The Doctrine of Nonsubstantiality
An excerpt from the book of Lama Anagarika Govinda

The Buddha freed the world from its "thingishness" by opposing a dogmatically hardened and misunderstood "atmavida," which originally was born from an experience of inner reality - the living breath of the universe within us - but which in the course of time had frozen into the concept of an unchangeable individual self. The Buddha replaced the idea of an immutable, eternal soul monad incapable of growth and development, with the conception of a spiritual consciousness yearning for freedom and highest enlightenment and capable of attaining this supreme goal in the course of a continuous process of becoming and dissolving.
In this process of transformation we find not only the source of transience and suffering, but also the source of all spiritual life and growth. When the Buddha spoke about this suffering, it was not an outcome of pessimism or "Weltschmerz," but was due to the realization that unless we recognize the nature and cause of our suffering, which is only another word. for our imperfection and our wrong attitude, we cannot make use of the tremendous potentialities of our mind and attain a state of perfect enlightenment that will reveal the universality of our innermost being.
This realization was not founded on logical conclusions, but on the Buddha's own experience in the attainment of illumination, in which he transcended the limitations of individuality by overcoming the illusion of egohood. This does not mean that his individuality was annihilated, but only that he did not mistake it any more as the essence of his being. He saw it as a vehicle, a necessary means to become conscious of his universality,-the universality of the all-encompassing mind.
Looking back from this experience of highest reality and self-realization, the Enlightened One saw the world. in a reversed perspective (reversed from the point of view of the ordinary man), namely in the perspective of the anatman idea: and lo! this apparently inescapable, solid and substantial world dissolved itself into a whirling nebulous mass of insubstantial, eternally rotating elements of continually arising and disintegrating forms. The momentariness of these elements of existence (dharmas) which make up the river of life and of all phenomena, make it impossible to apply to them the concepts "being" or "non-being."
The world, O Kaccana, is given to dualism, to the
"it is" and the "it is not"! He, however, 0 Kaccana,
who has realized with perfect wisdom how things
arise in this world, for him there is no "it is not" in
the world. And he, O Kaccana, who realizes with
perfect wisdom how things disappear in this world,
for him there is no "it is" in the world. (Pali Canon:
Samyutta Nikaya II, 17)
Being and non-being can be applied only to things or substances existing in themselves, i.e. to absolute units, as represented by our abstract concepts, but never to anything real or actual, because no thing and no being can exist in itself or for itself, but only in relationship to other things or beings, to conscious or unconscious forces of the universe. Concepts such as "identity" and "non-identity," therefore, lose their meaning. It was for this reason that the Sage Nagasena answered King Milinda's question concerning whether the doer is identical with the reaper of the fruit of his action (be it in this or in a following life): "Na ca so, na ca anno." .("He is neither the same, nor a different one.")
The Buddha, therefore, replaces the concepts of identity and non-identity (which both represent extremes of abstract thought) by the formula of Dependent and Simultaneous Origination (pratityasamutpada). This was much more than the proclamation of a scientific law of causation, as superficial observers maintained, in order to prove the similarity of the Buddha's idea to their own soulless and mechanistic world-view. Their causality presupposes a purely time-conditioned, unalterable sequence of events, i.e. a necessary and predictable course of action.
The pratityasamutpada, however, is not confined to a sequence in time, but can also be interpreted as a simultaneous cooperation of all its links, in so far as each of them represents the sum total of all the others, seen under a particular aspect. In other words: from the point of view of time and of the course of individual existence, i.e. from the mundane point of view, the formula of Dependent Origination can be interpreted causally, not however, from the standpoint of highest truth (paramartha satya).
The causal interpretation is to a certain extent a concession toward a more popular understanding, which requires a concrete example, related to actual life, and not a strictly logical, scientific formula. We, therefore, find even in Pali texts no uniformity in the presentation of this formula, in which sometimes several links are left out, and where even the reversibility of the sequence of certain links has been pointed out. This is not due to lack of logical thinking, as some critics assume, but it shows that the originators of these different formulations wanted to demonstrate that they were not concerned with a strictly time-conditioned sequence of phenomena following each other with mechanical necessity. What they wanted to point out was the non-substantiality and relativity of all individual phenomena. None of them exists in its own nature, independent of all other factors of life. Therefore they are described as sunyam: empty of self-nature, non-absolute.
But since no first beginning of any individual or of any inner or outer phenomena can be found, it means that each of them has the totality of the universe at its base. Or, if we want to express this from the standpoint of time, we could say that each of these phenomena, and especially every individual, has an infinite past and is, therefore, based on an infinity of relations, which do not and cannot exclude anything that ever existed or is liable to come into existences All individuals (or rather all that has an individual existence) have, therefore, the whole universe as their common ground, and this universality becomes conscious in the experience of enlightenment, in which the individual awakens into his true all-embracing nature.
In order to become conscious of this all-encompassing nature, we have to empty ourselves from all conceptual thought and discriminating perception. This emptiness (sunyata) is not a negative property, but a state of freedom from impediments and limitations, a state of spontaneous receptivity, in which we open ourselves to the all-inclusive reality of a higher dimension. Here we realize the sunyata, which forms the central concept of the Prajna-paramita Sutra. Far from being the expression of a nihilistic philosophy which denies all reality, it is the logical consequence of the anatman doctrine of non-substantiality. Sunyata is the emptiness of all conceptual designations and at the same time the recognition of a higher, incommensurable and indefinable reality, which can be experienced only in the state of perfect enlightenment.
While we are able to come to an understanding of relativity by way of reasoning, the experience of universality and completeness can be attained only when all conceptual thought (kalpana), all word-thinking, has come to rest. The realization of the teachings of the Prajna-paramita Sutra can come about only on the path of meditative practice (yogacara), through a transformation of our consciousness. Meditation in this sense is, therefore, no more a search after intellectual solutions or an analysis of worldly phenomena with worldly means - which would merely be a moving around in circles - but a breaking out from this circle, an abandoning of our thought-habits in order "to reach the other shore" (as it has been said not only in the Prajna-paramita-hridaya, but also in the ancient Sutta Nipata of the Pali Canon). This requires a complete reversal of our outlook, a complete spiritual transformation or, as the Lankavatara Sutra expresses it, "a turning about in the deepest seat of our consciousness." This reversal brings about a new spiritual outlook, similar to that which the Buddha experienced when returning from the Tree of Enlightenment. A new dimension of consciousness is being opened by this experience, which transcends the limits of mundane thought. I
The exploration of this consciousness, which goes beyond the boundaries of individual existence, is the special merit of the Vijnanavadins or Yogacarins, as they were also called, because they were not content merely with a theoretical exploration but regarded practical experience as the only legitimate way for the acquisition of true knowledge. For them not the thought process but the consciousness itself is the ultimate judge of reality; and the deeper we descend into this reality, the clearer will its true nature reveal itself - a nature before which all words turn back, because only negations such as "infinity," "timelessness," "emptiness," and the like, can hint at the enormity of this experience.
In the universality of this primordial ground of consciousness the Vijnanavadins discovered the source of all forms of existence, their dependent origination and transformation, and also their coming to rest in the state of perfect enlightenment.