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Philosophy Study, ISSN 2159-5313 May 2012, Vol. 2, No. 5, 347-361



Emptiness (Śūnyatā) for Caring the Self in the Middle Path:

Reinvestigating the Middle Path Philosophy of Nāgārjuna

Mathew Varghese

The Eastern Institute (Toho Gakuin)

Classical Indian Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna is known for his philosophical interpretations of the central

conception of Buddha’s teachings, the philosophy of Middle Path (Mādhyamika). Notably he had introduced the

unique concept of “emptiness” (śūnyatā) to explain the Middle Path philosophy: the philosophical meaning of

“emptiness” is dependent co-arising of various elements that support the worldly experience. This study

investigates how this concept is used in explaining the subjectivity of a human person and how it is used for

interpreting the unique process of human existence. The discussions on subjectivity are imprecise in modern and

contemporary philosophy. But Nāgārjuna’s philosophy enables us to explain subjectivity conclusively, without it

having to be explained using metaphysical positions. Śūnyatā may introduce a new definition for the concept of

non-self: not for negating the “self” but for “caring self” from the problems of life by making it centered in the

Middle Path (madhyama-pratipat), where one may naturally be able to use his wisdom (prajñā) as the guiding

principle: not mere knowledge (jñāna). Śūnyatā is understood using fourfold (catukoi) logical analysis, not

twofold analysis employed normally by other philosophers. Here, the Buddhist notion of “self” as the co-dependent

evolution process of five aggregates (pañcaskandhas) is reinterpreted using the unique method of tetralemma

(catu koi). This critique explores the Western philosophy’s conceptions on “human reasoning,” “logocentrism,”

and the objective analytical method of modern “science.” After careful cross examination of the rival philosophical

positions, it reasons out why the “rationale of nature” is always superior to “human reasoning” and “logocentrism.”

Keywords: wisdom, subjectivity, Middle Path, co-dependent, co-arising, five aggregates, logocentrism

1. Introduction

Philosophical discourses in the early years of 21st century are obviously searching for a new perspective and methodology that the discourses initiated in the 17th century have reached an end point. Today, among the contemporary philosophers, there is an expressed concern about the sustainability and interdependence of human life on earth. The discourses in the last few centuries were initiated to learn about the foundational principles of natural laws using the “human reasoning” that centered around a kind of objective analytical method for understanding everything in the “living world.” This movement has initiated the scientific “world view,” where it is presumed that “human reasoning” can generate clear and certain knowledge by analyzing deeply the laws of nature (rationale of nature) and, thereby, humans can dominate the “rationale of nature.” In 21st century those assumptions are faced with its own counter discourses in the form of environmental

Mathew Varghese , Ph.D., Post Doctorate, Researcher at The Eastern Institute (Toho Gakuin); Lecturer at Aoyama Gakuin University, Japan; main research field: Buddhist and Comparative Philosophy.


problems, resource depletion, poor distribution of wealth, etc., where the human person moves into the realm of fears, worries, and sufferings. Today, evidently there is a kind of dialectics emerging between “rationale of nature” and “human reasoning.” The “human reasoning” based on sciences that were suppose to have liberated the humanity from the shackles of “wrong knowledge” (ignorance) is now created a jungle of viewpoints and theories promoting only “ignorance and speculative views.” The “human person” today is more confused and directionless than ever before. And now a new “world view” should have to be emerged to counter the present systems promoted by Western philosophy since 17th century: an accumulation of speculative views supported with ignorance-driven knowledge sources. Today, with the emergence of cutting edge technologies the ignorance is further accentuated by machine-generated speculative views. At this point it is important to reinterpret the world view of scientific philosophy. 1 Nāgārjunian philosophy offers the unique resource of śūnyatā that could interpret the “subjectivity” and “self,” which is ignored in philosophy today, and may also help us generate authentic perspectives to understand the natural laws or the “rationale of nature.” In the classical Western philosophy, the discourses on the conception of “self” or subjectivity were based on the idea of “soul” and its intrinsic connection with the eternal reality:

God; this relationship may be understood as the “dominion of subjectivity.” But this conception of soul was unacceptable to the modern Western philosophy after 17th century, which followed scientific reasoning where the relationship between “soul” and God is anathema, and declined to discourse on it. Nāgārjuna and the Buddhists also declined to endorse intrinsic relationship between the individual “human person” and the eternity, yet the conception of “self” was accepted on the basis of a different framework: a co-evolving, internally structured, and self sustaining system formulated on the basis of the “five aggregates” (pañcaskandha) that is following the principles of dependent co-arising (pratītyasautpada). Therefore, the concept of “dominion of subjectivity” is used for contextually explaining the conception of “self.” It is argued here that the conception of śūnyatā of Nāgārjuna makes us understand the “dominion of subjectivity” as co-dependent and co-evolving elements, and the mechanism of it is meant to protect the “self,” not to decline it or reject it. It is controlled by deep insight or wisdom (prajñā), not knowledge and ignorance; and the nature of it is compassion, not fear, greed, anger, passion, or hatred. It is possible for humanity to find ways to live with the “rationale of nature,” not by challenging it using the principles of “logocentrism” and the aggressive methods of scientific philosophy.

2. Self and the Dominion of Subjectivity: Perspectives of Modern Western Philosophy

The ambiguity on the conceptions of “self” and “dominion of subjectivity” is the biggest controversy in the contemporary philosophical discourses. It is clear that the philosophical discourses, in the modern period, have deliberately avoided discussing “self,” fearing that an attempt to understand it may be equal to accepting the “soul” conception of classical metaphysics. And it might upset the “world view” that is being permitted by science: the rational foundations of the knowledge of nature (Gadamer 1976, 109, 119). Since the scientific world view based on “logocentrism” has ignored the idea of subjectivity and promoted the method of objective systematic analysis as the foundation for all sorts of analytical procedures, it had to find a new methodology:

the method of “science.” Philosophy, thus, became subservient to science or became a new school of thought that follows science (Wallerstein 2004, 2). This is the reason why Heidegger honestly admitted that his conception of dasein was the real “scandal” of philosophy (Gadamer 1976, 109, 119). Through the concept of dasein he attempted to find solution to the problem of “subjectivity” and it could have given an understanding



about the “dominion of subjectivity,” but the ambiguity, in interpreting it, has only increased the formation of “speculative views and ignorance” (Japers 2004, 25). The quest for adducing “pure knowledge” using the methodology of science, by analyzing the objective world, has failed to explain the real status of the “human person” and his sense of being alive. The imprecision and vagueness of dasein is understood later as a singular individual “human person” looking at the rest of the world. The isolated individual “self” now struggles to survive in the world that all other selves are equated as objectified entities and are being analyzed for finding the ultimate objectivity. This understanding and “world view” has now reached the most difficult situation as the way Nietzsche perilously worried: the prospect of the human person being pushed into the depths of “nihilism.” 2 In the classical Greek philosophy the relationship between God and “self” is that of the creator and the created. The Platonic conception on this relationship was explained as: “God made first the soul, then the body. The soul is compounded of the indivisible-unchangeable and divisible-changeable; it is a third and intermediate kind of essence” (Russell 1961, 158). The ambiguity in explaining clearly the relationship between God and “soul,” especially the scientifically indefinable idea of “indivisible-unchangeable and divisible-changeable,” may have prompted the modern Western philosophers to abandon the idea of “soul” and a precise and effective discourse on the “dominion of subjectivity.” The definition of “self” in the contemporary philosophical discourses is in its most minimalist conception: the awakened mind, being aware of its own existence, but on which one may have the least reflective freedom. In this context, the Heideggerian conception of dasein and hermeneutics as a method to achieve “pure knowledge” about subjectivity can be interpreted as a method to dissect the ownership of God on “soul.” The structuring of the “dominion of subjectivity” in this case is vague, and, with hermeneutical interpretation, it would turn in to an object, which is the biggest controversy in this much acclaimed method of Heidegger that is inimically followed even today. The methods of scientific philosophy isolated the individual human person and made him struggle in searching for his own identity which is vaguely defined as “freedom.” On such a fulcrum of “freedom,” scientific philosophy advances all its systems and the “world view.”

3. Nāgārjunian View on Self and the Dominion of Subjectivity

The mind of such a person may assume a strange formulation. Nāgārjuna equated such a freedom seeking rationalistic mind to the consciousness of a “thirsty deer” chasing for water that is seen in a mirage (m gatriṣṇajalam), or a “farmer” presuming that each harvested seed is going to produce another new plant. We know very well that each seed does not produce a plant, though it has the potentiality, yet the mind of the farmer is like that of a thirsty mind of a deer (m gatriṣṇa), that chooses knowledge sources that may chase the illusory notion of an oasis in the mirage, that moves faster and faster on closer approaches: moving closer to infinity, vanishing itself at a zero dimension. Through the philosophy of the Middle Path (Mādhyamika), Nāgārjuna wanted us to understand that the “self” of a person is nurtured naturally to follow a “middle path” in the “dominion of subjectivity,” and also wanted to teach us that only by following the “middle path” a “human person” may survive successfully in the “living world.” But to care the “self” in the way of “middle path” is the most difficult task as it requires a method that should oppose the natural tendency of the human mind to follow extreme viewpoints. The frame work of Middle Path is interpreted as the true meaning of emptiness (śūnyatā) that it is not a theoretical idea but a comprehensive discernment of the “co-dependent evolution” of various elements that makes a phenomenal


experience possible. 3 So, the Nāgārjunian view on the co-dependent structuring of the five aggregates (pañcaskandha) introduced in the Buddhist teachings as the “dominion of subjectivity” should be reinterpreted with a proper conception of śūnyatā. The reason for this is that he had strongly negated any real conception of each of the elements of the five aggregates as it had been discoursed in the Abhdharma schools of Buddhist philosophy 4 as well as the singular entity conception of ātman promoted mainly by the Vedic schools, because such a conception may give a false notion that the “self” is protected by a soul connected with a transcended entity of God who determines the fate of the “self” on which we have no control. Nāgārjunian method is based on a unique formulation of negative dialectics, through which he revealed to us the idea of emptiness (śūnyatā) that explains the structure of the Buddhist concept of “no soul” (nairātmya) as the “co-dependent evolution” of the five aggregates (pañcaskandha) together with the objective aspect of phenomena (caturbhūta) in the “dominion of subjectivity” of a “person.” 5 The idea of “no soul” (nairātmya) is not the negation of subjectivity but its momentary existence in the “dominion of subjectivity.” We shall come back to the discussion on negative dialectics later.

4. The Buddhs’s Discourses on No-Soul (Nairātmya) Principle

It is curious to note that almost 2,500 years ago, the Buddha taught about the problems of accepting the idea of soul (ātman) as the basis of subjectivity: the subtle relationship between ātman and the eternal Brahman, not any other such conception of soul (ātman). Like the modern philosophers’ views against classical metaphysics, he understood that with any such conceptions of ātman as the essence of the “dominion of subjectivity,” a person may be forced to fall into the trap of accruing “wrong views,” because one should have to accept an extreme position, in discerning the phenomenal experiences. The Buddha taught the idea of a “Middle Path”: when he refused to accept the idea of “self” as an eternal ātman or the contrarian extreme position of projecting “self” as an object for external reflection with a recognizable “own being.” To address the extreme views, the Buddha introduced an original method of interpreting the conception of “self” and of “subjectivity” of a “human person” (pudgala). Instead of a blatant rejection of ātman and subjectivity, he recognized another formulation that construes the “dominion of subjectivity”: the five aggregates (pañcaskandha) as the basis of the “self” (Sa yutta Nikāya 33.2, 1031). The Buddha proved, through penetrating arguments, that his discourses on the “dominion of subjectivity” could take care of all intellectual problems that may deter one to accept the concept of “self,” especially accepting a transcended entity as the foundation of the “self,” so also rejecting it and considering “human person” as a material object, a view followed by the classical Indian materialists (Varghese 2012, 60). Thereby the conception of five aggregates (pañcaskandha) addressed the problem that has been raised by the modern philosophers several centuries later:

the relationship between soul and God; and the critique of the modern philosophers’ views on the ontological status of “self,” especially the questions regarding “pure knowledge” and “human reasoning.” Discoursing on the relationship between soul (ātman) and Brahman (the eternal reality), and how the essence of ātman is conceived as the Brahman, was a major part of the Brahmanical schools of classical Indian philosophy. The foundation of the “dominion of subjectivity” may be understood as this intrinsic relationship between ātman and the Brahman; and the “self” can be explained as that on each birth the soul (ātman) assumes a new body with a distinct “own being” (svabhava), which is inherently conditioned by a set of karma-saskāras acquired from various previous births. As for the “self” of a human person, the ātman is conditioned by karma-saskāras and the body that determines the “dominion of subjectivity” (Varghese 2012, 55). All the



efforts of a person with his life in the “living world” are meant for purifying the “self,” to realize the ātman. The “self” should be liberated in the “dominion of subjectivity” by following the path of action (karma) and knowledge (jñāna). Though various Vedic schools may vary their opinion on this, it is generally understood that each person has distinct karmas and jñānas determined by the self’s “karma-saskāras” (Dasgupta 1922, 267). The purpose of a life is to work, towards losing the influence of karmic saskāras, by following the path directed by the Vedas to realize the true nature of soul (ātman), and in its perfect purity that it would be merging with the eternity—Brahman (Varghese 2008, 96). 6 This is the life process and it happens within the “dominion of subjectivity.” The relationship between ātman and Brahman is described as: “The fundamental idea which runs through the early Upaniãads is that underlying the exterior world of change there is an unchangeable reality which is identical with that which underlies the essence in man” (Dasgupta 1922, 42). The Buddha identified that the Brahminical philosophy is inherently leaning towards extreme understandings on the aspects of the existence of “human person” and shall put him into the trap of sufferings. The ātman as the basis of self is an extreme position leading only to neglecting the process of accruing sufferings; in the same way, rejecting the ātman is another extreme position creating the same suffering situations. So instead of ātman, in the text of Khandhasayutta (Sa yutta Nikāya 22.48), the Buddha introduced the conception of five aggregates:

And what, bhikkhus, are the five aggregates? Whatever kind of form there is, whether past, future, or present, internal of external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near: this is called the form (rūpa) aggregate. What kind of feeling there is … this is called the feeling (vedana) aggregate. Whatever kind of perception there is … this is called the perception (sajña) aggregate. Whatever kind of volitional formations there are … these are called the volitional formations (saskāra) aggregate. Whatever kind of consciousness there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near: this is called the consciousness (jñāna) aggregate. These, bhikkhus, are called the five aggregates. (Sayutta Nikāya, 886, emphasis added)

In contrast to the classical Western philosophy or the Brahmanical schools of Indian philosophy, in the Buddhist conception, the “self” of a “human person” is conceived as that each element of the five aggregates co-depends with each other to evolve it. In the same way, the elements of each “self” of personalities would “co-depend and co-evolve” in a unique structuring format with the “nature” and the world around. This structuring of co-dependent evolution is the “dominion of subjectivity.” And the “dominion of subjectivity” and the co-dependent structuring of the five cognizable aggregates may explain various factors that guide a person’s life in the “living world,” notably the conception of “own being” (svabhava) and how one develops interdependent relations with other persons in inexplicable ways. In the Buddhist view, the “own being” (svabhava) is not a permanent feature because it always changes, therefore, the definition that may be given to the “own being” (svabhava) of a person may change into its counter definition soon: creating confusion. This form of complex “co-dependent evolution” arises anywhere and everywhere in the “living world”: the human reasoning may not be able to define it in the “sphere of words” (akarajñānagocaram), or to bring it into the principles of “logocentrism.” The reason for this is that the co-dependent evolution opens up innumerable possibilities that are leaning to contradictions and “infinite regress.” For example, people are driven towards material possessions and to materialism in general when “form faculty” (rūpa) is active; similarly they may be emotionally attached when “feeling faculty” (vedana) guides as the source of “co-dependent evolution.” They can be dispositionally and culturally linked when the “dispositional faculty” (saskara) is active. They may be ideologically connected when “concept faculty”


(sajña) is active. It is possible to have such relationship flourishing within a variety of combinatorial

possibilities in any situation that are supported by the infinite potential of each of the five aggregates to form co-dependent relationships. But such possibilities can also easily destroy a “human person” when the influence of any of the aggregates is extraneously dominating the “dominion of subjectivity”: say saskara (dispositions), a person may become a religious fanatic; or following certain doctrinal positions sajña, one

could be a theoretician, or a scientific philosopher, working only on cognizable theories. Therefore, Buddhist philosophy stresses that all our perspectives and viewpoints are to be guided by “true and direct knowledge” or wisdom (prajñā), and thereby it is possible to develop strong intuitive awareness about the “co-dependent evolution” of the “self” in the “dominion of subjectivity” and save it from “destruction.” But the problem of infinite regress due to the accentuation of the other elements in the “dominion of subjectivity” and the knowledge will not be directed and well reflected with deep insight, 7 then a person may fall into the depth of “ignorance” (wrong knowledge) and will be controlled by “speculative views.”

5. The Formation of Ignorance into Speculative Views

The Buddha taught that ignorance is the real source of suffering in the “living world.” The text Kātyāyanāvadānasutra explains the philosophy of the “Middle Path” where the conception of ignorance (avidya) is the prime course of suffering (Varghese 2008, 141). In another instance, on a dialogue with sage Vacchagotta, the Buddha cautioned him that the issue of ignorance (wrong knowledge) would create the problem of “speculative views,” if the knowledge is not direct. He had explained to Vacchagotta (Sa yutta Nikāya 33.2):

It is, Vaccha, because of not directly cognizing form (rūpa) … feelings (vedana)

formulations (saskara) … consciousness (āna) its origin, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation that those various speculative views arise in the world: “The world is eternal” … or “The Tathāgata neither exists nor does not exists after death,” This, Vaccha, is the cause and reason why those various speculative views arise in the world: “The world is eternal” or “The world is not eternal”; or “This world is finite” or “The world is infinite”; or “The soul and body are same” or “The soul is one thing or the body is another”; or “The Tathāgata exists after death”; or “The Tathāgata does not exist after death,” or “The Tathāgata both exists and does not exist after death,” or “The Tathāgata neither exists nor does not exist after death. (Sayutta Nikāya, 1031, emphasis added) 8


perception (sajña)

The intrinsic connection between “speculative views and ignorance” and the prospect of its controlling the human life was something that worried the Buddha the most. The Buddha had clearly understood that speculative views influenced by ignorance had been controlling the views of various schools of philosophies at his time. Here, the “speculative views” are understood to have been produced out of the pursuance of the infinite possibilities of the “co-dependent evolutions” of the five aggregates, the “self” forming views with “ignorance” (wrong knowledge) in the “consciousness” faculty (vijñāna), which are proven to be true with the support of rational and empirical evidences. In the context of a “world view” where knowledge is founded on “human reasoning” and again directed by various conceptions of “logocentrism,” the Buddhist conception of “self” and “dominion of subjectivity” could formulate an excellent counter discourse on the problem of “wrong knowledge” (avidya) controlling all sorts of reasoning process that are to struggle with innumerable “speculative views” pushing human life into sufferings and destruction. To advance such a discourse we may have to know the structure of the negative dialectics of Nāgārjuna.



6. Nāgārjunian Hermeneutics of Dominion of Subjectivity: The Application of Negative Dialectics

Nāgārjuna has identified that the occurrence of ignorance would be taking control of the Buddhist teaching on five aggregates (pañcaskandha) as each of the entities was assuming the status of permanence in the Abhidharma discourses: notably the Pudgalavādins’ interpretations (Priestley 1999, 29, 54). And the conception of “self” is defined as the continued existence of the “human person” like the conception of soul (ātman). But Nāgārjuna should have been influenced by the renowned Māhayāna text Prajnaparamita-Hridaya-Sutra (PHS)—the verse 2—that is precise in explaining how the “dominion of subjectivity” is functioning within the realm of śūnyatā and that each element of the aggregates is reflected with “śūnyatā,” like a picture which is drawn on the canvas. This unique conception is explained in the text:

Here (according to) Sāriputra “form” (rūpa) is emptiness (śūnyatā); “form” is in the realm of emptiness. There is no ‘form’ other than emptiness (śūnyatā), and there is no emptiness other than “form.” What is ‘from’ that is emptiness; and what is emptiness is form. Similarly, feelings (vedana), conceptual understandings (sajña), dispositional formulations (saskāra) and the consciousness (vijñāna) are all emptiness (śūnyatā). (PHS, 2) 9

When Nāgārjuna introduced his philosophical hermeneutics of the “dominion of subjectivity,” he in fact interpreted the view of these two discourses, Sa yutta Nikāya 33.2 and PHS, 2. Instead of advancing direct criticism on the views of the Abhidhama schools, he candidly said that the idea of skandhas may not easily be understood by everyone. He pointed out it in the text of Lokātītastava: “it was only through the skandhas the Buddha’s taught his courageous teachings to the most courageous thinkers (disciples) to understand that each of the skandhas is essentially to be understood as manifestations of either an illusion (māya), a mirage (marici), a celestial city (gandharvanagara), or a dream (svapna): or a combination of all these four manifestations.” 10 The five aggregates (pañcaskandhas) are perceived to be existing just because of certain causes (hetus), without which we may not apprehend them, so they are only fit to be called as reflected images (not true entities). When those causes are no longer valid, such entities or collection of them may cease to exist. 11 He implicitly criticizes the supremacy of “human reasoning” and the conception of “logocentrism” that we adduce knowledge only from the reflected images, not true entities.

7. Negating the Subjectivity of Mental Phenomena

The formation of negation is a necessary aspect for our understanding of the “living world.” It should be understood that the extreme of an extreme antithesis is identified and a system is constructed for the protection of the thesis. For example, it is understood that a “human person” may live only for a maximum period of 120 years, yet he is circumvent by death and disease at anytime: a person is conditioned to live a life for a certain number of years with lots of conditions. So one can negate all the negative aspects that may not collude the positive aspects that help him live better: one shall negate all speculative views that may impede him in respecting the nature and the world around. In the case of interpreting the pañcaskandha, Nāgārjuna uses negation to understand the no own being (nisvabhava) of each of the elements from “form faculty” (rūpa) to “consciousness faculty” (vijñāna), and explains clearly how difficult it is to accept each element of the phenomenal experience as a real entity that can be used for further analysis. The example of the “fire” that is being discoursed in the text Agnivaccagottasutta (Majjima Nikāya 72.19) is dependent on other entities, but each of those entities is also dependent on other entities, but none is a permanent entity (Majjima Nikāya, 593).


The Pudgalavāda schools taught that the skandhas may continue to exist till a person become a Buddha (Priestley 1999, 53-59). But Nāgārjuna explains that the “fire” extinguishes not just on the depending sources, and the “fire” itself cannot be discerned clearly that it functions in the realm of śūnyatā. Nāgarjuna uses tetralemma (catu koi) to explain the framework of śūnyatā philosophically.

7.1. Negating the Permanence of Form (Rūpa): Using Fourfold Analysis (Tetralemma)

As we have explained earlier (Sa yutta Nikāya 22.48) “form faculty” (rūpa) reveals the objective basis of

our phenomenal experience. All the objects, according to Buddhist philosophy, are construed of “four elements” (caturbhūtas): earth, fire, water, and air. Nāgārjuna has negated this view with an argument that we cannot perceive each of the elements of those “four elements” separately, so how can it be possible to perceive the “true form” of the objects with our eyes that are constructed out of inconceivable elements, which, according to him, is an absurd understanding. Therefore, it is possible to negate the idea that one has truly perceived the true form of an object (rūpagrāho nivārita). 12 But at the same time it is not possible to

completely negate the cognition of the object of perception which is an epistemological fallacy. In the “two prong” logical analytical method, we need to accept one proposition as “true” (p) and the other as “untrue” ( p):

when p is accepted p is needed to be negated and vice versa. The possibility of accommodating p is negative in this case. To solve this problem, the philosophy of Middle Path uses “tetralemma” (catu koī), instead of “two prong” logical method that had been established in the discourse of the Buddha with Vacchagotta (cf. Sayutta Nikāya 33.2). We can see that the phenomenal experience is beyond the realm of affirming the object (p) or rejecting it ( p), or both affirming and rejecting (p and p), or neither affirming nor rejecting ([neither p nor p] Varghese 2012, 171). This conception on the true objectivity of the phenomenal experience proves the conception of emptiness ([śūnyatā] Varghese 2012, 245), because the conception of “neither p nor p” is not the acceptance or rejection of the perceived phenomena (object p) ; but it entails the analyzer to use another set of proposition using q; and the enquiry can proceed endlessly unless the truth is being found and established. The establishment of the “true knowledge” about the object behind the phenomenal experience is proven to be impossible, but by using this method, the process of analysis may continue for developing different perspectives that may help one articulate an intuitive awareness on phenomenal experiences. The discernment of śūnyatā in this case is that it gives us a wider picture of the object of the phenomenal experience and it also gives us an insight (prajñā) about the entities of our experience. The “form element” (rūpa) according to the text Prajñāparamitahdaya Sūtra is functional only within the realm of śūnyatā (cf. PHS, 2).

7.2. Negating the Notion of Permanence of Feelings (Vedana)

True knowledge about the experienced object (rūpa) is impossible to be established and it functions under the sphere of śūnyatā, it is true of the “feeling faculty” (vedana) of a “human person” which is functional only for “true objective experiences” (vedanīya ). Since it is impossible to conclude on the value of phenomenal

knowledge that supports the “feeling faculty,” the value of various emotions is in fact essenceless (nirātmikā) and transitory with time. Human beings normally hold on to such vague knowledge and suffer assuming that such knowledge is true. Nāgārjuna negates the own being of all suffering because it is originated out of wrong knowledge (ignorance). As we have noted earlier, the “own being” (svabhava) of the object (vedyam) behind the phenomenal experience cannot be established with perfect knowledge: we are not able to find any clear objective basis for our emotions such as fear, desire, anger, etc., and the efforts to find a basis for those are a



futile exercise. 13 On the contrary, whether the knowledge is true or false, the chances for emotions to breed further and destroy a person are very high in normal human life. The only emotion that would not destroy a person is compassion (karu a) and it shall sprout in the mind when the “dominion of subjectivity” reflects the phenomenal experience with deep insight (prajñā). Feeling faculty controls human emotions that lead to sufferings and it is assumed that compassion (karu a) is the only emotion that protects one from accruing sufferings. Understanding the function of feeling faculty is important to understand the way “world view” is forming in the contemporary situations. The conceptions of “human reasoning” and “logocentrism” are meant to override the problems of emotions (vedana), but they always remain subservient to emotions, except in situations where one conceptualizes (sajña) on others or on one’s own feelings (vedana). It is not always


7.3. Negating Authority of Concepts: The Analogy of Fire and Its Indistinct Burning Properties

As far as understanding the validity of the “concept faculty” (sajña) 14 is concerned, it is the element that defines the characteristic features of being a “human person.” It explains the ability to conceive a phenomenon and to create a conceptual framework for making the phenomenal experience possible; it is the element that helps one form conceptual understandings and formulate his own ideas; it is the framework of all perceptive faculties and freedom of the mind to perceive chosen things; it is the defining aspect of a “human person” to use “language and signs” for interpreting his own intentions and thoughts. The defining feature of human beings in comparison with other living beings in the world is the ability to use language such that one can memorize and recollect the past and use it for future actions. All these aspects and other connected features are in the realm of “concept faculty” (sajña). Nāgārjuna asks the Buddhist thinkers of his time (say, Pudgalavādins), who attribute “own being” to sajña, that if this element has an “own being” (svabhava) then arguably the concepts it formulates also should have “own being” (svabhava). In that case, arguably, if one utters the word “fire,” his face should burn immediately, because burning is an “own being” (svabhava) of “fire”: an instance of p; contrarily, we take the opposite of this view that the word “fire” has no signifying value (the sign and signified): should it mean then that what is being signified by the word “fire” is “no fire” ( p)? Or the word “fire” expresses both “fire” and “no fire,” like p and p, which again confuses us with an uncertain inference that when we utter the word “fire,” it may and may not burn the mouth. The fourth possibility is something one should look forward to its being neither p nor p; here the concept of “fire” is looking at finding new definitions for “fire” using another preposition, q, and can be explained more than many other characteristic prosperities of “fire,” not just “mouth burning” based on proposition p. Nāgārjuna explained this aspect in these words: “If the concept 15 (sajña) and the object 16 (artha) are the same (non-different) then the mouth would burn when one utters the word ‘fire.’ But, if they are different we cannot acquire any knowledge about existence. 17 This you said when you talked about the existents.” 18 The arguments of the Pudgalavādins, or other such schools of Buddhism, that consider the Buddha’s discourses on “concept faculty” (sajña) as a real element of the “self” like various conceptions of ātman in the Vedic schools of philosophy should be aware of the impossibility of “burning the mouth” on uttering the word “fire.” They cannot also escape from the fact that any defined form (lak ya) of a phenomenal experience and the definitions of it (lak a am) are different, then the information acquired from the “form” is “false definitions” (alak a a ), 19 and is also not suitable for construing concepts. 20 Nāgārjuna might have expressed his view on this, to confute some of the schools of Abhidharma Buddhism which propound the idea of “own


definitions” (svalaka a) of the forms of the objects as the basis for constructing concepts. 21 The word “fire” signifies various properties of fire and human person may use it according to the situation, where the logical possibility opens for further analysis by the method of “tetralemma” (catukoī). In the contemporary situation the method adopted is to analyze everything based on knowledge drawn from objectified entities where creating concepts on empirical knowledge sources is a method. With the function of karma which originates from one’s inherent dispositions one is at liberty to redefine himself against any created knowledge on him.

7.4. Critiquing Karma and the Conception of Merit and Demerit

In Indian philosophy the idea of saskāra (dispositions, volitions, karma) is considered as an important aspect that defines the “own being” of a person, because the idea of karma (saskāra) defines how each

individual is conceptually and basically different from the other. The Vedic schools of Indian philosophy give due importance to this conception that each person’s dispositions (saskāra) are defined by his own karma

(svakarma)—the fulcrum of one’s religious duties—dharma. The idea of caste system is based on this fundamental principle that each person has to perform his caste duties (dharma) by performing an assigned system of karma in order to fulfill his life’s purposes. The Buddha was not in agreement with such determinism of karma; accordingly, Nāgārjuna questions the authority of karma that if a “human person” (kartha) is independent of his own karma (svakarma) and then the karma is also independent of that person (kartha). Suppose that a person who has born in the carpenter’s caste does not practice carpentry or woodwork, then he may not get any benefit from the carpentry work that is performed by other members of his caste. He is a non-entity as far as carpenter’s job is concerned. Certainly, he may have some advantages on matters regarding carpentry work over other people who may not be from the caste of “carpenters.” But he can get the benefit of carpentry work (his svadharma) only by engaging the actual works of carpentry. As narrated in the text: “The individual subject (kartā) 22 is independent. The actions (Karma), as you said, are also independent. According to your venerated opinion, the mutual dependence of these two (independent entities) accomplishes the existence of both.” 23 The conception of merit and demerit that one receives from any action should be interpreted as the possibility of bringing the subject of an action (kartha) and the action itself (karma) together. It is not generic. Only if the carpenter engages in the activity of woodwork, then he could be a beneficiary of carpentry (bhokta). The complicated relations in the conception of saskāra and karma are interpreted as: 24 “There is neither an individual subject (karta) nor one who enjoys the fruit of an action (bhokta); merit and demerit comes from mutual dependence (prat-tya). You, who are the lord of the words, have clearly said that that which is a dependent entity will not be originated by itself.” 25 The notion of karma and its effect are a very contentious view in the philosophy of Middle Path that they reject the deterministic value of karma and saskāra (Varghese 2008, 105). The intention of an individual

person (kartha) is what determines the merit or demerit of an action, not the action (karma) per se. A mother may kill the assaulter of her child instinctively which should not accrue any demerit on her. The well reflected knowledge (prajñā) is the guiding principle in this case.

7.5. Critiquing the Truth-Value of Knowledge

While all other elements in the “dominion of subjectivity” of “self” may bound a person and push him to suffer in the world of existence, the fifth element of the “consciousness faculty” (vijñāna) is the element that could help him redeem from all bondages: it defines the spiritual merits and its inherent property of



constructing knowledge (jñāna). Knowledge is revered by all systems of philosophy. The logocentric perspective of modern Western philosophy that is based on “pure knowledge” directed by “human reasoning” presumes that the true being of the natural laws and the nature can be revealed by its scientific methods. But as we have discussed earlier, if the “true knowledge” about the form (rūpa) of a phenomenal experience is difficult to be established (ajnµāyamānam), then how can it be an object of knowledge (jñeyam)? Since the form (rūpa) of the objects lacks an “own being” (svabhava) for establishing its objectivity, how can it be possible to discuss on the validity of knowledge (jñāna) 26 and the objects of knowledge (jñeya) as entities with “own being”? Nāgārjuna explained the difficulties in accepting the eminence of knowledge. He explained it as: “That which is unknown cannot be an object of knowledge. No consciousness (vijnµ•nam) 27 is possible without an object of knowledge. You have said clearly that ‘knowledge’ and the ‘object of knowledge’ have ‘no own being’ (svabhva) of their own.” 28 Mādhyamika philosophy of Nāgārjuna may be the only school of thought that directly criticized the authority of knowledge and the ways of our knowledge seeking methods, thereby criticizing the illogical foundations of epistemology and logic. Nāgārjunian critique asks questions on the premises of “human rationality” and the conception of “logocentrism” that each of the entities, in the phenomenal world of existence, is interdependent and the paradigm of which is expressed through emptiness (śūnyatā).

8. Rationale of Nature versus Human Reasoning: Negating the Authority of Logocentrism

The entities of our phenomenal experience according to Nāgārjuna are based on dependent co-arising (pratītyasamutpāda). It is not possible to have true knowledge about the objects of experience: the true knowledge is difficult to be established. The thatness (tathata) of the things is difficult to be established with the help of “logocentric” views, because the entities of our experience are dependently arisen and soon changeable. The method to understand the “thing in itself” is a futile one. According to Nāgārjuna: “If the principles or theories that support the thatness (tathata) of all the entities of our phenomenal experience are permanent (paramärtha), then the true nature (own being) of the Thing (thing in itself) is desired to be material (with truth value). This is an indeclinable fact with all the existents. From that understanding the Buddha speaks out.” 29 Therefore, with regard to the things of our phenomenal experience, we can have only conditioned knowledge (samv ti) 30 that is changeable. The true being of an object (paramärtha) is an imposibilty and it is impossible to find the objectivity of objects. Noted nuclear physist and philosopher George Sudarshan and Tony Rothman explain it as “the history of physics has been a process of just peeling off one layer of the onion after another. Each time you have discovered the ultimate particle, you then find another” (2001, 193). Or more precisely, Stephen Hawking interpreted that the general characteristic of a physical theory is a construction based on conditioned knowledge (samv ti): “A physical theory is just a mathematical model and it is meaningless to ask whether it corresponds to reality” (Sudarshan and Rothman 2001, 200). The true principles of “natural laws” therefore are not flexible for science and its “logocentric” perspectives.

8.1. Analogy of Seed and Sprout to Confute Logocentrism and Human Reasoning

Nāgārjuna has negated the logical structure of “human reasoning” by questioning the supremacy of reasoning. It is illogical to say that from the principles of “lost causes” (vinaṣṭ āt-kāraņatatvāt) 31 or the opposite “non-lost causes” (avinaṣṭ āt) can an effect come into being; at the same time, it is equally illogical to


imagine that the effect comes into existence as it is being happened in a dream. 32 Here, Nāgārjuna expresses how difficult it would be to introduce “logocentrism” in explaining the true expression of the natural laws. The way of analytical science in using this method indiscriminately to formulate its concepts is only adding to the confusion instead of solving it: similar to the case of a “sprout” coming into being from its “lost causes” (the destroyed seed) or the “non-lost causes.” The natural understanding about a seed is that it produces a “sprout,” but when the sprout comes into being then what happens to the seed? If it is to conclude that when the sprout is originated, its main cause, the seed gets lost: then one must admit that all lost seeds are to be sprouted. The seed one has eaten would not have spouted. Otherwise, to avoid all controversies it is good to say the sprout comes into being like an object originates in a dream. It is clear that all seeds will not sprout even though it is a seed that causes the sprout, but the eaten seeds, or the dry seeds, or the seeds sawed on rocks would not sprout. A seed needs to have certain dependent conditions like water, air, fertile soil, and care of a farmer to sprout well and form itself into a tree. “Logocentrism” and “human reasoning” presumptuously accept that each seed is a potential tree, and accept using methods of science to artificially create a situation for each one to produce a tree. This method struggles against the “rationale of nature.” Now those methods are being faced with its counter discourse: creating alarming fears on the continued existence of the humanity.

9. A Short Discourse on Śūnyatā

The idea of emptiness (śūnyata) in the Mādhyamika philosophy is normally a misunderstood concept. The understood meaning of “nihilism” (pure negation) may be a possible meaning; but concluding it as the only meaning is strongly negated by Nāgārjunian discourses. The etymology of this term is derived from the root word śvi which means to swell, to expand (Stcherbatsky 1999, 36), similar to a womb. Therefore, śūnyatā means the state of something expanding and swelling, like a womb with a baby that would expand only for 10 months, not endlessly. This idea plays an important part in the Mādhyamika interpretation extant in their philosophical discourses. Śūnya expands and shows the exact nature of the “co-dependent evolution” of the phenomenal experience and the unpredictability of the objective world. It also swells into the situations where the reasoning ends in forming irrational conclusions or counter discourses. It is like an empty vessel ready to be filled. It is the potency of mind that can remove all misconceptions. It is the concept that helps one control the multiplying thoughts in the mind. But it ceases to be relevant when its purpose is served. It can be equated to the mathematical zero (śūnya) which takes any value given to it and transforms itself into that value; but when multiplied with another value, the value turns into zero again, or when a finite number is divided by “zero” the resultant value turns out to be infinity. As we have discussed, various conceptions of emptiness (śūnyatā) help us get control on multiplying thought structures (concepts and theories), to remove clichéd attitudes and presumptuous conceptions, to start from a “zero state” or absolute beginning. Śūnyatā is the greatest property and hope of human subjectivity.

10. Conclusion

The subjectivity of a human person or the conception of “self” is one of the serious philosophical questions discoursed in different traditions. The classical Western philosophical conception of it as the “soul” that is intrinsically connected with God is a concept that is rejected by modern philosophy. It is largely silent on this issue that their purpose was to introduce a “world view” that is acceptable to science. The scientific



philosophy of the West objectified everything including the individual subject for the science to perform its logocentric analytical methods. The ideas like “dasein” only accentuated the individualism based on logocentric perspectives. The Eastern philosophical views like the Brahmanical schools of Indian philosophy’s promotion of ātman as the basis of “self” have rejected the values of this worldly life and a necessary value for the materialistic aspects of life. Their emphasis on the conception of ātman and its purity has neglected the value of the “self” of a “human person” in the “living world.” The Buddhist conception of subjectivity as five aggregates opened up a way to understand the “self” of a human person and its existence in this “living world.” For it uses the co-dependent evolution of all the elements of human experience with the subjective and objective world as the basis of the “self” of a “human person.” The conception of the “dominion of subjectivity” explains the subjective and objective aspects of this co-dependent evolution process of all the elements that inhere with a person’s life in the “living world.” To avoid the prospect of a transcended entity controlling the life in the world, Nāgārjuna argues that the framework of this process is śūnyatā and it reveals the Middle Path and it creates an insightful awareness (prajñā) in the mind of a person about life in the world. The idea of śūnyatā enables us to protect our “selves” by helping us view the functioning of the nature and the “natural laws” with apt attention and insightful awareness (prajñā). Nāgārjuna used negative dialectics to help one develop the intuitive awareness (prajñā). Now the “world views” are formulated on the basis of the logocentric perspectives of “science” which functions on “speculative views” constructed on confusing knowledge sources which are parochially chosen. The co-dependent evolution aspect that is ingrained in the Buddhist conception of “self” would help us tremendously if we understand it using śūnyatā. We may understand the world and the “natural laws” with the help of continued investigations that are made possible by the application of fourfold (catu ko i) logical analysis. Modern science and scientific philosophy only follow twofold logical analysis.


1. Karl Jaspers used to criticize the difficulties of an exclusive scientific method to explain the world of existence. That is

also endorsed here (Jaspers 2004, 24).

2. Nietzsche was a philosopher in the modern world who showed real concerns about the inabilities of the modern analytical

science to explain “subjectivity”: “He [Nietzsche] prophesied the advent of a period of nihilism, with the death of God and the demise of metaphysics, and the discovery of the inability of science to yield anything like absolute knowledge; but this prospect deeply worried him.” (Schacht 1993, 178).

3. Mūlamādhyamika Kārika, 24.18.

4 .The Pudgalavāda Buddhist schools

pañcaskandha as having true existence.











5. Lokātītastava, verses 21-22.

6. See also Dasgupta, 1922, 23.

7. Prakar ṣṇena jānāti sarvaiti prajñā.

8. See also Majjima Nikāya 72.14.

9. Iha śāriputra rūpaśūnyatā, śūnyataiva rūpam / rūpānna pthak śūnyatā, śūnyatāyā na p thag rūpam / yadrūpa

śūnyatā, yā śūnyatā tadrūpam // evameva vedanāsajñāsaskāravijñānāni.”

Te’pi skandhāstvayā dh-man dh-madbhayasaúprakāśitā/ māyāmarīcigandharvanagarasvapnasamúnibhā

(Lokatītastava, verse 3). 11. “Hetutasabhavo yeātadabhāvān na santi ye / kathanāma na te spaṣṭ apratibimbasamā matā” (Lokatītastava, verse 4). 12 . Bhūtāny acak urgrāhyā i tanmayamú cāk u a katham / rūpamú tvayaiva bruvatā rūpagrāho nivārita¾

10 .


(Lokatītastava, verse 5).

13. “Vedanīyavinā nāsti vedanā’to nirātmikā / tacca vedyasvabhāvena nāstīty abhimatatava” (Lokatītastava, verse 6).

14. Sajña means knowing well, which is also “concept formation,” perception, etc

15. Sajña is the psychological aspect of perception which can be tentatively termed as idea or concept (sajña) that would

recognize the distinctive characteristics of things, for example, it perceives the distinctive characteristic of fire that is to burn. Saā is another part of the skandha.

16. In Buddhist parlance artha is object, aim, goal, purpose, etc

17. If the concept of fire and the object fire are the same then the mouth should burn with the utterances of the word fire. In

the previous verses (5 and 6) we found the anomalies of accepting the skadhas like form (rūpa) and feelings (vedana).


Samújnµārthayor ananyatve mukha dahyeta vahninā / anyatve’dhigamābhāvas tvayoktaú bhūtavādinā” (Lokatītastava,

verse 7).


AlakãaÏam is the opposite of lakãaÏam, meaning no indication or characteristic.


Lak yāllak a amanyaccet syāttallakyamalak a am / tayorabhāvo’nanyatve vispa ṣṭ akathitatvayā” (Lokatītastava,

verse 11).

21. It is important to have both the characterized (lakãaÏam) and characteristics (lakãya) for both to be emphasized. There is

no possibility to have knowledge without objects of knowledge.


A subject is conditioned by his saúskra. The moral and spiritual development of an individual is determined by it.


The existence of both can be discerned only by the mutual dependence of karta and karma.


Na kartā’sti na bhoktā’sti pu yāpuyapratītyajam / yat pratītya na taj jātaproktavācaspate tvayā” (Lokatītastava,

verse 9).


In this case, the existence of samúskra that determines an individual person is refuted.

26. Consciousness (jñāna) is dependent on knowledge and object of knowledge. But they can exist only in mutual

dependence, cannot exist per se, as each of them has no nature of their own (swabhva).

27. Jnµānam is the fifth element of the skandha. It means the consciousness or awareness in its active, discriminative form of

knowing and its subliminal or unconscious bodily and psychic functions. It must be noted that vijnµ•na means not just a stream of mental awareness (see Keown 2003).

28. “Ajnµāyamānamú na jnµeyamú vijnµānamú tadvinā na ca / tasmāt svabhāvato na sto jnµānajnµeye tvam ūcivān” (Lokatītastava,

verse 10).

29. Accintyastava, verse 41.

30. It is originated from v dhātu, meaning to cover. The word samvti should mean “well covered” with an existent meaning,

but it is dependent on certain conditions that we may overlook.

31. This is the main stay of Buddhists’ arguments that it will not support the conventional views on creation, at the same time

they will not reject them going in the way of the opposing arguments.

32. “It is illogical to say that from the ‘lost causes’ an effect comes into being; so also from the ‘non-lost causes’; nor do you

support the view that the effect is like a dream.” “Vina ṣṭ āt kāraāttāvat kāryotpattir na yujyate / na cāvinaṣṭ āt svapnena

tulyotpattir matā tava” (Lokātītastava, verse 17).

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