The Madhyamika school of Buddhism argues that emptiness is at the core of Buddhism. Focusing on dependent origination, Nagarjuna argues that there is no essence, which he defines as something permanent and intrinsic. The idea that everything is empty, while perhaps revolutionary for Nagarjuna’s time, seems more like common sense to me, as someone living in the “age of science” where atoms and the ever-divisible nature of the world is common knowledge. Even Garfield explains Nagarjuna’s theory in terms that it “presents itself as common sense” (Garfield, 122). But, what seems less intuitive is what I and others should do with this knowledge. Despite my readiness to accept the world as empty (as defined by Nagarjuna), I am unconvinced that this ultimate reality means that we should no longer cling to the conventional world; therefore, I am resistant to following a Buddhist path based on this particular assumption of emptiness.
From a Buddhist standpoint, I would assume that this understanding of emptiness leads to a release of any idea permanence and therefore, the cessation of suffering. For example, based on the premise of emptiness, one would accept death as not only inevitable, but also no longer a cause for fear because there would be no essence to die in the first place.
However, just because I accept emptiness to be true does not mean I must entirely relinquish attachment. For example, I would argue that many people in the United States also accept the idea of emptiness as I have, and yet many continue to live their lives focused on conventional reality. Just because I have no self (which in the Buddhist sense means that there is no permanent essence of self) does not mean that I must not be attached to this ever-changing self. I experience the self as meaningful and beautiful, especially in how it changes, and I do not want that dynamic self to die.
Perhaps, it could be argued that, while there are many ways to see the world, we should choose to see it through the lense of emptiness because this will allow us to release to the essence of self and therefore not suffer. The goal seems to be to balance both a personal experience of emptiness, which seems to undermine emotional attachment with a complete understanding of the meaningfulness of conventional reality. But what does this look like? The madhyamika school argues that nirvana and samsara are indeed the same and that the only difference is in how we perceive the world. However, is this ultimate way of perceiving, seeing all as empty, the nirvana that we want?
I question if emptiness demands the fearlessness of unattachment, as well as whether this way of seeing is necessarily the view of the world I want to hold.