I was trying to add clarity to my concept of "rebirth" on the Buddhist stack exchange. Nagarjuna's karika, 1.3 (Batchelor) reads:

The essence of things does not exist in conditions and so on. If an own thing does not exist, an other thing does not exist.

I added the bold because maybe it gets exactly to what I mean here. Suppose that one can read it as saying -- among other things -- the following:

  • an other thing does not exist analytically if and only if an own thing does does exist empirically.

And suppose that there are nevertheless causes -- something is either self caused or other caused, in the empirical and in the analytic domain. I then get the following result:

  • when analytically an other thing experiences an effect, then an own thing empirically experiences an effect

But I'm not sure if I'm right to. So if I steal someone's watch, then I also empirically experience its loss -- at some time -- i.e. rebirth if not now.

  1. does the argument follow?
  2. is there any reason to agree with its assumptions?

To help clarify: there is this on Zeno and Nagarjuna, about something similar -- but applied to going rather than causation.

Those who failed to distinguish properly and consistently between the analytical and the empirical found themselves unable to account satisfac- torily for change... If one who sets out has the property of arriving, it is obvious that the setter-out and the arrival must exist at the same time. Otherwise there is no way of bridging the gap between substance and attribute. The entity has its property a priori. Of course, Nagarjuna's main conclusion is that entities cannot coherently be said to have properties at all. But if, on the level of conventional truth, we wish to speak of entities having properties, we are committed to regarding them as having those properties by definition (verse 3: gamyamanam vigamanam ... naivopapadyate). Therefore, if Nagarjuna is a setter-out who has the property of arriving, the setter-out has that property by definition. So, if he arrives at all, he arrives instantaneously... there is more. The arriver who arrives not only possesses the property of arriving that actually arrives; he possesses also the property of arriving that realizes him as an arriver. So there are two arrivings; therefore there are two arrivers.

Talking this through.

I assume I cannot find a cause in the 8 ball, so the billiard ball does not pocket the 8 ball. And conclude that because the 8 ball is pocketed, both balls are pocketed.

I can see nothing wrong with the reasoning, but it does go further than Hume -- from the unreality of causation to the plurality of effects. Usually, the opposite is the case in the philosophy of Buddhism (a causal field).

  • have i contradicted myself in the last sentence before the two questions?
    – user38026
    Commented Feb 9, 2020 at 4:49
  • 2
    Try as I might I cannot untangle this. It may just be me.
    – user20253
    Commented Feb 9, 2020 at 12:01
  • i doubt it's JUST you haha @PeterJ
    – user38026
    Commented Feb 9, 2020 at 12:08
  • I do sympathise. Sometimes it is difficult to formulate a tricky question in a way that's answerable.
    – user20253
    Commented Feb 9, 2020 at 19:36
  • 1
    you might try another translation for greater clarity. Garfield's translation is "The essence of entities...Is not present in the conditions, etc...If there is no essence,...There can be no otherness-essence." Commented Feb 10, 2020 at 5:05

2 Answers 2


In his book The Fundalmental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Malamadhyamakakarika, Jay L. Garfield writes for his translation and commentary on this verse:

  1. The essence of entities

    Is not present in the conditions, etc...

    If there is no essence,

    There can be no otherness-essence.

[Garfield's commentary] The point being made in the first two lines of the verse is fairly straightforward. When we examine the set of conditions that give rise to an entity--for example, the set of conditions we detailed above for the shining of a lamp {previous verse], or the conditions for seeing a tree we discussed previously--no analysis of those conditions yields the consequent effect. Dissecting light switches, wires, brains, and so forth, does not reveal any hidden light. Nor is there a tree perception to be found already in the existence of a tree, the eye, and so forth. Rather these phenomena arise as consequences of the collocation of those conditions. To borrow a Kantian turn of phrase, phenomena are not analytically contained in their conditions, rather, a synthesis is required out of which a phenomenon not antecedently eistent comes to be.

But Nararjuna, through his use of the phrase "the essence of entities" (dngos-po rnams kyi rang bzhin), emphasizes a very important metaphysical consequence of this observation. Given that phenomena depend upon their conditions for their existence and given that nothing answering to an essence of phenomena can be located in those conditions and given that there is nowhere else that an essence could come from, it follows that phenomena that arise from conditions are essenceless. One might argue at this point that just as phenomena come into existence dependent upon conditions, their essences come into existence in this way. But what goes for phenomena does not go for essences. For essences are by definition eternal and fixed. They are independent. And for a phenomenon to have have an essence os for it to have some permanent independent core. So neither essences nor phenomena with essences can emerge from conditions.

The next two lines require a careful gloss, both because of the complexity of the philosophical point at stake and because of the Buddhist philosophical term of art I translate as "otherness-essence" (Skt: parabhava, Tib: gzhan dngos). Let us begin by glossing the term. In its primary sense it means to have, as a thing's nature, dependence upon another for existence. So for a table, for instance, to have other-essence, according to a proponent of this analysis of the nature of things, might be for it to have as an essential characteristic the property of depending on its existence on some pieces of wood, a carpenter, and so forth. This way of thinking of the nature of the nature of things has great appeal--was used by those who defended the analysis of causation as production from other and the analysis of causes and their effects according to which they linked by causal powers inhering on the causes--particularly for other Buddhist schools who would want to join with Nagarjuna in denying essence to phenomena. For such a philosopher, it would be congenial to argue that the table has no essence of its own, but has the essential property of depending on its parts, causes, and so forth--an essential property that depends critically on another. And it would then be important to note that that this nature relies on the other having an intrinsic connection to phenomena in question, a connection realized in the causal powers (or other inherently existent relation to the effect) of that other and, hence, in the other's own nature. Moreover, it is crucial to such an analysis, if it is not to lapse into the absurdities that plague self-causation, that there be a real, substantial difference in entity--a difference in intrinsic nature between the dependent phenomenon and the conditions on which it depends. Absent such a difference, the otherness required in the analysis cannot be established.

Given this understanding of otherness-essence, we can see the arguments Nagarjuna is ostending in the last two lines of this verse. First, since all entities are without their own essence (this is, without essences that can be specified intrinsically without reference to anything else), the other with respect to which any phenomena is purportedly essentially characterized will be without an essence, and so there will be no basis on which to build this otherness-essence. Second, without individual essences, there will be no basis on which to draw the absolute, essential distinctions necessary to establish phenomenon as intrinsically other than their conditions. Without individual essences there are not substantial differences. Without substantial differences, there are no absolute others by means of which to characterize phenomena. Third, in order to characterize phenomena as essentially different from their conditions, it is important to be able to characterize them independently. Otherwise, each depends for its identity on the other, and they are not truly distinct in nature. But the whole point of otherness-essence is that things in virtue of having it are essentially dependent. So the view is in fact internally contradictory. Given that things have no intrinsic nature, they are not essentially different. Given that lack of difference, they are interdependent. But given their interdependence, there cannot be the otherness needed to build otherness-essence out of dependence.

Now, on the reading of this chapter that I am suggesting, we can see conditions simply as useful explanans. Using this language, Nagarjuna is urging that even distinguishing between explanans and explanandum as distinct entities, with the former containing potentially what the latter has actually, is problematic. What we are typically confronted with in nature is a vast network of interdependent and continuous processes, and carving particular phenomena for explanation or for use in explanations depends more on our explanatory interests and language than on joints nature presents to us. Through addressing the question of the potential difference of an event in its conditions, Nagarjuna hints at this concealed relation between praxis and reality.

There is little to no difference between the philosophical stance in these verses of Nagarjuna and the Vedanta stance of Gaudapada's Karka on the Mandukya Upanishad and latter Shankaracharya's development of apparent manifestation (vivarta vada) and inexpressible (anirvachaniya). For a better background on the intertwining of this Buddhistic and Vedantic thought development, see Sharma's A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy (https://archive.org/details/IndianPhilosophyACriticalSurvey/mode/2up).

  • thanks. would be a better answer if you linked the quote to the question more -- was it too unclear?
    – user38026
    Commented Feb 10, 2020 at 7:36
  • do you know which, if any, buddhist thinkers would say that anatta means non-emptiness?
    – user38026
    Commented Feb 10, 2020 at 11:29
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    By non-emptiness do you mean the denial of everything or the denial of the emperical reality of everything? If by anatta you mean anatman, non-being, it would be some of the early thinkers and the Hinayanists whose emphasis is on non-self, insubstantiaiity. I would encourage you to read the section on Buddhism in the book I referred to in my answer. Commented Feb 10, 2020 at 22:58
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    You might also like David Loy's "Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy". You use the term unreality of causation. The reality, the otherness-essence, is not a cause, as all cause and effects exist only within empirical reality. A desert does not 'cause' a mirage. Mahayanists say there is a desert background to the mirage, Hinayanists deny the existence of the desert background. It is only within the observer that the mirage exists; but the background existence of the desert is necessary for a mirage to be, the otherness-essence. Commented Feb 10, 2020 at 23:09

The argument is that causation by self or other is identical: so any effect is had in the exact same way by the cause and the effect. Some Buddhists claim that causal efficiency means that the thing is intrinsically real, but

[a]ccording to Nāgārjuna, ultimate reality's being empty of any intrinsic reality affords conventional reality its causal efficacy since being ultimately empty is identical to being causally produced, conventionally


Anyway, the argument in the question works by saying that intrinsic being is identical to causation, which is not Nagarjuna's original intention at all.

The idea that causal efficiency is intrinsic at the conventional level is Buddhist

The Svātantrika Madhyamaka, however, rejects both the Ābhidharmika realism and the Yogācāra idealism as philosophically incoherent. It argues that things are only intrinsically real, conventionally, for this ensures their causal efficiency, things do not need to be ultimately intrinsically real.

though perhaps not in a way that means an effect is and isn't contained in the cause.

Are there good reasons to suppose that effects are intrinsic to causes, and not intrinsic to them, in the exact same way?

I think there's something to be said for the everyday world of cause and effect -- the billiard ball pots the 8 ball -- being in harmony with an analysis in which causation is intrinsic -- the billiard ball pots itself: meaning in effect just karma.

It is an explanation of how a series of causes can be both completely impersonal and an apparent transfer of personal identity. But can we infer those two worlds from just the unreality of cause?

  • i accidentally deleted my account
    – user44289
    Commented Feb 13, 2020 at 7:52
  • 1
    According to this, if your account was deleted in error you might be able to recover it by contacting Stack Exchange. Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 16:28
  • Like the 8 ball.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 11:39

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