Experiencing the empty self

In the last two lectures we have examined the Mâdyamika negative dialectic in order to understand the concern to become unattached to any given concept or form of expression. This is not only a concern for clarity of thought; it is also, and more basically, a procedure for changing one's attitudes, consciousness, and general awareness. What is called philosophy and psychology in the modern West has not had, for the Buddhists' perspective, simply a theoretical purpose. Rather, the Buddhist tradition from the beginning to the present -- including the Mâdyamika formations -- has emphasized experiential knowledge as the starting point for spiritual growth. The Buddhist philosophical methods and psychological understanding of human experience provide a possibility of ultimate transformation. This is a transformation that is from illusion to enlightenment, from bondage to freedom, from self-destructive activity to the expression of compassion and serenity in everyday behavior.

For a person who becomes aware of new possibilities through the change in concepts, or through the sensitivity to new feelings, there comes improvement in attitudes and interpersonal relationships. The general theme of this series of lectures is to look at the transforming conditions and procedures in Mâdyamika as avenues and vehicles for spiritual life. We will approach this theme in the next two lectures by looking at two kinds of material: the first is the textual record of Nâgârjuna, and the second is subjective experiential data that comes either from psychological studies as applied to meditation states and various psychologies of meditation, or from the general experiences that apply to all human beings. The movement from the Mâdyamika texts to contemporary observation is consistent with the procedure in Buddhist history to study human potential as it exists in the present and as it is found in the immediacy of one's own experience.

The Fundamentals of the Middle Way is thorough in its use of logical dialectic, as applied both to practical, experiential images and to technical, philosophical notions. The aim is to show that there is no concept that establishes "absolute being" or "absolute non-being," and no cause based upon a self-substantiated reality.

If all existence is not empty, there is neither origination nor destruction;
You must wrongly conclude then that the Four Noble Truths do not exist. (MMK 24:20)

Nâgârjuna expresses the opposite of this problematic when he concludes:

He who perceives dependent co-origination
Also understands sorrow, origination, and destruction as well as the path [of release]. (MMK 24:40)

As we pointed out before, emptiness does not constitute another "theory." Truth with a capital "T" does not begin or end in declarative statements that can be argued for or against. Only when questions of truth arise from the depths of experienced existence and affect one's attitudes, impressions, and choices do they become more than speculative reflection.

If we use the term "attitude" to indicate the complex of simple patterns, sensitivities, and emotional reactions of the individual, we can say that religious truth has more to do with attitudes than with the relationship between concepts in a declarative statement. The logical analyses of The Fundamentals of the Middle Way are indeed important aids, but only aids nonetheless. These aids should be combined with meditational techniques that promote an "ultimate indifference" to things or ideas normally regarded as if they were ultimate reality. In this way emptiness and the negative dialectic promote a practical solution to the problem of anxiety, sorrow, and harm. By no longer being attached to either material things or ideas, there is a freedom from emotional compulsions whereby a more full and complete appreciation of everything and of every condition is possible. Such an openness structures many more choices and possibilities than ever before.

Dwelling in an empty attitude means living in an openness to experience. If we see Nâgârjuna's dialectic within the context of the insights of the Perfection of Wisdom literature, we can see that the release from attachment to things is a progressive one that flowers with spiritual practice. "Being aware" in an empty way extends eventually into every area of mental-emotional living. To know things as they actually are frees the mind of presuppositions and from emotions which are compulsive attachments to false expectations. This freedom purifies the individual of evils such as hatred, fear, greed, or anxiety. This happens when one realizes that desires, along with their cause and effect, are empty.

The Mâdhaymika followers recognized that they themselves contributed to their fears and compulsions; and to the degree that people construct their own suffering, they can free themselves from it. For Nâgârjuna, spiritual pollution is not something inherent in existence from which one must depart in order to attain a new mode of being. Rather, spiritual pollution means living in captivity to the idea of absolute distinctions and in captivity to the compulsive demands that are experienced as uncontrollable forces. If a person wants to be free from external compulsions, he or she must become free from a compulsive self.

The emptiness of everything is basically an extension of the early Buddhist notion of anâtman, of non-soul or non-self. The notion of anâtman rejects any appeal to an absolute reality that could be identified with either a given experience or with some kind of doctrine of a supernatural soul. Freedom from self means, in part, freedom from the false criteria for knowing the truth. When the false criteria have dissipated, the emotional attachments to the assumed entities defined by these criteria have also dissipated; then, the person is free from the net of his or her own construction. The loss of self does not come about so much through absorption into something greater or bigger, nor even from destroying what apparently is the binding force of existence; rather, it is an emptying of what seems to be ultimately real. Therefore in this lecture, we want to focus on two areas of experience: the first of these is the notion of personality and the flowing of the personality in relation to environment as it arises and disappears from existence. The second focus is on the personality as it conforms to the pulsating, moving, appearing-disappearing character of the phenomenal world. This is the developmental character of the personality. A person's mind is in process, such that different levels of awareness, or different modes of apprehension, contribute considerably to the form of one's experienced world.

Let us begin our examination of personality and its capacities by reviewing a few verses from the poetic statement called "Twenty Verses on the Great Vehicle," which is credited to a "Nâgârjuna" who is probably not the same person as the author of The Fundamentals of the Middle Way, but rather someone who lived perhaps in the seventh century CE. Nevertheless, this statement has been regarded by Buddhist tradition as expressive of the Mâdhyamika orientation. This short statement describes in a poetic way the experience of constructing the world and thereby being caught in it:

We see what isn't there [and burn in hell], burn

By our own fault [as reeds are burned by fire]

And experience things at a magic show

[Go to a destiny, born in dependence] at the magic show.

Fools fear the world [a painter paints a demon and screams],

A child digs a mud hole -- falls in.

Sunk in the mud of imposing upon reality and can't get out

[And see nothing as real]

Feel sorrow -- false things, tormenting with the poison of fear.

But the Buddhas, constant in compassion [seek to help]

See us helpless and lead us to enlightenment.

That we may be Buddhas, knowledge attained,

And freed from the net of things [friends of the world].

They see reality [unborn, unmade], they see the world

Empty [and without beginning, without middle, without end].

They see there is no world, no nirvana; stainless it is,

Unchanging [and radiant in the beginning, in the middle, and end].

He who has awakened does not see what he saw in his dream --

He who has awakened from delusion does not see -- the world.

A magician puts on a magic show; when he stops, there is nothing.

Nothing -- [that is] the nature of reality -- nothing, but thought.

A magic trick [and then we do good and evil]

And go to good and evil destiny.

We construct a world [and we do not occur];

Occurrence is a construct; and things do not exist.

Fools conceive of permanence [and self and happiness] in things,

Essenceless -- and are wrapped in darkness [wander in the ocean of existence].[1]

According to this image of life, we are most of the time the fools who draw the picture of a monster or a demon and then scream at what we have constructed. It is like the child who hears a strange noise and projects his worst fear. It is like the adult who identifies individual people with a category, such as seeing a policeman and thinking of that person only in the role of a policeman, or seeing a teacher and thinking of that person only in terms of making judgments for grades. The worlds that we know, indeed, are the worlds of our own construction. We select those items from our experience that have most importance or meaning for the moment. There are forms of life that surround us and we understand these forms in terms of configuration-patterns or meaning-patterns or structures by which the impacting sense data are formulated into patterns of importance, meaning, and significance for us. Part of this patterning arises through recalling past experiences, past identifications, and past classifications of life. These classifications often are identified with a language, with a particular term -- a ball, a person, a window, a mountain. When we use a language that defines and articulates our experience so that this experience is meaningful and our expectations are fulfilled, we can easily fall into a reinforcement pattern of experiencing life whereby what we think we will see we will indeed see as reality.

One of the most important reinforcement patterns which we continually experience is that which we call our own personality. This has such important power of reinforcement for us that it is necessary to stand off from the habitual, practical experience of the personality in order to see that it is made of a composite of various factors or components. The recognition that the self is a composite of factors was seen already in early Buddhism when the doctrine of non-soul became a central focus for discussing the continuity that people experience in their lives. This analysis of the parts of a continuum or a flowing interaction of factors and dimensions of experience was the key effort made by the Abhidharma masters as they tried to isolate and clarify what the particular factors of our personality are with reference to their purification and ultimate non-attachment to each other.

Nâgârjuna goes one step further, as we saw in the analysis of dharmas (the basic factors of existence) in the first two lectures, by saying that the dharmas do not exist as things in themselves. Likewise in the analysis of the self, he is clear in his discussion of âtman, in The Fundamentals of the Middle Way, when he says the following:

If the individual self were identical to the "groups" (skandhas), then it would partake of origination and destruction.
If the individual self were different from the "groups," then it would be without the characteristics of "groups."

If the individual self does not exist, how then will there be something which is "my own"?
There is lack of possessiveness and no ego on account of the cessation of self and that which is "my own."

He who is without possessiveness and who has no ego -- he also does not exist.
Whoever sees "he who is without possessiveness" or "he who has no ego" really does not see [either].

When "I" and "mine" have ceased, then also there is no outside nor inner self.
The "acquiring" [of life] is stopped; on account of that cessation, there is cessation of existence.

On account of the cessation of evil of action there is release; for evils of action are constructed for him who constructs them.
These evil results come from phenomenal existence; but phenomenal extension comes to a stop by emptiness.

There is the teaching of "individual self" (âtman), and the teaching of "non-individual self" (anâtman);
But neither "individual self" nor "non-individual self" has been taught by the Buddhas. (MMK 18:1-6)

A superficial reading of these verses might lead someone to think that Nâgârjuna was saying that nothing at all came into being or went out of being. However, as we said in our analysis during the last two lectures, Nâgârjuna also insisted that only when emptiness obtains can there be any origination, maintenance, or dissipation of existence. Therefore, when he talks about individuality not existing, or non-individuality not existing, he is trying to break the identification pattern that words give to our consciousness. His analysis of the self as not existing-in-itself should not be understood as something that applies to a "worse" form of true existence. That is, if we assume that he is talking about samsâra, the flux of pain and change, and that beside this there is something else which does have an eternal absolute self-nature, we are misunderstanding what he is saying. This is indicated in The Fundamentals of the Middle Way where there is an analysis of the tathagata, or the Fully Completed One. The following verses show that he did not make his negative dialectical analysis apply only to one part of the reality -- everyday existence -- and leave untouched some presumed absolute reality somewhere else. He says, regarding the tathagata:

The tathagata is not the "groups of universal elements" (skandhas), nor something other than the "groups";
The "groups" are not in him, nor is he in them;
The tathagata does not possess "groups"; what, then, is the tathagata?

If the Buddha exists dependent on the "groups," then he is not "that which exists by itself" (svabhâva).
And how can he exist as something else (parabhâva) if he is not "that which exists by itself"?

That which exists presupposing another existent thing is properly called "non-individual self" (anâtman).
How will that which is a non-individual self become a tathagata?

And if there is no self-existence, how would it have an "other existence"?
What would that tathagata be without either a self-existence or other existence?

If some kind of tathagata would exist without dependence on the "groups,"
It is dependent now; therefore it exists dependent [on something].

There is no kind of tathagata which is not dependent on the "groups."
And whatever is non-dependent -- how will it become dependent?

There is nothing whatever that is dependent on the "groups" and there is nothing whatever on which something does not depend.
There would not exist in any way a tathagata without being dependent on [the "groups"]. (MMK 22:1-7)

The concluding verse of this chapter summarizes the point when it says:

The self-existence of the tathagata is the self-existence of the world.
The tathagata is without self-existence and the world is without self-existence. (MMK 22:16)

In these verses we see that the highest expression of spiritual perfection, the tathagata, has no self-existent center or absolute essence. On the other hand, the tathagata is not simply the product of conditioning factors of environment in a mechanistic fashion. There is no eternal "center" of the mental-emotional-physical events that make up the personality. However, there are various terms referring to mental factors and processes that stand in a common relationship, which when appearing together to form what we label "a personality" make a significant difference in the way the form of existence is manifested. While there is no absolute dichotomy between pure and impure, there is the possibility of significant change. This significance, again, does not depend on an absolute unchanging character of pure and impure, or good and bad, or eternal and non-eternal. Rather, the power of life in its spiritual, perfect form can effect a new awareness, a new reality that arises when the attitudes, perceptions, actions and experiences of this interacting flow that we call the personality are no longer caught or bound by themselves. All the participating factors and changing processes are related to the fact that they are self-determined and are moving to a freer form of themselves.

It is this fact of a significant shift of focus -- that is itself conditioned in its arising -- which is the reality that prevents a nihilistic view from taking over on the basis of denying an eternal absolute reality. Thus, the tathagata or the bodhisattva is not just "nothing" in the sense of a total loss of everything, or meaninglessness, but is rather a participant in the fabrication of existence -- without being bound by the impacting, merging, and fusing energy patterns of the constructed universe.

The bodhisattva is involved in existence in at least two ways. The first is that he or she participates in image-making, the use of symbols, and mental reflection as are all people. In this sense, language itself is a form of dependent co-origination as a verbal expression. Likewise, the communication of insight that is labeled "the transfer of no mind to no-mind" is an expression of compassion that takes place between real, live, physical-mental-emotional persons. In this way, the term "no-mind" that is so popular in Zen communication is a semi-metaphorical expression. If one assumes that it is referring to some kind of absolute intrinsic reality, then Nâgârjuna would undoubtedly say that one is falling into the pit or the mud hole of one's own fabrication.

The second way that the bodhisattva can be seen to participate fully in existence is in the recognition that there is a significant transformation when we look at the momentary changes that take place. There is a cessation of error or a purification of defiled notions and emotions that cannot be simply eliminated by a logical judgment that all forms are without meaning because they are without self-existence. Even though Nâgârjuna insists that misconceptions, or defilements, or errors do not exist in and of themselves without relationship to the whole context of other factors in the arising of existence, this does not mean that there is no practical effect of the notion of emptiness or dependent co-origination. That is to say, the claim that all things are empty is not meant to result in a lack of care or concern because "it doesn't matter." The relative reality of existence makes our personal engagement of extreme importance. There is an immediate sense of being present in the arising of the world as one is participating in it. In fact, it is this emphasis that all actions actually begin in the consciousness and attitudes prior to any overt manifestation that has also been a watermark of Buddhist thinking.

From the cessation of error ignorance ceases;
When ignorance has ceased, conditioning forces and everything else ceases.

If any kind of self-existent impurities belong to somebody,
How in all the world would they be eliminated? Who can eliminate that which is self-existent?

If any kind of self-existent impurities do not belong to somebody,
How in all the world would they be eliminated? Who can eliminate that which is non-self-existent? (MMK 23:23-25)

The reality of spiritual transformation, then, is a fact that cannot be labeled as either essentially "existing" or "not existing." It is important to see, however, that if a person wishes for some kind of otherness or some kind of absolutely different situation in which to live an unattached and uncompulsive existence, it is a fantasy that is debilitating to true spiritual progress. This means that all beings, because they live in dependent co-origination, have an effective power and a resiliency in themselves which can be cultivated. Thus, the ideal of the spiritual goal which is dependent on emptiness cannot be that of a self-deprecating person who wants to depend solely on something or someone else to provide the solutions to his or her pain. Such a person lives in a fantasy of insecurity that itself diminishes the capacity to develop out of one's own center. Paradoxically, the spiritual resources that must emerge to relieve pain are cultivated in and through the personality that is experienced very often also as painful, anxious, limited and ignorant. The ideal reality, then, is not something other than what is right now; it is inherent in the individual field of experiences that is indeed in constant change, and which can be cultivated and skillfully sensitized to other possibilities.

If all things are indeed dependently co-originated, Nâgârjuna's spiritual discipline cannot be seen as an escape from the immediate present. To think of self-becoming as an escape is simply to encrust or substantialize a mental image of otherness or the absolute outside a dependently co-originating change. This is one of the most powerful ways to avoid significant change. One temptation in recognizing the difficulty with language and with trying to communicate verbally the reality of emptiness is to attach oneself to the spaces between the forms or to some kind of non-form as if that were itself an absolute. Nâgârjuna, by contrast, would remind us to be free from both the forms of language and non-forms. We need to ask about what or who is raising the question of letting go of forms of existence. Who is speaking? Who is raising the question of who is speaking? An absolute eternal soul, or a composite of physical and social impersonal forces -- the conditioning factors of twentieth-century life? Nâgârjuna would deny both of these!

How is it that a person who lives "emptily" is not identified either as being-in-existence or non-being-in-existence? Considering an answer to this question, we will turn explicitly to the second general concern of today's lecture: the recognition that there are various qualities or levels of awareness that can pertain to a fabrication of personality. Nâgârjuna does not say that in order to recognize that all things are empty, we need some kind of transcendent awareness or even a "pure" awareness; rather, he speaks of a way of perceiving life as it is constructed through a personality. This recognition that all things are empty is not so much a description of a presumed final or ultimate experience, but rather functions to present a procedure for true discernment about oneself and life as dependently co-originated. Nor is this a lowest-common-denominator perception of life; it is a value-cognition that makes possible the cessation of "acquisition" or compulsive grasping. To interpret how this claim that all things are empty functions to transform consciousness, we might say that there is a recognition that the quality of awareness is a major factor in determining the nature of one's experience. We can say that it is the quality of perceiving without interfering. Thus, it is a form of understanding which is not a thoughtless or senseless absorption into an imaginary absolute, or simply a reformulation of past images and interesting ideas and experiences. Rather, it is always an empty active sense whereby there is a letting go of preconceptions or emotional attachments to assumed needs and expectations.

The middle way, for Nâgârjuna, is a quality of mindfulness that pertains to every moment of experience. It is the letting go of expectations to the point that one is perceptive of the determinants of every moment at they integrate what we label as subjective and objective forms. The history of Buddhist life and practice indicates that there are a variety of ways in which a person can become self-conscious about the arising of one's personality and experience. There is the use of instruction, imagination, meditation, quieting of sensations, logical dialectic, and intellectual analysis. The middle way cannot be identified exclusively with any one of these, not only because all of them have been used to varying degrees at different times to communicate the reality of the Buddha's message, but also because the middle path is the experience and expression of a quality that can pervade any of these particular techniques or spiritual disciplines.

To recognize that there is a quality of freedom or bondage, and of attachment or non-attachment, in every statement about personality or the arising of existence is of crucial importance when one is using terms and imagery to express the truth.[2] It may be possible to account for all the conditions that cause the arising of existence, yet the description itself is a mental, emotional, and sense-dependent process. This means that any specific "thing" identified as a part of existence or as a cause of existence is itself a result of both the perceiver (a subjective sensitivity) and what is perceived (objective reality). To recognize this means that we must be aware of the function of any definition or procedure for knowing. There is no way to eliminate purpose or intention, even in scientific formulation. There is no way to avoid the implications of one's primary assumptions and definitions. This does not make "scientific" study less valuable; it only makes evident that it, too, is perspectival. Similarly, this is not to say that all perspectives are equally valuable for all purposes; each purpose must be regarded as significant to the investigator if it is to be pursued at all.

All of this must be kept in mind when a person asks about the nature of personality development and change. Thus, concepts of personhood should be recognized as carrying tendencies of consciousness which support certain impressions of our sensory organs. The mental flow congeals the impermanent and empty factors of existence into things; and thereby the flux of impermanent energy becomes attached to terms like "I," "mine," "it is," or "it is not." This is a very subtle but powerful form of attachment, which requires special training to overcome. If a person is not aware of the tendency of ideas to "substantiate" the impermanent flow of existence, he or she will be participating in attachment of image-ing. Such a person will assume that ignorance is simply a lack of information, and seek to know the causal processes of existence as if they were external to a knowing subject. With these expectations, one will not perceive that to know causality requires an investigation into the mental construction process. The latent tendencies of mental construction for delusive fabrication of external things must themselves be overcome if one is to perceive the lack of substantiality in existence.

Nâgârjuna spent so much effort in denying formulations of the "person" and the "arising of existence" because he recognized that the formation of mental images is pivotal in the perception of the nature of existence. He was trying to avoid a naive mental projection into an assumed self-established reality by developing processes of consciousness that were attentive to even the most subtle forms of attachment -- including attachment to right views, meditation procedures, or the path of enlightenment. Thinking, or consciousness (the terms citta, manas, vijñâna are used in overlapping ways), is a force and a matrix in which existence arises, and in which enlightenment itself must take place. It is the fulcrum for both wisdom and bondage. In Samyutta Nikâya (II.121ff.), freedom through wisdom is discussed in terms of knowing the dependent co-arising character of the "supports" of phenomena and the nature of their cessation through the absence of the conditions requisite to their arising. Cessation of existence means "to break the causal sequence patterns" by "starving" the factors that jell into attachments. This is done by methodical attention to the arising/dissipating character of phenomena and to the "occurrences of factors" (dharmas) that constitute phenomena.

Similarly, the early Mahayanists (as expressed in the Perfection of Wisdom sutras and the Mâdhyamika school) insisted that whatever is "without support" becomes tranquil. However, they severely criticized the earlier Abhidharma masters for their attention to the description of dharmas in their analysis of the arising and dissipation of existence. This was because such attention for them was still part of the illusory mental game of identifying a name with a thing. For the Mahayanists, the descriptions of constituents of existence (dharmas) and the serial cause-and-effect analysis of dependent co-arising were conventions that were usable only for communicating with people who were at a low to moderate level of insight. To describe the highest level of image-ing about the pulsating arising and dissipation of the phenomenal world, one had to say that there was "no arising" and "no dissipation." This is because all phenomena and causal relations are empty. They are dependently co-originated. In order to avoid the incipient tendency of the mental processes to establish ("station," pratisthiti) the consciousness in an illusory form, the Mahayanists negated the very statements of the Abhidharma masters which these latter expected to use as food for enlightenment. Thus, according to the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, thinking remains clear or translucent so long as it remains unobstructed. To aid in keeping thoughts clear, a person is asked to regard the teaching of the perfection of wisdom as unproduced and non-thought -- the non-apprehension (anupalambha) of all dharmas. In the Diamond Sutra the Buddha tells Subhuti, his perceptive disciple, that the bodhisattva "should produce an unsupported thought, i.e., a thought which is nowhere supported (pratisthita)."[3]

In summary, we see that Nâgârjuna continued the task of expressing an empty self when he analyzed the self, the nature of the tathagata, and the lack of self-existent misconception and evil. At the same time, he recognized that people, both those perfected ones and those in deepest entanglement with their own web of fabrication, are engaged in an important and significant effort. He said that trying to give a perfect description of the personality itself has a tendency to identify the fact of living in existence with a certain quality of experience and attitude as a thing-in-itself. He tried to avoid that tendency by insisting on a dialectic which avoided the crystallization and formulation of ideas into some kind of self-existent entities. To know the empty self, to him, meant to continually be in a process of emptying. When one is in that process, one has not completed the effort in any self-existent way or eternal way. Thus, the quality is to be free to live continually in open and uninhibited engagement with life without attachment.


The import of the last three lectures could be summarized with the statement: the world as we know it is something we are doing. That is, the knowledge we have is not something that is simply external to our internal awareness. Rather, whatever we speak of as "something we know" is already being conditioned by attitudes, emotions, and patterns of sensation, as well as processes of speaking and language. In this lecture, we want to continue that concern by focusing on three areas:

The first is the role of the senses and emotions, recognizing that they are being produced moment by moment. We will see that Nâgârjuna (as well as contemporary psychologists and students of perception) was aware that perception and sensitivities to environment are composite activities of the self and the environment.

A second focus is the role of meditation as well as other techniques in becoming conscious of our thoughts, feelings, and experience. This focus will call to our attention the fact that there are different kinds of perception and that we can partially condition in a self-conscious way how the world arises for us.

The third concern is to recognize that there is a range of qualities of consciousness which are available to people through their own effort by developing certain mental and emotional procedures. This is an extension of the recognition that there are various conditioning factors contributory to the recognition of what is designated as real. The recognition of the human ability to shift the quality of experience makes possible the cessation of attachment to aspects or forms of existence as if they were ultimate reality. This cessation we will see is not cold indifference. Rather it is the ability to participate fully while shifting the needs of our awareness. The ability to make a shift in consciousness, claims Nâgârjuna, is one of the major forms in which human beings can experience freedom.

If we go back for a moment to a verse from chapter eighteen of The Fundamentals of the Middle Way, which we spoke of in the last lecture to start the analysis of the individual personality, we will recall that Nâgârjuna claimed the following:

If the individual self were identical to the groups of personality factors (skandhas), then it would partake of origination and destruction;

If the individual self were different from the groups, then it would be without the characteristics of the groups. (MMK 18:1)

One of the "groups" that he is refering to here is the group of factors that participate in our personality makeup called "form" (rupa). There are several sense faculties given under this "form group." Let us look at what Nâgârjuna says in particular regarding vision and other sense faculties:

The traditional understanding is: vision, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thought
Are the six sense faculties. The fields of their power are that which is seen, heard, smelled, [etc.]

Nâgârjuna responds to this general understanding in the following way:

Certainly vision does not in any way see its own self.
Now if it does not see its own self, how can it possibly see something else?...

Therefore, vision does not see and "no vision" does not see.
Nevertheless, it is explained that also the "seer" is to be known only by his vision.

There is no "seer" with vision or without vision;
Therefore, if there is no "seer," how can there be vision and the object seen?

As the birth of a son is said to occur presupposing the mother and father,
Knowledge is said to occur presupposing the eye being dependent on the visible form.

Since the "object seen" and the vision do not exist, there is no fourfold [consequence]:
Knowledge, [cognitive sensation, affective sensation, and "desire"].
Also, then, how will the acquisition (upâdâna) [of life] and its conseqences [i.e., existence, birth, aging, and death] be produced?

Likewise, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thought are explained as vision.
Indeed one should not apprehend the "hearer," "what is heard," etc. [as self-existent entities]. (MMK 3:1-9)

These notions are again summarized at a later point:

Form, sound, taste, touch, smell, and the dharmas are
Merely the form of a fairy castle, like a mirage, a dream.

How will "that which is beneficial" or "that which is non-salutary" come into existence
In a formation of a magical man, or in things like a reflection? (MMK 23:8-9)

In these two verses we see the connection that Nâgârjuna makes between the working assumptions of perception/knowledge and the moral and psychological bondage that people get themselves into. Here it is clear that because there is no self-existent "evil" or "purity" or "beneficial reality" or "harmful reality," people are not eternally caught in a bondage which is of their own making or that of some larger determining force.

The subsequent three verses in this same chapter, on "misconceptions," clarify Nâgârjuna's point that we both construct and un-construct the beneficial and harmful things in life. He says:

We submit that there is no harmful thing [or impurity] unrelated to a beneficial thing [purity].
[And in turn] there is a beneficial thing depending on an harmful thing;
Therefore, a beneficial thing in itself is not possible.

We submit that there is no beneficial thing unrelated to a harmful thing,
[And in turn] there is a harmful thing depending on a beneficial thing;
Therefore, a harmful thing in itself is not possible.

If "what is beneficial" does not exist, how will there be a desire [for it]?
And if "what is harmful" does not exist, how will there be hatred [for it]? (MMK 23:10-12)

Similarly, we could quote from chapter four of The Fundamentals of the Middle Way, which is an analysis of the groups of personality elements (skandhas), to show that the form or the causal form does not appear in a self-existent manner. Likewise, we could quote from chapter six, which is an analysis of desire and the one who desires, to show that neither of these concepts exists prior to the other, or exists in a self-existent manner. These chapters continue Nâgârjuna's concern to show the relativity of perception and the problematic of good or bad acts of the mind. In analyzing these concepts, Nâgârjuna indicates that the personality, or the groups of factors of the personality, or any particular factor such as desire, cannot in itself be seen to be the prime cause or simply a result of something else. Though emotions, or the personality, or the groups of factors making up the personality are "empty," this does not mean that they are non-existent. As we have seen repeatedly in The Fundamentals of the Middle Way, whatever is designated as empty is not considered either to exist in itself or to be a non-existent entity.

The problem of articulating the nature of the process of consciousness is especially difficult. On the one hand, we must be aware that the terms we use are themselves conditioned. On the other hand, we must be aware that in order to communicate verbally some elements of our personality, we do have to formulate certain specifications -- but, of course, without becoming attached to them as things-in-themselves. The description of the personality factors and various elements, either good or bad, is as much a part of the Buddhist formulation of the path as it is a denial that this formulation has self-existence. For example, Nâgârjuna's disciple Aryadeva, in a work called The Explanation of a Hundred Verses (Sata-sâstra) says that the mind is covetous, is hostile, and follows erroneous doctrines.[4] The description of human experience does require labels as indicators of relative experiences. These are not intended to be formulations of an assumed self-existent thing, but simply indicators to catalyze new possibilities in our awareness.

This is to say that, if we analyze and become aware of our own emerging moments of consciousness, we formulate certain ideas and concepts in order to become aware. The state of our consciousness, however, has to have the quality of letting go of the particular characteristics and notions such as "personality" or "desire" if we are to use such notions as a means to redefine ourselves. What this focuses on is the question of how one perceives, rather than what one perceives as such. In this process of self-examination, the mind is seen to play a crucial role. Again, when we use the term "mind," we have some notion of what this means without trying to identify in any exclusive way some inherent, or eternal, characteristic. Such terms can be useful to point out foci of our attention. The mental act in which we participate, even while we are either reading this chapter or composing it, is full of capacities of experiences -- both limiting capacities and expanding capacities.

Recognizing that we are using conventional patterns of mentalizing or becoming conscious, we can say that the mental-emotional center of our personalities is both conscious and unconscious, and the concern to attain an "unattached" mode of becoming conscious is of critical importance. The form for indicating the character of a healthy or unattached mind is already specified early in the Buddhist tradition as a solution over against the illness of feeling pain, or the bondage of our emotions and perceptions.

Thus, we find terms such as "mindfulness" (smrti and sati) and "total awareness" (samprajanya) as indicators of mental attitudes that are said to pacify a troubled mind. In Samyutta Nikâya, we see that nibbana, or nirvâna, is said to be described as release. Likewise, in the Thera-gatha, the monk sings, "My mind is well-composed and free." Here we see that nirvana is described as a state of the mind and emotions (citta) that is freed from obsessions and the turmoil of emotions, desires, and moral defilements. At the same time, the Mâdhyamika followers emphasize that nirvana does not exist in itself or that happiness does not exist in itself because these cannot be adequately specified as a cognitive object and therefore represent an unchanging reality.

Later on in this series we will take up directly the formulation of the nature of true reality (tattva) as explained by Nâgârjuna; however, here we simply want to indicate that he also will use phrases to indicate at a relative level of knowledge what the nature of that reality is. For example, he says:

"Not caused by something else," "peaceful," "not elaborated by discursive thought,"
"Indeterminate," "undifferentiated": such are the characteristics of true reality. (MMK 18:9)

Nâgârjuna inherited these terms as part of a fund of Buddhist concepts and modes of thinking about the nature of reality. The discipline of the Buddhist path from earliest times dealt with the problem of greed at the level of unconscious (or "natural") drives, including the subtle drive to make distinctions. Nâgârjuna attempted to deepen this insight by pointing out that all metaphysical-psychological viewpoints were subject to the same limiting forces as any distinctions that make an ultimate claim on human awareness. The religious significance of emptiness is comparable to that of anâtman -- as we have pointed out before -- since both of these express dependent co-origination. His effort is to get a clarity in the act of cognition which knows clearly what feels, what has the feeling, or the reason for the feeling to take place, without succeeding to the temptation of becoming verbally or conceptually attached to these objects of cognition.

The Mâdhyamika follower, therefore, comprehends that there are bases for various feelings that can be identified as beneficial or harmful, as desirable or undesirable, as pleasurable or painful, when he experiences a feeling. However, it is important to comprehend in such a way that one is released from these conceptual, emotional, and perceptual limitations or bonds which one is making in the very process of cognition. The bondage is the act of establishing a place for the cognition and feelings to be, to reside, in one's own self-awareness. It is as if we are always building a world that is dependent on the isolation of particular ideas of very common experiences such as windows, tables, chairs -- as if these experiences of tables, chairs, people, heat, love, hate, fear, were themselves uncontrolable forces in existence. The person who accepts the emptiness-teaching will regard life's sorrows and anxieties as resulting in part from his or her own construction. That person knows that he or she must desist from constructing these experiences in a certain way in order to be released from the feelings of anxiety or sorrow or pain that accompany them.

The recognition that perception and awareness are a process that depends as much on the subjective as the objective data is emphasized today in psychological studies. For example, Jerome Bruner says that perception is "not so much a matter of representation as it is a matter of what I shall call model-building. In learning to perceive, we are learning the relations that exist between the properties of objects and events that we encounter and learning appropriate categories and category systems, learning to predict and project what goes with what."[5]

Psychological studies suggest that we get meaning from anticipating results and goals, and from placing particular phenomena in a hierarchical order of significance. "To be aware" means that a person gives structure to experience; this structure automatically instills certain expectations or reinforcement. When these expectations are not met, there is often anger, or anxiety, plus the exertion of energy to correct or re-establish the order whereby meaning and significance is maintained. We act in habitual ways and experience life as we expect it, because this takes less energy, until the environment does not register meaningfully with us. The fact that we take notice of new forms is recognized by manufacturers of market products such as cars or clothes, who continually change even slightly their merchandise and call them either improvements or new fashions.

Not only do we normally experience life in terms of categories, patterns, and structures which provide a framework for understanding a specific phenomenon; our very sense organs seem to be as much concerned to select the information that is gathered and discard a great deal of the potential stimuli. Various studies have been made in behavioral psychology examining how, for instance, the eyes of animals are used to identify only a very narrow range of phenomena. For example, Robert E. Ornstein describes the following experiment on the eyes of an immobilized frog:

The frog was seated so that its eye was at the center of a hemisphere with a radius of seven inches. On the inner surface of this hemisphere, small objects could be placed in different positions by means of magnets or moved around in space. The investigators implanted micro-electrodes into the frog's optic nerve to measure, as they called it, "what the frog's eye tells the frog's brain" -- the electrical impulses sent to the brain by the eye. Since the frog's eye is somewhat similar to our own, these investigators hoped that the electrical recording from the optic nerve would show the different kinds of "messages" that the eye sends to the brain.[6]

The conclusion of the experiment was that there are thousands of visual patterns that could be present to a frog. However, a large number of these are simply discarded. From all the different kinds of stimulation presented, only four different kinds of "messages" were sent from the retina to the brain. In other words, no matter the complexity and subtle differences in the environment, the frog's eye is "wired up" to send only this extremely limited number of different messages. The frog's eye presumably evolved to discard the remainder of the information available.

On the basis of this kind of experiment and others cited in sensory systems, there is a common or general conclusion that biological sensory systems serve mainly for data reduction, rather than recording all the sense input. If what we call biological awareness then is a construction rather than simply a reception of sense data, it is crucial to become sensitive to the factors which limit and determine the nature of the perception that is taking place. It may also mean that the mechanism for perceiving the world can be altered significantly to form different images and eventually different responses to the experiences of being in a physical world.

Human beings, which have a much more complex sensory and neurological response system than animals such as frogs, are required to have even finer "tuning" mechanisms to interpret their environment. People are constantly in the process of selecting and giving focus to certain items in our experience rather than others. Especially when certain categories or patterns of former experience provide us with a variety of possible interpretations, we have to make what we might regard as arbitrary choices. Human beings also can alter their tuning apparatus in order to re-program what the environment appears like from an emotional or a perspectival condition. If we make enough mistakes -- that is, if there are too many inappropriate actions that lead to problems in our lives -- we can change our attitudes or general orientation -- particularly in relation to other persons.

If our life in general, then, is a flux of interaction between a perceiving person and something that is perceived, there are certain factors that can be conditioned by decisions of that perceiving self. One of the key features of life is that it is habitually formed. This is to say that there are patterns that reinforce themselves when we define who we are. Continually, there is change, which includes a process of extending beyond what one calls "oneself" into the social and physical environment. This happens whenever we breathe or take in food, or give attention to someone else, or have our actions defined by another person's wishes, desires, or commands. This interaction is part of what the Buddhist tradition has explained in terms of dependent co-origination (pratîtya-samutpâda), describing how our experience arises.

Within that understanding, there is the recognition that some of the conditions for this arising contribute also to the limitation or pain that we experience. Another way of saying this is that it is easy to lose one's perspective on the whole process of interchanging energy when people develop attachments to particular aspects of this process. These attachments develop in part, first, as a mechanism for gaining meaning -- as we just saw from contemporary psychological studies but also from the attempts to provide satisfaction for certain physical, mental, and emotional needs. When the patterns or categories of our experience develop into hopes and expectations, and then when these become the determining criteria for satisfaction, people find themselves in a situation of being attached to those expectations. These hopes or expectations for satisfaction or enhancement which, themselves, may simply begin as a way of understanding one's own personal selfhood and sense of presence-in-existence can turn out to be false whenever they are inconsistent with the actual result of our experience. When this happens they get caught in the net that they have used to bring one's experienced environment into a patterned awareness and understanding. What may be used to enhance one's life now becomes a weapon or a whip, whereby a person punishes and, perhaps, destroys oneself.

In recognizing that the basic process of interchanging and experiencing the energy of life can itself become a detriment to our awareness, we can also see that people in various religious traditions -- including Buddhism -- have developed re-educative activities. The Fourth Noble Truth of Buddhism is that there is a way to become free from existential disease. A shift in the manner of perceiving life is found in the third section of the Eightfold Noble Path in which there is a concern with concentration, mindfulness, and ultimately samâdhi. The use of meditation to de-automate habitual patterns of experience is a long-standing tradition and an essential part of the Buddhist way of life.

While Nâgârjuna did not deal with this or advocate it directly in his two philosophical treatises, there are texts that are credited to him, such as the "Letter to a Friend," which suggest that meditation is a critical part of the Buddhist path. This letter contains moral prescriptions which we will consider in greater detail in the next two lectures, but here we want to focus on the statements regarding meditation as part of the whole spiritual discipline to delete those desires which cause one to lose perspective on one's moral goal. These are as follows:

Know that there are three things that block the gate to the city of freedom and that you must cast aside: sole reliance on rites and penance, perverted views, and doubt.

Freedom depends upon you alone, for no one else can help you: strive in the Four Noble Truths, with study and virtue and meditation.

Ever train yourself in higher virtue, higher wisdom, higher meditation, for within these three are gathered more than a hundred fifty trainings.

My Lord the Well-Gone-One [Tathagata] has taught us that the only path to tread is mindfulness upon the body. Meditate thereon and guard it well; for when mindfulness is lost all virtues are destroyed...

With virtue and meditation and wisdom, gain nirvâna; for it alone is the state of peace, calm, and stainlessness, without decay or death or disease; for it is neither earth nor water, fire nor air, sun nor moon.

Mindfulness, investigation of events, striving, enthusiasm, serenity, meditation, equanimity: these are the seven factors of enlightenment, the accumulation of merit that leads to the attainment of nirvâna.

Without wisdom there is no meditation; without meditation there is no wisdom; but when you have both of these, you make the vast ocean of this world into a mud puddle.[7]

In the earlier Buddhist tradition there were four types of attachment or acquisition that were constitutive of the development of personality. These had to be eliminated if one was to attain nirvâna -- that is, freedom from pain and from the impact of karma. These four attachments were attachment to sense pleasures, attachment to wrong views, attachment to external observances such as rites and rituals, and attachment to the idea of a self as a lasting eternal reality.[8] The effort to eliminate the faulty motivating forces in life by having one's mind established in the four kinds of mindfulness (Satipatthana) -- on the body, feelings, mind, and dhammas -- is a well-known feature of the ancient Buddhist path.[9] This was to result in the social virtues of friendliness, compassion, serenity, and joy; these virtues help to cultivate the emotional state of the arahant -- the one who has slain the evils. The emotional state that we find described has been summarized by R.E.A. Johansson in his The Psychology of Nirvana, as follows: "Free from desire ... detached and independent ... calm, undisturbed, confident, free from fear and free from worries," free from anger and pride.[10]

The Anguttara Nikâya described the cognitive process of one who had attained release as follows:

If forms cognisable by the eye come very strongly into the range of vision of a monk whose mind has attained the perfect release, then they do not obsess his mind and his mind is untroubled, firm, and composed.[11]

In the earlier Buddhist tradition and in the Mâdhyamika school, as in later schools that stress the emptiness of all things, we find the power of concentration and meditation to be an effective way of changing awareness. We find, for example, that a twentieth-century Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, has described concentration as important for knowing the nature of life:

We say concentration, but to concentrate your mind on something is not the true purpose of Zen. The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes. This is to put everything under control in its widest sense. Zen practice is to open up our small mind. So concentrating is just an aid to help you realize "big mind," or the mind that is everything. If you want to discover the true meaning of Zen in your everyday life, you have to understand the meaning of keeping your mind on your breathing and your body in the right posture of zazen. You should follow the rules of practice and your study should become more subtle and careful. Only in this way can you experience the vital freedom of Zen.[12]

The recognition that one can cease to be attached to limited awareness and thereby allow the "big mind" to become actualized takes us to the last point in this lecture. This is that human beings can allow a quality of consciousness to be available despite the fact that most of life is experienced in a limited way. This recognition is seen by Nâgârjuna when he says:

That state which is the rushing in and out of existence when dependent and acquired --
This state, when not dependent or not acquired, is seen to be nirvâna ...

The quieting of acquisition is a beneficial quieting of image-development (prapañca);
No dharma of anything anywhere has been taught by the Buddha. (MMK 25:9,24)

The changes in the personality which we described above are a result of being free from acquisition (upâdâna). Existence as we normally experience it has to be acquired, or has to be accumulated as a part of our sensitivity of being present-in-existence. This common experience is found whenever we think we must do something in order to "be" or to "become". Whether this is pleasing somebody else, achieving a certain award, or being satisfied because of something that we acquired materially or psychologically, we identify ourselves by means of "acquisitions". But these acquisitions, says Nâgârjuna, are also the bondage which must be eliminated if one is going to be free in the sense of experiencing nirvâna.

The psychological point that we want to make, however, is that human beings already have the potential and at least the partial realization of the freedom that is the goal of spiritual development. Human beings have the ability to change their attitudes and foci of awareness. The effort that is required, especially at the early stages of this change, may be seen by some to be the opposite of a genuine spontaneity. However, the effort is an exercise of a human capacity which already is present whereby a person determines his or her everyday selfhood. Rather than just reacting to one's environment, one is altering the habitual processes that give shape to one's identity.

At a deep level of attitude formation, we are always acting in a condition of consciousness where both the sponteneity of our lives and deliberate action merge. As Nâgârjuna would say, the "doer" and the "being-done" are co-related to each other and each arises dependent on the other. Any of you who have quieted your own minds and consciousness to the point of being able to "dwell on" a mental object, or a series of thoughts going through your mind, or some focus of meditation, recognize that this state of being aware of the process and emergence of mentalizing this state of being in the process of consciousness, is different from an analytical "thinking about" those objects of the mind. This shift gives the "doer" or "meditator" a different perspective or position from which to understand the process of coming in and going out of existence by comparison to the much more normal or habitual pattern of being caught up in the acquired specifications or acquired labels with which we live.

The experience of dwelling on a mental object is a discernment which, I suggest, is a kind of cognitive awareness -- however, it is not what we normally regard as a subject-object perception. "Letting go" of one's acquisitions which compel one to define one's selfhood in certain cultural, historical, and physical terms is an imposition that we make on ourselves in order to function in certain social roles. However, it interferes with fully participating with our environment at a deeper level of our consciousness in a free and spontaneous way, and thus with experiencing the dependent co-origination of things. The acquisitions or compulsions tend to cut us off from the possibility of seeing ourselves as whole human beings and from experiencing our unique selves. Of course, phrases like "environment" and "unique selves" are designations of convenience, and are themselves aspects of the pulsating motion of existence

It is the small mind, the mind of acquisition, which obscures what might be called "instrinsic awareness." The small mind is a mode of experiencing which crystallizes perceptions or concepts -- even such terms as "intrinsic awareness," "selfhood," or "environment" -- into substantial entities. When this happens, the mechanism of the small mind -- which is at a basic level also the great mind -- is a malfunctioning process at the beginning of the dependent co-arising of human experience. Paradoxically, this acquisition that structures one's world is both a mechanism of a developing personality and an inhibitor of possibilities for growth and insight. When the habits of personality structures take over as the fundamental movement of a person's growth, one tends to identify all new possibilities with compulsions for acquisition.

To let go of the acquiring mind or small mind does not mean that the spiritual adept will lose all expectations, or goals, or hopes. To do so would mean that a person would lose normal consciousness as in a trance. Rather it means (1) that the expectations, hopes, and goals are dependent and should be experienced as conditioned, and (2) that individuals can experience, personally, the release from their compulsive, acquiring minds by letting go, in serial fashion, of each image, hope, or expectation as it takes a particular form.

Such an experience can be described as "spiritual integration." This kind of integration is the recognition that there are "yes-and-no experiences" in our moment-by-moment awareness of life. These cannot be identified with one single form that affirms only the yes, and certainly not only the no. To identify any form with either a "yes" or "no" experience -- or we might say with the whole dynamics of dichotomizing the world into yes and no -- is to miss the co-dependent nature of life, a larger "Yes" that transcends the dichotomous "yes" and "no" of conventional views. This large "Yes" is the indirect expression of the ability to let go of both "yes" and "no". This "Yes" is an existential realization that one cannot escape freedom -- the "yes" and "no" of the moment -- that is pulsating between past and future.

While I have been talking, you may have asked yourself if there is not a danger in formulating a limited image of "yes," in which one loses the dynamic of decision in the large Yes act. I would answer: There is indeed such a danger; but one must risk it since we are compelled to give form to (that is, to formulate) the dynamic in directing attention to it. To take responsibility for directing attention to a "yes" and a "no" act is a way of gaining the decision-making power in a spontaneous way. By first formulating an image, and then letting go of the compulsive dynamics of the acquiring mind, one can give a focus to a hope, ideal, or expectation, which indirectly draws forth the "Yes" which is a true enhancement of a person with integrity. The unattached character of an empty awareness, then, is not the kind of detachment that maintains a cool or casual disclaimer of the importance of everything. Rather, it is the redirection of one's energy for a more complete and fuller experience of life. This fuller and more complete experience is one, however, which may be a surprise in light of earlier image-formation of what "the full life" would be.

The next two lectures give attention to some of the forms that non-attachment integrated with compassion and wisdom might look like in our social and everyday life.


In a short work that the Buddhist tradition has credited to Nâgârjuna, we find a deep concern for morality and proper social ethics. This is a letter to a [Sâtavâhana] king in South India, probably King Kaniska I, in which Nâgârjuna gives practical advice on how a householder can cultivate the Middle Way. In this letter to a friend, he says: "Practice virtue fully, bountifully, freely, ungrudgingly, for it is said that virtue is the foundation for all qualities, as the earth for the living and the unliving."[13] He says also: "The Sage has said that concern is the abode of immortality, indifference [is] the abode of death; then be ever and devotedly concerned to increase your virtue. For whoever goes from indifference to concern shines like the moon moving from behind a cloud."[14]

Here we see that Nâgârjuna -- or at lease the tradition that followed Nâgârjuna's concern with the Middle Way -- is interested in emphasizing the importance of morality. In another treatise that includes many of Nâgârjuna's thoughts and is recognized by the Buddhist tradition as expressing Nâgârjuna's thinking and awareness, called The Great Perfection of Wisdom Treatise, we find that the first stage of the person practicing the path toward enlightenment is the cultivation of giving or charity; in our next lecture we will see what this giving means in the light of emptiness. The second stage of the path for one on the way to enlightenment emphasizes the cultivation of purity in moral conduct which gives a person serenity and joy in living. Such virtues as forbearance and compassion in which one cares for all other living beings are important aspects of the cultivation of moral conduct. It is in this stage, also, that one recognizes the value of other people and expresses a sense of gratitude for all that others in the world have done to relieve the pain and suffering in the person on the path. It is only at the third level, or stage, that the person on the path seeks to achieve a wide understanding; and this indicates that morality and virtue are necessary beginning steps in the awareness of enlightenment.

Already in early Buddhism there was the recognition that the cultivation of social qualities such as friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy in the success that other people have, and equanimity are important social expressions of knowing the true nature of things. We should recall also in the Eightfold Noble Path that three of the steps are perfect action, perfect speech, and perfect livelihood. All this is to indicate that spiritual release has a very practical and important social aspect and that ethics is one of the manifestations of a quality of life-awareness derived from knowing the nature of existence. We should recall that Nâgârjuna in The Fundamentals of the Middle Way says that emptiness and the recognition that all things are empty makes action and mundane activities possible.

There is no destruction of sorrow if it exists by its own nature.
By trying to establish "self-existence" you deny destruction.

If the path of release is self-existent, then there is no way of bringing it into existence;
If that path is brought into existence, then "self-existence," which you claim, does not exist.

When sorrow, origination, and destruction do not exist,
What kind of path will bring about the destruction of sorrow? (MMK 24:23-25)

Also, later in that chapter, we find:

You reject all mundane and customary activities
When you reject emptiness in the sense of dependent co-origination.

If you deny emptiness, there would be action which is unactivated.
There would be nothing whatever acted on, and a producing action would be something not begun.

According to [the notion of] "self-existence" the world is free from different conditions;
Then it will exist as unproduced, undestroyed, and immutable.

If non-emptiness does not exist, then there is aspiration of what is not [already] attained;
There is cessation of sorrow and action, and all evil is destroyed. (MMK 24:36-39)

Here we see that the cessation of sorrow -- when it is not conceived as something self-existent -- is the goal of insight into the nature of the world. This not only allows, but requires, an appropriate manifestation of this insight in one's daily life.

In this lecture today, we want to examine the meaning of living in the world and its ethical implications that derive from knowing that all things are empty. The first point that we want to discuss is that proper social action is derivative of insightful mindfulness whereby one knows the nature of existence. A person's physical and social behavior derive from a personal redirected internal choice, or a new way of looking at life, rather than having certain laws of morality or rules of conduct. This does not mean that Nâgârjuna will not give moral advice or give moral precepts; however, these are not given in the context of an absolute or divine authority. They are, rather, derivative of a perception of life, and a means for cultivating and deepening that very awareness.

Then we also want to focus on the relationship of ethical rules to the concern in Nâgârjuna's writings with non-attachment, or non-acquisition of things of the self, of some absolute ideal. Morality or social action is perfectly expressed only when there is the recognition that the person doing this action and the object of action are all empty of self-existence. That awareness is what leads to non-attachment and to the avoidance of acquiring even subtle sensitivities and expectations of reward as a result of having done what is good. And then, the final concern today will be to try to understand how karmic force is said to be empty in The Fundamentals of the Middle Way, while, at the same time, Nâgârjuna will appeal to the notions if karma and rebirth as a justification for avoiding the attachment to things or self or some absolute -- even to the Buddhist path or emptiness.

In his little work, A Letter to a Friend, Nâgârjuna repeats some of the statements made and analyzed in The Fundamentals of the Middle Way. For instance, he says the following which relates an understanding of the emptiness of everything to the experience of unhappiness, and to the relationship between perverted views and getting caught in faults, clinging, or acquisition:

Understand that mankind is unhappy, impermanent, selfless, impure; those who bear this not in mind sink and are destroyed in the four perverted views.

For we are told that form is not the self, nor does the self possess form; the self does not dwell in form nor form in the self; and the four other aggregates also are empty.

These aggregates do not appear by accident, nor from time, nor from an essence, nor from their own nature, nor from a creator, nor without a cause. Know that they appear from ignorance, from deeds, from craving.[15]

In chapter 18 of The Fundamentals of the Middle Way, you will recall that Nâgârjuna analyzes the notion of âtman -- the individual self -- and finds that it cannot be identified with anything. The ethical implications of this are that one will miss the true enlightenment if one devotes his or her life solely to individual or personal salvation. If there is no eternal reality of the self, then one must renounce the notion of individual enlightenment and individual freedom as such. Rather, enlightenment and the attainment of equanimity and joy will pertain to the benefit of all sentient beings. In a basic way, if the dependent co-origination of all things is an accurate description of the nature of life, then we cannot attain enlightenment until the notion of an individual "me" or "my life" is given up. As long as there is a single thing called "me" or "I" that is the center of the effort and drama of liberation, there is no hope of attaining enlightenment since, in actuality, there is no body that is in itself determining the enlightenment.

While the effort of morality, meditation and understanding is an extraordinarily strenuous effort, there is "nobody" who is doing this as such. Because it is nobody's effort per se there must be a realization of egolessness. This is to know that what we see as ourselves, as what we remember as ourselves, and are identified by others as ourselves, is not a thing-as-such, or a container where we live. If we cannot identify a real self even with the particular momentary experience, such as the doer, or the giver, or the lover, or the one who is compassionate, we begin to sense that any given moment expresses a dependently co-originated entity that is already changing as soon as we start remembering or identifying it. In this view of the world characterized by rapid change and continuing pulsation into and out of existence -- either moment-by-moment, or life-by-life, or universe-by-universe, or galaxy-by galaxy -- it is not surprising then we find Nâgârjuna saying in his Letter to a Friend the following:

Every one of us has drunk more milk than the four oceans could hold, and you will drink more than that before you are done with birth in the world.

Every one of us has piled up bones higher than Mount Meru;

If all the mothers you have had were small as seeds, they would still be beyond counting.

You might become the King of the Gods, worshipped by the world,

But still your deeds will cast you down to the earth again.

You might become a universal emperor, but still you can

Become a slave in this round of births.

Long may you taste the joys of caressing the full breasts

Of heavenly maidens;

But still you will suffer the unbearable caress of the crushing

Engines of hell.

Long may you dwell on the summit of Mount Meru,

Tasting the joys of pliant ground beneath your feet;

But still you will touch the unbearable pain

Of walking upon hot coals and rotting corpses…

For you must die. So seize the brightness of the three-fold

Lamp of Merit;

In the end it is you alone who will enter the darkness

Which neither sun nor moon can pierce.[16]

With this kind of concern to recognize both the tenuousness of life and the immediate responsibility of the individual, it is clear that for Nâgârjuna any moral quality or moral act must be grounded in the personal experience of the emptiness of everything. There are qualities, then, that we can identify, such as friendliness or compassion, which are both empty, and, at the same time, the very ground or sphere of human moral existence. The particular quality of experiencing who and what one is in relation to other people and the environment is equivalent to a fundamental sense of "being there." It is the sensitivity to what basic sanity means in light of not only short-term goals of success, or material wealth, or psychological and personal pleasure trips. It has to do with how one experiences being in the world as an ongoing and fully extended sense of interacting with everything.

The act of one's own awareness in relation to other people, then, becomes a skillful means of self-development and the development of everything that is also in relation to the self. It means being secure rather then being secured. It is a way of existing. This insight that takes practical form in the way one lives is a fundamental security that comes from realizing that one has broken through the apparently secure forms and habitual experiences by which one defines one's own life. In that breakthrough people discover that despite the changing and continuing flow of existence there is no need to fear the loss of an assumed selfhood in a trans-social awareness. There is the recognition that a person is fulfilled despite ones's social or economic attainment. Everyone is a rich person. Such a person has so much that he or she can give in a serene and spontaneous way. One does not have to reassure himself or herself anymore -- for to seek reassurance is an expression of deficiency; it is a form of lacking something. Rather than needing the reassurance, the grasping after what is apparently not there, one can know and experience compassion, friendliness, sympathetic joy, and serenity. Thus, Nâgârjuna advises the King as follows:

Ever meditate upon friendliness, upon compassion, upon sympathetic joy, and upon equanimity;[17]

And then continues with the following sentiment that we already pointed out in a former lecture:

Freedom depends upon you alone, for no one else can help you;

Strive in the four noble truths, with study and virtue and meditation.

Ever train yourself in higher virtue, higher wisdom, higher meditation,

For within these three are gathered more than one hundred fifty trainings.[18]

In these verses we see that Nâgârjuna extends the early Buddhist concern to integrate the purification of mind with social expression of this transformed awareness. We can recall that the popular Pali text, the Dhammapada, verse 183, summarizes the Buddha's teaching in the following way:

Not to commit any sin, to do good, and to purify one's own mind,

That is the teaching of (all) the Buddhas.

Non-attachment of the mind will continue in interpersonal actions. When a person opens up oneself to perceive things as they are, as dependently co-originated, and not to fantasize about anything that appears to be good in itself, free in itself, trust as such, or love as such, then one can act without grasping an assumed object that one felt one needed.

As we move into considering the second concern of this lecture -- that enlightenment is possible only if all objects of consciousness are seen as empty and therefore one expresses non-attachment in every breath, in every act, and in every thought -- we can focus on certain verses of the Letter to a Friend. There, we see the following:

My Lord, the Well-Gone One, has taught us that the only path to tread is mindfulness upon the body.

Meditate thereon and guard it well;

For when mindfulness is lost, all virtues are destroyed.[19]

This is a teaching of benefit and of profit: subdue your mind,

For the Blessed one has said that the mind is the root of all things.

Hard it is even for a monk to do what I have taught you,

But just hold to the essential quality of whatever you practice and make your life fruitful.[20]

Guard your unsteady mind as your son, your treasure, your very life;

Turn your mind from lust as from poison, from weapons, from enemies, from fire.[21]

Why is the purification of the mind and the stabilization of our responses to life so important? We can answer that in psychological terminology by saying that various activities of the mind, themselves, contribute to establishing different parameters or limits of experience. Thus, if we expect violence or if we identify violence as a necessary aspect of human life, we will be setting parameters of what is possible to do in any given situation. The Buddhists, with reference to the notion of each moment arising dependent on a multitude of other factors, insist that there is a variety of possible attitudes; these are different orientations to self-identity and different factors that come into play within human perception that may generate different kinds of behavior.

Behavior, then, is part of a whole matrix of mental-emotional patterns and forces. Any experience of love or of violence or of ignorance, and any understanding of the causes for these different experiences are themselves conditioned by a particular kind of consciousness. The inner capacities of understanding and evaluation, or, in more traditional religious terms, the condition of a person's heart or center, contribute to both one's perception and behavior. This recognition that the body and mind are integrated, that emotions contribute to the experience of certain perceptions, indicates that the common assumptions of conventional experience and talk of a difference between "inside" and "outside" are not useful for understanding how behavior arises.

We can ask ourselves, "Where does the inside stop and where does the outside begin?" What experiences do we have that are not also conditioned by the fact that we have a body, a neurological system, or a chemical reaction? Likewise, what activities can we engage in with reference to other people or with reference to our physical environment that do not depend on how we approach any apparent object of consciousness? We can ask, "Is not matter consciousness doubling back on itself?" or, " Is not consciousness energy doubling back on itself?" This recognition of the automatic involvement of one's own personality and perception of human life finds its parallel in the physical sciences when the physicist Werner Heisenberg states: "The familiar classification of the world into subject and object, inner and outer world, body and soul, somehow no longer quite applies, and indeed leads to difficulties."[22] In science, also, the object of research is no longer nature in itself but, rather, nature exposed to man's questioning. And to this extent, man here also meets himself.

The importance of recognizing that there is no absolute "inside" or "outside" is that we are free to redefine who and what we are even in a most extreme situation. Take, for example, the situation of being the object of hate, or misunderstanding, or even violence. How is the person who knows dependent co-origination of life going to respond in relation to these energies that are normally regarded as a threat to a person? By understanding that the momentary awareness of fear, or horror, or anxiety, is placed in the context of the ultimate nature of things, there is a transforming power which can free a person to make quantum leaps from one set of experiences and behavior to another. This capacity to use the transforming power within one's own sensitivities that will then relate to external forces, releases one from experiencing violence, for example, as simply a threat.

By bringing into consciousness the relation of every act of mind, speech, or body to the fundamental nature of reality, we expose ourselves indirectly to this extremely extensive parameter of experience. We place ourselves and our behavior and our experiences of others' behavior into an ultimate context. Seen from an "ultimate context," violent behavior is not fundamentally a problem of social, psychological, or physical behavior and conditions. People's ordinary experience of "self" in relation to "other selves" is only part of the reality within which one participates. A person burning to death by napalm bomb raids, the ethnic group slowly destroyed psychologically and economically by racial discrimination or more rapidly by swords, bullets, or poison gas, or the family wiped out in a head-on auto crash with another careless speeding driver -- these are all dramatic painful experiences. While they are very real in the social-political-physical frame of reference, that frame of reference is not regarded as ultimate. There is a larger context, the condition of how a person, a community, or the experience of the physical earth, come into existence at all. That larger context is the emptiness of everything, the dependent co-origination, the "thusness" of existence, or the Dharmata. In this context, anger or violence is not only -- or even basically -- a social-political phenomenon; it is an expression of an issue dealing with the very nature of things. In this ultimate context there is a sense that individual or group experiences are part of something much more. Human existences seem to involve not only apparent forms and conscious activities, but also hidden and unconscious forces.

In an "ultimate context," violence is not simply a matter of political and social slaughter -- though it is that, too. The political and social expression of violence exposes a much more fundamental problem that is located in a dimension or context of awareness that has been labeled in Latin-based languages as "spiritual." Violence has to do with how existence arises; it has to do with the dimension of human experience that is hidden when a person focuses only on the most recent circumstances, on conscious habitual imagery, or solely on physical solutions to stress situations. Violent or peaceful behavior is seen, within an ultimate context, to result from deeply ingrained patterns and processes in human personality in society. Good and evil arise from both subjective and objective conditioning factors. Structures of experience derived from past experience, present conditions, and future intentions are found in every event, every form and any behavior.

The hope to live happily requires insight into these conditions of behavior; and the conditions of behavior include the conditioning mechanism of the process by which a person perceives the problem. The perceiver participates from his or her frame of reference in the apprehension of violence. By getting at the root or basis of existence, a person or a community can be transformed in a fundamental way. In perceiving the nature of existence directly and accurately, a person is free to live fully and harmoniously. The perception of ultimate truth is not then simply the attainment of new information; it is a transformation of attitudes -- a new way of perceiving things. This includes the recognition, then, not only that violence includes both subjective and objective conditions, but that "you are your own most fundamental enemy." If you want to get rid of enemies or violent attackers, you need to perceive the nature of violence as it arises in you.

The elimination of violence requires dropping some psychological crutches as well as false images about oneself. The nature and procedure of the transformation has been described differently within the Buddhist tradition -- sometimes with emphasis on a gradual process of change and other times on the radical, sudden nature of the transformation. However, the effect of the insight into the nature of action, including violence, or fear, or anxiety, is to recognize that one need not dread or run from pain, nor need one assume its inevitable existence and thus be attached to it. Rather, one can become mindful of the arising of fear, anger, and indifference as conditions for violent behavior and then take responsibility for the contribution one is making to the situation and the consequences of action. To look at ourselves from the ultimate context, rather than from habitual social-physical imagery, is itself an act of existing in a certain way, which is spoken of religiously as "purification," which is also a release of power.[23]

This inner transformation that transforms external behavior can help us understand the third concern that we wanted to talk about in this lecture: how the karmic force is expressed despite the fact that, as Nâgârjuna says, there is no real production or cessation of karma. Keeping in mind the negative dialectic that Nâgârjuna used in order to avoid attachment to the notion of karma in The Fundamentals of the Middle Way, let us hear what he says in the Letter to a Friend regarding the importance of practice:

Rejoice at all and every virtue and dedicate every practice to the attainment of Buddhahood…

You will practice like the noble bodhisattvas, to take in hand many tormented beings;

You will be born to clear away their disease and old age, their lust and hatred…

You will be a Lord of Conquerors to calm the terror, the birth and death of hosts of beings, defiled and tormented;

You will attain the deathless state, but fear not that you will be unmoving,

For it is but words to say that you have passed beyond the world.[24]

Mindfulness, investigation of events, striving, enthusiasm, serenity, meditation, equanimity: these are the seven factors of enlightenment, the accumulation of merit that leads to the attainment of nirvâna.

Without wisdom there is no meditation; without meditation, there is no wisdom;

But when you have both of these, you make the vast ocean of this world into a mud puddle.[25]

The effort one makes in terms of mundane understanding is "no-effort" in the expression of the highest truth. The karma and virtue that one attains is no-karma and no-virtue. To express and experience karma as no-karma is a transforming and releasing power whereby one becomes what one will without attachment. One can give of oneself, and one can receive threats and violence without false expectations of their consequences. In the next lecture we will see in concrete ways how the social practice of letting go permits one to be free in body and moral activity as well in one's awareness.


[1] Nâgârjuna, Mahâyâna-vimsikâ (Twenty Verses on the Great Vehicle), in Minor Buddhist Texts, trans. Giuseppi Tucci (Rome: Instituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1956), 1: 201-203.

[2] Cf. Streng's comment elsewhere: "If human beings want to be free from suffering, they have to see how they are constructing the bondage that they feel they are in." "The Process of Ultimate Transformation in Nâgârjuna's Mâdhyamika," Eastern Buddhist n.s. 11 (1978), p. 20.

[3] Edward Conze, trans., Buddhist Wisdom Books (London: Allen & Unwin, 1958), pp. 47-48.

[4] Giuseppe Tucci, trans., in Pre-Dinnâga Buddhist Texts on Logic from Chinese Sources, Gaekwad's Oriental Series, no. 49 (Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1929), p. 5.

[5] Jerome Bruner, "On Perceptual Readiness," Psychological Review 64 (1957), 123-152; quoted in Claudio Naranjo and Robert E. Ornstein, On the Psychology of Meditation (New York: Viking Press, 1971), p. 181.

[6] On the Psychology of Meditation, p. 174.

[7] Nâgârjuna, Suhrllekha (A Letter to a Friend), trans. Steven Beyer, The Buddhist Experience: Sources and Interpretations (Encino, CA: Dickenson Publishing Company, 1974), pp. 14, 17.

[8] See Piyadassi Thera, Dependent Origination, The Wheel publication no. 15 (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1960), p. 27.

[9] See Nyanaponika Thera, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1988), pp. 57-75.

[10] Rune E.A. Johansson, The Psychology of Nirvana (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969), p. 124.

[11] Anguttara Nikaya III.378, quoted in R.E.A. Johansson, The Psychology of Nirvana, p. 125.

[12] Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1970), p. 33.

[13] Nâgârjuna, Suhrllekha (A Letter to a Friend), trans. Stephan Beyer, The Buddhist Experience: Sources and Interpretations (Encino, CA: Dickenson Publishing Company, 1974), p. 12.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p. 14.

[16] Ibid., pp. 15-16.

[17] Ibid., p. 13.

[18] Ibid., p. 14.

[19] Ibid., p. 14.

[20] Ibid., p. 18.

[21] Ibid., p. 12.

[22] "The Representation of Nature in Contemporary Physics," found in Rollo May, ed., Symbolism in Religion and Literature (New York: Braziller, 1961), p. 227.

[23] Cf. Frederick Streng, "Violence and Compassion," in Sun Keun Lee and Ki Yong Rhi, eds., Buddhism and the Modern World (Seoul: Dangguk University, 1977), pp. 57-66.

[24] Op.cit., p. 18.

[25] Ibid., p. 17.

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