Impermanence and Emptiness: a Reversal in Perspective?

Image courtesy of photomyheart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of photomyheart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Buddhist notion of emptiness (suññatā/śunyatā) is famously difficult to get one’s head around. In a presentation this past Saturday Sharon Salzberg described it as a combination of impermanence (anicca) and interconnectedness. This is a good first go at understanding emptiness, although the simple concept “interconnectedness” doesn’t really do justice to the recondite complexity of dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda/pratītyasamutpāda).

Salzberg’s aim however is not to dig deeply into Buddhist theory, but rather to bring the dhamma to a contemporary Western audience. This is a task she does very well. If we are interested in turning a bit to the history, we may also reach some modest insights.

In my last post “A World of Impermanence, the Three Marks” I dwelled on the Buddha’s approach to the three marks of existence (anicca, dukkha, anatta, or impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self) as found in the Pāli Nikāyas.

Although the Buddha describes three distinct marks of existence, it may be correct to regard them as essentially a single mark of existence, impermanence, and its effects under conditions of ignorance. Dukkha comes about because of our misapprehension of the impermanence of reality. Non-self arises through ignorance as well, because a self of the sort that the Buddha was concerned with could not exist under conditions of impermanence: that is, a permanent ground of being, a true place of refuge, and locus of perfect control.

We will now look to something of a sketch or suggestion about another branch of the later Buddhist tradition. I call it a sketch or suggestion because I am unsure as to how deeply it can be defended, however perhaps at least it bears consideration.

Here we will leave dukkha to one side, and focus on the later interrelation between impermanence (anicca) and non-self.

The claim is this: while the early, Nikāya-based tradition tended to interpret non-self in terms of impermanence, the later tradition, in particular in the work of 2nd-3rd c. CE philosopher Nāgārjuna and his followers, did the reverse. That is, they took non-self as primary, in the guise of “emptiness” (śūnyatā).

The Primacy of Emptiness

From the earliest tradition, the word “emptiness” was taken to mean “emptiness of” something, usually “self”, in the context of meditative practice* (Viz., Saṃyutta Nikāya 35.85, 43.4; Majjhima Nikāya 43.33, 106.7; Sutta Nipāta 1119). There emptiness is basically a synonym for anatta. Since all things are impermanent and dependently arisen, there is no place for an everlasting, independent self.

However as Jay Garfield notes in a commentary to his translation of Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK): “Without viewing the world as empty, we can make no sense of impermanence or dependent origination and hence no sense of change.” (p. 317).

Or in Richard Robinson’s terms, “[Nāgārjuna] asserts that when emptiness holds good all the Buddha’s teachings hold good, and that when emptiness does not hold good, nothing is valid” (p. 326).

Emptiness is seen as primary, a pervasive feature of reality, indeed the most pervasive feature there is. It is through emptiness that we make sense of impermanence.

The work of Nāgārjuna is notoriously recondite, and hence one hesitates to make any substantive claims about it whatsoever. I would prefer to cite directly from the source, but doing so would only raise issues of proper interpretation, since his verses are so cryptic. At any rate if we can take the scholarly interpretation as adequate, this appears to be a very key and far-reaching shift in philosophical emphasis. It is a shift from impermanence, something that is seen moment to moment in daily lives, to anatta, a difficult meditative realization and abstruse philosophical claim about ontology.

Why might this shift have taken place? My sense is that much of the elaboration one finds in the later tradition stems from an attempt to come to terms with anatta, which was the Buddha’s key insight. More than anything, anatta differentiated Buddhist dhamma from its cultural and philosophical rivals, and no doubt it received a good deal of argumentative attention.

Another related example from the later tradition involves the distinction between “conventional reality” and “ultimate reality”. This distinction is not found in the Nikāyas; perhaps it as well became necessary to make sense of the difference between everyday “conventional” discourse involving selves and the purportedly “ultimate” discourse which did not. So for example we find the Buddha saying in the Poṭṭhapāda Sutta that when using terms related to the self, “… these are popular expressions, popular ways of speaking, popular terms by which the Tathāgata, without being attached, does business.” (Dīgha Nikāya 9.53. Trans. Hayes, “Self” p. 9).

Arguably the early tradition had trouble making complete sense of anatta, since kamma was supposed to have its effect over lifetimes. To what or whom does it have its effect? So long as there is an answer to this question, there is a persistent self. So long as there is no answer to this question, kamma provides no solution to the problem of just reward. Even if that self is changing, or contains changing elements, it must retain some form of identity through time, or persistence. (It may also be said more appropriately to “perdure” in the contemporary philosophical sense).

The Buddha specifically declined to answer the question as to whether the one who performed the action was identical to the one who received the benefit or harm, or whether they were two different persons (SN 12.46). This refusal to elaborate a system of personal identity over time, with its concomitant refusal to elaborate any meaningful substitute for such identity, doubtless caused problems for those of a philosophical mindset. It does so to this very day.

That said, the tradition in the wake of Nāgārjuna has trouble making complete sense of anicca, since if all things are empty of self-identity there is no way of distinguishing one thing from another, except on a conventional level. As Garfield says, “[W]hen existence is understood in terms of emptiness and when entities are regarded as purely relational in character, identity and difference can only be understood conventionally” (p. 195).

Ultimately it seems there can be no separable things. But for there to be change, a thing must be followed by something else: this is what change means. Hence it sounds as though ultimately there can be no change, and anicca is false.

The rejoinder, hinted at by Garfield’s first quote above, is that one cannot make sense of change without emptiness: if things were not empty then change would be impossible. If things were not empty then there would be causally independent, permanently existing entities.**

However I believe Nāgārjuna’s argument for this conclusion depends upon various questionable moves. Certain of these were outlined by Richard Robinson, and crucial fallacies of equivocation were outlined by Richard Hayes. In short, Nāgārjuna equivocated between the concepts “dependence/independence” and “identity/difference” in several key Sanskrit terms of his arguments. That is to say, Nāgārjuna’s arguments are not good. Hayes shows one cannot demonstrate that something lacks self-identity, and thereby that it lacks a kind of self, simply by showing it is dependently arisen based on causes and conditions. Alternately, one cannot show that something with self-identity, with a kind of self, cannot arise dependent on such causes and conditions.

Dependent origination may argue for a thing’s being impermanent (indeed, dependent origination requires impermanence), however something’s being impermanent does not require that it lack self-identity. After all, for something to be impermanent, it must arise and pass away. Anything that arises and passes away will have an impermanent self-identity which is self identity of a passing sort.

Impermanent things can have self-identity. Self need not be permanent.

The Buddha’s Rejoinder

Or maybe not, at least for the Buddha. We are forced once again to come to terms with the Buddha’s odd understanding of anatta. As we saw above, many of the Buddha’s key arguments for non-self depended on taking self to be permanent. For example, see his argument here: “Is what is impermanent … fit to be regarded [as] my self’?” “No.” (MN 109.15). This is unpersuasive insofar as we are willing to accept impermanent selves.

For the Buddha however, an “impermanent self” was anathema. It would be a form of “annihilationism” of the kind rejected in the Brahmajāla Sutta (DN 1.3.10-16).

That said, as I have noted elsewhere the Buddha did make copious use of the term “self” (attā) as a “popular expression” and rejected the view that there is “no self”. This leaves us at something of a quandary when trying to reconstruct the Buddha’s view of self. It seems he was willing to make use of the term, but not to provide much theoretical framework for understanding how and when the hoi polloi made appropriate use of the term. We will come back to this problem, below.

Existence and Nonexistence

Nāgārjuna’s treatment of “emptiness” is more far reaching than use of the term “self” (atman/attā) would imply. As we have seen, his interest revolves around terms like “being”, “identity”, “dependence”: forms of the Sanskrit term “bhāva”.

The only Nikāya text that Nāgārjuna cites in the MMK is the Kaccānagotta Sutta, or Kātyāyanāvavāda. Perhaps we can look for clues to resolving our various quandaries there. It is where the Buddha says to Kaccānagotta,

This world, Kaccāna, for the most part depends upon a duality — upon the notion of existence (atthitā) and the notion of nonexistence (natthitā). But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world.

… [T]his one [with right view] does not become engaged and cling through that engagement and clinging, mental standpoint, adherence, underlying tendency; he does not take a stand about ‘my self’. …

‘All exists’ (sabbam atthi): Kaccāna, this is one extreme. ‘All does not exist’ (sabbaṃ natthi): this is the second extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: [through the formula of dependent arising] (SN 12.15).

Nāgārjuna glosses this passage by saying (translation adapted from Hayes),

They who perceive identity (svabhāva), difference (parabhāva), being (bhāva), and nonbeing (abhāva) do not perceive the truth in the Buddha’s instruction.

In the Kātyāyanāvavāda the Lord, who clearly saw being (bhāva) and nonbeing (abhāva) denied both the view that one exists (asti) and the view that one does not exist (nasti)” (MMK 15.6-7).

As Bhikkhu Bodhi points out in a note to the Kaccānagotta Sutta,

… [I]t would be misleading to translate the two terms, atthitā and natthitā, simply as “existence” and “nonexistence” and then maintain (as is sometimes done) that the Buddha rejects all ontological notions as inherently invalid. (n. 29 p. 734).

Bodhi points to another sutta as evidence, where the Buddha says, “Of that which the wise in the world agree upon as not existing, I too say that it does not exist. And of that which the wise in the world agree upon as existing, I too say that it exists” (SN 22.94). The Buddha goes on to say that what does not exist is anything permanent or unchanging, and that what does exist are the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, volitions, and consciousness), which are “impermanent, suffering, and subject to change”, that is, anicca and dukkha.

The Buddha’s Equivocation

To return to the issue of the Buddha’s fraught relation to the self, in this list of existing things one does not also find the word “self”. That’s no surprise. But it therefore seems the Buddha treats the notion of a self differently from that of the five aggregates. The former he is not willing to embrace as existing (nor as not existing!), the latter five he is. That is, he treats the concept “self” differently from that of other ordinary (one might say) “popular expressions”, like “form”, “feeling”, and so on.

Why exactly is this an equivocation? The Buddha says that he does not countenance a self as existing because its purported constituents are impermanent, not under our perfect control, and so on (e.g., MN 109.15). But of course the five aggregates are impermanent and not under our perfect control as well, and yet he is willing to countenance their existence.

It seems the later tradition tended to smooth over this equivocation, and take selflessness as a global feature of reality, through the concept of emptiness. That is to say, they tended to take “self” not as a different and unique concept, but as a concept somehow paradigmatic of all reality.

As Bodhi claims, in the Kaccānagotta the Buddha was not arguing against existence and nonexistence per se. He was arguing against a global reification of a sort: the kind that held that all things are in some way permanently existent, or alternately that all is a kind of illusion. (Cf. SN n.185 p. 1085). That is, his point was more about anicca (impermanence) than bhava (being).

In the Kaccānagotta, the Buddha used the more everyday terms “atthi/natthi” which correspond roughly to our “is/isn’t”. He wasn’t using the more philosophically freighted term “bhava/abhava” (roughly, “being/nonbeing”) which Nāgārjuna did in the MMK passage. It may be that Nāgārjuna was intentionally changing the subject somewhat in order to rebut what he felt were excesses of the philosophical schools of his day, particularly the abhidhamma/abhidharma. It may also be an indication that the Buddha was not intending to make a deep ontological point, but that Nāgārjuna took him as doing so.

In interpreting the Kaccānagotta, Garfield claims that “the Buddha argues that to assert that things exist inherently is to fall into the extreme of reification” (p. 223). But the Buddha makes no claim about so-called “inherent existence” (svhabāva) in that sutta; indeed so far as I know the term “svabhāva” doesn’t occur anywhere in the Nikāyas with the connotation “inherent existence”.

It does occur in the abhidhamma/abhidharma literature to which Nāgārjuna was most likely responding. Though as Robinson points out (and Hayes concurs), Nāgārjuna defines the term in a way that none of his opponents would have accepted. As Hayes says, “What Nāgārjuna is saying is that no being has a fixed and permanent nature. What the abhidarmikas maintained was that everything has features that distinguish it from other things.” (Nāgārjuna: Master of Paradox? p. 10).

That is, the abhidharmikas were trying to explain impermanence by grounding the separability of things in their identities and differences. Nāgārjuna was saying that nothing has the nature of permanence. In this sense perhaps the two were talking past one another.

Now, the Buddha’s aim in teaching anatta was to end clinging, by ending our continual identification with things in the world. Given the facts of impermanence, he was focused on anatta as it referred specifically to one’s own person: “All phenomena are non-self” (e.g., AN 3.136) meant that one should not take any item of experience as I, mine, myself. Here “self” is being used in the sense of a person who is immune to the vicissitudes of impermanence, independent of causes and conditions, the “locus of perfect control” that constituted the aim of early Indian spiritual practice.

The later tradition expanded the scope of non-self outside that of personhood to all of reality in the guise of “emptiness”: “All phenomena are non-self” began to mean that no phenomenon, no object, no dhamma, had its own self. But whereas formerly “self” was a concept that occurred in the context of personal experience of the five aggregates, now “self” became a general feature of ontology, basically a form of the problematic “svabhāva” (inherent existence) we saw in Nāgārjuna.

In a sense of course Nāgārjuna’s moves stemmed from the Buddha’s own equivocation on what he was willing to countenance as existing, as well as his implicit attribution of permanence to self. Ironing out what may have seemed a philosophical mess led to a radical shift in perspective, as the later tradition came to its own terms with these complexities in the dhamma.

Conclusion

We have seen, at least as a plausible speculation, that the later tradition tended towards a shift in emphasis, moving from the primacy of impermanence to the primacy of non-self in the guise of “emptiness” or śūnyatā. While we saw in the Nikāyas the suggestion that non-self required impermanence, in Nāgārjuna, as Garfield put it, impermanence (indeed, the entire Buddha dhamma, according to Robinson) required non-self.

For most of us the reality of impermanence is much more readily available than that of non-self, not to say “emptiness”. If we take Sharon Salzberg’s formulation to heart, understanding emptiness means understanding dependent origination, a theory of some formidable complexity.

Historically it may well be the case that Nāgārjuna’s aim was to dispell the attachment he saw in certain contemporary followers of the abhidhamma/abhidharma, and that his efforts were focused to that end. If so it may be that his words are useful in the context of a kind of rarified scholastic audience.

However I believe the rest of us are better aimed towards the facts of impermanence, particularly in a secular, lay audience. I think it also bears consideration that Nāgārjuna’s key arguments appear to rely on various fallacies of equivocation. Some of the confusion may go back to the Buddha’s own usage of terms like “self”, and his own subtle equivocation between senses of permanence, independence, and identity. Nevertheless I think enough remains of the genius in the Buddha’s approach that can be brought home to our everyday attachments that the early material on non-self bears learning and consideration. Doubtless its refinement will never be complete.

——————

* Indeed Anālayo wrote regarding two of the largest treatments of emptiness in the Nikāyas that, “It is remarkable that the Cūḷasuññata Sutta and the Mahāsuññata Sutta, whose titles indicate that their main topic is emptiness, both stress the importance of impermanence.” (p. 640)

** Independence and permanence are often treated as near synonyms in Buddhism, as though it were as good to show one as to show the other, and in particular as though establishing something as independent would entail its permanence. But permanence does not follow from independence unless we assume a very strong metaphysical claim such as the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Without such a principle, it might be that something were independent and also impermanent.

__________

Bhikkhu Anālayo, Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pāli Discourses. Pariyatti, 2012.

Jay Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. (Oxford U. Press, 1995).

Pāli Nikāyas trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi, Maurice Walshe. (Wisdom)

Richard Hayes, “Nāgārjuna’s Appeal” Journal of Indian Philosophy 22, 1994.

Richard Hayes, “Nāgārjuna: Master of Paradox, Mystic or Perpetrator of Fallacies?”

Richard Hayes, “Self: delusion, fiction, myth or prerequisite?”

Richard Robinson, “Did Nagarjuna Really Refute All Philosophical Views?” Philosophy East & West, V. 22 No. 3 (July 1972).

No Comments

  1. Ron Stillman on January 12, 2015 at 11:03 am

    “If we take Sharon Salzberg’s formulation to heart, understanding emptiness means understanding dependent origination, a theory of some formidable complexity.”

    Doug, you seem to be suggesting the importance of understanding dependent origination. Will you be addressing this subject in an upcoming post?

    • Doug Smith on January 12, 2015 at 11:11 am

      Hi Ron,

      I have no immediate plans to do so. There are aspects of dependent origination that I think deserve attention, but I don’t think it works well as a kind of stand-in for “interdependence” or “causality”. And really what’s at issue in these arguments is “interdependence” rather than one of the precise DO formulas given in the suttas.

  2. Carl H on January 13, 2015 at 8:49 am

    “However, emptiness is not to be understood as a description of reality as it is independent of human conceptual conventions, as its main purpose is to combat the wrong ascription of svabhava (“own being” or “essential nature”) to things. The absence of svabhava or emptiness is nothing phenomena have within themselves, but only something which is projected onto them from the outside in an attempt to rectify a mistaken cognition. Therefore the theory of emptiness is not to be regarded as an ultimately true theory either. Such a theory would describe things as they are independent of human interests and concerns. But the theory of emptiness is intricately bound up with such interests and concerns: if there were no human minds who mistakenly read the existence of svabhava into phenomena which lack it there would be no point in having a theory to correct this. It is only due to our erroneous view of things that the theory of emptiness is required as a corrective.”
    Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    Nagarjuna
    Copyright 2010 by
    Jan Christoph Westerhoff

    • Doug Smith on January 13, 2015 at 9:00 am

      Thank you for that, Carl. Yes, the “emptiness of emptiness” it is called. This is one of many issues surrounding the topic that make it so difficult to discuss. At any rate, this is what I was getting at with the issues regarding the abhidhamma/abhidharma: Nāgārjuna probably intended his verses on emptiness as a corrective to what he felt were false ascriptions of svabhāva.

    • mufi on January 13, 2015 at 9:45 am

      Yeah, Carl’s Westerhoff quote jibes with the overall message that I took away from Garfield’s translation/commentary of Nagarjuna.

      But my first reaction to reading your essay above, Doug, was to ask: How come Garfield did not report on these “fallacies of equivocation”? Does he agree or disagree with that charge? After all, he (along with his sometimes collaborator, logician Graham Priest) seem to think very highly of Nagarjuna’s logical prowess. Too bad I can’t just pull him in, Woody Allen style. 😉

      • Doug Smith on January 13, 2015 at 9:55 am

        Yes, I wonder the same thing. Hayes does refer to Garfield and Priest’s work in his “Master of Paradox” paper, FWIW.

  3. cognazor on January 15, 2015 at 10:55 pm

    This is related to a point that Rob Burbea makes in his new book – the problem with impermanence being the fundamental mark of existence is that it depends on the perception of time. But the perception of time requires the memory of a previous moment or the anticipation of a future moment in relation to the present moment – it is a mental reification. If one realizes in meditation that their perception of time is actually based on subtle clinging/grasping, then they can start to let it go and realize its emptiness. It is for this reason that I would argue that the later traditions are correct – emptiness is more fundamental.

    • Doug Smith on January 16, 2015 at 4:45 am

      That’s an interesting point, cognazor. I am not familiar with Burbea’s book but he is certainly correct that impermanence requires time. That said, the realization of emptiness is in exactly the same predicament: any mental realization is a process that requires time.

      It may be that a realization appears to us to occur instantaneously, but we know physically (and we could know experientially if we could look closely enough) that there will be an extraordinary amount of stuff going on within the brain and mind during a process of realization.

      Without time there is no activity of any sort, therefore no mental activity.

      So while one might say that impermanence requires time and emptiness does not (indeed, emptiness is not a ‘thing’, hence can’t really be said to ‘require’), nevertheless the realization of impermanence and the realization of emptiness are precisely the same in both requiring time.

      • cognazor on January 16, 2015 at 8:04 am

        I would argue that, from an experiential perspective, they are not “precisely the same in both requiring time.” You are arguing that time passes during the process of and instant of realization, that multiple synapses fire in the brain. This is something that is impossible to argue with. But that is besides the point I made. I am talking about the PERCEPTION of time. Insight into impermanence by definition requires the perception of time, the memory of the past and the anticipation of future, the stitching together of perceived sensations. Insight into emptiness occurs when the mind stops clinging to and stitching together instances of perceived sensation (however gross those perceptions are – with practice one can discern more micro-level sensations) into something seemingly inherently existent, like time or the sense of self.

        • Doug Smith on January 16, 2015 at 8:11 am

          Yes, the mental operations involved in the realizations are different in each case, but that alone does not, I think, argue for one being more fundamental than the other.

          Of course, if one assumes that Nāgārjuna’s interpretation of emptiness is correct, then it follows that one will accept it as fundamental, since that’s the implicit claim: emptiness grounds everything. (Viz., the quotes I cited above). If one does not, then one will not.

    • Carl H on January 16, 2015 at 3:06 pm

      Yet we don’t normally cognize the memory of a past event nor the anticipation of a future event, a reification of time does not necessarily follow. It only follows, and is in error, if we assume that moments contain an essence. Seeing time as a flow of succeeding moments is performative, the error is in believing in their essence. Chandrakirti argues that it is the same when an individual refers to “I” or “me”; though there is no essential “I” or “me” to refer to, the use of “I” or “me” is also performative and only in error if I believe in an essential “I” or “me.”

      • cognazor on January 16, 2015 at 4:23 pm

        Hi Carl,

        I think we are making the same point. Isn’t not assuming moments have essence the same as recognizing that they are empty?

        • Carl H on January 17, 2015 at 1:15 pm

          I agree, there isn’t a difference there. However, it is your statement: “But the perception of time requires the memory of a previous moment or the anticipation of a future moment in relation to the present moment – it is a mental reification.”, that I disagree with. And, the statement: “If one realizes in meditation that their perception of time is actually based on subtle clinging/grasping, then they can start to let it go and realize its emptiness.”, implies that a perception of time is based on “subtle clinging/grasping”, and while I believe that that is a possibility, I also believe that it is certainly not necessarily the case.

    • David S on January 19, 2015 at 3:33 pm

      I liked reading the comments on memory but as it goes we have differing thoughts. It seems to me that consciousness has memory as its core. It seems to me that by the time I am conscious of any sensation it is already over. It seems to me that the incoming signal and its reception take time to process. What I experience has the quality of an echo with affects of the sensation ringing on and my mind forming stable perceptions out of these. Only if I ignore this this echo effect and sense that my mind is actively forming perceptions, and instead just focus upon what is being known, then yes it appears to not involve anything else and a sense of stability arises. But the closer I try to get to a specific sensation the more my mind appears to jump around in its conceiving of them, with sensation and its form in a dance of what I would call memory.

      If there was no memory of any sensation would we be at all able to perceive?

      I’d be curious to hear any responses.

  4. cognazor on January 16, 2015 at 8:35 am

    Yeah, I’ll admit that my argument is based primarily on my own experience in meditation of having perceived time and change to be empty of inherent existence. It is not an ontological argument but a phenomenological one. If others have a different experience, I can’t argue with that.

    • David S on January 16, 2015 at 10:03 am

      Cognazor, how would you describe your experience of perceiving time to be empty? Is there any content at all in that experience?

      • cognazor on January 16, 2015 at 10:48 am

        Hi David,

        It is hard to describe the experience without turning it into a thing. It is not cessation (stream entry in Therevada Progress of Insight speak), but it approaches that on a continuum. So yes there is content, but its sense of realness fades. Burbea calls it the “fading of perception”.

  5. cognazor on January 16, 2015 at 8:47 am

    BTW I highly recommend Rob Burbea’s book – Seeing that Frees: Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising. He argues for the primacy of emptiness, but backs up every link in the argument with practice instructions aimed at verifying it for oneself in experience. I would say he quotes Nāgārjuna with about the same frequency as Guatama – which might poison the well for some Therevada folks.

  6. Nick on January 16, 2015 at 4:20 pm

    Sharon seems caught up in Nagarjuna. ‘Emptiness’ is unrelated to impermanence & interconnectedness since the Pali scriptures explain all things are ’empty’, including the unchanging unconditioned Nirvana.

  7. Nick on January 16, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    If the mind has clarity, it sees clearly in meditation that any object (such as the breath) is ’empty of self’. To clearly see ’emptiness’ is unrelated to impermanence or interconnectedness. To simply pick up a rock or soil and clearly examine it will easily find there is no ‘self’ in that rock or soil. Thus the rock or soil is ’empty’. Something originally very simple & straightforward, Nagarjuna made very convoluted.

  8. catgut on January 25, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    I’m still feeling a little unsure about where this leaves us in terms of practice. Is it that all phenomena, including ‘self’ are impermanent and cannot exist independent of all other phenomena? If this is so, can we incorporate this into our contemplation and is it valuable to do so? Can we accept that while we recognize forms, these are fluid and without clear borders? Is to do this to straddle the apparent contradiction between existence and non-existence?

    • Doug Smith on January 26, 2015 at 10:22 am

      The point of practice is to get ourselves along the road to non-clinging. When we see that all phenomena are impermanent, that they only exist for a time and then pass away, we see that they cannot be depended upon. This can help lead us to non-clinging.

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