Wrestling with Understanding Essencelessness and Existence

“That which is dependent origination

Is explained to be emptiness. . .

…There does not exist anything

That is not dependently arisen.

Therefore there does not exist anything

That is not empty.” (31)

In his chapter, “Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika,” Jay Garfield explores the most famous work of the eponymous second century Buddhist philosopher. In the service of this effort, Garfield engages Nagarjuna’s assertion that “all phenomena are empty of essence, but exist conventionally, interdependently, and impermanently.” (26) Garfield walks his reader through the building blocks of Nagarjuna’s theory, including extensive consideration of the author’s understanding and construction of essencelessness. In this paper, I wish to explore the idea of essencelessness and the trouble I have had understanding it, paying particular attention to the relationship between essencelessness and existence as understood by Nagarjuna and presented by Garfield.

While, as Garfield notes, interdependence is at the heart of Buddhist ontological theory (26), Nagarjuna’s clear postulation regarding how this interdependence functions is central to his assertion of the truth of essencelessness. The Mahayana tradition, of which Nagarjuna was a part, holds that “all phenomena are dependent for their existence on complex networks of causes and conditions,” (26) “All wholes are dependent on their parts, and parts on the wholes they help to make up.” (26), and that “all phenomena are dependent for their identities on conceptual imputation.”(27) Thus, as existence is understood as something that can only arise in relation (not from a fixed interior attribute or essence), cannot be cleaved into non-dependent or isolated component parts, and is only legible as having distinct differentiation through assigned meanings/categorizations, nothing can have an essence that is truly its own.

The largest stumbling block to my understanding of essencelessness has been my inability not to conflate it (or emptiness) with nonexistence. To my mind, the idea of “intrinsic essence” has functioned as a kind of proof of existence itself, the very heart of each subject or object that works to announce its presence in the order of things. Key to my growing comprehension of Nagarjuna’s theory is developing an understanding that, in Garfield’s words “to be empty of essence is not to be empty of existence. Instead, to exist is to be empty.” (27) While it took me far longer than I care to admit to make sense of this simple statement, once it began to do so, Nagarjuna’s theory became somewhat accessible to my mind.

Many more obstacles to understanding lie between me and a working comprehension of Nagarjuna, but essencelessness as a necessity of truly interdependent existence is no longer one of them. Truthfully, I find a strange comfort in the thought that essencelessness is not at all a negation of what animates existance, but rather proof of its irreducibility and ubiquity.

“Here we say that you do not understand

Emptiness, or the purpose of emptiness,

Or the meaning of emptiness.

As a consequence you are harmed by it.”


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1 Response to Wrestling with Understanding Essencelessness and Existence

  1. Emma says:

    First of all, I think that this sentence of yours is really effective: “To my mind, the idea of ‘intrinsic essence’ has functioned as a kind of proof of existence itself, the very heart of each subject or object that works to announce its presence in the order of things.”

    Maybe this is obvious, but to me what you are saying here–and the fact that preceding this sentence you were talking about conflating emptiness with nonexistence–makes me think of Descartes. Probably those of us with a (very) rudimentary Western philosophical background have had some Descartes drilled into us, or at least have been convinced of the “I think, therefore I am” statement. (Disclaimer: I don’t study philosophy, I know nothing else about Descartes.) This uses some idea of essence, or “I” to combat total nonexistence, or what I guess would be nihilism. I always assumed that the idea here was that since all we have to go on is our own mind and our own thoughts, we have to assume a self in order to then assume anything else into existence. But this obviously fails to work in a Buddhist context; self-grasping and clinging to the idea of an “I” is the root of all kinds of problems and failures of understanding, not to mention a serious obstruction to the path.

    I guess maybe the difference is that in a “Western” (or Descartes-influenced?) philosophical tradition, all of existence tends to be extrapolated from the “I”, whereas in a Buddhist (or at least Madhyamaka) context, no-self and lack of essence is extrapolated from all of existence because we can observe dependent origination.

    Does anyone know real things about philosophy? Can you help me out here?

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