Can Uniqueness and Essencelessness Coexist?

For the past two weeks in class, we have read about and analyzed two of the Three Turnings of the Wheel of the Dharma: emptiness and consciousness (or mind-only). As we have discussed, followers of Mahayana Buddhism believe that the second turning, that of emptiness, is the definitive teaching of the Buddha. According to the Mahayana tradition, there is no discernible essence of the world on which all things are dependent. Instead, all phenomena are interdependent and could not exist otherwise. In the Mind-Only school of thought, however, it is believed that nothing exists independently of the mind; that is, the mind is the underlying essence of all phenomena that exist and occur in the world.

After reading Nāgārjuna’s philosophy of emptiness, then Vasubandhu’s Treatise of the Three Natures and finally Candrakīrti’s rebuttle to the argument for an emphasis on mind, I find myself more persuaded by the teaching of emptiness as the definitive teaching of the Buddha. Like others in our class, I at first pushed back against the suggestion that I might be essenceless – a totally dependent function of other dependent functions. However, as I tried to identify a part of myself that did not form based on some other phenomenon I had experienced, I found the task impossible.

Although Vasubhandu would argue otherwise, even our minds are dependent, for without anything to perceive, a mind does not exist to do the perceiving. Moreover, to enlightened beings, form does not exist therefore mind has no form. In Candrakīrti’s words:

(91) Within the context of everyday affairs, all five psychophysical constituents taken for granted in the world do exist. However, none of the five appears to a yogi who pursues illuminating knowledge of reality.

Therefore, seeing as this is so,

(92a-b) If form does not exist, then do not cling to the existence of mind; and if mind exists then do not cling to the nonexistence of form.

The message in these verses is: if you plan to become enlightened, don’t count on mind sticking around as the foundation of the universe if it has no form. But these verses also show that mind is dependent on form, and that alone means it cannot be the underlying, independent essence of the universe.

So after coming to terms with emptiness and beginning to understand myself as just another interdependent being, void of essence and therefore, as I understand, without a self, I started to think about uniqueness. Does our interdependence and lack of self mean we are no longer individuals? Certainly interdependently occurring phenomena can come together in different ways to form different types of people, making every separate person unique. But doesn’t the existence of uniqueness undermine the concept of no-self?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Can Uniqueness and Essencelessness Coexist?

  1. gglynnferrarone says:

    Your line “However, as I tried to identify a part of myself that did not form based on some other phenomenon I had experienced, I found the task impossible” was very convincing. While living in a society based on individual success, many of us experience great resistance around the idea of emptiness. But when we are forced to actually examine our perceived existence and individuality, it is nearly impossible to distinguish ourselves from everything else. The easiest way I found to approach this was to look at how many people and things I am dependent upon in my life and how people are dependent on me, we could not manifest and exist independently from the relationships that create our lives. And does individuality or uniqueness exist? I think that the way manifestation works within the universe is always unique and without a formula, which accounts for the lack of uniformity. But I would argue that uniqueness does not undermine emptiness.

  2. Gabriel says:

    My stance on this is that the interdependence of all events does not render distinct phenomena into some sort of primordial soup, but in fact is contingent on their distinctness. If one event is exactly the same as another, one cannot be a cause and the other an effect. Without cause/effect relations, entities categorically cannot be interdependent. Just so with individual people–letting go of one’s own self still leaves room for one’s own person; letting go of the independence of one’s actions (the notion of oneself as an agent of a first cause) still leaves room for the separateness of one’s actions from another’s actions. In fact, essencelessness depends on it.

  3. jpf12 says:

    I think thats an interesting question, especially given American culture’s emphasis on individuality. I think that uniqueness does not directly undermine the concept of no self; as you said, interdependence can lead to uniqueness. However, I do think that to focus on uniqueness would likely be to miss the point of Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness. When interpreting his ideas within the context of Buddhist philosophy the point is to help us see that their is no self so that we can escape from suffering. Focusing on our uniqueness will only continue our life in samsara. Furthermore, the universal similarities between humans is an important idea for many Buddhists. The Dalai Lama often emphasizes that all humans suffer and that all humans want to be happy. This is important because it both makes Buddhism relevant to all people and encourages the Boddhisatva vow of compassion to all sentient beings. Therefore, while no-self does allow for individual uniqueness on the level conventional truth, I dont think it would make sense to emphasize it within the Buddhist context.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *