Editor’s note: This is the fifth of an 11-part series on Buddhism.
Just as the West had a scholastic period during which theologians argued about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, so Buddhism had a scholastic period in which practice yielded to philosophical speculation whose conclusions are preserved in Abidharma literature. While the West pursued the nature of matter downward from bodies, to organs, cells, molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks, strings, superstrings, vacuum fluctuations and finally, the Big Bang, Buddhist scholastics plumbed the nature of selfhood downward from persons, through skandas, to ayatanas, dhatus, dharmas and finally, to svabhava, which was rock bottom. Svabhava was a permanent substance or essence at the foundation of the self. In other words, it violated the Buddhist idea of impermanence or change (anitya) and functioned like the Hindu Atman to support the idea of separate selfhood as real and to buttress egoism, the very ideas that the Buddha had worked so hard to overthrow. What was needed was a second Buddha to undermine this new form of permanent, separate selfhood.
Enter Nagarjuna, a second century C.E. monk and legendary wizard, who practiced a philosophical analysis somewhat similar to the Deconstructionism of the post-modern West. It aimed to undermine speculation and encourage a return to practicing self-transformation. Nagarjuna's sledgehammer against the scholastics was the concept of emptiness (sunyata), which he applied not just to notions of selfhood but to all of reality. Emptiness, which he identifies with the Buddha's dependent co-origination (pratityasamutpada), involves three claims: (1) all realities are empty of svabhava (they are not permanent, they change), (2) all realities are conditioned or originated by causes (hence, not independent), and (3) all concepts are relationally-defined.
One of the topics Nagarjuna analyzes is time. Typically, we use the terms “past,” “present,” and “future” to explain time. Clearly, these words are distinct; they neither look nor sound alike. If we use the understanding of language as comprised of separate, independent words as a clue to the nature of reality (time, for example) they describe, then past, present, and future are also separate realities, each having a fixed essence (svabhava). Yet, that result halts the flow of time. If the present is permanent, then it cannot change in order to turn into the past. The future cannot alter itself to become the present. Time stops completely, and that flies in the face of experience.
For Nagarjuna, however, time concepts are empty, that is, relationally defined. We say that the present is what comes after the past and before the future. Indeed, to define any one of these common time terms, we appeal (either explicitly or tacitly) for help from the other two. The meaning of the terms is, then, interdependent. Each relies on a wider context of meaning that includes all three. Consider also that to define a term amounts to replacing it with a string of other words (“Justice” means “giving a person his or her due.”) The meaning of “justice” depends on the meaning of seven other words. Yet, the seven defining terms, in turn, have to be defined in the very same way, and so on. Arriving at a fixed definition never really occurs; it is always postponed. But if that view of language is used as a clue to the reality of time, then past, present, and future are interdependent and are causally conditioning each other. In that case, time can flow, as experience suggests.
Nagarjuna goes on to perform a similar analysis of the terms “cause” and “effect,” which are important in the understanding of karma. Most importantly, applied to the concept of selfhood, emptiness shows that selves are not independent but interdependent. Again, this outcome undermines the notion of separate selfhood, which underlies egoistic desire and amounts to a critique of Theravada's ideal of the arhat, the person who claims to win nirvana for himself alone by his own efforts alone.
The Mahayana view of the self is not significantly different from that proposed by psychoanalyst Eric Erikson, who is famous for his idea of the identity crisis and the eight stages of the life-cycle. Each of us, he says, consists of the ongoing interaction of three processes (analogous to the Buddha's skandas or five processes): a biological process, a psychological process, and a socio-cultural process. Each of these processes (separated only in abstract thought) influences the other two and is influenced by them (like the Buddha's dependent co-origination and Nagarjuna's emptiness). A self is created as it lives through eight dynamic stages, each of which poses its special challenges in the context of a widening circle of persons and institutions and a growing set of skills and virtues.
Such a view implies that, fundamentally, we are all part of a social web or ecological network, an insight that gives rise to compassion for others. We are, in part, others, and they are, in part, us.
Of course, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and even the concept of emptiness itself are themselves, as Nagarjuna admits, empty. Buddhism says, however, that they are part of the raft to get us across the river of life. When one reaches the shore of Nirvana, one does not pick up the raft and carry it overland. One leaves it at the river's edge. Emptiness is but a tool.
Milton Scarborough is emeritus professor of philosophy and religion at Centre College.