Emptiness / Dependent origination

A clear explanation of Emptiness / Dependent origination by Dalai Lama

As I mentioned earlier, many texts on emptiness state that the understanding of dependent origination is the most powerful means of arriving at the knowledge of emptiness. When, as a result of engaging in deep meditation on emptiness, we fail to find the intrinsic reality of the object of our focus, we do not conclude from this that the object in question does not exist at all. Instead, we deduce that since our critical analysis has failed to find the true, independent existence of the object, its existence or reality must be understood only as dependent origination. Therefore, a genuine understanding of emptiness must really take place. The moment we reflect upon our understanding of the emptiness of inherent existence, that very understanding will indicate that things exist. it is almost as if when we hear the word ’emptiness’ we should instantly recognise its implication, which is that of existing by means of dependent origination. A genuine understanding of emptiness, therefore, is said to be that in which one understands emptiness in terms of dependent origination.

A similar point is raised by Nagarjuna in his Precious Garland, where he explains the emptiness or selflessness of ‘person’ by a process of reductive analysis. This involves exploring how the person is neither the earth element nor the water element, fire element and so on. When this reductive process fails to find something called ‘person’ that is independent of these various elements, and also fails to identify the person with any of these elements, Nagarjuna raises the question: where, then, is the person? He does not immediately conclude by saying, ‘Therefore “person” does not exist.’ Rather, he refers to the idea of dependent origination, stating that: ‘The person is therefore dependent upon the aggregation of the six elements.’ Thus he is not negating the fact that the ‘person’ does exist and is real and undergoes experiences of pain and pleasure.

From my own experience I know that I exist; I know that I have non-deluded experiences of pain and pleasure. Yet when I search for the entity called ‘self’ or ‘I’ among the various elements that together constitute my existence, I cannot find anything that appears to possess intrinsic, independent reality. This is why Nagarjuna concludes that we can understand a person’s existence only in terms of the principle of dependent origination.

At this point some people may raise the following objection: isn’t saying that all phenomena are devoid of inherent existence tantamount to saying that nothing exists? Nagarjuna’s response is to state that by ’emptiness’ we do not mean a mere nothingness; rather, by ’emptiness’ we mean dependent origination. In this way Nagarjuna’s teaching on emptiness transcends the extremes of absolutism and nihilism. By rejecting intrinsic, independent existence his view transcends absolutism; and by stating that things and events do exist, albeit as dependent originations, he transcends the extreme of nihilism. This transcendence of the two extremes of absolutism and nihilism represents the true Middle Way.

At this point it may be helpful to reflect a little on the different levels of meaning of the principle of dependent origination. On one level dependent origination refers to the nature of things and events as understood in terms of their dependence upon causes and conditions. On another level this dependence can be understood more in terms of mutual dependence. For example, there is a mutuality of concepts between, say, long and short, in which something is posited as ‘long’ in relation to something else that is ‘short’. Similarly, things and events have both parts and a whole; the whole is constituted of the parts, and the parts are posited in relation to the whole.

On another level still, the principle of dependent origination relates to the subject, which is the conceptual mind that creates designation, appellations, labels and so on. As we have briefly discussed before, when we give something a label or a name we generally tend to assume that the labelled object has some kind of true, independent existence. Yet when we search for the true existence or essence of the thing in question, we always fail to find it. Our conclusion, therefore, is that while things do exist on the conventional level, they do not possess ultimate, objective reality. Rather, their existence can only be posited as a mere appellation, designation or label. According to Nagarjuna, these three levels of meaning in the principle of dependent origination pervade our entire spectrum of reality.