Skip to main content Accessibility help

For Whom Emptiness Prevails: An Analysis of the Religious Implications of Nāgārjuna's Vigrahavyāvartanī 701

  • Roger Jackson (a1)


He who has seen everything empty itself is close to knowing what everything is filled with. (Antonio Porchia)

Emptiness (Śūnyatā) is probably the most important philosophical and religious concept of Mahayana Buddhism. Its precise meaning has been explained differently by different schools and in different Buddhist cultures, but almost all Mahāyāna Buddhists would agree with the following characterization: Philosophically, emptiness is the term that describes the ultimate mode of existence of all phenomena, namely, as naturally ‘empty’ of enduring substance, or self-existence (svabhāva): rather than being independently self-originated, phenomena are dependently originated (ptatītya samutpāda) from causes and conditions. Emptiness, thus, explains how it is that phenomena change and interact as they do, how it is that the world goes on as it does. Religiously, emptiness is the single principle whose direct comprehension is the basis of liberation from samsāra, and ignorance of which, embodied in self-gasping (ātmagraha) is the basis of continued rebirth – hence suffering – in samsāra.



Hide All

page 408 note 1 The translation is mine. I have taken the Sanskrit from The Dialectical Method of Nāgārjuna (Vigrahavyāvaratanï), tr. Bhattacharya, Kamaleswar, ed. Johnston, E. H. and Kunst, Arnold (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1978), second part, p. 52. Other translations may be found at ibid. first part, p. 47; and Streng, Frederick, Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967), p. 227. Streng, unfortunately, fails to convey the double negative in the second half of the verse.

page 408 note 2 Dialectical Method, second part, pp. 52–3. Bhattacharya's translation is at ibid., first part, p. 47.

page 409 note 1 Cf. especially his Madhyamakākārikās, which have been edited and translated by Inada, Kenneth in Nāgārjuna: A Translation of His Madhyamakakārikā (Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1970), and translated by Streng, in op. cit., pp. 183–220.

page 410 note 1 Vasubandhu describes the process picturesquely when, in the baāsya to Abhidharmakośa vi, 34a–b, he likens the removal of obstacles to liberation to what follows on the cry: ‘Make room! Knock down the house!’ Cf. Poussin, Louis de la Vallée, tr. L'Abhidharmakośa de Vasubandhu (Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1923–31), IV, 305–6. One of the earliest references to the ‘adventitious’ nature of defilements is found in the Śrīmālādevīsimhanāda Sūtra: cf. Alex, and Wayman, Hideko, tr., The Lion's Roar of Queen Śrīmālā (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), p. 106.

page 411 note 1 The suggestion that the mind Is fundamentally pure can be traced as far back as Ariguttara Nikāya, i. 10, and may have been held by the Mahāsanghikas, and perhaps even the Vibhajyavādins. It is, of course, a central tenet of much Mahāyāna sutra literature, and of sāstras dealing with the concept of Tathāgatagarbha. For references, cf. Ruegg, David Seyfort, La Theorie du Tathāgatagarbha et du Gotra (Paris: École Francaise d'Extrȩme-Orient, 1969) part 4. The definition of mind as clear and cognitive is fairly standard from the Abhidharma literature onward. Cf., e.g., Dharmakīrti, Pramānavārttik (hereafter PV), ii (= the pramānariddhi chapter), 207 b–214a (my numbering is based on Shastri's Sanskrit edition - Varanasi: Bauddha Bharati, 1968). For a discussion based in the Tibetan tradition, cf., e.g., Rinbochay, Lati, Mind in Tibetan Buddhism, tr. Napper, Elizabeth (Valois, NY: Gabriel/Snow Lion, 1980), p. 45. Though the Tibetan tradition has, of course, made its own innovations in Buddhist thought, it has self-consciously attempted to preserve the best of Indian Buddhist theory and practice, and thus is a reasonably reliable basis for reconstructing Indian Buddhist systems, particularly the later ones.

page 411 note 2 This argument is central to the last quarter of PV II, particularly to the proofs of the truths of cessation and path. Cf. e.g. PV, 210–214a. Cf. also rGyal tshab dar ma rin chen's fifteenth-century Tibetan PV commentary, Nam 'grel that lam gsal byed (Sarnath: The Tibetan Monastery, 1974), 1, 322–3, tr. Jackson, , pp. 720–3. I have paraphrased rGyal tshab in discussing the conflicting examples.

page 412 note 1 In the first half of PV, ii. Cf. Jackson, pp. 275–328. Similar arguments, most of them derived from Dharmakīrti, are found in the Tattaasamgraha of Śāntaraksita, which has been translated into English (along with Kamalasīa's panjikā) by Jha, Ganganatha (2 vols., Baroda: The Oriental Institute, 1937, 1939).

page 412 note 2 Cf. e.g. Lati Rinbochay, op. cit., and Stcherbatsky, F. Theodore, Buddhist Logic (rpt., New York: Dover, 1962) vol. 1. There is, of course, much concern in Buddhist epistemology with ways in which we misconstrue reality, and there is a tension within the tradition between more and less sanguine views of the extent and manner of our knowledge of things. Since, however, most Buddhist soteriologies are predicted on a correct apprehension of the ‘true’ nature of things, it is not inaccurate to characterize most Buddhist epistemology as ‘ultimately’ ‘optimistic’.

page 413 note 1 For a concise discussion of this view, cf. PV, ii, 219b–22 a; and rGyal tshab, op. cit., p. 323, tr. Jackson, , p. 721.

page 414 note 1 On this, cf especially the conclusion to part 1 of Jackson, pp. 429–48.

1 This article is drawn in part from several sections of my Ph.D. dissertation, ‘Is Enlightenment Possible? An Analysis of Some Arguments in the Buddhist Philosophical Tradition with Special Attention to the Pramānasiddhi Chapter of Dharmakirti's Pramānavārttika’ (hereafter, Jackson, ) (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1883).


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed