DEPENDENT ARISING AND THE EMPTINESS
OF EMPTINESS: WHY DID NAAGAARJUNA
START WITH CAUSATION?
By Jay L. Garfield
Philosophy East and West
Volume 44, Number 2
(C) by University of Hawaii Press
Naagaarjuna, who lived in South India in
approximately the first century C.E., is undoubtedly
the most important, influential, and widely studied
Mahaayaana Buddhist philosopher. He is the founder
of the Maadhyamika, or Middle Path, schools of
Mahaayaana Buddhism. His considerable corpus
includes texts addressed to lay audiences, letters
of advice to kings, and the set of penetrating
metaphysical and epistemological treatises that
represent the foundation of the highly skeptical and
dialectical analytic philosophical school known as
Maadhyamika. Most important of these is his largest
and best- known text, the
Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa--in English, Fundamental
Stanzas on the Middle Way. This text in turn
inspires a huge commentarial literature in Sanskrit,
Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Divergences
in interpretation of the Muulamaadhyamikaakarikaa
often determine the splits between major
philosophical schools. So, for instance, the
distinction between two of the three major
Mahaayaana philosophical schools,
Praasa^ngika-Maadhyamika, reflect, inter alia,
distinct readings of this text, itself taken as
fundamental by scholars within each of these
The treatise itself is composed in very terse,
often cryptic verses, with much of the explicit
argument suppressed, generating significant
interpretative challenges. But the uniformity of the
philosophical methodology and the clarity of the
central philosophical vision expressed in the text
together provide a considerable? fulcrum for
exegesis. The central topic of the text is
emptiness--the Buddhist technical term for the lack
of independent existence, inherent existence, or
essence in things. Naagaarjuna relentlessly analyzes
phenomena or processes that appear to exist
independently and argues that they cannot so exist,
and yet, though lacking the inherent existence
imputed to them either by naive common sense or by
sophisticated, realistic philosophical theory, these
phenomena are not nonexistent--they are, he argues,
This dual thesis of the conventional reality of
phenomena together with their lack of inherent
existence depends upon the complex doctrine of the
two truths or two realities---a conventional or
nominal truth and an ultimate truth--and upon a
subtle and surprising doctrine regarding their
relation. It is, in fact, this sophisticated
development of the doctrine of the two truths as a
vehicle for understanding Buddhist metaphysics and
epistemology that is Naagaarjuna's greatest
philosophical contribution. If the analysis in terms
of emptiness is the substantial heart of
Muulamaadhyamikaarikaa. the method of reductio ad
absurdum is the methodolog-
ical core. Naagaarjuna, like Western skeptics,
systematically eschews the defense of positive
metaphysical doctrines regarding the nature of
things, demonstrating rather that any such positive
thesis is incoherent, and that in the end our
conventions and our conceptual framework can never
be justified by demonstrating their correspondence
to an independent reality. Rather, he suggests, what
counts as real depends precisely upon our
For Naagaarjuna and his followers, this point is
connected deeply and directly with the emptiness of
phenomena. That is, for instance, when a Madhyamika
philosopher says of a table that it is empty, that
assertion by itself is incomplete. It invites the
question, "empty of what?" And the answer is: "empty
of inherent existence, or self-nature, or, in more
Western terms, essence." Now, to say that the table
is empty is hence simply to say that it lacks
essence and, importantly, not to say that it is
completely nonexistent. To say that it lacks
essence, the Madhyamika philosopher will explain, is
to say, as the Tibetans like to put it, that it does
not exist "from its own side"---that its existence
as the object that it is, as a table, depends not
only upon it or on any purely nonrelational
characteristics, but upon us as well. That is, if
this kind of furniture had not evolved in our
culture, what appears to us to be an obviously
unitary object might instead be correctly described
as five objects: four quite useful sticks absurdly
surmounted by a pointless slab of stick-wood waiting
to be carved. It is also to say that the table
depends for its existence on its parts, on its
causes, on its material, and so forth. Apart from
these, there is no table. The table, we might say,
is a purely arbitrary slice of space-time chosen by
us as the referent of a single name, and not an
entity demanding, on its own, recognition and a
philosophical analysis to reveal its essence. That
independent character is precisely what it lacks, on
And this analysis in terms of emptiness--an
analysis refusing to characterize the nature of any
thing, precisely because it denies that we can make
sense of the idea of a thing's nature--proceeding by
the relentless refutation of any attempt to provide
such a positive analysis, is applied by Naagaarjuna
to all phenomena, including, most radically,
emptiness itself. For if Naagaarjuna merely argued
that all phenomena are empty, one might justly
indict him for in fact merely replacing one analysis
of things with another; that is, with arguing that
emptiness is in fact the essence of all things. But
Naagaarjuna, as we shall see, argues that emptiness
itself is empty. It is not a self-existent void
standing behind the veil of illusion represented by
conventional reality, but merely an aspect of
conventional reality. And this, as we shall see, is
what provides the key to understanding the deep
unity between the two truths.
While Naagaarjuna is a powerfully original
thinker, he is clearly and self-consciously
operating squarely within the framework of Buddhist
philosophy. Therefore, Naagaarjuna accepts, and
takes it as incumbent upon him, to provide an
account of the Four Noble Truths. Moreover, he takes
it as a fundamental philosophical task to provide an
understanding of what Buddhist philosophy refers to
as pratiityasammutpaada--dependent co-origination.
This term denotes the nexus between phenomena in
virtue of which events depend on other events,
composites depend upon their parts, and so forth.
Just how this dependency is spelled out, and just
what is its status is a matter of considerable
debate within Buddhist philosophy, just as the
nature of causation and explanation is a matter of
great dispute within Western philosophy. Naagaarjuna
is very much concerned to stake out a radical and
revealing position in this debate. I will argue that
this position provides the key to understanding his
The Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa is divided into
twenty-seven chapters. The first chapter addresses
dependent origination. While many Western
commentators assert that this chapter opens the text
simply because it addresses a "fundamental doctrine
of Buddhism" (Kalupahana 1986), I will argue that
Naagaarjuna begins with causation for deeper, more
systematic reasons. In chapters 2 through 23,
Naagaarjuna addresses a wide range of phenomena,
including external perceptibles, psychological
processes, relations, and putative substances and
attributes, arguing that all are empty. In the final
four chapters, Naagaarjuna replies to objections and
generalizes the particular analyses into a broad
theory concerning the nature of emptiness itself and
the relation between the two truths, emptiness and
dependent arising itself. It is generally, and in my
view correctly, acknowledged that chapter 24, the
examination of the Four Noble Truths, is the central
chapter of the text and the climax of the argument.
One verse of this chapter, verse 18, has received so
much attention that interpretations of it alone
represent the foundations of major Buddhist schools
in East Asia:
Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation
Is itself the middle way.
Here Naagaarjuna asserts the fundamental identity of
(1) emptiness, or the ultimate truth, (2) the
dependently originated--that is, all phenomena--and
(3) verbal convention. Moreover, he asserts that
understanding this relation is itself the middle-way
philosophical view he articulates in the
Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa. This verse and the
discussion in the chapters that follow provide the
fulcrum for Candrakiirti's more explicit
characterization of the emptiness of emptiness as an
interpretation of Naagaarjuna's philosophical
system--the interpretation that is definitive of the
Praasa^ngika-Maadhyamika school. In what follows I
will provide an interpretation of this central verse
and its context that harmonizes with Candrakiirti's
argue that, in fact, this doctrine is already to be
found in the opening chapter of the text--the
examination of conditions. Reading the text in this
way, I will argue, locates the doctrine of the
emptiness of emptiness not only as a dramatic
philosophical conclusion to be drawn at the end of
twenty-four chapters of argument, but as the
perspective implicit in the argument from the very
beginning, and only rendered explicit in chapter 24.
Reading the text in this way, I will suggest, also
shows us exactly how 24: 18 is to be understood, and
just why a proper understanding of causality is so
central to Buddhist philosophy.
I will begin by offering a philosophical reading
of chapter 1. I will argue that Naagaarjuna
distinguishes two possible views of dependent
origination or the causal process--one according to
which causes bring about their effects in virtue of
causal powers and one according to which causal
relations simply amount to explanatorily useful
regularities--and defends the latter. This, I will
argue, when suitably fleshed out, amounts to
Naagaarjuna's doctrine of the emptiness of
causation. I will then turn immediately to chapter
24, focusing on the link between emptiness,
dependent origination, and convention, and
developing the theory of the emptiness of emptiness.
With this in hand, we will return to chapter 1,
showing how this doctrine is anticipated in the
initial discussion of causation. Finally, I will
show quickly how this way of reading the texts
changes the way we would read subsequent chapters,
and I will make a few general remarks about the
moral of this textual exercise for an understanding
of the centrality of causation to metaphysics and
for an understanding of the remarkably pragmatic
outlook of Maadhyamika philosophy.
2. Chapter 1--Examination of Conditions
Central to this first chapter is the distinction
between causes and conditions (Skt hetu and pratyaya
[Tib rGyu and rKyen]. This distinction is variously
drawn and is controversial, (2) and is arguably
differently understood in Sanskrit and Tibetan. The
way I will understand it here, I argue, makes good,
coherent sense not only of this chapter, but of the
Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa as a whole. Briefly, we
will understand this distinction as follows: When
Naagaarjuna uses the word "cause" (hetu [rGyu]), he
has in mind an event or state that has in it a
power(kriyaa [Bya Ba]) to bring about its effect,
and has that power as part of its essence or nature
(svabhaava [Rang bZhin]). When he uses the term
"condition," on the other hand (pratyaya [rKyen]),
he has in mind an event, state, or process that can
be appealed to in explaining another event, state,
or process, without any metaphysical commitment to
any occult connection between explanandum and
explanans. In chapter 1, Naagaarjuna, we shall see,
argues against the existence of causes and for the
existence of a variety of kinds of conditions.(3)
The argument against causation is tightly
intertwined with the positive account of dependent
arising and of the nature of the relation between
conditions and the conditioned. Naagaarjuna begins
by stating the conclusion (1: 1): neither are
entities self-caused nor do they come to be through
the power of other entities. That is, there is no
causation, when causation is thought of as involving
causal activity.(4) Nonetheless, he notes (1:2),
there are conditions--in fact four distinct kinds--
that can be appealed to in the explanation and
prediction of phenomena. An example might be useful
to illustrate the difference between the four kinds
of condition, and the picture Naagaarjuna will paint
of explanation. Suppose that you ask, "Why are the
lights on?" I might reply as follows: (1) Because I
flicked the switch. I have appealed to an efficient
condition. Or (2) because the wires are in good
working order, the bulbs haven't burned out, and the
electricity is flowing. These are supporting
conditions. Or (3) the light is the emission of
photons each of which is emitted in response to the
bombardment of an atom by an electron, and so forth.
I have appealed to a chain of immediate conditions.
Or (4) so that we can see. This is the dominant
condition. Any of these would be a perfectly good
answer to the "Why?" question. But note that none of
them makes reference to any causal powers or
The next three verses are crucial. Naagaarjuna
first notes (1:3) that in examining a phenomenon and
its relations to its conditions, we do not find that
phenomenon somehow contained potentially in those
conditions. Now, on the reading of this chapter, I
will suggest, we can see conditions simply as useful
explanans. Using this language, we can see
Naagaarjuna as urging that even distinguishing
clearly between explanans and explanandum as
distinct entities, with the former containing
potentially what the latter has actually, is
problematic. What we are typically confronted with
in nature is a vast network of interdependent and
continuous processes, and carving out particular
phenomena for explanation or for use in explanations
depends more on our explanatory interests and
language than on joints nature presents to us.
Through addressing the question of the potential
existence of an event in its conditions, Naagaarjuna
hints at this concealed relation between praxis and
Next, Naagaarjuna notes (1:4) that in exploiting
an event or entity as a condition in explanation, we
do not thereby ascribe it any causal power. Our
desire for light does not exert some occult force on
the lights. Nor is there anything to be found in the
flicking of the switch other than the plastic,
metal, movement, and connections visible to the
naked eye. Occult causal powers are singularly
absent. On the other hand, Naagaarjuna points out in
the same breath that this does not mean that
conditions are explanatorily impotent. In a
perfectly ordinary sense--not that which the
metaphysicians of causation have in mind---our
desire is active in the
production of light. But not in the sense that it
contains light potentially, or some special causal
power that connects our minds to the bulbs.(5)
What is it, then, about some sets of event
pairs, but not others, that make them dependently
related, if not some causal link present in some
cases but not in others? Naagaarjuna replies (1: 5)
that it is the regularities that count. Flickings
give rise to illuminations. So they are conditions
of them. If they didn't, they wouldn't be. Period.
Explanation relies on regularities. Regularities are
explained by reference to further regularities.
Adding active forces or potentials adds nothing of
explanatory utility to the picture.(6)
In reading the next few verses we must be
hermeneutically cautious, and pay careful attention
to Naagaarjuna's use of the term "existent" (satah
[Yod pa]) and its negative contrastive "nonexistent"
(asatah [Med pal). For Naagaarjuna is worried here
about inherent existence and inherent nonexistence,
as opposed to conventional existence or
nonexistence. Though this will become clearer as we
go along, keep in mind for the present that for a
thing to exist inherently is for it to exist in
virtue of possessing an essence; for it to exist
independently of other entities, and independently
of convention. For a thing to be inherently
nonexistent is for it to not exist in any sense at
all--not even conventionally or dependently.
With this in mind, we can see how Naagaarjuna
defends dependent arising while rejecting causation.
He notes (1:6) that if entities are conceived as
inherently existent, they exist independently, and
hence need no conditions for their production.
Indeed, they could not be produced if they exist in
this way. On the other hand, if things exist in no
way whatsoever, it follows trivially that they have
no conditions. This verse and the several that
follow (1:6-10) make this point with regard to each
of the four kinds of conditions.
What is important about this strand of the
argument Naagaarjuna is drawing attention to the
connection between a causal-power view of causation
and an essentialist view of phenomena on the one
hand, and between a condition view of dependent
arising and a conventional view of phenomena on the
other. Here is the point: if one views phenomena as
having and as emerging from casual powers, one views
them as having essences and as being connected to
the essences of other phenomena. This, Naagaarjuna
suggests, is ultimately incoherent, since it forces
one at the same time to assert the inherent
existence of these things, in virtue of their
essential identity, and to assert their dependence
and productive character, in virtue of their causal
history and power. But such dependence and
relational character, he suggests, is incompatible
with their inherent existence. If, on the other
hand, one regards things as dependent merely on
conditions, one regards them as merely
conventionally existent. And to regard something as
merely conventionally existent is to regard it as
without essence and without power. And this is to
as existing dependently. This provides a coherent,
mundane understaning of phenomena as an alternative
to the metaphysics of reification that Naagaarjuna
Verse 10 is central in this discussion.
If things did not exist
The phrase, "When this exists so this will be,"
Would not be acceptable.
Naagaarjuna is replying here to the causal
realist's inference from the reality of causal
powers to their embodiment in real entities whose
essences include those powers. He turns the tables
on the realist, arguing that it is precisely because
there is no such reality to things--and hence no
entities to serve as the bearers of the causal
powers the realist wants to posit--that the Buddhist
formula expressing the truth of dependent arising(7)
can be asserted. It could not be asserted if in fact
there were real entities. For if they were real in
the sense important for the realist, they would be
independent. So if the formula were interpreted in
this context as pointing to any causal power, it
would be false. It can only be interpreted, it would
follow, as a formula expressing the regularity of
In the next three verses (1:11-13) Naagaarjuna
anticipates and answers the causal realist's reply.
First, the realist argues that the conclusion
Naagaarjuna draws from the unreality of causal
power--the nonexistence of things (where "existence"
is read "inherent existence")--entails the falsity
of the claim that things dependently arise (1:11).
For if there are no things, surely nothing arises.
This charge has a double edge: if the argument is
successful it shows not only that Naagaarjuna's own
position is vacuous, but also that it contradicts
one of the most fundamental tenets of Buddhist
philosophy: that all phenomena are dependently
arisen. Moreover, the opponent charges (1:11), on
Naagaarjuna's view that the explanandum is not to be
found potentially in the explanans, there is no
explanation of how the former is to be understood as
depending upon the latter. As Naagaarjuna will
emphasize, however (1: 14), the very structure of
this charge contains the seeds of its reply. The
very emptiness of the effect, an effect presupposed
by the opponent to be nonempty, in fact follows from
the emptiness of the conditions and of the
relationship between conditions and effect. Hence
Naagaarjuna can reply to the opponents' attempted
refutation by embracing the conclusion of his
reductio together with the premises it supposedly
How, the opponent asks, are we to distinguish
coincidental sequence from causal consequence? And
why (1: 12) don't things simply arise randomly from
events that are nonconditions, since no special
connection is posited to link consequents to their
proper causal antecedents? Finally, the opponent
asks (1: 13), since the phenomena we observe clearly
natures, how could it be, as Naagaarjuna argues,
that they proceed by means of a process with no
essence, from conditions with no essence? Whence do
the natures of actual existents arise? Naagaarjuna
again replies to this last charge by pointing out
that since on his view the effects indeed have no
essence, the opponent's presupposition is
ill-founded. This move also indicates a reply to the
problem posed in (1:12); that problem is grounded in
the mistaken view that a phenomenon's lack of
inherent existence entails that it, being
nonexistent, could come into existence from nowhere.
But "from nowhere," for the opponent, means from
something lacking inherent existence. And indeed,
for Naagaarjuna, this is exactly the case: effects
lacking inherent existence depend precisely upon
conditions which themselves lack inherent existence.
Naagaarjuna's summary of the import of this set
of replies (1: 14) is terse and cryptic. But
unpacking it with the aid of what has gone before
provides an important key to understanding the
doctrine of the emptiness of causation that is the
burden of this chapter. First, Naagaarjuna points
out, the opponent begs the question in asserting the
genuine existence of the effects in question. They,
like their conditions, and like the process of
dependent origination itself, are nonexistent from
the ultimate point of view. Hence the third charge
fails. As a consequence, in the sense in which the
opponent supposes that these effects proceed from
their conditions--namely that their essence is
contained potentially in their causes, which
themselves exist inherently--these effects need not
be so produced. And so, finally, the
effect-containing conditions for which the opponent
charges Naagaarjuna with being unable to account are
themselves unnecessary. In short, while the
reificationist critic charges the Maadhyamika with
failing to come up with a causal link sufficiently
robust to link ultimately real phenomena, for the
Maadhyamika philosopher, the core reason for the
absence of such a causal link is the very absence of
such phenomena in the first place.
We are now in a position to characterize
explicitly the emptiness of causation, and the way
this doctrine is identical with the doctrine of
dependent origination from conditions adumbrated in
this chapter. It is best to offer this
characterization using the via media formulation
most consonant with Naagaarjuna's philosophical
school. We will locate the doctrine as a midpoint
between two extreme philosophical views. That
midpoint is achieved by taking conventions as the
foundation of ontology, hence rejecting the very
enterprise of a philosophical search for the
ontological foundations of convention (Garfield
1990) . To say that causation is nonempty or
inherently existent is to succumb to the temptation
to ground our explanatory practice and discourse in
genuine causal powers linking causes to effects.
That is the reificationist extreme which Naagaarjuna
clearly rejects. To respond to the arguments against
the inherent existence of causation by suggesting
that there is then no possibility
of appealing to conditions to explain
phenomena--that there is no dependent origination at
all--is the extreme of nihilism, also clearly
rejected by Naagaarjuna. To assert the emptiness of
causation is to accept the utility of our causal
discourse and explanatory practice, but to resist
the temptation to see these as grounded in reference
to causal powers or as demanding such grounding.
Dependent origination simply is the explicability
and coherence of the universe. Its emptiness is the
fact that there is no more to it than that.
Now this is certainly philosophically
interesting stuff in its own right. But as I
suggested at the outset, there is more to it than
just an analysis of causation and dependent arising.
For, as we shall see, for Naagaarjuna, among the
most important means of demonstrating the emptiness
of phenomena is to argue that they are dependently
arisen. And so the claim that dependent arising
itself is empty will turn out to be the claim that
the emptiness of phenomena is itself empty---the
central and deepest claim of Maadhyamika ontology.
3. Chapter 24--Examination of the Four Noble Truths
While Chapter 24 ostensibly concerns the Four
Buddhist Truths and the way they are to be
understood from the vantage point of emptiness, it
is really about the nature of emptiness itself, and
about the relation between emptiness and
conventional reality. As such, it is the
philosophical heart of the Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa.
The first six verses of the chapter (24: 1-6)
present a reply to Naagaarjuna's doctrine of
emptiness by an opponent charging the doctrine with
nihilism. The next eight verses (24: 7-14) are
primarily rhetorical, castigating the opponent for
his misunderstanding of Maadhyamika. The important
philosophical work begins with 24: 15. From this
point Naagaarjuna offers a theory of the
relationship between emptiness, dependent
origination, and convention, and argues not only
that these three can be understood as co-relative,
but that if conventional things (or emptiness
itself) were nonempty, the very nihilism would ensue
with which the reificationist opponent charges
Maadhyamika. This tactic of arguing not only against
each extreme but also that the contradictory
extremes are in fact mutually entailing is a
dialectical trademark of Naagaarjuna's philosophical
method. Because of the length of this chapter, I
will not provide a verse-by-verse reading here, but
only a general gloss of the argument, with special
attention to critical verses.
The opponent opens the chapter by claiming that
if the entire phenomenal world were empty nothing
would in fact exist, a conclusion absurd on its face
and, more importantly, contradictory to fundamental
Buddhist tenets such as the Four Noble Truths
(24:1-6) as well as to conventional wisdom. The
implicit dilemma with which Naagaarjuna confronts
himself is elegant (24:6). For as we have seen, the
between the two truths, or two vantage points--the
ultimate and the conventional--is fundamental to his
own method. So when the opponent charges that the
assertion of the nonexistence of such things as the
Four Noble Truths and of the arising, abiding, and
ceasing of entities is contradictory both to
conventional wisdom and to the ultimate truth
(namely, on one straightforward interpretation, that
all phenomena are impermanent, that is, merely
arising, abiding momentarily, and ceasing) ,
Naagaarjuna is forced to defend himself on both
fronts and to comment on the connection between
Naagaarjuna launches the reply by charging the
opponent with foisting the opponent's own
understanding of emptiness on Naagaarjuna. Though
this is not made as explicit in the text as one
might like, it is important to note that the
understanding Naagaarjuna has in mind is one that,
in the terms of Maadhyamika, reifies emptiness
itself. Verse 24:16 provides a clue.
If the existence of all things
Is perceived in terms of their essence,
Then this perception of all things
Will be without the perception of causes and
The opponent is seeing actual existence as a
discrete entity with an essence. it would follow
that for the opponent, the reality of emptiness
would entail that emptiness itself is an entity, and
at that an inherently existing entity. To see
emptiness in this way is to see it as radically
different from conventional, phenomenal reality. It
is to see the conventional as illusory and emptiness
as the reality standing behind it. To adopt this
view of emptiness is indeed to deny the reality of
the entire phenomenal, conventional world. It is
also to ascribe a special, nonconventional,
nondependent hyperreality to emptiness itself.
Ordinary things would be viewed as nonexistent,
emptiness as substantially existent. (It is
important and central to the Maadhyamika dialectic
to see that these go together--that nihilism about
one kind of entity is typically paired with
reification of another.) This view is not uncommon
in Buddhist philosophy, and Naagaarjuna is clearly
aware that it might be suggested by his own
position. So Naagaarjuna's reply must begin by
distancing himself from this reified view of
emptiness itself and hence from the dualism it
entails. Only then can he show that to reify
emptiness in this way would indeed entail the
difficulties his imaginary opponent adumbrates,
difficulties not attaching to Naagaarjuna's own
view. This brings us to the central verses of this
chapter (24: 18 and 24: 19):
Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation
Is itself the middle way.
Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a non-empty thing
Does not exist.
These verses demand careful scrutiny. In 24:18,
Naagaarjuna establishes a critical three-way
relation between emptiness, dependent origination,
and verbal convention, and asserts that this
relation itself is the Middle Way towards which his
entire philosophical system is aimed. As we shall
see, this is the basis for understanding the
emptiness of emptiness itself. First, Naagaarjuna
asserts that the dependently arisen is emptiness.
Emptiness and the phenomenal world are not two
distinct things. They are rather two
characterizations of the same thing. To say of
something that it is dependently co-arisen is to say
that it is empty. To say of something that it is
empty is another way of saying that it arises
Moreover, whatever is dependently co-arisen is
verbally established. That is, the identity of any
dependently arisen thing depends upon verbal
conventions. To say of a thing that it is
dependently arisen is to say that its identity as a
single entity is nothing more than its being the
referent of a word. The thing itself, apart from
conventions of individuation, is nothing but an
arbitrary slice of an indefinite spatiotemporal and
causal manifold. To say of a thing that its identity
is a merely verbal fact about it is to say that it
is empty. To view emptiness in this way is to see it
neither as an entity nor as unreal--it is to see it
as conventionally real. Moreover, "emptiness" itself
is asserted to be a dependent designation (Skt
praj~naptir-upadaya [brTen Nas gDasgs pa]). Its
referent, emptiness itself, is thereby asserted to
be merely dependent and nominal--conventionally
existent but ultimately empty. This is, hence, a
middle path with regard to emptiness. To view the
dependently originated world in this way is to see
it neither as nonempty nor as completely
nonexistent. It is, viewed in this way,
conventionally existent, but empty We thus have a
middle path with regard to dependent origination. To
view convention in this way is to view it neither as
ontologically insignificant--it determines the
character of the phenomenal world--nor as
ontologically efficacious--it is empty. Thus we also
have a middle way with regard to convention. And
finally, given the nice ambiguity in the reference
of "that," (De Ni), not only are "dependent arising"
and "emptiness" asserted to be dependent
designations, and hence merely nominal, but the very
relation between them is asserted to be so
dependent, and therefore to be empty.(8)
These morals are driven home in 24:19, where
Naagaarjuna emphasizes that everything--and this
must include emptiness--is dependently arisen. So
everything--including emptiness--lacks inherent
So nothing lacks the three coextensive properties of
emptiness, dependent-origination, and conventional
With this in hand, Naagaarjuna can reply to the
critic. He first points out (24: 20-35) that in
virtue of the identity of dependent origination and
emptiness on the one hand and of ontological
independence and intrinsic reality on the other,
such phenomena as arising, ceasing, suffering,
change, enlightenment, and so on--the very phenomena
the opponent charges Naagaarjuna with denying--are
possible only if they are empty. The tables are thus
turned: it appears that Naagaarjuna, in virtue of
arguing for the emptiness of these phenomena, was
arguing that in reality they do not exist, precisely
because, for the reifier of emptiness, existence and
emptiness are opposites. But in fact, because of the
identity of emptiness and conventional existence, it
is the reifier who, in virtue of denying the
emptiness of these phenomena, denies their
existence. And it is hence the reifier of emptiness
who is impaled on both horns of the dilemma s/he has
presented to Naagaarjuna: contradicting the ultimate
truth, s/he denies that these phenomena are empty;
contradicting the conventional, s/he is forced to
deny that they even exist! And so Naagaarjuna can
conclude (24: 36):
If dependent arising is denied,
Emptiness itself is rejected.
This would contradict
All of the worldly conventions.
To assert the nonemptiness of phenomena and of
their interrelations, Naagaarjuna suggests, when
emptiness is properly understood, is not only
philosophically deeply confused, it is contradictory
to common sense. We can make sense of this argument
in the following way: common sense neither posits
nor requires intrinsic reality in phenomena or a
real causal nexus; common sense holds the world to
be a network of dependentiy arisen phenomena. So
common sense holds the world to be empty. Again, the
standpoint of emptiness is not at odds with the
conventional standpoint, only with a particular
philosophical understanding of it--that which takes
the conventional to be more than merely
conventional. What is curious--and, from the
Buddhist standpoint, sad--about the human condition,
on this view, is the naturalness and seductiveness
of that philosophical perspective.(9)
4. The Emptiness of Emptiness
Let us consider now what it is to say that
emptiness itself is empty. The claim, even in the
context of Buddhist philosophy, does have a somewhat
paradoxical air. For emptiness is, in Mahaayaana
philosophical thought, the ultimate nature of all
phenomena. And the distinction between the merely
conventional nature of things and their ultimate
nature would seem to mark the distinction between
the apparent and the real.
While it is plausible to say that what is merely
apparent is empty of reality, it seems nihilistic to
say that what is ultimately real is empty of
reality, and, as we have seen, the Maadhyamika are
quite consciously antinihilistic. But again, when we
say that a phenomenon is empty, we say, inter alia,
that it is impermanent, that it depends upon
conditions, and that its identity is dependent upon
convention. Do we really want to say of each
phenomenon that its emptiness--the fact that it is
empty--is itself impermanent, itself dependent on
something else, itself dependent upon conventions?
It might at least appear that even if all other
properties of conventional entities were so, their
emptiness would be an eternal, independent,
It may be useful to approach the emptiness of
emptiness by first asking what it would be to treat
emptiness as nonempty. When we say that a phenomenon
is empty, we mean that when we try to specify its
essence, we come up with nothing. When we look for
the substance that underlies the properties, or the
bearer of the parts, we find none. When we ask what
it is that gives a thing its identity, we stumble
not upon ontological facts but upon conventions. For
a thing to be nonempty would be for it to have an
essence discoverable upon analysis; for it to be a
substance independent of its attributes, or a bearer
of parts; for its identity to be self-determined by
its essence. A nonempty entity can be fully
For emptiness to be nonempty would be for it to
be a substantial entity, an independent existent, a
nonconventional phenomenon. On such a view, arguably
held by certain Buddhist philosophical schools,
emptiness is entirely distinct from any conventional
phenomenon. It is, on such a view, the object of
correct perception, while conventional phenomena are
the objects of delusive perception. While
conventional phenomena are dependent upon
conventions, conditions, or the ignorance of
obstructed minds, emptiness, on such a view, is
apparent precisely when one sees through those
conventions, dispels that ignorance, and overcomes
those obstructions. It has no parts or conditions,
and no properties. Though such a position might
appear metaphysically extravagant, it is hardly
unmotivated. For one thing, it seems that emptiness
does have an identifiable essence--namely the lack
of inherent existence. So if to be empty is to be
empty of essence, emptiness fails on that count to
be empty. Moreover, since all phenomena, on the
Maadhyamika view, are empty, emptiness would appear
to be eternal and independent of any particular
conventions, and hence not dependently arisen. The
Two Truths, on such an ontological vision, are
indeed radically distinct from one another.
But this position is, from Naagaarjuna's
perspective, untenable. The best way to see that is
as follows. Suppose that we take a conventional
entity, such as a table. We analyze it to
demonstrate its emptiness, finding that
there is no table apart from its parts, that it
cannot be distinguished in a principled way from its
antecedent and subsequent histories, and so forth.
So we conclude that it is empty. But now let us
analyze that emptiness--the emptiness of the
table-to see what we find. What do we find? Nothing
at all but the table's lack of inherent existence.
The emptiness is dependent upon the table. No
conventional table---no emptiness of the table. To
see the table as empty, for Naagaarjuna, is not to
somehow see "beyond" the illusion of the table to
some other, more real entity. It is to see the table
as conventional, as dependent. But the table that we
so see when we see its emptiness is the very same
table, seen not as the substantial thing we
instinctively posit, but rather as it is. Emptiness
is hence not different from conventional reality--it
is the fact that conventional reality is
conventional. Therefore it must be dependently
arisen, since it depends upon the existence of empty
phenomena. Hence emptiness itself is empty. This is
perhaps the deepest and most radical step in the
Madhyamika dialectic, but it is also, as we shall
see, the step that saves it from falling into
metaphysical extravagance and brings it back to
sober, pragmatic skepticism.
Now, this doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness
emerges directly from 24: 18.
Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation
Is itself the middle way.
For the emptiness of emptiness, as we have just
seen, simply amounts to the identification of
emptiness with the property of being dependently
arisen, and with the property of having an identity
just in virtue of conventional, verbal designation.
It is the fact that emptiness is no more than this
that makes it empty, just as it is the fact that
conventional phenomena in general are no more than
conventional, and no more than their parts and
status in the causal nexus that makes them
So the doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness
can be seen as inextricably linked with
Naagaarjuna's distinctive account of the relation
between the two truths. For Naagaarjuna, as is also
evident in this crucial verse, it is a mistake to
distinguish conventional from ultimate reality--the
dependently arisen from emptiness--at an ontological
level. Emptiness just is the emptiness of
conventional phenomena. To perceive conventional
phenomena as empty is just to see them as
conventional, and as dependently arisen. The
difference--such as it is--between the conventional
and the ultimate is a difference in the way
phenomena are conceived/ perceived. The point must
be formulated with some delicacy, and cannot be
formulated without a hint of the paradoxical about
it: conventional phenomena are typically represented
as inherently existent. We typically
perceive and conceive of external phenomena,
ourselves, causal powers, moral truths, and so forth
as independently existing, intrinsically
identifiable and substantial. But though this is, in
one sense, the conventional character of
conventional phenomena---the manner in which they
are ordinarily experienced--to see them this way is
precisely not to see them as conventional. To see
that they are merely conventional, in the sense
adumbrated above and defended by Naagaarjuna and his
followers, is thereby to see them as empty, and this
is their ultimate mode of existence. These are the
two truths about phenomena: On the one hand they are
conventionally existent and the things we ordinarily
say about them are in fact true, to the extent that
we get it right on the terms of the everyday. Snow
is indeed white, and there are indeed tables and
chairs in this room. On the other hand, they are
ultimately nonexistent. These two truths seem as
different as night and day--being and nonbeing. But
the import of 24: 18 and the doctrine we have been
explicating is that their ultimate nonexistence and
their conventional existence are the same thing.
Hence the deep identity of the two truths. And this
is because emptiness is not other than
dependent-arising, and hence because emptiness is
Finally, in order to see why chapter 1 is not
only an essential groundwork for this central
argument, but in fact anticipates it and brings its
conclusion to bear implicitly on the whole remainder
of the text, we must note that this entire account
depends upon the emptiness of dependent origination
itself. To see this, suppose for a moment that one
had the view that dependent arising were nonempty
(not a crazy view, and not obviously incompatible
with, and arguably entailed by, certain Buddhist
doctrines) . Then from the identification of
emptiness with dependent arising would follow the
nonemptiness of emptiness. Moreover, if conventional
phenomena are empty, and dependent arising itself is
nonempty and is identified with emptiness, then the
two truths are indeed two in every sense.
Emptiness-dependent arising is self-existent, while
ordinary phenomena are not, and one gets a strongly
dualistic, ontological version of an
appearance-reality distinction. So the argument for
the emptiness of emptiness in chapter 24 and the
identity of the Two Truths with which it is bound up
depend critically on the argument for the emptiness
of dependent origination developed in chapter 1.
5. Simple Emptiness versus the Emptiness of
We can now see why real causation, in the fully
reified cement-of-the-universe sense, as the
instantiation of the relation between explanans and
explananda could never do from the Maadhyamika
standpoint. For though that would at first glance
leave phenomena themselves empty of inherent
existence, it would retain a nonempty feature of the
phenomenal world, and lose the emptiness of
emptiness itself. Moreover, a bit of
reflection should lead us to recognize the deep
tension in this metaphysics: if the causal powers of
things are ultimately real, it is hard to see how
one could maintain the merely conventional status of
the things themselves. For they could always be
individuated as the bearers of those ultimately real
causal powers, and the entire doctrine of the
emptiness of phenomena would collapse.
Substituting conditions for causes solves this
problem. For, as we have seen, by shifting the
account in this way we come to understand the
relation between conditions and the conditioned as
obtaining in virtue of regularity and explanatory
utility. And both of these determinants of the
relation are firmly rooted in convention rather than
in any extraconventional facts. Regularity is always
regularity-under-a-description, and descriptions
are, as Naagaarjuna puts it, "verbal designations."
Explanatory utility is always relative to human
purposes and theoretical frameworks. Dependent
origination is thus on this model a thoroughly
conventional and hence empty alternative to a
reified causal model, which nonetheless permits all
of the explanatory moves that a theory committed to
causation can make. For every causal link one might
posit, an equivalent conditional relation can be
posited. But the otiose and ultimately incoherent
posit of causal power is dispensed with on
But if the foregoing interpretation is correct,
we can make a more radical interpretative claim
regarding the structure of Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa:
the entire doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness
and the unity of the Two Truths developed in chapter
24 is already implicit in chapter 1. Recall the
structure of the argument so far, as we have traced
the complex doctrinal web Naagaarjuna spins: the
central thesis of chapter 1 as we have characterized
it is that there is no inherently existent causal
nexus. The link between conditions and the phenomena
dependent upon them is empty. To be empty is,
however, to be dependent. Emptiness itself is,
therefore, as is explicitly articulated in chapter
24, dependent arising. Hence the emptiness of
dependent arising is the emptiness of emptiness. And
the emptiness of emptiness, as we have seen, is
equivalent to the deep identity between the Two
Truths. So the entire central doctrine developed in
the climactic twenty-fourth chapter is present in
embryo in the first. And this is why Naagaarjuna
began with causation.
Now, to be sure, it is not apparent on first
reading the opening chapter of the
Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa that this is the import of
the argument. The rhetorical structure of the text
only makes this clear in retrospect, when enough of
the philosophical apparatus is on the table to make
the entire framework clear. But once we see this
framework, a rereading of the text in light of this
understanding of the opening chapter is instructive.
For it is one thing to argue for the emptiness of
some phenomenon simpliciter and quite another to
argue for that emptiness
with the emptiness of emptiness in mind. If we read
the opening chapter in the first way, we are likely
to miss the force of many of the particular analyses
in the text the depth of which only emerges in light
of the deeper thesis of the emptiness of emptiness.
If one argues simply that a phenomenon is empty of
inherent existence, one leaves open the possibility
that this is in contrast to phenomena that are
inherently existent, and hence that the force of
this argument is that the phenomenon in question is
not actually existent. If, on the other hand, one
argues that a phenomenon is empty in the context of
the emptiness of emptiness, one is explicitly
committed to the view that its emptiness does not
entail its nonactuality. Emptiness in this context
is not nonexistence. The lack of inherent existence
that is asserted is not the lack of a property
possessed by some entities but not by others, or a
property that an entity could be imagined to have,
but rather the lack of an impossible attribute. This
reorientation of the argument gives what might
appear to be a series of starkly nihilistic analyses
a remarkably positive tone.
We have time here to consider briefly one
example of the difference that this reading of
chapter 1 induces in reading the subsequent text. We
will consider the analysis of motion and rest in
chapter 2. I will not provide a verse-by-verse
commentary on the chapter here. But let us note the
following salient features of Naagaarjuna's
analysis: the target of the argument is a view of
motion according to which motion is an entity, or at
least a property with an existence independent of
that of moving things, or according to which motion
is part of the nature of moving things. These are
versions of what it would be to think of motion as
nonempty. Naagaarjuna argues that from such a view a
number of absurd consequences would follow: things
not in motion but which were in motion in the past
or which will be in the future would have to undergo
substantial change, effectively becoming different
things when they changed state from motion to rest
or vice versa; a regress would ensue from the need
for the entity motion itself to be in motion; motion
would occur in the absence of moving things; the
moment at which a thing begins or ceases motion
would be indescribable. Naagaarjuna concludes that a
reification of motion is incoherent. Motion is
So far so good. But then, is motion nonexistent?
Is the entire universe static according to
Maadhyamika philosophy? If we simply read this
chapter in isolation, that conclusion might indeed
seem warranted. It would be hard to distinguish
emptiness from complete nonexistence. We would be
left with an illusory world of change and movement,
behind which would lie a static ultimate reality.
But such a reading would be problematic. For one
thing, it would be absurd on its face. Things move
and change. Second, it would contradict the doctrine
of dependent origination and change that is the very
basis of any Buddhist philosophical system, and
which Naagaarjuna has already endorsed in the
ter. How, then, are we to read this discussion more
positively? Answering this question is
hermeneutically critical not only for an
understanding of this chapter, but--take my word for
it--for a reading of the entire text, which, if not
read with care, can appear unrelentingly nihilistic.
And on such a nihilistic reading, the
appearance/reality distinction that is forced can
only coincide with the conventional
reality/emptiness distinction, resulting in a denial
of reality to the mundane world and a reification of
The positive account we are after emerges when
we recall the emptiness of emptiness and read this
second chapter in the context of the reinterpreted
first chapter: emptiness itself, as we have seen,
according to the analysis of dependent arising, is
dependently arisen. It is nothing but the emptiness
of conventional phenomena, and is the fact of their
being dependent and conventional. If emptiness
itself is understood as nonempty, on the other hand,
then for a phenomenon to be denominated empty is for
it to be completely nonexistent. For then its merely
conventional character would stand against the
ultimate reality of emptiness itself. We have just
seen how this would play out in the case of motion,
and a moment's reflection would indicate that any
other phenomenon subjected to this analysis would
fare about as well. But consider, on the other hand,
how we interpret the status of motion in light of
the emptiness of its emptiness: the conclusion that
motion is empty is then simply the conclusion that
it is merely conventional and dependent, like the
putatively moving entities themselves. Since there
is no implicit contrastive, inherently existent
ultimate reality, this conclusion does not lead us
to ascribe a "second class" or merely apparent
existence to motion or to movers. Their
nonexistence--their emptiness---is hence itself
non-existent in exactly the sense that they are.
Existence--of a sort--is thus recovered exactly in
the context of an absence of inherent existence.
But existence of what kind? Herein lies the clue
to the positive construction of motion that emerges.
The existence that emerges is a conventional and
dependent existence. Motion does not exist as an
entity on this account, but rather as a relation--as
the relation between the positions of a body at
distinct times, and hence is dependent upon that
body and those positions. Moreover, it emerges as a
conventional entity in the following critical sense:
only to the extent that we make the decision to
identify entities that differ from each other in
position over time, but are in other respects quite
similar, and which form causal chains of a
particular sort, as the same entity can we say that
the entity so identified moves. And this is a matter
of choice. For we could decide to say that entities
that differ in any respect are thereby distinct. If
we did adopt that convention for individuation, an
entity here now and one there then would ipso facto
be distinct entities. And so no single entity
could adopt different positions (or different
properties) at different times, and so motion and
change would be nonexistent. It is this dependence
of motion on the moved, of the status of things as
moved on their motion, and of both on conventions of
individuation that, on this account, constitutes
their emptiness. But this simply constitutes their
conventional existence, and provides an analysis of
the means by which they so exist. The emptiness of
motion is thus seen to be its existence as
conventional and as dependent and hence as not other
than its conventional existence. And this just is
the emptiness of emptiness. But in understanding its
emptiness in this way, we bring motion, change, and
movable and changeable entities back from the brink
It is thus that seeing Naagaarjuna's analysis of
the emptiness of phenomena in the context of the
emptiness of emptiness allows for a non-nihilistic,
nondualistic, constructive reading of the
Maadhyamika dialectic, but a reading which for all
of that is rich in its explication of the structure
of reality and of our relation to it. But this
reading is only accessible in the chapters analyzing
particular phenomena if we already find it in
chapter 1. And this, I have argued, is possible once
we reread that initial chapter in light of the
analysis in chapter 24. The Naagaarjuna who emerges
is a subtle figure indeed.
6. The Importance of Causation
The analysis of causation can often look like a
highly technical aside in philosophy. It might not
seem at first glance to be one of the really "big"
questions, like those concerning what entities there
are, what the nature of mind is, what the highest
good is. By contrast, causation often appears to the
outsider or to the beginner like one of those
recherche corners of philosophy that one has to
work one's way into. But of course even in the
history of Western metaphysics and epistemology it
has always been central. One has only to think of
the role of a theory of causation for Hume, Kant,
Schopenhauer, or Wittgenstein to see this. This
study of the Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa shows why: a
clear understanding of the nature of the causal
relation is the key to understanding the nature of
reality itself and of our relation to it. For
causation is, as Hume, Kant, and Schopenhauer as
well as Naagaarjuna emphasize, at the heart of our
individuation of objects, of our ordering of our
experience of the world, and of our understanding of
our own agency in the world. Without a clear view of
causation, we can have no clear view of anything.
Naagaarjuna begins by examining the causal
relation for this reason generally. But for
Naagaarjuna there is a further, more specific
reason, one which has no explicit parallel in the
work of other systematic philosophers, though it is,
to be sure, hinted at darkly in the work of those
just mentioned. For Naagaarjuna, by examining the
nature of dependent arising, and by showing the
emptiness of causation itself, we understand the
nature of emptiness itself, and thereby push the
Maadhyamika dialectic of emptiness to its
conclusion. By showing causation to be empty, we
show all things to be empty, even emptiness itself.
Naagaarjuna begins here because, by beginning with
causation, the important conclusions he drives at
are ready at hand throughout the examination, even
if they are not made explicit until much later.
7. Antimetaphysical Pragmatism in Buddhism
When a Westerner first encounters the
Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa or other Maadhyamika texts,
the philosophicai approach can appear highly
metaphysical and downright weird. The unfamiliar
philosophical vocabulary, the highly negative
dialectic, and the cryptic verse form are indeed
forbidding. Most bizarre of all, however, at first
glance, is the doctrine that all phenomena,
including self and its objects, are empty. For
indeed Naagaarjuna and his followers do argue that
the entire everyday world is, from the ultimate
standpoint, nonexistent. And that does indeed appear
to stand just a bit deeper into philosophical left
field than even Berkeley dares to play. But if the
interpretation I have been urging is adopted, the
real central thrust of Maadhyamika is the
demystification of this apparently mystical
conclusion. While it might appear that the
Maadhyamika argue that nothing really exists except
a formless, luminous void, in fact the entire
phenomenal world, persons and all, are recovered
within that emptiness.
And if what I have said is correct, the
principal philosophical move in this demystification
of emptiness is the attack on a reified view of
causality. Naagaarjuna replaces the view shared by
the metaphysician and the person-in-the-street--a
view that presents itself as common sense, but is in
fact deeply metaphysical--with an apparently
paradoxical, thoroughly empty, but in the end
actually commonsense view not only of causation, but
of the entire phenomenal world.
APPENDIX: TRANSLATION OF CHAPTERS 1, 2,
AN D 24 OF THE MUULAMAADHYAMIKAKAARIKAA
(TRANSLATED FROM THE TIBETAN TEXT)
Chapter 1--Examination of Conditions
1. Neither from itself nor from another
Nor from both,
Nor from a non-cause
Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.
2. There are four conditions: efficient
Percept-object condition; immediate condition;
Dominant condition, just so.
There is no fifth condition.
3. The essence of entities
is not evident in the conditions, and so forth.
If these things are selfless,
There can be no otherness-essence.
4. Power to act does not have conditions,
There is no power to act without conditions.
There are no conditions without power to act.
Nor do any have the power to act.
5. These give rise to those,
So these are called conditions.
As long as those do not come from these,
Why are these not non-conditions?
6. For neither an existent nor a nonexistent thing
Is a condition appropriate.
If a thing is nonexistent, how could it have a condition?
If a thing is already existent, what would a condition do?
7. Neither existents nor
Nonexistents nor existent nonexistents are produced.
In this case, how would there be a "productive cause?"
If it existed, how would it be appropriate?
8. Certainly, an existent mental episode
Has no object.
Since a mental episode is without an object,
How could there be any percept-condition?
9. Since things are not arisen,
It is not acceptable that they cease.
Therefore, an immediate condition is not reasonable.
If something has ceased, how could it be a condition?
10. If things did not exist
The phrase, "When this exists so this will be,"
Would not be acceptable.
11. In the various conditions united,
The effect cannot be found.
Nor in the conditions themselves.
So how could it come from the conditions?
12. However, if a nonexistent effect
Arises from these conditions,
Why does it not arise
13. If the effect is the conditions' essence,
Then the conditions do not have their own essence.
So, how could an effect come
From something that is essenceless?
14. Therefore, conditions have no essence.
If conditions have no essence, there are no effects.
If there are no effects without conditions,
How will conditions be evident?
Chapter 2--Examination of Motion
1. What has been moved is not moving.
What has not been moved is not moving.
Apart from what has been moved and what has not been moved,
Movement cannot be conceived.
2. Where there is flux, there is motion.
Since there is flux in the moving,
And not in the moved or not-moved,
Motion is in that which is moving.
3. If motion is in the mover,
Then how would it be acceptable
When it is not moving,
To have called it a mover?
4. The motion of what moves?
What motion does not move?
Given that that which has passed is gone,
How can motion be in the moved?
5. If motion is in the mover,
There would have to be a twofold motion:
One in virtue of which it is a mover,
And one in virtue of which it moves.
6. If there were a twofold motion,
The subject of that motion would be twofold.
For without a subject of motion,
There cannot be motion.
7. If there is no mover
It would not be correct to say that there is motion.
If there is no motion,
How could a mover exist?
8. Inasmuch as a real mover does not move,
And a nonmover does not move,
Apart from a mover and a nonmover,
What third thing could move?
9. When without motion,
It is unacceptable to call something a mover,
How will it be acceptable
To say that a moving thing moves?
10. For him from whose perspective a mover moves,
There is no motion.
If a real mover were associated with motion,
A mover would need motion.
11. If a mover were to move,
There would be a twofold motion:
One in virtue of which he is a mover,
And one in virtue of which the mover moves.
12. Motion does not begin in what has moved,
Nor does it begin in what has not moved,
Nor does it begin in what is moving.
In what, then, does motion begin?
13. If motion was begun in the past,
When should we say it began?
Not in the nongoing, not in the gone.
How could it be in the nonmoved?
14. Since the beginning of motion
Cannot be conceived,
What gone thing, what going thing,
And what nongoing thing can be conceived?
15. A moving thing is not at rest.
A nonmoving thing is not at rest.
Apart from the moving and the nonmoving,
What third thing is at rest?
16. If without motion
It is not appropriate to posit a mover,
How could it be appropriate to say
That a moving thing is stationary?
17. One does not halt from moving,
Nor from having moved or not having moved.
Motion and coming to rest
And starting to move are similar.
18. That motion is the mover
Itself is not correct.
Nor is it correct that
They are different.
19. It would follow from
The identity of mover and motion
That agent and action
20. It would follow from
A real distinction between motion and mover
That there could be a mover without motion
And motion without a mover.
21. When neither in identity
Nor in difference,
Can motion and the mover be established as existent,
How can they be established as entities at all?
22. The motion by means of which a mover is manifest
Cannot be the motion by means of which he moves.
He does not exist before that motion,
So what and where is the thing that moves?
23. A mover does not carry out a different motion
From that by means of which he is manifest as a mover.
Moreover, in one mover
A twofold motion is unacceptable.
24. A really existent mover
Does not move in any of the three ways.
A nonexistent mover
Does not move in any of the three ways.
25. Neither an entity nor a nonentity
Moves in any of the three ways.
So movement and motion
And Agent of motion are nonexistent.
Chapter 24--Examination of the Four Noble Truths
1. If all of this is empty,
Not arising, abiding, or ceasing,
Then for you, it follows that
The Four Noble Truths do not exist.
2. If the Four Noble Truths do not exist,
Then knowledge, abandonment,
Meditation, manifestation, and action
Will be completely impossible.
3. If these things do not exist,
The four fruits will not arise.
Then there will not be the enterers into the path.
If not, there will not be the eight [kinds of practitioner].
4. If so the assembly of holy ones
Itself will not exist.
If the Four Noble Truths do not exist,
There will be no true Dharma.
5. If there is no doctrine and assembly
How can there be a Buddha?
If emptiness is conceived in this way
The Three Jewels are contradicted.
6. The attainment of the real fruits
And the Dharma will not exist, and the Dharma itself
And the conventional truth
Will be contradicted.
7. This understanding of yours
Of emptiness and the purpose of emptiness
And of the significance of emptiness is incorrect.
As a consequence you are harmed by it.
8. The Buddha's teaching of the Dharma
Is based on two truths:
A truth of worldly convention
And an ultimate truth.
9. Those who do not understand
The distinction drawn between these two truths
Do not understand
The Buddha's profound truth.
10. Without a foundation in the conventional truth
The significance of the ultimate cannot be taught.
Without understanding the significance of the ultimate,
Liberation is not achieved.
11. By a misperception of emptiness
A person of little intelligence is destroyed.
Like a snake incorrectly seized
Or like a spell incorrectly cast.
12. For that reason--that the Dharma is
Deep and difficult to understand and to learn-
That (the Buddha's) mind despaired of
Being able to teach it.
13. If a fault in understanding should arise
with regard to emptiness, that would not be good.
Your confusion about emptiness, however,
Would not belong to me.
14. For him to whom emptiness is clear,
Everything becomes clear.
For him for whom emptiness is not clear,
Nothing becomes clear.
15. If you foist on us
All of your divergent views
Then you are like a man who has mounted his horse
And has forgotten that very horse.
16. If the existence of all things
Is perceived by you in terms of their essence,
Then this perception of all things
Will be without the perception of causes and conditions.
17. Effects and causes
And agent and action
And conditions and arising and ceasing
And effects will be rendered impossible.
18. Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation
Is itself the middle way.
19. Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a nonempty thing
Does not exist.
20. If all this were nonempty, as in your view,
There would be no arising and ceasing.
Then the Four Noble Truths
Would become nonexistent.
21. If it is not dependently arisen,
How could suffering come to be?
Suffering has been taught to be impermanent,
And so cannot come from its own essence.
22. If something comes from its own essence,
How could it ever be arisen?
It follows that if one denies emptiness
There can be no arising [of suffering].
23. If suffering had an essence,
Its cessation would not exist.
So if an essence is posited
One denies cessation.
24. If the path had an essence,
Cultivation would not be appropriate.
If this path is indeed cultivated,
It cannot have an essence.
25. If suffering, arising, and
Ceasing are nonexistent,
If through the path suffering ceases,
In what way could one hope to attain it?
26. If through its essence
non-understanding comes to be,
In what way will understanding arise,
Is not essence stable?
27. In this way you should understand
the activities of relinquishing and realizing and
Cultivation and the Four Fruits.
It [essence] is not appropriate.
28. For an essentialist,
Since the fruits through their essence
Are already realized
In what way could it be appropriate to cultivate them?
29. Without the fruits, there are no attainers of the fruits,
Or enterers into that stream,
From this it follows that the eight kinds of persons do not exist.
If these do not exist, there is no spiritual community.
30. From the nonexistence of the Noble Truths
Would follow the nonexistence of the True Doctrine.
If there is no Doctrine and no Community,
How could a Buddha arise?
31. Your enlightened Buddha,
Without relying on anything, would have come to be;
Your Buddha's enlightenment,
Without relying on anything, would have come to be.
32. If by means of your essence
Someone were unenlightened,
Even by practicing towards enlightenment
He could not achieve enlightenment.
33. With neither entities nor nonentities
There can be no action.
What could the nonempty do?
With an essence there is no action.
34. With neither entities nor nonentities
The fruit would arise for you.
So, for you a fruit caused by entities or nonentities
Could not arise.
35. If, for you, a fruit
Were given rise to by either entities or nonentities,
Then from entities or nonentities
How could a nonempty fruit arise?
36. If dependent arising is denied,
Emptiness itself is rejected.
This would contradict
All of the worldly conventions.
37. If emptiness itself is denied,
No action will be appropriate.
Action would not begin,
And without action there would be no agent.
38. If there is essence, all of the flux
Will be unarising, unceasing,
And static. And so, the entire sphere of
Various arisen things would be nonempty.
39. If the empty does not exist,
Then action will be without profit.
The act of ending suffering and
Abandoning misery and defilement will not exist.
40. Whoever sees dependent arising
Also sees Suffering
And Misery and its arising
And the path to its cessation.
Thanks are extended to the Venerable Lobzang Norbu
Shastri and Janet Gyatso for a very thorough
critical reading of and helpful critical comments on
an earlier draft of this essay and of the relevant
fragments of the translation, and to G. Lee Bowie
and Meredith Michaels for sound suggestions
regarding that draft. This essay has also benefited
from the insightful questions posed by an audience
at Mount Holyoke College, and from the sound
suggestions of Tom Wartenberg on that occasion. My
deepest appreciation goes to the Venerable Geshe
Yeshes Thap-Kas for his patient and lucid teaching
of this text and discussion of Naagaarjuna's
position, and to the Central Institute of Higher
Tibetan Studies, to its director the Venerable
Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, and to my many
colleagues there, including those just mentioned and
the Venerable Ngawang Samden and the Venerable Geshe
Ngawang Sherab. Thanks also to my research assistant
both at the Institute and at Hampshire College, Sri
Yeshe Tashi Shastri, and to the Indo-American
Fellowship program for grant support while I was
working on these ideas.
1 - A fine point, suggested by Janet Gyatso: Though
in the end, as we shall see, ultimate reality
depends on our conventions in a way, it depends
on our conventions in a very different way from
that in which conventional reality does. Despite
this difference in the structure of the relation
between convention and reality in the two cases,
however, it remains a distinctive feature of
Naagaarjuna's system that it is impossible to
speak coherently of reality independent of
2 - Some argue that there is no real difference
between causes and conditions; some that a cause
is one kind of condition; some that
efficient causes are causes, and that all other
causal factors contributing to an event are
conditions. Some like my reading. I have found
no unanimity on this interpretative question,
either among Western Buddhologists or among
Tibetan scholars. The canonical texts are
equivocal as well. I do not argue that the
distinction I here attribute to Naagaarjuna,
which I defend on hermeneutical grounds, is
necessarily drawn in the same way throughout the
Buddhist philosophical world, or even throughout
the Praasa^ngika-Maadhyamika literature. But it
is the one Naagaarjuna draws.
3 - There are two kinds of case to be made for
attributing this distinction to Naagaarjuna in
this chapter. Most generally, there is the
hermeneutical argument that this makes the best
philosophical sense of the text. It gets
Naagaarjuna drawing a distinction that is
clearly suggested by his philosophical outlook
and that lines up nicely with the technical
terms he deploys. But we can get more textually
fine-grained as well: in the first verse,
Naagaarjuna explicitly rejects the existence of
efficacy, and pointedly uses the word "cause."
He denies that there are such things. Nowhere in
chapter 1 is there a parallel denial of the
existence of conditions. On the contrary, in
verse 2 he positively asserts that there are
four kinds of them. To be sure, this could be
read as a mere partitioning of the class of
effects that are described in Buddhist
literature. But there are two reasons not to
read it thus. First, Naagaarjuna does not couch
the assertion in one of his "It might be said"
locutions. Second, he never takes it back. The
positive tone the text takes regarding
conditions is continued in verses 4 and 5, where
Naagaarjuna asserts that conditions are
conceived without efficacy in contrast with the
causes rejected in 1, and where he endorses a
regularist view of conditions. So it seems that
Naagaarjuna does use the "cause"/"condition"
distinction to mark a distinction between the
kind of association he endorses as an analysis
of dependent arising and one he rejects.
4 - The Venerable Lobzang Norbu Shastri has pointed
out to me that this verse may not in fact be
original with Naagaarjuna, but is a quotation
from sutra. It appears in the
Kamsika-praj~napaaramitaasuutra as well as in
the Maadhyamika-`Saalistambasuutra. Inasmuch as
these are both late texts, their chronological
relation to Naagaarjuna's text is not clear.
5 - There is also a nice regress to be developed
here that Naagaarjuna does not explicitly note
in this chapter, though he does make use of it
later in the Muulamaadhyamikakaarikaa (chap. 7):
Even if we did posit a causal power mediating
between causes and their effects, we would have
to explain how it is that a cause event gives
rise to or acquires that power, and how the
power brings about the effect. We now have two
nexuses to explain, and now each one has an
unobservable entity on one end. In Garfield 1990
I explore this problem in more detail and note
that it is explored both by Hume and by
Wittgenstein in the Tractatus.
6 - The Maadhyamika position implies that we should
seek to explain regularities by reference to
their embeddedness in other regularities, and so
on. To ask why there are regularities at all, on
such a view, would be to ask an incoherent
question: the fact of explanatorily useful
regularities in nature is what makes explanation
and investigation possible in the first place,
and is not something itself that can be
explained. After all, there is only one
universe, and truly singular phenomena, on such
a view, are inexplicable in principle. This may
connect deeply to the Buddha's insistence that
questions concerning the beginning of the world
7 - A formula familiar in the sutras of the pali
8 - Though this is beyond the scope of this essay,
this last fact, the emptiness of the relation
between the conventional world of dependently
arisen phenomena and emptiness itself is of
extreme importance at another stage of the
Maadhyamika dialectic, and comes to salience in
the Vigrahavyaavartanii and in Candrakiirti's
Prasannapadaa. For this amounts to the emptiness
of the central ontological tenet of
Naagaarjuna's system, and is what allows him to
claim, despite all appearances, that he is
positionles. That is, Naagaarjuna thereby has a
ready reply to the following apparent reductio
argument (reminiscent of classical Greek and
subsequent Western challenges to Pyrrhonian
skepticism): You say that all things are, from
the ultimate standpoint, nonexistent. That must
then apply to your own thesis. It, therefore, is
really nonexistent, and your words are hence
only nominally true. Your own thesis, therefore,
denies its own ground and is self-defeating.
This objection would be a sound one against a
view that in fact asserted its own inherent
existence, or grounded its truth on an
inherently existing ontological basis. But,
Naagaarjuna suggests here, that is not the case
for his account. Rather, on his analysis,
everything, including this very thesis, has only
nominal truth, and nothing is either inherently
existent, or true in virtue of designating an
inherently existent fact.
9 - This, of course, is the key to the
soteriological character of the text:
reification is the root of grasping and craving,
and hence of all suffering. And it is perfectly
natural, despite its incoherence. By
understanding emptiness Naagaarjuna intends one
to break this habit and extirpate the root of
suffering. But if in doing so one falls into the
abyss of nihilism, nothing is achieved. For
then, action itself is impossible and senseless,
and one's realization amounts to nothing. Or
again, if one relinquishes the reification of
phenomena but reifies emptiness, that issues in
a new grasping and craving--the grasping of
emptiness and the craving for nirvana--and a new
round of suffering. Only with the simultaneous
realization of the emptiness but conventional
reality of phenomena and of the emptiness of
emptiness, argues Naagaarjuna, can suffering be
10 - Paradox may appear to loom at this point. For,
one might argue, if emptiness is empty, and if
to be empty is to be merely conventional, then
the emptiness of any phenomenon is a merely
conventional fact. Moreover, to say that
entities are merely conventional is merely
conventional. Hence it would appear optional,
as all conventions are, and it would further
seem to be open to say that things are in fact
nonconventional, and therefore nonempty. This
would be a deep incoherence indeed at the heart
of Naagaarjuna's system. But the paradox is
merely apparent. The appearance of paradox
derives from seeing "conventional" as
functioning logically like a negation
operator--a subtle version of the nihilistic
reading Naagaarjuna is at pains to avoid, with
a metalinguistic twist. For then, each
iteration of "conventional" would cancel the
previous occurrence, and the conventional
character of the fact that things are
conventional would amount to the claim that
really they are not, or at least that they
might not be. But in Naagaarjuna's
philosophical approach, the sense of the term
is more ontological than logical: to say of a
phenomenon or of a fact that it is conventional
is to characterize its mode of subsistence. It
is to say that it is without an independent
nature. The fact that a phenomenon is without
independent nature is, to be sure, a further
phenomenon--a higher-order fact. But that fact,
too, is without an independent nature. It, too,
is merely conventional. This is another way of
putting the strongly nominalistic character of
Maadhyamika philosophy. So, a Platonist, for
instance, might urge (and the Maadhyamika would
agree) that a perceptible phenomenon is
ultimately unreal. But the Platonist would
assert that its properties are ultimately real.
And if some Buddhist-influenced Platonist would
note that among the properties of a perceptible
phenomenon is its emptiness and its
conventional reality, s/he would assert that
these, as properties, are ultimately real. This
is exactly where Naagaarjuna parts company with
all forms of realism. For he gives the
properties a nominalistic construal, and
asserts that they, including the properties of
emptiness and conventionality, are, like all
phenomena, merely nominal, merely empty, and
merely conventional. And so on for their
emptiness and conventionality. The nominalism
undercuts the negative interpretation of
"conventional" and so renders the regress
Garfield, Jay L. 1990. "Epoche and Suunyataa:
Skepticism East and West," Philosophy East and
West 40: 285-307; reprinted in Glazer and
Miller, eds., Words that Ring Clear as
Trumpets. Amherst: Hampshire College Press,
Kalupahana, David. 1986. Naagaarjuna: The Philosophy
of the Middle Way: Albany: State University of
New York Press.