Tue Sy: Reduction to the nothingness


After a hundred years had been elapsing, since the Western ‘s beginning their studies of Buddhism up to the first part of this century, regardless of the method that claims to be scientific and accurate, they still showed much confused and disappointed when encountering an object of investigation that appears to escape more than a definition. Whether they tried to express all their enthusiasm toward it as did Stcherbatsky or intended to retain the rigorously objective behavior of a scholar, their conclusion was all the same with somehow intense sorrow. The French Louis de la Vallé-Poussin, with his stately academic air which is presumed to be objective, facing the exclusively singular arguments of the Mādhyamikas that pretend to ignore whatsoever principle of logics, may it be the law of Contradiction or that of Excluded Middle and the like, exclaims in his The Way to Nirvana[1] published in 1917: «We are disappointed.» Ten years later, by 1927, the Russian Tscherbatsky, upon giving de la Vallee-Poussin the answer to the meaning of Buddhist Nirvana on the Mādhyamika’s viewpoint, still had to start his work by venting that although hundred years of scientific studies of Buddhism laid down on the Europe had been passing by, still we are left confused about the basic doctrine of this religion and its philosophy.[2]

It was until 1955 when T.R.Murti contributed to the West circle his sizable work on the major subject, studying in the system of Mādhyamika, the ground seemed to get a bit of transparency. D. Friedman in his Preface to Jayatilleke’s Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, 1963, acknowledges this.

Up to 1967, however, in his Early Mādhyamika in India and China,[3] Richard Robinson was seen to get start to the work with the words for him unneeded, to some extend, in the meantime, but as necessary as a routine. He wrote: «… and having in the meantime seen the publication of several more excellent works on the subject, I can no longer say that we do not understand Mādhyamika…» The statement speaks for itself the reason why.

With such a general view on the attitude of the most Western scholars of Buddhist studies as regards the matter in question, we can see that anyone who at his first go means to seize the integrity of the system would be found disarmed of logical instruments before the particular premises of this school which tend to provoke controversy. As a matter of fact, a question ought to be set up: «What kind of truth does Nāgārjuna choose to defend by means of his philosophy of śūnyavāda, the doctrine of nothingness?» Such a question is, indeed, reasonable from every angle, from the motive of proceeding into the research to the manipulation of quotations into the structure of argument that purposes to come to a conclusion, a satisfying solution. But the question itself as in a feedback resounds no less strange, when all the contrivances have been elaborated in such a way that the integral structure is no sooner in sight when immediately another question is provoked to contradict the earlier. No further progress could be made, had the primordial background not been laid firm.

We are not trying to mystify the matter. But the operation of thought is hardly the same as running a machine that once gets start it just continues its linear movement ahead. Sudden running down, or unexpected counteraction, means its breakage. The work that takes śūnyavāda as its object cannot be the one that works independent of its object. It is looking for and to be looked for at the same time. It is the degree by which he is disturbing Reality, to that equal he is disturbed. Such a kind of work at its commencement is running at will. But to some extent at length it is blinded by its own shadow. Not that the worker is lost to the direction where to proceed but the silence is imposing. Where the silence is swaying its presence, there the śūnyavāda radiates light. Then, one can see it gets a new start, with the perspective of identity, to acknowledge the integrity of knowledge, to seize the visible and invisible in an absolute point. The Contradiction is dissolved, not eliminated, in the Identity. Reality is permanently easy-going. However, the work of that nature is meant to run on and run down at the same time on the very point of its movement.

Just as the soil is to be cleared, if it is meant to be cultivable; even so, the Mādhyamika begins his work as a destroyer. At first, the destruction is pushed forward, reducing anything he meets on the way to nothingness. To the end, what has been destroyed throughout the course by now is identified as nothing than its self. His work can be referred to that of a fire. When what that is to be destroyed has been thoroughly destroyed, the fire itself comes to the state of self-destruction with nothing left.

The simile that has just been mentioned is often used to denote Nirvāna. In this meaning, what should be understood in the following statement of Nāgārjuna? He says, «anirudham anutpannam etan nirvāṇam ucyate»[4] (Nirvāna is that which is neither destroyed nor brought forth.) Here Nirvāna does not signify the end of suffering or the attainment of deliverance. What that arises from itself and disappears into itself is denoted as svabhāva, the Being-in-itself. Such Being exists on no ground, and doctrines that tend to defend it get no firm support. Murti writes:«It is usual to ask of a system of philosophy to give us its views about the ultimate existences…The Mādhyamika philosophy is no system in this sense.»[5] This opinion is one among those that want to justify the Mādhyamika in face of certain doctrines, to which it is attributed. Nihilism is an instant. One may think the justification is far from original. It did take place at least since AryaDeva, successor of the first generation of the Mādyamika in India. That is, it was uttered after the 2nd Century AD. Anyhow, those who pay their enthusiasm toward the Mādhyamika have mentioned it very often, except those who were much reserved for the so-called rigorously objective behavior.

Ever since, the justification became a pivot in the research of the Mādhyamika. Even in recent days, the line remains unbroken. Take the case of Raymond Panikkar made public in the magazine Philosophy East and West. Vol. XVI, num 3-4, 1966, for a good example of the mind frame that a scholar on the Madhyamika’s would have composed. The system needs not to have for itself a target to aim at, for Nāgārjuna never hesitated to state that samsāra and Nirvāna are but identical, or in another manner, dharma is as such as Nivāna.[6] What appears is as such as it disappears. Thus it comes, and thus it goes away: Tathāgata, the Thus-Gone. And reality is as such as it is: yathābhūtam. Hence, in this respective, the Mādhyamika should be considered as a doctrine of criticism in which the end is caught in the very skill of motivating language and thought. In another way of speaking, through the means manipulated by the Mādhyamika, one can make it clear that on launching an attack on a certain system of thought in order to accomplish the significance of negation, it stands not outside the latter. Thought, and system of thought, is by no means refuted by any other than itself. There states not the law of creation and destruction of an entity, but the limits of the means available are as such.

Thought is better revealed when it is transposed into another domain of representation. That is the case of the Mādhyamika. Its influence on Indian thought for a definite lasting period cannot be denied. However, its development on its native soil was confined in a linear space that was getting narrower as time elapsed, getting farther into speculation beyond the realization of the living experience. As it is stated by Nāgārjuna himself, that what is real is active, and what is active is real. When the system was engrossed in speculation, it lost its actual function as a variable in the expression of life. Therefore, a permutation into another position of representation is helpful. Now, the meaning of śūnyatā can be looked for under another light. The encounter of two different traditions of thought as Indian and Chinese one is the best expression of the synthesis of civilization that human had ever performed. Paul Demiéville‘s Preface for J. May’s French translation of Prasannapadā has it that, «It is in China that one comes to see an exuberant accomplishment of this philosophy of śūnyatā.»[7] This accomplishment implies that the doctrine of nothingness, having been transplanted on a new soil for a time, had really emerged from under the soil, fertilized with metaphysical conceptions and negative insights. It was presently growing into nourishment for thought, not simply in the meditative conditions, but actually in the practical life. Truth is delivered in the daily work such as in «carrying water and hauling firewood.» That is the wonderful use of the doctrine of nothingness. That is what Demiéville calls the liberation realized by the śūnyavāda, which is a return to the mundane daily task. Robinson, while dealing with the transmission of Buddhism from India into China in terms of the assimilation of a tradition, came to the similar idea. He says, «…the Chinese Buddhist of around A.D. 400 gave symbolic expression to his religion not only in writings, but in the chant and gesture of his liturgy, in sculpture and painting, in architecture, and in the several disciplinary codes which monasticism and laity observed.»[8]

Accordingly, though we can at any time at will say that the end of the Mādhyamika should only be perceived in its own method of operation; the direction towards it, however, would not be hinted unless the background were rotated. As a matter of fact, Murti had to follow closely to Kant and Hegel so as to aptly delve into a complicated structure of thought which he calls the pivotal system of Buddhism. He compares, «Like Kant in modern European philosophy, the Mādhyamika system brought about a veritable revolution in Buddhist thought.»[9]] Not only in Buddhist thought, but in Indian philosophy as a whole, as he says farther, «The position occupied by the Mādhyamika in India is similar to that of Kant in modern European philosophy.»[10] Robinson is of the same idea. Although he did not agree with Murti’s approach, his work, besides the translation of Chinese texts and the provision of commentaries on them, shows no better way of approaching than having resort to various sources of reference, Bertrand Russell and his mathematical thought for instance.

We have just related the need of transposition as regards the understanding of the Mādhyamika. At least an instance could be taken in this respect. Firstly, the ground on which the transposition is carried out may be varied from theory to practice. It means the movement of thought from a culture to another altogether with various aspects of life, society, language, and tradition. Above all, the historical background is most often looked for. It is so often that the non-historic nature of thought is inclined to be ignored. In India, when a thinker represents his view of Reality in terms of language, he cannot go beyond the limit of time. As Buddha has stipulated it, «There are three bases of discussion: the past, the future and the present.»[11] Nevertheless, to him the ultimate Reality is beyond any expression in terms of time. His utmost effort is to reach the timeless hence ineffable and unthinkable essence of the world, not the world in which he is born and dead in the linear course of time. In the case of a Chinese thinker, his language is not inflected with time and mode of expression, but his way of thinking is always traced with the temporality. The earlier Chinese Buddhist thinkers realized this way on principle. No tenet of the doctrine would be comprehensible, had it not been traced in a certain course of development. The classification of the teachings of Buddha according to time period occupied a crucial point in the effort of understanding the ultimate Truth revealed by Buddha.

There was no exception for the Mādhyamika in China. Here the śūnyatā was not revealed by Buddha once for ever in its perfection. It was developing by and by, in the course of time. Its historicity, however, is not perceived as progressing in a straight line, nor in a meandering way. It does develop, of course. It develops in accordance with the law of revolution. That means it evolves and revolves repeatedly and incessantly. The Book of Change deciphers the code: just as the fire is burning on the top of mountain. It flames and flames ceaselessly. A flame leaps up, making way for another. There is the ever change but no instant move. It is changing and moving in the unchangeable and unmovable. No doubt quotations from Buddhist texts as transmitted in India should be carried out, on account of authenticity and orthodoxy. Materials for such observance are abundant. The whole course of Buddhist history is nothing else than the time of Buddha’s traveling in a great part of India. The Blessed One had used a variety of skilful means to respond to every spiritual capacity that faces the earnest aspiration for deliverance and enlightenment. This is the history, which takes its steps forward in a limited time and space converging on the personality of a Buddha, i.e., the Sakya Muni Buddha. In the infinite world, history is a pilgrim taken as «such going and such coming,» from one Buddha to the other. Because of «such going and such coming,» history implies evolution and revolution, but in reality it is as unmovable as unconditioned space. On a background cultivated with such conception of historicity, almost conflicts in Indian Buddhism upon immigrating to China are likely reconciled. Not that Chinese Buddhism engendered any conflict, but the tendency towards interpenetration among particulars was dominant. Facing this way of composing the history of thought, here we may have it in brief: in which way can the virtuosity of language and thought be reasonably activated without being on guard over the laws of logic? Wisdom in conventional conditions advances only by degrees, not by sudden leap. Accordingly, canonical sources of absolute authority were often cited as support:  it is not easy to understand the allusive speech of Tathāgatas.[12] Why? Because of their quest to attain the perfection of skilful means, insight, knowledge. Quotations of this kind are not intended to support some particular speculation, but they are looked on at times as a warning against the abuse of language and the stray of thought: in the flow of language and thought, everything arises, lasts, and then disappears like a mirage, flash, dream.[13]


Perhaps it is still far from firm ground for us to appreciate the true meaning of śūnyatā that is expected to serve as a melting pot for different traditions, resolving conflicts among different tendencies inside as well as outside Buddhism in China. Anyhow, we just continue forth in our studies. To continue, let’s return to the questions suggested at the very beginning of this essay. Given a systematical concern, two are as follows:

  1. What is the Śūnyavāda, i.e., the doctrine of nothingness?
  2. What truth did Nāgārjuna intend to reveal by means of Śūnyavāda?

The question requires a definitive answer. May it be affirmative or negative, the knowledge of object in the answer has to be defined, i.e., finite, in a narrow scope. Consequently, lest one advanced into an impasse, the effort is focused on the second question, with hope of catching the end of the Mādhyamika by means of its own skilful means. In this effort, the antinominality and contradiction of the very essence of language and thought is expected the most. Hereafter the final step to be reached seems the point where Nāgārjuna delineates as the breakdown of expression in words and stoppage of thinking.[14] This is the common idea of all Mahāyānists, not of Nāgārjuna in particular. However, since Nāgārjuna onwards, it seems to presume that later the Vijñānavādins of Mahāyāna feeling a loose ground under feet unless the śūnyatā, the basis of Mahāyāna doctrine, would have been defined, were trying to establish a rational, effective structure of logic. What kind of logic, however, didn’t matter, less it would be working in accordance with the laws of a conventional way of thinking, only if the worldly mind could be helped in penetrating the very core of Buddha’s teaching whereas he may start the Holy Path with the Right View. In other words, what had been passed over to their hands should have been rearranged into the most coherent order. Let’s not venture to make a hasty expression when one has it that, saṃsāra and Nirvāna, karma and rebirth, all in the Vijñāvādins’ mind are rational corroborations of logic, though being far from real in essence. The expression is prone to be taken as hasty. For, in the case of Xuanzang, in spite of his extending knowledge of Mahāyāna, being well vexed in Sanskrit and a brilliant figure of Yogacāra system both in India and China in his time, his endowment of logic, as surprisingly discovered by Nakamura,[15] is incomplete. Nevertheless, here we have our own reason for inquiring the fact. To the first place, what Asaṅga names as «representation of the known,» (jñeya-lakṣaṇa), is the Store-Consciousness (Ālaya-vijñāṇa), in which the seeds (bīja) for the generation and degeneration of the world are accumulated and stored up. In this store, those seeds are accumulated and perfumed, sown and disseminated. They are grown up to yield fruit when conditions are favorable. It is the ontological, and psychological, in fact, ground of the law of causality that implies seed or cause, conditions or environment, and fruit or effect. And in Sanskrit, the science of logic is named as the knowledge or science of causality (hetu-vidyā). As a matter of fact, the importance is stressed on the causality as the source of all possible knowledge, hence the structure of logic.

Secondly, to the last stage of Vijñānavāda School, with the Dharmikīrti’s statement, the psychological versus ontological background of knowledge is decided. Dharmakīrti begins his logical treaty with saying, «All successful human action is preceded by right knowledge.»[16] What means the right knowledge?  He says later, «Right knowledge is twofold. Direct and indirect.»[17] The first is direct cognition, the knowledge acquired by intuitive perception (pratyakṣa). It displays the movement of Consciousness and psychological functions. The second is gained after the process of inference (anumāṇa). After Digna had drawn from the store of Vijñānavāda the so called stable source for rationality of knowledge, the firm ground of logic, since then, around the sixth century onward, Indian Mahāyāna seemed to have no other inspiring way to follow than to studying logic.


In progressing towards an ultimate end that is delineated as «where the expression in words fails, the activity of mind stops. Reality does not arise nor extinct. Thing is as such as Nirvāṇa,»[18] there are two conventional truths to be surpassed: that of words, and of mind. These truths would be treated with the method of critical analysis. Nevertheless, its efficiency is too futile. For in the process of analysis only one of two alternatives is expected to come out: either existence (sadbhūta) or non-existence (asadbhūta). Concerning the relation of agent (kāra) and its action (karma), neither alternative is accepted. Nāgārjuna says, «If a non-existent agent were to perform a non-existent action, the action would be without a cause, and the agent too would be without a cause.»[19]

When performing an analysis, in order to keep consistent the analyzed, without making them confusing and dispersed, we should retain the relationship among them. That means we should observe their existence in such a way that their essence is kept untouched. The method is dealt with by Vasubandhu in Kośa, as recapitulating an extending discussion of Vaibhāṣika on the matter.[20] In this method of analysis, the relationship could be found only in the realm of mundane wisdom (laukika-jñāna), had we intended to get an insight into the ultimate end as «it is as such as Nirvāna.» Before asserting whether we had better opt for such an ultimate end or not, except for the method of analysis just mentioned, we hardly anticipate what would be in hand to sway with. In the case of using śūnyavāda as a method of searching for the true essence of existence, we never forget repeating a warning from Nāgārjuna: «A wrongly perceived emptiness ruins a person of meager intelligence. It is like a snake that is wrongly grasped or knowledge that is wrongly cultivated.»[21]

To begin with, let’s quote the first stance of Mādhyamaka-kārikā:

na svato nāpi parato
na dvābhyāṃ nāpi ahetu/
utpannā jātu vidyante
bhāvāḥ kvacana ke cana. MK.I.1

Not  whatsoever existent is found in anywhere arising from its own,  and from other, from both or from a non-cause.

This fourfold negation, typical of the fourfold value logic, was well known to the earlier Buddhist. It is the scheme in which fourteen questions concerning the existence of world and soul are grouped. These questions are classified as undetermined hence unanswerable (avyākṛta). Vasubandhu gave it the simile, to give any answer to these questions is the same as to the question whether the hair of the tortoise is hard or smooth.

Setting aside the contents of the above fourfold negation, we focus on its formal structure, at first with the logical consequence, then its establishment, finally the essence of negation.

1. The logical consequence of which value and limit could be measured is required to be the one of praxis. It refers to the causal relation of consciousness in the course of continuum. The method of analysis can be carried out on this basis. At the beginning, only when it was realized in the movement of consciousness, would it then be expected not to be trapped in confusion and incoherence. At this starting point, two principles should be held firm: analogy and continuance. By continuance, things appear and disappear consecutively. They are perceived in this respect as separate and independent existences. There would be nothing arising, lasting and vanishing, if it did not exist separated from each other.

So analyzing, in a considerable narrow limit of existence, one can evaluate the reasonability and logical consequence of the fourfold structure. This way of analyzing, however, is merely performing on a superfluous level; what is obtained is too meager. The reasonability and logical consequence of the fourfold structure, which is evaluated by means of referring to the mode of consciousness in its movement, were practical only when it could be said that the structure of language and thought is but one. In case of being able to say so, words cease to be an instrument for thought. They utter nothing meaningful but the spell of nihil, thence, thought is also a continuum of nihil. For one should rely on the coherence of language so as to get the orderly disposition of thought. In reverse, words have to take their origin from thought whereby they are apt to imply the contents of thought. Accordingly, the logical consequence is recognized.

Instead of obtaining something of praxis, very often in reasoning with analysis, one comes to pick a consequence of nihil. No doubt this consequence of nihil is but an assumption. Logical consequence and nihil are the concepts that go against one another. If they were bound to be unified, they begot the concept of self-contradiction. Wherein, what is looked for still remains beyond the reach. If we want to push analysis to the end, we can draw from it only two conclusions: either existence or non-existence as having been seen already.

Nevertheless, in the beginning of speculative tendencies in Buddhism, the method of analysis was appreciated to be helpful in developing the perspicacity of mentality so as to have insight into Reality. Vasubandhu recapitulated the tenet of the Vaibhāṣika in the very beginning of his Abhidharmakośa: dharmāṇāṃ pravicayam antareṇa nāsti kleśānāṃ yata upaśāntayebhyupāyaḥ, «Without the discernment of dharma, there is no other better skilful means for the extinction of defilement.» The «discernment of dharma» stated here is assigned to the immaculate wisdom.

Seeing that the method of analysis when going under the criticism of śūnyavāda is found to be so negative as to be trapped in the situation of self-destruction, the Vijñānavādins came to establish the relationship of cause and effect on the phenomenal ground which holds to the conventional truth, whereby the analysis shows its helpfulness. Consequently, on the standpoint of the absolute view (paramārtha-satya), the essence of existence is non-being. In the phenomenal view (saṃvṛti-satya), it is being. It is being because there is the activity of the consciousness-mind. That is the standpoint of the Vijñānavāda. Henceforth, it is recommended to accept what is acquired by the analysis and rely on this to develop the insight of wisdom. When the development reaches its fullness, the discernment by words and symbol (nāma-lakṣaṇa) could be overcome so as to intuitionally experience the Reality that transcends fourfold alternative, which the Laṅkāvatāra names as the self-realization of the Holy Wisdom (ārya-praptyātma-jñāna-gati).  Setting aside the doctrinal conflicts among the Mahāyānists, between the Mādyamikas and Vijñāvādins, we are apt to deal with the world view shared by almost Mahāyānists as stated by Laṅkāvatāra, «The world, which is not grasped by you (Buddha) with Wisdom and Compassion as being or non-being, is deprived of arising and disappearing like flowers in the air.»[22]

2. We are endowed with much sophisticated procedure of speculation. Among which, that of nearly dictating authority is the dictum «as expressed by reality.» The main effort is doing the best to make reality speak for itself, to make it reveal its innermost truth. Formally, this is the procedure of reasoning observed by the Abhidharmika speculation. In this kind of speculation, each entity takes place in order in the process of analysis. They always appear in a fixed position. Being situated in a fixed position, thing is perceived not in confusion and disorder. Take for example a classical simile used most often by the Abhidharmika, the simile of wood-fuel. In term of the function assigned to in certain fixed position, wood is conceived as fuel, otherwise it may be a stick or a post of a fence. A fixed position means the functional relationship in the coordination of time and space. On account of this functional relationship, say, the relation of wood and fire in a given time and space, we reach the reality of burning. If the analysis were carried out in conformity with the movement of consciousness, the reality would reveal the existence of a self, which is enjoying the world. The evidence of the self thus perceived leads to the resolution of contradictions inherent in every concept, whereby the law of Identity is formed: what is is, what is not is not. Accordingly, in one hand, the self-functions as a factor of individualization, and in the other hand, it is the basis to put together all the differences into a unity. But Nāgārjuna criticizes any attempt to rely on the conception of the existence of a self, which is but the illusion of the continuum of consciousness, as a source for knowledge of the world. He says, «Those who posit the substantiality of the self as well as of discrete existents – these do not consider to be experts in the meaning if the [Buddha’s] message.»[23]


The empirical consciousness perceives the external world in its diversity. What it seizes is appearing then disappearing instantly. Nothing lasts for two moments (kṣanika). The rise and fall take place successively. The fall of the antecedent gives way to the rise of the subsequent. This engenders the notion of causality, the relationship of cause and effect. Cause and effect are different, separated by two different divisions of time. To perform its task, cause needs the motion hence must last at least for two moments. But there is nothing of the kind in reality. Vasubandhu refutes the notion of motion in his Abhidharmakośa (Chap.iv). The conditioned (saṃskṛta) exists by no means beyond the moment it acquires its being. Where it rises, there it falls immediately, hic et nun.[24] The defiled consciousness is a fertilizable soil. Due to its nature of craving, consciousness retains what has once taken place, conceptualizes it as Becoming. The concept of Becoming implies the notion of lasting. Consequently, what was in the past, and is at present, is a unity. Thus the law of Identity is suggested.

With regard to the notion of continuum, it is recommendable to hear Nāgārjuna. He says, «When things are not arisen [from conditions], cessation is not appropriate. When [a thing has] ceased, what is [it that serves as] condition? Therefore, an immediate condition is not proper.»[25]

Moreover, the motion cannot be perceived without the assistance of the notion of identity and difference. It implies an agent and the act of moving. There exists no motion known as moving by itself. In this respect, Nāgārjuna says, «The view that movement is identical with the mover is not proper. The view that the mover is different from motion is also not proper.»[26] However, if the notion of identity and difference were not established, in which way could knowledge work? Nāgārjuna says, «Whose establishment is not evident either through identity or through difference, how is their establishment evident at all.»[27]

To establish the relation between cause and effect, one must presuppose the existence of two separate entities. Then, they come into contact and cooperate to produce an outcome. In the empirical knowledge, no third entity was expected to come out. Take for instance the relation of wood and fire. The burning is taken as their cooperation. But, may the burning be a third entity, which exists independent of wood and fire?

Evidently wood and fire are two separate entities, independent of each other by substance, and dependent on each other only in function. Similarly, before a statement is formed, there existed already two separate words, each implying an independent existence, none more real than other. Which of either would be determined as subject, the rest would be predicate, that depends on the intentionality of consciousness. People can say, «Wood is producing fire,» or «Fire is burning wood.» Which were chosen to be subject, it had to subsist in its identity. Wood may be called fuel as it serves as a burning element. In this respect, it displays beneficial aspect. This aspect would cease to be when it was used as a scaring stick, ready to attack. In either case, the identity of wood is unchanged. Only its function is. That was the argument of the Sarvāstivādins, who hold the view that everything exists as real.

On this presupposition, the relation of cause and effect is that of mutual establishment (apekṣya siddhi), in which the one establishes the existence of the other. Each entity is assigned to a function sharing in a common course of action. Nevertheless, mutual establishment is tantamount to duplicated establishment (siddhasya sādhanam).[28] That commits a tautology.

With regard to the form of reasoning, when entities were nominalized and designated with function, they should be disposed into the course in conformity with the order of causality, in order to have every hypothesis effective in its expression. In doing so, it is possible to have a precognition that each entity takes place as a diversity but comes to function in a shared world. Carrying on from such a precognition to the establishment of the relation in the mutual establishment of independent separated entities, one comes to find out that lots of conditions had to be changed from precognizing to establishing, but only the nominal designation was obtained. Hypothesis then turns out to be useless, for it commits the fault of tautology in formal logic.

Concerning this fault, Mādhyamaka-śāstra states as follows: «If it were neccessary to presuppose the exixstence of fuel and fire as different entities, then the notion of fuel and fire were the establishment of the established.»[29]

To say in brief, when relying on Identity and Diversity, there are four aspects of relation between subject and its predicate, that is, between the independent entities and their function. In the other way, these fours aspects are also four alternatives of the fourfold value logic. Firstly, relation in single alternative: 1. S is P, «There is the other world» (atthi paro loko). Secondly, in single negative, 2. S is not P, «There is not the other world» (natthi paro loko). Thirdly, double affirmative, 3. S is P and is not P, there is and is not the other world» (atthi ca natthi ca paro loko). Finally, double negative, 4. S neither is nor is not P, «There neither is nor is not the other world» (n’ev’atthi na atthi paro loko). All the four are thoroughly refuted. Their negation is vulnerable to leading nihilism. The Mādyamika needs not to be justified against this sort of nihilism, for there is a strict limit of empirical knowledge. Striving  to reach beyond this limit, consciousness confronted with nihil.


Far from being nihilism, the Mādhyamika in fact holds nothing for its own and offers none for other as a definition of the world or ultimate Reality. Nāgārjuna appears to attempt to eliminate false view on the Buddha’ s teaching, using the śūnyavāda as a skilful means.  In replying to an accusation against his śūnyatā, he retort, «If all this is non-empty (non-śūnya), there exists neither arising nor ceasing. [As such,] through relinquishing and ceasing of what does one expect freedom?»[30] In such a way, nothing in what that was taught by Buddha is not denied. So is Tathāgata, and Nirvāna. Nonetheless, it is a warning against the conception of Tathāgata as a Supreme Self, an Ultimate Reality, or any epithet that human imagination would work out. For, Nāgārjuna says, «If there exists no self-nature, how could there be other-nature? Without both self-nature and other-nature, who is this Tathāgata?» Farther more, with regard to Nrvāna, the supposed ultimate goal of Buddhism, he says, in two successive stanzas: «When all things are empty, why [speculate on] the finite, the infinite, both the finite and the infinite and neither finite nor infinite? Why [speculate on] the identical, the different, the eternal, the non-eternal, both or neither?»

In order to gain a better understanding of the refutations just quoted above, it is recommended here to have a look at the four methods of negation often encountered throughout the Mādhyamika.

1. Regression to infinity.

This is the introductory method of negation, the most basic and most decisive as well as a means in acquiring a knowledge of the śūnyavāda. The criticism in this method of negation is the core of Vigrahavyavartani, a short treaty of Nāgārjuna dedicated to resolve the supposed self-contradictions found in the principal statement of the śūnyavāda: śūnyāḥ sarvabhāvāḥ, «all things are void.» The self-contradiction inherent in this statement is exposed as follows: «If intrinsic nature (svabhāva) of the things (bhāva), whatever they may be, exists nowhere (sarvatra na vidyate), your [very] statement must be devoid of an intrinsic nature (asvabhāva). It is not, therefore, in a position to deny the intrinsic nature [of the things].»[31]

In other words, any proposition of value truth must have its evidence from the sense perception (pratyakṣa). But, in its turn, from what does the sense perception have as its evidence? Obviously, the sense perception requires another evidence so as to be recognized as true.  And in its turn, this evidence of the second degree requires another evidence. Thus the regression leads to infinity. To reach the infinity means, within the empirical knowledge, to reach nowhere. By nature of such argument, no counter-proposition is proved to be rational enough to disprove any statement of śūnyavāda.

2. Relativity

By means of regression to infinity, one examines the self-contradiction of rationality. Accordingly, when the śūnyavāda is introduced into the philosophical speculation in the West, very often it is compared to dialectic, the Hegelian one in particular. In the East, the self-contradiction of rationality is used as a skilful means to transcend the empirical knowledge, which is, by its nature, detained with defilements, hence prone to distort the world to fit its exigency. Mental activity and expression in words and symbol are the footing ground of empirical knowledge. To undermine this footing ground, the reality perceived by mental activity and expressed in words and symbol should be refuted as irrational. Nāgārjuna says, «The Buddha has transcended speculation. Those who do speculation on the Buddha see not Tathāgata.»[32]

In the study of the śūnyavāda in China, the notion of relativity was much preferred to that of self-contradiction. But, the word «relativity» mentioned here is far from exact. Its original Sanskrit is āpekṣika, which means «looking for each other,» or in another way, «referring to each other.» In this respect, we suggest two interpretations.

The first interpretation: «It is, because it is not.» The entire statement may be thought as self-contradictory, for its first half negates the second. In the view of the Mādhyamika, it is not advisable to find from it anything of self-contradiction, instead of mutual reference. Accordingly, the mention of «being» should have a reference to «non-being.»

This interpretation is inspired with a stanza in the Mādyamaka, XXIV: sarvaṃ ca yujyate tasya śūnyatā yasya yujyate/ sarvaṃ na yujyate tasya śūnyatā yasya na yujyate. On this stanza we have at least three translations with slight differences:

  1. Kumarajīva had it in Chinese: «Because there is the meaning of śūnya, all dharma is established. If there were no śūnya, no dharma would be established.»
  2. Murti, inThe Central Philosophy: «All is concord indeed for him who to śūnyatā conforms. All is not concord for him who conforms not to śūnyatā.»
  3. Jacques May, in French translation ofPrasannapadā: «Si la vacuité est logique, tout est logique; si elle est absurde, tout est absourde.»

Taken with Murti’s translation, the śūnyatā is considered as the ground for a synthesis of various philosophical systems. He thought it to be strange.[33]

Relying on J. May’s translation, the śūnyatā is the source of every logic.

But, with Kumarajīva’s Chinese translation, it refers to an ontological establishment of Reality. For, the original Sanskrit yujyate, which is rendered by Murti as «to be concord, to conform,” and J.May as «to be logic» and its negative as «to be absurd,»  is a terminological word, found very often in most Buddhist philosophical texts. Kumarajīva gave it the Chinese equivalent «cheng,» which means «to accomplish» or « to achieve.» In this context, we rendered it as «to establish.» We understand it as the establishment of being and non-being. To obtain this establishment, one should say «Being could not be being.» Or more exactly, but self-contradictorily, «the is is not.» Moreover, identified with other, still «Being could not be being.» However, Being could be established when referred to other in functional relation.

As a corroboration, because of relativity, because of being deprived of self-existence, Being could not be established from Non-being. Nonetheless, the mutual reference of Being and Non-being would reveal the original source of all Being and Non-being. Because two are One, and the original source of this One is śūnyatā, the nothingness of Being and Non-being. With this development, an establishment of all establishments is revealed, that is the establishment of the Unspeakable, Inexpressible, and the Silence.

To sum up, what is śūnyatā? It is the source of all the establishment. What is established, is being. Then, a conclusion can be drawn out that śūnyatā is the Absolute Emptiness but the Wonderful Fullness. The Empty Non-being is rather tranquil, soundless, while the Full Being is wonderful, seen as unseen.

The second interpretation: «Being is One because it is All.» This statement is inspired with the stanza in MK. XXIV. 18: yaḥ pratītyasamutpādaḥ śūnyataṃ pracakṣmahe; yā prajñaptir upādāya pratipat saiva madhyamā.»[34] We render it after the Chinese translation of Kumarajīva «to dharma produced by conditions, I say, it is empty; it is also nominal, and it is the meaning of the middle path as well.»[35]

Following the context, we understand that the stanza is displaying the movements of dialectic. Being is the establishment of the One, but it is not self-existent because it is All. Henceforth, when the One is arising, simultaneously the All is arising. When the One is disappearing, the All is disappearing. Consequently, śūnyatā is the original source of the universal world of the particular activities.

Both interpretations speak of the establishment. By which we have: the establishment of language, of activity, of Silence and the Supreme Tranquility (Nirvāna).

However, because all the establishment just mentioned is obtained in the way of developing the mutual reference, it is still far from the ultimate end of the śūnyavāda.

3. Tautology

It is advisable to reconsider the last value of the establishment with the mutual reference. Formerly, relying on the mutual reference, all the establishment seems to be acknowledged as expected. But the typical interpretations make it obviously known that only a rational conclusion for what has been already established is looked for. In the way of activating language, the notion of Identity and Diversity is always used. The use of Identity must start with Diversity, and vice versa. Now that Identity and Diversity have been already established, it is seen that Identity in Identity is tantamount to Diversity; and Diversity in Diversity is tantamount to Identity. They are different from each other only in form without a content. Accordingly, there are only two ways to follow, starting from Identity to Identity, or from Diversity to Diversity. Consequently, every interpretation relying on developing relativity, opposition, contradiction, is meaningless, due to the duplicated establishment.

4. Self-realization

Finally, probably there is left only one way of expressing, though rather unconceivable but also much rational. That means to say, «It is as such just as it is. When every effort to justify the rationality or irrationality of a standpoint is bound to fail, one has to make another effort to make things self-represent. Just like a lamp shines onto others at the same time it shines even itself. This would inspire the thought that, with the principle of self-realization, every standpoint of speculation is exposed to uselessness. However, if returning to the scratch, from regression, then relativity and tautology, self-realization fails as well. Take it for instance, as we recapitulate the principle of relativity. The function of shining of a lamp is destroying the dark. Nāgārjuna says, «If light were to illuminate both itself and others, then certainly darkness too will conceal itself and others.»[36]

We have just moved through fours ways of reduction. What we want to see, and have indeed seen, is the critical energy of śūnyavā in its charge of treating the truth revealed in words and experienced in mind. However, to the end, those ways did not lead to anywhere of interpreting the true meaning of śūnyavāda. In fact, nothing is more expected than that. For, within the realm of empirical knowledge, the negation of śūnyavāda has displayed its best effectiveness. It is like a flame, after having burned down everything, it leaves behind nothing. Nāgārjuna says, «The Buddha did not teach the appeasement of all objects, the appeasement of obsession, and the auspicious as something to some one at some place.»[37]


«Because the nature of existence is as such:  no doer, no accomplisher. The Thus-Gone is as such.»[38]

An existent exists only in its own reality. In reality, or within the limit of «the real is as it is,» the existent is not produced from itself, nor from the other: it is nothingness, because it is not produced at all.[39]] Always, we want things to be as they are, as such and as such. Unfortunately, the reverse of it is expected, particularly within the limit of individual life. In which, the Suchness is deduced to the reality of a Self changing in the unchanged, identical in the Diversity, diverse in the Identity: for we want to step forward by regressing. The particular goes against the particular: for we want to reach the ultimate end with the relativity. Anyhow, we know that those means we have used to establish our own reality are appearing from the śūnyatā, referred to śūnyatā. That means to say, we want to start with the destruction and reach the end also with the destruction. Moving within the unmoved, we hope to get an order on the disordered ground. That is trying to find out everything rational in the destruction.

In the universal tradition of Mahāyāna, in India as well in China, the destruction and establishment are embodied in two Bodhisattvas: Mañjuśrī riding on the lion and Samantabhadra riding on the elephant. The former is the personality of Great Wisdom, for the use of Wisdom is destroying, like diamante destroying everything. The latter is the personality of Great Deed, the effect of which is to establish everything from nothing.

The voice of Great Wisdom is that of lion. When lion is roaring, all the buds are vibrated. It is the seed of enlightenment that begins to merge from under ground, so as to sprout to sooth, and then leaves, and then flowers.

The track of Great Deed is that of elephant. On the way back home of elephant, all the fallen and withered flowers begin to regain their pristine rose.

Just as we know distinctly by which means we could seize the destruction just in the very course of life, but were are reluctant to realize it so as to understand more clearly what is destruction; so we know several means of destroying by śūnyavāda but we never use them. We don’t ask «What is the śūnyavāda?» not because it is an inexpressible, unthinkable end. Nonetheless, we need analyzing, and the order of analysis.

[1] Louis de la Vallee-Poussin, The Way to Nirvana, cited by K.N.Jayatilike in Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, George Allen, London, 1963, p.333.

[2] Tscherbatsky, The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana, Mouton (second edition), 1965.

[3] R.Robinson, Early Mādhyamika in India and China, Madison, 1967, p.3.

[4] Mādhyamakakārika, xxv,3.

[5] The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, George Allen, 1960, p.209.

[6] Nāgārjuna, The Great Wisdom, Taisho I, p. 61b11.

[7] Jacques May, Prasannapadā Madhyamakavṛtti, douze chapitres traduits du sanskrit et du tibétain. Paris, Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1959,  «Préface» p.ii-iii.

[8] Op.cit., p.15.

[9] The Central Philosophy, p.5.

[10] Op.cit., p. 123.

[11] Saṅgīti-suttanta, Dīgha-Nikāya,  iii .p.220.

[12] durvijñeyaṃ śāriputra saṃdhābhāṣyaṃ tathāgatānaṃ…, Saddharmapuṇḍarika.

[13] yathā mayā yathā svapno ghandharvanagaraṃ yathā/ tathotpādas tathā sthānaṃ tathā bhaṅga udāhṛtaḥ. Mādhyanakakārikā, vii.34. Cf. The commentaries of The Central Philosophy, p.177.

[14] The Great Wisdom.Taisho I, p. 61b11.

[15] Ways of Thinking of Eastern People; East-West Center Press, 1964, p.192.

[16] Cf. Stcherbatsky, Buddhist Logic, Dove (2nd edition), New York, 1962, vol. i,p.59; vol.ii. (English translation of Nyāya-bindu), p.1.

[17] Op.cit., p. 12.

[18] The Great Wisdom, ibid.

[19] Kārikā viii.3. translated by D. Kalupahana, p. 182. Cf. Taisho No 1564 & 1566; J.May, Prasannapadā, p. 144

[20] Kośa-kārikā 18; Cf. Poussin, Kośa , French translation, vol.i.p.33

[21] Kārikā xxiv.11;  op.cit., p. 333.

[22] utpādabhaṅgarahito lokaḥ khapuṣpasaṃnibhaḥ/ sadasannopalabdhas te prajñayā kṛpayā ca te; Saddharmalaṅkāvatārasūtram, edited by Dr. P.L.Vaidya, The Mithila Institut, Darbhanga, 1963., p. 10. Cf. Chinese translations: of Gunabhadra, Taisho 670, p. 480a.; Bodhiruci, Taisho 671, p. 519a8; śikṣanānda, isho 672, p. 590b29.

[23] MK. X.16; translated by Kalupahana; op.cit. p.205.

[24] Kośa, Ch.iv. Taisho XXIX, p.67c11ff.

[25] MK.I.9, trans. by Kalupahana.

[26] MK. II. 18; op.cit.

[27] MK. I. 21; op. cit.

[28] If fire were to be contingent upon fuel, there would be proof of fiire that is already proved [to exist]. When that is the case, even fuel would exist without fire. MK. X. 9, Cf. trans. by Kalupahana, op.cit.

[29] Yadīndhanam apekṣyāgnir agneḥ siddhasya sādhanaṃ/ evaṃ stīndhanaṃ cāpi bhaviṣyati niragnikaṃ. MK. X. 9, Cf. trans. by Kalupahana, op.cit.

[30] MK. XXV. 2, trans. by Kalupahana, op.cit.

[31] Trans. by K. Bhattacharya, p.

[32] MK. XXII. 15.

[33] He says, indeed, «Strange as it may appear, the Mādhyamika śūnyatā (Absolute) an serve as the basis for a synthesis of philosophical systems.» The Central, p. 336.

[34] Cf. Murti, op.cit. p. 8; J. May, op.cit, p. 237.

[35] Compared to Kaluhana’s English translation, op.cit.,p.339: «We state that whatever is dependent arising, that is emptiness. That is dependent upon convention. That itself is the middle path.»

[36] MK. VII. 12; Trans. by Kalupahana, op.cit., p. 166.

[37] MK. XXV. 14. trans. by Kalupahana, op,cit. p. 369.

[38] The Avatamsaka, Chinese translation, Taisho vol. ix, p. 612c.

[39] Ibid., p. 614c.

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