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The Heart Sutra claims: ‘Form is emptiness; emptiness is form’. Give an explication of this claim. How does it relate to the view that reality is ultimately empty of inherent nature?

Consideration of precisely how the statement, ‘Form is emptiness; emptiness is form’ relates to the view that reality is ultimately empty of inherent nature demands the discussion of certain relevant concepts, texts and interpretations.  This essay shall first begin with an overview with an overview of the concept of emptiness in Buddhist philosophy and will then discuss the concept of emptiness in more depth. What I aim to illustrate with this brief essay is to affirm the view that reality is ultimately empty of inherent nature and that the realisation of the absence of Svabhava is intended to lead to serious soteriological impacts as a part of Buddhist ideology.[1]

Background

It is easily observable that Emptiness is a fundamental idea in Buddhist philosophy.[2] The titular quote ‘form is emptiness; emptiness is form’ is the most well-known paradox in Buddhist philosophy. It is an all encompassing supreme declaration. The phrase stems from the Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra (Heart Sutra) which entails the philosophical spirit of approximately six hundred scrolls composed of the Maha Prajna Paramita.[3]

The fundamental concept which all of Nagarjuna’s philosophy is based upon is Emptiness (śūnyatā). Undoubtedly, Emptiness is perpetually the emptiness of an entity, and the entity Nagarjuna says it is, is Svabhava. Various terms exist to translate this word: ‘inherent existence’ and ‘intrinsic nature.’ However, ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ also embody the term. What is clear is that no single term can accurately explain the concept in full.[4] Hence, a more detailed analysis of Svabhava is encapsulated in Nagarjuna’s philosophy is required. Once it is understood that empty things are designed to be empty, we are then able to appreciate a more accurate and useful comprehension of the idea of emptiness.

We can differentiate the two fundamental philosophical dimensions of the notion of Svabhava, an ontological dimension, which connotes a form in which objects are in existence, and a cognitive dimension, which connotes a form where objects are conceptualised by human entities. In the scope of the ontological dimension, we are able to differentiate three distinct comprehensions of Svabhava: in regards to essence, in regards to substance, and in regards to absolute reality. [5]

Should it be the case that we comprehend Svabhava in regards of essence, then it must be considered a property – a form is not able to lose without first stopping to be that very physical form or entity. By this interpretation Svabhava is also associated with the type of precise qualities (svalakṣaṇa) that permit an onlooker to differentiate an entity or object from other entities or objects: for example, being aware that something is cold, together with a combination of svalakṣaṇas, we are aware that what we have in our presence is ice, as opposed to something else. It is imperative to be aware that this idea of Svabhava is not the aim of the Madhyamaka analysis. Whenever Nagarjuna states that things or entities are devoid of Svabhava, he is not concerned with this idea of essence. The ideologically more significant comprehension of Svabhava is a comprehension in regards to substance.[6]

In Buddhist thought before Nagarjuna, there is a difference between primary entities (dravyasat) and secondary entities (prajñaptisat). Primary entities are the objective and irreducible components of the universe while, on the other hand, secondary components rely on our theoretical and linguistic behaviors.[7] Some schools of thought consider that only atomic instances of consciousness are genuinely real unlike all other things, including, for example, computers, toys, and mobile phones which are a mere cumulative of such instances developed by our conceptualising brain. Thus, this theory exemplifies the view that the entire universe would be brought down to the level of secondary components. Hence, in this regards Svabhava is held on par with primary existence and connotes a precise ontological meaning: that is, to exist with Svabhava is to be a part of the design of the world.[8] These entities confer the ontological bottom which all of physical and metaphysical phenomena exist. They offer the finishing line of a linear path of ontological dependence possibilities.

On the other hand, Nagarjuna states this finishing line does not exist. It is the comprehension of Svabhava as a fundamental or essential component or entity that is composed of the major aim of his analysis. However, prior to undergoing a more careful analysis, we must take a more thorough analysis at the form this analysis takes we must, in a few short words, states the final ontological comprehension of Svabhava, namely Svabhava as absolute reality. For example, if Svabhava is considered as genuine universal phenomena it is sometimes constituted as not being brought about by any real causal, scientific process, as rigid and as autonomous of any other entity.[9] The most pressing problem is that for the Madhyamaka the genuine design is emptiness, i.e. the nonexistence of Svabhava comprehended as physical form. Thus, a form that possesses all these attributes must be in existence because there is Svabhava which is the genuine nature of universal phenomena and should not exist.

Throughout various commentaries on Buddhist philosophy it is evident that there exist numerous and varies ways of negating this contradiction.[10] An interpretation to face the intellectual conflict is by distinguishing two senses in which Svabhava is able to be devoid of any form or object.’ This is able to be comprehended by considering matter of form as a primary component. In the alternative, it could also be comprehended as being independent of any precise universal phenomena. As a consequence, we might then assert that emptiness, being the genuine design of phenomena ought to be comprehended as Svabhava and thus as not dependent only in the second, but also not in the first form. Hence emptiness only is in existence so far as Svabhava comprehended a matter as wrongly predictable onto another matter or other. This interpretation depends on asserting that there really does not exist more than one way of comprehending Svabhava – as essence and as matter.[11]

In conclusion, it is clear that there exist various scopes and fields that constitute the idea of Svabhava in Madhyamaka philosophy. And hence it is required that we examine the explanation of the word. This is a fundamental component of Nagarjuna’s thinking because the objective of examining the being or non-being of Svabhava is not solely theoretical.[12] It is pertinent to accept that Svabhava comprehended as substance that Nagarjuna discards not a theoretical stance, but rather, a somewhat intellectual default position. It is vital to bear in mind that the Madhyamaka differntiates between the comprehension of the nonexistence of Svabhava or emptiness and its actual reality. The objective of Madhyamaka thought is thus not to put forward an opinion of the universe, but to affect an intellectual change, a change perspective.[13]

Bibliography

W Evans-Wentz, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, according to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering. London: Oxford University Press, 1927.

W Evans-Wentz, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

J Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way:Translation and Commentary of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995.

C Lindtner. Nagarjuniana. Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of N ̄ag ̄arjuna. Akademisk Forlag, Copenhagen, 1982.

M Mehta ‘Śūnyatā and Dharmatā: The Mādhyamika View of Inner Reality’, in Roy C. Amore (ed.), Developments in Buddhist Thought: Canadian Contributions to Buddhist Studies. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1979.

S, Mervyn, ‘The Problem of Being in Mādhyamika Buddhism’, in Roy C. Amore (ed.), Developments in Buddhist Thought: Canadian Contributions to Buddhist Studies. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1979.

N Ronkin. Early Buddhist Metaphysics: The Making of a Philosophical Tradition. Routledge, London, 2005.

A Rospat, The Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness, Franz Steiner, Stuttgart, 1995.

D Seyfort Ruegg. The Literature of the Madhyamika School of Philosophy in India. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1981.

A Wayman, ‘Svabhāva of the Path’, in Alex Wayman. Calming the Mind and Discerning the Real, pp. 67–69. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

 


[1] M Mehta ‘Śūnyatā and Dharmatā: The Mādhyamika View of Inner Reality’, in Roy C. Amore (ed.), Developments in Buddhist Thought: Canadian Contributions to Buddhist Studies. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1979, p.32

[2] A Rospat, The Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness, Franz Steiner, Stuttgart, 1995, p.100.

[3] D Seyfort Ruegg. The Literature of the Madhyamika School of Philosophy in India. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, 1981, p.86.

[4] N Ronkin. Early Buddhist Metaphysics: The Making of a Philosophical Tradition. Routledge, London, 2005, p.12.

[5] C Lindtner. Nagarjuniana. Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of N ̄ag ̄arjuna. Akademisk Forlag, Copenhagen, 1982, p. 13.

[6] A Wayman, Svabhāva of the Path, in Alex Wayman. Calming the Mind and Discerning the Real, New York: Columbia University Press, 1978, p.34.

[7] J Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way:Translation and Commentary of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995, p.10.

[8] W Evans-Wentz, Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1967, p.210.

[9] W Evans-Wentz, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, according to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering. London: Oxford University Press, 1927, p. 123.

[10] S, Mervyn, ‘The Problem of Being in Mādhyamika Buddhism’, in Roy C. Amore (ed.), Developments in Buddhist Thought: Canadian Contributions to Buddhist Studies. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1979.

[11] Evans-Wentz, p. 231.

[12] Ibid. p.120.

[13] Lindtner, p.154.


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