Awareness and Emptiness: Songs of Nagarjuna

The Emptiness of Emptiness
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Chan enlightenment is not an accomplishment of sage knowledge.

Life of Nagarjuna

It is the extinction of knowledge, liberation from knowledge. If you try to see the true, your seeing will be in no way true. Blown by the wind of knowledge, such a person is drowned in the ocean of birth and death. They [monks] should be taught to leave all things, whether existent or nonexistent, to forsake cultivation and attain- ment, and let go of the very notion of forsaking. And those who understand, understand not understanding. Only when you under- stand nothing is it true understanding. You have to throw away detachment, with its implicit dualism of the detached and the clinging, to realize a careless consciousness.

That comes from understanding, but what is understood is what is not understood; what is understood is our con- dition of not understanding. There is nothing to understand, understand? And it is indeed an accomplishment of understanding, of wise knowledge. Everything still looks as it did before, except now you are radically unattached. You do not think there is any permanence in appearances or back of them, or that there is any real difference of value, that some appearances are better than others, that some ought to be and others not.

Knowledge, wisdom, insight takes you that far, to the brink of sense, where knowledge itself is finally seen through and ceases to function. The empty is the tenuous, the formless, the indeterminate, and unqualified, which is opposed to fullness but operates correlative with it. The full is effective through the emptiness of the empty. As I understand it, full means actual, empty means virtual. Transformation requires virtual emptiness as atoms require void. If becoming is original and irreducible, then things have to stay fluid and breathe.

The generation of the cosmos from emptiness assures that. There is a bottomless well of the virtual, a potent potentiality at the source of things. Because these authors do not think in terms of being as presence or identity, they do not or think of the empty as the absent or vacant. The virtual is, is in being, really exists. It is the opposite of the actual, not of the existing or real.

Zhuangzi says listening with the xin is better than listening with ears, but listening with qi is best. Ears hear words; xin adds connections; but qi, being tenuous, responds to the environment in its virtual dimension, as synergy and potential. Starve the xin of self-regarding desires and feed the emptiness of a sage. As wu wei is not literally devoid of wei save as an ideal limit , so a tenuous mind is not devoid of knowledge, although it is unhindered by conventional moral and linguistic dis- tinctions.

It is empty of distorting memories, prejudices, and precon- ceived ideas. But is it empty of knowledge? Zhuangzi chapter 1 presents ordinary knowledge, what the world calls knowledge, as limited, as something to get over, as little knowledge. Great speech is flavorless, Petty speech strings words. They are not passionate, committed, decisive, or precise. To be any of those takes little knowl- edge. Little knowledge is good with language, knowing how to do things with words. It is the knowledge that gets you through school. Great knowledge gets you through life, knowing the art of nourishing life.

Getting over little knowledge is a step toward better knowledge. Great knowledge is knowledge insight into the incipient, where transformation is birthing, the virtual matrix of the future. As in Zhuangzi so in the Daodejing there is apparent hostility toward knowledge, together with the hint that this is not the only thing that might be called knowledge, that there might be another, different, more effective knowledge.

Powerful knowledge to transform your life

There is something else, although, more properly valued as knowledge, and that is what you have to master for wu wei effectiveness. To know it is to master an art inaction. What makes inaction artful and not mere indolence is that nothing required is left undone, there being no objection to raise against how a situation is handled.

To act without deliberate intention is an art of the invisible. It takes subtle eyes to see opportunities invisible to others, to discern the germ of future things, and know how to modify their evolution when it is pliable and easy to do so. For Daoists there is a knowledge to accomplish, a great knowledge by which we nourish our body and are effective without much effort. It is an improvisatory knowledge that does not reiterate but is capable of functioning in the fog of incipience, where being is becoming and functioning means ziran productivity that leaves nothing required not done.

This is not a knowledge that leads one to the brink of enlightenment, then ceases to function. Daoists want to overcome little knowledge to reach the good stuff, knowledge that feeds life and does not exhaust it. They do not say that Confucians are wrong about knowledge but that they are superficial.

They are stuck in a limited view. What they call knowledge is little knowledge. Confucians say that the best sort of life is a strenuous effort to be good. To Daoists it is a mistake to depend on language, ceremo- nies, and classics. The problem with these artifacts is not their artifi- ciality, however, as is often thought. They want instead to innovate artifacts, to create new forms, to partici- pate in the ziran productivity of nature, and vanish into things.

Things too must vanish.

Nagarjuna: “Wrong End of the Snake”

Their emptiness is unconditional, without potential, dynamism, or virtual difference. The epistemological innovation of the Daoists is to present the knowledge of Confucians as limited, as something to get over, a gesture Chan repeats to the Daoists. They too are stuck in a limited view, their so-called great knowledge also little, limited, an obstacle.

The solution is not a still greater knowledge. This knowledge may not be what the world calls knowledge—not learning, not a craft. But it is a subtle, enlightened, esoteric knowledge that turns out to resemble nothing so much as the knowledge Daoists require to do wu wei a Buddhist translation of nirvana. Shenhui uses a Chan lineage legend he may have constructed in the first place to make Buddhist enlightenment appeal to the esoteric, secret, dark knowledge Daoists admire.

Then there is the predictable swerve. The last thing to know is that knowledge is empty. Once you know that you are beyond the func- tioning of knowledge, which is the ultimate wu wei, our enlighten- ment, nirvana. Despite a skillful appropriation of the lexicon, two qualities mark this thought as alien to Daoist traditions early and late. One is the claim of unconditional transcendence; the other, a phe- nomenological concept of emptiness as vacancy, absence, or lack-of- being.

Awareness and Emptiness: Songs of Nagarjuna

Chan claims a transcendence that reveals the virtual plane of immanence to be empty. The tenuous xu-emptiness Daoists esteem is kong-empty—a resourceless, vacant lack-of-being; just more samsara, more delusion, more suffering. There is no virtuality; it merely seems like there is to deluded consciousness. That is another implication of dependent origination. There is no unactualized potential, no latent, merely virtual difference that might not be actualized. Daoist xu is a fallow field in winter, actually empty and virtually replete.

Buddhist kong is a sterile lunar desert. Zhuangzi must give up giving up and forget about forgetting. The dao is emptier than even he imagined; it is an apparition without virtuality or virtue, actually dead, and only given the appearance of life by the delusions of karmic consciousness. Daoist emptiness is ontological. The virtual exists, it is real but not actual, and therefore to Buddhist eyes not nearly empty enough.

That is certainly a difference between the classical Daoist texts and Nagar- juna. It also seems like a difference from Chan, despite the alacrity with which Chan authors imitate Daoist philosophemes. Daoism remains optimistic about knowledge in a way Chan is not. Daoism envisions conditions under which knowledge enhances life. Life cannot be enhanced. It is suffering through and through and has to be gotten over. The self, the body, the qi—all of that is empty, empty of actuality, empty of virtu- ality, empty of virtue, or power, incapable of overcoming the obstacles that keep us stuck in this so-called life.

Buddhist wisdom exhausts life, extinguishes it, and does not nourish it. Of course, on many other points there is room for important similarity and association between Daoism and Chan, and the distinc- tion between them, while philosophically interesting, is clearly not absolute. I am also grateful to the organizers and participants of the Daoist Salon, Zhengzhou, China, March , for instructive discussion, especially Brook Ziporyn and Livia Kohn. And I am grateful to Weng Haizhen for proofing my transliterations and providing Chinese characters.

Suzuki, trans. Zhaizhou, in Zen Sourcebook, ed.

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Stephen Addiss Indianapolis: Hackett, , Kristofer Schipper, The Taoist Body, trans. Karen C. Duval Berkeley: University of California Press, , Early monastic communities in India were not monasteries but avasas, loose collec- tions of monks living within fixed boundaries, sometimes enclosed. Religious practice remained individual, without collective worship or meditation.

Frank A. Immortality-conferring techniques were already practiced in pre-Qin times ibid. Dale S. I draw on John R. Nagarjuna, in Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy, Philip Yampolsky, trans. Yampolsky, Platform Sutra, Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, trans. Antos C. Rancurello, D. Terrell, and Linda L. McAlister London: Routledge, , Edmund Husserl, Ideas, trans.

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Perception without an object, for instance, sensing not sensing, sensing the absence of sight in a dark room, is a theme in Aristotlean psychology. Incidentally, the Surangama directly concerns the value of knowledge. The sutra is spoken in response to a lapse by the disciple Ananda, who was seduced by a prostitute while begging alms. Erudition merely led him into idle speculation; all his knowledge is not equal to a single day of correct practice Record of Baizhang, in Poceski, Ordinary Mind, —32, — The concept of the virtual was introduced in philosophy by Henri Bergson and subject to important development by Gilles Deleuze, beginning with Bergsonism, trans.

Graham, trans. For hostility to knowledge, Daodejing chapters 3, 10, 18, Xian Zong Ji, in Robert B. This is a complete translation, and parenthetical references are to this source. Maspero, Taoism, Related Papers. A comparative analysis: Buddhist Madhyamaka and Daoist Chongxuan twofold mystery in the early Tang By Cuma Ozkan. By Jana Rosker. By Fareeha Akbar. By Imre Hamar. Karuna Trieu. Download pdf. Remember me on this computer. Enter the email address you signed up with and we'll email you a reset link.

However perilous, serious Buddhists students have to try to pick up that snake. No one wants to be bitten. For most of the rest of us — who aspire to Buddhist realizations — it can be the most difficult of topics. The great teacher Narajuna taught extensively on emptiness.


Held in the trunk of the elephant that no represents the senses, One may appear as lifeless, But he yogin like a nimble rider slips away and goes. By the fragmentations of the intellect are the deluded Fettered; undivided and pure remains spontaneity. Like a wide stream flowing non-stop, Whatever the phase, it has meaning And is forever the awakened state- Great bliss without samsaric reference. Teaching that virtue is irrelevant to intrinsic awareness, He mistakes the lock for the key; Ignorant of the true nature of the gem The fool calls green glass emerald. Suzuki, trans.

The essence of emptiness is the interdependent nature or dependent arising of things. The essence of Emptiness is not empty. For without emptiness, there would be no space for existence. That means none of the five [aggregates] can exist by itself alone. Each of the five [aggregates] has to be made up of the other four. It has to coexist; it has to inter-be with all others.

Both concepts run contrary to the notion of emptiness. Zasep Tulku Rinpoche frequently cautions against nihilism in his formal teachings. Rinpoche meditates by the river in Mongolia. Quite the contrary, as Terry Clifford explains in Tibetan Buddhist Medicine and Buddhism , if emptiness was nihilistic, compassion would be pointless.

The entire concept of Emptiness and Shunyata is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of Buddhism. I have answered, in the past, with direct quotes from the Buddha. So, to help me answer for myself this recurring question from my friends of the non-Buddhist persuasion, I decided to research what the teachers of different traditions have to say about Emptiness. If the two are indivisibly one, why would a corpse be left behind at the time of death when consciousness leaves?

And if they are totally separate why would the mind experience pain when harm happens to the body? Thus, illusory appearances are the result of belief in the reality of the superficial. The great yogi Milarepa expounded on emptiness with concise clarity in his , songs. For example, in the popular movie The Matrix , the character Morpheus played by Laurence Fishburne explains to Neo played by Keanu Reaves that the world is not as it seems.

What Neo sees, he explains, is not the true nature of reality. He offers Neo, the hero of the story, a choice between a red pill or a blue pill:. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.

You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Nothing more. In Buddhism — so it seems — at some point, we also have to choose the red pill or the blue pill. The sleeping metaphor is also often used by Buddhist teachers. In what respect is it said that the world is empty? Shakyamuni Buddha, the current Buddha of our time. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affectation for a few people near us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.

If there is no point of reference, there is no existence. Everything exists relatively, collectively, because of points of reference.

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If Emptiness is not nihilism, then what exactly is it? It can be challenging to try to understand such a vast and yet not vast topic such as Emptiness, especially from teacher snippets. Such extracts necessarily sound enigmatic and almost riddle-like. Teachers often deliberately challenge our mind with difficult propositions. Ultimately, it is for us to develop our own realizations. There is a reality. We are that reality. When we understand this, we see that we are nothing.

And being nothing, we are everything. That is all. The future is only a projection of our present conceptions. The present itself vanishes as soon as we try to grasp it. So why bother with attempting to establish an illusion of solid ground? They do not know that the Void is not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma.