Seeking Emptiness


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Caution: This essay expects a basic foundation and understanding of Buddhist doctrine. I am arguing a particular point and it should not be used to judge Buddhism negatively (despite its findings). To understand the works of Nagarjuna is to realize that there is really no problem other than the problem with our tools of communication, and we, the people, who serve to reinforce these value systems. It is here where our worlds reside and here where the true judgment (a value based decision on its own) might be placed. I strongly welcome any comments you might have. Please send them to Of course, enjoy and take care!

The Task of Seeking Emptiness
An Empty Goal
By: Paul MacKenzie

"The different kinds of suffering that beings experience in the hell realms, as beasts, and as ghosts result from causing beings pain."(Lindtner P59#79)

If I want to be reborn as an elephant must I hurt my next door neighbour? If I want my burning continuity to become a 'beast' must I then cause suffering to others? This question flowed within me over the past few months as a caustic acid that has been wearing away at my affinity towards the Buddhist philosophy. In effect, I became caught within the words and the implications they had for me as a caring being. Searching through a number of different books dealing with compassion in Buddhism, I found I sadly became stuck at the issue of rebirth. I was stuck in every sense; entangled within my own expectations. I saw a structure that seemed in my mind at odds with the spirit of compassion for all beings and fought it. The reason for my dilemma is the necessity for their being a hierarchy of beings built into the terminology and structure accompanied with the concept of rebirth; a hierarchy that breaks down the different beings into value judgements of importance based on our own conventional appreciation of particular traits. It is no surprise that breaking things down into categories is a useful tool within our society. Also, it is not shocking that most people "assume" we, as humans, are better than all other animals in the world. Therefore, it would be a backward step in the goal of attaining Nirvana to become an animal or beast in my next life; a sign that I had accumulated bad karma and as a consequence would suffer as a "lower" being: "Proper ethics give rise to the great fortune of possessing a human or divine body rather than the body of an animal"(Hopkins P.23). Ironically, we are animals! What could we possibly know about the lives of other beings? It seems as though we are so caught within the filter of our own importance, our sensory organs, the limitations of our symbol system and our thinking to even realize that, as beings on this earth, we have evolved to the same degree as other animals within our respective environments. The idea that we are at the pinnacle of an evolutionary tree is not just wrong, but frighteningly revealing of our own inner nature. What is even more scary is the perspective of those people still caught within a 'top-down' view of creation; so perfectly revealed by John Locke's philosophical meanderings on the necessity of an intelligent 'creator' to have made the world the way it is in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

"If, then, there must be something eternal, let us see what sort of Being it must be. And to that it is very obvious to Reason, that it must necessarily be a cogitative Being. For it is impossible to conceive that ever bare incogitative Matter should produce a thinking intelligent Being, as that nothing should of itself produce Matter…" (Dennett P.26)

A glimmer of hope seems to sparkle within the teachings of Nagarjuna that can not directly be applied with the top-down worldview that has dominated human culture for seemingly thousands of years.

Generally, I could not quite reconcile the fact that Buddhism seems to profess compassion and loving-kindness for all living beings yet it appears to strongly reinforce a historical structure of domination; a moral vault shutting out the 'other' and revealing our self-centred belief in how the world revolves. Basically, I became blinded by the glittering sea of convention which Rebirth and Karma seem immersed in: a sea so deep I was unable to find any edges to grasp. First, the idea that Nirvana is something to be attained seems to be just another form of strong grasping after the permanent; a grasping for that which does not change. It is not surprising a diamond--considered the most permanent and strongest piece of matter existing—is the most valuable gemstone in the world. Second, the belief that we are actually better than all other animals seems an impairment for boundless compassion. Finally, in the face of emptiness, the belief we are only connected to other 'beasts' because in past lives we have lived every possible existence seems just another limitation. The problem I could not look beyond was if you get rid of rebirth then in Buddhism it seems you are just left with a suspect conventional dichotomy that would not be very akin to understanding and compassion. This would maintain the segmentation of life into their respective boxes based on our own landscape of judgement. Within a world separated into Nirvana and Samsara by getting rid of the glue that holds life into a web of connection seems to destroy the possibility for any real basis for compassion. However, despite this structure that supports Buddhism--aiding those that need guidance--creating a reason for moral action based on Buddhism's own form of 'judgement day'--it seems as if Nagarjuna's philosophy does not fit into this pattern. The reflection of Nagarjuna's words left me with a taste of a freedom; a taste that was free from all of the structure that accompanies so many philosophies and religions of this world; a freedom from both the idea of born and unborn and from the segmentation of life into boxes of convenience; a freedom that reconciled the separation of the ugly and the beautiful. This is in part obtained because Nagarjuna casts away the chains of absolute distinction liberating the justification for a moral sphere in which 'we', sometimes only white hominids, can reside. But, in some way I knew that Nagarjuna's philosophy did allow for the design of convention, because it proclaims that reality is all of this. But, what is the 'this'? How much of 'this' is a matter of creating itself on top of the foundation of our value system? And, in another way I knew Nagarjuna's philosophy could fit everywhere. This is my impairment. But, it depends on whether you are conventionally speaking about the ultimate, or conventionally speaking about convention. This confusing distinction is necessary to understand in order to be able to sort out a great deal of Nagarjuna's arguments. Lastly, it is vital to ask at what point does the conventional approximation to the ultimate cause more harm than good?

A few weeks back I attended a talk on the Four Noble Truths by a Buddhist monk. I found myself watching the interaction between the different people in the audience and the monk that was sharing his thoughts on this 'important' subject matter. The intriguing part was to try to intuitively understand a particular person in some small degree based on the questions and language that he or she used. In effect, I was forming a 'somewhat' complete understanding of what 'drives' individual people; a judgement that in my mind seemed real and permanent. In this particular situation there was a man that did not understand Buddhism very well. He became stuck on the fact that in his opinion, Nibbana, which described as ceasing was not a good answer to the ultimate. "Why would anyone want to seek the end of everything?"  he asked. I was particularly interested in the fact that based on this man's goal – which was obviously to find some sort of completeness in Buddhism – he was unable to look beyond the 'assumed' end result. The man at this talk was blinded by a goal-oriented approach that rationally ended the pursuit of a particular action if the result was at odds with what was desired. I immediately thought of a passage in the Chuang Tzu, discussing the possibility of people being blinded based on their actions, thoughts, and understanding: "And blindness and deafness are not confined to the body alone - the understanding has them too..."(Watson P33) It seems as if the closing of our minds and the tightening of tunnel vision are, in part, a result of forming a particular goal and grasping after it. We, as people, are blinded by the heuristics we use to structure our information into accessible boxes. I, too, was in some way blinded in both my assessment and my own valuation of the 'judgement day', but it took me several weeks to realize and sort out why. I found the muddied waters of my mind seemed to become a little clearer by contemplating the approach that Nagarjuna 'takes' in the definition of convention and ultimate. A simplicity in dealing with the world that appears by first glance to be the only possible answer that can not be refuted within our world of contrast, distinction and symbols: "Just as [things] arising from causes and conditions are handed down as composite, O Protector, You have said that the entire conditionally born [world exists only] by convention."(P15#6)

Nagarjuna reveals that, in effect, all talk is conventional. Ironically, even Nagarjuna's philosophy is simply conventional talk on the ultimate: "Therefore You have said that phenomena are beyond the four categories. They are not knowable to consciousness, much less within the sphere of words."(P19#23) It is clearly evident Nagarjuna creates a vision of the world, which is not different from the 'now'. But, he craftily reconciles our inability to describe phenomena such as origination, dichotomy, and our connection with each other. In revealing that there is ultimately no separation between phenomena in the world, Nagarjuna gives people the key to reconciling the problems of hatred, racism, and cruelty. To accomplish his 'goal', Nagarjuna focuses on origination. We as people limited by our tools of reason and logic are closed within a prison of convention, making it seem impossible to reconcile the difference between dichotomy created. The 'key' example used is that of a seed and a sprout. The argument is very simple and its implication is clearly far reaching. What happens is that when we form boxes in our minds to represent the sprout and the seed, we 'permanentalize' the two objects and make the interaction between them completely impossible. Or, at least within our own minds. A worthwhile exercise in mindfulness is to pay attention to the point of reference taken with regards to objects of the mind. In 'experiencing' the impact this has on our awareness, it is clear our reference has a determining factor in establishing what we call 'the world'. A good example of this is to consider the impact on a sailor's life in finding out that, contrary to Biblical misinterpretation of scripture, the world is not a flat landscape he can fall off of. It is incredible to consider the shift in the focus of fear, which would take place in that individual. The entire foundation of a particular fear and map of belief taken as generally 'known' was over time revealed to be incorrect. And, to look at all of 'this' and say it is all 'convention' is very misleading. Thus, the point of reference we take in our minds has a huge impact on our experience. This is especially the case when we deal with objects. To look at a table as one whole object versus looking at its composition has a large influence on the way we categorize it in our minds. Nagarjuna wisely realized the limitations of words and language in representing the world and played with the fact that people with any particular goal in mind use the distinctions created to manipulate objects in the world. The 'distinction problem' arises when we look closely at any dichotomy; the more we try to define a particular object the greater the increase of complexity necessary, and the greater that object relies on everything else for its identity. By looking a little closer it is clear everything in the world relies on everything else for its existence. The easiest way to understand this is the necessity for there to be a hell if there is a heaven, and for there to be rebirth in order for there to be cessation. However, a problem arises when we attempt to move beyond this dichotomy in order to describe conventionally within words the 'true' ultimate reality that all is 'derived' from. Typically, it seems to me that most people, including myself, often interpret this particular form of talk as a paradox because we are limited to evaluating it within our own worlds of dichotomy.

It is important to note a problem is created when we attempt to assert the necessity of non-empty for there to be emptiness. It seems as if this is incorrect in Nagarjuna's eyes even though in our minds it conventionally makes sense based on the previous statements. The reason for this appears to lie at centre of what emptiness in Nagarjuna's mind really is. It is something beyond. It is sometimes in-between the countless dichotomies and interrelated connections of the conventional world. And, it is impossible to put a specific point on the exact spot where Nagarjuna specifies emptiness is located because it is beyond the 'this' or the 'that'. Interestingly, even our thinking is strongly based within the framework of a different set of dichotomies. Within each seems to lie the necessary distinctions to form useable tools that we can manipulate within our minds. This is especially apparent in the analogies used within our society to clarify a particular idea. A certain analogy not only shows our values by the words used, but reveals basic criteria from which our thoughts are rooted. Clearly, the use of an analogy is to indirectly reveal a truth; a truth that for some particular reason can only be thought about in an abstract manner. From a superficial perspective, with the negation of words as a viable explanation of the ultimate, it seems as if nothing can be said. Yet, Nagarjuna does a lot of 'talking'.

How do we know that what is said about the 'ultimate' is true? Ultimately, it seems as if we can only speculate: "Having deeply understood that no one has access to the truth, You have stated that this is why the world is shrouded in ignorance"(P19#21). The statement that "no one" has access to the truth seems to say that it is not possible to experience the ultimate. However, the statement requires the existence of a being that is separate from everyone else; in being 'one' person it prevents access to the truth of oneness of everything. Thus, by taking the perspective of the person, the truth is inaccessible. The reason for this is if the truth were truly accessible there would no longer be a person or a truth to be wielded. Hence, 'no one' has access to it. Our ability to think logically and reason can only take us so far within the limits of their capacity to pursue the 'ultimate'. Could the 'end' of a symbolic system–language and thought intertwined–be necessary to reveal the truth? To become one with the idea of emptiness--where no boundaries exist--language must be silenced. This seems to be what Nagarjuna decrees about the ultimate. Basically, Nagarjuna realized that nothing could be said of the 'ultimate' other than that which is free of dichotomy: "Space, bodhicitta, and enlightenment are without marks; without generation. They have no structure; they are beyond the path of words. Their 'mark' is non-duality."(P49#46) However, in order to do this a conventionally ultimate dichotomy is created in which there is a separation between the regular flux of conventionalism and the cessation of separation. In a sense, Nagarjuna had to create a foundation of ideas and possibility that revealed a world which works the way it does only because everything is ultimately empty, free of separation, unborn, unceasing and not different; nothing is in an 'ultimate' sense complete in itself. But, by saying 'nothing' is complete then there is no longer any space for permanent and distinct objects. Thus, Nirvana could no longer be seen as separate from Samsara.

Is it possible to think without the duality that forms a basic root distinction from which our minds grasp? Even my question requires an incredibly different array of complex distinctions to pose the possibility. Given that the symbol system we use is based on forming opposites and distinctions from worldly experiences, it would seem that the formation of duality is a fact of life. It is interesting to note that a word is neither the experience nor the sensory impression we have. A word is just a word. As individualistic as we all seem to be, even down to the uniqueness of the connections in our brains, so too is our concept of the meaning of any particular word. This individuality seems to be a major proponent for the misconceptions we have of our separateness within the world; a separation probably formed or, at least started with, the realization of a young child discovering that thoughts are actually 'private'. However, this continues the misconception that things arise and cease; it is a function of our experience in the world that leads us to believe this is the case. Due to the fact that we separate everything and anything into distinct boxes, which are only interrelated based on morphological and phenomenological features, it is not surprising we see the world in a context of born and unborn. It seems ironic that in American culture a baby is only born when he/she comes out of the mother's womb. At what point does the baby move from unborn inside the mother's womb to being born? The answer seems a matter of conventional definition in which the wide majority of the populace would have to believe in. The fact that nothing is complete in itself opens a new world in which 'ultimately' everything is interrelated to everything else.

To argue the exact spot at which yellow becomes green is worthless from an absolute sense; to break down phenomena that relies upon the other for existence is said to be foolish. Yet, there is value in doing this. From a goal oriented society there is incredible value in creating the most specific and exact definitions possible so that we can have a greater ability to shape the material world or our thoughts into 'worthwhile' objects. Distinctness grounds people. In the most basic sense, value arises from a prototypical distinction of simplicity; distinctions that we all are able to use to manipulate and in a limited way represent experiences abstractly. And, it is interesting to focus on the use of 'prototypes' to interpret every day experience; something we all seem to fall back on so that we can reduce the infinite into useable categories. Ultimately, it seems as if what is real is that which is seen as useful–just as is in the science of physics it is sometimes better to see light as a wave instead of as a particle. Depending on the situation, both perspectives are useful. Thus, the situation we are in has a huge effect on 'that' which is created, deemed useful and believed. To ask the question of how the sprout comes from the seed with both the seed and the sprout firmly formed within the mind, points us directly at the apparent inability of categories to fit around creation. However, the problem only really arises when we try to be exact in our definitions. A good example of this is revealed in the general drive in science for absolute distinction. This is especially true concerning electrons floating around atoms. A problem is created when both the velocity and position of an electron is desired. Ironically, the determination of the velocity of an electron moving around an atom as well as the position of it at the same time is impossible; each relies upon the other for its existence. Thus, to take a point of reference across time with both the seed and the sprout in our minds and attempt to solve the riddle is a bit of a joke. The framework that we use to form both the sprout and the seed is flawed in its exactness. So, how is it possible not to expect our reasoning to be the same? Clearly, the result is a product of the division.

The large margin for error that exists in language–the large boundary that exists for identifying a bird as a bird based on our prototype of a typical bird–allows for generalization within a seemingly endless number of forms. Just as our situation influences the symbol system or language, so too does our symbol system influence how we experience the world: a circular integration of 'two' concepts both of which influence the other's existence and form. The necessity of this feedback loop seems to be underestimated. Our point of focus for the formation of reality appears to have drastic effects on how our analysis proceeds. Also, the symbols we are limited to plays a huge role in our ability even to conceptualize possibility. A problem that may exist within this philosophy of 'possibility' is that as we grow up, our brains are shaped by the lives we live: they are shaped by the experiences we have, the thoughts we develop, and the language we use. It is 'possible' to even say that each breath taken over time morphologically alters our physical being: the more kinesthetic we are, such as sensitive hands, then the representation of that part of the body in the brain is enlarged. Thus, the actions we take can have a drastic effect on the 'individual' lives that we live. Sound familiar?

 Unfortunately, in reconciling Nirvana with Samsara, that which is considered 'true' is blended into a murky soup of possible confusion. What was originally separated into fairly distinct boundaries is now reconciled into something which is not separate from the other: "When truth is [accepted] as has been explained, convention is not disrupted. The true is not an object separate from the conventional"(P55#67). It would be reasonable to suggest otherwise. That which has been separated in the world with categories is now revealed with clarity to be both one from not being completely distinct and in another way unique. If Nagarjuna attempted to create a structure in which the conventional would be separate from the truth then he would introduce a crack within his middle way that would split apart everything that he is 'establishing'. That is, if he is really 'establishing' anything at all. Emptiness is the reason why everything in the world works the way it does. The 'true', which could be seen as the 'ultimate', is not different from the conventional: "Convention is explained as sunyata; convention is simply sunyata. For [these two] do not occur without one another, just as created and impermanent [invariably concur]."(P55#68) The intertwined complications of both creation and impermanence is split open by the arrow of emptiness; and arrow aimed at splitting the separation and foundation of being. What is revealed? A world where dichotomy vanishes? The statement 'convention is sunyata' implies that nothing arises nor passes away, and that there ultimately is no one 'complete in itself' thing in the world. In an abstract sense, the validation of convention as not the same nor different from Nirvana creates the possibility of acceptance that the current state of the world is how it should be. In misunderstanding Nagarjuna's emptiness it is possible that a type of learned helplessness may arise in which a person would see the world as the property of necessity instead of a unnecessary or unfortunate occurrence; the fact that a person is suffering may or may not be due to past karma, but the possible mindset that this suffering is necessary and can not be avoided is dangerous. That is if the goal is to survive. With an abstract look at the acceptance of suffering as a type of retribution of past misdeeds, it might be easy for me to conclude that this perspective could easily have been used as a political tool to keep the masses happy. I realize that this is an oversimplification of the issue and that there is potentially great merit in the perspective of one who lives within the philosophical realms of karma, but there is also a great danger. The passive acceptance of seeing 'things as they are because of how they arise' seems to create an incredible potential for suffering. Although, this way of seeing the world is not a necessary conclusion based on the result that ultimately everything around us is Nirvana it seems a scary possibility given the historical structure within Buddhism. The problem is the removal of the boundary between free will and determinacy; what arises in the world conventionally from a physical nature, such as the hardness of a tree, is very different from the conventional effect of one person's actions, such as, Hitler indirectly killing millions of people. In effect, suffering and a great deal of our actions have a huge impact in shaping the scope of the all encompassing word 'convention'. However, it is possible to speculate that if a person has penetrating vision into the nature of the world then there really would not be a problem. It is just that we, as people, do not have a complete view into the ultimate.

In retrospect, it is not surprising that Nagarjuna reconciles the separation of Samsara and Nirvana. To consider that his pivotal foundation for the path of the middle way is to look closely at distinctions--at their arising and ceasing—and realize that there is no other way. It seems as if any other possibility would involve the influence of our own limited sight into completeness and could create a squabble between one person's right and the other's wrong. Thus, in talking about the ultimate reality, there is no separation between beings; there are no beings; the separation in our minds of individuals distinct, permanent, and as people vanishes: "[In the ultimate sense] no agent [of an action] exists and no experiencer either. Merit and demerit originate dependently. You have declared, O Master of words, that what originates dependently is unoriginated!"(P5#9) It is clear that my mental barrier concerning the hierarchical segmentation of value in different beings can not possibly exist in the ultimate. Obviously, even merit itself is a matter of dependence on the other to exist and disappears when looked with the brilliance of a 'master of words'. It seems as if the only 'thing' that was spared the knife of dependant origination is the ultimate. Hence, the segmentation of different beings based on what we value in society may be conventionally useful as a tool in our arsenal, but it is sadly misleading to those seeking 'release'. Even the segmentation itself is sacrificed with the wide reaching arm of emptiness so that we are no longer left with a 'we'. But, we are not left with a 'non-we'. We are left with something that is impossible to break down into distinctions: "Bodhisattvas benefit living beings, yet they see not living beings! A difficult point indeed; an exquisite point! One can not grasp it"(P136#72). But, as one of many arbiters of distinctions, I must try to map it our abstractly. Ironically, this seems to be what has complicated the whole mess of how it is possible for there to be 'rebirth'; questions of distinctions that are mapped out to help people understand better are in themselves misleading. Also, these analogies reveal the biases we hold within our society. The need to neatly sort it out in the mind before being committed to it is the impairment despite the fact that "one can not grasp it".  

The blending of the Buddhas and living beings or the reconciliation of Nirvana and Samsara is source of unending compassion for living beings. This all encompassing well of love for fellow beings is based on the realization that we are not separate individuals; the understanding that not only is there no self, but that there is ultimately no I and no not I. So, it is just a matter of what we conventionally deem as a segmentation that seems of permanent nature which can not be avoided; the hardness of a wood table is a property of a substance that is very real. This is an attribute of wood that if ignored will be very painful when walking around in this world. What can we say about the fellow animals on this earth? Ironically, I began to say 'our' fellow animals. In this case, it seems clear that it really just depends on what we value. However, depending on our razor of segmentation based on the moral sphere we extend beyond the 'I' there is the potential for so much pain. It also seems clear that any 'person' that truly sees into the nature of all life will not limit his or her moral sphere of compassion just to the animal called Homo Sapiens, but she or he would expand it to include all life that suffers. In the end the 'moral sphere' would be revealed for what it is; another misleading analogy. Thus, the focus is no longer divided into a distinction of this and that, but a deep-rooted concern for all life around. In this situation, a being would take on all suffering in the world, because it really is his or her 'own'. In this situation, the 'judgement day' of action seems to not apply and frankly a bit antiquated. As merit and demerit originate dependently, so to does the conception that 'doing good' is good at all. The idea of a person saying to herself "I am going to do this to gain merit and be reborn into a better life" is ridiculous when the boundary between self and other disappears.  Also, my question that began this essay seems almost silly. But, so does the idea in Buddhism that maintains this hierarchical structure. The entire conception of moving closer to Nirvana seems to be a misconception because it maintains the split of the one with the many. The teaching of emptiness focuses on removing the boundaries limiting our vision in seeing the world as it 'really is': "The ambrosial teaching of sunyata aims at abolishing all conceptions. But if someone believes in sunyata You [have declared that] he is lost!"(P9#23) Thus, even a person that maintains emptiness is lost; there is not only a person, a distinction of empty and non-empty in the belief, and a distinction of the world, but another way of being misguided with a goal-oriented frame of reference. The necessity of sacrificing emptiness may be confusing for some people because we are so used to talking in the abstract apart from action. But, when bringing the conventional ultimate to a quiescent rest, the actions that we take are very much different from that which we project based on our assumptions of what emptiness is. It is clear that belief in rebirth, belief in karma and definitely belief in the egocentric person within our selves are all part of a dependently arising world. Whether or not karma and rebirth are a figment of our imagination ultimately does not matter in the eyes of emptiness. It is possible that the teaching of karma could point people in the right direction despite whether or not it is ultimately true. Also, the idea of a middle is a misnomer because it requires two parts on either side of the centre. But, this could be either a misunderstanding or a lucid account of Nagarjuna's philosophy. That is why even the belief in emptiness has to be sacrificed. Especially my own belief that in essence--in looking into the eyes of fellow animals and seeing the equality and commonness of suffering--in understanding that the evolutionary 'tree' does not end with Homo Sapiens on the pinnacle, but is a flat landscape--must disappear with the gust of a quiet wind. However, this truth can in certain times leave me reticent. My reticence is not based on an inhibition of the mouth because of the company I maintain, but just lack of anything important to say that is not contradicted by putting the experience into words.



Dennett, D.C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Hopkins, J.  Compassion in Tibetan Buddhism / Tsong-ka-pa. London: Rider, 1980.

Lindtner, Chr. Master of Wisdom: Writings of the buddhist Master Nagarjuna. Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1997.

Watson, B. The Complete Works Of Chuang Tzu. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

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