Where Does Independence/Inception Fit In? Questions on Nagarjuna’s Teachings

The chapters in both of Garfield’s books prompt me to think more about our class’ discussion on what constitutes a religion versus what constitutes a philosophy. The class came up with several characteristics that comprise a religion, one of them being a creation story. While this is not fundamental to all recognized religious, including Buddhism, Nagarjuna’s discussion of emptiness made me question the absence of this in Buddhist texts. I do not want my Catholic upbringing to cloud my idea of what a creation story should look like, considering the Bible paints a concrete picture of how everything came to be. Thus, while I am calling on my religious background in order to make sense of this aspect of Buddhism, I argue that a creation story of any kind is absent from Buddhist teachings, based on the way in which Nagarjuna discusses existence and interconnectedness.
Nagarjuna’s conceptualization of existence has to do with the way in which everything derives from something else, or the idea that everything is interdependent. Taking that idea one step further, he posits that to exist is to be empty or essence-less. Thus, if something has essence, it is independent (Garfield, 27). Presumably, there was a time in which one, single thing existed before all others existed, meaning it was independent. But according to his teachings, it is not possible for something to exist independently. An absence of an explanation for how the first thing came to exist causes me to struggle with understanding Nagarjuna’s conceptualization of existence. While I can make sense of the interdependence theory, I long for some sort of explanation for how this interdependency came to be.
I wonder if my longing for an explanation has to do with my religious background, and the idea that religion should provide some sort of explanation for the start of life. Clearly, this is not a fundamental part of Buddhism, but it seems as though it should be, simply because Nagarjuna provides such a well-developed theory on existence. In this way, Buddhism seems to align more with a philosophy than a religion. This school of thought does not attempt to explain inception, but rather, provide an explanation for the way in which things currently exist.
In Garfield’s discussion of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika, he breaks down Nagarjuna’s four conditions, which provide an explanation for phenomena’s existences. The counterargument to these conditions is the closest thing I’ve encountered to an acknowledgment that something has to exist as independent in order for other things to exist. “For in philosophical context in which Nagarjuna is writing, there are those – indeed including most Buddhist philosophical schools – who would accept his classification of conditions, but who would then assert that in order for conditions to function as explanatory, they must themselves have an independent inherent existence” (Garfield, 104).
The above quote gives light to an argument not present in Nagarjuna’s school of thought, but nonetheless valid, as it lends itself to the idea that something has to exist outside of this interconnectedness. Perhaps Nagarjuna rejects this idea because it complicates the narrative of interdependency, and asks one to develop an explanation for how things exist independently. Regardless, I would like to examine other schools that entertain this idea in order to understand how Buddhists’ conceptualize independent phenomena.

Garfield, Jay. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

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3 Responses to Where Does Independence/Inception Fit In? Questions on Nagarjuna’s Teachings

  1. Captain America says:

    The concept of creation stories has always been some what difficult for me to understand because I was also raised Catholic and I am also a biologist. Sometimes, it means I find it difficult to understand or accept some creation stories or lack there of. With Buddhism, it seems as if the world has and will always exist, there is not beginning or end, no creation or destruction. As a biologist, this concept is very difficult for me to grasp but at the same time, thinking about it through Nagarjuna’s point of view, it can sense because of the idea of the interconnectedness of everything in existence. There is no one thing that can be dependent from everything else, everything is connected and in that way, there is no creation story, just existence.

  2. Lily says:

    I don’t think that a creation story is necessary for a religion to be considered a religion. That being said, you make a very interesting point in this post about the lack of a creation story. I wonder how Nagarjuna would respond to your thoughts. Even if a creation story isn’t a necessary component, it is still difficult to understand how Buddhists believe that everything began, especially because of the idea of the cycle of Samsara. I keep coming back to the question of whether the chicken or the egg started first because that is what tends to come to mind when I think about how the world began. In truth, I find it hard to understand creation stories to begin with because I cannot figure out how the beginning began. Where could this single thing that created the rest of the world have come from?

  3. Emilia says:

    I found your post about a creation story to be really interesting and it reminded me a little of a comment the professor made in class about the concept of time for Buddhists. While discussing the various lengths of time each school predicted it would take to reach enlightenment someone asked how these many eons fit into the history of existence of the Earth and mankind. In response she said, for Buddhists time is limitless. Perhaps that relates to your question about a creation story as well, maybe for Buddhists there is no story because there is no beginning or end to retell or foretell.

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