Is Nagarjuna by affirming the Sunyata of being, that is nothingness, commenting on the lack of object essences, that this sofa that I'm sitting on has no essence in and of itself; thus it's being is interdependent on other beings. (I shouldn't use the word being here at all, but I cannot think of the appropriate terminology - it cetainly isn't svabhava).

That is if being is interdependent it makes no sense to to talk of the essence of a part of it one must talk of the essence of all of it. That is only the whole of being, or being qua being, has svabhava. But then the whole of being thus becomes an object to us, and if we follow his dictum, it must also have no essence. But we have argued that it must have an essence.

Does this mean, if we are not prepared to entertain contradiction, that the whole of being is not an object to us?

3 Answers 3


For Nāgārjuna, śūnyatā is definitely equivalent to niḥsvabhāva (the lack of svabhāva.)

And yes, this means that both beings and Being had no essence.

Furthermore, śūnyatā is itself empty; we can't reify śūnyatā into some kind of meta-essence.

So: the essence of all things is that they are essenceless. That's the paradox we live in.


Emptiness (in the Buddhist sense) is not nothingness. Generally, sunyata is absence of something, in the presence of another thing. (E.g. absence of atman, in the presence of knowledge of anatman.) And regarding to the dharmas (which is special elements, not just anything, like a sofa) they are lacking to be caused from an eternal self-element(s). But they aren't lacking conditions, and aren't lacking own characteristic (being knowable). (Some may discuss, though, that they lack self characteristic (svalksana) too) Regarding compound things, like a sofa, they are not real things like dharmas, but concepts, which make them not interesting at all for Buddhist analytics. All that sunyata dialectics is just to prove that dharmas, though real (or most real), not realistic (in gnoseological sense).


Please refer to my answer to a previous question regarding the Mahayanna term 'emptiness' where I assert that while the Buddha never used the term in this context, Nāgārjuna's 'emptiness' (śūnyatā) is none the less consistent with the Buddha's teachings of dukkha, anicca, anatta. What the sensed (material and mental) objects are empty of is 'self' (anatta: "there is no thing there that is the self").

With regard to 'the all' (sabba), 'existence' and 'being', we experience what is perceived through the six receptors and senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, touch, mind). In this process from material to sensation to perception we create (sankhara) the illusion of a continuous, unified, permanent self (which we bind to experience) supporting consciousness (vinnana). It is this creation of identified continuity (ownership of the experience if you will) that subjects us to the results of karma. However, if we search for this self we will find that there is no such thing there: 'Empty' of self.

You can test this in the here and now. Find a quiet place, sit down. Try to define the permanent, continuous, self. Try to observe, catch, isolate this thing. You can not.

Let it go!

By sticking with the Buddha's words rather than later poetic commentary we are less likely to get tangled in mixed terminology, poor analogies, and wrong views.

This interdependence you are referring to has very little to do with the sofa. It is the process from material through sensation, perception, sankhara, consciousness, etc that supports life, death, rebirth, and further cycles of pain, in the context of 'the all' (sabba). The sofa is not causing you pain, you are, or more specifically your clinging and creation of this self is your pain. Slavery of the illusion of self.

Translating sankhara as simply 'conditions' or 'fabrications' egregiously slides past the critical point. Sankhara is dependent upon perception. Consciousness is dependent upon sankhara. What is sankhara? It is identity-making, continuity-making, binding a false sense of a self to experience which supports consciousness, supporting subject-object, named form, distinctions.

'Sankhara' is the point of unbinding in the whole of the Budhha's system! An arahant and buddha (with remainder) still perceives the world through the senses, but he does not sankhara! He does not identify with the experience. He does not produce kamma. He is unbound. Nirodha. Nibbana. Nirvana.

if we are not prepared to entertain contradiction, that the whole of being is not an object to us?

This contradiction is your key to unravelling the whole shabang. This 'being' is created by you. This being does not exist. Forget the sofa, dude. Your 'self' is the contradiction.

Sabbe sankhara dukkha. Sabbe sankhara anicca. Sabbe dhamma anatta.

All self-bound is sh!t. All self-bound is impermanent. Everything (including nirvana) is not self.

  • How close can we get to the Buddhas own words? Jan 11, 2013 at 20:38
  • We have the pali, a prakrit likely similar or the same to that spoken by the Buddha. Further we have extant nikayas and agamas from around the time of the Second Council a few hundred years after the death of the Buddha. Despite numerous languages (Pali, Chinese, Sanskrit, and others) and huge distances, the differences are minimal (references as friend versus bhante, number of attendants etc). Even schools of widely diverging doctrinal points preserved the words of the Buddha, but argued in their various abhidhammas and commentary. I'll dig out an excellent talk by Sujato from around 2003.
    – alex
    Jan 11, 2013 at 21:20
  • Thxs for looking. Whats 'sh!t'? Surely its not the obvious?! Shouldn't dhukka be translated as suffering? Jan 11, 2013 at 23:06
  • What is meant by 'Nirodha. Nibbana. Nirvana'? Jan 11, 2013 at 23:09
  • What is meant by 'Nirodha. Nibbana. Nirvana'? Nirodha is the third of the noble truths. It is the cessation of the cause of suffering. Nibbana means unbinding, blowing out (like a candle flame), the end of rebirth, not to return to any womb. Nirvana is the sanskrit translation of the pali term nibbana. Hey Mozibur Ullah, my more awake friend passed on this link to Sujato's December 2003 talk which you can find at the bottom of this page: obo.genaud.net/backmatter/indexes/…
    – alex
    Jan 11, 2013 at 23:28

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