44. It All Depends: Nagarjuna on Emptiness

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Nāgārjuna founds the Mādhyamaka (“middle way”) Buddhist tradition by “relinquishing all views” and arguing that everything is “empty.”



Further Reading

• K. Bhattacharya, E.H. Johnston and A. Kunst, The Dialectical Method of Nāgārjuna: Vigrahavyāvartanī (Delhi: 1986).

• S. Katsura and M. Siderits, Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way: Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā (Boston: 2013).


• J. Ganeri, “Rationality, Emptiness, and the Objective View,” in Philosophy in Classical India (London: 2001), ch. 2.

• C.W. Huntington, The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamaka (Honolulu: 1989).

• R. Robinson, “Did Nāgārjuna Really Refute All Philosophical Views?” Philosophy East and West 22 (1972), 325-31.

• D. Ruegg, “Does the Mādhyamika have a Thesis and Philosophical Position?” in B.K. Matilal and R.D.G. Evans (eds), Buddhist Logic and Epistemology: Studies in the Buddhist Analysis of Inference and Language (Dordrecht: 1982), 229-38.

• P. Sagal, “Nāgārjuna’s Paradox,” American Philosophical Quarterly 29 (1992), 79-85.

• J. Walser, Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture (New York: 2005).

• J. Westerhoff, Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka. A Philosophical Introduction (Oxford: 2009).

• J. Westerhoff, “On the Nihilist Interpretation of Madhyamaka,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 44 (2016), 337-76.


Tadija on 20 June 2017

Self and rebirth

Must say you've lost me @3 minute mark when you said that the Buddha concedes to there being  a self when he speaks about rebirth, but only as a concession to conventional modes of thinking.

Not only can not-self be squared in with rebirth, but rebirth is a central doctrine of Buddhism. If you deny Buddhism rebirth, the whole philosophy falls apart, and Buddha was cut and dry on the idea that a materialistic death is a wrong view.

Most Buddhists do not believe that the talk about karma and rebirth is something handwaved in to please the masses, that is just a popular trend among some western "Secular" Buddhists. See the millions of Pure Land practitioners whose practice rests upon the idea that at death, they will be reborn in the Western Paradise of Amitabha so that they can reach enlightenment promptly. 

In reply to by Tadija

Peter Adamson on 20 June 2017

Self and rebirth

Oh yes, I agree with you about that - perhaps I put it in a misleading way but I was trying to say that in the ancient texts, it sometimes sounds as if rebirth is being described in a way that presupposes an enduring self. So the point is that if the Buddha doesn't always hasten to add "and don't forget there is no enduring self" every time rebirth is mentioned, that is just a matter of audience. It is, I think, widely taken for granted (as you say) that rebirth is a core part of Buddhism, the only question is how to account for rebirth on the various theories of (no-)self that the various Buddhists adopt.

Luke on 8 November 2023

The Skandas

We are the skandas. There is no "I".

There are only the skandas and the stream. There is not even an observer observing it. We are the "observing". We are a process that is happening, not an identity.

And that is okay. The stream is beautiful. The skandas are beautiful.

The cells are skandas. Everything, every component of a person is a skanda.

Skandas are streaming patterns, with matter coming in and out. Memory coming and going. Life coming in and out.

And we are those patterns.

The river that is us, is in a river. Buddhism teaches leaving passion behind. Looking only to the river.

This is senseless, to me. The stream is passion, it is life. Life lives it doesn't not live.

And life is meant to flourish. Education is flourishing. It satisfies the human curiosity, helps solve grief, gives new things to be passionate about.

And education is no institution or academic field. It is every life experience being questioned and reflected upon. This is what fills the good books. Not pedantry and pointless philosophy. Life.

Brandon Freude… on 28 June 2024

The Persistence of the Pot

Hi Peter -

I was quite confused by Nagarjuna’s argument against the idea of origination in this episode.  The second possible case to explain the  origination of the pot is that the pot is fully originated by something else. How is the pot’s persistence after the death of the potter a refutation of this case? Doesn’t that just refute that the potter is a causal condition, while Nagarjuna’s goal was to uphold conditioned existence over persisting-after-originating existence?

In reply to by Brandon Freude…

Peter Adamson on 30 June 2024


Good question. This is quite a ways back so my memory may not be serving me well but I think the idea would be that even if the potter explains the initial production of the pot he would not explain the pot’s continued existence; so if you assume that that existence needs explanation then you need to find something else. Of course that assumption is doing all the work but is not so counterintuitive, like, why would a pot be the kind of thing that can continue existing on its own if it is the kind of thing that needed a cause to exist in the first place?

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Brandon Freude… on 1 July 2024

The Persistence of Peter Adamson

Okay, I think that makes some sense. Basically to assume the concept of origination kind of begs for some further concept of conditioned existence, unless you’re willing to accept persistence in time as a grounding assumption. Most philosophers and physicists certainly do but, there is maybe some strangeness to the idea. 

And I would like to thank whatever is the conditional cause of your persistence in answering questions on old episodes. I would say it’s your passion for bringing philosophy to the public, but then I would have to explain that, and an infinite regress might distract from my gratitude. 

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