The Meaning of Sunyata in Nagarjuna's Philosophy
© Thomas J. McFarlane 1995


In this essay I will discuss the meaning and import of sunyata (emptiness) as it is presented by K. Venkata Ramanan in Nagarjuna's Philosophy.[114] Ramanan's comprehensive exposition of the Madhyamika philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism is based primarily upon Nagarjuna's commentary on the Prajnaparamita-sutras. This commentary, the Maha- prajnaparamita-sastra, was lost in its original Sanskrit and survives only in Chinese and Tibetan translation.

Nagarjuna, who is regarded as the greatest Buddhist philosopher ever, founded Madhyamika philosophy, the philosophy of the Middle Way. At the heart of the Middle Way is the concept of sunyata, perhaps Nagarjuna's single most important contribution to Buddhist thought. The whole philosophy, in fact, can be viewed as different aspects of sunyata. As Ramanan says of his book, "the whole of the present work may be said to be an attempt to lay bare the different meanings of the central, the most basic concept, sunyata."[115] Thus, I will attempt to bring to light the meaning and import of sunyata through the following summary of Nagarjuna's Philosophy. For the purpose of clarity I have divided the following exposition into three parts: ignorance, criticism, and knowledge.


Motivated by compassion, the wise teach sunyata as a remedy for suffering. According to Madhyamika, the root of all suffering lies in the ignorance of clinging, the error of mistaking the relative for the absolute, the conditioned for the unconditioned. We take imagined separation as real, supposed division as given. By virtue of self- consciousness, we have an awareness of the unconditioned reflected in our conditioned nature, a sense of the real. But under ignorance we do not discriminate between the unconditioned and conditioned, causing us to confuse them and take the relative as absolute. "The error of misplaced absoluteness, the seizing of the determinate as itself ultimate, is the root-error."[116] Sunyata is the antithesis to this error, the antidote for suffering.

The most important instance of this error of misplaced absoluteness is with regard to our own selves: "The intellect, owing to the operation of ignorance, wrongly transfers its sense of unconditionedness which is its ultimate nature to itself in its mundane nature."[117] Thus, inherent existence is wrongly applied to the mind-body complex; we take our determinate, conditioned existence as unconditioned and self-existent. In this way there arises the false sense of "I" and the belief in an eternal soul as a particular entity. This error "makes the individual unrelated to the organic, dynamic course of personal life and deprives the latter of all significance."[118] For with the positing of an absolute "I" there is the necessary "not-I" to oppose it. The individual is then forever divided from and in conflict with the world. Since this separation is taken as absolute, their relation is inconceivable and there is no hope for reconciliation: we are bound to a life of continual conflict and frustration.

Following the pattern of this error which gives rise to the false sense of "I," the intellect then posits substantiality upon every object it finds. It distinguishes objects and invents distinct names for them, then takes the apparent difference it has created as a real given. "To seize the determinate is really to allow oneself to be misled by names; it is to imagine that different names mean separate essences; this is to turn relative distinctions into absolute divisions."[119] As a result, not only is the individual person in conflict with the world, but the world is now in conflict with itself. The parts, conceived as independent entities, are isolated from each other and the organic unity that relates them in harmony is lost.

To complete the fall, the intellect mistakes its own relative views and conceptual systems as unlimited and absolute, putting it at war with itself. For the dogmatic assertion of a single point of view necessarily excludes other views: the former as true is divided from the others as false and conflict results. Furthermore, every view, taken as exclusively true, ultimately ends in self-contradiction. Clinging to extremes, one is necessarily led to contradictions and dead ends. Then we either swing from extreme to extreme or reject the whole enterprise of thought altogether, subjecting ourselves to self-exile in a philosophical wasteland. But in both cases we are lead to our suffering by the same root-error.

The error of misplaced absoluteness which is the root of all ignorance and suffering takes two general forms: the error with regard to the mundane truth and with regard to the ultimate truth. The error with regard to the mundane truth is, as we have been discussing, to take the conditioned as unconditioned, to cling to the fragmentary as complete. This error results in (among other things) dogmatic views and the false sense of self. Sunyata, as a remedy for this error with respect to the mundane, teaches the relativity of all things, the dependent arising of determinate entities. As mundane truth, sunyata means that all things are empty of inherent existence.

But if one were to take this understanding of the emptiness of things as itself absolute, this again would be clinging: clinging to sunyata. This mistake is the error not with regard to the mundane nature of things but with regard to their ultimate nature. It is to take the conditionedness of the conditioned as itself unconditioned. But "this would mean an absolute division between the conditioned and the unconditioned, the divided and the undivided, the permanent and the impermanent, and in this case the undivided would not be the truly undivided, as it would be divided from the divided."[120] Thus one teaches the sunyata of sunyata: in the ultimate truth even sunyata is empty of absoluteness. Ultimately, even the division between the conditioned and the unconditioned is not absolute. Therefore we are not forever bound to our conditionedness because we, as conditioned entities, already are (in our ultimate nature) the unconditioned reality. In short, there is an end to ignorance and suffering.


Madhyamika philosophy is conceived in compassion, for its fundamental purpose is to liberate individuals from ignorance and suffering. Through criticism one discriminates between the real and the unreal, cancels the confusion of the relative with the absolute, and ends ignorance and suffering through recognition of sunyata as truth. The sense of the real is the basis for this cancellation. Just as the sense of the real leads to ignorance when misapplied, the sense of the real leads to knowledge when guided by criticism in light of sunyata. Without the sense of the real liberation would not be possible--but then neither would ignorance. Thus ignorance implies the possibility for liberation. "The truth that man is not confined to the level of the determinate, but has in him the possibility of rising above it, that he is the meeting point of. . .the conditioned and the unconditioned, is the basic import of the sense of the real in him."[121]

Criticism consists in first assuming as absolute the distinctions and claims upon which a particular extreme view is based. From this basis one draws the necessary logical conclusions which turn out to be false because of the falsity of the initial error. "The one way which Nagarjuna frequently adopted was of showing up the self-contradiction and absurdity to which the holders of exclusive views would lead themselves on their own grounds."[122] In this way, one is lead by the sheer force of logical truth to surrender the ignorance of the exclusive claim. By repeated application of this method, the relative is no longer mistaken for the absolute and the true sunya-nature of all of determinate existence is revealed. "It is the mission of the Madhyamika to reveal that the notion of the ultimacy and separateness of these basic elements is not only devoid of ground but is definitely contradicted by the very nature of things."[123] Sunyata, as emptiness, means that the conventional world is not, as we fancy to think, composed of substances inherently existing; in truth, these entities are devoid of inherent existence--they are empty.

It is important to point out that what is denied by such criticism is not the conditioned world itself but our clinging to it as absolute, our ignorance. Thus, it is not the views or determinate entities as such which are denied by sunyata but rather our clinging to them, our misconceptions with regard to them. Sunyata does not deny the conditioned, relative world; it only denies our mistaking it as absolute. "Words, concepts, are in themselves pure; what makes the difference is the way in which we use them."[124] Furthermore, the conditioned world does not vanish when its true sunya-nature is realized. Only our ignorance is destroyed.

As an example of the application of the critical method, let us consider the true nature of the self. Our first error, it is said, "is the imagination of absolute exclusiveness in regard to the 'I,' i.e., the entity that constitutes the object of the notion of 'I.' "[125] Now if I inherently exist, then there is an absolute division between that which is 'I' and that which is 'not-I.' There is then no dependence of one upon the other. Each is independent and self-existent. But without mutual dependence how can 'I' be in any way related to 'not-I,' how can I know or be aware of the world at all? If I exist inherently, I am absolutely isolated and divided from the world with no possibility of experiencing it or affecting it. This is obviously absurd.

By revealing the contradictions that arise in this way from taking the relative self as absolutely existent, we thus reveal the sunya-nature, the relative and conditioned nature, of the self. We have then arrived at the truth with respect to the conventional world: that all things (in this case, the self) are empty of inherent existence. However, having denied the inherent existence of the self, suppose we now cling to this denial as itself absolute. In other words, we assert inherent non-existence, we make emptiness or relativity itself an absolute. Now in this case there is an absolute division between the relative and the absolute, the divided and the undivided. But then the undivided is not truly the undivided for it is divided from the divided. This contradiction forces us to surrender our clinging to the conditionedness of the conditioned as itself absolute.

At this point in the criticism we thus come to recognize that emptiness, sunyata, is not the ultimate truth. While this conditionedness and relativity of the self is its true nature in the conventional world, it is not its ultimate nature. Ultimately, the self is empty even of its conditionedness and relativity: it is ultimately empty of emptiness (sunyata-sunyata, as it is called). And since the conditionedness of the conditioned is ultimately conditioned, since the distinction between the conditioned and the unconditioned is itself conditioned, the conditioned is ultimately identical to the unconditioned reality.

Since criticism has revealed contradictions in clinging to both inherent existence and inherent non-existence, in the end we can neither absolutely assert nor absolutely deny the existence of the self. We are left with the Middle Way, passing between the extremes. "This is the unerring sense of 'I,' which comes with mature self-consciousness in which there is not the clinging to the determinate self either as absolutely determinate and therefore totally different from the undivided being or as itself an eternal independent substance."[126] The method of criticism thus functions to cancel all exclusive claims to existence or truth, whether with respect to the mundane nature of things (taking the conditioned existence as unconditioned) or with respect to their ultimate nature (taking conditionedness of the conditioned as itself unconditioned).


"The understanding that is the consummating phase of criticism is appreciative of the unique nature and value of every specific standpoint, and yet is not confined to any one point of view."[127] The wise are thus said to have a comprehension of the truth which rises above exclusiveness and clinging. "Transcending all determinations it is yet not exclusive of anything determinate, and is therefore itself undeniable."[128] To the wise, particular views and conceptual systems are not extremes but alternatives. Thus even Madhyamika itself can not be put forward as an absolute truth, exclusive of others. As the teaching of non-clinging, the Middle Way is itself relative to the ignorance of clinging. Sunyata makes sense only in contrast with the error of misplaced absoluteness. The undeniable, ultimate truth is the unspeakable dharma.

Since the undivided reality is not ultimately divided from the divided, since the ultimate nature of the conditioned is itself the unconditioned, the wise do not forsake the world, clinging to nirvana as though it were other than samsara. Their compassion is a necessary consequence of their wisdom. Conversely, if we seek liberation and truth exclusively for ourselves, then the selfish motivation itself, as a form of ignorance, will prevent our attainment of the highest truth. Therefore the Bodhisattva vows from the very beginning to attain Nirvana for the sake of helping release others from their suffering. Compassion and wisdom are inseparable aspects of the highest comprehension of truth.


By way of summary, we may frame the philosophy of the Middle Way in the context of the Four Noble Truths.

The First Noble Truth: there is suffering, the world is impermanent. In our terms, this truth expresses the mundane truth that all things are empty of inherent existence, they are conditioned and relative. Because we cling to them as if they were permanent and substantial, suffering is the inevitable consequence.

The Second Noble Truth: there is a cause of suffering. The cause of suffering is clinging to the relative as absolute, the conditioned as unconditioned, the insubstantial as substantial. The ignorance of the true emptiness or sunya-nature of things, the confusion of the real and unreal, is the root error that leads to all suffering.

The Third Noble Truth: there is an end to suffering. Because even emptiness is empty, because relativity and conditionedness themselves are not absolute, suffering is not ultimate. While the mundane nature of the conditioned is conditionedness, yet in its ultimate nature, the conditioned is itself the undivided, unconditioned reality. While the ultimate reality is beyond the distinctions that hold in the world of the determinate, yet the ultimate reality is not wholly separate from the determinate, but is the real nature of the determinate itself. It is because we already are identical to the unconditioned reality that we can recognize this truth and become liberated from the imagination that we are otherwise, and thereby end our suffering.

The Fourth Noble Truth: there is a path that leads to the end of suffering. The Middle Way is the non-exclusive way that destroys the ignorance of clinging to the relative as absolute. Through the method of criticism, extreme views are shown to lead to contradictions which reveal the truth of sunyata with regard to all things. Ultimately, even sunyata or relativity itself is denied as absolute, revealing the unutterable unconditioned reality which is the ultimate nature of ourselves and all things.