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An Introduction to Emptiness: Madhyamaka Buddhist Philosophy

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At university, I read a module in Buddhist philosophy led by my metaphysics professor. He was a resoundingly wacky man. In fact, one of his favourite slogans was “No Metaphysics!” - which we did find initially rather confusing. I’m not Buddhist (or even religious, although my Dad’s mother and her family are Mahāyāna Buddhists), and I absolutely loved this module and discovering the extent to which this facet of Eastern philosophy may be able to provide a philosophically complete system with which we might understand the world.

It was then, in my final year of my degree, that I began to understand how arrogant it could be simply assume that typically Western patterns of thought and Western philosophies were the most consistent and complete, and that all others could be disregarded.

What is Madhyamaka Buddhist Philosophy?

Madhyamaka is one of two main philosophical schools of thought within Mahāyāna Buddhism, the other being Yogācāra. It forms the philosophical basis for much of Tibetan Buddhism.

Madhyamaka Buddhism is based on the writings of the 2nd-century Buddhist monk, Nāgārjuna. The seminal text is called the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, which is a bit of a mouthful. It translates to the marginally more palatable ‘Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way’. The Middle Way was a key teaching of the Buddha, and preached moderation, walking the path between indulgence and self-denial. You might know it as the Eightfold Path.

The Madhyamaka tradition is by no means the only philosophically interesting one, however as somebody interested metaphysics and metametaphysics, diverse views on both topics are of personal interest. The conclusion of Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophy is a metametaphysical rejection of project of metaphysics altogether, and so I have found thinking about the consequences of the success (or failure) of Madhyamaka philosophical thought quite fascinating.

What is the Doctrine of Emptiness?

The central concept is the Doctrine of Emptiness, known in Sanskrit as Śūnyavāda. This represents the idea that all things are, in very broad strokes, empty of inherent existence and nature (svabhāva).

To say that something is “empty” is to say that it is “dependently originated”. Nāgārjuna described dependently originated things as having three marks of existence - they are transient, unsatisfactory, and lacking inherent existence.

What is nature empty of?

As we navigate the world within which we exist, we “label” things in order to help us convey ideas about the things around us. “That table”. “The red box”. “The Queen”. “You”. To say that nature is “empty” is to say, broadly, that it lacks any facet of the identity implied by the label that we use for it.

It’s often paraphrased as “lacking inherent existence” - but this clumsy explication doesn’t tell us much about what it is empty of. To do that, we need to look more deeply at the concept of svabhāva, or the inherent existence and nature that objects could have (which Mādhyamikas deny). This is notoriously difficult, not only because the term is used in different ways across different Buddhist traditions, but also because - if the Mādhyamikas are right - “svabhāva” is an intrinsically vacuous term, which does not describe any aspect of the world. Worse, it is internally inconsistent.

It is svabhāva that Nāgārjuna directs his arguments against, using variations on Reductio Ad Absurdum to do so - although I won’t be exploring his arguments in this blog post, as they are a rather large topic!

Nevertheless, let’s explore the concept in a little more detail.

What is svabhāva?

There are three distinct ontological understandings of svabhāva - but it is the third which is the most important for our understanding as it is this against which Nāgārjuna directs his argument.

The first is svabhāva as essence - to describe something as having svabhāva in this sense would be to identify the essential property of that object. In doing so, one denotes a property of that thing by which we can identify that object. Moreover, this very property is fundamental to the being of the object - it is one without which that object ceases to be that very thing. For example, fire without heat ceases to be fire.

The second ontological understanding is absolute svabhāva - a property which is regarded as the true ultimate nature of things.

The third and final is svabhāva as substance, and it is this the most critical for our understanding of Śūnyavāda as this is the definition against which Nāgārjuna touts his arguments.

Under this definition of svabhāva, to describe something as having svabhāva in this respect is to say that it is not dependent on anything else. This is perhaps the most important aspect of svabhāva which is being denied by Śūnyavāda. An object which has substance svabhāva is fundamental, irreducible and does not depend for its existence on being constructed mentally or linguistically. This idea of dependence is not confined to causal dependence. It also includes mereological dependence, and by that I mean notions of priority and fundamentality, as well as notional dependence (by that, I mean the idea that Northern England depends on Southern England, but if Southern England were destroyed, it wouldn’t affect the existence of the Northern England, only its description.

Some concluding remarks

Nāgārjuna does not offer any one single argument against svabhāva, and I’m not going to attempt to cover his methods of reasoning or any of his arguments here. It is, however, something I very much hope to cover in a future blog, so watch this space.

If you are interested in discovering more about Buddhism as Philosophy, I recommend reading ‘Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction by Mark Siderits’. For more on Madhyamaka thought, Jan Westerhoff’s ’Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka - A Philosophical Introduction‘.