The Philosophy of
(adapted from Zen and Western Thought, by Prof. Masao Abe, edited by Prof. William
R. LaFleur, 1985, Honolulu 1989)
In early Buddhism the theory of dependent origination and the philosophy of emptiness
were still naively undifferentiated. It was Abhidharma Buddhism which awakened
to a kind of philosophy of emptiness and set it up in the heart of Buddhism. But
the method of its process of realization was to get rid of concepts of substantiality
by analysing phenomenal things into diverse elements and thus advocating that
everything is empty. Accordingly, Abhidharma Buddhism's philosophy of emptiness
was based solely on analytic observation - hence it was later called the 'analytic
view of emptiness'. It did not have a total realization of emptiness of the phenomenal
things. Thus the overcoming of the concept of substantial nature or 'being' was
still not thoroughly carried through. Abhidharma fails to overcome the substantiality
of the analysed elements.
Beginning with the Prajñaparamita-sutra, Mahayana Buddhist thinkers transcended
Abhidharma Buddhism's analytic view of emptiness, erecting the standpoint which
was later called the 'view of substantial emptiness'. This was a position which
did not clarify the emptiness of phenomena by analysing them into elements. Rather,
it insisted that all phenomena were themselves empty in principle, and insisted
on the nature of the emptiness of existence itself. The Prajñaparamita-sutra
emphasizes 'not being, and not not being'. It clarified not only the negation
of being, but also the position of the double negation - the negation of non-being
as the denial of being - or the negation of the negation. It thereby disclosed
'Emptiness' as free from both being and non-being, i.e. it revealed prajña-wisdom.
But it was Nagarjuna who gave this standpoint of Emptiness found in the Prajñaparamita-sutra
a thorough philosophical foundation by drawing out the implications of the mystical
intuition seen therein and developing them into a complete philosophical realization.
Nagarjuna criticized the proponents of substantial essence of his day who held
that things really exist corresponding to concepts. He said that they had lapsed
into an illusory view which misconceived the real state of the phenomenal world.
He insisted that with the transcendence of the illusory view of concepts, true
Reality appears as animitta (no-form, or non-determinate entity). But Nagarjuna
rejected as illusory, not only the 'eternalist' view, which took phenomena to
be real just as they are, but also the opposite 'nihilistic' view that emptiness
and non-being are true reality. He took as the standpoint of Mahayana Emptiness
an independent stand liberated from every illusory point of view connected with
either affirmation or negation, being or non-being, and called that standpoint
the 'Middle Way'.