Nāgārjuna’s Śūnyatā Doctrine as Seen the MMK

Nagarjuna-buddhist-philosopherIt is a general assumption of the most scholars that the Emptiness Theory of Nāgārjuna is a kind of revolution against the Ābhidharmikās who tried to explain the true teaching of the Buddha in terms of metaphysical existing entity called Svabhāva. The emptiness theory of Nāgārjuna is said to be based upon the Prajñāpāramita scripture. In the MMK [Mūlamadhyamakakārikā] – the significant work of Nāgārjuna – he, taking no particular position and basing on the theory of emptiness, refuted all his opponents and established the true doctrine of the Buddha.

In point of fact, the concept of Śūnyatā is not totally a new creation of Nāgārjuna, but it was employed by him to refute the opponent’s views and establish the Buddhadharma. There are discussions of emptiness even in early Buddhist teaching. The Cūlasuñña sutta of Saṃyutta Nikāya is one of examples of this category.

Although the English rendering of the term ‘’Sūnyatā’ – i.e. ‘Emptiness’ generally gives a negative impression but it does not mean utter negation. In verses eighteen and nineteen of the chapter twenty four, Nāgārjuna emphatically explains what Śūnyatā’ actually is. In these two verses he said that the dependent origination [pratītyasamūdpāda] is another name for Śūnyatāand this is based upon convention (Ya pratītyasamutpāda Śūnyatā ta pracakmahe). And there is nothing whatsoever that is not dependent and hence non empty. So, what Venerable Nāgārjuna is trying to tell us here is that – “in as much as beings dependently co-arise they are empty in their nature.” And this dependent co-arising he explains with the four pairs of eight negations in the dedicatory verse of the MMK. The four pairs of eight negations are: 1) non-ceasing [anirodha] and non-arising [anutpāda], 2) non-annihilation [anuccheda] and non-permanence [aśāśvata], 3) non-identity [anekārtha] and non-difference [anānārtha] and 4) non-appearance [anāgama] and non-disappearance [anirgama].

According to him, one is not evident without the other. They are dependently co-arisen. Hence, they are devoid of intrinsic natures. And something that is dependently co-arisen is constantly arising and passing away. So, they can not be called either existence or non-existence. And that is because ‘existence ’ is contrary to perishing just like ‘non-existence ’ is contrary to arising of things.

Buddhism, in general, talks about two truths namely: 1) conventional truth [savti satya] and 2) ultimate truth [paramārtha satya]. Nāgārjuna is of no difference. According to the early Buddhist teaching, names and forms are the conventional truth; in the Madhyamaka also, words and ideas are significantly negated as they are merely conventional truth. On the contrary, the ultimate truth is beyond thought and language. This is why the Buddha always remained in his noble silence when he was asked on the metaphysical matters. The ultimate Truth is ineffable – it is said by the Buddha that he had never preached a single word in his forty five years of preaching life. But the question remains as to why people like the Buddha and Nāgārjuna had used ordinary words and logics and developed a dialectical reasoning in their explanation of the dharma? The answer is to awake people to the truth of emptiness. Because without depending upon the conventional truth, the ultimate can not be expressed.

According to Madhyamaka, the immediate insight into emptiness which is Prajñāhelps sentient beings understand the real nature of things but for Sarvāstivādins, it is the investigation ofdharmas [dharmapravicaya]. Thus, the definition of Prajñā,which is wisdom in English, varied from school to school. Not only the definition of Prajñā that is varied from school to school but also the so called ultimate reality or true nature of phenomenal world. So, there can be seen different approaches of different schools to the explanation of what is meant by reality.

The most well known dialectical method used by Nāgārjuna in his MMK to explain the reality is the tetralemma [caţuskoţi]: being, non-being, both being and non-being and neither being and nor non-being. This is a formula which includes all possible cases in its scope. Basing on emptiness, he used these four-fold methodology to refute the opponents. Thus he says in verses eight and nine of the chapter four: if analysis or explanation is made based on emptiness, there would be no problem in reputing other’s views. So, here he uses Śūnyatā as a tool to refute other’s views.

According to Nāgārjuna, Śūnyatā is also a practice for removing views. Any view is substantial because it binds us in the Sasāra. So, where there is view, there is the need of Śūnyatā, but if there is no view then there is no need of Śūnyatā. According to Gadjin M Nagao; “Emptiness has no standpoint of its own, its standpoint is the standpoint of no standpoint, so to speak.” Moreover, it was asked by Ven. Nāgārjuna not to hold emptiness wrongly for the holder may be affected by it.

In the chapter thirteen, Nāgārjuna says emptiness is to be used when there is something non-empty, but if something is already empty, there is then no need of emptiness anymore. Emptiness is also not to be understood as permanent existence, because holding emptiness as a real entity is also a kind of view which was rejected by Nāgārjuna and hence we see the theory – “emptiness of emptiness.”

In chapter twenty four, it is said that by perceiving dependent co-arising i.e. emptiness – the four noble truths are also perceived. Therefore, it is said that emptiness is the relinquishing of all views. And in chapter eighteen again, emptiness is explained as dharmatā because it is the nature of all things that they are dependently co-arisen and hence intrinsically calm.

Nāgārjuna’s Emptiness doctrine, as we have observed so far, is a doctrine that came down from the Buddha himself. It was used by Nāgārjuna as a tool to refute the opponents, to explain the true nature of phenomenal existence, as the middle way to reach the state of perfect peace. The emptiness idea of Nāgārjuna is actually another name for dependent origination which is equal to the Buddha himself. The statement given by the Buddha is – whosoever sees the dependent arising sees him. That is why we see Nāgārjuna explaining the emptiness as thetatthatādharmatā or suchness.


  1. Kalupahana, David J. Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna [the philosophy of the middle way]. Delhi: Motilal Banrasidass Publishers Private Limited, 1991.
  2. Kalupahana, David J. A History of Buddhist Philosophy [Continuities and Discontinuity]. Delhi: Motilal Banrasidass Publishers Private Limited, 1994.
  3. Nagao, Gadjin M. Mādhyamika and Yogacara [a study of Mahayana philosophies]. Edited and Translated by Leslie S. Kawamura. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publication, 1992.
  4. Thomas, Edward J. The History of Buddhist Thought. Delhi: Munshiram Monoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1933.
  5. Inada, Kenneth. Nāgārjuna: a Translation of its Mūlamadhyamakakārikā with an Introductory Essay. Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1993.

Published: in the 8th Issue (June, 2008) of Bodhi Journal

URL: http://www.buddhistdoor.com/journal/issue008-04features3.html

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