Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Nagarjuna's Negative Dialectic and the Significance of Emptiness by Alan Gullette

Here is yet another wonderful essay from Allen Gullette composed by him for one of his college classes in Philosophy back in 1975. Brilliant, as always, and very interesting and informative indeed! This one pertains to the Buddhist concept of "Emptiness", a very important concept in All spiritual doctrines containing the One Truth. I am sure that you will have a decent grasp of this State of Being after a careful study of Mr. Gullette's clear analysis. I sincerely hope you enjoy this intelligently written essay as much as I do!


Nagarjuna's Negative Dialectic
And the Significance of Emptiness
Alan Gullette
University of Tennessee-Knoxville
Winter 1975
Philosophy 3660: Buddhism
Dr. Lee
Of the two great schools in Buddhism, the Hinayana and the Mahayana, the latter is divided into two major systems of thought, of which the Madhyamika predominates. As the Mahayana school is the more widespread school that has evolved from Buddha's original Order, so is the body of underlying principles of the Madhyamika system of considerable importance in relation to other doctrines. Apart from this distinction, it is considered to embody the central philosophy of Buddhism and so created a revolution in that religion which carried over, in its influence, into the whole of Indian philosophical thought (Murti, vii – see Bibliography; citations are given in parentheses within the text of this paper). I will discuss the negative dialectic process of Nagarjuna (AD 200), the founder of Madhyamika, in order to clarify the doctrine of Emptiness (sunyata).

Beyond what is given in the selective basic secondary Buddhist texts of Ch'en, de Bary, Robinson, and Conze, there is actually little that need be said of the dialectic "apparatus" and the significance of the doctrine of Emptiness. For these texts offer a very good basic understanding of the doctrine, though they do not go into much detail. But while Ch'en is precise in his excellent summary and de Bary is revealing in his very clear explication, Conze and Robinson, especially the former, seem to have no deep understanding of the doctrine, failing to see all of the considerable implications of the statement of Emptiness. Nevertheless, I shall rely as much as possible upon readings from Bapat, Koller, Murti, Raju, Stcherbatsky, and Streng.

Nagarjuna's central work was the Madhyamika-karika, considered to be a masterpiece as it systematically presents the philosophy of the Madhyamika school (Bapat, 106). His fundamentals are set forth in the invocation or dedication: that "There is neither origination nor cessation, neither origination nor cessation, neither permanence nor impermanence, neither unity nor diversity, neither coming-in nor going-out in the law of Pratitya-samutpada" (or dependent arising, dependently-coordinating-origination, etc.)(Bapat, 107). This is Buddha's "principle of relativity" or svabhava-sunyata [(the emptiness of self-being)], which is to say that everything is relative [and nothing absolute]. Starting from this point, Nagarjuna set out to prove that no conceptual system can hold absolutely true. This he did by first accepting the various concepts and propositions of the various opposing schools of thought current in his day, and using the standard rules of formal debate, arrived at contradictions in all of the systems. The consistency with which he was able to do this, and the sheer brilliance of his dialect mind, has impressed many scholars who set out to study his "dialectic apparatus" or method. His dialectic skill has never been surpassed (Raju, 127).

In more specific terms, Nagarjuna took causality – the basis not only of Buddhism but also very much the basis of all scientific thought – and reduced ad absurdum both our conception of the causal law and all realistic theories. That is, by holding that there exist no separate, distinguishable real things or elements (dharmas), he threw causality out the window. All relationships are thus seen to be false. If a contradiction was seen to exist in a system, a proof of error was thereby found (Ch'en, 74). He sat about applying his results to each and every item of the Hinayanist philosophical system (Stcherbatsky, 48). By taking logical argument as his tool, Monism removed the possibility of knowing Truth conceptually through demonstrating the absurdity of conceptualizing about what is real. Beginning with the premise that systems of rations thought based on any absolute and definite statement of reality lead only to self-contradiction, he proved the illogic of a rational approach to Truth. By taking rational thought – the only common sense – that can exist between people in this false world of words and names and forms (all of which are concepts) – he shows that thought is only relatively correct, is only of relative truth – is therefore false. From this we have a statement "whatsoever is relative is false, transient, and "illusory" (46).

An idea is formed of the nature of his arguments, which are very straightforward and so laconic as to require considerable study to make sense out of them. This chore of following this though becomes a delightful one, and the student is easily persuaded of the complete validity of the argument. As an example I will present a paraphrase of Chapter XIX, "An Analysis of Time (kala)," as it is the shortest, being of six verses. (The entire work, "Fundamentals of the Middle Way," is translated in prose from Streng, 183-220; Ch. XIX is on p. 205). If the present and future exist presupposing the past (i.e., if they are seen to have emerged from the past), then they must have already existed in the past. If they did not exist in the past, they could not have emerged therefrom. But if the past is not presupposed as the source of the present and future, then these latter cannot be proved to exist: therefore neither present nor future time exist. In this way, the two can be inverted; thus one would regard "highest," "lowest," and "middle," etc., or oneness and difference – i.e., by arranging the past, present and future, they are seen to be in different orders, or as all one, or as separate. A non-stationary time cannot be grasped; and a stationary time that can be grasped does not exist; yet we cannot perceive time without grasping it. Sine time is dependent on a thing (which will change, revealing time), how can it exist without a thing? No things exist apart (svabhava), so how can time become something? Thus Time does not exist.

The only notable device used in his "analyses" that can be mentioned is noted by Raju. In several cases, including the initial chapter on causality, Nagarjuna uses the "four-cornered negation" – i.e., he refutes an idea as being, as nonbeing, as both, and as neither (Raju, 127). Belief in any of the four cases is an extreme thesis and must be transcended by a higher synthesis through the dialectic method. This process, also called "The Middle Path of Eightfold Negations," is one by which the Ultimate Truth is eventually arrived at (de Bary, 191).

Now, if everything is relative, and all that is relative is false, then what Truth is there? The answer is found in the doctrine of Sunyata, Emptiness. By saying that concepts are false, the quality of Emptiness of pinpointed. Since all is false, Emptiness is in all. This is [presented as] the Absolute Truth. The truth of emptiness is the same as the unreality of all existing elements, which is to say that Samsara (the phenomenal world, existence-in-flux) is Sunyata. But Nirvana is also the Truth, and Nirvana is the same as Sunyata and Samsara (Bapat, 107). Furthermore, the Buddha-nature is the Ultimate Reality of the basis of each person, and the Buddha-nature – and Buddha himself – is empty (Koller, 167). The significance of this is great, as we shall see later. Now we may add that since Nirvana is Enlightenment, Emptiness is Enlightenment (Streng, 161f). With all of these implications, Nagarjuna cancelled the existing definitions of reality and the whole edifice of Early Buddhism was undermined and smashed." The idea of absolute would become meaningless if there is nothing to set it against or relate it to. As well, the phenomenal would cease to be if there was nothing non-phenomenal for contrast. And so, the Absolute becomes as relative as all other ultimates and is filled with Sunyata: there is no difference between the Absolute and the Phenomenal (Stcherbatsky, 45, 48). Strangely, there is no contraction here, even though Samsara, which is "false," becomes indistinct from Sunyata, which is "true." The key is in the flexibility of "real" or "true," which is being widened in its definition through these comparisons.

One paradox that seems to crop up is indicated by an argument against the Madhyamika doctrine. The argument is that Nagarjuna's arguments are themselves empty. But so is this argument against him, etc. Every logical argument can be reduced to absurdity (de Bary, 78). But Nagarjuna had made his point, and his system of thought designed to rid us of theories is not a theory itself. Nevertheless, the Sunyata or doctrine of Emptiness is certainly empty itself. Where are we left? Murti writes, "Negation is not total annulment but comprehension without abstraction" (128). The dialectic is primarily a judgment on the limitation of reason which simply clears the mind for a perception or apprehension of reality by a higher faculty – that of intuition. This intuition is perfection of wisdom or prajna (126). So the logical system of dialectics was meant to be abandoned from the beginning, which further evidences Nagarjuna's brilliance. He says that clinging to it as a false system is worse that clinging to a non-existent self. He actually shows the Emptiness of his "Treatise on Relativity" if the Relative is significant, then the non-relative surely has meaning, else the Relative would fall by having nothing to relate to. But there is nothing that exists outside of Samsara (interdependency, or relativity) if everything is relative. Therefore, Relativism itself is meaningless. What remains to use is only intuitive sensitivity to the Truth, to the Buddha, whereby we can attain Nirvana or perfection of wisdom or prajna-paramita.

Here, then, is a strong indication that meditation-yoga techniques are aids for realizing Emptiness, allowing an "ultimate indifference" to "pervade the mind, feelings, and activities of the religions student. Emptiness is an answer to the quest for enlightenment when it promotes a practical solution to the problem of sorrow" (Streng, 163). For Conze, "Wisdom is understood as a refined dialectics which kills all thought" (162). Pure consciousness – the absence of thought and perception in the mind – is achieved by an extremely high-level meditation. Dialectics means, "if you think properly and deeply on anything, you arrive at contradictions, i.e., at statements which to some extent cancel each other out" (17). What is left but Emptiness as the middle path between all extremes?

The significance of the non-difference between Nirvana and Samsara is this: Nirvana is here and now. It is all around us and in us (actually, we are in it, being of the whole), as is the Buddha-nature and Buddhahood. We need only to be awakened to it. Chinese and Japanese modifications of the Madhyamika doctrine show in their Buddhists "a frank acceptance of the beauty of the world, and especially of the beauty of nature, as a vision of Nirvana here and now" (de Bary, 78). This places Nirvana in Samsara. This realization of Nirvana does put an end to suffering and suggests a revision of the strongly Buddhist statement that "all life is suffering." For enlightenment allows one to enjoy life here and to appreciate the beauty of life. The "problem of sorrow" solved, we have hope – which is what any religion will offer us – and a clarification of Buddha's main doctrine (of suffering).

Conze notes that Sunyata was symbolized in art by an empty circle, representing absence of self or self-effacement. Now, this self-denying aspect of Buddhism – of Nirvana as a "blowing out" of the self – is disturbing to one who believes in individuality. But we have a more complete understanding of the dialectics that remove the subject-object distinction and so abolish the individual. Conze is unclear on this point: The self is certainly destroyed as a concept, but the believer in the doctrine need not efface himself to become empty. He is allowed to be amused with the illusion of self, understanding all the while that the individual only seems to exist…

Bapat, P. V. 2500 Years of Buddhism. India: Publications Division, 1956.
Koller, John M. Oriental Philosophies. New York: Scribner's, 1970.
Murti, T. R. V. The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. London: George Allen and Unwin, second edition 1960.
Raju, P. T. The Philosophical Traditions of India. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1971.
Stcherbatsky, Th. The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana. The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1965 reprint of Leningrad, 1927 edition.
Streng, Frederick J. Emptiness – A Study in Religious Meaning. Nashville: Abindon Press, 1967.


  1. Nice article, thanks for the information.

  2. Glad you enjoyed this wonderful essay my friend. You are always welcome here. Be well!