Void Diagrammatics – Nagarjuna



When one link has been stopped, the link that follows does not manifest. And thus the mass of suffering itself is brought completely to an end.
– Mulamadhyamakakarika      

The human mind is capable of amazing feats of organization and complication. The concepts it utilizes permit a wide range of abstract thought. By abstracting, labeling, and categorizing, this mind is capable of making new and ever more refined behaviors. This ability has proven to be incredibly useful for humans in crafting adaptive cultures.

However, we also pay a price for this ability. Firmly situated in our concepts and traditions, we confuse our ideas with the cast of the absolute. Much of our thinking is influenced by an uncertain bedrock of habit and culture. Personal and collective madness ensues when we treat our projections as the sole criterion with which to judge reality. We become enamored by our thought and unable to assume other perspectives.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, there is a strong emphasis on personal investigation. What happens when every belief, word, and thought goes under the chopping block? Through frequent study and interrogation, the student can discover a lack of any fundamental anchor for existence, referred to in Buddhism as emptiness. Emptiness is elaborated on in the writings of Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna’s philosophy is a sustained and penetrating inquiry into how humans understand reality. His works are a firestorm that raze our cherished gods to the ground.

According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism:

Nagarjuna . . . Spoke of a middle way between the extremes of existence and nonexistence, sometimes also referred to as the middle way between the extremes of permanence (Sasvatanta) and annihilation (Ucchedanta). For Nagarjuna, the ignorance (Avidya) that is the source of all suffering is the belief in Svabhava, a term that literally means ‘own being’ and has been variously rendered as ‘intrinsic existence’ and ‘self-nature.’ This belief is the mistaken view that things exist autonomously, independently, and permanently . . . His approach generally is to consider the various ways in which an entity could exist, and then demonstrate that none of these is tenable because of the absurdities that would be entailed thereby . . . The purpose of such an analysis is to destroy misconceptions (Vikalpa) and encourage the abandonment of all views (Drsti). (562)

His analysis is found in one of his classic works, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika). Nagarjuna is a guide through the strange lands outside opinion, which he shows by way of meticulous critique. He removes the rigid underpinnings of thought, including such dualisms as self/other and observer/observed. Nagarjuna creates a chain reaction, and shows how liberatory consequences follow as we strip the concepts we use to the bone. An excellent example of the type of dialogue Nagarjuna uses is found in a lengthy examination of categories in “An Examination of the Aggregates”:

Separate from the cause of form, no form is found. Separate from the so-called form, the cause of form also does not appear.
If, separate from the cause of form, there were a form, this form would be by consequence without a cause. But something that’s without a cause is nowhere to be found.
If, separate from a form, there were a cause of form, this cause would be a cause without effect. But causes that have no effects do not exist.
If form exists, a cause of form is unacceptable. If form does not exist, the cause of form is likewise unacceptable.
Forms bereft of causes are untenable, indeed they are! And thus concerning forms, conceive no concepts of whatever kind.
To say the fruit is like the cause is unacceptable. To say the fruit’s unlike the cause is also unacceptable.
With feelings and perceptions, conditioning factors, consciousness, with all things, and in all respects, apply the same procedure as with form.
In arguments concerning emptiness, all statements made to counter it are not replies at all, for they exemplify the thesis to be proved.
When emptiness is set forth and explained, all statements made to show its faults, reveal no faults at all. For they exemplify the thesis to be proved. (Root Stanzas of the Middle Way, 15-16, Padmakara Translation Group)

Nagarjuna is providing us with a way of analyzing concepts, and showing how this can be used across all of language. Nagarjuna often begins with a category we typically use, in this case “form.” He shows how attempting to separate the words “form” and “cause” leads to disastrous consequences. There cannot be an independent form separate from the form/effect, which would be an acausal appearance from nothing. There also cannot be a cause that lurks “behind the scenes” without creating effects. Since he has shown that one cannot establish a preexisting cause for form, or an independent form without a cause, he goes on to eliminate other concepts that are linked to form in a similar way. This goes on throughout the Mulamadhyamakakarika, as Nagarjuna shows that even our most carefully constructed foundations are hewn from rotten wood.

It becomes clear from this type of analysis that these categories are socially useful for communication, but do not accurately capture the character of what we experience. Binary relationships allow us to sketch maps of reality, distilled into simplistic chains of concepts that allow the human mind to organize cause and effect. These concepts are easy prey for Nagarjuna’s wide-ranging explorations, as he uses linguistic tools against themselves, logically analyzing these conceptual maps and showing their inadequacy.   In an empty reality, everything mutually links with something else for its own conditions, and no phenomena can live an independent existence. We ascribe far more importance to our beliefs and preferences than they are entitled. We also habitually treat ourselves as if we are independent and try to manipulate reality accordingly.

Defilements, actions, and embodied beings; agents and the fruits of action are like cities of gandharvas. They’re like mirages or dreams. (Ibid., 58)

When we hold our assumptions rigidly, we create suffering. Part of Buddhist insight is to see into our own minds and how we create many of our own problems. It is our inability to notice the conceptual and meaning-making processes of our own minds that contribute to further suffering. Since no life escapes suffering, the way that we relate to it has important consequences. Nagarjuna’s texts are revolutionary in their ability to undermine what we think we know. Once we  have ceased attaching to our beliefs as intrinsic aspects of reality, we no longer have to suffer when things inevitably change. We also connect with the universe in ways that cut much deeper than superficial beliefs.

All human beings without exception are in reality homeless. It’s a mistake to think we have a solid home. – Kodo Sawaki, The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo (13) 

Humans have no unyielding position or identity in a changing reality. With practice at pushing our own beliefs and personal limits, we find an existence that does not accept reductive interpretations. Repeated observation and analysis yields a reality that does not conform to any concept we utilize.

The more I meditate, the more I feel that all language dissolves, and any kind of category feels like a mere shadow, a construct of a mind that cannot help but try to divide and conquer. Nagarjuna liberates us from our own minds, and in collapsing its edifice, he helps to reconnect us to everything.


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