Shunyata: The Emptiness of Essence
Examining a non-nihilistic denial of essentialism
For millennia, philosophers have debated whether essences (svabhāva) are real entities. In the West, the essentialist doctrine was famously espoused by Plato’s Theory of Ideas which claimed that real-world objects are imitations of transcendent Forms.
In his book The History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell criticizes this view, claiming that it conflates a linguistic convention with metaphysical ontology.
We apply the same name, on different occasions, to somewhat different occurrences, which we regard as manifestations of a single “thing” or “person”. In fact, however, this is only a verbal convenience. […] The question is purely linguistic: a word may have an essence, but a thing cannot.
The debate in the Indian subcontinent, however, was not focused on the substantiveness of physical things, but the true nature of phenomenal experiences.
It centered around whether the fundamental constituents of experience (dharma) like consciousness (citta), thoughts (cetasika) and physical forms (rūpa); were real entities or just useful — but ultimately fictitious — conceptual constructs.
In the essentialist camp, there were the aptronymic Sarvastivadins, an early Buddhist sect that thrived around the Kashmir valley. They claimed all elementary dharmas exist (sarvām-asti) substantively (dravya), as opposed to chariots and ships which only have a nominal existence (prajñapti).
In this context, the term dharmas refer to the irreducible atoms of phenomenal experience in a discrete moment (kṣaṇa) of awareness. Each dharma possesses a unique property (svālakṣaṇa) that characterizes it: fire is hot, water is wet.
Sarvastivadins also held that dharmas were eternal and unchanging, permanently existing in all periods: past, present, and future. But only dharmas in the present time had productive effects (kārita).
Opposing this view, was Nagarjuna, a monk from South India who is probably one of the most important Buddhist philosophers. Perhaps more than the Buddha himself, who was a pragmatist concerned with ending suffering and less prone to engaging in dialectical reasoning.
Along with his pupil Aryadeva, Nagarjuna founded the centrist Madhyamaka school which sought to find a middle path between the extremes of essentialism and nihilism. Their answer was to claim that all dharmas are empty (śūnya) of any intrinsic nature and also that the apparent emptiness is empty itself.
Nagarjuna’s magnum opus Root Verses on the Middle Way (mūlamadhyamakakārikā, or MMK for short) is a collection of apophatic assertions about the nature of reality in verse form. If you’re looking for a good commentary, I’d highly recommend this one by Siderits and Katsura.
To the uninitiated, the extensive use of reductio ad absurdum dialogue to deny the ultimate truth of any concept can seem frustrating. But, the aim isn’t to engage in a destructive debate (vitaṇḍā-vada), it is to point out that language itself implicitly relies on an unsubstantiated notion of essence.
Tsongkhapa of the Tibetan Gelug school emphasized this meta distinction in viewpoints of the interlocutors. By laying out the absurd consequences (prasaṅgika) of all forms of syllogistic reasoning, they covertly hinted at a foundational flaw in the opponent’s world view.
Nagarjuna was very thorough in his construction of arguments. This is highlighted by his use of the tetralemma (catuṣkoṭi): a fourfold argument. For a pair of propositions (A, B), we consider all four possibilities.
- A and (not B)
- (not A) and B
- A and B
- (not A) and (not B)
This structure is employed when discussing the origination of conditioned dharmas.
na svato nāpi parato na dvābhyāṃ nāpyahetutaḥ
utpannā jātu vidyante bhāvāḥ kva cana ke cana
No thing anywhere is ever originated from itself, from something else, from both or without a cause. (MMK 1.1)
The commentaries elaborate that if the conditions contained the essence of the effect they produced (satkaryavada), there would be no need for a distinct act of origination.
If a thing borrows its essence from something else (asatkaryavada), where does the “other” thing derive its essence from? We end up with an infinite web of dependency relationships.
The conjunction of these propositions is denied because neither one can be independently established. And the final case leads to the absurdity of having no restrictions on how things come to be.
Central to Buddhist dogma was the concept of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda): all dharmas arise dependent on other dharmas. Unlike mental abstractions, real things don’t exist in isolation.
If the existence of a thing depends on something else, it is empty of an intrinsic essence, because essences are supposed to be independent and immutable.
This applies not only to entities but also their properties or attributes. Properties can only be ascribed when a thing is compared to other things.
yaḥ pratītyasamutpādaḥ śūnyatāṃ tāṃ pracakṣmahe
sā prajñaptir upādāya pratipat saiva madhyamā
Whatever is contingently related, that is explained as emptiness. That is contingently designated; it is the central path. (MMK 24.18)
The property of size is one such example. The size of a thing — like a banana — can only be described in terms of its relation to the size of another object. Even the standardized units that we conventionally use are just a useful common reference and subject to change.
Seeds of the Madhyamika thesis are also found in the canonical Buddhist concept of impermanence (aniccā) which is one of the three marks of existence. Constant change is an undeniable characteristic of reality, but the way we refer to things only considers a static snapshot of the state of the world.
In his book, Ernst Mayr discusses the role that essentialist taxonomy played in shackling pre-Darwinian biological thought. From the time of Aristotle, biologists believed that all animals had fixed essences based on the species they belonged to: all people had a human essence.
But, the theory of evolution shows that incremental mutations and changing environmental selection pressures make successive generations diverge genetically from their ancestors. So, the definition of what it means to be “human” is in constant flux.
The concept of emptiness can easily be misconstrued and inappropriately applied to strip anything of meaning: including the precepts of Buddhism. One could potentially justify immoral and unethical actions, by claiming that all things — including karmic consequences — were empty. To defend against this, Nagarjuna employed the famous two truths theory.
dve satye samupāśritya buddhānāṃ dharmadeśanā
lokasaṃvṛtisatyaṃ ca satyaṃ ca paramārthataḥ
The Dharma taught by Buddhas perfectly relies on two truths: the worldly conventional truth and the ultimate truth. (MMK 24.10)
The conventional truth (saṁvṛti-satya) deals with the truths of the world that we inhabit. Causation, physical laws of the universe and facts about our lives fall into this category. Emptiness described the ultimate truth (paramārtha-satya) which was unconditioned and free of any characteristic attributes.
According to Nagarjuna, practical knowledge was vital to spiritual progress. And one had to understand the distinction between these truths to truly comprehend emptiness.
Orthodox Hindu philosophers, who sought to establish a metaphysical absolute (brahman) as the source of all essence, often attacked the Madhyamaka position as being nihilistic.
In defense, the commentator Chandrakriti claims that they are imposing a negative spin on the concept of emptiness. The emptiness that the Madhyamikas describe is not an assertion of non-existence.
śūnyam iti na vaktavyam aśūnyam iti vā bhavet
ubhayaṃ nobhayaṃ ceti prajñaptyarthaṃ tu kathyate
Empty should not be asserted. Non-empty should not be asserted.
Neither both nor neither should be asserted. They are only used nominally. (MMK 22.11)
The essentialist believes that the emptiness being described is a concrete characteristic of the ultimate reality, but the emptiness referred to is reflexively empty itself. The choice of the word “empty” is just a matter of convenience and doesn’t hold any innate essence itself.
Interestingly, Nagarjuna refused to defend emptiness as a standalone metaphysical view. Since any such defense would invariably assert emptiness as an intrinsic property of reality. His goal was to end all metaphysical speculation, not replace one distorted view with another.
This is also why there is no “master argument” that establishes emptiness. An argument for emptiness can only be made in response to a flawed essentialist position.
The soteriological purpose of this philosophy was to aid in the attainment of nirvana by ending conceptual proliferation (prapañca-nirodha). According to Buddhism, concepts are imprecise and cannot reflect the ultimate nature of reality: which is unconditioned (asankhata) and only realized through direct experience.
It’s also important to contextualize this work. Nagarjuna’s treatise was a reaction to the rise of Abhidharma movement, which attempted to rigorously systematize our understanding of the world. While this is instrumentally useful, it’s wrong to consider any form of conditioned knowledge to be universally true.
There are interesting parallels today with the rise of a physicalist metaphysical fundamentalism. The Standard Model is undoubtedly useful in helping us reliably model certain systems, but that doesn’t mean it represents a fundamental truth about the universe. Ultimately, it too is just another “empty” conceptual construct.