Arya Nagarjuna’s View of Ultimate Reality
The Final Panacea to All Our Miseries
Geshe Dorji Damdul
While this writing may find little technical for the lay audience, I suggest the readers, however lay you might be, to bear with me the technicalities for a while. Reading this twice will instill in you a profound admiration in the view of Arya Nagarjuna, the missing of which will deprive us of the final light of hope of freedom from the vicious cycle of samsara.
This has two parts. The second part will serve as a commentary for the readers to understand the first part. Please don’t miss the second part as well, although the two might seem very alike at some segments.
The Four Noble Truths is the common locus for both the advocates of objective existence and those negating objective existence who debate rigorously to see if objective existence is feasible or not.
In the opening stanzas of the Chapter 24, Arya Nagarjuna began by raising the opponents' view and the absurdities that seem to follow for those who reject objective existence; The adherents of objective existence believes that with no objective existence, everything has to exist through mere subjective thoughts, in which case the value of existence of things will turn out to be not more than non-existence, like a castle in the air. They further push the Madhyamikas to the absurdity of having to reject the ‘arising’ and ‘disintegration’ of things in general if one denies objective existence. If this were the case, the Four Noble Truths is undermined as well, for the phenomena of arising and disintegration marks the underlying fabric of the concept of the Four Noble Truths.
The arising of the first truth from the second truth highlights our samsaric nature, while the elimination of the second truth thus giving rise to the third truth through training in the fourth truth delineates the hope of freedom from suffering altogether.
Without the Four Truths, the associated practices would make no sense, and the four fruits – fruit of Stream Enterer, Once Returner, No-more Returner, and Arahats – as a result of the practice would be undermined. Without the fruits, the abiders and the enterers into the fruits could not possibly exist. The Sangha would make no sense if these eight persons are non-existent. Without the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, the Jewel of the Dharma would not be possible. In the absence of Dharma and Sangha, how could the Buddha come into being?
On top of denigrating the Three Jewels, all conventionalities would be undermined, along with deprecating the distinction of what is virtuous and what is non-virtuous.
Arya Nagarjuna’s Response:
In response, Arya Nagarjuna summarized his rebuttal against the Essentialists, the adherents of objective existence, as follows:
All their former criticisms against Madhyamakas are due to their own lack of understanding: 1) the purpose of realizing emptiness, 2) the meaning of emptiness, 3) and the nature of emptiness.
In explaining the above three points, Arya Nagarjuna points to dependent origination as the meaning of emptiness. In so doing, he convinces them that the repudiation of emptiness in a way is rejecting dependent origination. By so doing, the opponents reject the phenomena of infallible arising and disintegration, the hallmark of existence. Without the phenomenon of “arising” existing, the first and the third truth among the Four Noble Truths are undermined. These two truths only make sense as existent if there is the phenomenon of “arising” as they arise from the second and the fourth truth respectively. By denigrating the Four Noble Truths, the Jewel of the Dharma cannot be posited. Without Dharma the eight Sangha members and the Buddha cannot be posited. The opponents of Madhyamika thus reject the existence of the Three Jewels. This not only leads to the consequence of repudiating the Three Jewels, but they also undermine the causation which governs the entire web of conventionalities.
Arya Nagarjuna thus drew the conclusion that all the above contradictions will be resolved with ease if one understands:
1. That the purpose of realizing emptiness is to uproot the subtlest of the mental stains of negative emotions;
2. That dependent origination, instead of nothingness, is the meaning of emptiness;
3. That emptiness is the subtlest form of reality characterized by the five natures – not known through others words, peaceful, devoid of elaborations, transcending conceptualization, and free of duality.
The More Detail Explanation:
The Dhammapada says:
All phenomena are of the nature of mind;
Mind is their chief and precedes them all.
If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts
Suffering follows him like the cart that follows the horse.
All phenomena are of the nature of mind;
Mind is their chief and precedes them all.
If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts
Happiness follows him like the shadow that follows the person.
Here we clearly see that the Buddha is pointing to our minds as finally being responsible for our happiness or suffering. While that mind can be described as Buddha nature—the ultimate seed for anyone to become a Buddha—but when it is sullied or defiled by mental afflictions, the person who is in possession of that mind is referred to as a samsaric being; One is in samsara. Contrary to this, if the temporary defilements are eliminated, this basic nature of the mind becomes awakened. At that point one becomes a Buddha.
Arya Naga Bodhi, a direct student of Arya Nagarjuna said:
“Buddhahood is not bestowed upon you by anyone;
Nor the cause of the Buddhahood is held by anyone;
Through discovering the Buddha nature within yourself,
You will achieve the Buddhahood.”
The very purpose for the appearance of Buddha Shakyamuni on this earth is to benefit others, to liberate all beings from suffering. From the concept of the Four Noble Truths, it is clear that He is not only pointing to the First Truth, the truth of suffering, but also to the Second Truth, the truth of the cause of suffering. It is only through uprooting the cause of suffering that the former can be eliminated altogether.
While in search of the cause of suffering, He points to ignorance as the final cause.
What is that ignorance? Ignorance is the demonic mind which views the self as truly existent and so obstructs us from seeing the reality accurately. This traps us in the vicious pain of samsara.
Buddha discovered that all suffering is triggered by this ignorance. To know what this ignorance is, one has to understand what the reality is which this ignorance distorts. Given that the ignorance causes one to misconceive the reality, without knowing what the reality is, we cannot know how the ignorance is obscuring the mind from having the vision of this reality. What constitutes the ultimate reality? After achieving Buddhahood, the Buddha remained silent for forty-nine days. On the forty-ninth day, the kings of the Devas—Indra and Brahma—descended to the earth with great veneration to the Buddha. They made prostrations to Him and asked:
“Oh Enlightened One! You have achieved Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. And yet you are not benefiting beings now; you are not giving teachings. The way by which you could benefit the beings the most efficiently is by teaching. You are not doing that. Why is this so? For the sake of the suffering beings, please turn the Wheel of Dharma.”
The Buddha replied: “You are right. I am not teaching because I don’t see anyone around me who has the ability to understand the profound ultimate reality which I have discovered.”
The Buddha's gesture of not teaching immediately indicates that the ultimate reality is very profound and has unfathomable depth. Without knowing this, one cannot eliminate the subtlest of the ignorance, without elimination of which one cannot achieve freedom from suffering. There are so many layers of ignorance. It is not sufficient to eliminate the coarser levels of ignorance for the purpose of releasing yourself from samsara. To achieve complete liberation from ignorance and not just from partial ignorance, one has to know how the subtlest ignorance operates.
What is this subtlest reality?
This whole concept of suffering and its causes which was comprehensively highlighted by the Buddha is concisely explained by Arya Nagarjuna, in a single stanza:
The ceasing of samsaric karmas and afflictions is nirvana.
Samsaric karmas and afflictions arise by conceptual misperception,
Which in turn arises by the elaboration of grasping at the true existence;
The wisdom of emptiness brings an end to this elaboration.
If it is through realizing the emptiness of true existence that the final ignorance is eliminated, what is meant by the emptiness of true existence which is also the ultimate reality? This is what we need to know. Arya Nagarjuna wrote six treatises all extensively explaining what constitutes this ultimate reality.
The debates included in the writings of Arya Nagarjuna, Acarya Shantideva, and Acarya Candrakirti—these debates between the Madhyamaka school which adheres to Arya Nagarjuna’s views versus the schools which reject them—help us to explore and tease apart the extremely subtle nuances involved in the understanding of ultimate reality. Arya Nagarjuna did not invent any philosophy; he simply unraveled the truth which the Buddha Shakyamuni taught in order for the suffering beings to be liberated.
The whole corpus of teachings on ultimate reality is presented by Arya Nagarjuna, the most essential of which is Mulamadhyamakakarika (the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way.)
The Chapter twentyfour of “The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way” Mulamadhyamakararika opens by highlighting the opponents’ view of true or objective reality, which as well reflects our naïve natural thinking, or the distorted version of the reality. This is done to clearly present what the object to be negated is when we cultivate the final wisdom.
Objects, instead of being intrinsically real, are lacking intrinsic nature according to Arya Nagarjuna. However, a whole set of philosophical schools advocates the idea of intrinsic reality of the things. They thus raise the qualm that if there is no intrinsic reality, then existence cannot be posited. In the absence of existence, the action of arising cannot be posited, which is well refuted by our direct experience of the world, where we see plants growing from seeds and suffering arising from their respective causes. That would show us how the first truth of the Four Noble Truths—the truth of suffering—arises from the second truth—the truth of the cause of suffering. And the third truth—the truth of cessation—ensues because of the fourth truth—the truth of the path leading to cessation of suffering. As the positive factors arise, the negative diminishes. This process of arising and diminishing of the negativities is not possible in the eyes of the opponents of Arya Nagarjuna if there is no intrinsic reality at all. This is the gist of the qualm the adherents of true existence has against Arya Nagarjuna and his followers.
They further argue that if there is no phenomena of arising or diminishing, how does one account for the Four Noble Truths, the principle teaching, which all the followers of the Buddha accept? If one does not accept the Four Noble Truths, how can one account for the practitioners of these Four Noble Truths? Without the practitioners of the Four Noble Truths, how is Buddhhood accounted for, the highest goal aimed at by the practitioners?
In summary, the proponents of intrinsic reality argue that while claiming to be a Buddhist, Arya Nagarjuna and his followers denigrate the whole teaching of the Buddha by rejecting intrinsic or objective existence. He is further criticized for not accepting Three Jewels as refuge, the Four Noble Truths, and also the functionalities of all things as they are.
Arya Nagarjuna responds by saying: “The qualms you raised against me are not because I have the flaws, rather they reflect your own ineptitude. You failed to understand the following three points”:
1) The purpose of understanding emptiness.
2) The nature of emptiness—Ultimate Reality.
3) The meaning of emptiness.
1) The purpose of understanding emptiness:
He reiterates that understanding emptiness finally eliminates the demonic egoistic ignorance which misperceives things to be intrinsically and objectively real and which gives rise to all mental agitations, irritations, suffering, pain, and anxiety. As long as one believes in things as existing truly, or from the object’s side, there will always be a tendency for one to react to the object. When one believes things to exist objectively, if the object appears to be attractive, one cannot control one’s mind from going after it. This is attachment. Whereas when one sees the object as being repulsive from the object’s side or intrinsically, then one cannot control one’s mind from running away from it. This is aversion. Arya Nagarjuna says that the very purpose of meditating on emptiness and then realizing the wisdom of emptiness is to eliminate all these negative emotions —attachment, aversion, and so forth. Just as the Buddha very clearly stated that our chasing after or running away from the objects is because of our failure to see things as dream-like, the way they are.
In a sutra, the Buddha said:
“Just as in a dream of a youthful girl,
She met with a boy and saw his death.
Joyous was she at the meeting and despair at his death.
View all phenomena as thus.”
When the girl fails to see the episodes as her own dream, she reacts to the dream as real. This swayed her into excitation which is indeed the cause of acute despair in the end. Both the excitation and the despair disappears the moment she wakes up from the dream. Her mind finally finds rest. This is little nirvana for her. She then realizes that unduly reacting to the objects is truly childish and festers all miseries.
But as long as one has a belief that objects exist intrinsically—from the object’s side, there is no way that one can eliminate the subtlest ignorance, and thus the negative emotions keep on shooting up.
2) The meaning of emptiness:
Arya Nagarjuna says:
“Whatever is dependently originated,
Is taught to be empty of true existence.
That being dependently designated;
This is the Middle Way.”
What he implies here is that emptiness should not be taken as nihilistic voidness. It is to be understood as dependent origination. What is meant by emptiness? It means emptiness of independent existence. When you negate independent existence, what is implied is dependent existence. Emptiness, thus, does not mean nothingness. It means dependent origination or dependent existence instead. Everything comes into existence by dependence on other factors. It does not infer nihilism, but instead implies fullness of so many other factors upon which the object is dependent. Things are there; functionalities are there; functionality connotes something is changing from one phase to the next. Things are changing; causes giving rise to the results; it happens only if there is dependency where the results depend on the causes. Thus emptiness of independent existence should not be read as nothingness, rather as dependent existence. Arya Nagarjuna summarizes this point by saying:
There is no phenomena which is not dependently originated;
There is no phenomena which is not empty of true existence.
This is the meaning of emptiness as interpreted by Arya Nagarjuna.
Different schools interpret dependent origination, pratitya samutpada, in different ways. Broadly speaking, there are three levels of dependent origination. His Holiness the Dalai Lama so beautifully captures the three levels of dependent origination as follows:
Three levels of Dependent Origination
a) Dependent origination of causation: Any result, when comes into being, necessarily depends on its preceding causes and conditions.
b) Dependent origination of dependence on parts: Here the dependency may not necessarily be sequential. The ‘whole’ which depends on its ‘parts’ for its existence is simultaneous with the parts on which it is dependent. For example, the auditorium where we sit arose dependently from its parts consisting of the roof, the walls, the floor, and so forth. The auditorium simultaneously exists with its parts.
c) Dependent origination of dependence on mere designation: Things exist through mere subjective imputation; things come into existence through dependence on our subjective mind which perceives the things. This third level has great resemblance with the modern physics - theory of relativity as well as quantum mechanics. This reflects the subtlest level of dependent origination, the understanding of which alone has the power to eliminate the final ignorance.
I recommend the readers, if interested in understanding this level of dependent origination, to study more in depth the two books by Lama Tsongkapa – His commentary on Acharya Chandrakirti’s “Entry into the Middle Way,” English translation by Dr. Thupten Jinpa and His commentary on Arya Nagarjuna’s “Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way” translated into English by Geshe Ngawang Samten and Jay Garfield. “How to See Yourself as You Really Are” by H.H. the Dalai Lama is a great book indispensable for this understanding.
3) As for the nature of emptiness, Arya Nagarjuna is implying that emptiness should not be thought of in terms of a solid object but in terms of inexpressibility in words and thought, whose bare nature is beyond conceptuality. On that level, emptiness transcends conventionality. He explains five natures ascribed to the ultimate reality – not known through others words, peaceful, devoid of elaborations, transcending conceptualization, and free of duality.
Arya Nagarjuna concludes by mentioning that contrary to things being dependently originated and empty of independent existence, if they do exist independently, dependent origination becomes untenable. This in turn has the implication that results are not dependent on causes. Following this line of reasoning, causation cannot be posited. Without causation, there is no arising and disintegration. This in turn leaves the Four Noble Truths unaccountable. Thus, the Three Jewels cannot be posited.
Witnessing the rigorous flow of debates between the two sides, the spontaneity of Arya Nagarjuna’s view of dependent origination slowly unfolds. While he rejects all degrees of intrinsic and independent existence, he espouses the full breadth of the functionality of the world as being in total conformity with our day-to-day experience of life in the form of dependent arising.