In the past couple of weeks, I have been trying to understand the concepts of emptiness and essence. Before this course, I never would have connected essence to dependence, as is a simplified paraphrasing of the argument made by Nagarjuna. Prior to this reading, I would have thought that, while a table might not necessarily have an essence—not because it is dependent on the steps it took to become a table—but because it is a table, a human being would have an essence because a human being is more complex. It is Nagarjuna’s argument that “all phenomena are empty of essence, but exist conventionally, interdependently, and impermanently,” (Garfield, 26). I suppose then, following this line of thinking, that the creation of a human being relies upon the parents who brought that being into the world, thus negating his or her sense of essence.
I don’t, however, understand what it means to be empty of essence. Garfield writes, “ to be empty of essence is not to be empty of existence. Instead, to exist is to be empty”. In a case so confusing as this, I would ordinarily search for an exception to the rule, so that I might understand how the rule can hold its place. However, in this instance, I am hard pressed to think of an object or an abstract idea that does not fit this mold. Thoughts and ideas are dependent upon minds, and the existence of the entire Earth and its inhabitants is dependent upon a theory of creation (the fact that this theory has not been universally agreed upon—creationism vs. evolution—does not negate the fact that a true theory does exist). This might seem too ‘meta’, but if I can’t find anything that has an essence, how can an essence exist if it appears to be so unachievable? I suppose then that the point of the argument is to assert that all things are dependent upon what came before, interdependent upon each other presently, and thus connected.
Another point at which I found myself confused was when Garfield wrote, “ emptiness is itself dependent, and hence empty” (Garfield, 27). I wondered what emptiness was dependent upon? Is it that emptiness itself is dependent upon the existence of a phenomenon that can be without essence and empty? Or does it follow a similar structure to the example of a dollar bill in that its emptiness is a result of the dependency of what created it. I suppose the existence of a phenomenon would be what emptiness was dependent upon, but in this case, the examples seem to be two discrete entities. In the case of the dollar bill, it is dependent upon the printing press, the miners, and the trees, all of which were brought together for the sole purpose of creating a dollar bill. The existence of phenomena, however, was not created with the purpose of introducing or facilitating emptiness. The difference is that the dollar bill is deliberately created, while emptiness is a result of previously existing phenomenon.
Edelglass, William, and Jay L. Garfield. “24: Examination of the Four Noble Truths.” Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. N. pag. Print.