Emptiness in Mahayana Buddhism

Buddhism is an orthopraxy where identity comes from implementing “correct” behavior, rather than orthodoxy where identity is found through “correct” beliefs. Mahayana Buddhism, termed “the Great Way” is essentially a vision of what Buddhism is really about. Although the permeation of Mahayana was harmless, the status of the sutras was constantly disputed. From the very onset of Buddhism, the concepts of Self/not-Self and dependent arising were prominent and fundamental. The Not-Self teaching has been considered by Buddhists to be the unique breakthrough of the Buddha, the discovery that solidifies his superiority over other teachers.
According to the Buddha, for something to be characterized as “Self,” it would not lead to suffering, it would have to be permanent, and also it would obey the person of whom it is the Self. If something were to be a Self, it certainly must be controllable and conducive to happiness; or at least not conducive to suffering. Furthermore, in contemplating the existence of a Self, he stresses that the five plausible candidates for “Self” (the five aggregates) in fact cannot be the Self because they do not meet these criteria. These five aggregates (form, sensation, conception, disposition, consciousness) are certainly not permanent.
They could be considered analogous to a tornado in that they arise from certain conditions and circumstances and are not extractable from the environment in which they occur. Any part of our psychophysical make-up, anything that can be classified under one of the five groups, cannot fit the description of a Self and therefore they are all not Self. In response to claims of having found an unchanging Self, the Buddha asserts that if there is at all a Self, it is only a result of the coming together of causal conditions (dependent origination). In this case, it could not be permanent, and therefore could not be a Self.

Through further analysis and insight meditation after the death of the Buddha, the five aggregates were seen to be dissolvable into simpler elements. This sort of investigation came to encompass not only the psychophysical aggregates associated with beings, but everything in the universe as well. These elements (dharmas) are irreducible to any further factors or sources. The Buddhist school of Sarvastivada held a definitive distinction between the way dharmas exist as ‘primary existents’ and the way complex entities (secondary existents) exist essentially as constructions of dharmas.
The name Sarvastivada itself means “the doctrine that all exist,” and this school introduces the notion of the own-existence of the dharma. Regardless if a dharma is past, present, or future, it nevertheless still exists. These dharmas are ultimate truths. Primary existents must be the terminating point of analysis, and must not arise dependently the way people, tables, and chairs do. Thus, secondary existents lack this inherent existence. The Prajnaparamita is the earliest form of literature known to be specifically Mahayana; paramita meaning perfection and prajna meaning wisdom.
In Buddhist terminology, to have prajna is to encompass an understanding that distinguishes how things actually are from how things seem to be. In the abhidharma setting, prajna is used to determine the value of primary existents (dharmas), which are distinguishable from conceptual constructs. Perfection of wisdom (Prajnaparamita) does not imply the wrongness of what had previously been considered to be wisdom, but rather its perfection. The perfection of prajna is the final, proper understanding of the way things truly are.
Mahayana philosophers felt the nature of the Abhidharma to be too objective and systematic. Characteristically, these sutras are not methodically philosophical nor do they imply doctrinal adherence. The texts entail clear messages that are illustrated repetitively and can be seen as messages that aim to urge or advise those in the non-Mahayana world. As we have seen from pre-Mahayana philosophy, secondary existents are in essence ‘empty’ of primary existence, empty of own-existence. In this sense, all things such as people, sand, grass, the ocean, etc. re empty not only of Self, but also of primary existence. In agreement with these Abhidharma texts, there then must exist things that indeed have primary existence in order to contrast them to secondary existents that are empty of such a quality. However, the Prajnaparamita sutras do not heed this theory. These Mahayana sutras claim that absolutely all things have the same status as people, sand, tables, etc because they are all constructs that cannot be grasped. They claim that everything is empty, and that all things are conceptual constructs lacking own-existence.
In the eyes of the Mahayana philosophers, to claim that there is own-existence in a way that emphasizes the how essential the dharmas are in the Abhidharma seems too methodical. It makes the dharmas themselves suitable to become objects of attachment. Instead, the dharmas should be used the way the raft was used in the parable told by the Buddha in the Alagaddupama Sutra. They should be used as tools that are let go of after use; they should not be clung to. Suffering is the result of attachment, so to grasp to the dharmas is to imply suffering.
One cannot become attached to these things because to attach is to miss enlightenment. In this way, ceasing attachment involves seeing sources of attachment (people, for instance) as empty. One cannot avoid attachment as long as they see a contrast between primary existents and conceptual existents. In the Heart Sutra, the bodhisattva explains that after engaging in deep meditation on the perfection of wisdom, bodhisattvas fully awaken to a state of complete liberation and perfect enlightenment.
The bodhisattva explains to the inquiring Sariputra that the perfection of wisdom involves seeing that the five aggregates are empty, as well as the dharmas that make up these aggregates. Dharmas are not fundamental; they are merely intellectual constructs just as are people and trees. The Sutra illustrates that all beings, things, and ideas, which we experience as “real”, have no inherent existence and this “reality” is merely a construction of the mind. Dharmas, too, are empty and do not ossess the specific characteristics that they have previously been associated with. Nothing comes to be as an inherently existing entity, and therefore nothing can cease. Likewise, nothing is complete or incomplete. The bodhisattva specifically states, “form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form, form is not other than emptiness. ” This is logical because if nothing at all inherently exists, things and concepts such as “form” and “emptiness” are one and the same. Emptiness itself is empty because it does not inherently exist.
The bodhisattva also references the 12 stages of dependent origination and the four noble truths in order to solidify that they too lack inherent existence and are empty. Nothing in existence is separate from anything. The Diamond Sutra speaks repetitively about quantity of merit. The idea of repeating four lines of this Sutra is illustrated over and over again, with the message that teaching just four lines to another person would generate an incalculable amount of merit. In relation to this merit, the sutra places a strong emphasis on the idea of giving without becoming attached to any related notion.
The only way to achieve limitless merit is to selflessly give in this way. The Buddha tells Subhuti that those on the bodhisattva path should have this thought: “However many living beings are comprised in the total aggregation of living beings…I should bring all of them to the final extinction in the realm of extinction without substrate remaining. ” Essentially, the Buddha is stressing the act of enabling all beings to reach Nirvana-without-remainder and, in doing so, surpassing the cycle of continuous death and rebirth.
However, for this to be accomplished, one cannot dwell on the notion of having helped all of those beings. The Buddha goes on to say that after he has brought all of them to final extinction, no living being has been brought to extinction. That is because to give like this reveals the emptiness of giving. Since all of these beings are empty of Self, while all of them have been brought to nirvana, at the same time no one has been brought to nirvana. The mind must be free of thoughts of ‘self’ as opposed to ‘others. ’ There should be no identified “giver” or “receiver” or “gift. Such an act would yield the highest merit in giving. The end of the Sutra contains the verse “an illusion, a drop of dew, a bubble, a dream, a lightning’s flash…” in order to indicate the insubstantiality, or the emptiness, of the world. Like the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra also stresses that everyday reality is like an illusion. Paradoxical phrases similar to “what is called the highest teaching is not the highest teaching” are used frequently to emphasize that the two ideas are inseparable because they are both empty.
The Buddha attempts to help Subhuti “unlearn” the preconceived notions that he has about reality and perception. The distinction between arhats and bodhisattvas is clear; and Subhuti learns that the bodhisattva’s compassion is not calculable. The Diamond Sutra asserts that there is nothing in the world that is unchanging, nor is there anything that independently exists, therefore everything is empty. A life without attachment means a peaceful life in emptiness. This teaching of emptiness was frightening for some, because it seems very similar to nihilism in the way that it encourages such deep letting go.
Nagarjuna’s explanations of the perfection of wisdom claim that all things seem to be illusions was by showing that all things are without their own-existence. In previous Abhidharma terms, a primary existent is an irreducible into which a secondary existent can be analysed. In a way, to be a primary existent is not necessarily unrelated to causes and conditions, so it does not necessarily have “own-existence. ” Nagarjuna’s view is that the concept of svabhava must boil down from that of “own existence” to “inherent existence” that is fully self-contained and is not bestowed upon it from any other sources.
Inherent/intrinsic existence means independence from the causal process that characterizes secondary existence. Dharmas are irreducible, but are still the result of causes. Svabhava should be the equivalent of existing on its own, which is independent of the causal process. While he holds that there could still be a distinction between primary and secondary existents, anything that is the result of conditions must be nihsvabhava, empty. Emptiness here is understood to be the middle way between nihilism and eternalism.
He says that all things are empty of independent existence because all things arise dependently on conditions that are out of their own power, even primary existents. Nagarjuna declares emptiness whenever anything is found to be the result of causes of any sort. He claims that the alternative to emptiness is inherent existence. Moreover, Nagarjuna asserts that emptiness is also dependent on things. Emptiness is the lack of inherent existence of a table, for example. If there were no table, consequently there could not be an emptiness of the table.
In this way, emptiness exists in dependence upon that which is empty. By definition, as originated dependently on something, emptiness itself is accordingly empty as well. Another new concept introduced by Nagarjuna is the doctrine of two truths. This doctrine differentiates between conventional truth and ultimate truth, both of which co-exist. An ultimate truth is something resistant to analysis, such as a primary existent. Conventional truth is how things really or ultimately are, or what is found in analysis when searching for primary existence.
Essentially, what is found is the lack of primary existence, emptiness. Once a Mahayana follower understands these truths, he can engage in the world for the benefit of others with complete compassion. Nagarjuna applies analytic investigation to principal Buddhist ideas. The assertions of complete emptiness as presented in the Prajnaparamita sutras as “like an illusion” are demonstrated through his investigations. Nagarjuna introduces the approach of taking a category that can withstand analysis and analyze it.
He says that there cannot be causation, because it cannot be explained between a cause and effect that are the same. Finally, Nagarjuna makes a clarifying point that the Prajnaparamita sutras fail to address. He says, “Emptiness is not a way of looking at something. It is the quality of that thing which is its very absence of inherent existence. ” This is his way of explaining that emptiness is a way of looking at things, it is an adjective, and it certainly is not nihilism.

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