“So as quickly as a strong man could extend his arm or draw it back, that monk disappeared from the Brahmā realm and reappeared on
earth. He went to the Blessed One, saluted him, sat down at one side, and said: ‘Venerable sir, where do the four elements cease without
remainder?’ The Buddha replied, ‘You’ve been wandering around as far as the Brahmā realm asking this question. And now not finding
it, you come back to me. But, monk, you should not ask your question in that way – where do the four elements cease without
remainder? Instead, this is how the question should be put:
Where do earth, water, fire and air no footing find?
Where do long and short, small and great, beautiful and ugly -
Where do name-and-form completely come to an end?
And the answer is:
Where consciousness is signless, limitless, and all-illuminating.
That’s where earth, water, fire and air no footing find.
There both long and short, small and great, beautiful and ugly,
there name-and-form all come to an end.
With the cessation of consciousness, all this comes to an end.”†
This is a bit cryptic. The wrong question is “Where do the four elements cease without remainder?” The right question is “Where do the
four elements no footing find?” This harkens back to the verses after the Bāhiya sutta, where the Buddha says where the four elements
no footing find, there dark and light don’t occur. Here, he expands the teaching to say it’s where consciousness is signless, limitless, and
When you see a table, you’re seeing the signs of a table. It’s got a flat top and legs holding it up off the ground. That’s how you know
it’s a table. You pick up the cues, the signs. So what does it mean that consciousness is signless? How about a consciousness that is,
well, in seeing is just seeing, in hearing is just hearing, in sensing is just sensing, in cognizing is just cognizing? How about a
consciousness that is not fabricating, not concocting a table, not giving birth to a table, not making this a table? It’s a way of
experiencing the world without fixating in any way on the objects or characteristics of any object being sensed – or on the one doing the
sensing. It's looking at the world from a non-dual perspective.
Nibbāna is not a thing. It doesn’t have ontological existence. It’s a realization. It’s a realization that there is nothing but streams of
dependently originated processes interacting, without even making a thing out of the streams. If you concoct “stream,” you still have not
quite gotten all the way to the point. Every thing is not a thing, it’s just dependent on other things which aren’t things. It’s a little hard to
talk about. You can see why the Buddha says it’s not this and it’s not that.
It’s consciousness that is signless. But it's not just your ordinary open awareness – which is also a form of consciousness that is signless.
Indeed open awareness/Bāhiya practice is certainly helpful in gaining this realization. But the realization of Nibbāna does seem to
require a breakthrough to a much deeper understanding – an understanding that is so profound that it permanently changes the way you
experience the world. The best totally inadequate simile I can offer is to ask you to remember what it was like when you found out there
was no Santa Claus (apologies to those of you who never believed in Santa Claus – it is an inadequate simile). I remember I saw the
world differently. There was fear – fear I wouldn't be getting any more of those really premium Christmas presents. But there was also a
different way of seeing the world and of relating to the big guy in the red suit. The world wasn't any different, but I was. The
breakthrough experience of Nibbāna is a realization so profound it permanently changes you and your relationship to the world. And a
very important component of what is experienced is signless consciousness.’”‡
When consciousness is signless, it’s also limitless. There can’t be any limits because a limit would be a sign. You’re not concocting the
end of this consciousness, it really is all-encompassing, and it’s all-illuminating. When viewing from this viewpoint, when realizing in
this way, nothing is hidden. Everything is experienced to be dependent on other things. Nothing stands alone. And nothing is a thing, it’s
all verbs, it’s all processes, but they aren’t individual processes. One gets this huge, giant picture of, I guess you could say, unfolding.
Not “the unfolding,” because that makes it a noun, a thing – there’s just unfolding. Can you experience the world like that? Can you
experience the inconstant, unsatisfactory, empty nature of phenomena, without resorting to dualities or even signs? Then your
consciousness is signless, limitless, and all-illuminating. That’s where earth, water, fire and air no footing find. There long and short,
small and great, beautiful and ugly; there name-and-form all come to an end.
The last line is really puzzling. “With the cessation of consciousness, all this comes to an end.” Does that mean you have to become
unconscious? The usual explanation is that, at a path moment – a momentary experience of Nibbāna – there’s a cessation experience
where everything stops, then it starts up again, only it’s really different on the other side. That turns out not to be what’s being talked
about here, because the idea of “path moments” is from the later commentaries and this is a sutta.
The word viññāṇa which we translate as “consciousness” literally means “divided knowing.” When divided knowing comes to an end,
all these dualities come to an end. When we stop chopping up the holistic unfolding into bits and pieces, then all this comes to an end.
As Ud 8.1 says, “Just this is the end of dukkha.”
This required holistic experience is expressed so very eloquently by Kitaro Nishida in his work The Nothingness Beyond God:
Pure experience is the beginning of Zen. It is awareness stripped of all thought, all conceptualization, all categorization, and all
distinctions between subject-as-having-an-experience and experience-as-having-been-had-by-a-subject. It is prior to all judgment.
Pure experience is without all distinction; it is pure no-thingness, pure no-this-or-that. It is empty of any and all distinctions. It is
absolutely no-thing at all. Yet its emptiness and nothingness is a chock-a-block fullness, for it is all experience-to-come. It is rose,
child, river, anger, death, pain, rocks, and cicada sounds. We carve these discrete events and entities out of a richer-yet-non-
distinct manifold of pure experience.
- new book http://sodapi.leighb.com/Dependent%20Origination%20and%20Emptiness%20-%208.5x11.pdf
And a mover without moving.
If things are not established as the same
And not established as different,
How can they be established at all?
That very movement by which a mover is made evident
Does not [enable a mover to] move.
Because there is no [mover] before any movement,
Who would be going where?
“It is inappropriate to say: 'movement and what-is-moving are the same.' It is inappropriate to say: 'movement and what-is-moving are
different.'” Movement and what-is-moving are not the same thing. And yet, you can't have one without the other; they're dependently
related. We need to pay attention to our notions and concepts and see how one thing is dependent on another. You can't have a
movement unless there's something moving, but you can't have something moving unless there's movement. So which came first? How
did it get started? There is not any fixed entity there, is there? This begins to point us in the right direction.
Let’s look at another analysis of a common experience: “Seeing” (MMK 3). The key relationship to notice here is the one between
“seeing” and “seer” – each of which is a concept that is dependent on the other one; they both are empty.
Seeing does not see itself.
How can what does not see itself
See anything else?
Nāgārjuna points out that your eyes can't see themselves. It's also worth noting that your ears can't hear your ears. You can't smell your
nose. Your tongue can't taste itself. You might think, “Ah, but I can touch my body!” But you actually have to touch one part of your
body with another part of your body in order to experience it. And although you can think about your thoughts, the thinking about is
different from the thought being thought about.
When not seeing the slightest thing,
There is no act of seeing.
How can it [then] be reasonable to say: “seeing sees”?
This is the same redundancy as saying “a mover moves” – neither of these can be an essence and these are not two different things.
Seeing does not see;
Non-seeing does not see.
It should be understood that seeing explains the seer too.
“Seeing explains the seer.” These are just concepts; they appear to be separate, but on closer inspection there's this interdependent
relationship. Neither “seeing” nor “seer” are self existing – the two are not actually separate after all. You can't have seers who aren't
seeing; you can't have seeing being done by a non-seer. Nāgārjuna goes on to generalize this visual argument to all six senses.
Next we have Nāgārjuna verses on “Aggregates” (MMK 4). This is different from the two above – they were about an activity and the
one doing/experiencing the activity. This is about an entity and its reason(s) for being – which could be thought of as its constituent
parts. However, once again there is a very similar dependency, leading again to both the entity and its parts being empty.
Apart from the constituents of form,
Form is not perceived.
Apart from “form”,
The constituents of form also do not appear.
“Form” is a translation of “rūpa” which we have already discussed. Form is only manifest as an object (or as multiple objects).
“Constituent” is translation of “kāraṇa” which means “constituent, reason, cause.” There could be multiple ways to discuss the kāraṇa
of an object, but a useful one to think about is that an object is assembled from it constituent parts – for example, your body is made of
various parts, your car is assembled from its parts. So an object is not found that doesn't consist of its parts; parts of an object are not
part of an object that doesn't exist.
If there were form apart from the constituents of form,
It would follow that form is without constituents;
There is no object at all that is without constituents.
There is no material object that is does not consist of constituent parts.
If a constituent of form existed apart from form,
It would exist as a cause without fruit;
Causes without fruit do not exist.
A part of your car separate from your car is not actually a part of your car.
If form [inherently] existed,
A cause of form would be untenable;
If form did not exist,
A cause of form would be untenable.
If some object had inherent existence – an essence – then it would not be composed of parts; if it had parts, it could be disassembled and
no longer have any existence, and hence never had an essence. And then, of course, there are no constituents of something that never
It is untenable to say, “the fruit is like the cause.”
It is also untenable to say, “the fruit is unlike the cause.”
Your car is not the same as its parts; yet your car is not independent of its parts. The same applies to your body.
Feeling and conceptualization,
Mental activities and consciousness,
And all things are comparable
In every aspect, at every stage with form.
The same discussion above can be applied to each of the five aggregates.
Think about your body. It has a bunch of parts, but it seems to be a bit more than just a bunch of pieces. If you remove a piece from your
body, then it’s not part of you (or your body) any more. You go get a haircut, and afterward you look down on the floor. “Oh no, part of
me is on the floor!” Do you ever have that reaction? No? You walk in, it was part of you. You walk out, it’s not part of you. How did it
become not part of you?
Think about your red Corvette (I assume you have a red Corvette). If you remove one of the wheels, is it still a red Corvette? What if
you remove all 4 wheels? Remove the steering wheel? The seats? Is it still a red Corvette? What if you pull the engine? Drop the
transmission? Remove the driveshaft and differential? What if you disconnected everything that can be disconnected? Is that pile of
parts still a red Corvette? If not, where did it go? At exactly what point did all those parts stop being a red Corvette and become just a
bunch of parts? “Red Corvette” is just a handy designation for that pile of parts assembled in a specific way, but there is no intrinsic red
Corvette. Your body is just like that! The only way your body differs from the red Corvette is that your body's parts are far less easily
You can sense a cool breeze when one blows on you; but no, that’s not you. What’s going on here? Where are we drawing the lines?
How are we creating these individual things out of this whole, ever-flowing process? How do we get caught in the mistake of
“thingifying” the world, when it’s just a bunch of interacting, interdependent processes?
In the next chapter we will apply a similar analysis to the concept of Self. After all, this is the concept that gets us into the most trouble,
what with its craving and clinging.
The translations in this chapter are based on a literal English translation of Nāgārjuna by Stephen Batchelor that I adapted with his
permission into what is hopefully a more readable form than the very terse, enigmatic literal Nāgārjuna.
* The idea of disassembling a vehicle to illustrate emptiness was originally taught by the nun Vajirā in SN 5.10 with reference to a
The Middle Way – Emptiness of Self
You are not the same as or different from
Conditions on which you depend;
You are neither severed from
Nor forever fused with them.
-- MMK, Chapter 18
Where emptiness gets really interesting is when Nāgārjuna analyzes the concept of the “Self” (MMK 18).
If the aggregates were me,
Then I would arise and pass away like them.
If I was something else,
Why would the aggregates say anything about me?
Suppose you start looking for your self. Are you your body? Well, you change out most of your cells within seven years. Does that
mean you’re somebody different every seven years? You certainly don’t look like you looked when you were ten years old, but there
does seem to be some sort of continuity. Perhaps you're your mind. Maybe you're the consciousness; you're the part that knows it’s me.
But that keeps changing as well, and it disappears every night when you’re in deep dreamless sleep. Yet, if you are something other than
these, then your body and the mind wouldn’t say anything about you.
There is no “mine”
When there is no me.
To pacify me and mine,
grasping at me and at mine must cease.
If you're conceiving of a self, then you're also conceiving of a self in terms of what it possesses. If you're conceiving of possessions,
you're making a self that possesses these possessions, the clinger, the craver, the owner.
If I don't conceive of a self,
I would not think of me and mine –
Me and mine arise only
With reference to a self.”
This is the Buddha's strategy, to make a “breakthrough in consciousness” so that you're no longer conceiving of a self. Then there's
nobody there to think of me and mine.
When I cease thinking
“What is inside is me,
What is outside is mine – “
Clinging ceases, liberation dawns.
How many times do we do that? Inside it's me, outside it's mine. Without self-reference, the tendency to crave and cling, to do
unwholesome acts, selfish acts – is automatically dropped. There is no more basis for these things. Actions with self at the center often
leads to doing the same things over and over again – yet those repeated actions don't bring lasting happiness. But we continue to do
them with the hope that if we do it just one more time, it will bring that happiness. Stupidity is doing the same thing over and over
again, expecting a different result. But that's how we too often live our lives, it seems – grasping after me and mine.
Papañca generates thoughts
That lead to compulsive acts –
Papañca is stopped by emptiness.
Remember from The Honeyball Sutta chapter, papañca refers to mental proliferation, that tendency of the mind to think a thought, and
then the next thought, and the next thought, and the next thought. This tendency is to just go on and on and on, and a whole universe
shows up in your mind. And it's all just stuff we're thinking up.
Papañca spawns thoughts that lead to compulsive acts. Once upon a time, a woman asked her husband to go to the market and get some
potatoes. “Yes, dear.” As he gets up to leave for the market, she says, “And be sure and get a good price.” “Yes dear.” He's walking to
the market and he's thinking, “Well, I've got to get a good price for the potatoes, but I've also got to get good potatoes. She won't like it
if I come home with no-good potatoes. You can get bad potatoes for a good price; and you can get good potatoes for a bad price; but
getting good potatoes for a good price, that's difficult. It means you've got to be really careful, because those potato sellers, they'll put
some bad potatoes at the bottom; you think you're getting good potatoes and you get home and there's a bunch of bad potatoes and you
paid too much for them. Sometimes there's a rotten potato in there. I hate those rotten potatoes; they stink.” At that point, he arrives at
the market and screams at the potato seller, “You can keep your rotten potatoes!” and walks off. This is papañca: a whole universe is
created that's nothing but thought. We do this all the time. Emptiness stops papañca. This is how the realization of emptiness can bring
Buddhas teach about 'self'
And also teach about 'not self'
And also teach 'neither self nor not-self.'
On the conventional level, there's a self. When the Buddha is teaching Brahmā Vihāra practices,* for example in DN 13, MN 52, AN
3.65, he's talking in terms of selves. Sometimes though, the Buddha needs to point out there's not really a self to be found – like in the
“Discourse on Not-Self” at SN 22.59. Other times he says there's nothing which is either a self or not, which is what we were seeing in
the Kaccānagotta Sutta in the chapter Without Concepts of Existence or Non-Existence.1
“When things dissolve,
There's nothing left to say.
The unborn and unceasing
Are already free.”
This is pointing at Nibbāna, which is “Nirvana” in Sanskrit.
“When things dissolve,
There's nothing left to say.”
When things, saṅkhāras – concoctions, fabrications – dissolve, when you stop concocting, there's nothing left to say. When you stop
making fabrications out of this effervescent flow of dependently arising processes and phenomena, there's nothing left to say. We have
arrived at an understanding beyond words.
“The unborn and unceasing
Are already free.”
If you're not thingifying the world, there are no things being born and there are no things that are going to cease. It's already free, all of
it. You've just got to quit concocting all these individual entities, conceiving of them existing – or not existing, especially this entity of
“Buddha said: 'it is real,'
And 'it is unreal,'
And 'it is both real and unreal,'
And 'it is neither one nor the other.'”
Depending on the situation and to whom the Buddha was speaking, he adjusted what he had to say. Remember he wasn't doing
metaphysics, he was just trying to get people to practice.
It is all at peace,
Not conceptualizable by mental conceptualizing,
It's all at peace. The universe is unfolding in a lawful manner – which we call the law of cause and effect. You're attempting to papañca-
ize it, think about it, decide how it all works, find the beginning of the universe, be able to explain everything, decide whether the soul is
the same as the body or something else, or... on and on and on. But it just can't be done. It's already all at peace. None of your thinking
is going to get you to the place where it's all at peace. What is actually happening is “Incommunicable,” in the sense that you can't really
describe in conventional terms what's going on at the ultimate level. We can use the conventional terms to point at what's going on at the
ultimate level, but don't mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon. Don't get caught up in your concepts and think that your
concepts are reality. They're just useful to help you see what's going on at a deeper level.
“Inconceivable.” If you want to fully know exactly what’s going on, you have to be able to conceive of the whole universe, but your
brain ain’t big enough. It can only take in bits and pieces, which is why we chop the universe up into pieces – called concepts – so we
can manipulate it. To have a brain big enough to take in everything going on in the universe, well, you are going to need a brain the size
of the whole universe. That's going to be rather difficult. You cannot conceptualize the ultimate – because all concepts are conventional.
“Indivisible.” Any piece of the universe that you pick up is not a separate thing. John Muir stated this brilliantly: “When we try to pick
out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”2 It's all very much interconnected/interrelated.† There are
no separate entities anywhere in the entire universe. We concoct separate entities; we thingify our experience, because that's the only
way we can manage to deal with it. But it's all just SODAPI, and all those streams are entangled enough so it's impossible to divide up
the universe into separate entities and have an accurate picture of what's actually happening. I said earlier that it's all verbs, but truth be
told, there is only one verb: “Unfolding.” We could say “the universe is unfolding” but actually “the universe is” is superfluous; there's
“You are not the same as or different from
Conditions on which you depend;
You are neither severed from
Nor forever fused with them –
This is the deathless teaching
Of buddhas who care for the world.”
This is really the heart of the matter. You are not the same as, or different from, all the dependently arising streams of processes that
interact in making you, you. You're not the same as them, and yet, you're not different from them. You're not severed from them either;
all the things that have gone on in your life that make you who you are – you can't just dump them; they're part of who you are. But
you're not them. Nor are you forever fused with them – you're not stuck at that, and you're more than that.
Think of the lettuce of that last salad you ate. You are not severed from it, in that the nourishment it provided is a part of you. Also you
are not severed from the farm worker who picked that lettuce, nor from the truck drivers and grocery workers who made it available for
you. Nor are you forever fused with that lettuce; it's gone and digested, it's made you who you are right now – at least to some small
extent. But you will continue to change and grow; there is no static thing anywhere in the universe.
All these dependently arising processes are coming together to make the you that you experience, but you're not those dependently
arising phenomena, yet you're not separate from them either. You are the point where they all coalesce at this moment in time. When
you can step outside the confines of existence and non-existence, all this is much easier to experience and understand.
The above verse, more than anything else I encountered, was the basis for SODAPI. The more I reflected on this verse, the more I could
see all those streams interacting and intersecting at the point I call “me.” This is the way to the deathless – there is nobody here to die.
Stop identifying with this intersection point of all these streams that we are neither severed from nor forever fused with.
“When buddhas don't appear
And their followers are gone,
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself.”
This is pointing to the fact that the truth is out there. If the Buddha is not around to give you the instructions, and even if his followers
aren't around to give you instructions, it is possible to figure it out yourself; you've just got to pay careful enough attention. I have to
admit though – I'd have never figured this out without the Buddha's help! I'm glad he left some instructions around.
The verses in this chapter that are enclosed in quotes are from Verses from the Center, by Stephen Batchelor. It's a poetic translation of
the Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā. It's not literally accurate, but it does capture the essence of what Nāgārjuna is trying to say. If you really
want to study Nāgārjuna, as a start, I would suggest you get a copy of Batchelor's book and read it a dozen times. Batchelor really does
a brilliant job of making Nāgārjuna's teaching accessible. The verses not in quotes are again my adaptations from Stephen Batchelor's
literal English translation of the MMK, done with his permission.
* Loving-kindness (Mettā), Compassion (Karuṇā), Appreciative Joy (Muditā) and Equanimity (Upekkhā)
† “Interconnected” would imply that everything is connected to everything else. “Interrelated” means that everything is connected to
enough other things so that all the connections yield chains of connections from any one thing to all other things. Given these
definitions, “interrelated” more closely matches the way the world is constructed.
1. Tsongkhapa in his Ocean of Reasoning, which is a commentary on the MMK, makes the same point at section 325.
2. John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/my_first_summer_in_the_sierra/
The Middle Way – Emptiness and Dependent Origination
Dependent origination is emptiness
Which, dependently configured,
Is the middle way.
Everything is dependently originated;
Everything is empty.
-- MMK, Chapter 24
The next chapter we will examine is MMK 24. In some translations it is entitled “The Four Noble Truths” and in others “Awakening.” It
starts with an imaginary opponent, a complainer, lashing into Nāgārjuna for corrupting the Dharma. “By saying that everything is
empty, you're saying there are no Noble Truths, that nobody can ever become awakened.” The opponent is thinking that emptiness
means that nothing exists. He misunderstands emptiness; he's thinking of it as nihilism. This sometimes happens when people are trying
to understand what the Buddha is talking about. For example, some people think that when a fully awakened one dies, they don't come
back; they get annihilated. Right? No. This is not what the Buddha said, but that's what some seem to believe.1 This opponent is saying,
“You're corrupting the Dharma, your emptiness is nihilism.” Nāgārjuna's response:
“We say that this understanding of yours
Of emptiness and the purpose of emptiness
And of the significance of emptiness is incorrect.
As a consequence you are harmed by it.
The Buddha’s teaching of the Dharma
Is based on two truths:
A truth of worldly convention
And an ultimate truth.”
This is one of the early elucidations of the doctrine of the two truths. You find hints of the two truths in the suttas,2 but it's not spelled
out like it's spelled out in “The Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way.” Nāgārjuna says there are two truths – conventional truths of
the world, which in the original Sanskrit actually means something like “truths that don't fully reveal,” or “truths that leave something
hidden.” Then there are the truths which are ultimate. We usually say “relative” and “absolute” or “conventional” and “ultimate.” But,
remember, the first of these are truths that don't give you the full explanation; that's what the conventional world is. It's true, these are
my eyeglasses; they're not yours, right? But that doesn't really explain what's going on at the deepest level.
“Those who do not understand
The distinction drawn between these two truths
Do not understand
The Buddha’s profound truth.”
It's actually necessary to understand that there are these two perspectives, and to understand how the perspectives differ.
“Without a foundation in the conventional truth,
The significance of the ultimate cannot be taught.”
We need fingers to point at the moon – okay maybe not the moon, but the Andromeda Galaxy. Almost none of us are sharp enough to
look up into the night sky and pick out the Andromeda Galaxy without a little help or some earlier teaching. So we need teachings that
have to be presented in the relative world, using relative words and ideas and concepts. But hopefully these become just fingers that
point to the sublime truth.
“Without understanding the significance of the ultimate,
Liberation is not achieved.”
The freedom from dukkha, the breakthrough to awakening, occurs when you're looking at the world from the perspective of the
ultimate. The perspective of the relative just has too much hidden to enable you to make that breakthrough.
Sometimes people want to make the ultimate truths supplant the conventional truths. But this is not possible; remember these are truths
seen from different perspectives, which doesn't necessarily mean one set of truths is true and the other set is false. Consider a bowl, an
ordinary soup bowl. Is it concave or convex? Come on, which is it? These are opposites, how could it be both? Well, it depends on your
perspective. If you want to put soup in that bowl, you better take the concave perspective. If you want to use that bowl to elevate a
candle, you need the convex perspective. Both concave and convex apply to the bowl, even though they are opposites.
It's the same with the conventional and the ultimate truths. Sometimes, you need the conventional perspective, such as when crossing
the street. You can't look down that street, see a bus coming, and say “It's empty,” step in front of it, and not get run over. Conventional
truths do have their uses – I put on my shoes when I leave the meditation hall, not yours – it just makes things go better. But because the
truths seen from the conventional perspective don't fully reveal what's going on, we at times must look from the ultimate perspective.
The truths seen from that perspective are the ones that lead us to liberation.
“By a misperception of emptiness
A person of little intelligence is destroyed.”
Like the guy at the beginning of this chapter who was complaining about nihilism.
“Like a snake incorrectly seized
Or like a spell incorrectly cast.
For that reason—that the Dharma is
Deep and difficult to understand and to learn—
The Buddha’s mind despaired of
Being able to teach it.”
Only a few have little dust in their eyes. You, Mr. Complainer, you've got lots of dust in your eyes.
“You have presented fallacious refutations
That are not relevant to emptiness.
Your confusion about emptiness
Does not belong to me.
Those for whom emptiness is possible,
For them everything is possible.
Those for whom emptiness is not possible,
For them everything is not possible.”
What Nāgārjuna is saying here is that emptiness – the fact that everything is dependently originated – makes things possible. Things
have their causes and conditions; they can actually change. If there were no emptiness, if everything had an essence – click, it's frozen
into that essence and it's always that way. Nothing would ever change. You better hope you were in a good mood when that happened!
“When you foist on us
All of your errors
You are like a man who has mounted his horse
And has forgotten that very horse.”
This is a reference to a man who had two dozen horses. He goes out one morning and mounts one of his horses, and he goes around
counting his horses, “One, two, three, four...twenty-two, twenty-three – Twenty-three! Oh, no, someone's stolen one of my horses!” He
forgets to count the horse he's riding.
“If you perceive the existence of all things
In terms of their essence,
Then this perception of all things
Will be without the perception of causes and conditions.
Effects and causes
And agent and action
And conditions and arising and ceasing
And effects will be rendered impossible.”
Things have to be like that – to have an essence means to have some aspect that has always been there. But if something arises from
causes and conditions, that means it can't have an essence – because if it had an essence, then it would be there before it arose, which
makes no sense at all. And because it doesn't have an essence, it will cease.
Then comes what most scholars consider to be the heart of the whole Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā:
“Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.”
Nāgārjuna is not only equating dependent origination with emptiness, but furthermore pointing out that emptiness is also empty. It's just
a concept we're using to try to understand what's going on. Don't make an ultimate out of emptiness. In Jay Garfield's commentary to the
Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā, he says that Nāgārjuna is basically climbing up higher and higher; and as he gets to each level, he kicks away
the ladder. He climbs up to the next level, and he kicks away the ladder. And he gets up to the highest level, and he kicks away that
ladder as well.3 It's all empty.
Stephen Batchelor translates the verse above slightly differently:
“Dependent origination is emptiness
Which, dependently configured,
Is the middle way.
Everything is dependently originated;
Everything is empty.”
When you hear teachings on emptiness, what you are hearing is teachings on dependent origination. The universe is just these streams
of causes and conditions coming to fruition, and we are part of the continuation of these streams of causes and conditions as our actions
come to fruition as well. The whole of the universe is nothing but SODAPI – Streams Of Dependently Arising Processes Interacting.
We have now arrived at the key point – the intersection, the simultaneity, the identity, of dependent origination and emptiness.
“Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a nonempty thing
Does not exist.”
Or restating this more simply:
“Everything is dependently originated;
Everything is empty.”
There's a good bit more to this chapter addressing all of the Complainer's objections in detail, but we'll skip most of the rest of this
chapter. The chapter concludes with the following:
To see dependent origination is to see
dukkha, its origins, cessation, and the path.
As I mentioned in the chapter on Necessary Conditions, the Four Noble Truths are a summary of some of the key points of dependent
origination. If you're seeing dependent origination, you're able to see the Four Noble Truths.
There's one last point in Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā that we really want to address. The chapter after “The Four Noble
Truths/Awakening” is entitled “Nirvana” (MMK 25). “Nirvana” is Sanskrit and is the same as “Nibbāna” in Pāli. The bulk of this
chapter is demonstrating that Nirvana/Nibbāna is also empty – it too is dependently originated. This is actually quite important –
Nibbāna is said in the suttas to be unchanging.* Also Nirvana cannot have ontological existence either – if it did and was unchanging,
you would never get to partake of it because it wouldn't change to let you in. So Nirvana/Nibbāna is a realization – and what is realized
is unchanging. So what is it that is realized?
Towards the end of this chapter on Nirvana, Nāgārjuna says:
Saṃsāra is no different from nirvana,
Nirvana no different from saṃsāra.
Saṃsāra’s limits are nirvana’s:
There is not even the slightest difference between them.
Basically he is saying, “This – this world right here – is Nibbāna,” if you can see it with the eyes of a Buddha. “This same world is
saṃsāra” if you see it with eyes of craving and clinging. So how do we see the world from the nirvana perspective? What exactly are we
looking for? We will address this in the next 3 chapters as we look at what several suttas say about Nibbāna.
Most of the translations in this chapter are from The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, by Jay Garfield. After you have
worked with Batchelor's Verses From the Center and read it multiple times, then if you want to look in depth at exactly what
Nāgārjuna was saying, you should work with Garfield's book which has a very helpful commentary as well as an excellent, more literal
translation. The last two of the verses above (the ones without quotes) are my own translations.
Of course, all this is just my own understanding. You're going to need to explore this material and make it your own. This is hopefully
only whetting your appetite to look at the world in terms of these Streams Of Dependently Arising Processes Interacting. Can you see
that's what's going on? When you get caught in an unpleasant mind state for example, can you look back and see, “Oh, this is what the
sensory input was that triggered it, and that sensory input was triggered by ..., and that was triggered by ...,” and can you start seeing the
SODAPI coming at you. This can take you in the direction of freedom. Hopefully, this can help you realize that dependent origination is
a very rich vein to mine, a very good place to investigate.
Who wrote this?
I answered this question before when Jax asked me in FB.
Leigh Brasington, he is deep into jhana and i think anatta
he also wrote this that i shared:
Soh Wei Yu
My guess is that Bahiya was at least at the I AM stage when Buddha gave him this teaching:
Soh Wei Yu
Notes from Leigh Brasington
1. The bark cloth clothing would most likely mean that Bahiya was a follower of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad makes a big deal about trees (personal communication from John Peacock).
2. Why did the Buddha give this particular instruction to Bahiya? The bark cloth clothing marked him as a serious student of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad; thus he would be familiar with the teaching found there: "The unseen seer, the unheard hearer, the unthought thinker, the uncognized cognizer... There is no other seer but he, no other hearer, no other thinker, no other cognizer. This is thy self, the inner controller, the immortal...." Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 3.7.23.
Bahiya would also be familiar with "... that imperishable is the unseen seer, the unheard hearer, the unthought thinker, the ununderstood understander. Other than it there is naught that sees. Other than it there is naught that hears. Other than it there is naught that thinks. Other than it there is naught that understands...." Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 3.8.11.
The Buddha, as he often does, takes something his questioner is familiar with and gives it a subtle but profound twist: there's no Atman, there's just seeing, just hearing, etc.
Udana 1.10 - Bahiya Sutta
Udana 1.10 - Bahiya Sutta
Udana 1.10 - Bahiya Sutta
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Soh Wei Yu
Likewise when I translated this into Chinese and gave the person in China it had the similar triggering effect of anatta realisation. He was also at I AM stage