Interdependence and Our Actions

When first trying to wrap my head around Nagarjuna’s theory of emptiness, I seemed to understand the world as ultimately meaningless and stagnant. Everything is always and unchangingly empty, including emptiness itself! However, greater reflection has lead me to understand that emptiness does not imply complete meaninglessness–things that are empty can and do still exist, at least in the conventional sense (Budd. Phil. , 27). Furthermore, that things are empty does not mean that change in the conventional reality does not occur. Nagarjuna’s understanding of emptiness as deeply related to interdependence leaves room for meaning in one’s actions, even if one’s actions are ultimately empty.

Things lack in essence because they are essentially all interdependent–nothing arises in a vacuum, without being affected by other things. The same is true for non-physical “things” such as actions and effects. Nagarjuna explains that “effects lacking inherent existence depend precisely upon conditions that themselves lack in inherent existence” (Fundamental Wisdom, 121), which is to say that results are caused by actions. These actions, which are the causal conditions that bring about results, are also inherently empty. To understand the importance of actions is “to assert the emptiness of causation… to resist the temptation to see [causal conditions] as grounded in reference to causal power… there is no more to it than that” (Garfield Fundamental Wisdom, 122). Thus, actions that that create results are also essentially empty.

Nonetheless, the results that are caused have meaning. By “meaning”, I refer to efficacy and capability to create change, both in one’s own life (perhaps shortening your time in samsara) and in the ways that one’s actions affect others. Interdependent action creates change, and the effects of those changes matters. Nagarjuna seems to be at least somewhat concerned with the productive power of actions. For example, he categorizes actions into “virtuous or non-virtuous actions” (verse 32). Why bother discerning between virtuous and non-virtuous acts if there weren’t discernable, significant implications? Emptiness does not mean that everything is stagnant. Instead, “to deny emptiness is to assert that no action would be possible” (verse 37). That is, emptiness is the very thing that makes action, change, growth and “the achievement of that which has not been achieved” (verse 39) possible. The ability to create and be productive precludes essence and is essentially empty. However, this idea also points to the opposite: emptiness allows for “non-virtuous”, unskillful, or otherwise undesirable changes to occur.

In my last paper, I wrote about how morality in Buddhism would work to control or guide one’s actions. I concluded that few actions were actually prohibited, but that most were simply seen as distracting from the noble eightfold path. This idea of interdependence changes that conclusion for me by making the individual concerned about the possible outcomes of their actions. If everything is interdependent and my actions are bound to have some sort of effect on others beyond myself, perhaps I change my behavior in order to control or mitigate the results.





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