When people think of Buddhism, they tend to picture meditative practices. But what many tend to forget is that Buddhism has a tremendously rigorous philosophical tradition, and its thinkers have contributed immensely to philosophy across history. Of these Buddhist philosophers, few—perhaps none—have been as influential as the 3rd-century logician Nagarjuna.
Sometimes considered the “Second Buddha,” Nagarjuna presented a novel approach to the core Buddhist doctrine of emptiness, or shunyata, that would become central to the development of Mahayana Buddhism. In fact, his most famous work, the Mulamadhyamakakarika (“Root Verses on the Middle Way”), was so influential that a new school of thought within Mahayana Buddhism appeared around his teachings—the Madhyamaka, or “Middle Way,” school.
To this day, emptiness is one of the most recognizable Buddhist concepts for practitioners and nonpractitioners alike. But a lot of people also tend to misunderstand it or have trouble grasping what it really means. Is it a kind of existential nihilism, claiming that nothing in reality exists? Or is it more complicated than that?
The idea of emptiness is part of a discussion primarily involving two key Buddhist concepts: the doctrine of no-self, or anatta, and the doctrine of dependent arising.
In a way, Nagarjuna’s teaching on emptiness is exactly what it sounds like: it states that all things in the world are empty—that is, they are empty of intrinsic nature or existence. The idea of emptiness is part of a discussion primarily involving two key Buddhist concepts: the doctrine of no-self, or anatta, and the doctrine of dependent arising. The Buddha taught that there is no self—that the thing we think is ourselves, the thing we refer to when we say “I,” is actually an illusion. There is no enduring core or self in any human being but rather a collection of different skandhas, or aggregates, such as consciousness, mental formations, and sensations, which we put together into this idea of a unified “self” that isn’t actually there. This is a very important feature of Buddhism that essentially all schools agree on, and realizing it is considered to be a central factor in reaching enlightenment and nirvana.
Connected to this is the concept of dependent arising: that all things in the world are dependent in their existence on other things. In other words, everything is temporary and exists only in dependence on everything else. The late Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh explained it beautifully using the example of a flower: You may look at a flower and think that it exists in itself independently, but this is not true. Try to think of that flower without the soil from which it grows, without the sunlight that helps it grow and illuminates it, without the very space in which it stands, or without the particular time in which it is there. Suddenly you no longer have a flower at all.
This is true of all things in the world. There is nothing that exists independently. Even the parts that make up a specific thing are in themselves dependent on other things, and so are the parts of those parts. This leads to the conclusion that there aren’t really any things at all, because all “things” are merely collections of various other things that appear a certain way at a particular time, and it is we who falsely conceptualize them as “things.”
One particular Buddhist story, King Milinda’s Questions, contains a thought experiment that explains this concept perfectly. In this story, King Milinda is having a discussion with a Buddhist sage named Nagasena. The king asks the sage how the doctrine of no-self can be true when possessing a self seems like such an apparent reality. Nagasena points to a chariot and asks, “What is the chariot? Is the chariot in the wheels?” The king answers no. “Is the chariot in the axles?” Again, he answers no. “Is it in the reins?” Still no. “Is it in the seat?” No again.
The king answers no to all of the sage’s questions regarding the parts of the chariot, and eventually answers no when asked if the chariot is simply the combination of all parts. “Well,” the Buddhist sage says, “if the chariot cannot be found in any of the parts, then there is no chariot.”
The designation “chariot” is dependent on all of its various parts, but in reality, “chariot” is only a concept, a name that is applied to something that doesn’t actually have an independent existence of its own. The self is the same way. We say that there is a self, and we talk about our selves using words like “I” because they are convenient and useful in the everyday world. Even the Buddha did so. But in reality, there is no such thing—“I” is only a name that we give to a collection of temporary aggregates.
Basically, all Buddhists agree on the basics of these teachings, but some schools disagree on certain details in their interpretations. For example, how deep does the teaching of no-self go? Does this simply mean that there is no self and basic things in the world have no existence as such, or is it even more radical than that?
During Nagarjuna’s time, Buddhist scholars were developing abhidharma—highly specific systematizations of the earliest Buddhist teachings. Abhidharma texts were essentially commentaries; using philosophical speculation, they attempted to answer metaphysical questions not originally addressed in detail by the Buddha. Understanding abhidharma is important not only for the general history of Buddhist thought but also for contextualizing Nagarjuna and the Madhyamaka school. The abhidharma method of breaking down and interpreting Buddhist teachings had become mainstream in northern India, where Nagarjuna was from, and the majority of the Mulamadhyamakakarika, his most central work, is spent refuting these ideas.
The abhidharma schools are varied and can hold different ideas, but in general, they agree on the fundamental teachings that there is no enduring self and that reality is characterized by impermanence and dependent arising. The everyday reality that we experience, consisting of things and events, is only a conventional construction and not ultimately real. There is no chariot, just as there is no individual self. Anything that we experience is only a conceptual construct of a variety of factors and temporary happenings, and none of these constructs are actually real.
But according to abhidharma texts, there are things called dharmas that are real. Dharmas (not to be confused with the dharma that refers to the Buddha’s teachings) are often translated as “factors” or “phenomena.” This is quite a complicated topic, and many abhidharma thinkers set their sole focus on defining and categorizing these dharmas (in fact, abhidharma itself can be translated as “higher dharma”). But in short, dharmas can be described as momentary objects of consciousness that serve as the fundamental, irreducible building blocks of our perceived reality. The five aggregates, for example, are considered to be dharmas.
What is most important here is that abhidharma thinkers defined dharmas as having svabhava—“self-nature” or “inherent existence”—which qualified them as “real.” And these real dharmas, when interacting with one another, supposedly create the temporary happenings that make up our samsaric world.
Here’s an example: think about drinking a cup of hot coffee. The “cup of coffee” lacks its own intrinsic identity and is therefore not “real,” but the moment-to-moment experiences that arise while drinking it—perceiving “hotness” or “bitterness,” “hardness” of the mug in your hand—these are dharmas, and these are real.
However, these dharmas were also qualified as “conditioned”—that is, they are dependent on one another. They are not experienced as individual things but arise only as fluctuations—we just mistakenly conceptualize these momentarily arising phenomena as individual, independent things, like the “self,” the “chariot,” or the “cup of coffee.”
Separate from these conditioned dharmas was the unconditioned dharma of nirvana. According to abhidharmists, it existed independently from other dharmas, exempt from the standard laws of impermanence or dependent arising. In other words, from the abhidharmic perspective, nirvana was a self-contained “thing,” completely detached from samsara.
This is the general outlook that Nagarjuna is responding to in the Mulamadhyamakakarika, and he argues very forcefully that this perspective is mistaken and fails to uphold the principles of the Buddha. He instead takes a stand that appears to be quite extreme: he argues that there are no dharmas at all. There is nothing that is “real,” because there is nothing with self-nature—not even those fluctuating basic components. Everything is empty.
By Nagarjuna’s logic, nothing that is dependent on causes and conditions can possess its own self-nature, so say goodbye to those conditioned dharmas. And how could something exist that was unconditioned, as the abhidharmists claimed nirvana was? Nagarjuna deduced that if nirvana really was unconditioned—free from all arising and passing away, free from the causality of samsara—then there would be no way for anyone to get there in the first place! And if nirvana can’t be unconditioned, then it must be conditioned—and if it’s conditioned, then it cannot have self-nature. So all dharmas—conditioned or unconditioned, samsaric or nirvanic—are empty, lacking any inherent nature whatsoever.
Nagarjuna argues for this position very systematically, using logical deduction to tackle the topic from every conceivable angle. According to him, the original teachings of the Buddha, when considered properly, must lead to the conclusion of emptiness. Though it sounds radical, Nagarjuna saw this teaching on emptiness as nothing more than a natural extension of no-self and dependent arising: there is no “self,” no “chariot,” no inherent essence to anything.
As stated earlier, many have taken this to mean that Nagarjuna affirms a kind of existential nihilism. This is not just a modern misconception. Even just a few centuries later, the 8th-century Vedantic scholar-sage Shankara famously critiqued Buddhists for being nihilists. But this is actually a misunderstanding of what Nagarjuna is saying here. He’s not saying that nothing exists at all but rather that nothing exists independently or inherently (with svabhava, or self-nature). All things exist only through their dependence on other things.
In that sense, it’s kind of true that nothing exists because there are no things to exist; there are only constantly changing dependent arisings, which in themselves are empty. But that doesn’t mean that what we experience day-to-day isn’t actually there at all, on an ontological level. It’s not complete nothingness. Emptiness does not mean nothingness. That’s a very important distinction, and one that Nagarjuna argues precisely avoids nihilism.
Nagarjuna made it very clear that one needs to be careful not to consider emptiness itself as “real.” Emptiness is a useful tool to collapse all ideas about objects with inherent natures, but it is not itself the inherent nature of things.
There is no such thing, not even emptiness. Indeed, emptiness itself is empty. After all, for “emptiness” to exist, there would need to be “things” to be deemed empty. But there are no such things to deem empty, because everything is already empty. “Emptiness” is simply another conditioned construct, another by-product of dependent origination lacking its own self-existence, just like everything else:
Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation
Is itself the middle way.
(trans. Jay L. Garfield)
Does your head hurt yet? It’s tricky stuff that can be hard to wrap your head around, but to understand Mahayana Buddhism and all of the later Buddhist movements that built on Nagarjuna’s work, we need to at least somewhat understand what he was trying to say and why it was so impactful—not just from a philosophical standpoint but from a soteriological one, too.
If you are an inquisitive person, you may have started asking yourself questions like “What does this mean for some of the basic concepts of Buddhism—nirvana, for example, or samsara or reincarnation or karma? Are these things empty and not real, too?” The answer is yes, indeed they are. But here it is important to discuss another key feature of Nagarjuna’s thoughts: the doctrine of the two truths.
In simple terms, this is the idea that there are two essential ways of approaching reality. We can look at the world through “conventional truth,” that is, through the concepts that we apply to it: that there are things in the world, that the “chariot” is real, that I am a human being, that there are things like karma and reincarnation. We can also look at the world through “ultimate truth”: that “you,” “me,” “chariot,” and “karma” are not real at all but rather empty constructs, lacking any self-existence. Nagarjuna argued that both truths were necessary for liberation:
Without a foundation in the conventional truth
The significance of the ultimate cannot be taught.
Without understanding the significance of the ultimate,
Liberation is not achieved.
In a way, conventional and ultimate reality are actually one and the same in that both exist only through their dependent relation to the other. And since the “ultimate truth” of emptiness is itself just as empty as any other conventional truth, both truths can be equally “conventional” and equally “ultimate”:
Everything is real and is not real,
Both real and not real,
Neither real nor not real.
This is Lord Buddha’s teaching.
Nagarjuna applies a similar logic to break down the abhidharmists’ dualistic definition of nirvana and samsara:
Whatever is the limit of nirvana,
That is the limit of cyclic existence.
There is not even the slightest difference between them,
Or even the subtlest thing.
To Nagarjuna, it is in abandonment of all clinging to all views, including emptiness, that nirvana is found—not somewhere else. And it is precisely this nondualistic view of nirvana that Mahayanists have since strived for.
This article is adapted from a video titled “Are all things empty? — Nagarjuna and the Buddhist Middle Way” on Filip Holm’s YouTube channel, Let’s Talk Religion.