Nagarjunas philosophy deals with the concept of emptiness. The idea of emptiness has to do with the emptiness of something, but the thing that is being described as being empty still exists in some extent (Westerhoff). The emptiness that Nagarjuna talks about deals less with the identity and essence of a thing, and instead deals more with the substance of which something is empty (Westerhoff). This paper will explain what emptiness is, and will explain how the experiential truth of non-self serves as a paradigmatic phenomena for the Buddhist insight of emptiness.
In order to properly understand the concept of emptiness, one must understand the differences between the meanings of ‘something’, or svabhava. To understand what ’emptiness’ is, one must understand what ‘something’ is. There is a distinction between two main concepts of svabhava (Westerhoff). The first is an ontological one that refers to how objects exist, and the second is a cognitive one that describes the way that objects are conceptualized by human beings which will be explained later in this paper.
Within the ontological distinction there are three different understandings of svabhava which deal with essence, substance, and absolute reality (Westerhoff). If svabhava is understood as an essence, then it must be understood as an essential property or characteristic that is necessarily attributed to an object that would otherwise cease to be (Westerhoff). Consider the examples of fire and water. The svabhava or essence of fire is to be hot. If the fire ceases to be hot, then it is no longer fire. Similarly, the svabhava of water is to be wet, and as such if the water were no longer wet, it would no longer be water. Given this understanding of svabhava, it can then be identified as whatever quality or qualities that exist specific to an object that are immutable from that object, and which allow an observer to distinguish that object from others (Westerhoff). This concept of svabhava as an essence is not what the concept of emptiness deals with. Knowing that this notion of svabhava is not applicable to the notion of emptiness helps to paint a clearer picture of what emptiness actually is once the alternative view of svabhava is explored (Westerhoff).
In Buddhist philosophical thought there is a clear distinction between the ideas of primary existents and secondary existents (Westerhoff). The basic, irreducible parts of the world that are necessarily objective are what are being described as a primary existent. Conversely, a secondary existent is based on conceptual practices and often deal with language and description (Westerhoff). Within Buddhism, there exists the idea that the only thing that is actually real is the moment in which the consciousness conceptualizes a thing, and the aggregates of that conceptualization are just constructs of the mind (Westerhoff). If one were to adopt this view, then anything that were not a moment of consciousness would have to be a secondary existent, and only those moments of consciousness would be considered a primary existent (Westerhoff). It’s this idea of primary existent that describes svabhava. In this view, Svabhava would be any objects, or substances, that are part of the world which actually exist, and are independent of something else
However, Nagarjuna argues that there are no such objects or substances. The main target of Nagarjuna’s view is that the understanding of svabhava as a primary existent or substance is incorrect (Westerhoff). It’s the reason why he states that “”A person should be mentioned as existing only in a designation (i.e., conventionally there is a being), but not in reality (or substance)” (Rahula). The alternative view of svabhava then would be the ontological understanding of ‘something’, which can be understood as being unchangeable and independent of another object and not being created by any causal process (Westerhoff). The problem that becomes evident here is that the true nature of phenomena is emptiness, which is the absence of svabhava – as it is understood as substance. However, when svabhava is understood in this way, it is also understood to not be brought about by any causal process, and must be unchangeable and independent of other objects (Westerhoff). So it effectively breaks down into the idea that something that has all these properties must exist since there is svabhava which is the true nature of phenomena, but at the same time it must not exist since svabhava understood as substance does not exist. It seems that emptiness only exists as long as svabhava is understood as substance, but emptiness does not depend on any specific phenomenon to exist (Westerhoff). However, there has to be some phenomenon mistakenly conceived for emptiness to exist. Effectively what this is saying is that there really are only two ways of understanding svabhava , which are understanding svabhava as essence and as substance. What was earlier called svabhava as absolute reality is only a specific form of svabhava that is understood as essence (Westerhoff). So, referring back to the example given earlier, emptiness is an essential quality of all phenomena just as heat is an essential quality of fire. Things could not be the things they are without being empty.
The last thing that must be understood is the cognitive understanding of svabhava. For Nagarjuna, the understanding of existence and non-existence is understood to be the way out of suffering and into moksha, or liberation (Westerhoff). It is not just the gaining a cognitive idea and understanding of reality, it must also reveal insight into the way in which people should interact in the world. Understanding svabhava as substance leads to suffering because it is the basis for attachment within samsara (Westerhoff). The quotation from Nagarjuna in The Precious Garland helps to paint this picture more clearly; “So the production and disintegration of the illusion-like world are seen, but the production and disintegration do not ultimately exist”. When the view of svabhava as substance is abandoned, then the attachments to samsara and the sufferings that are accompanied by this view are destroyed. However, because svabhava is the view that substance does not exist, then the attachments and sufferings that are destroyed can be realized to never have existed to begin with. The purpose is to distinguish between seeing an absence of svabhava – or rather seeing emptiness – versus realizing that svabhava exists because of emptiness (Westerhoff). It is intended to change one’s perspective of the world entirely, such that they can find liberation from samsara, and consequently, from suffering.
Westerhoff, Jan Christoph, “NA?gA?rjuna”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/nagarjuna/
Rahula, Walpole, What the Buddha Taught (New York: Grove Press, 1974), p. 55; note that the Sanskrit terms have not been included in the quote.
Nagarjuna, The Precious Garland (www.ratnavaili.com/content/view/7327/45/), p. 16,
Ch. 2, Verse No.111