Nagarjuna & Emptiness

Nagarjuna, the primary philosopher of the Mahayana tradition, based his teachings on the theory of emptiness being at the foundation all things. The concept of emptiness in Buddhism is a difficult thing to wrap one’s head around and can be frequently misunderstood by many, including myself. However, I’ve come to understand that this emptiness does not mean nothing in the world exists but rather everything is interdependent and therefore nothing can exist on its own.  As we discussed in class, a table is a sum of its parts, but remove all of these parts, and there is there is nothing inherent about what makes it a true table. As humans, our consciousness is made up of our perceptions when we see, hear, taste and touch, combined with our thoughts /feelings around them. These thoughts are impermanent and always changing, therefore can be explained as empty of a true essence of self.

This is interesting because most of us view attributes like colors, sounds, smells, flavors, and textures to be completely ‘external’ to us, assuming it is the same for everyone else. However, we don’t actually know because our only way of comprehending these attributes is through our own mental processes. So, I remember being shocked when learning that everyone perceives color differently. This relates to a story in Buddhist scriptures that tells a tale of two blind men who wanted colors to be explained to them. One of them was told that white was the color of snow. He took a handful of snow and concluded that white was cold. The other blind man was told white was the color of swans. He heard a swan flying overhead, and stated that white was the swishing of wings. If we all have different perceptions of color, then are there true qualities of the color white? Furthermore, is there anything in our reality that can exist independent of our perception?

Nagarjuna argued that nothing can be determined by itself, so there is no one true-nature of the world. If there was, we’d all perceive things in the same way. This logic can be extended to Nagarjuna’s doctrine of emptiness. He divides reality into two truths: conventional truths, which is the world as we commonly see it, and ultimate truth of emptiness. However, this is a bit paradoxical because the emptiness of something relies on its conventional truth to exist. If emptiness itself is empty, is it still the ‘ultimate’ truth?

Applying this to the four noble truths, the convention of suffering is based on the ignorance and the attachment of humans. It is the emptiness that permits interdependence and change, which then allows for suffering to be ceased. Thus, only when these conventional truths are present does Nirvana exist. So, the same can be said for Nirvana ceasing to exist when the conventional truths are not present. Does that mean seeing past the conventional labels of our world also means liberation from samsara? Can the only difference the between nirvana and samsara be a change of perception in our minds??

Wallace, B A. Buddhism & Science: Breaking New Ground. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

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1 Response to Nagarjuna & Emptiness

  1. SW says:

    I really like the way you used perception in order to explain Nargarjuna’s argument on emptiness. Your example of the colors and how everyone perceives them differently is very relatable. For instance, sometimes what I see as blue my friend thinks is more green. This post really helped me to better comprehend and understand what we have been talking about in class. It is a pretty complex and confusing topic but your post helped clarify something very difficult to grasp. I also appreciated how you tied these ordinary perceptions to the Four Noble Truths, which are ultimately the cause of suffering. This was a great summary of what we have learned so far, and the questions you pose at the end will hopefully lead to some answers during out next class discussion.

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