In Garfield’s reading, Nagarjuna describes the Buddhist teaching of emptiness as everything being empty—“to exist is to be empty” and even emptiness is essenceless. Not too long ago, I had been dwelling on my confusion of this concept. My initial thoughts were chaotic—does it mean humans are empty too? But we have souls, how could that be? And what about objects? Yeah, a table doesn’t have a soul but it is unique in its property and design. I’m so confused! But the more I re-read the text with my undivided concentration, the more it started to make some sense. Although I have not reached a complete comprehension of this teaching, my growth in better understanding it has led to a greater discovery of psychological influence on the School of Emptiness.
There is a deeper connection between emptiness (the two truths) and the mind, in which the mind plays a role of interference. It seems that emptiness is a central teaching in Buddhism, but one that is difficult to grasp. Why? Because we as humans are subconsciously abstracted by worldly affairs. Nagarjuna states that “the emptiness of any phenomenon is dependent on the existence of that phenomenon, and on its dependence, which is that in which its essencelessness consists. Emptiness is itself dependent, and hence empty.” Such a belief that everything is interrelated, on an equal level of existence, and equally interdependent/empty/lacking in existence can also be misinterpreted by the mind and our relation to the world. Our cognitive functions of understanding and perception allow us to believe that Nagarjuna’s claim fails to show valid proof that this is true. And although we seek for concrete evidence, humans are also innately intuitive and emotional—in that the amygdala, which is an area in our brains that controls our emotions, plays a primary contribution to our mind’s distraction in believing Nagarjuna’s teaching of emptiness.
Furthermore, Garfield’s reading explains that there are two truths of the world we live in—the ultimate truth and the conventional truth—which are both deeply rooted in Nagarjuna’s principle of emptiness. These truths inform a distinction of the way things are and the way things are perceived. In other words the ultimate truth is the reality that everything is empty and the conventional truth is the appearance that our minds trick us into believing. It seems that these truths exist for the purpose of setting in stone the distinction between actuality and perception. More importantly, Nagarjuna argues that the ultimate truth “is what is real” while the conventional truth is “merely [an] illusion”. So if this is the case, I raise a bigger question for Buddhists—why do humans ignore, averse, and attach to things in life even if they are aware that these are detrimental to their paths in achieving the ultimate goal of leaving the cycle of samsara and entering nirvana? Is it because humans instinctively (try to) find soul, or “atman”, in things in life? Or is it that our personal relation to the world has strayed us from believing in what is actually true—the ultimate truth? This brings us back to the power of the brain and its abilities to control our perception of such a belief. But then again, even our brain is essenceless.