The Buddhist doctrine of non-self is not an abstract conundrum, but a practical attitude, which cuts away our notions of a rigidly defined, isolated self, and thus frees us to participate creatively in the give and take of life. If I give a gift to someone, I cannot perform the act graciously if I am conscious of myself, the gift and the recipient as three sharply defined parties to the transaction. Giving cannot be an awkward, calculated adjustment between three separate, unrelated substances. The Mahayana virtue of giving is said to be perfect when there is neither giver, gift nor recipient, that is, when one realizes the emptiness of all three.
This entails that in addition to non-self, the absence of any cement of atman holding the self together, there is a wider, universal reach of emptiness that discovers all things whatever to be void of substantial existence or svabhava. The proclamation of this universal emptiness is the central message of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. Shocking and paradoxical quite often, it seems at first an outrageous form of nihilism.
Philosophical clarification of this doctrine was the chief task of the Madhyamaka school, deriving from the treatises of the second-century South Indian monk, Nâgârjuna. The Madhyamaka or ‘middle path’ philosophy, ‘the central philosophy of Buddhism’, is a profound and subtle way of thinking, variously developed over the centuries in India, China and especially Tibet, where it forms the backbone of the dominant Gelugpa school. While earlier Buddhist scholasticism had talked of ultimate components of reality, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras declare that everything without exception is empty. ‘On the level of what is an ultimate, primary existent there is nothing. On such a level, therefore, there is an endless absence, an endless emptiness. Thus to think that dharmas have primary existence is to grasp. As an exhortation this is an appeal to complete letting-go’. Our belief that we live in a world of solid substances and stable essences is profoundly reassuring, and that is why we cling to it. For Nâgârjuna this very belief is a sickness and the security it brings is no more than the persistence of a noxious addiction. His diagnosis applies not only to the obvious bulwarks of egocentic delusion – my ego, my possessions, my habits, my ideological views – but also to the fixated quality of religious ideas, insofar as they free us from one set of addictions only by making us prisoner of another, somewhat as in the stereotype of the alcoholic who becomes a religious fanatic. Such a message is terrifying at first, yet in the end it serves to cast out fear. ‘Emptiness is also the antidote to fear... For if all is empty, what is there left to fear?’.
One clue to understanding the doctrine of emptiness it to take it a merely negative – not in a nihilistic sense, but as a negation of deluded ways of thinking, a suspension of them, that puts nothing in their place. Another clue is to see the doctrine as having a practical purpose, and as destined to disappear once that purpose is accomplished. Emptiness is a matter of taking things as they are, and cutting off all the projections and fixations with which we habitually deck things out. It creates a wholesome lucidity and economy in our thoughts, wishes, acts and words. Take, for instance, the notion of ‘my possessions’ or ‘my achievements’ or ‘my goals’. From the standpoint of emptiness these commonsense notions are sheer mythology, and to live in the light of them is to be blind and enslaved.
It is said that ‘possession is use’. To possess something means to have easier access to it when one wishes to use it. In practice, there is slight difference between, say, access to the books in our private collection and access to a public library. The major importance of the private collection is that it boosts our sense of being, lends us substance. In short it flatters our illusory ego-identity.
Again, ‘achievements’ are things done. When? In the past. Our past self had a hand in bringing about the past deeds we call our achievements, deeds that have now become a matter of dim, fragmentary and inaccurate memory. Even if the achievement should be an undying work of art, the artist himself is alien from the work, dispossessed by it. The work has used the artist’s skills to come into being. If he stands over it, boasting of it as his achievement, he merely pollutes its environment and prevents it from radiating. Any truly accomplished work asks of its author only one thing: to let it go.
As to ‘goals’, they are for the most part helpless velleities which have only the slightest chance of realization. If the project of a goal does kindle real action, the nature of the goal is constantly changing as the action advances. What the action realizes will have only a remote connection with the goal-setting that started it. And fussing about goals more often than not gets in the way of action.
Buddhist analysis and meditation, as it whittles away these and a thousand other projections of the ever-distracted mind, dismantling them as fixations, addictions or obsessions, tastes again and again the freedom of emptiness. The power of habit prevents us from tasting that freedom very long. Our servile worry about possessions, achievements, goals consigns us to a treadmill, robbing us of the freedom to live in the present.
In the Madhyamaka philosophy, emptiness is not a reality that is an end in itself, but an instrument serving a soteriological purpose. It appears in a variety of contexts and is used in different ways. First it is a doctrine one learns by hearing (sruta). The slogans of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras are heard, are recited, resound in one’s heart, before one is able to get any intellectual grasp on them. Then emptiness is deepened by rational reflection, and becomes a truth one establishes by dialectical reasoning (yukti), as one dissolves various false claims of solid substantiality, registering again and again the absence of own-nature in things. Finally one acquires an intuitive awareness of emptiness, through meditation (bhavana). One is in touch with the way things naturally are, as they arise in mutual dependence without any solid self-identity.
Emptiness can be a simple registration of the absence of self-nature; it can be a dialectical weapon wielded with vigour to overcome substantialist claims; or it can be a truth that is slowly, subtly established by deconstructive querying of these claims as one unpeels an onion to discover only emptiness at its core. Emptiness becomes a charter for lifelong meditation that detaches one from every variety of clinging to delusory substantiality or fixated identity. The lack itself must not be erected in turn into a hypostasis, as Madhyamaka accuses the idealist Yogâcâra school of doing. That would be another form of clinging, which the medicine of emptiness-thinking can also heal, when it is applied to fixated notions of emptiness itself.
The Emptiness of the Passions
As Nâgârjuna reinforces the message of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras by dialectical arguments showing the invalidity of all views and the impossibility of ascribing substantive existence to any reality whatever, he is building on the general Buddhist sense that the objects projected by our passions have no real existence. Hatred generates hate-objects, demonizations, which are intrinsically delusive. Energy invested in hatred is energy invested in imprisoning ourselves more and more in a delusion. Nâgârjuna adds an interesting twist: if the object of a passion has no real existence, the passion itself is doubly unreal: ‘Attachment, aversion and illusion derive from the imagination; they arise in function of the good, the bad, and misconceptions.
The passions arising in dependence on the good, the bad, and misconceptions do not exist in themselves, and so do not exist in reality’ (MMK 23.1-2). The passions are doubly insubstantial: ‘the defilements, in virtue of depending on these attributions [of pleasantness or unpleasantness to things] and upon our relation to pleasant and unpleasant things, all of which are themselves empty, are empty of inherent existence. Indeed, they are not only dependently arisen, but depend upon things or features of those things already shown to be empty’.  The three poisons have no substantive existence, since the subject suffering from them does not, and since the appraisals of good and evil on which desire and aversion thrive are projections of the imagination. Commenting on the above text, Candrikîrti quotes: ‘Desire, I know thy root; thou art born, as is well known, of the imagination. I shall imagine thee no longer; then thou wilt no longer exist for me’. All stirrings of passion project, and give power to, an imagined object. When we feel desire or hate we should pause to deconstruct its projections, not lodge in them complacently. The annals of Northern Ireland offer many rich targets for Nagarjunian analysis: not only the idolized or detested objects that loom large in the imagination of both parties, but also the feelings that these objects inspire.
Fear and hatred are based on the imaginative projection of the delusive objects of these passions. Avoidance of danger and resistance to evil is more skilfully achieved if one is free of these passions. To entrench oneself in them is an over-reaction that in doubly insuring the stability of the threatened ego in condemns it to a self-made prison. The ego lives by fear and hate, or rather is a product of fear and hate, as delusive and fixated as they are. ‘We had fed the heart on fantasies,/The heart's grown brutal from the fare’ (Yeats). When the other is demonized and one's own Cause is given a grandiose mythic status, imagination is feeding on delusive objects, and the hate and clinging they inspire, for all the power of their deadly grip, are wanting in some ultimate reality. Anything that presents itself to our awareness as having substantial existence is a target for Nâgârjuna's sceptical dialectic, and for meditation based on it. We are to reflect, insistently and serenely, that the alleged substance is dependently co-arisen, that the ego, for example, is an assemblage of contingent factors, all coming into existence and passing out of existence at lightning speed. What really exists is not the substantial ego but a constantly dissolving momentary phenomenon, something that is empty of all substantial presence or identity, something that acquires its relative and provisional identity only through the operation of the verbal conventions that construct the world of our experience. Our self is a history, a process, which we block and paralyze by our innate presumption of its inherent existence. Passions, delusions, sin, error, bondage are insubstantial because the self is insubstantial:
The defilements are somebody’s.
But that one has not been established.
Without that possessor,
The defilements are nobody’s. (23.4)
Nâgârjuna also dissolves fixated conceptions of bondage (MMK 16) and error (MMK 23), along with the correlative reified concepts of liberation. If reifications of bondage are the very source of bondage, reifications of release, of nirvana, are what most blocks release. MMK 25, ‘Examination of Nirvana’, loosens up our thinking of release, freeing us from the rigid dualism of bondage and release that most religion becomes trapped in.
Unannihilated, not permanent,
This is how nirvana is described. (MMK 25.3)
Abiding with the Conventional
This emptiness philosophy not only stops us from substantializing such entities as ‘enemies’ or ‘nations’; it also stops us from investing our energies in the cult of a substantialized Absolute. Absolutism is a mentality to which religious people are very prone, and the only religion that seriously tries to counter this tendency is Buddhism. The biblical religions dismantle idolatry and its illusions, but constantly urge total unquestioning surrender to God in faith. That language can be interpreted as awakening us to the freedom of the Spirit, but in practice its effect more often is to imprison us in a doctrinaire or fanatical attitude. Such faith is immediately mobilized in militancy against those who do not share it.
Even our search for peace may be infected with an absolutist tendency, in the sense that it may be motivated by a residual desire to be rid of the uncomfortable other that prevents us from having peace now. If peace means the construction of a new community by an ongoing process of encounter and sharing, then this is not a nirvanic utopia but a new way of living the dependently arising situation of our samsaric here and now. Peace cannot arise from an impatient sweeping aside of current contingencies but only as a turn-about in our attitude to them and a working through together of the bloody history that we have constructed apart. Peace is the process of recovery from collective delusions, whose deathly face has been manifested in outbreaks of murder. If nirvana has no real existence but is merely the cessation of clinging to illusions of real existence, so peace is a cessation of clinging to all the delusive passions that cause violence. Such peace is most likely to flourish when we have grasped the mere conventionality of all the names and identities that generated conflict.
Here the Indian distinction beween conventional and ultimate truth, given very refined formulations in the Madhyamika tradition, may help us. Truths about emptiness are formulated at the level of conventional truth (samvrti-satya), but the level of ultimate truth (paramârtha-satya) is paradoxically described as ‘beyond truth and non-truth’. The conventional truths have no value except as they serve to release worldly beings who can only rely on the flimsiness of convention. The value of truth thus becomes subordinate to salvific efficacy: ‘Truth is not that which does not deceive, nor does it consist in being. Truth is the exclusive good done for another, and conversely the false is that which is not useful’ (Nâgârjuna, Ratnavâli II 35). This criterion of truth already ties the wisdom of emptiness to the compassion that seeks the welfare of suffering beings. The doctrine of emptiness itself has primarily a therapeutic value. It is a medicine to be eliminated when it has done its work and is no longer useful. Putting it paradoxically, ‘the illness is emptiness itself’ (Vimalakîrti Sûtra).
As a conventional truth, emptiness belongs to the fabricating activity of thought, even though it engineers the ‘quiescence of fabrications’ (Nâgârjuna, Stanzas of the Middle Path 25.24). In Madhyamaka, the fact that nothing non-empty exists ultimately, implies that an empty does not exist either: ‘Because something is empty, it should be content with a relational, dependent existence. If a remnant of existence or non-existence attaches to sûnyatâ, it loses all its meaning. Emptiness has value only insofar as it is not an element of the world, but a linguistic element’.
The practical character of the notion of emptiness clarifies the enigmatic and much-discussed statement of Nâgârjuna: ‘Dependent co-origination is what we call emptiness. This is a designation-in-dependence (prajnaptir upâdâya), and is nothing other than the middle path (madhyamâ pratipad)’ (Stanzas of the Middle Path 24.18). The thinker of emptiness navigates skillfully between the extremes of existence and non-existence, and between conventions and ultimacy. Talk of ‘emptiness’ arises in dependence on this task and on this ontological situation, and has no autonomous ‘objective’ status. It might look like a trivialization of emptiness to reduce it thus to a matter of linguistic therapy. But when one considers the role of language and conceptuality in creating the world of delusive substances and identities in which we remain trapped, such a therapy can be seen as going all the way down, to the very roots of our being and our desires. ‘Acts and passions come from imaginations (vikalpa). These come from discursive ideas (prapanca), but discursive ideas are destroyed by emptiness’ (MMK 18.5).
If, like a Buddha, one had attained the ultimate level, it would not make sense to imagine a middle path, for such conceptions as existence and non-existence would not come into play at all. The Buddha uses them as teaching devices for those still unenlightened. Since the language of emptiness is a pedagogic device, belonging to the conventional level, it does not constitute a set of philosophical propositions enjoying absolute truth. Even at the conventional level, Madhyamaka offers no ‘views’ but only a functional method of suspending allegiance to delusive substantiality or identity and thus coming to realize the empty texture of things. The Madhyamaka dialectic does not construct anything, but merely dismantles obstacles to the perception of what it names more positively as the thusness (tathatâ) of things. It does not transcend samsâra for nirvana, but rather seeks to bring us to that state in which we can see samsâra as coextensive with nirvana.
When the negative dialectic that undoes spurious claims to solid identity and substance has done its work, what are we left with? ‘There is no real absolute, but rather an absolute absence of absolute, and then silence’. The positive language about ultimacy as thusness is again a pedagogic device, not the simple emergence of the ultimate after the conventional has been shown to be merely conventional. This positive approach has the therapeutic function of stopping attachment to nihilistic views, just as the negative dialectic cures attachment to substantialist view.
The dialectic and the notion of emptiness constantly recall the conventional to an awareness of its mere conventionality, and this in itself is the best way of allowing the ultimate to emerge at the very heart of the conventional. ‘Mistaking samvrti for paramârtha is a confusion (viparyâsa), and the impossibility of distinguishing between them is avidyâ (ignorance). On the other hand, since samvrti is a convention and is empty, it is paramârtha’. To take conventions for the ultimate is a kind of idolatry that blinds one to reality; but to see conventions as merely conventional is to find the ultimate in their very emptiness.
At the ultimate level, ‘there is perfect coincidence between knowledge and its object, or rather between intuition and the non-grasp of any object’. The ‘quiescence of fabrications’ means a condition of non-grasping. This ultimate level eludes any stable definition: ‘In the theater of vyavahâra (the practical everyday), the only value that the drama acted by the Mâdhyamika has is a therapeutic one. The world is a décor and the absolute itself is only pasteboard. If these representations are kept up, it is only for their cathartic virtues. We conclude then with É. Lamotte: “thus vanishes in smoke the reality (tattva) imagined by the worldly, even by the saints, and which the Buddha himself, out of pity for beings and so as not to scare them, sometimes pretended to accept”’. The ultimate or the absolute is notoriously elusive in Madhyamaka. The practical lesson it inculcates is to cultivate sedulously the garden of the conventional without fixations. The purpose of this cultivation is to attain final release, but there is another, and even more important purpose, namely, the welfare of others.
Before turning to that theme, I should like to consider the implications of this interpretation of Madhyamaka for Christian theologians who seek to rethink traditional discourse about God in terms of emptiness. Emptiness, it appears, is not a new ontological complexion that can be applied to God in place of older substantialist conceptions. Rather it is a discipline of speech, suspending the language that affirms a massive, substantial divine being, and equally suspending the language that denies the reality of the divine. The entire exercise of ‘emptying’ our language about God is a provisional one, preparing one for an insight into the thusness of the divine that will not need this language of emptiness any more. It reveals the impossibility of grasping God, and it is in this very impossibility that the nature of God is intuited. All the divine attributes, and the identification of God as Creator, would be subject to the same suspension of language. The same apophatic attitude can be applied to our language about the existence of the soul after death. To take conventions for the ultimate is a kind of idolatry that blinds one to reality; but to see conventions as merely conventional is to find the ultimate in their very emptiness. Yet we can hardly say that to see our language about God as merely conventional is ipso facto to intuit divine ultimacy and to transform the conventional itself into the ultimate. Rather we should see our flimsy, conventional language about God as iconic, pointing beyond itself to the transcendent mystery that it is unable to grasp.
 T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism.
 Paul Williams, 136.
 Jay Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Oxford University Press, 1995), 285.
 J. W. De Jong, Cinq chapitres de la Prasannapadâ (Paris: Geuthner, 1949), 180.
 Ludovic Viévard, Vacuité (sûnyatâ) et compassion (karunâ) dans le bouddhisme madhyamaka (Collège de France, 2002.), p. 75.
 Ibid., p. 11.
 Ibid., p. 111.
 Ibid., p. 113.