Nothing to Consume: How hard can it possibly be to understand emptiness?

One of the most common rhetorical strategies for (attempting to) explain emptiness to popular audiences seems to me to be so wrong-headed and misleading as to be dysfunctional. It is, however, so well-entrenched that it is repeated by seasoned scholars, as well as by popularizers. That this rhetoric is represented as being grounded in doctrinally authoritative sources—primary or secondary, classic or modern—should not impede critical reflection on it. Nor, if it is an accurate representation of one school of Buddhist thought, should it be taken as accurately representing all. What, then, is this dysfunctional rhetoric?
Simply taking an example that is ready at hand, Fernando Tola and Carmen Dragonetti wrote the following in their essay “Universality of Buddhism,” which was read in absentia for them by Joseph Logan at the IABS/17/Vienna:

The Mādhyamika School of Buddhism, founded by Nāgārjuna at the beginning of the Common Era, studies the reality we perceive and reaches the conclusion, regarding that reality, completely different from our ordinary experience. The empirical reality is composed of beings and things absolutely contingent. In this empirical reality, in which we live, there is nothing existing in se et per se, nothing has a being that belongs to it by its own right (sva-bhava); in this reality everything is conditioned, relative, dependent, contingent. Moreover everything without exception is constituted by parts. No entity exists as a whole; there are only ensembles, conglomerates of parts, elements, constituting factors. Besides that, nothing is permanent, inalterable; everything is in a process of change, submitted to an evolution, which proceeds under the sign of decay and deterioration. And, as a consequence of what precedes, there is nothing which exists truly as it manifests itself before us (substantial, compact, etc.). The empirical reality, as we perceive it, is thus only an appearance to which nothing real corresponds, something similar to a dream, a mirage, to an illusion created by magic. [note: explanatory notes elided, minor typographical errors corrected.]

This kind of explanation participates in the very long-standing Western philosophic metaphysic of appearance versus reality, and its rhetorical power only works when there is a shared agreement that the metaphysical structure of existence is one in which what appears is not what is real.  Further in the background of the rhetorical power of this understanding of Madhyamaka is the hierarchical metaphysics of neo-Platonism. That is, what is identified as “real” is also considered to have greater metaphysical status, to be “more real,” than “mere appearance.”
This leads—me at least—to ask whether Nāgārjuna was in fact operating within an intellectual framework of appearance and reality as a metaphysical dichotomy, attributing a higher metaphysical valence to reality rather than to appearance?
In thinking about this, one of the things that is a signal that something is wrong is that the putatively Buddhist version of appearance and reality is simply an inversion of the neo-Platonic one. In the putatively Buddhist one,

real = change, and appearance = permanence

while in the neo-Platonic one,

real = permanence, and appearance = change.

So the terms of the relation are switched and along with them the greater metaphysical valence attributed to what is “real” changes right along with it—hence, “inversion” rather than simply reversal. In other words, when this kind of explanation of Madhyamaka is given, it is simply standing Plotinus on his head.
Despite the frequency with which the “Madhyamaka as inverted neo-Platonism” claim is repeated, it fails to address the radical move that Nāgārjuna makes when he asserts the emptiness of emptiness, which simultaneously implicates the identity of conventional and absolute. Jay Garfield explains that for Nāgārjuna, emptiness “is not a self-existent void standing behind the veil of illusion represented by conventional reality, but merely an aspect of conventional reality” (“Dependent Arising and the Emptiness of Emptiness: Why Did Nāgārjuna Start with Causation?” in Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation, Oxford University Press, 2002: 25–26).
The identity of emptiness and dependent arising is just exactly not working with the presumption of any hierarchical, appearance/reality metaphysic. It does not hypostatize either change or permanence as higher/more real than permanence or change.
Let us now turn back to the logically basic claim made—paraphrasing the quote above—that “things appear to us in our ordinary experience as permanent.” Far from being phenomenologically valid, this claim now appears to simply be a rhetorical assertion—the assertion of an axiomatic claim, that is, one made as the premise to an argument, but without its own justification. In contrast, it seems to me that things do not appear to us in ordinary experience as permanent, and that it is this pervasive change that is what we experience in ordinary experience. (Oh, and things are not out to trick us into believing they are permanent—that way lies paranoia.)
It is perhaps the simple failure to pay adequate attention to our ordinary experience (and for those of us living in the intellectual culture of Euro-America, probably encouraged by the neo-Platonic rhetoric) that misleads us. If we pay adequate attention, which really isn’t very much at all, we can note that every actually existing entity is not permanent. In fact, this insight takes so little attention that it ought to be perfectly obvious. Maybe that is why it is so hard to see, or maybe that is why so much rhetorical effort goes into making it seem difficult—if it is obvious, it is easy, and if it is easy, then maybe it isn’t worth anything. If the profiteers of popular religious culture let on that it is so obvious, then there would be no authority adhering to their own status, and there would be nothing to consume.

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6 thoughts on “Nothing to Consume: How hard can it possibly be to understand emptiness?

    • “Things.” In college a philosophy instructor terrorized me for using the word, so I use a more philosophically sophisticated sounding phrase instead.
      Less flippantly, however, the distinction is between actually existing things and imaginary things. One can imagine something that is permanent, eternal, absolute, unchanging, however, such a thing does not actually exist. Or rather, to be more precise its actual existence is conceptual, which means that it is impermanent, etc.
      If it is relevant for you, this is also a response to Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God.

      • Thanks for the gloss: in Buddhist terms it seems a bit illogical because one sees things as being both conventionally and ultimately empty, but the definition is useful in making discourse possible. If by Anselm’s argument you refer to the posit that God must exist because we can imagine her, then yes I see the relevance.

  1. The empirical reality, as we perceive it, is thus only an appearance to which nothing real corresponds, something similar to a dream, a mirage, to an illusion created by magic.

    Hearing such things from an academic is sad. But x-buddhist thought isn’t reserved to the ‘lesser’ educated. Recently I heard a presentation by an austrian academic about the superiority of the early buddhist take on the subject vs. the take structuralists and post structuralist have/had. I asked him if he deemed reconstructing the early buddhist historical apriori possible. He said basically, if one meditates in the right way every answer is provided. I was stunned.

  2. I sympathise with your frustration on this point. I’ve been trying for a longish while now on my blog to articulate a more accurate and helpful view of the lakṣanas and emptiness, though I find Nāgārjuna an unhelpful starting point at best. For me the important thing to ask is “what is it that arises in dependence on conditions?” The basic answer is “dharmas”. And dharmas are mental events. Dharmas are constructs that depend on sense object, sense faculty, and sense cognition in order to come into awareness (vedanā). Dependent arising tells us nothing about the world of objects, and everything about the world of experience.

    I see emptiness as an adaptation of this idea to a milieu in which Abhidharma Realism had become the dominant ideology. Poor old Nāgārjuna was stuck with a canonical Abhidharma and real dharmas. He had to allow for this and negate it at the same time. Hence the confusion inherent in his work. We’d do better to get back to a more basic understanding of what dharmas are, throw out the Abhidharma as terrible philosophy, and reconsider things.

    I see Glenn Wallis has “liked” this post. I think my erstwhile friend has got a pretty good explanation of the situation in his collection of Pāli Sutta translations. The problem is the domain (visaya) to which dependent arising applies. The early Buddhist texts make it clear that the domain is *experience*. When we try to apply dependent arising outside the domain of experience the result is nonsense. It is not a Theory of Everything. It has no useful application in ontology. This is confirmed in the work of other scholars like Sue Hamilton, Now Ronkin and Collett Cox. I’m beginning to wonder if there are gender differences in the approach to Buddhist philosophy.

    Those serious and insightful meditators I’m in touch with all seem to agree that what one gains insight into is not the nature of things, or even the nature of mind, but it is precisely the nature of experience.

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