Sartre and Nagarjuna, Being and Emptiness

The impact of Buddhism on Western philosophy is still a relatively new field of study. J. Jeffrey Franklin of the University of Colorado in “Buddhism and Modern Existential Nihilism: Jean-Paul Sartre Meets Nagarjuna” * delves into the subject.  According to the abstract, Franklin’s essay contends “that modernist nihilism owes a largely unexamined historical debt to the nineteenth-century ‘discovery’ of Buddhism. It demonstrates that Jean-Paul Sartre’s nihilism was influenced by a debate that occurred as part of the Western struggle to assimilate Buddhism: the nineteenth-century nirvana debate.”

I bring this up because Jean-Paul Sartre was a key figure in Western philosophy of the 20th century, a founder of French Existentialism, and today is the 111th anniversary of his birth.  Sartre died in 1980.

He was also a novelist and playwright.  During the early part of World War II, Sartre was imprisoned by the Germans, escaped and joined the resistance movement.

How deeply Buddhism may have influenced Sartre, I don’t know. And I can’t get access to Franklin’s paper. However, I am aware that Sartre’s ‘nothingness’ is comparable to the Buddhist concept of sunyata (emptiness) in some respects, but we should not carry this comparability too far.

Hazel Barnes in the 1943 English translation of Being and Nothingness writes,

sartre2If an object is to be posited as absent or not existing, then there must be involved the ability to constitute an emptiness or nothingness with respect to it.  Sartre goes further than this and says that in every act of imagination there is really a double nihilation.  In this connection he makes  an important distinction between being-in-the world and being-in-the-midst-of-the-world. To be in-the-midst-of-the world is to be one with the world as in the case of objects.  But consciousness is not in-the-midst-of-the-world; it is in-the-world.  This means that consciousness is inevitably involved with the world (both because we have bodies and because by definition consciousness is consciousness of a transcendent object) but that there is a separation between consciousness and the things in the world.”

This comes close to emptiness and interdependence but doesn’t go all the way.  It seems dualistic to me.  For Nagarjuna, emptiness demolished all notions of separation and distinction, even though he recognized it was not possible to avoid using such terms.   An article on Buddhanet says, “All phenomena have a relative as opposed to an absolute existence . . . Nagarjuna used the dialectic method to ruthlessly negate all pairs of opposites.”  This is correct but I don’t understand how the article can go on to say that “Sunyata is the absolute reality.”

Emptiness is not a truth so much as it is a condition or state of existence.  We can say it is an aspect of reality, but even that is problematic.  Previously, I have quoted the famous verse from Chapter 24 of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses on The Middle Way, “Whatever arises through interdependency is emptiness. However, this is a conventional designation. It is the meaning of the Middle Way.” These words summarize Nagarjuna’s whole philosophy as he identifies the non-duality of the relative and absolute or ultimate truth.  But the next verse in the chapter is equally important:

Whatever does arise through interdependency does not exist.  Therefore, something that is not empty does not exist.”

In his commentary on the verse, Buddhist scholar Jay Garfield** says,

Nagarjuna is asserting that the dependently arisin is emptiness.  Emptiness and the phenomenal world are not two distinct things.  They are, rather, two characterizations of the same things.  To say of something that it is dependently co-arisen is to say that it is empty.  To say of something that it is empty is another way of say that it arises dependently.”

The way I see it is that absolute reality is the absence of an absolute reality.  The ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth.  And emptiness is relative, which, as I have also mentioned before, Nagarjuna expressed as sunyata-sunyata or the emptiness of emptiness.

Anyway, it’s Sartre’s birthday.  Thought I would pass that along.

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* Franklin, J.J.: “Buddhism and Modern Existential Nihilism: Jean-Paul Sartre Meets Nagarjuna.” Religion and Literature

** Arya Nagarjuna. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way,, Translation and Commentary, Jay Garfield, 1995

Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hazel Estella Barnes, Simon and Schuster, 1992


Reality, a process: Interdependence, Emptiness and Physics

At a teaching I attended in 2002, the Dalai Lama said that the principle of “dependent origination is the foundation for all the diverse concepts in Buddhism.”

bodhi-treeIndeed, it is. In one of the versions of the Buddha’s crucial night of analytical discovery via meditation beneath the Bodhi Tree, it is precisely dependent origination that he realized.  This analysis is a core teaching and the foundation for the philosophy of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school and nearly the entire Mahayana tradition.

In early Buddhism, dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada) was primarily used to explain the law of causation, the chain of cause, effect, and conditioning:

Ignorance > Karma > Consciousness > Name-Form > Senses > Contact > Feeling > Craving > Grasping > Becoming > Old age and death > Rebirth

The fundamental state of being is ignorance, conditioned by the imprints or seeds of past actions, habits and relationships (karma), which gives rise to consciousness, which is joined to name-form (the psycho-physical entity, specifically the embryo in the womb), which activates the six-senses; the senses come into contact with objects of desire and as a result, feeling, craving and grasping arise; these factors cause and condition the becoming of life and all that is becoming (existing) is subject to old age and death, and with the theory of rebirth, everything is set to be repeated in a future life, a continuum of consciousness within an seemingly endless cycle of birth and death.

By the time the Mahayana tradition was established, the focus of the analysis was less on how things come to be and more about how nothing can exist by itself, that everything is interconnected and inter-related. This is one reason why I prefer to describe pratitya-samutpada as interdependence. Dependent origination or dependent arising sounds too much like a form of creationism.

For Nagarjuna, the architect of Madhyamaka philosophy, interdependence was synonymous with emptiness (sunyata). In one respect, Nagarjuna’s teachings were a response and rejection of earlier Buddhist teachings presented in the Abhidharma (Sanskrit) or Abhidhamma (Pali), texts that contained detailed analyses of dharmas or “things”, which became the theoretical foundation for the Buddhist conception of reality. In the Abhidharma view, individuals are empty of “self”, but dharmas have own-being (svabhava). These dharmas are the building blocks of the universe and while they have only a momentary duration, their nature is fixed and irreducible. This concept projected a reality that was particle-like, similar to the Newton/Cartesian view of reality. In science, quantum physics deconstructed that view. In Buddhism, it was the Prajna-Paramita sutras and the commentaries by Nagarjuna which destroyed the Abhidharma view.

The true nature of reality (paramarthasatya) can be termed as the “emptiness of own-being” (svabhava-sunyata) and “interdependency” (pratitya-samutpada). Nagarjuna and the Madhyamaka’s taught that neither an individual nor dharma have an own-being that exists by its own right.

In a recent post, I mentioned the Sanskrit word parikalpita, meaning imaginary or the “imagined.” The Soothill Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms defines it as “Counting everything as real, the way of the unenlightened; The nature of the unenlightened, holding to the tenet that everything is calculable or reliable, i.e. is what it appears to be.” Paraikapita is one of the three natures (tri-svabhava) that imagines a duality between subject and object. This imagined reality is an illusion, a thought construction superimposed on the true reality. Like a veil, it conceals the truth of emptiness/interdependency and all we see in our ordinary experience is an apparent reality, in which things appear to exist by their own right and seem to possess a nature or being that is permanent, independent, unconditioned and designed.

Mu Soeng Sunim in his book Heart Sutra Ancient Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Reality, gives us a glimpse into how emptiness and interdependency compare to modern physics:

Energy, whether of wave of particle, is associated with activity, with dynamic change. Thus the core of the universe – whether we see it as the heart of the atom or our own consciousness – is not static but in a state of constant and dynamic change. This energy – now wave, now particle – infuses each and every form at the cellular level. No form exists without being infused by this universal energy; form and energy interpenetrate each other endlessly in a ever-changing dance of the molecules, creating our universe. This universal energy is itself a process . . .”

In this way, we could also say that reality is a process.

In Madhyamaka philosophy, any duality between subject and object is considered to be imagined (parikalpita again); there is no independently existing ‘experiencer’ apart from the experience, and experience can be also designated as a process. As Sumin notes, in the world of subatomic physics there are no objects, only processes. Atoms consist of particles but these particles are literally empty.

2001a2So, we are aware now that reality is not particle-like but more like the nature of space. The common idea of space is an empty three-dimensional area. But there is no empty space (if by empty space, one means nothingness), space is actually permeated with an impalpable continuum. But the three dimensional aspect we perceive is somewhat of an illusion, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it is not the full reality. Not long ago some researchers, attempting to find a solution to the puzzle of space-time dimensionality, using a supercomputer, found that when the universe was created by the Big Bang, it had 10 dimensions – 9 spatial and 1 temporal – but only 3 of the spatial dimensions expanded. As I understand it, since only 3 dimensions expanded, and ours is an expanding universe, this accounts for the appearance that we live in a 3 dimensional reality. As Shakespeare said, “there are more things in the universe than are dreamt of in your science books.” Or, something like that.

One of the great benefits of Buddhism is that it helps us to see things as they are without having to become physicists, and we are encouraged to consider the possibility of seeing things differently, from various angles. Nothing is fixed, static. Many people tend to equate emptiness with nothingness. A better way to look at it is to think of emptiness as an expanse, particularly an expanse of mind, for one aspect of emptiness is that it means awareness, it is the penetrating insight into the actual nature of reality. Since Buddhism is also concerned with the problem of suffering, it’s helpful to view it as an expanse as well. Lex Hixon, in The Mother of the Buddhas, writes,

The relative truth of existence is that it is an expanse of suffering beings, a condition which is the motivation for the precious Mahayana commitment to universal conscious awakening. This relative truth of suffering must not be swallowed up, even subtly, by the absolute truth that Reality is an inherently selfless expanse, empty space, intrinsically peaceful.”

2001bAwareness is an expanse and like the universe, it should be ever expanding. That is why I don’t accept anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, “supreme perfect enlightenment.” If awareness is not static, then neither is enlightenment; it too is a process.

Finally, interdependency or pratitya-samutpada – the insubstantiality, the interconnectedness, the expansiveness of reality – is not only the foundation for all the diverse concepts in Buddhism, it is also the ground of the diverse world. Emptiness is the cause of interdependency and emptiness is not only a synonym for interdependence, it is also a synonym for something else:

That which is of the nature of coming and going, arising and perishing, in its saha (mundane) nature is itself Nirvana in its unconditioned (ultimate) nature.”

– Nagarjuna, “Treatise on the Maha Prajna-Paramita Sutra”


Emptiness: The Insight of Equality

Those of you familiar with the Heart Sutra know that “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form,” is the most important statement in the text. In one commentary I have on the sutra, an older one titled The Cave of Poison Grass, Seikan Hasegawa, a Rinzai Zen priest, explains the declaration this way:

Sunyata [emptiness] is the beginningless beginning of the world which has two aspects: wisdom, which is emptiness, and love, which is form. Emptiness tells us the sameness, and form tells us the difference. The sameness sees the substance of all forms. Then it can be said that a mountain is not different from an ocean, mountain is ocean; or man is not different from woman, the man is woman. Their value is not different, both are the same. And as humanity, woman and man, the old and young, the poor and the rich, the wise and the foolish, and all such contrasting individuals do not differ; every one has the same respectable value.

It is possible to view emptiness as a “beginningless beginning” because in Buddhism the continuum of consciousness is said to be beginningless; and consciousness arises dependent upon causes and conditions, and Nagarjuna taught that anything which is dependent arising equals emptiness.

Ku: Emptiness
Chinese character for emptiness, calligraphy by Miyamoto Musashi

Hasegawa’s commentary tells us in simple terms not only what lies behind this famous phrase from the sutra but also many of the seemingly paradoxical statements we read in Buddhist literature. The opening sentence of Dogen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra comes to mind: “Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient Buddha way.”

Emptiness refers to the realm of awakening, but this realm is not separate from the world of suffering. “Form is emptiness” directs us to the path that leads to the transcendence of suffering and awakening, while “emptiness is form” is the reverse path, from awakening to suffering. The point of divergence between these two paths is resolved through non-duality. They are two paths and yet they are not two.

The concept of emptiness is a great equalizer because it shows us how all things are equal in value. It undermines the foundations of hatred, racism, nationalism – all the things that lead to conflict and violence. That’s one reason why emptiness is often called “the insight of equality.”

The Buddha asked, “Manjusri, in what equality do those sentient beings who act with the three poisons abide?”

Manjusri replied, “They abide in the equality of emptiness, signlessness, and wishfulness.”

Maharatnakuta Sutra


Understanding the Emptiness of Emptiness

In his Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna writes,

Emptiness demolishes all dharmas (concepts) so that the only thing that abides is emptiness (sunyata). After emptiness has already demolished all dharmas, emptiness itself should also be set aside. It is because of this that we require the ‘emptiness of emptiness’ (sunyata-sunyata). Whereas emptiness conditions all dharmas, the emptiness of emptiness conditions only emptiness.”

This explains once again why emptiness is not the ultimate truth. We can say the same about nonduality. Some folks find this confusing, especially when we say that from the Madhyamaka or Middle Way point of view ‘neither-emptiness-nor-non-emptiness’ and ‘neither-duality-nor-non-duality’ is the ultimate truth. These two phrases represent a middle path, as close as we can come to expressing the ultimate, as it is ultimately ineffable. Although Nagarjuna equated the ultimate with the Middle Way, he taught that actually “The ultimate truth is not any view. Silence is the ultimate truth for the wise.”

In his book Essence of the Heart Sutra, the Dalai Lama explains what Nagarjuna means when he says that emptiness conditions dharmas:

For example, when we speak of the emptiness of a form, we are talking about the ultimate reality of that form, the fact that it is devoid of intrinsic existence. That emptiness is the ultimate nature of that form. Emptiness exists only a quality of a particular phenomena; emptiness does not exist separately and independently of particular phenomena.”

In the passage from his Treatise, Nagarjuna also compares emptiness to medicine – the “antidote” to the disease that comes from delusions originating from the attachments to self-being and dharmas. However, once the disease has been cured, there is no further need for the medicine. Again, why we require the ‘emptiness of emptiness’.

Nagarjuna cautions us about clinging to the idea of emptiness, for when emptiness is seized there is always the temptation to misuse it, to fling it about as another view. Emptiness does not ‘exist’ for its own sake as a concept or a kind of dogma; all things are empty, even emptiness.  And so, emptiness is a tool that must be employed skillfully, and Nagarjuna warns,

Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end.”

Nothing terribly bad will happen if we misunderstand or misuse emptiness, no punishments will befall us, but it does tend to push us further from the liberation from suffering, the peace and joy, we seek.


The External World

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says,

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”

Almost all Buddhists have accepted this core idea for 2500 years. The world is a construction of the mind. The words we use to describe the world, the names (nama) and signs (laksana), more thought constructions, are meaningless as they cannot be one with the referent they direct our attention to, and all of it is an illusion, because it’s all empty.

This is the view from the ultimate truth. The conventional truth is, well, conventional. Things exist, they have substance, at least temporarily. The palm tree outside my window was there years before I came along. It was made by a seed, not my mind. I’d like to make trees with my mind. I’d make a lot of money.

The ultimate truth is taught in order to break our attachment to these constructions of thought and to clear away the illusion. Now when we say that everything is an illusion, there is a small caveat involved. It doesn’t mean to suggest that nothing is real. It means that the way our mind normally constructs, or rather perceives, the world is illusory, as it often does not include interconnectedness. We tend to see things as being separate.

Our environment is an excellent example. Until recent times, human beings viewed their environment as something separate from them, in terms of individual parts rather than as a whole. Based on this illusion, we have polluted the earth, not realizing that the pollution of one part of the environment would have an effect on the other parts. Now, forced awake by climate change, we understand that this thing we call the world is a single living organism composed of smaller organisms functioning in a complex interrelationship.

The culture of human thinking has created the illusion of dualism, projecting a world of opposites, separate parts. To think holistically, focusing on the whole and the interdependence of its parts, is called non-dualism, although I think the Sanskrit word advaita, which means “not two” expresses it better. Human beings and their environment are “two but not two” (Jp. esho funi).

When we talk about seeing the external world as it truly is, we mean understanding the relationship between the ultimate and the conventional, recognizing that while there is some degree of separation between our-selves and the world around us, there is no real determinate essence of separateness.

We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

As I wrote recently, this is such an important point it bears consistent repeating. Another term we use to describe the interconnectedness of all things is ‘emptiness’ or sunyata, a Sanskrit word, a noun derived from the adjective sunya, meaning ‘empty.’ All things are empty of a independent self or own-being.

For those of us who practice Buddhism, an understanding of emptiness is crucial. Because wisdom, in this case ‘emptiness-knowledge’ (sunyata-jhana), is the root of awakening Buddha-nature, in a sense, we can say that emptiness and Buddha-nature are synonymous.

In his Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna put it this way:

All that we see is a creation of the mind [citta]. How is this? It is through one’s thoughts that all things are perceived. Through mind one sees the Buddha and through the mind becomes a Buddha. Buddha is mind itself, and mind itself is our body. Because of ignorance, the mind does not know itself, cannot see itself. Ignorance causes one to seize the fixed nature of the mind. Under this state, the mind one seizes is false. The bodhisattva sees the true aspect of reality, the emptiness, through comprehending the real nature of mind.”

To wipe illusion from our mind, we must open it. Open our minds to the truth of interconnectedness and to the possibility of becoming a Buddha, which is not a fixed state either, but a continual process of re-opening the mind and acquiring wisdom.