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On the Soteriological Significance of Emptiness
Hakuin's Daruma

Mark Siderits
Illinois State University, Normal, IL, USA
source: Contemporary Buddhism, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2003

 When it comes to interpreting the Madhyamaka doctrine of emptiness (s´u¯nyata¯), we presently find ourselves with an embarrassment of riches. As concerns the meaning of this doctrine (as it is found in the works of Na¯ga¯rjuna and his followers), there is a wide array of competing views, with little evidence of an emerging consensus. It is nonetheless possible to see these different readings of emptiness as falling roughly into two kinds, which I shall call ‘metaphysical’ and ‘semantic’. The interpretation that I favor is of the semantic sort, and I have elsewhere tried to support it by pointing out difficulties for various forms of metaphysical interpretation of emptiness (Siderits 1988; 1989; 1994; 1997a). But even if those criticisms are all valid, there still remains one objection to a semantic understanding of emptiness that many find quite persuasive. The objection is, in essence, that if emptiness is interpreted in this way, then it is utterly mysterious how the realization of emptiness might have the sort of soteriological significance that it is usually understood to have. I shall explore that objection here. But first I shall try to make clear just what the metaphysical and semantic interpretations amount to, and I shall say something about the evidence that I believe supports the second over the first variety. Then I shall take up consideration of the objection proper. In the end, I shall claim that the objection can be answered. But I think it will prove worthwhile to give it careful consideration, for this may reveal some important points concerning the Buddhist path to liberation.

Ma¯dhyamikas claim that all things are empty (s´u¯nya). And emptiness, we are told, is the being devoid of svabha¯va.1 There has been some confusion over what it would mean to say that something has svabha¯va, for here bha¯va is sometimes taken to mean ‘being’ or ‘existence’, so that svabha¯va should be translated as ‘own-being’ or ‘self-existence’. But as Candrakı¯rti makes clear, bha¯va in this context means ‘nature’. So to say that something has svabha¯va is to say that its nature is wholly its own; that is, it is not ‘borrowed’ from or dependent on those other things on whose existence it depends. Here the stock example of an entity that does not have svabha¯va is the chariot, all of whose properties (including its functional properties) may be accounted for wholly in terms of the properties of its parts. If this is true of a chariot, this may be taken as establishing that the chariot is not ultimately real, that it would not appear among the items on the inventory of our final ontology. For it would then follow that the chariot has no independent explanatory role to play: all the facts about the world can be explained just in terms of the properties of the parts of the chariot, so that its presence in our ontological inventory would be completely superfluous. This would in turn show the chariot to be a mere conceptual fiction, something we take to exist only because of certain facts about us and our conceptual activity. It is only because we happen to have a use for parts assembled in this way, and because we find it inconvenient to list all the parts and their relations, that we employ the convenient designator ‘chariot’, and thus end up taking there to be such things as chariots.2

So to say that all things are empty is to say that all of the things that we take to be real turn out to be mere conceptual fictions like the chariot. This was not, of course, the view of those Buddhists who adhered to the teachings of the Abhidharma. They held that while most of the entities acknowledged by common sense — including, most importantly, the person — are mere conceptual fictions, there must be things that do have svabha¯va, and thus that are ultimately real. For otherwise, they held, there would be nothing to which the chariot could be reduced — nothing the properties of which explained our belief in such conceptual fictions. Different Abhidharma schools give somewhat different accounts of what these ultimately real entities (dharmas) are. But all agree on the svabha¯va criterion of dharma-hood: only that is a dharma that bears its own intrinsic nature.3 To say that all things are empty is to say that there are no dharmas, no entities that are ultimately real by virtue of having all their (monadic) properties intrinsically. The arguments of Na¯ga¯rjuna and his followers are designed to show that the opposite assumption — that there are such entities — invariably leads to results that are either internally incoherent or else contravened by common sense.

What are we to make of this claim? I said earlier that it may be interpreted as either a metaphysical claim or as a semantic claim. By a metaphysical interpretation of emptiness, I shall mean any interpretation that takes the doctrine to be intended to characterize the nature of reality. This approach yields two rather different readings: nihilism, and the view that ultimate reality is ineffable and beyond the reach of discursive rationality. Wood (1994) gives a clear instance of the former variety. He takes the Ma¯dhyamika to be committed to the view that ultimately nothing whatever exists, that all is just illusion without any underlying ground. Given what the doctrine of emptiness actually claims, such an interpretation might seem to have some initial plausibility. What is more difficult to see is how one might suppose that a substantial number of seemingly sensible persons could have held such a view. Metaphysical nihilism comes about as close to being self-refuting as any philosophical doctrine one can imagine. This difficulty is probably behind the popularity of the second sort of metaphysical interpretation, according to which the doctrine of emptiness is meant to point to an ineffable ultimate that transcends the capacities of discursive reason. The thought here would be that since we cannot accept the nihilist consequence that results when we take the doctrine of emptiness at face value, we must resort to some non-literal interpretation. And the most plausible of these, presumably, is that the true nature of reality is beyond the reach of conceptual thought — although perhaps it can be accessed through some non-conceptual faculty of pure intuition.

A particularly clear instance of this sort of reading is to be found in Murti, for whom emptiness is the Absolute, the ineffable ground of all transactional truths (1955: 141, 232, 234–5, 237). He is of course well aware that Ma¯dhyamikas are keen to avoid commitment to any metaphysical views or theories concerning the nature of reality. Indeed he carefully expounds some of the principal strategies they use to try to refute the metaphysical theories of their opponents without thereby embracing any alternative theories. But he takes this to mean that for Madhyamaka, the real simply transcends the capacities of discursive reason, that it is to be known only through a kind of intellectual intuition that apprehends without superimposing any of the concepts of phenomenal thought (1955: 135, 139, 140, 142, 151, 158, 160, 207, 212, 218, 228). The dialectical arguments of Na¯ga¯rjuna and A¯ ryadeva are, in other words, merely meant to clear the ground by silencing thought so that the pure suchness of the real may shine through. Enlightenment is achieved and nirva¯na attained ˚just by apprehending this formless ultimate truth.

I call both the nihilist interpretation and interpretations like Murti’s ‘meta physical’ because both take the doctrine of emptiness to be a metaphysical theory, a theory about the ultimate nature of reality.4 By contrast, a semantic interpretation of emptiness takes the doctrine to concern not the nature of reality, but the nature of truth.5 Specifically, it takes the claim that all things are empty to mean that the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth — there is only conventional truth. To see what this means, it is crucial to recall how Abhidharma draws the distinction between conventional truth and ultimate truth. Statements are said to be conventionally true when they are assertable by the canons of common sense. Thus, supposing that Krsna did indeed drive Arjuna’s chariot at the battle of Kuruksetra, the statement ‘Krsna drove the chariot’ would be conventionally true. By contrast, a statement is said to be ultimately true if and only if it corresponds with reality, and neither asserts nor pre-supposes the existence of any conceptual fictions. So even if the facts are as supposed, ‘Krsna drove the chariot’ would not be ultimately true. Of course, the statement would then correspond to what we are taking to be the facts. The difficulty, however, lies not with the ‘correspondence’ clause, but with the ‘no conceptual fictions’ clause. A chariot is a conceptual fiction — as is the person Krsnaas well — so the statement cannot be ultimately true. Nor can it be ultimately false — since its negation would then be ultimately true, in violation of the ‘no conceptual fictions’ clause. The statement is simply not admissible at the ultimate level, and so is not the sort of thing that could have a truth value. There are, however, any number of statements concerning this state of affairs that would be ultimately true; namely, statements concerning the dharmas that make up the two conceptual fictions involved, the chariot and Krsna. And it is the facts that make these statements true that explain the utility of our accepting the conventionally true ‘Krsna drove the chariot’. It is because, for instance, certain atoms are arranged in certain ways that it is conventionally true that there is a chariot on the field; and likewise for our assertions concerning Krsna.

Thus, to say that all things are empty is, on the semantic interpretation, to say that no statement can be ultimately true. Given that dharmas must be things with intrinsic natures, if nothing can bear an intrinsic nature, then there is nothing for ultimately true statements to be about; hence the very notion of ultimate truth is incoherent. The doctrine of emptiness is thus equivalent to the rejection of what Putnam (1981, 49) calls metaphysical realism. This is the view that there is one true theory about the nature of reality; with truth understood as correspondence, and reality understood as consisting of a fixed number of objects with natures that are independent of the concepts we happen to employ. And herein lies the essence of the disagreement between semantic and metaphys ical interpretations of emptiness. What metaphysical interpretations all have in common is precisely that they pre-suppose metaphysical realism. This is quite evident in the case of those who equate emptiness with the claim that reality transcends the capacities of discursive thought. For this requires that there be such a thing as how the world is, independently of the concepts we use; what it claims is that the world is of such a nature as to always elude our concepts. But metaphysical realism is also pre-supposed by the nihilist reading. According to this as well, there is a fixed number of objects with natures that are independent of our conceptual resources: there are exactly zero such objects; and their nature (to be non-existent) clearly cannot depend on facts about our minds, given that our minds are likewise held not to exist. For someone who understands emptiness as a semantic doctrine, on the other hand, it is virtually axiomatic that metaphysical readings of the doctrine of emptiness are misguided.

But if, as the semantic interpretation claims, there is no final truth about reality, then how can it be true that all things are empty? Surely Ma¯dhyamikas expect us to take their claim that all things are empty to be true, and if so they must have some conception as to what its truth consists in. What, then, might it be? If there is no ultimate truth, then apparently the claim that all things are empty can only be conventionally true. Indeed, the Madhyamaka doctrine that emptiness is itself empty is actually equivalent to the claim that the only sort of truth there can be is conventional truth. (If emptiness is itself a mere conceptual fiction, then the statement that something is empty can at best be conventionally true.) But how can this be? We understand conventional truth to be just a useful approximation to the ultimate truth, and if there is no ultimate truth then conventional truth cannot be understood in this way. And if emptiness means that there are no ultimate facts, we may well wonder what then explains the utility of accepting statements that are merely conventionally true — such as the statement that all things are empty. This makes us wonder how there could be a ‘semantic’ interpretation of emptiness that did not, in the end, go ‘metaphysical’; that is, involve some substantive claim about the ultimate nature of reality.

All these questions are perfectly legitimate, indeed useful, according to those who espouse the semantic interpretation. We do have great difficulty under standing how any statement, let alone a statement of supposedly great soteriological significance, could be a mere conventional truth that lacks any grounding in the ultimate nature of reality. And yet the force of the Madhya maka dialectic makes us despair of ever finding a conception of the ultimate truth that does not dissolve into incoherence. The result is an impasse: the two-truths scheme seems hopeless, yet we do not see how we could simply jettison the notion of an ultimate ground for conventional truths. But this impasse is, I think, just where the teaching of emptiness was meant to drive us. For now we will see that the only hope of a resolution lies in rejecting the metaphysical realist pre-supposition at its heart. It is only because we continue to think of truth as correspondence to mind-independent reality that we take conventional truth to require some ultimate foundation. To reject this pre supposition is to see that the ultimate truth — the truth that brings about liberation — is that there is no ultimate truth — no one true theory about the nature of mind-independent reality.

Here is an analogy that may help us see how it might plausibly be claimed that there is only conventional truth. At one time it was widely believed that a paper currency required the backing of some precious metal such as gold or silver. To many people it seemed highly implausible that a mere piece of paper could have monetary value in itself. They thought that such value as a note had could only derive from its being convertible into a given quantity of something with inherent value like gold. The usefulness of a paper currency was obvious, for it is less bulky than precious metals and is easier to transport. But when it was proposed that the currency be taken off the gold standard, many people feared their currency would become worthless. We now know better. How is it possible that mere paper can have monetary value? Certainly not due to its intrinsic value; indeed, we can now see that even gold lacks intrinsic value. The value of a paper currency derives from the role it plays within a set of institutions and practices shaped by human interests and limitations (e.g., the fact that our interests are best satisfied through a social division of labor). Likewise the value of being true might be something that accrues to statements by virtue of the role they play in certain institutions and practices that are shaped by human interests and cognitive limitations. And recall that what made a statement ‘only’ conventionally true was that it employed concepts (such as the concept of the chariot) that reflect our interests (e.g., in transportation) and our limitations (e.g., our inability to keep track of all the parts in a transport system). Once we concede that the notion of how things are, independently of our interests and limitations, is incoherent, this derogation of conventional truth to the status of mere second-best will fall away.

Because of its rejection of the distinction between conventional and ultimate truth, the resulting view might be thought of as a sort of semantic non-dualism. Much more would need to be said to give an adequate defense of semantic non-dualism. There will be questions to answer concerning its adequacy as an interpretation of the Madhyamaka texts, and there will be troublesome details to work out concerning its logical and epistemological consequences. But I shall not attempt any of that here. Instead, I wish to turn now to the objection that this interpretation of the doctrine of emptiness robs it of all soteriological significance.

The objection to the semantic interpretation that I wish to consider has at its heart the notion that this interpretation of emptiness gives philosophical ration ality an inordinately large role to play in the project of liberation. (In this respect, it resembles one side of the debate early in the Tibetan tradition over the respective roles of philosophy and meditation in Buddhist practice; see Yamaguchi 1997.) In its modern form, this objection is sometimes put as the complaint that reading Madhyamaka in this way involves reading contemporary analytic philosophy into a spiritual tradition where it has no place. We can see a clear instance of this from Murti, for whom this was a principal arguments against the semantic interpretation and in favor of his own metaphysical interpretation. This comes out most distinctly in his comparison of Madhya maka and logical positivism. He makes this comparison because the two schools share a rejection of all metaphysical theories, which might lead some to see strong similarities between the two schools. But, he claims, there are crucial differences: the positivist ‘has neither use for nor knowledge of the transcen dent. He is a materialist at heart’ (Murti 1955, 352). Madhyamaka, by contrast, ‘is spiritual to the core’. Thus, Murti concludes, the Ma¯dhyamika should not be understood as making anything like the positivists’ point that the very idea of a language-transcendent realm is incoherent. Instead, Madhyamaka seeks to safeguard the transcendent realm from all encroachments by discursive ration ality. If this is right, then the semantic interpretation would indeed strip the doctrine of emptiness of its spiritual meaning; for its denial of a transcendent realm would deprive spirituality of a locus of operation.

But caution is called for here. Warning buzzers should sound in response to Murti’s use of ‘materialist’ to characterize the logical positivists, who were not materialists, but empiricists (and many of them phenomenalists to boot). Since Murti should have known this, one must wonder what ideological work is being done by the term ‘materialist’. What seems most probable is that he has accepted without question the characteristically modern dichotomy between scientific rationality and spirituality. For once these are seen as distinct and incompatible enterprises, then those who value the spiritual quest will be motivated to carve out some separate realm for it, so as to protect it from the hegemonic tendencies of scientific rationality. What Murti is thus suggesting in calling the logical positivist a ‘materialist’ is that positivism leaves no room for the spiritual, that it holds that the only genuine human problems there are are amenable to scientific-technological solution.

Now it is possible that some logical positivists held the view that I have just described and that Murti seems to have meant by ‘materialist’. But is this a reason for rejecting the semantic interpretation of emptiness? Because notice that the underlying dichotomy at work here grows out of the modern Western attempt at reconciling natural science and Christianity; the modern formulation of the distinction between reason and faith seems to have no parallel in the classical Indian tradition. It is easy to see how the distinction arose. While medieval philosophers and theologians made some progress toward reconciling the teachings of Christianity with the philosophical and scientific rationality that they inherited from classical Greek culture (Islamic and Jewish thinkers made even greater strides), this rapprochement was undermined by developments peculiar to modern Europe, including the rise of capitalism, and the Protestant Reformation. As a result, those of us who are products of this culture will naturally see the application of logic and rationality as inimical to spiritual pursuits. But Indian Buddhist philosophers did not see things this way, and it is possible that they were right not to. It may well be that the practice of philosophical rationality — with its demand that one follow the logic of the argument wherever it leads — will turn out to have great soteriological value. Perhaps those who accuse defenders of the semantic interpretation of reading Western philosophy into a non-Western tradition are themselves guilty of a bit of ethnocentrism.

Still, one can understand the desire for a more positive response to the objection. What reason is there to believe that the practice of philosophical rationality can help solve soteriological problems? Defenders of the semantic interpretation have not always been completely forthcoming on this score, and perhaps for good reason. Semantic non-dualism looks like a rather esoteric philosophical doctrine, and it is difficult to see how its mastery might help resolve deep-seated existential difficulties such as the problem of suffering. Here I can only sketch what I take to be an appropriate response on behalf of the semantic interpretation; I shall not try to defend this response by citing the appropriate texts in the tradition. What I shall claim is first that the role emptiness plays in liberation from suffering is ancillary in nature; it is the doctrine of non-self that continues to play the chief role in that project, while emptiness serves just to correct for certain common errors in the application of non-self. Second, I shall claim that the doctrine of emptiness is intended to prevent a subtle form of clinging that may grow out of one’s appreciation of the doctrine of non-self, and may thus prove an impediment to complete liberation.

My sketch begins with the soteriological project of early Buddhism and Abhidharma. Central to this project is the correct analysis of the cause of suffering, for Buddhist practice essentially turns on preventing further suffering by removing the factors responsible for its origination. It is well known that this is to be accomplished at least in part by overcoming various forms of desire and attachment. What is not always fully appreciated is why desire and attachment are thought to bring about suffering. The Buddha taught that, in addition to suffering, all sentient existence is characterized by impermanence and non-self; it is our ignorance concerning the last two facts that is said to explain the first. But it is possible to misconstrue the role of impermanence here. Burton (2002), for instance, makes suffering seem to be largely a matter of disappointment in the face of the transience of the objects I desire. Now it is true that Buddhist teachings sometimes recommend concentrating on the impermanence of the things and states one desires as a way of overcoming one’s craving for them. But this is not to say that the solution is just to stop desiring transitory things and states. After all, if suffering were just a matter of disappointment at the loss of things and states one has become attached to, it could be readily avoided just by cultivating an aesthetic appreciation of the transitoriness of all. Yet this would leave untouched the real source of suffering, the false belief in an ‘I’. Desire and attachment are to be overcome, on the Buddhist path, not because their objects are unsatisfactory, but because they tend to re-inscribe false belief in the ‘I’.

The suffering that the Buddhist project is meant to extirpate is existential suffering: the frustration, alienation and despair that result from the recognition of one’s own mortality. The fact of impermanence plays a role here, but it is the fact of non-self that is primary.6 We are happiness-seeking creatures. In learning to seek not mere pleasure, but happiness, we have come to think of ourselves as entities whose lives have meaning, value and purpose. That is, what is in actuality no more than a causal series of sets of ephemeral psychophysical elements becomes unified around the concept of a person, an enduring thing that has those psychophysical elements as its parts. The construction of the person as happiness-seeker requires that it be something that identifies with and appropriates its past and future stages. And this, in turn, requires that the life of a person be constructed as a kind of narrative. Hence arises the need for a self to serve as what Dennett (1992) calls a ‘center of narrative gravity’. Now this construction of the person is useful up to a point. The difficulty is that the continued possibility of happiness requires that the self have an open future, something that is incompatible with the fact of mortality. This is why the realization of one’s own impermanence brings with it frustration, alienation and despair.

The solution to the problem of suffering lies in overcoming our ignorance concerning what we are. (It is this claim that Buddhism shares with other Indian paths to liberation.) Suffering can be overcome if we can learn to live without the illusion of a self and with the knowledge that the person is a mere useful fiction. Hence arises the early Buddhist project of coming to see oneself and others as strictly impersonal causal series of psychophysical elements. The Abhidharma program of cataloguing the ultimate elements of reality (the dharmas) and their causal relations is meant to facilitate this Reductionist project. Here, philosophical rationality is used to construct and defend the theoretical framework that shows how a thoroughly impersonal description of persons and their states is possible. But since our lives are organized around the practice of seeing ourselves and others as persons, mastery of this theoretical framework does not by itself suffice to undermine the tendency to think of oneself as the author of one’s life narrative. This requires a variety of practical techniques, such as uprooting various self-affirming desires, and developing one’s introspective observational powers through meditation. The practice of such techniques in combination with the cultivation of philosophical rationality is said to eventually culminate in enlightenment. This is the thorough internalization of the truth of non-self, and thus enlightenment issues in a state of being wherein one no longer behaves inappropriately with respect to oneself, others, and the world. One thus overcomes suffering in oneself, and becomes adept at helping others overcome it as well.

This last point may be controversial. My characterization of Buddhist practice so far is meant to apply to Abhidharma, and it is widely held that it is only in Maha¯ya¯na that there first arises the teaching that the enlightened person will naturally seek to help others overcome suffering. This is generally taken to imply that the compassion of the enlightened person must result from realiza tion of that other distinctively Maha¯ya¯na teaching, the emptiness of all dharmas. But the textual evidence does not bear this out. Instead, the texts suggest that compassion issues directly from realization of non-self.7 But I have discussed the connection between non-self and compassion elsewhere (Siderits and Williams 2000; Siderits 2003), and I shall not go into that here. What does require discussion is the resulting suggestion that insight into emptiness does not play the central role in enlightenment for the Maha¯ya¯na schools, including Madhyamaka. This is indeed a consequence of the semantic interpretation. On this view, the realization of the emptiness of all dharmas plays an essentially ancillary role, deepening insights that the aspirant acquires through the realiza tion of non-self by correcting a serious misunderstanding that commonly arises in the attaining of that realization. This is the view that the truth of non-self is the ultimate truth. Recall that for the Abhidharma schools the ultimate truth is the completely impersonal description of the evanescent dharmas and their causal interactions. Now a Ma¯dhyamika will agree that coming to see how all conventional truth may be reduced without remainder to truths about impersonal dharmas has great soteriological value. But there is a great danger in this method as well. For remember that suffering is said to arise out of the felt need for a ‘center of narrative gravity’, which in turn results from the demand that the events in a causal series of psychophysical elements be incorporated in a unified narrative. Now to suppose there to be such a thing as the one true description of the ultimate nature of reality is to posit a grand unified narrative. Granted it may be difficult to make oneself the hero of such a story. For this is a narrative without characters (i.e., persons), but only strictly impersonal dharmas. Still the thought that this is the ultimate truth can give rise to a subtle form of clinging that may prove quite difficult to extirpate.

This is, I think, nicely illustrated by a remark in Cooper’s recent discussion of emptiness. Now he is not there discussing the truth of non-self, but rather the question of the correct interpretation of the doctrine of emptiness. Cooper argues that the semantic interpretation should be supplemented with a variety of metaphorical extensions of the concept of emptiness (e.g., of emptiness as an ‘ineffable source’ from out of which the world discloses itself through a process of ‘emptying’). And his evidence stems from the soteriological role that emptiness is said to play. Thus, Cooper in effect claims that the semantic interpretation is inadequate because it fails to give any positive content to the ultimate truth, something that is needed for it to be soteriologically efficacious. This is so, we are told, because ‘the thought that appreciation of emptiness “liberates” … implies that a doctrine of emptiness provides measure for one’s life, something for one’s life to be answerable to’ (Cooper 2002, 18). The suggestion is thus that liberation requires there to be some standard against which one’s life is to be assessed for meaningfulness. But this will never do, if it is true that suffering results from a misguided search for the meaning of one’s life. To suppose there to be some substantive ultimate truth — that there are only impersonal dharmas,or that reality is ineffable, or that the Absolute is non-dual — is to prepare the breeding ground for a subtle yet insidious form of clinging. This is sometimes revealed quite dramatically in the table-pounding gesture that may accompany the metaphysical realist’s insistence: ‘There is such a thing as how the world mind-independently is!’. What is at stake here is more than just the insistence that only realist truth gives a way to resolve disputes non-arbitrarily. After all, that demand can be met just by procedural rules that prevent conversations from terminating prematurely. What is at stake is the thought that there is the right way for a life to go, and that my life might go that way. For this depends on the notion of a truth that is somehow ‘bigger than all of us’, that reveals the larger scheme wherein our lives must fit if they are to have value and purpose. On the semantic interpretation of emptiness, the truth that liberates is the insight that there can be no truth apart from the contingent institutions and practices of social existence. It liberates because it undermines the last vestige of clinging, the belief that there is a mind-independent ultimate truth.

There is an alternative way of understanding the role that insight into emptiness plays in liberation, and it would be useful to compare this with my claim concerning the semantic interpretation. One sometimes hears it said that the teaching of emptiness liberates by showing that all possible objects of clinging lack intrinsic essence. This insight presumably makes one disinclined to desire them, and the resulting quelling of passion is thought to lead to the state of nirvana. Now I have already indicated that I am not sure that the cessation of suffering is supposed to come about just through ceasing to desire objects. But we may set that to one side at least for the moment. One would still like to know how this extinguishing of passion is to come about. Why should it make a difference to my desire that the hamburger I crave is empty — that it derives all its properties from the causes and conditions on which it depends?

Burton has recently expressed some doubt about this idea as well, but for what I shall argue to be the wrong reasons. Still it will prove helpful to follow his reasoning here. As we saw earlier, Burton takes the Buddhist soteriological project to be one of preventing suffering by stopping oneself from desiring inappropriate objects. Having demonstrated what he takes to be the inadequa cies in the view that this can be done just by seeing that all objects are impermanent, Burton then takes up an alternative strategy of showing that the objects of desire are mere conceptual constructions.8 He takes this basic strategy to be common to Abhidharma, Yoga¯ca¯ra, and Madhyamaka, but with the following differences: in Abhidharma, it is only ordinary objects that are said to be conceptual fictions; while according to Yoga¯ca¯ra, all things save the evanescent, non-dual consciousness events are conceptually constructed; and in Madhyamaka, it is all things without exception that are said to be mere fabrications. The basic idea is said to be that anything so revealed as a mere construction of the mind will cease to be desired. The Madhyamaka claim that not only ordinary objects, but all dharmas are conceptually constructed is thus intended to undermine the subtle basis of clinging that remains on the Abhid harma and Yoga¯ca¯ra analyses.

Against this alleged Madhyamaka strategy, Burton objects that what one craves is not, for instance, the ephemeral atoms that make up the new car, but the car itself, so that showing it to be a fabrication should suffice to undercut attachment (assuming that the general strategy of demonstrating constructedness succeeds in quelling desire). One need not, he thinks, go all the way with the Ma¯dhyamika and show that the atoms are likewise conceptually constructed. But here he misses an important point. If the car reductively supervenes on all the atoms that make it up, then knowing that the latter are ultimately real does after all preserve an object of craving: what I crave is really just all those atoms arranged in just that way. Just as ‘car’ is not a mere empty sound, but turns out instead to be a convenient way to refer to all the atoms in that particular arrangement, so the object of my craving likewise will not utterly disappear, but will continue to be available. While I may be surprised to discover that what I crave is actually not one thing, but many, this need not have any effect on my craving. If the route to the cessation of clinging is to go by way of analyzing the objects of clinging into conceptual constructions, it had better go all the way with the Ma¯dhyamikas.

Burton does not think that going all the way will succeed, however, for he also thinks it might even then be possible to continue to desire an object that one believes to be conceptually constructed.9 He claims to be able to imagine that one might discover that something lacks the kind of objective reality that we attributed to it and yet continue to crave it because one derives enjoyment from the experience of it. But caution is called for here. This is, I think, implausible in the case where there still remains an available contrast between those things that are not conceptually constructed and those that are. To the extent that the latter are constructed through the mind’s conceptualizing activity, they may well lack the sort of autonomous existence that the former have, and are thus typically considered less desirable. When I realize that the object of my romantic interest is partly a product of my wishful thinking, my ardor and attachment tend to dim. The situation is analogous to what happens when we wake up from a dream filled with longing for some object or other and then discover that the object was ‘only a dream’.10 In general, where we take there to be things that are not conceptually constructed, the discovery that some desired object is at least partly the product of the mind’s fabricating power will make us suspect that in reality the object lacks those properties that make it seem desirable.11

Where Burton may be right, however, is where the discovery is that everything is conceptually constructed. For, in that case, the requisite contrast is no longer available. And so to then say of something that I crave that it is conceptually constructed is not to relegate it to some lower status than is appropriate for objects of desire; there is no other status that anything might have on this view. All potential objects of clinging are what they are in part through facts about our interests; so there cannot arise the concern that any particular conceptually constructed object will turn out to be other than I would like it to be just from the fact that it is a conceptual fiction. Once one has thoroughly assimilated the belief that all things are conceptually constructed, the ‘mere’ in the phrase ‘mere conceptual fiction’ will drop out. Indeed, one will soon revert to referring to objects by their ordinary names: rivers will be rivers, and mountains will be mountains.

What this should suggest, however, is not the conclusion that Burton draws: that the Madhyamaka doctrine of emptiness is ill-suited to the Buddhist soteriological task of ending attachment and clinging. To draw this conclusion is to give a distinctly uncharitable reading of Madhyamaka. It would be far more charitable to conclude that ending all attachment by showing the object of attachment to be empty was never the real point of the doctrine. Since the knowledge that all things are empty cannot make any particular object appear less desirable, its soteriological value must lie in something other than an alleged tendency to diminish cravings for objects. And where else might that lie? Such value might come instead from its ability to contri bute to the cessation of suffering by undermining any residual belief in a self that remains after one has seen that the ‘person’ is just a causal series of psychophysical elements. And only the semantic interpret ation can explain how this might be. Metaphysical interpretations of emptiness share with the Abhidharma reductionist project the crucial notion that there is a ‘key to all mythology’, some grand narrative that unlocks the final secrets of the universe.12 The point of emptiness is to undermine the very idea of such a grand narrative. As the Ma¯dhyamika sees things, the project of liberation is not complete until one has abandoned this last vestige of belief in an ‘I’ whose existence can have independent meaning and value.

So while Burton is, I think, right to see in the doctrine of emptiness a tool to help us overcome a subtle form of clinging, he is wrong in his conception of how this tool is to work, and on what objects. Clinging results in suffering, on the Buddhist analysis, just because it reinforces the false belief in ‘I’ and ‘mine’. The Buddhist reductionist program of early Budd hism and Abhidharma is meant to reveal the falsity of this belief. But to the extent that that program relies on the view that there is such a thing as the ultimate nature of reality, it still leaves room for a covert and thus insidious form of self-assertion. The doctrine of emptiness is said to be the remedy that purges itself along with the cause of one’s lingering illness.13 One sometimes senses that critics of the semantic interpretation believe it would be just too disappointing if this turned out to be all there were to the doctrine of emptiness. Perhaps the feeling of disappointment is a sign that emptiness is doing the purging work for which it was intended.


1 See, for example, Candrakı¯rti’s Prasannapada¯ on Mu¯lamadhyamakaka¯rika¯ XV.2.

2 Of course, for the Buddhist, the important point is to see that strictly speaking there are likewise no persons. See Siderit (1997b) for a discussion of the role of this sort of reductionist treatment of wholes in early Buddhism and Abhidharma.

3 See, for example, Abhidharmakos´a 2 and Yas´omitra’s comments; Abhidharmakos´abha¯sya 12; Visuddhimagga 8.

4 I may appear to be overlooking another ‘metaphysical’ interpretation of emptiness; namely, that which takes emptiness to be equivalent to dependent origination (prata¯tya samutpa¯da). Here the authority of Mu¯lamadhyamakaka¯rika¯ 24.18 is usually invoked. If one takes this verse at face value, one might then take the doctrine of emptiness to claim that since reality is inherently causal in nature, and the products of causal processes necessarily derive their natures from their causes, the relata of causal relations must lack intrinsic natures. And given the assumption that an ultimately real entity must be one that bears an intrinsic nature, it would then follow that reality cannot be characterized as consisting of discrete entities. But if this is understood as a characterization of the ultimate nature of reality (as is suggested by the claim that reality is inherently causal in nature), this begins to look like the view that reality is ultimately ineffable. For how is one otherwise to make sense of the claim that there are causal relations but no discrete entities that are the relata of those relations? One sometimes sees this sort of view put in positive terms as the claim that reality consists of a process or flow that cannot be divided up into discrete entities or moments. But if this is not to lead to a kind of Eleatic monism of pure Being, then all such talk of ‘process’ or ‘flow’ must be taken as merely figurative intimations of an ineffable reality.
As Cooper (2002, 11) suggests, however, it may be a mistake to take the verse at face value. For while Na¯ga¯rjuna does hold that everything that originates in dependence on causes is empty (i.e., devoid of intrinsic nature), he does not assert that the emptiness of a thing is its being dependent on causes. The emptiness of a thing is rather said to be its being dependent on a certain kind of cause; namely, our conceptual construction. To say that all things are empty is then just to deny metaphysical realism: there is no such thing as how the world is independently of the concepts we happen to employ. This denial is at the core of the semantic interpretation.

5 Truth has been classed by philosophers as a semantic property at least since the work of Tarski, who showed how the methods of philosophical semantics could be used to construct a theory of truth that is immune to certain logical paradoxes. Cooper (2002, 9) uses the term ‘quietism’ for what I am here calling a semantic interpretation of emptiness. My reasons for not adopting his terminology will emerge shortly.

6 Indeed, in the Nika¯yas, the fact that the psychophysical elements (skandhas) are all impermanent is used primarily to establish non-self.

7 See Bodhica¯rya¯vata¯ra 8.98 ff. Also see Buddhaghosha’s discussion of the virtue of loving-kindness at Visuddhimagga ch. 9.

8 This is suggested, for example, by Hastava¯laprakarana 5: having shown that such ordinary things as the pot must be unreal if construed as extended objects (due to the problem of infinite divisibility), Din˚na¯ga claims that this analysis leads to the abandonment of desire and the other klesas. This outcome is compared with the dissolution of fear when one realizes that the snake is really a rope. On the other hand, at Bodhica¯rya¯vata¯ra 9.30, a Yoga¯ca¯rin opponent asserts that desire can continue to arise even in one who recognizes that the object is no more than an appearance.

9 Burton’s terminology here is actually stronger than ‘conceptual construction’: he uses ‘mere fabrication’, ‘completely a mental construct’, and ‘nothing more than a fantasy’ (Burton 2002, 337). With respect to Madhyamaka, this stronger language is, I think, a mistake. While Candrakı¯rti does sometimes use the analogy of the magician’s illusions to explicate what it means to say that something is empty, he is criticized by other Ma¯dhyamikas for this. To say that something is conceptually constructed is not to say that it is created ex nihilo by the mind. It is to say instead that, because the mind has played a role in its individuation, it does not possess the kind of mind-independent nature and ontological status that the metaphysical realist hankers after. The anti-realist is not a linguistic idealist. The anti-realist simply holds that the notion of how things are completely independent of all conceptualization is incoherent.

10 The dream analogy is, of course, a favorite of Yoga¯ca¯ra with its teaching of cittama¯tra or mind-only. But notice that the point of their teaching that all supposedly external objects are really just states of consciousness is not to end all attachment to physical objects. It is rather to call into question the distinction between cognizer and object cognized. And this in turn is meant to help one realize the truth of non-self. On this point, see Vasubandhu’s comments on Vims´atika¯

11 Although notice that this is not the case with the car seen as the collection of atoms. What matters here is whether the mind-independent basis of the conceptual construc tion itself has the properties that the desired but mind-dependent object had. The atoms do have the capacity to transport one at a high rate of speed. On the contrary, those states that are the real basis of the object of desire in the erotic dream do not have the capacity to bring about sensual pleasure.

12 It was, of course, the life project of Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch to find the key to all mythology.

13 See, for example, Mu¯lamadhyamakaka¯rika¯ XIII.8, where Na¯ga¯rjuna pronounces incurable those who become attached to the remedy that is meant to rid one of all metaphysical views.


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Correspondence address: Mark Siderits, Department of Philosophy, Box 4540, Illinois State University, Normal, IL 61790-4540, USA. E-mail: msideri@ilstu.edu