[Advaita-l] Questions on Buddhism

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at braincells.com
Fri Aug 11 00:54:56 CDT 2006

[Moderators note: I am approving this message as I think it helps clarify
what Nagarjuna taught.  But I hope readers will concentrate on comparing 
and contrasting this with the advaita position rather than going into 
Nagarjunas theories.  Thankyou Shri Lakshminarayana for your learned 

Namaste Karthikji,

(Sylvainji, I have something for you in the end)

I am sending this message to the honorable moderators
for their prior approval. If this message is not
approved, I can send future messages on this topic to
you in private.

In this mail, I attempt to quote from nAgArjuna's
kArikA and backup my previous mail on this topic -

David Kalupahana (DK) might have twisted some verses
here and there, but I think he got many things right.
And my understanding of nAgArjuna was definitely aided
a lot by reading DK. At some points, DK admits that
his understanding of nAgArjuna evolved with time.
Consider the very second verse in the first chapter
for example and you will see that DK's reading makes
more sense.

Let us examine what nAgArjuna(N) has to say about
shUnyatA(S). First regarding self-nature (SN)- that N
does not admit SN should be clear from the first
chapter itself, where he argues that the pratyatas
(causal conditions of buddhists) do not leave much
room for SN. In fact he is not arguing against
pratyayas here. He is arguing about the
incompatibility of SN with pratyatas. In other words,
the buddhist understanding of causation leaves no room
for SN.

Next let us go to Chapter 22. Since you have DK's
book, you can verify the sanskrit verses yourself.
Look at verses 9-10 especially. In 9, N says that
grasping (upAdAnam) is not found in terms of SN.
Therefore in verse 10, this grasping is called shUnya.

In verse 14, in the same chapter, N says exactly what
this shUnya is - it is shUnya in terms of svabhAva. He
also says that the tathAgata is empty in terms of SN.
In verse 16, he says that the universe is also devoid
of SN (nihsvabhAvam idam jagat).

I think the above should be sufficent to say that
shUnyatA means being devoid of SN.

In chapter 24, while explaining about emptiness, N
says in verse 16-17 that perception of existents in
terms of SN will contradict effect, cause, agent, etc.
Then he makes the famous statement that dependant
arising is shUnyatA, i.e. being devoid of SN. Note
that pratItya samutpAda (PS) is a causation statement
for buddhists and we have already seen that the
buddhist pratyayas are considered to be incompatible
with SN. So the very first chapter should make one
strongly suspect that SN  and PS are not compatible,
or in other words, S and PS are deeply interlinked.

Look at verse 22 in chapter 24 -

svabhAvato vidyamAnam kim punah samudeshyate
tasmAt samudayo nAsti shUnyatAm pratibAdhatah

DK's translation: How can that which is evident in
terms of SN rise again? Therefore for one who
contradicts emptiness, there exists no (conception of)

This is a significant verse. One can see many things
here. First of all, this means that contradiction of
emptiness is same as accepting SN. Hence also you can
derive from this verse what exactly emptiness means.
Further, note that for nAgArjuna, accepting an SN
(which is eternal) leaves little room for a thing to
arise again ie., if a thing is already existing in
terms of SN, there is no point in saying that it
arises again. Thus, a contradiction of emptiness is
also a contradiction of PS.

If this does not satisfy you, look at verse 33, same

kim ashUnyasya kartavyam svabhAvah kriyate na hi

DK's translation: What could the non-empty do? For
self-nature does not perform.

This should again imply that non-emptiness is same as
accepting SN. This is another affirmation of the
definition of SUnyatA, as being devoid of SN.

This is also a curious verse, because Sankara adopts a
similar logic in BSB or BU bhAshya (which one ???)
where he says that an agent cannot do an action
without changing itself. Since brahman is changeless,
brahman is actionless. Note that for N, SN is
something which is changeless and perception of change
implies that SN is not evident. Since action involves
a change, an entity with an eternal SN does not
perform an action.

Look at verse 1 in chapter 25. The first verse is a
pUrvapakshin who misinterprets emptiness. It is
possible that the opponent here thinks of emptiness in
terms of nihilism, though DK has a different
interpretation here. N rejects this argument in his
next verse.

Now for Sylvainji (Nagarjuna's viewpoint on ultimate
reality) -

The best evidence that N does not accept a
substantial existent entity is verse 4 in chapter 15,
where he says that without a self-nature and and other
nature, there is no (substantial) existent. (This is
not a pUrvapakshin's viewpoint because of verse 6
which says that one who perceives SN and other nature
does not understand the message of Buddha.) Therefore,
I am very skeptical of anyone who says that N accepted
an independant absolute reality. I know this was not
your claim but whether the Buddha accpeted an ultimate
reality or not is out of scope of this mail. I just
wanted to put forward the viewpoint of N without much
distortions. However, if you think that nAgArjuna
accepted an ultimate reality you can tell me where he
does this and I am open to corrections here. Afterall,
it is not an easy job understanding nAgArjuna so I
wouldn't be surprised if I got this point wrong.

I hope I have clarified on the actual definition of
SUnyatA. Once it is understood that for N, SN is
something that "does not come and go" (i.e., for N, SN
is eternal self-nature), one can understand easily why
he says that S is PS.

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