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Nagarjuna's fundamental doctrine of Pratityasamutpada

Nagarjuna contends that the doctrine of Pratityasamutpada


(dependent origination), properly understood, constitutes the
philosophical basis for the rejection and avoidance of all
metaphysical theories and concepts (including causation). The
companion doctrine of sunyata constitutes the denial of
metaphysical realism (or "essentialism") but does not imply an
anti-realist, conventionalist view of reality (as Jay Garfield
maintains).
It seems fitting that the very last verse of Nagarjuna's challenging
work, Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses of the
Middle Way), would present the reader with what seems to be a
riddle: "I prostrate to Gautama, who through compassion, taught
the true doctrine, which leads to the relinquishing of all views"
(27:30). This should be read with an earlier verse (13:8): "The
victorious ones have said that emptiness is the relinquishing of all
views. For whomever emptiness is a view, that one will
accomplish nothing."1 Since the last chapter deals with questions
about the self and the world, it is understandable that so many
commentators would assume that the "true doctrine" of which
Nagarjuna speaks is the doctrine of sunyata, but that gives a
paradoxical character to these verses. Gautama recommends to us
a doctrine that all this (we and all that we experience of the world)
is sunya, that is, empty of essence and thus of inherent,
independent existence. And does this anti-realist, anti-essentialist
view of things (as some would interpret sunyata) make possible
and even constitute the relinquishing of all views, including his
own? It cannot simply be the trivial and disingenuous claim that
to accept the truth of sunyata is to relinquish all other wrong

views. So is Nagarjuna mysteriously refuting himself? Or is he


uttering a paradox?
I will argue that there is no paradox or problem of self-refutation,
because the true doctrine that Nagarjuna refers to is not sunyata
but the doctrine of pratityasamutpada (dependent arising or
origination). And what the verses assert is that if we understand
and accept this doctrine, we will no longer have the need or
inclination to hold any view about the nature of things, including
the inclination to construct a view out of the declaration that "all
this is sunya." How this is possible, how accepting the doctrine
makes possible the "relinquishing of all views," certainly depends
on what kind of doctrine this is and how it is to be distinguished
from a "view." Part of my argument, of course, is that neither
pratityasamutpada nor the assertion that "all this is sunya" should
be taken as even implying any metaphysical views-either
nihilism, absolutism, or anti-realism (the most common
metaphysical interpretations). There is no doubt that a major
target of Nagarjuna's philosophical criticism is metaphysical
realism. But this does not mean that the critic must hold some
alternative metaphysical view.
The logical place to begin is chapter 1, "Examination of
Conditions," where the subject of discussion is the concept of
pratityasamutpada, but it is not clear at all what Nagarjuna is
trying to establish about this concept. Jay Garfield, in his recent
translation of and commentary on the Mulamadhyamakakarika
titled The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, offers a
unique interpretation of the point of this chapter, and I will follow
him to some extent in his analysis of the text.2 However, we will
part ways at a crucial point in the chapter with regard to what
Nagarjuna is about.
On the Nature and Significance of Pratityasamutpada

In this first chapter, Garfield notes that "Nagarjuna distinguishes


two possible views of dependent origination or the causal processone according to which causes bring about their effects in virtue
of causal powers and one according to which causal relations
simply amount to explanatorily useful regularities-and defends the
latter."3 That is to say, according to Garfield , Nagarjuna defends
pratityasamutpada as a regularity or Humean theory of causation
against an essentialist or realist interpretation. The latter contends
that while we may cite one or more factors or events as the causal
condition of some effect, it is the force or power in these
conditions that is actually the cause of the effect. Nagarjuna's
basic criticism of this realist view is summarized in the fourth
verse:
Power to act does not have conditions. There is no power to act
without conditions. There are no conditions without power to act.
Nor do any have the power to act.
Nagarjuna had noted in the second verse that causal explanations
without exception appeal to one or more of four kinds of
conditions:
There are only four conditions, namely, primary condition,
objectively supporting condition, immediately contiguous
condition, and dominant condition. A fifth condition does not
exist.
So, for example, to explain the lighting of a match, we cite the
striking of the match as the primary condition or efficient cause of
that event. Thus, "there is no power to act without conditions."
That is to say, talk about causal powers only arises in the context
of the causal efficacy of one or more of these conditions. We say,
"the match will light if it is struck," or "whenever a match is
struck it will light." In other words, Nagarjuna has no problem
talking about conditions having the power to bring about an

effect, if this is understood as just another way of expressing the


Buddhist formula, "whenever this occurs, that will occur." What
verse 4 warns against is confusing a functional property of the
causal conditions with an existing, essential property, called
"power to act." Not only is such an indescribable occult force or
power neither evident nor detectable, but, more important,
postulating its existence violates the fundamental tenet that
nothing can exist without a cause. That is to say, an inherent,
essential "power to act has no conditions." Therefore, while "there
are no conditions without power to act," we are committing the
error of reification if we maintain that conditions have the power
to act. Where would we find the conditions necessary to explain
why certain things have such occult powers and others do not?
There can be no causal explanation for such powers. Causation is
thus simply dependent arising: a certain kind of effect invariably
comes into existence following upon or as the result of the
existence of a certain set of relevant conditions.
But there are also commonly recognized problems with any
regularity theory of causation. We know that there are regularities
in nature involving causally unrelated events or objects, reported
as contingently true generalizations as opposed to necessarily true
causal laws. Causation, in short, cannot just mean regularity, the
constant conjunction or succession of events. In fact, we quite
commonly distinguish the one from the other by explaining that,
in the case of causal regularities, the effect is produced by the
causal conditions or that it necessarily comes into existence
whenever the cause exists. In the latter case, causation is regarded
as a necessary connection between two events or things.
Verses 11 and 12 seem to be attacking both of these commonsense
explications of causation:

The effect does not exist in the conditions that are separated or
combined[.]
Therefore, how can that which is not found in the conditions
come to be From the conditions?

If that effect, being non-existent [in the conditions,] were to


proceed from
The conditions, why does it not proceed from non-conditions?

With respect to explaining causation as the product of an effect,


Nagarjuna maintained that "the essence of entities is not present
in the conditions," so there is no conceivable sense in which the
effect could exist in the conditions. If so, asserts verse 11, then
causal conditions cannot produce their effect, unless we are
willing to accept the miraculous.

As for the second option, what is this "necessary condition," this


third thing that is supposed to exist between cause and effect and
that is absent in cases of accidental regularity? Whatever is
proposed must surely be as ad hoc as the notion of a power to act
advocated by Nagarjuna's opponents. He is thus faced with the
dilemma of either going the route of his realist, essentialist
opponents (claiming the existence of something unverifiable) or
admitting that he has no answer to the question of what
constitutes a causal relationship and is perhaps even forced to
deny causation.

It is Garfield 's contention that Nagarjuna avoids these two


extremes by an argument that turns the table on his causal-realist
critics. I will show, however, that there are some serious problems
with this contention and with the argument that he attributes to
Nagarjuna. The argument, he maintains, is based on verse 10:

If things did not exist without essence, the phrase, "When this
exists so this will be," would not be acceptable.

As a first step, I shall lay out an argument based on a


straightforward reading of this verse. This will turn out not to be
the argument Garfield attributes to Nagarjuna, but it is instructive
that we begin there.

Verse 10 seems to be saying straightforwardly that causation


exists or is accepted only because existing things lack an essence.
It also seems reasonable to assume that to "lack an essence" is
notto be an independently existing substance, not to have an
identifiable self-nature or essence. And so, to "lack an essence or
self-nature" is to be sunya. Moreover, it is apparent that the verse
is referring to phenomenal things, the things of our ordinary
experience, for Garfield takes Nagarjuna to hold that all there can
be are phenomenal things. If we accept all this, the view that
everything that exists is sOnya is already implicit in this first
chapter. Therefore, verse 10 provides us with the premise that

(a) Causation exists only because the things in the phenomenal


world lack an essence (or are not independent substances).

As for the other key premise, recall that the causal realist's main
objection to the regularity theory is that it is completely
inexplicable how an effect follows from or is causally dependent
on certain conditions, if the effect is neither present in some form
in the conditions nor necessarily connected to the conditions. But,
Garfield contends that this objection (as well as the causal-power
theory) presupposes that both the conditions and the effect are not
sunya, that they must have an essence. That is to say, according to
Garfield , Nagarjuna responds "by drawing attention to the
connection between a causal power view of causation and an
essentialist view of phenomena." In other words, "if one views
phenomena as having and as emerging from causal powers, one
views them as having essences and as being connected to the
essences of other phenomena."5 But now, the causal realist has a
problem, because verse 10, the premise (a), denies precisely what
the causal realist is insisting on. It denies the presupposition that
causation is a relationship between independent substances with
essential natures. Premise (a) claims that there can be no causal
relationship, substantive or not, between things that are not sunya.
Therefore, Garfield contends, Nagarjuna is arguing that

[causal realism] is ultimately incoherent since it forces one at


the same time to assert the inherent existence of these things, in
virtue of their essential identity, and to assert their dependence
and productive character, in virtue of their causal history and
power. But such dependence and relational character, [Nagarjuna]
suggests, is incompatible with their inherent existence.6

Consequently, the objection to holding a regularity theory of


pratityasamutpada fails, since it is precisely because there is no
such reality to things-and hence no entities to serve as the bearers
of the causal powers the realist wants to posit-that the Buddhist
formula expressing the truth of dependent arising can be asserted.
It could not be asserted if in fact there were [such] real entities.
For if they were real in the sense important for the realist, they
would be independent. So if the formula were interpreted in this
context as pointing to any causal power, it would be false. It can
only be interpreted, it would follow, as a formula expressing the
regularity of nature.7

The problem with this rejoinder to the causal realist is that


premise (a) is both false and not what Nagarjuna would hold. In
fact, he would hold, with the causal realist, the exact opposite: to
see the things in the phenomenal world as causally dependent or
dependently arising is to see them as things with an essence.
Moreover, Garfield admits as much when he acknowledges that in
the phenomenal world of dependently arising things, in the realm
of samy 'rti satya (empirical truth and knowledge), "we typically
perceive and conceive of external phenomena, ourselves, causal
powers, moral truths, and so forth as independently existing,
intrinsically identifiable and substantial." It seems, then, that
Nagarjuna would hold, quite correctly and contrary to premise (a),
that what we experience as dependently arising are identifiable
things, independent substances, or things with an essence. After
all, these ordinary substances of our experience are not
Spinozaistic self-caused substances.

But I have knowingly misrepresented Garfield 's analysis of


Nagarjuna's rejoinder, because further examination reveals that

premise (a) is not how Garfield wants to interpret verse 10.


Premise (a) presents the verse as talking about phenomenal
objects as phenomenal objects (as the things that we experience
and describe), and as making the false claim (false from the
standpoint of samvrti satya) that such objects are without essence.
Garfield , however, must be reading the verse as talking about
phenomenal objects from the ultimate point of view. It is as an
ultimate truth (paramartha satya) that these phenomenal objects
are "without essence." But by "without essence" Garfield does not
mean what we normally mean by that phrase. What it means for
Garfield is that the objects that we perceive as identifiable and
substantial things are not things in themselves. Garfield is
peculiarly using the term "without essence" to refer to the mode
of existence of an object, and not to the nature of the object. This
is indicated by the fact that he alternates between "with essence"
and "inherently exists" or "without essence" and "to lack inherent
existence."

Most important of all, if nothing in the phenomenal world


inherently exists, if there are no things in themselves, this must
mean that everything exists as a matter of convention. And it is
this that Garfield takes to be the important meaning of "all is
sunya." For Garfield , the essential meaning of sunyata, what it
means to say of phenomenal objects that they are sunya, is that
independent of our experience, outside our conceptual and
linguistic framework, these things are nothing. They simply do
not exist. Basically, to be a "conventional object" is to be lacking
in "inherent existence." It is to be sunya. The essence of
Nagarjuna's philosophy, as Garfield stresses, is the "dual thesis of
the conventional reality of phenomena together with their lack of
inherent existence."9 Therefore, it is important to keep in mind
that, according to Garfield , what Nagarjuna means by saying of a

thing that it is sOnya is not that that thing lacks an essence or selfnature, but that it possess that essence or self-nature by virtue of
conventions.

Clearly to affirm the "conventional reality of phenomena" is to


reject metaphysical realism and to endorse anti-realism. We can
assume that by characterizing our designations and descriptions of
objects as "conventional," Garfield means to reject the realist
tenet that there is only one true theory or description of reality.
And to claim that no existent exists "from its own side,"
independent of the knower, is to oppose the tenet that reality is
mind-independent.10 It is to deny the theory that there are thingsin-themselves, to deny that metaphysical realism makes any
sense.

With this clarification in hand, we can finally see how Garfield


interprets verse 10. He understands it to be asserting that

(b) Causation exists only because phenomenal things (the


things we experience) exist by convention and are not things in
themselves.

We now realize-with (b) replacing (a)-that what Garfield means


"by drawing attention to the connection between a causal power
view of causation and an essentialist view of phenomena" is
exposing the fact that the causal realist is looking for an objective,
"inherently existing" causal connection or force between things
that "inherently exist," that is, things-in-themselves. Therefore,
Garfield conceives of the argument as follows:

1 .The causal realist maintains that causation exists only if there


is some independent causal power or causal connection (a third
thing) between the causal conditions and the effect.
2. And they assume that such forces and connections only exist
in and between things that exist in themselves (i.e., things that
exist inherently).
3. But, according to (b), this assumption is false and the
contrary is true.
4. Therefore, causation can only be the regularity of "when this
exists, that will exist," that is, prarityasamutpida.

This is a better argument, but still not persuasive. Even if we


accept the heart of the argument, step 3, this does not answer the
causal realist's challenge in step 1. Whether the things we
experience are things in themselves or are merely conventional, it
still seems legitimate to ask how causation is possible. The causal
realist is asking for an explanation of why we would take one
thing to be the cause of another, why anything should be regarded
as a causal condition. Whether causal powers or necessary
connections (or anything, for that matter) exist in themselves is a
separate issue from whether it is legitimate to conceive of
causality without conceiving of causal powers or necessary
connections. In other words, the conclusion simply does not
follow.

Moreover, (b) is problematic. While it is evident that (a) is wrong


in denying that the phenomenal objects we experience are
causally dependent, it is not clear what to make of U's claim that

causation cannot apply to things-in-themselves. It would seem


obvious that if it is legitimate to conceive of phenomenal objects
as causally dependent, it would be equally legitimate to ascribe
causation to objects that exist outside our experience, if there are
such objects.

Furthermore, from the argument above, Garfield obviously thinks


that (b) implies that pratityasamutpada is empty, that it is just a
conventional and useful (and thus optional?) way of treating and
conceiving of things in the phenomenal world. At the end of his
analysis of chapter 1, as a way of summing up, Garfield states:

Mo assert the emptiness of causation is to accept the utility of our


causal discourse and explanatory practices, but [is] to resist the
temptation to see these as grounded in reference to causal powers
or as demanding such grounding.11

I will argue in the last section that this is close to what Nagarjuna
eventually recommends, but to "accept the utility of our causal
discourse and explanatory practices" does not necessarily mean
that causation is empty or a matter of convention. Moreover, once
again, why would it not be just as useful to apply causation to
things-in-themselves? Finally, if the important purpose of chapter
1 is to defend the emptiness of causation, it is odd that the term is
never mentioned. How could Nagarjuna expect the reader to
know that "without essence" is a synonym for sunyata and, more
important, that it is to mean "to exist as a convention?" In fact, I
believe that it is not his concern in chapter 1 to defend a regularity
theory of prati-- tyasamutpada, empty or not, against the theories
of a causal realist.

To find a different interpretation of the point of chapter 1 that


does not have the problems of Garfield 's, we must again
reexamine verse 10. In a footnote, Garfield points out the
interesting fact that his translation of this verse is in the minority,
and he mentions that a number of prominent translations (by
Inada, Streng, Sprung, and Kalupahana) are "diametrically
opposed" to his.12 He cites, as an example (without giving the
source), the following translation:

Since things exist without essence the assertion "When this


exists, this will be" is not acceptable.

We see that this is indeed diametrically opposed to Garfield 's:

If things did not exist without essence, the phrase, "When this
exists so this will be," would not be acceptable.

We have seen that what Garfield 's version asserts is:

There is no dependent arising (any causation) unless things


(that we experience) exist by convention.

Or, equivalently:

There is no dependent arising (any causation) between thingsin-themselves.

But, if we follow Garfield in taking "exist without essence" to


mean "conventional existence," the other version asserts, on the
contrary, that

There is no dependent arising because things only exist by


convention. And this implies that
There is no dependent arising unless there are things that exist
in themselves.

Clearly, while Garfield 's version is a statement of Nagarjuna's


position, the other versions must be a statement of the causal
realist's position (in light of Garfield 's "conventionalist"
interpretation of sunyata). The latter would mean that verse 10
initiates the causal realist's attack on Nagarjuna that goes on to the
end of the chapter, whereas Garfield has argued that 10 is the
heart of Nagarjuna's response to the attack, a response that is
summarized in verse 14, the last verse of the chapter.13 Why are
there such discrepancies between translations and interpretations?

Commentators have long realized that it is impossible to give a


coherent reading of chapter 1, or any difficult text, without
making some assumptions. Garfield 's reading is governed by the
assumption that Nagarjuna had more in mind than just defending
a regularity view of causation against the causal realist. What he
sought to show in chapter 1, as his central purpose, is the

emptiness of causation. Furthermore, Garfield maintains, "by


showing the emptiness of causation itself, we understand the
nature of emptiness itself ... [and] by showing causation to be
empty we show all things to be empty, even emptiness itself."14
By the "emptiness of causation" he means, of course, that it has
only a conventional reality, that it is something we introduce as a
way of conceiving of the world. Therefore, the significance of
showing that causation is empty at the very beginning is to
establish what emptiness means, and this is a large step toward
eventually arriving at his major philosophical thesis, the
conventional reality of all things. It is based on this assumption
that Garfield interprets verse 10 as he does, and this is the reason
he takes "inherent existence" and "to exist with an essence" to
mean "exist as a thing-in-itself independent of all conventions."

All this is assumed because there is no explicit textual evidence in


the chapter, so the only justification or proof that this is
Nagarjuna's real purpose is that it gives a coherent interpretation
of the text. This is a bit question-begging, but I doubt if any
commentator can avoid this with respect to a difficult, if not
obscure text. The problems I have with Garfield 's interpretation,
however, are that it portrays Nagarjuna as making a very weak
and problematic argument, and that it demands reading a great
deal into the text. It is only much later in the text that the terms
sunya and sunyata appear and only then that Nagarjuna talks
about everything being sunya. It is taking a great deal of liberty to
read "without essence" as "sunya" and to take the latter to mean
"exists by convention."

On the other hand, the opposing translation of verse 10 gives us a


simpler and cleaner reading of the text. That verse is just an

introduction to the realist's objections to the regularity theory in


verses 11 to 13, and the last verse, 14, concludes that both
approaches, the realist and the regularity, have their problems and
are thus unsatisfactory. But I think that there is more going on
than just giving two sides of a debate. Why would Nagarjuna
begin his important treatise with such a weak and inconsequential
chapter? Garfield 's interpretation at least has the merit of giving
significance to the chapter.

Since I have been arguing that verse 10 is the key to


understanding chapter 1, there is one last version I want to
examine and see where it leads, David Kalupahana's translation:

Since the existence of existents devoid of self-nature is not


evident, the statement: "When that exists, this comes to be," will
not be appropriate.15

Kalupahana routinely takes "not evident" (na vidyate) to have the


epistemological meaning of "not found in our experience," and
uses the words "existence" and "to exist" in the realist sense of
"existing in itself." So, the first half of the verse says, "our
experience does not reveal that there really are (or 'exists in itself')
'existents devoid of self nature."' And if we again follow Garfield
in taking "existents devoid of self-nature (i.e., essence)" as
referring to "things that exist by convention" or "conventional
objects," we can construe Kalupahana's version as asserting
essentially the same thing as the one Garfield cites in that
footnote. It is asserting that

Causation is not possible (nothing dependently arises), because


there is nothing in our experience of these conventional objects to
reveal or prove that they exist in themselves.

And this again implies that

There is no dependent arising unless there are things that exist


in themselves.

But there is an alternative and simpler reading that is faithful to


Kalupahana's use of all the relevant terms. He takes "without
essence or self-nature (svabhava)" to mean exactly what it says:
that the things referred to lack an essence or self-nature. Because I
prefer Kalupahana's translation and agree with his use of these
important terms, "without essence," "to exist," and "evident," I
contend that what verse 10 is asserting is:

(c) Causation is not possible, because (or if) there is nothing in


our experience that reveals or proves the existence of things that
lack an essence or self-nature.

What is Nagarjuna talking about? These things that lack an


essence or self- nature are certainly not the ordinary things that
we experience-not phenomenal objects-for I agree with Garfield
that Nagarjuna regards the things we experience as things
identifiable by their essences. In order to answer this question and
to see what is really going on in chapter 1, I must assume
something that is seemingly innocuous, but certainly safe, for it is

backed by independent and historical evidence. I will assume that


the background and motivation for this chapter was a concern
with the philosophical debate within Buddhism over the
metaphysical doctrine of dharmas. This was the theory that
imperceptible elements underlie our experiential world of
phenomena, and it is these elements that are ultimately real, that
ultimately exist. And I will assume that chapter 1 is discussing the
problem of causation with respect to dharma-like entities and not
phenomenal objects. Consequently, the term "things that exist" or
"existents" appearing in this verse and elsewhere in the chapter
refers to theoretical, metaphysical entities like dharmas.

The main antagonists were two schools of Buddhist realism. One


was the Sautrantika School , which held that these elements, these
"existents," are "durationless," existing not even for one moment
of measurable time-the theory of "momentariness" (ksanika-vida).
Thus, a dharma must be without a permanent essence, for the
elements themselves are not permanent. The other is the school
that Kalupahana calls "one of the most explicit and unqualified
essentialist views ever to appear in the Buddhist philosophical
tradition," the Sarvastivada School.16 The Sarvastivadins
criticized the Sautrantikas for their inability to make sense out of
the formula of pratityasamutpada, for reducing causation to the
mere succession of durationless events. In order to solve the
problem that the Sautrantikas could not solve, these essentialist
philosophers developed a sophisticated theory of the "selfnature"
(svabhava) of dharmas. So, each dharma possesses an
unchanging, inherent essence, the ground for the changes that one
observes in the phenomenal world.

The criticisms of the causal-power theory would certainly apply


to Sarvastivada realism, to their efforts to devise a theory of
pratityasamutpada that is based on the presumption that dharmas
possess a self-nature or essence. But Nagarjuna is attacking all
realist views of causation that are based on the assumption that
there are things in themselves or substances with a self-nature
(svabhava) that underlies phenomena. In the second half of the
chapter, beginning with verse 10, Nagarjuna is not just returning
the favor for the Sarvastivadins and giving their criticisms of
these nonessentialist rivals. Neither verse 10 nor any other verse
in the chapter contains what we would expect to be an
essentialist's criticism. The problem the Sarvastivadins have with
applying pratityasamutpada to durationless and essenceless
dharmas is that it does not work. The criticism of verse 10, in
Kalupahana's translation, is a Nagarjuna-like criticism that it does
not make sense to talk about the dependent arising of entities
whose existence is not evident In other words, there is no
empirical evidence for the existence of essenceless elements, for
all that experience reveals are things identified by their essence.17
Finally, the last verse, 14, is not just concluding that both realist
views are unacceptable theories of causation. The gist of that
verse is that neither can explain the fact of pratityasamutpada. In
Kalupahana's translation, the verse says:

An effect made either of conditions or of non-conditions is,


therefore, not evident. Because of the absence of the effect, where
could conditions or non-conditions be evident?

Nagarjuna conceives of these rival Buddhist schools, the


Sarvastivada and the Sautrantika, as representing, respectively,
the identity and nonidentity approaches to the explanation of

causation. He claims to have shown that these theories would


actually make it impossible to accept what is so evident to our
experience, the fact of dependent arising. In different ways they
would both bring into question or render problematic any attempt
to cite certain conditions as the causes of an existing effect, when
these very things are facts of common experience. Thus,
Nagarjuna warns, "if there are no such effects [due to the failure
of the realist to explain how causation is supposed to work
according to their theories], how could conditions or
nonconditions be evident." It is his contention, in short, that
Buddhist realism (or any realist approach to causation) will run
aground in its efforts to explain causation on a metaphysical level.

Nagarjuna, in this first chapter, rather than defending a particular


theory of pratityasamutpada, is trying to convince the reader of
the futility of speculating about the real nature of causation, with
the implication that we should renounce any philosophical theory
of causation. I will show in the next section that this includes the
anti-realism or "conventionalist theory of pratityasamutpada" that
Garfield attributes to Nagarjuna.

In addition to preparing the ground for similar demonstrations of


the futility of abstract, theoretical speculation and debate over
various philosophical topics taken up in succeeding chapters, the
further importance of chapter 1 is that it points the way to his
positive position on causation and other basic categories of human
experience. We shall see that the notion of pratityasamutpada is
far richer than the ordinary notion of causation. Most important of
all, we shall see that to understand this notion and its implications
fully is to understand Nagarjuna's philosophical orientation. And

finally, we shall have the answer to how the true doctrine of


pratityasamutpada enables us to relinquish all views.

Pratityasamutpada and Sunyata

We are used to dealing with all kinds of causal questions, such as,
for example, "Why do you think that a short in the electrical
system caused the fire?" or "What brought on his nervous
breakdown?" The answer we give to any causal question clearly
depends on our knowledge of the particular facts of the situation
and our general knowledge of such things as electrical systems
and the symptoms and causes of a nervous breakdown. I would
think that there are many of us who have no idea how to answer
one or the other or both of these questions. Anyone who lacks the
basic conceptual or theoretical understanding of a phenomenon
would not know what to look for or even where to begin.
Nevertheless, as a result of past experience, we are certain that
there must be, in each situation, some actual set of conditions that
best explains
the existence of any
phenomenon.
Pratityasamutpada can be taken, on the simplest, most
rudimentary level, to refer to this universally accepted practice
and belief that everything has a cause, that every phenomenon is
dependently arisen. We might call this the scientific principle of
pratityasamutpada.

Philosophers, of course, have no interest in such mundane


"factual" problems as the particular cause of someone's mental
condition. Their concern is with serious questions about the
foundations of things, believing that we cannot take even the most
familiar of things for granted or at their face value. In this case,

they would be concerned with the very idea of causation or cause


and effect, with the general philosophical question of "what
makes anything the cause of something." They would worry about
the possibility that there is really no such thing as a cause-and
effect relationship, no objective fact of the matter behind our
causal discourse.

Gautama, the Buddha, chose to remain silent on this and all


philosophical questions, to take no side in any dispute. There has
been a great deal of speculation about whether his silence
represents being skeptical or being disinterested, or something
more esoteric. Nagarjuna, on the other hand, goes much further in
urging that no one should hold any views on these matters. He
claims that the Buddha has taught the tattva, the true doctrine, or,
more literally, "the exact or real nature of the case" in order that
we may relinquish all views (drsti). So, is Nagarjuna, the
philosopher, telling us that we do not have to philosophize? Is he,
like Wittgenstein, telling us that there is a cure for the disease?

To answer these and other questions, we need to have a deeper


understanding of this true doctrine of pratityasamutpada, this
doctrine that teaches that everything is dependently arisen. What
is being taught, I contend, is a two-sided principle, the first side of
which is this scientific and regulative principle that literally every
phenomenon is dependently arisen. This pertains not just to the
objects of our world, physical things or material form, but to any
of our experiences in the broadest sense of that word. It holds
importantly to all our ideas and beliefs of our world, even if an
idea or belief does not seem to be experientially derived-for
example, the beliefs that the world is eternal or not eternal,
created or not created, that there is an indestructible self, and so

on. This seems to be what Nagarjuna intimates in 4:7: "The


method of treatment of all existents such as feeling, thought,
perception, and dispositions is in every way similar to that of
material form."

I imagine that a crucial implication of the principle is that there


are no transcendental categories of experience in the Kantian
sense of innate ideas, with the possible exception of
pratityasamutpada itself. But even in this case, as we shall see,
Nagarjuna makes no distinction between empirically contingent
ideas and rational, necessary ideas. And there are no ideas or
beliefs inherent in the nature of the mind or in the way we think,
no matter how abstract or universal. Whatever idea or belief we
possess must have a causal explanation in a set of conditions that
may include the circumstances and content of our experience, the
background of ideas and beliefs, whatever biases we may have,
and other psychological factors.

We would not have the rudimentary notion of cause and effect, for
example, unless we experienced not only the regularity with
which sequences of events occur but also the particular kinds of
effects associated with particular kinds of things. We experience
the heat or burning of fire, the sounds of animals, the breaking of
glass by hard objects, and so forth. Our conception of causation,
in terms of its origin, is connected not only to temporal succession
but also to the observable properties of various kinds of objects
and of our ideas of the nature of these objects and properties. The
crucial implication of the contingent origin of our ideas and
beliefs about causation is that the very meaning of the term,
indeed of any term, is constituted by its place in a web of other
concepts and beliefs.

This is the semantic side of the doctrine of pratityasamutpada, the


doctrine of the mutual dependency of concepts and beliefs in both
the systematic and historically contingent sense.18 But this is not
just a coherence or holistic view of meaning. It is, more
appropriately, a kind of pragmatic understanding of meaning. To
"possess" an idea or to understand a term is to have the ability to
use that term appropriately. It is to know how to navigate within
an intellectual sea of ideas and beliefs. To ask for the "meaning"
of a term is to ask for instructions about what to do with that term,
for example what kinds of objects or features the term should be
used to refer to, or on what occasions or circumstances that term
should be used and how it should be used on those occasions.
Giving a synonym or dictionary definition for a term is also
appropriate, but these are either compact sets of instructions or
mediates between the definiendum and its "meaning," that is, the
knowledge of how to use that term. Meaning, then, can change
and vary from time to time, place to place, and person to person.
It is a dynamic theory of meaning.

I take Nagarjuna to be opposing the idea that there is something


called the "meaning" of a term, something denoted by that term
without variation through time. According to this kind of
denotative or essentialist theory, the "meaning" of a term serves as
a criterion or model, for it purports to represent the nature or
essence of the things to which the term applies. This is not to say
that for the contextual and functional theory of Nagarjuna there
cannot be definitive criteria for some terms. But the criterion, in
this case, must consist of an open-ended set of beliefs about the
character and behavior of the objects that fall under the term, and

it is a matter of historical consensus as to what belongs to that set.


However, essentialist theories of meaning can be very seductive.

For example, when thoughtful people reflect on their experience


with causality, that is, reflect on the extensive record of the
successful use of that idea in their intellectual and practical lives,
there arises the desire to understand more deeply why everything
has a cause. We become obsessed with the question "What is
cause and effect?" Or "What is the real meaning of one thing
causing another?" It is the desire to understand what the term
"causation" really stands for or represents by itself. It is thus that
we become captives of an essentialist or denotative view of
meaning. We want to know the essential nature (svabhava) of
causation, the "thing" denoted by that term.

The term drsti (view) is used to refer to the answer we give to this
kind of question, and it is understood that the answer, the view
given, must be rationally compelling, either logically
demonstrable or self-evident. This is because, according to the
essentialist view of meaning, the relationship between a term and
its designatum must be necessary and eternal. Nagarjuna realizes
that no drs.ti can satisfy this condition, but it remains an obsession
nevertheless. Frederick Streng has it right when he explicates drsti
as standing for "illusory mental effort-a view, or doctrine that
claims absolutely validity on the grounds that it asserts a selfevident truth."19 Streng could be talking about treating causation
as a necessary connection or causal powers when he remarks on
the "inappropriateness of our acting as if we could discern a selfevident reality either in the conditioned 'thing' or in some
identifiable 'element' of our experience (like 'origination,'
'duration,' or 'cessation')." The problem, he notes, is that "[b]y

seizing on one aspect and making decisions ... on the assumption


that it is an ultimate (self-existent) reality, human beings mistake
their judgments for the nature of existence."20

The problem with this powerful psychological tendency to engage


in speculative metaphysics, this need to discover the nature of the
thing itself, is eloquently and poignantly voiced by Kant in the
very first sentence of the first preface to his Critique of Pure
Reason:

Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its
knowledge it is burdened by questions which, prescribed by the
very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as
transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.21

Nagarjuna understood this natural desire of the human mind to be


contingent (dependently arisen) and not inherent in the nature of
reason as Kant thought. This desire to possess an absolute
understanding of the basic contours of experience creates the
obsessive delusion of thinking that we are dealing with an
existing substance (svabhava) when what we really have is a
construction of our minds. The philosopher's idea of causation as
a "power" or a "necessary connection between events" is related
to, but distinct from, our ordinary notion of causation or cause and
effect. All we can say, when pressed for a definition, is that "cause
and effect" just means "cause and effect." It is just the knowledge
that "when this exists, that exists." The former, the philosophical
idea or belief in causation as a power or existent connection,
Nagarjuna contends, is a samkalpa ("mental fabrication") and a
prapanca ("obsession" according to Kalupahana and "phenomenal

extension" according to Streng). Calling it samkalpa indicates that


there is no empirical support, nothing in our experience even to
suggest anything like a "causal power." Calling it prapanca
locates the source of the idea in our desire to "go beyond" the
ordinary use of the term, to leave the "home" of the notion in the
experiential world, to forget that its real meaning is its function.
We are driven by the obsessive desire to grasp the objective
reality or real designatum of an idea; but in effect, as Streng again
puts it, we have mistaken our "[illusory] judgment for the nature
of existence."

It is in this context that Nagarjuna invokes the notions of sOnya


and sunyata. He seems at times to be using the idea of
"emptiness" as a tool to free us from a picture that has held us
captive (to borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein), to release us from
the entrapment of a deviant and perverse theory of meaning. He
declares that "the Victorious ones have announced that emptiness
is the relinquishing of all views," but warns that "those who are
possessed of the view [drsti] of emptiness are said to be
incorrigible." He fully expected his remarks about sunya and
sunyata to be misinterpreted as expressing a metaphysical view of
reality, as playing their metaphysical language game. To those
individuals who are so enamored by the game he admonishes,
"you do not comprehend the purpose of emptiness. As such, you
are tormented by emptiness and the meaning of emptiness."22 To
ask if he is an absolutist, nihilist, or conventionalist is to assume
wrongly that he is holding a view concerning what is real with his
talk about sunyata.

On the contrary, he is not engaged in metaphysical theorizing or


speculation, but is urging a disengagement from this way of

thinking. He is trying to release us from being held captive by a


"picture of reality" for which our language must assume a large
burden of responsibility. For example, the claim that "the nature
of women makes them different from men" makes perfectly good
sense in ordinary discourse when we take it to mean "there is (are)
something(s) about women that makes) them different from men,
that is, some observable features) of women." And we can
continue the conversation by pointing out what these might be.
Unfortunately, it has also been taken to mean that "the essential
self-existent nature of all women is what causes there to be the
differences we observe in women and men." Nagarjuna would
confront us with the illusion expressed in this last statement by
asserting that the subject of the statement is empty. Ascribing a
nature to all women, moreover, tells us nothing about what
differentiates men from women, so there is no natural way to
continue the conversation. Another example is "the power of X to
cause Y," leading a person into thinking that we are talking about
something that X has rather than about what X does or what X has
the ability to do.

Nagarjuna declares that these unobservable metaphysical entities,


these mental constructions, are nonexistent by asserting that the
world we experience is devoid of such entities. All this is empty.
Therefore, nothing we say about the nonexistent, sunyata, makes
any sense, and worse, may lead to "defilements of action" or
misguided courses of action. So, Nagarjuna says, "[w]hen he is
empty of self-nature, the thought that the Buddha exists or does
not exist after death is not appropriate" (22:14). And,
"[d]efilements of action belong to one who discriminates, and
these in turn result from obsession. Obsession in its turn, ceases
within the context of emptiness" (18:5).

It is not difficult to see that that "all this is sunya" declares that we
should relinquish the view of metaphysical realism. We should
resist being tempted by the view that what we experience and
believe about our world are mere representations that may or may
not correspond to (or be "made true by") the real existents, the
"inherent existents," that exist independent of and beyond our
experience. The danger of operating from this view, Nagarjuna
advises, is that "If you perceive the existence of all things in terms
of their [inherent] essence, then this perception of all things will
be without the perception of causes and conditions" (24:16). The
consequence of seeking for the real, independent essence of
things, of thinking that we only experience the appearance of
what really exists, is to overlook or confine to the background the
causal and semantic relationships that are actually at work in
giving us the world that we have, all that should count as real.

We should not forget that Nagarjuna declared that "sunyata is the


relinquishing of all views." Therefore, he would not endorse any
side in the realist-anti-realist debate. He would not hold the
opposing view that the objective world is a vacuous notion, that
"what there is" is determined by the conventions of our language.
Jay Garfield exemplifies this kind of interpretation when he has
Nagarjuna maintaining that, on the level of ordinary, conventional
knowledge and truth (samvrti satya),

Conventional phenomena are typically represented as inherently


existent. We typically perceive of external phenomena, ourselves,
causal powers, moral truths, and so forth as independently

existing, intrinsically identifiable and substantial.... Mo see them


this way is precisely not to see them as conventional.23

But on the level of ultimate truth, absolute knowledge (paramatha


satya), what we experience as real entities and processes are, in
truth, conventional existents. "Emptiness" has more than a
negative meaning in the rejection of metaphysical realism. For
Garfield , it has the positive meaning of pointing to "the fact that
conventional dependent phenomena are conventional and
dependent... [and] it is simply the only way in which anything can
exist." He takes the statement in 24:18, "that [the dependent
arising], being a dependent designation is itself the middle way,"
to mean, "existence depends on designation" or verbal
convention. And most important of all, Garfield contends that
"our conventions and our conceptual framework can never be
justified by demonstrating their correspondence to an independent
reality.... [Therefore, Nagarjuna] suggests, what counts as real
depends precisely on our conventions." Garfield 's articulation of
this anti-realist view of Nagarjuna verges at times on nihilism. For
example, he says, in reference to ordinary things, "their ultimate
nonexistence and their conventional existence are the same
thing." But, for Nagarjuna, "a wise person does not say 'exists' or
'does not exist."'

The true doctrine of pratityasamutpada, as a two-sided semantic


and causal principle, frees us from the extremes of realism and
anti-realism, absolutism and nihilism. Richard Rorty is talking
about the bankruptcy of the extremes of realism and anti-realism,
when he says:

"Determinacy" is not what is in question-that neither does thought


determine reality nor, in the sense intended by the realist, does
reality determine thought. More precisely, it is no truer that
"atoms are what they are because we use 'atom' as we do" than
that "we use 'atom' as we do because atoms are as they are." Both
of these claims ... are entirely empty. Both are pseudoexplanations.24

The truth, Rorty explains (and this is the causal side of the
doctrine of pratityasamutpada), is that

our language, like our bodies, has been shaped by the


environment we live in. Indeed, he or she insists on this point-the
point that our minds or our language could not (as the
representationalist skeptic fears) be "out of touch with reality" any
more than our bodies could.25

Nagarjuna would approve of Hilary Putnam's metaphorical


remark that "the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and
the world."26 That is to say, the existence of the world is just as
dependent on language as the language that we use is dependent
on the world. Or, as Nagarjuna asserts, "if characteristics do not
appear, then it is not tenable to posit the characterized object. If
the characterized object is not posited, there would be no
characteristics either" (5:4).

His contention in 24:18 that "whatever is dependently arisen, that


is explained to be emptiness," is simply the rejection of
metaphysical realism, by declaring that there is nothing but the

dependently arisen. And his further remark "that [the world as we


know it] is dependent on convention [and] that is itself the middle
way" is a warning against transgressing the boundaries of
ordinary discourse, the boundaries of our natural language, and
thus "losing the world."

We would be transgressing the bounds of actual discourse if we


worry about the correspondence of our designations to some
reality that stands unspecified, or if we take the opposite view that
reality is what we specify and that there are alternative,
unconstrained ways of conceiving of what is real. The implication
of pratityasamutpada is that our language, like anything else in the
world, is shaped by the environment we live in, and that our
language cannot be "out of touch with reality" any more than we
can be.

Human beings cannot live without ideals, without something to


strive for that gives their existence authenticity. Many have
searched for the ultimate meaning of their existence, some point
to the exigencies of their mundane life, in a reality that transcends
that life. Nagarjuna tries to discourage this kind of search by
assuring us that whatever truth and meaning there is to one's
existence can be and must be found within the confines of our
human world.

Nagarjuna asserts in 24:10: "Without relying upon convention, the


ultimate fruit [paramartha satya) is not taught. Without
understanding the ultimate fruit, freedom is not attained." As I
read this verse, the real distinction between samvrti satya
(ordinary, conventional truth) and paramartha satya is not an

ontological distinction, where the latter is the knowledge and truth


about ultimate reality. It is a distinction between ordinary
consciousness, which is fraught with the dangers of
misconceptions influenced by all kinds of desires (the desire for
certainty, for eternal existence, etc.), and an enlightened
consciousness purged of all the needs and fears that bring about
suffering. The teachings of pratityasamutpada and sunyata are
Nagarjuna's way to put us on the path to nirvana, to the nurturing
of an enlightened consciousness and a way of living. It is, for
Nagarjuna, the philosophical foundation of the middle way of
Buddhism.