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Creative Ignorance: Nagarjuna on the Ontological Significance of Consciousness

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It is generally accepted that Nāgārjuna’s dialectic is aimed at exposing, or proving, the lack of self-nature (svabhāva) of all phenomena, all things whatsoever. The fact that this paper, for example, is dependent on the material conditions for its production (my computer, electricity, paper, my fingers, etc.), on my intention to write it, on its audience and/or readers, and so forth, suggests it has no true nature of its own. What the refutation of svabhāva actually means, both philosophically and experientially, is hotly debated; numerous views haven been suggested. Some believe the lack of svabhāva implies Nihilism, others see it as pointing to the deceptive nature of language, or even to a fundamental error which characterizes any form of knowledge. Still others view the refutation of svabhāva as being conducted from the point of view of ultimate reality, and thus as directing the mind toward the realization of an absolute truth. There are still more who doubt that Nāgārjuna had any positive philosophical message. Finally, there are those who believe the realization of the lack of self-nature to be an end in itself.

Although these positions can be elaborated, and many others could be listed, I believe the views just mentioned are the major readings Nāgārjuna has received in modern scholarship. They are all rooted in understandings of Nāgārjuna’s thought which were developed in the different Buddhist philosophical traditions. But although all of these various teachings of emptiness do relate to certain aspects of Nāgārjuna’s writings, I will argue that they also suffer from fundamental errors, in regard both to what the texts reliably attributed to Nāgārjuna actually say, and to philosophical consistency. Not only do these readings misrepresent Nāgārjuna’s original message; they also fail to come to terms with the full implications of his thought. In fact, all these presentations of Madhyamaka ignore a central aspect of Nāgārjuna’s insight which concerns his understanding of the relation between consciousness and reality.

I. Genre sensitivity

In this paper I will attempt a faithful reconstruction of Nāgārjuna’s teaching, based on a careful reading of his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (“The Core Verses of the Middle Path,” MMK) in light of his Yuk ti ṣaṣṭikākārikā (“Sixty Verses of Reasoning,” YṢ) and Śūnyatāsaptati (“Seventy Verses of Emptiness,” ŚS). Naturally, my methodological position determines much of the reading of Nāgārjuna I will suggest. I argue that in order to achieve a clear picture of Nāgārjuna’s understanding of emptiness we must regard his four extant analytical treatises – the MMK, YṢ, ŚS, and his VigrahaVyāvartanī (“A Refutation of Objections,” VV) – as an integral unit of meaning. When Nāgārjuna is read in light of the MMK and VV alone, as commonly happens, a limited picture of his thought emerges. The MMK’s power lies in its unrelenting critical force, which precludes the possibility of offering a positive description of existence. The VV is a polemical, one could say a defensive treatise, in which, in a “user-friendly” fashion, Nāgārjuna attempts to blur the severe consequences of his theory and method. Alternatively, if the MMK and VV are read in light of texts belonging to distinct literary genres, such as the Ratnāvalī (“The Precious Garland”), the picture becomes rather hazy, since Nāgārjuna’s four analytical texts do not discuss the more practical aspects of the Mahāyāna Buddhist path, such as compassion and the path of the Bodhisattva. If we wish to reach a reliable understanding of what śūnyatā (“emptiness”) meant to Nāgārjuna, we must first define the message expressed in the texts he devoted to this subject itself. We should better first achieve a clear definition of Nāgārjuna’s philosophical message, before we ask how emptiness relates to Bodhisattvas, their vehicles and the like.

It should be emphasized that the four texts I wish to examine are regarded as authentic to Nāgārjuna by nearly all the knowledgeable authorities both among modern scholars and within the Buddhist tradition. Regarding all other texts attributed to Nāgārjuna in the Chinese and the Tibetan traditions, serious doubts have been raised regarding their authorship. Moreover, the Tibetan tradition has grouped these four texts as a distinct genre within Nāgārjuna’s writings, that is his “analytical corpus” (rigs tshogs). Although this category is clearly a retrospective classification, it is not without its merits. We can safely assume that Nāgārjuna was aware of the differences which exist between writing a philosophical text and composing a devotional hymn or a “friendly letter.” In short, based on these four texts we can hope to achieve a clear definition of emptiness, or this is at least where we should begin. The YṢ and the ŚS expand on the analysis conducted in the MMK, and allow a fuller understanding of Nāgārjuna’s philosophical thought. They demonstrate that the MMK has a special place in the Nāgārjunian corpus, but that Nāgārjuna’s philosophical insight is not exhausted by the text. An attentive reading of the YṢ and the ŚS will lead us not only to a better understanding of the way Nāgārjuna viewed the world, but to a fuller comprehension of the MMK’s thought as well.

II. The object of refutation

What is Nāgārjuna actually refuting? A quick but bold look at the texts tells us that Nāgārjuna was troubled not by “self-existence” – svabhāva – but by existence in general – bhāva, or astitvam. Nāgārjuna attempted to pave the middle path between existence and non-existence: he believed all notions of existence to be rooted in ignorance. As he states in MMK 15.10:

“Exists” is a grasping at eternalism. “Does not exist” is a view of annihilation. Therefore the wise should not base themselves on existence or non-existence.

astīti śāśvatagrāho nāstīty ucchedadarśanam / tasmād astitvanāstitve nāśriyeta vichakṣaṇaḥ /

This verse supplies an important definition of the middle path which avoids both existence and non-existence. Nāgārjuna is here extending the meaning of the traditional Buddhist definition of the middle as the path that avoids eternalism and annihilation (śāśvata and uccheda). These terms, which originally referred primarily to the nature of the self, now make an ontological statement about the nature of reality. A similar position is expressed in MMK 5.8:

The slow-witted who see existence and non-existence of things do not see the auspicious quieting of objects.

astitvaṃ ye tu paśyanti nāstitvaṃ cālpabuddhayaḥ / bhāvānām te na paśyanti draṣṭavyopaśamaṃ śivam //

Again Nāgārjuna makes it more than clear that he believes any view, any actual seeing of existence or non-existence, to be mistaken. These verses alone should rule out the interpretations of Nāgārjuna’s thought delineated at the outset of our discussion: Nāgārjuna denies non-existence and therefore cannot be a nihilist. He must not be expounding a vision of an absolute truth, since such a truth must exist. He is also making a definite philosophical statement regarding the nature of reality, which must not exist as it appears, and therefore his verses cannot be only of pragmatic (“upāyic”) value. Finally, the focus of the discussion must not be only language or knowledge, since that would imply an existent reality misrepresented by thought. If words or concepts are invalidated, surely the objects they refer to are unreal as well. In order for these verses to mean anything, they must be a description of reality itself, which is characterized as neither existent nor non-existent, neither absolutely true nor wholly false.

Both of the verses quoted deny astitvam and nāstitvam, existence and non-existence, or better “is-ness” and “non-ness.” In other places Nāgārjuna prefers to target a more general notion of existence – bhāva. A most important example is the opening verse of the MMK (1.1):

Not from themselves, not from another, not from both or without a cause, are arisen entities ever found, anywhere.

na svato nāpi parato na dvābhyāṃ nāpy ahetutaḥ / utpannā jātu vidyante bhāvāḥ kva cana ke cana //

Here Nāgārjuna argues against the truth of bhāvāḥ in the plural, and hence we must translate “entities” or “things.” Such a translation could lead us to believe that Nāgārjuna is arguing against “thingness,” against the differentiation of entities into distinct phenomena with clear-cut boundaries. Obviously, “thingness” is part of what Nāgārjuna is targeting here, but it cannot contain all of his purpose. If things do not have any true boundary, any well-defined state of existence, any bhāva, they cannot really be understood to exist. This point is expressed more clearly when Nāgārjuna refutes bhāva in the singular, as in YṢ 46:

When one accepts existence, there are the arising of passion and hatred, the holding of bad and violent views, and the strife which comes from them.

dngos por khas len yod na ni // ’dod chags zhe sdang ’byung ba yi // lta ba mi bzad ma rungs ’dzin // de las byung ba’i rtsod par ’gyur //

rāgadveṣodbhavas tīvraduṣṭadṛṣṭiparigrahaḥ / vivādās tatsamutthāś ca bhāvābhyupagame sati //

The YṢ continues to discuss the great misfortunes caused by believing existence to be true. This verse tells us that the refutation of things” in the plural, is related to the refutation of “existence” in the singular. In fact, the Sanskrit allows a meaning unavailable in English – “existences,” that is bhāvāḥ in the plural. We should note that Nāgārjuna’s argument against “things” is better understood to be a refutation of “states of existence.” Nāgārjuna denies the reality normally attributed to all that is, saying it does not exist in any true fashion.

Some readers may have noticed that the lack of self-nature has yet to appear in any of the verses I have quoted thus far. There is no need to amend the message of these verses so as to deliver a meaning not theirs – they are denying existence, not self-nature. In fact, the YṢ makes it clear that the refutation of svabhāva is not an end in itself (contra dGe-lugs-pa exegesis), but rather the means by which existence is refuted. Once things are proven to lack a true nature of their own, there is nothing left to lack self-nature. What can be said to lack self-nature? When self-nature is refuted, nothing is left. As Nāgārjuna states in YṢ 19:

What appears dependent on this and that does not arise by way of self-nature. What does not arise by way of self-nature – how can it be called ‘arisen’?

de dang de brten gang byung de // rang gi dngos por skyes ma yin // rang gi dngos por gang ma skyes // de ni skyes zhes ji ltar bya //

tat tat prāpya yad utpannaṃ notpannaṃ tat svabhāvataḥ / svabhāvena yan notpannam utpannaṃ nāma tat katham //

The fact that things arise in dependence proves they do not arise “svabhāvically.” But if they have not really arisen in any true way, how can they be said to have arisen? If there is no svabhāvic arising there is, in fact, no arising at all. And again, more bluntly:

What appears together with causes does not abide without conditions, and is destroyed as a result of their absence – how can it be understood that ‘it exists’?

gang zhig rgyu dang bcas ’byung zhing // rkyen med par ni gnas pa med // rkyen med phyir yang ’jig ’gyur ba // de ni yod ces ji ltar rtogs //

hetutaḥ saṃbhavo yasya sthitir na pratyayair vinā / vigamaḥ pratyayābhāvāt so ’stīty avagataḥ katham // YṢ 39

Verse 39 re-states what verse 19 said about arising in terms of existence. What exists in dependence cannot exist! In this verse Nāgārjuna skips defining the dependent as lacking self-nature and proceeds to state with confidence that dependence implies nonexistence.

Another important example of the principle that there can be no existence without svabhāva is MMK 13.3:

There is no self-nature of things, since change is perceived. The emptiness of things (is understood) from the fact that there are no things devoid of self-nature.

bhāvānāṃ niḥsvabhāvatvam anyathābhāvadarśanāt / asvabhāvo bhāvo nāsti bhāvānāṃ śūnyatā yataḥ //

What changes has no svabhava. What has no svabhāva is empty, it does not exist. There is no such a thing that lacks svabhāva. This verse summarizes the stages we have seen so far by which Nāgārjuna’s dialectic proceeds: Because of (1) change (or dependence), things are understood to have (2) no self-nature. But nothing can exist without a true nature, and hence (3) things are empty, they do not exist. We see in this verse that there is a qualitative difference between lacking self-nature and being empty. Because things lack self-nature, they are empty. This same point is made in the Vṛtti to VV 1:

Since there is no self-nature anywhere (in any of its conditions), the sprout lacks self-nature. Because it lacks self-nature it is void.

yasmād atra sarvatra svabhāvo nāsti tasmān niḥsvabhāvo ’ṅkuraḥ / yasmān niḥsvabhāvas tasmāc chūnyaḥ /

If emptiness is equal to the lack of self-nature, the second sentence of this passage would be both tautological and meaningless. We see that emptiness results from the lack of self-nature, a statement quite distinct from the one which says that emptiness is emptiness of self-nature. This same point is made again in the commentary to VV 57, where Nāgārjuna adds that if something is empty, in this case a name, it is unreal:

And also, because of the non-existence of the self-nature of things, the name lacks self-nature. Therefore it is empty. Because of its emptiness it is unreal.

tad api hi bhāvasvabhāvasyābhāvān nāma niḥsvabhāvaṃ tasmāc chūn yaṃ śūnyatvād asadbhūtam /

Again – what can lack svabhāva? Once there is no self-nature, there is nothing left to lack its own nature, an insight Nāgārjuna expresses in what may be the acme of the MMK:

If there were anything non-empty, there could be something empty too. And there is no non-empty thing – how will there be something empty?

yady aśūnyaṃ bhavet kiṃ cit syāc chūnyam api kiṃ cana / na kiṃ cid asty aśūnyaṃ ca kutaḥ śūnyaṃ bhaviṣyati // MMK 13.7

This verse is followed by the famous denial of the possibility of taking emptiness itself as a true view of reality (13.8). MMK 13.7 tells us that once the thing is empty, there is nothing left that is empty. No existence remains after the Madhyamaka dialectic penetrates its object of scrutiny. Not only does the object lack self-nature, it is unreal and has no true existence.

This is probably the right moment to re-affirm that I do not believe that Nāgārjuna was a nihilist, intentionally or by default. Nāgārjuna denied the validity of notions of non-existence, and found non-existence to be morally dangerous. But before we ask ourselves how Nāgārjuna escapes nihilism, and before I present a positive definition of Nāgārjuna’s vision of the middle, I would like to push my point a little further and discuss two common intuitions about Nāgārjuna which I believe are rooted in error. I am referring to the role the traditional Buddhist insights of impermanence and dependence, as well as the notion of the two truths, play in Nāgārjuna’s thought.

III. Nāgārjuna’s innovations

In modern interpretations of Nāgārjuna, one often encounters the idea that Nāgārjuna attempted to retrieve the Buddha’s original message in response to dogmatic tendencies which prevailed in the Buddhism of his day, primarily in Abhidharma traditions. Such a position generally argues that for Nāgārjuna, emptiness is a different way of saying impermanence and/or dependence.

There are many problems with such an interpretation, among them the fact that the Buddha did not characterize all things as dependent, and that Nāgārjuna has much in common with Abhidharma traditions. In the present context I wish to concentrate only on the fact that Nāgārjuna directly refuted both impermanence and dependence, since both imply existence. When all existence is empty, there is nothing there to be impermanent, as he says in MMK 25.22–23:

All phenomena being empty – what is endless, what has an end? What has and doesn’t have an end? What does not have nor not have an end? What is the same? What different? What eternal? What ephemeral? What both eternal and ephemeral? What neither?

śūnyeṣu sarvadharmeṣu kim anantaṃ kim antavat / kim anantam antavac ca nānantaṃ nāntavac ca kiṃ // MMK 25.22

kiṃ tad eva kim anyat kiṃ śāśvataṃ kiṃ aśāśvataṃ / aśāśvataṃ śāśvataṃ ca kiṃ vā nobhayam apy ataḥ // MMK 25.23

Or again, more cogently:

If everything is impermanent, and impermanence is also not permanent, how will there be permanent or impermanent things?

thams cad mi rtag yang na ni // mi rtag pa yang rtag pa med // dngos po rtag dang mi rtag nyid // ’gyur na de lta ga la yod // ŚS 58

The same problem that Nāgārjuna identifies in regard to the lack of svabhāva, applies to impermanence as well: Just as there must be something existent to be characterized as devoid of self-nature, there must be something permanent to be characterized as impermanent, or something independent to be characterized as dependent. This point is made explicit in the YṢ in regard to dependence:

Those who are attached to the self and the world (and see them as) non-dependent – Oh! They are confused by views of permanence and impermanence.

Those who accept that being dependent, things are established in reality – how will the faults of permanence and the like not appear for them as well?!

Those who accept that being dependent, things are like the moon on the water, neither true nor false, are not confused by views.

gang dag gis ni ma brten par // bdag gam ’jig rten mngon zhen pa // de dag kye ma rtag mi rtag // la sogs lta bas ’phrogs pa yin // YṢ 43

gang dag brten nas dngos po rnams // de nyid du ni grub ’dod pa // de dag la yang rtag sogs skyon // de dag ji ltar ’byung mi ’gyur // YṢ 44

gang dag brten nas dngos po rnams // chu yi zla ba lta bur ni // yang dag ma yin log min par // ’dod pa de dag ltas mi ’phrogs // YṢ 45

Verse 43 attacks the non-Buddhist position which denies that all exists in dependence. The key verse is the following one (44), which attacks Buddhists who believe dependent things really to exist. Prior to these three verses, a similar claim was made regarding impermanence, where Nāgārjuna again attacks Buddhists who do not realize that impermanence denies the possibility of existence. Later on he again says that:

What is born in dependence is unborn, said the best among knowers of reality.

brten nas skye ba ma skyes par // de nyid mkhyen pa mchog gis gsungs // pratītya jātaṃ cājātam āha tattvavidāṃ varaḥ // YṢ 48cd

Many more examples can be supplied in order to further substantiate the position that Nāgārjuna believed that emptiness empties impermanence and dependence, which both can only be viewed from the extreme of existence.

The fact that there is nothing there to be impermanent or dependent should cause us to be very cautious with regard to the way we understand Nāgārjuna’s use of the theory of the two truths. Most often, this theory is used in order to re-affirm the validity of the phenomenal world, in an attempt to balance the intensity of Nāgārjuna’s dialectic of emptiness. It seems that such a reading of Nāgārjuna may be no more than a futile eff ort to avoid the deep and thorough refutation of existence he conducts. We may be convinced by now that according to Nāgārjuna there really are no true phenomena that exist “conventionally” and are “ultimately empty.” The concept of the two truths is valuable as a reminder that Nāgārjuna is not affirming non-existence, but should not be seen as a positive description of reality. Rather, what MMK 24.8–10, the locus classicus for the discussion of the two truths, actually say is that the Buddha’s teachings are useful in order to facilitate realization.43 This statement is corroborated by YṢ 21–22 and 30–33, that explain that basic Buddhist concepts amount to useful fictions.

For brevity’s sake, I will quote only two verses from the ŚS. First, the opening verse of the text:

Abiding, arising and ceasing, existence and non-existence, low, middle and superior – the Buddha spoke of these under the power of worldly convention, not under the power of truth.

gnas pa’am skye ’jig yod med dam // dman pa’am mnyam pa’am khyad par can // sangs rgyas ’jig rten snyad dbang gis // gsung gis yang dag dbang gis min // ŚS 1

The basic concepts we employ in describing existence should not be understood to reflect the truth, but only conventional agreement. Such conventions cannot be real, since we would need to specify an existent phenomenon that could be defined as empty. This would contradict the major thrust of Nāgārjuna’s argument and the explicit statements of all the verses we have examined.

Near the end of the text, Nāgārjuna summarizes his discussion and defines his position regarding the two truths:

The worldly principle “this arises in dependence on that” is not denied. (But) also – What is dependent has no self-nature, and hence – how could it exist? Understand this correctly!

’di la brten nas ’di ’byung zhes // ’jig rten tshul ’di mi ’gog cing // gang brten rang bzhin med pas de // ji ltar yod ’gyur de nyid nges // ŚS 71

There is truth in the way people see the world; thought is not totally mistaken in its analysis of experience. But once dependence is recognized, it should lead to the conclusion that nothing can exist. Again we encounter the three step procedure of Nāgārjuna’s dialectic: because of dependence, there is no svabhāva, and therefore there is no existence.

We must now ask ourselves what this severe deconstruction of existence, that I awkwardly insist does not lead to non-existence, actually means.

IV. Creative ignorance

We have now reached the heart of our discussion, the attempt to come to terms with Nāgārjuna’s deep and total denial of existence. There is, according to this vision, nothing truly out there in the world. Nonetheless, we are not in a non-existent void but can actually discuss the meaning and value of our experience. How can a world that is not existent or non-existent (or both or neither) be described? In other words, how is it that a non-existent reality comes into being?

Surprisingly enough, the YṢ and ŚS supply a rather straightforward answer to these questions, explaining that the world is created out of ignorance, as a result of processes of conceptualization. The clearest statement in this regard is YṢ 37:

Since the buddhas have said that the world has ignorance for its condition, does it not follow that this world is a mental construction?

’jig rten ma rig rkyen can du // gang phyir sangs rgyas rnams gsungs pa // de yi phyir na ’jig rten ’di // rnam rtog yin zhes cis mi ’thad // YṢ 37

The world is a mental construction, an act of creative imagination, a vikalpa propelled by ignorance. The following verse strongly suggests that everything depends on ignorance:

That which ceases when ignorance ceases, how can it not be clear that is an imagination constructed out of mis-knowledge?

ma rig ’gags par gyur pa na // gang zhig ’gog par ’gyur ba de // mi shes pa las kun brtags par // ji lta bu na gsal mi ’gyur // YṢ 38

When ignorance will cease to be, it seems that the world will not be there either. What appears to exist is constructed by our own imagination, out of ignorance. Nāgārjuna, if I understand him correctly, is asking why we believe, given that our perception of the world is colored by ignorance, that the world is true? How is it that our very knowledge of the world’s existence is not created by ignorance? Moreover, when we realize that the world is conditioned by ignorance, why is it that we don’t realize it to be an act of creative, ignorant imagination? What this means is not that our perception or ideation of things mistakenly constructs a mental image it replaces for a true object. Rather, the object itself is constructed by ignorance, since there is nothing objectively there independent of ignorant perception. Earlier in the YṢ Nāgārjuna has stated twice that the true vision of reality means seeing that things are born of ignorance. The first instance is YṢ 10:

When true knowledge sees the appearance conditioned by ignorance, no arising or ceasing is perceived.

ma rig rkyen gyis byung ba la // yang dag ye shes kyis gzigs na //

Nāgārjuna goes on to state that “this is nirvāṇa and the seeing of reality in this very life, what is to be done has been done” (YṢ 11ab: de nyid mthong chos mya ngan las / ’das shing bya ba byas pa’ang yin).

YṢ 10 is based on a delicate play of meaning. In traditional Buddhist exegesis “appearance conditioned by ignorance” refers to the 12 links of conditioned arising, the descriptions of the process by which saṃsāric transmigration proceeds. The causational principle underlying this process is based on each link conditioning the arising of the following one, or, when it is absent, conditioning its ceasing. But Nāgārjuna envisions a very different picture: When one rightly observes the conditioning of ignorance – he sees no arising and ceasing! This is because he understands that what seems to be real is actually not much more than a fantasy, and therefore that it does not truly arise or cease. Nāgārjuna is hereby articulating a fully new import for “appearance conditioned by ignorance.” Nothing whatsoever undergoes arising and ceasing, because all such things are not really there, they are fictions produced by ignorance. Nāgārjuna will make this point again in verse 26 where he asserts that “the knowers of things” (dngos po la mkhas pa rnams gyis, verse 25) know them to “appear caused by ignorance” (ma rig rgyu las shin tu byung).

It is tempting to try to read these verses as describing the nature of experience, rather than characterizing existence in general. But in YṢ 34 Nāgārjuna declares he believes the physical-material objective reality to be dependent on consciousness:

Things spoken of, the great elements and so forth, are enclosed in consciousness. When this is understood, they dissolve. Indeed, they are a mistaken construction.

’byung ba che la sogs bshad pa // rnam par shes su yang dag ’du // de shes pas ni ’bral ’gyur na // log pas rnam brtags ma yin nam //

mahābhūtādi vijñāne proktaṃ samavarudhyate / tajjñāne vigamaṃ yāti nanu mithyā vikalpitaṃ // YṢ 34

The elements are “checked by” or “enclosed in consciousness” (vijñāne samavarudhyate, rnam par shes su yang dag ’du). They can be dissolved when this is understood, and hence are not objectively real but depend on consciousness for their being. They are further defined as a mistaken mental construction (mithyā vikalpitam, log pas rnam brtags).

When we realize that Nāgārjuna understood things to rise out of ignorance, we can better understand his intention in describing them as being similar to illusions, dreams, phantoms, cities of gandharvas, and the like. This is a central feature of Nāgārjuna’s thought, which he expresses in different verses and contexts. A good example is ŚS 66:

Conditioned things are like a city of gandharvas, an illusion, a phantom, hairs (seen by a person suffering from a cataract), a bubble in the stream, a magical display, a dream and a whirling fi re-brand.

’du byed dri za’i grong khyer dang // sgyu ma smig rgyu skra shad dang // dbu ba chu bur sprul pa dang // rmi lam mgal me’i ’khor lo mtshungs //

A similar idea is expressed in YṢ 17 as well:

When one understands that existence53 is like a mirage and an illusion, one is not polluted by views of the extremes of a beginning or an end.

srid pa smig rgyu sgyu ’dra bar // blo yis mthong bar gyur pa ni // sngon gyi mtha’ ’am phyi ma’i mtha’ // lta bas yongs su slad mi ’gyur //

Things are unreal, but nonetheless appear. This appearance does in fact occur, but has no substantial reality to it. Moreover, as we have learned, the appearance is conditioned by ignorance and caused by conceptualization. This is why it is similar to an illusion, a dream or a mirage, phenomena which are created mentally without having any true objective support. This is, in fact, Nāgārjuna’s vision of the middle way, in which appearance is neither truly existent nor fully denied.

Thus far I have been quoting mainly from the YṢ. The ŚS discusses the creative capacity of the mind somewhat diff erently. First, it connects illusory existence to karma.55 Verses 33–43 are devoted to a discussion of karma, in which Nāgārjuna shows that karma lacks svabhāva. Of primary importance for our discussion are the conclusions the ŚS draws from showing karma to lack svabhāva.

Just as the victorious Tathāgata creates a magical manifestation by way of his magical power, and that same magical manifestation in turn creates another magical manifestation,

In such a case, the manifestation (created by) the Tathāgata is empty, and what need we say about the manifestation (created) by the manifestation? Both exist only as names, and are wholly conception only.

In just the same way the agent is like the manifestation, and his act like the manifestation created by the manifestation. What is empty of self-nature in every bit, is conception-only.

ji ltar bcom ldan de bzhin gshegs // rdzu ’phrul gyis ni sprul pa sprul // sprul pa de yis slar yang ni // sprul pa gzhan zhig sprul gyur pa // ŚS 40

de la de bzhin gshegs sprul stong // sprul pas sprul pa smos ci dgos // gnyis po ming tsam yod pa yang // ci yang rung ste rtog pa tsam // ŚS 41

de bzhin byed po sprul dang mtshungs // las ni sprul pas sprul dang mtshungs // rang bzhin gyis stong gang cung zad // yod pa de dag rtog pa tsam //ŚS 42

Karma is similar to a magical manifestation. Anything that appears due to karmic conditioning is “conception-only,” merely a name. The rationale of this insight is defined in verse 42: “What is empty of self-nature in every bit, is conception-only.” This is, in fact, exactly what I have been arguing that the lack of self-nature means – when there is no true existence of itself, reality proves to be a conceptualization. The ŚS informs us that this conceptualization is caused not only by ignorance, but also by karma.

The discussion of karma in the ŚS concludes with a statement regarding the enigmatic nature of existence (verse 44), following an elaborate discussion of the problems Nāgārjuna identifies in defining the perceptual process (verses 45–57). The argument is too complex to be treated fairly in this context, since it rests on a very challenging and counter-intuitive assumption: Nāgārjuna seems to believe that if we cannot supply a coherent definition for the way perception functions, every experience, every act of knowledge and every object are proven to be unreal.58 I hope to give the intricate arguments of the ŚS fuller attention in another context. For now it will suffice if we note the intimate relation Nāgārjuna intuits between definition and reality. Of even greater importance in the present context are the formulations he provides at the end of this discussion, in which he defines the creative power of conceptualization. First he states that the kleśas lack self-nature, since they are conditioned by pleasant and unpleasant sensation. Next he states:

Because desire, anger and ignorance are directed toward one and the same thing, they create it through conceptuality. That conception, too, is unreal.

The conceived object does not exist, and without it – how will there be conception? Therefore the conceived and the conception, because they arise from conditions, are truly empty.

gang phyir de nyid la chags shing // de la zhe sdang de la rmongs // de phyir rnam par rtog pas bskyed // rtog de’ang yang dag nyid du med // ŚS 60

brtag bya gang de yod ma yin // brtag bya med rtog ga la yod // de phyir brtag bya rtog pa dag // rkyen las skyes phyir stong pa nyid // ŚS 61

Nāgārjuna understands the functioning of conceptuality in a surprising manner. Rather than conceptuality being an attempt to define and understand reality, Nāgārjuna sees conceptuality as responsible for the creation of reality. Things are not objectively “out there,” but are brought into being by ideation.

What leads Nāgārjuna to conclude in these verses that objects are created in the manner they are envisioned by the mind? Nāgārjuna’s analysis leads him to the conviction that there is no true existence; the object is not real. Observing that experience is manifold, as objects take different forms (in this case they are experienced through the threefold division of the kleśas), Nāgārjuna realizes that it is ideation which creates the object. There exists no unitary reality which conditions experience, and hence the objects of experience, which appear to be unitary, are created as part of the way they are envisioned by consciousness. They are not actually perceived, but rather, are projected as part of the “perceptual” process. For Nāgārjuna, it is not the object which conditions experience, but experience which conditions the object. The logic Nāgārjuna is employing in this case rests on the well-known “one or many” argument: The object cannot have a unitary or a manifold nature. Once it appears in different ways, the Mādhyamika views it as a result of the way it has been conceived.

Moreover, once things are proven to be brought into being by the power of ideation, that ideation itself is realized to be unreal as-well, since it perceives objects which are not really there. Emptiness is said to be the play of unreal conceptualization perceiving unreal objects.

The description of reality as “conception-only” in the ŚS is highly significant. It may remind us of Vasubandhu’s statement at the opening of his Viṃśatikā: “In the Mahāyāna these three worlds are established as being mere figments of consciousness” (mahāyāne trai dhātukaṃ vijñaptimātraṃ vyavasthāpyate). ŚS 61 is also remarkably similar to Madhyāntavibhāga 1.3 and 1.6, and to Trisvabhāvanirdeśa 36. Some readers will possibly be worried that Nāgārjuna has turned into a Yogācārin.

I believe that to a great extent such an understanding is true. In a future publication I wish to provide a complementary discussion, which will show that Vasubandhu was a sort of a Mādhyamika. In my mind, in the earlier stages of their evolution the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra shared a very similar intuition about reality, understanding it to be an empty presentation determined by conscious and unconscious processes of conceptualization.

V. Conclusion

The basic argument developed in this paper was that for Nāgārjuna, the fact that phenomena lack svabhāva implies that they are created by ignorance through processes of conceptualization. When nothing exists, as it has no true nature, it cannot be independent of the way it is known or perceived. The dialectic of Emptiness shows things to be a sort of a “real illusion.” Phenomena are not really there in any objective or substantive sense. Nonetheless, they do appear, and hence are understood to be “like an illusion, like a dream, like a city of gandharvas.”