhamma by the middle way. (Samyutta Nikaya 12:15)

When you go to the shore and look out, you see the edge of the world, six miles out. You see a ship get too close to the edge of the world; it falls off. That’s terrible; all those people die. It happens far too often. If you go to the beach, you’ve probably seen it once or twice. You are trapped in an illusion!

So let’s say someone sticks you in the space shuttle, blasts you into orbit. You look down, you see it’s a sphere. They explain gravity. You go back to the beach. It looks just like it did before, but you no longer can see to the edge of the world. You no longer get engaged in discussions about “when you fall off the edge of the world, does it hurt immediately, or does it hurt only when you hit the bottom?” That doesn’t make any sense; you understand the illusion.

This is what the Buddha’s saying about the self. Don’t get caught in discussions about the self–does the self exist, does the self not exist. That’s like trying to decide if it hurts when you fall off the edge of the world or not. Look at the world in terms of dependently originated phenomena. That’s all that’s happening.

If you read The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, you get a sense that Nāgārjuna had great respect for the Buddha and his teachings. He’s basically trying to take things back toward the teachings that are found in the suttas, with an emphasis on emptiness. One way he does this is by looking closely at some of the words and concepts we commonly use, trying to understand better just what we mean by them. For example:


I do not walk between
The step already taken
And the one I’m yet to take,
Which both are motionless.

Is walking not the motion
Between one step and the next?
What moves between them?
Could I not move as I walk?

If I move when I walk,
There would be two motions:
One moving me and one my feet--
Two of us stroll by.

There is no walking without walkers,
And no walkers without walking.
Can I say that walkers walk?
Couldn’t I say they don’t?”

Were walking and walker one, I would be unable to tell them apart. Were they different, there would be walkers who do not walk.” So walking and a walker are not the same thing. And yet, you can’t have one without the other. They are somewhat dependently related. So we need to pay attention to our notions and concepts and see how one thing is dependent on another. You can’t have a walker unless there is some walking going on, but you can’t have some walking unless there is a walker actually doing it. So which came first? How did it get started?

There is not any fixed entity there, is there? This begins to point us in the right direction. Let’s look at another analysis of a common expression. What do we mean by the body?


I have no body apart
From parts which form it;
I know no parts
Apart from a ‘body.’

A body with no parts
Would be unformed,
A part of my body apart from my body
Would be absurd.

Were the body here or not,
It would need no parts.
Partless bodies are pointless.
Do not get stuck in the ‘body.’”

Think about your body. It has a bunch of parts, but, it seems to be a bit more than just a bunch of pieces. And if you remove a piece from your body, then it’s not part of your body any more. You go get a haircut, and you look down on the floor. “Oh my gosh, part of me is on the floor!” Do you ever have that reaction? No. You walk in, it was part of you. You walk out, it’s not part of you. How did it become not part of you?

You can sense the cool breeze; no, that’s not you. What’s going on here? Where are we drawing the lines? How are we creating these individual things out of this whole, ever-flowing process? How do we get caught in the mistake of “thingifying” the world, when it’s just a bunch of interlocking, interdependent processes? Where this gets really interesting is applying this analysis to the concept of the self.


Were mind and matter me,
I would come and go like them.
If I were something else,
They would say nothing about me.

So you start looking for yourself. Are you your body? Well, you change out all your cells every seven years. Does that mean you’re somebody different every seven years? You certainly don’t look like you looked when you were one year old. Perhaps I’m my mind. I’m the consciousness; I’m the part that knows it’s me. But that keeps changing as well, and it disappears every night when you’re in deep sleep. And yet, if I am something other than that, then the body and the mind wouldn’t say anything about it.

What is mine
When there is no me?

If you are conceiving of a self, then you are conceiving of a self in terms of what it possesses. If you’re conceiving of possessions, you are making a self that possesses these possessions, the clinger, the craver.

Were self-centeredness eased,
I would not think of me and mine—
There would be no one there
To think of them.

This is the Buddha’s strategy, to make the breakthrough in consciousness so that you are not conceiving of a self. Then there is nobody there to think of me and mine.

Emptiness Stops Papañca

When these thoughts end,
Compulsion stops,
Repetition ceases,
Freedom dawns.

The compulsions to do cravings and clingings, unwholesome acts—there is no more basis for that. Repetition is continually doing the same thing over and over again even though it does not bring lasting happiness, with the hope that if you do it one more time, it will bring lasting happiness. Stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. But that’s how we live our lives, it seems.

Fixations spawn thoughts
That provoke compulsive acts—
Emptiness stops fixations.
“Fixations” is a translation of the Pali word “
papañca,” one of the best words in Pali. It refers to mental proliferation, that tendency of the mind to think a thought, and then the next thought, and the next thought. It can be truly amazing what comes up. Maybe you noticed that recently. This tendency to just go on and on and on, and then whole universes. It’s just stuff we’re thinking up.

So, papañca spawns thoughts that provoke compulsive acts. Emptiness stops papañca. This is how the realization of emptiness can bring us freedom.

Dissolving Concoctions

When things dissolve,
There’s nothing left to say.

Things: When sankhāras–concoctions, fabrications, formations–dissolve, there is nothing left to say. When you stop making concoctions out of this effervescent flow of dependently originated processes and phenomena, there is nothing left to say.

The unborn and unceasing
Are already free.

If you are not thingifying the world, there are no things being born and there are no things that are going to cease. It’s already free, all of it. You’ve just got to quit concocting all these individual entities, including this entity of me.

Buddha said: ‘it is real,’
And ‘it is unreal,’
And ‘it is both real and unreal,’
And ‘it is neither one nor the other.’

It is all at ease,
Unfixatable by fixations,

It’s all at ease. The universe is unfolding in a lawful manner, the law of cause and effect. You’re attempting to papañca-ize it, think about it, decide how it all works, find the beginning of the universe, be able to explain everything, decide whether the soul is the same as the body or something else, or… on and on and on. It just can’t be done. It’s already all at ease. None of your thinking is going to get you to the place where it’s all at ease.

What actually is happening is incommunicable, in the sense that you can not really describe in relative terms what’s going on at the absolute level. We can use the relative terms to point at what’s going on at the absolute level, but don’t mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon. Don’t get caught up in your concepts and think that your concepts are reality. They’re just trying to help you see what’s going on at a deeper level.

Inconceivable.” If you want to really know exactly what’s going on, you have to be able to conceive of the whole universe, but you’re brain ain’t big enough. It can only take in bits and pieces, so that’s why we chop it up into pieces so we can manipulate it. To have a brain big enough to take in everything going on in the universe, well, you are going to need the whole universe.

Indivisible.” Any piece of the universe that you pick up is not a separate thing. It’s all very much interconnected. There are no separate entities anywhere in the entire universe. We concoct separate entities; we thingify our experience, because that’s the only way we can manage to get a grip on it.

Conditions Are You

You are not the same as or different from
Conditions on which you depend;
You are neither severed from
Nor forever fused with them—
This is the deathless teaching
Of buddhas who care for the world.

This is really the heart of the matter. You are not the same as, or different from, all the dependently originated streams of effects that come into making you what you are. You are neither severed from them, nor are you ever fused with them—you are not stuck. You will continue to grow; there is no static anything in the universe. So all these dependently originated phenomena are coming together making the you that you see, but you are not that dependently originated phenomenon, yet you are not separate from it either. You are just at the point

When buddhas don’t appear
And their followers are gone,
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself.

This is pointing to the fact that the truth is out there. If the Buddha is not around to give you the instructions, and his followers are not around to give you instructions, it is possible to figure it out yourself; you’ve just got to pay attention. I have to admit—I’d have never figured this out without the Buddha’s help! I’m glad he left some instructions around.

A Challenge

Part of The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way is given over to Nāgārjuna answering the objections of others to what he is saying. One such imaginary opponent lashes into Nāgārjuna for corrupting the Dharma: By saying that everything is empty, you are saying there are no Noble Truths, that nobody can ever get enlightened. The opponent is thinking that emptiness means that nothing exists. He is misunderstanding emptiness; he is thinking of it as nihilism. This sometimes happens when people are trying to understand what the Buddha is talking about. “The fully enlightened one, when he dies, does not come back; he gets annihilated.” This is not what the Buddha said. But you sometimes find that.

According to Nāgārjuna, the critic is himself undermining the Noble Truths and enlightenment by trying to fixate on ideas rather than open into the broader view of emptiness.

In projecting your faults onto me,
You forget the horse you are riding.

This is a reference to a man who had two dozen horses. He goes out one morning and mounts one of his horses, and goes around counting his horses: one, two, three, four…twenty-two, twenty-three… Twenty-three! Oh, no, someone’s stolen one of my horses! He forgets to count the horse he’s riding.

Awakening to Two Truths

Nāgārjuna’s response is worth going through in some detail.

The dharma taught by buddhas
Hinges on two truths:

Partial truths of the world
And truths which are sublime.

This is really the first elucidation of the doctrine of the two truths. You find hints in the suttas of the two truths, but it is not spelled out like it’s spelled out in The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way. So there are two truths, partial truths of the world, which in the original actually means something like “truths that don’t fully reveal,” or “truths that leave something hidden.” Then there are sublime truths. We say “relative” and “absolute” or “conventional” and “ultimate.” But really he is pointing to truths that don’t give you the full explanation; that’s what the relative world is. It’s true, these are my glasses; they’re not yours, right? But that doesn’t really explain what’s going on.

And truths which are sublime.
Without knowing how they differ,
You cannot know the deep;

It’s necessary to understand there are two perspectives, and to understand how they differ.

Without relying on conventions,
You cannot disclose the sublime;

We need fingers to point at the moon. We are not smart enough to look up there by ourselves and see it. The teachings have to be presented in the relative world. We have to use words and ideas and concepts, but we hope they become fingers that point at sublime truth.

Without intuiting the sublime,
You cannot experience freedom.

Freedom from dukkha, the breakthrough to enlightenment, occurs when you are looking at the world from the perspective of the ultimate. The perspective of the relative just has too much hidden to enable you to make that breakthrough. From this perspective of the ultimate, there are no essences—only emptiness.

Emptiness at the Heart

To see things existing by nature,

(That is, as having an essence.)

Is to see them without
Causes and conditions,
Thus subverting causality,
Agents, tools and acts,
Starting, stopping and ripening.

It has to be like that, otherwise it’s not an essence. If something arises from causes and conditions, that means it can’t have an essence. It was caused. And because it doesn’t have an essence, it will cease. And then the heart of this whole Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā:

Dependent orgination1 is emptiness
Which, dependently
1 configured,
Is the middle way. [Note: Batchelor uses different wording here.]

This translation does not bring it out quite as clearly. Dependent origination is emptiness, and emptiness is also empty. It’s just a concept we are using to try and understand what is going on. Don’t make an ultimate out of emptiness. In one of the commentaries that I really like, the author says that Nāgārjuna is basically climbing up higher and higher, and as he gets to each level, he kicks away the ladder. And he gets up the highest level, and he kicks away that ladder as well. It’s all empty.

Everything is dependently originated
Everything is empty.

So when you hear teachings on emptiness, what you are hearing is teachings on dependent origination. It’s just these streams of causes and conditions, coming to fruition, and being part of the continuing of the streams of causes and conditions as the acts that we do come to fruition as well.

Were everything not empty,
There would be no rising and passing.
Ennobling truths would not exist.
Without dependent origination
How could I suffer dukkha

This shifting dukkha3
Has no nature of its own;”

If dukkha had an essence, you would be in trouble, because you would be stuck with that dukkha.

If it did, how could it have a cause?
Deny emptiness and you deny
The origins of dukkha.

If dukkha3 existed by nature,

(That is, if it had an essence.)

How would it ever cease?

The essence has to stick around, so it’s going to exist forever; you’re stuck with the dukkha.

Absolute dukkha5 could never stop.
How could you cultivate a path
That exists by nature?
How could it lead to the end of pain?
A path on which you tread
Can have no essence of its own.” [Note: Batchelor uses different words for ‘dukkha’ here.]

I don’t know if you’ve been on walks on the paths in the forest here in Barre. The essence of those paths is that there is no forest there–they don’t have an essence. It’s precisely the lack of forest that makes it a path. But it’s not unchanging, because left alone, the forest comes back.

Nagarjuna goes on to bring this reasoning to bear on awakening.

Emptiness Allows Freedom

If confusion existed by nature,
I would always be confused.
How could I know anything?
Letting go and realizing,
Cultivation and fruition
Could never happen.

If you are not enlightened now, and you have an essence, your essence is that of an unenlightened being, and you are stuck. So you had better hope there is not an essence.

Who can attain absolute goals
That by nature are unattainable?
Since no one could reach them,
There would be no sangha;
With no truths, no dharma either.
With no sangha
6 or dharma
How could I awaken?
I would not depend on awakening
Nor awakening on me.

A naturally unawakened person
Would never awaken
No matter how hard
He practiced for its sake.

You have got to have no essence if you are going to get down the spiritual path. You have got to change, you’ve got to have an open mind, you can’t cling to the fixed views. And you certainly can’t have an essence.

He would never do good or evil;
An unempty person would do nothing.
He’d experience fruits of good and evil
Without having done good or evil deeds.
How can fruits of good and evil not be empty
If they are experienced?

Emptiness is how karma works; there’s an action and a result. If the action had an essence, it would always be acting; it would never cease and then generate its result.

To subvert emptiness and dependent origination1
Is to subvert conventions of the world.
It engenders passivity;
Acts without an author,
Authors who do not act.
Beings would not be born or die;
They would be frozen in time,
Alien to variety.

If things were unempty,
You could attain nothing.
3 would never end.
You would never let go of compulsive acts.

The fact that it’s all empty, that it’s just dependently originated phenomena, means there’s a chance that it can become different.

Which brings us at last to Nagarjuna’s full restoration of the core teachings of the Buddha,

To see dependent origination1 is to see
3, its origins, cessation and the path.

The book I have been reading from is Verses from the Center, by Stephen Batchelor. It’s a poetic translation of the Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā. It’s not literally accurate, but it does capture the essence of what Nāgārjuna is trying to say. If you really want to study Nāgārjuna I would suggest you get a copy of this book, read it a dozen times, and then you can try books such as Jay Garfield’s, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, if you want to look in depth at exactly what Nāgārjuna was trying to say.

Of course, this is just my own intellectual understanding. You are going to have to take this and make it your own. This is hopefully only whetting your appetite to look at the world in terms of these streams of dependently originated phenomena. Can you see that that’s what’s going on? When you get caught in an unpleasant mind state, for example, can you look back and see, “Oh, this is what the sensory input was that triggered it, and that sensory input was triggered by, that was triggered by,” and can you start seeing the stream of dependently originated phenomena coming at it. This maybe can take you in the direction of freedom. Hopefully this can help you realize that dependent origination is a very rich vein to mine, a very good place to investigate.

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