Buddhism - conceptual doubts

nanda chandran vpcnk at HOTMAIL.COM
Thu Oct 14 17:34:52 UTC 1999

First let me thank all those who responded. It's indeed an
extremely interesting subject, since even today there're
scholars trying to figure out the true teaching of NAgArjuna!

And if anybody knows of a good book which analyzes the four
bauddha schools, please let me know. (Thanks Richard, I'll
take a look at the book you recommended.)

For the time being let's concentrate only on NAgArjuna. After
we sort this out we can turn our attention to the other schools.

The verse as kindly translated by Ulrich goes this way :

"There is no distinction of sa.msAra from nirvA.na
There is no distinction of nirvA.na from sa.msAra
What [is the extent] of nirvA.na [is] also the extent of sa.msAra
A slightest difference of the two is also not known"

And according to the interpretations of Anna, Julio, Ulrich and myself, we
can come out with these possibilities :

1. samsAra is the same as nirvAna ontologically

That is, no object has an essence. The notion that things have essence
is the ignorance (avidhya), which leads to misery. Realization and
intuitional experience of this is liberation.

Thus there's no essence which is the reality, and when viewed without
avidhya (cessation of the mind wheel), samsAra itself is nirvAna.

2. samsAra and nirvAna are but concepts and both are beyond knowledge

NAgArjuna in the MMK, does an elaborate refutation of the ultimate
validity of the pramAnas or the means of knowledge. All the so called
valid means of knowledge, themselves don't stand critical examination
- they only be used for practical day to day purposes and cannot be
regarded as final truths. So knowledge itself is an impossibility!

So when even samsAra is beyond knowledge, what can we say about nirvAna?

For practical purposes we can say suffering and salvation, but beyond
that we should not speculate.

3. The emptiness of samsAra (which is its true mode of being) is nirvAna

Here we've to tread carefully, for NAgArjuna himself warns that those
who try to make an end of emptiness itself, are beyond hope!

Let's first try to understand the concept "empty". When we say the box
is empty - we imply that 1. the box alone is and nothing else is inside and
2. it's empty of something (whatever the box might contain). So for the
concept "empty" to work, we need both the box and that of which it is empty.
One can only say, the box or the pot or my stomach is empty, but cannot use
empty for itself. So Emptiness has no meaning by itself and can only exist
in relation to that to which it is referenced.

To say samsAra empty of inherent existence is nirvAna quite different
from "the emptiness of samsAra is nirvAna". For in the latter,
emptiness by itself is quantified and equated with nirvAna!

And even in this line, there can be two interpretations :

a. When the Buddha views an object, he but sees only the emptiness -
which according to NAgArjuna is not really empty in the way it's normally
understood : "it cannot be called void or not void or both nor neither, but
to indicate it it is called void". This would but indicate that it's some
kind of essence - an "other" to the object, but that NAgArjuna doesn't want
to call it as essence.


b. When the Buddha views an object, what he sees is emptiness - that is the
object itself appears *as* empty! That would mean that the object doesn't
appear at all! And if so what appears? Emptiness? That which cannot be
related to form at all? But then how would you know that it is the object
which appears as emptiness? Or is it as explained in the first alternative
(a), that emptiness doesn't mean emptiness in the way it's commonly
understood, but something beyond conception - supersensible and

I'll stop here and let the readers soak all these alternatives in.
Probably none of the alternatives individually does justice to the
MAdhyamika. But a reconciliation of all the three alternatives may!

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