Of Emptiness and Being: A Comparative Analysis of Parmenides and Naagaarjuna
The two philosophers Parmenides and Naagaarjuna both represent fundamental paradigm shifts that they are credited with setting in motion. While the Eleatic Dilemma of Parmenides quickly became the measuring stick for subsequent Greek philosophers and physicists, Naagaarjuna’s combination of a negative “tetralemma” in his dialectics with new insights on the nature and significance of emptiness were to leave an indelible imprint on the Buddhist world. His theories later helped establish what is today one of the main branches of Buddhism, the Mahaayaana. Although these two thinkers arose from different cultures, many of their basic tenets bear a striking similarity. In comparing and contrasting both systems of thought, it is hoped that a new clarity can be brought to how such significant contributions to the legacy of human thought are interpreted.
Initially, the first comparison that can be quickly drawn is that both thinkers are ancient. Problems also begin to rise when seeking to establish exact dates for either of their lives. The date of birth that can be inferred from Plato’s Parmenides is about 515 BC, while according to another source, that of Apollodorus, Parmenides was born about 515 BC (Philip 35). He was a native of Elea, a Greek city in southern Italy (Robinson 107). According to the account given by Diogenes Laertus, he was also of a good family and very wealthy. Based on the approximate time of his life it can be said that he was inevitably familiar with the Pythagorean doctrines of that time in the Greek world, and his later theories are sometimes thought to have been a response or refutation of certain Pythagorean concepts, though it can be said that his criticisms seemed to refute everyone in Greece equally (Philip 35). The only movement he could really be said to have founded was the gate of his refutation that the attempts of later thinkers sought to pass through, which they proceeded to do with rather mixed results. Even intellectual giants such as Plato and Aristotle struggled to address his ideas, and some later Western thinkers will attribute him the title of “the father of dialectics.”
In seeking to establish the estimated date of Naagaarjuna’s lifetime, there lacks the peer literature that is present in the case of Parmenides. Aid is provided by recent archaeological discoveries in South India, hinting at a time during the latter part of the second century and the early part of the third century AD (Kalupahana 160). He is understood by many scholars to have founded the Maadhyamika (Middle Doctrine) school of Buddhist philosophy, and is held in high esteem by at least two of the major Buddhist traditions of the world (McFarlane 1). The Tibetan and Mongolian traditions regard him as the founder of the most important philosophical systems of the Buddhism they practice, and the Ch’an and Zen traditions of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam regard him as one of the earliest of their patriarchs (Santina 1). A version of his Middle Doctrine school also later arose in China called the San Lun (Three Treatise) school, based on three translations of his works (De Bary 293). Different accounts exist both of Chinese and Tibetan origins as to the details of his life, although both perspectives share the idea that he grew up as a brahman (priestly caste), the highest and most privileged caste in the India of that time (Kalupahana 161).
So far, the comparison can be drawn between the two of a relatively prosperous background that perhaps enabled them the leisure time to explore the avenues of thought of which they are known for. However, modern readers are limited to whatever written accounts have escaped the ravages of time. In Parmenides’ case, his legacy comes down to us in limited fragments of his original works (Prologue, The Way of Truth, The Nature of What Is, The Way of Opinion, The World-Order, and Thought and Being), in addition to later references to him in both Plato’s Parmenides and Aristotle’s Metaphysics. The written records of Naagaarjuna, on the other hand, include a considerable corpus consisting of texts addressed to lay audiences, letters of advice to King Gautamïputra Saatakarni of Saatavaahana, and the set of treatises for which he is most known, the Muulamadhyamakakaarikaa, or Verses on the Fundamentals of the Middle Way, abbreviated hereafter as the “MMK” (Garfield 219). It suffices to say that enough remains of the original thoughts of both Parmenides and Naagaarjuna to ascertain the core of their respective theories, especially in regards to existence and nonexistence, and the definition of “Being.”
A starting ground for a comparison between the two thinkers entails understanding the cultural background that pervaded around them. In investigating cultural backgrounds, however, the distinct possibility of an attitude of determinism comes into play that should be avoided. Neither the legacies of the Ionian physicists nor the doctrines of the Pythagoreans totally determined Parmenides’ priorities or biases. Likewise, in the case of Naagaarjuna, neither brahmanic Vedaanta Hinduism nor the Buddhism of his day were determinants of his emerging philosophy.
For example, in the Greek world of Parmenides’ time, any deduction made begins with the dual assumption of existence and the earlier assumption by assorted Ionian physicists and Pythagoreans: that what exists has a soul (Taran 97). This assumption of active existence does indeed influence him, and at the same time gives him much to respond to or elaborate on. Although there have been minor scholarly debates about whether or not Parmenides sought to single out the Pythagoreans for attacking or disproving certain commonly held beliefs, the position remains questionable (Taran 99). The supposed conflict stems from the Pythagorean concept of how the “One” of existence was created. The Pythagorean genesis of the world was formed when this “One” inhaled or absorbed the surrounding void, which credited the void with quite a high honor (Burkert 77). It cannot be inferred, however, that the Pythagorean void which they considered to be air itself is defined specifically as “non-Being,” or that Parmenides interpreted the Pythagorean void in such a way. Ionian physicists are also seen as targets of Parmenides because their cosmological theories seemed to entail multiplicity of elements and an eternal ratio of dual, shifting energies. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he claimed early on in his Prologue that his works were meant for all “the opinions of mortals in which there is no true belief” (Robinson 109).
Naagaarjuna’s surrounding environment was composed of several schools of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, all of which he was certainly exposed to as the required education that was part of a brahmanical upbringing. Among these include a school of Hinduism known as Vedaanta, which focused on the Vedas, the ancient oral traditions of Hinduism. This was a mystical school in Naagaarjuna’s time whose basic concept of Being moved toward the transcendentalist perspective that Being was neither Being nor non-Being, a totally indescribable situation that is beyond both speculation and investigation (Kalupahana 6). Although the fact that such theories were basically acceptable in Naagaarjuna’s culture perhaps made it more possible for him to develop his later theories, another fact remains: that an overwhelming Buddhist influence pervaded his life. The Buddhists of his day, however, neither came to similar conclusions nor inferred similar meanings to the Buddha’s teachings as he later did by pioneering his Middle Doctrine. He was to change the face of Buddhism forever with his introduction of suunyataa (emptiness) as “Being”, to the extent that even his Maadhyamika followers were sometimes referred to as suunyavaadins, or “exponents of the doctrine of emptiness” (De Bary 293).
Middle Doctrine lies between the two theses that life “is” and “is not”: emptiness has neither Being nor non-Being, which would be considered extremes that stray from the Middle Way itself (Jaspers 115). However, the path that is walked is not of endless denial or negation. The “Ultimate Truth” is the eventual goal, only by gaining freedom from wiping out all views altogether, leaving no intellectual hindrances to pure existence (Jacobson 61). The emptiness that is espoused is in a Buddhist context, used as a technical term for “the lack of independent existence, inherent existence, or essence in things” (Garfield 219). To realize this emptiness is to gain freedom from suffering, and eventually to gain freedom from any notion of emptiness. In this way, at the very point that Naagaarjuna and Parmenides seem to contrast the most, in some ways they actually converge.
The “One Being” of Parmenides, though bearing striking similarities with Naagaarjuna’s suunyataa (emptiness), also provides for the most profound contrasts. Both thinkers have been described as skeptics, although what they are skeptical about seem at first glance to be polar opposites. Parmenides lays out guidelines and strict boundaries for possible views, while Naagaarjuna aims at wiping out all views as they arise. At the same time, both of them still share a fearless, vast, and all-devouring skepticism.
The most obvious mutual target for the skepticism of both Parmenides and Naagaarjuna is the world of appearance, or the sensory realm that humans easily perceive. This realm is understood by both to be an illusion, albeit a necessary one. While Parmenides’ attitude is that the material world around us should not be taken as a granted reality, merely a product of sensory perception, he does attach both truth and reality to what he feels is a realm of pure thought, or “Mind” (Phillips 546). This Mind is intensely both one and changeless, rendering the apparent kaleidoscopic characteristics of the known world behind as a rejection of the testimony given by the senses (Taran 17). If the reality of the phenomenal world is denied in such a way, then the solitary “Is” precludes it, and this “Is” must be concentrated on by withdrawing from the world of the senses (Burkert 285).
However, withdrawal does not necessarily entail total denial. This is also a factor that both thinkers share, spoken to Parmenides by the nameless goddess who shared with him the truths he proclaims: “Appearances have to be acceptable, since they pervade everything” (Robinson 109). If all human conceptions and interpretations are merely empty names for something that bears a deceptive appearance, then it makes sense that this realization descended upon Parmenides from the lips of a goddess who bears no name at all.
Sensory perception in Naagaarjuna’s view is true only pragmatically, only real in a qualified sense for practical purposes, a point that he indeed shares with Parmenides. This goes against the traditional Buddhist view of an ultimate reality consisting of chain events or elements that make up all phenomenal beings or objects (De Bary 293). The world of the senses was already declared as delusion (samsaara) in a Buddhist context, a massive and inescapable wheel of suffering, the only way out being extinction (nirvaana). This strict dualistic delineation between the chains of the phenomenal world and the freedom that is beyond it is a traditional mainstay of most of the world’s religions, though with Naagaarjuna is found an exception.
Naagaarjuna was committed to explaining the radical notion that nirvaana and samsaara were identical, an idea that would be difficult for many of his contemporaries to accept (Birch 2). According to him, the root of all suffering lies in imagined separation taken as real, supposed division assumed as a given, and the ignorance of clinging to the relative while calling it solely absolute (McFarlane 1). All of these can be directly applied to the traditional concept of nirvaana being somewhere other than in the very midst of samsaara, the result being that they both occur simultaneously and are therefore no longer separate things. Just as Mind takes place in the midst of the phenomenal world, more than one truth is present.
Although there is limited similarity here between both views of sensory perception and the phenomenal world, Naagaarjuna proceeds to depart from Parmenides’ limit imposed by his insistence on the inherent existence of Being. A standard Buddhist concept of the time is the notion that the sensory world is not only illusion, but is not essentially real. It is the resting place of emptiness, suunyataa. In the context of Parmenides, this is the deceptive sensory world that is illusory and does not reflect the Mind of Being. However, because of Naagaarjuna’s infusion of both samsaara and nirvaana, both are inherently tainted or marked with the illusion of the phenomenal world; hence they neither totally exist nor not exist. Since Naagaarjuna’s criticism has revealed contradictions leading to suffering in clinging to both inherent Being and inherent non-Being, in the end we can neither absolutely assert nor absolutely deny the existence of the self that perceives these states. We are left with his Middle Way, passing between the extremes.
This cancels all exclusive claims to existence or truth, including the One, the Mind, or the Being of Parmenides, and even including the notion of suunyataa that helps one realize this cancelled state in the first place. Naagaarjuna systematically eschews the defense of positive metaphysical doctrines regarding the nature of things. He does this just as Parmenides eschews negative ones, demonstrating that any such thesis is incoherent, and that in the end our conventions and our conceptual framework can never be justified by demonstrating their correspondence to an independent reality (Garfield 220). Rather, what counts as real depends precisely upon our conventions; this despite of what some goddess may say, or even some Buddha.
As both thinkers slash away at the cosmological or phenomenal views that they claim are illusions, they do so with the power of their own thought. For both, thought and knowledge alike are significant issues that merit consideration. For Parmenides, thought itself is Being; Being is the cause or total condition of thought (Phillips 552). This is tricky, however, which Karl Jaspers describes quite well: “If we think something, we must at the same time think something else, from which the first something differs to or to which it is related. For Parmenides this thinking is the source of illusion through separation and name-giving. The truth must be thought as inseparably one, but in the thinking, differentiations are born” (Jaspers 24).
Another impact of Parmenides’ view on thought is in regard to his concept of Mind as an all-pervasive thing. Everything is contained in and not separate from Being, so everything is contained in and not separate from thought. If thinking and Being are the same, then first, everything that thinks “is”, which is quite trivial; but if it follows that everything that “is” thinks, all boundaries crumble and Being is what remains, which is also thought. This only applies to thought that is not distracted by untruths or illusions, however, and Parmenides has already been told by his goddess that everyone around him is already mistaken (Robinson 109). So it is not enough to say that thought is Being; to truly think this takes a special kind of thought.
This idea of thoughts having various levels of meaning or importance can also be seen in Buddhist concepts that serve as a backdrop or starting point for Naagaarjuna’s theories. He accepted certain ontological and epistemological presuppositions that are fundamental to Buddhist religious life. The first of these is that there is a radical dynamism in reality; or, stated otherwise, “Becoming” transforms all suggestions of “Being.” Already this shows an idea totally opposite of Parmenides. A second is that knowledge and “Becoming” are coextensive; one “Becomes” what one knows, and one can know only what is available to one’s “Becoming.” A third presupposition is that there are two kinds of truth: the mundane truth, valid for practical living, and the Ultimate Truth, which is the beginning and end of release from worldly turmoil (Streng 36).
What Naagaarjuna does with the above presuppositions is twofold, corresponding with his two truths. On one level, thought is inexorably tied in with the mind-body complex, which in turn is a mere aspect of the phenomenal world. Inherent existence is therefore wrongly applied to the entire structure, causing the individual who thinks to feel unrelated to the organic, dynamic course of personal life and depriving the latter of all significance. This is obviously in Naagaarjuna’s eyes a fruitless endeavor that causes undue suffering. So what is left? It is the true realization of suunyataa, or Ultimate Truth, a realm in which “reason is used to destroy itself” (Humphreys 145).
It is obvious at this point that one of the most fundamental differences between the two thinkers is the relative importance that they place on thought. Or is it? If personal thought according to Parmenides can either be wallowing in confusion or perfectly in tune with an essentially mental Being, then it could be said that two truths therefore arise, that of true and perfect thought existing and false, lost thought that is thoroughly deceptive and unreal (Phillips 559). On the other hand, if according to Naagaarjuna the Ultimate Truth is not a positive position at all, but comprises of reducing all things (including thought) to pairs of negatives and then denying them, then no such positive assertion as “Being” can be completely accepted or clung to.
So if Parmenides’ “Being” is indeed shown to be a positive assumption, it becomes necessary to understand how he views it. It does not begin and end with thought, in fact he wants to suggest that the mind revolves around or pivots on it (Mourelatos 193). Mind is limited to a property of lower level processes, and contains within it the possibility or option to think on “Being” exclusively and being in perfect harmony with the truth that it encompasses (Randall 5). Furthermore, if Being is an indivisible One that can also be likened to the shape of an indivisible sphere, then it can neither be limited nor unlimited (Knight 526). If it were limited, then by definition nothing would exist beyond those limits but non-Being, which is a huge no-no to Paremnides, who said “it is not possible for it not to be” (Robinson 110). However, if it were unlimited, then by definition it would entail an infinite number, and therefore not be an indivisible One.
It is Parmenides’ point, not that Being is thought whenever we think, and therefore whatever we think is true; but that to only think Being is true (Taran 80-81). Consequently whatever else, besides Being, our thoughts conceive is only deceptive appearance. Here thought is potentially as empty as the sensory or phenomenal world that the thoughts partake in. The consequences of the doctrine of Being are now reached: since Being is the only thing there is, the language of mortals is void of meaning and the world in which they live is the result of convention (Taran 191). This realization extends beyond language and the world to affect the preconditions of the phenomenal world themselves, such as time, change, and motion. Parmenides snubs his nose at such illusory notions, and through his rule of non-Being not allowed to exist or be spoken of, sets up his refutation. Although Naagaarjuna’s refutation is fourfold negation, not a banning of negation of Being, it can be shown that they both shower scorn in their own ways on such basic constructs.
The basic structure of time as it is understood consists of the three tenses: past, present, and future. What arises is “temporal becoming and perishing.” Things existed in the past that no longer exist in the present and will not exist in the future. Things exist in the present that did not exist in the past and may or may not exist in the future. Things will exist in the future that may or may not have existed in the past and may or may not exist in the present. The critique that Parmenides puts forth asserts that time is not real, because in order to make it real, one is required to affirm that what is ostensibly real both “is” and “is not” (Hoy 579). If we cannot conclude anything in regards to earlier stages of Being, or that it “came to be,” then temporal becoming is simply not allowed room to exist, and all that it left to be said about Being is that it “is” (Philip 36). One can conclude from this endeavor that because Being is what is real, then Being by definition transcends time, which in turn is instantly converted to illusory rubble (Hoy 573).
Naagaarjuna’s reflections on the notion of time likewise reduce it to rubble, not by establishing rules of Being and non-Being, but by giving time an identity crisis that is impossible to recover from. To him, time lacks self-existence, because it lacks defining characteristics. The past, for example, cannot be independent because it is nonsensical if it does not terminate in the present and future. Therefore, time in and of itself can never be grasped. It seems to exist or to have come into existence, but is not an existent thing apart from anything else, so one ends up with the conclusion that it is both existing and non-existing. But there is not an existing-and-non-existing thing that does not have the properties of an existing-and-non-existing thing. Time lacks properties because it lacks defining characteristics that are (as entailed by definition) independent of other defining characteristics. It is not a self-existing substratum or arena in which independent events occur. So time is not existing, not non-existing, nor both existing and non-existing (Birch 4).
Unlike Parmenides, Naagaarjuna is aided by his own culture in addition to his own reasoning in reaching his conclusions about time. Both Hindu and Buddhist traditions have a view of time as related to the law of causation, or karma. Karma implies a construct of time in which our present condition is defined by our past actions, and our future condition will be defined by both our past and present actions. This may seem at first to back up a belief in the independence and self-existence of time, but in fact it is shattered by the Buddhist concept of anityataa, or impermanence (Kalupahana 65).
Entailed in this notion is the First of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, that the world in itself is impermanent. In the context of the Maadhyamika school, this entails that all things are empty of inherent existence, conditioned, and relative; because we cling to them as if they were permanent and substantial, there is suffering (McFarlane 4). Time is part of the world, and therefore partakes of this impermanence. Nothing appears that is produced by either itself or another thing; everything appears by the operation of multiple causes and manifold conditions acting together to produce the momentary “now” (Jacobson 70). Hence, according to the law of impermanence, things arise and cease.
Naagaarjuna disagrees. He seeks to show that the common sense view of causality involves contradictions. If causality can be shown to be self-contradictory, then the “things” which reputedly participate in the chain of causality either have no Being or do not participate in causality at all. Causality in general, all the “production” in the world, cannot be the result of so-called causes because of the effects that are already contained in the causes (Birch 2). This is similar to what Parmenides suggests, who claims that neither becoming nor ceasing to be are real because what exists is motionless and unalterable (Knight 524). It follows that both motion and change are also major subjects that both philosophers tackle, with similar details but different outcomes.
In order for change to take place, the positing of two forms must take place, the cause of change and the product of change. Parmenides insists that the mistake of mortals is in asserting the sole existence of these forms, which denies the necessity of asserting that both forms are united in Being (Taran 223). This is what Aristotle would later interpret as Parmenides’ claim of two causes and two principles of truth, one that exists and one that does not exist because it is false: “…he thinks that of necessity one thing exists, the existent and nothing else, but being forced to follow the observed facts, and supposing the existence of that which is one in definition, but more than one according to our sensations…”(McKeon 699). In interpreting this quote a parallel with Naagaarjuna’s two truths reveals itself. In fact, they both mutilate the idea of change in different ways. Parmenides states that Being cannot be changed in the end, because Being cannot give rise to anything but itself (Taran 104). Naagaarjuna follows by insisting that neither a oneness nor a difference of cause and product are possible, because the things themselves (apart from conventions of individuation) are nothing more than arbitrary slices of an indefinite spatio-temporal perception (Hoy 583).
If change is a haphazard misunderstanding, a false assumption on the part of mortals, this brings up the issue of motion. Just like change, motion requires plurality to occur, for only if existence were made up of different things would anything have anywhere to move away from or close to, and a requirement that Democritus later insisted as the “void” must be present to give an individual thing room to actually move in (Knight 524). But motion is simply a weak attempt at explaining or defining reality, according to both Parmenides and Naagaarjuna.
Motion implies materialism. To establish what Parmenides thought on this matter, his theory on Being must be further explored. He claims that it is like a well-rounded sphere, causing some scholars to insist that the materialism of Being was then justified (Robinson 116). However, if the idea of a spatial limit were maintained in regard to Being, he would’ve been confronted with an issue that must then be considered. If there is a limit, then something must be beyond this limit, which cannot be Being because then there would be no limit. It also cannot be non-Being, because that would be inconceivable. Therefore the concept of a spatial limit is impossible. Being is neither at rest nor in motion, contraries that are vague and unsettled that would not be right to attempt to name (Mourelatos 86).
Naagaarjuna shares Parmenides’ fundamental distrust of the separate essences and attributes that allow for assumptions to be made about the occurrence of motion, but with a strategy and a set of goals that differ. It is his basic mission to reveal that the notion of the ultimacy and separateness of basic elements through which we comprehend motion is not only devoid of ground but is contradicted by the very nature of the things assumed to be in motion (McFarlane 3). The world in which motion takes place is actually the result of nonexistence of any independent self-established substance (Jacobson 75). There are no “things,” either sensible objects of the life world or subjective components of consciousness, that are not relative or dependent and therefore are capable of containing a separate substance to move to begin with (Birch 2). In the MMK’s commentary on motion, his logic becomes apparent:
I. A moving entity moves.
II. A non-moving entity moves.
III. A moving and non-moving entity moves.
The first of these represents absolute identity between two events determined on the basis of motion, the second assumes absolute difference, and the third is a combination of the first two. An existing mover does not carry out the movement in any of the three ways. Neither does a non-existing mover carry out a movement, both existing and non-existing, in any of the three ways. Therefore, neither the motion, nor the mover, nor the space is evident. (Kalupahana 162-163)
Through this process of denial, propositions about reality are shown ultimately to hinder one from knowing what the conditions of existence actually are. The reader is asked through such denials to redefine basic questions, since the concerns with essences and attributes do not apply to the actual situation (Streng 163). A parallel motive is therefore shown between the denials of both Parmenides and Naagaarjuna: the actual situation that our own ontological and epistemological presuppositions place us in is not to be assumed as real. Whether Parmenides’ Being and Naagaarjuna’s Ultimate Truth (both of and beyond emptiness) can be equated somehow is basically a dead issue. This is because even these two great and ancient philosophers carry with them the inevitable baggage of their own presuppositions and definitions that they believe lead them from confusion to clarity. The Eleatic dilemma and the Maadhyamika school’s tetralemma both reveal the motives and goals of their respective authors.
From the perspective of Parmenides, his achievement was in showing the inherent falsehood of the cosmological explanations of his day through stating that nobody can assert that non-Being exists (Taran 39). The concept of “non-Being,” however, is not to be interpreted as the Pythagorean void. In fact, no clear identification with void and non-Being occurred until the later works of the Atomists Empedocles and Anaxagoras, who understood void as the absence of what they considered to be Being (Taran 99). Despite this, his dilemma did respond to the Pythagoreans, because he asserted as part of his position that Being occupies the whole of space, and so would obviously and inevitably fill “void” up, so that it would no longer be void (Knight 524).
The fact that Being exists is taken by Parmenides as a tautology, a given (Taran 37). However, Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, will later raise significant issues that Parmenides regretfully is unable to respond to: “If unity-itself is indivisible, it will be nothing. For that which is neither when added makes a thing greater nor when subtracted makes a thing less is asserted to have no Being” (McKeon 728). Aristotle was very good at debating people who happened to already be dead, so that none of the subjects of his critiques could offer up much of a rebuttal. The original truth of Being is the foundation for Parmenides to refute non-Being as conceivable or even mentionable. It follows that if something is done to tamper with that original truth, then Parmenides is left with nothing to defend.
His argument stands on the ground of helpful advice and guidance for the hapless mortal masses, and at the time it was composed it may have been exactly what his peers needed to hear. Non-Being can complicate things. Imagine if, looking at a map, someone were to attempt to locate non-Athens. Obviously, a bigger map would become necessary. In this way, an intellectual adventurer who seeks non-Being in terms of what-is-not cannot even mark, descry, or set a bearing on the goal, and no guide could ever show the way. The journey to what-is-not is one that “heads for everywhere and nowhere” (Mourelatos 78).
Naagaarjuna’s position, on the other hand, rests with not exploring a map of Being nor non-Being. But nor is he against using maps, exploring the possibilities and meanings of what we perceive and the speculations of what we do not see. The trick is that release comes not from burning whatever map is in use, just knowing when to put it down. There is no positive definition here, no assurance and no friendly advice. He does not positively define emptiness in the same way the Parmenides stakes his claim on Being. His Middle Way involves not subscribing to extreme views, which are shown to lead to contradictions that circle back around to emptiness (McFarlane 4). Keeping in mind the relative and ultimate truths that he describes, even saying that things are empty or have no essence falls short. In fact, if to be empty is to be empty of essence, emptiness fails on that count to be empty, because emptiness and essence are not two (Birch 3). Naagaarjuna used the term “emptiness” with a keen awareness of the problems involved with expressing the inexpressible, so a study of the way it was used to articulate transformative awakening may provide an insight.
In the Majjhima-nikaaya, part of the oldest written record of the teachings of the historical Buddha, a precedent for Naagaarjuna’s fourfold negation, or “tetralemma”, can be seen when the Buddha responds to a question that a monk has about rebirth:
Gotama, where is the monk reborn whose mind is thus freed?
Vaccha, it is not true to say that he is reborn.
Then, Gotama, he is not reborn.
Vaccha, it is not true to say that he is not reborn.
Then, Gotama, he is both reborn and not reborn.
Vaccha, it is not true to say that he is both reborn and not reborn.
Then, Gotama, he is neither reborn nor not reborn.
Vaccha, it is not true to say that he is neither reborn nor not reborn. (Robinson 54)
This can basically be seen as a refutation of an idea as being, as nonbeing, as both being and nonbeing, and as neither being nor nonbeing. The belief in any of the four is an extreme and must be transcended by a higher synthesis through the dialectic method until the ultimate void is arrived at, which is the Absolute Middle, the Maadhyamika (De Bary 295). Thus the ultimate reality shown by Mahaayaana Buddhists is the absolute voidness that is devoid of all qualifications and about which no conceptual determination can be formed (Nakamura 55).
What Naagaarjuna did with this dialectic was to apply it to any given concept, including the spiritual goals involved with doing so. This process, he felt, cannot just cease with a realization of emptiness and a negation of all thought. The next step is negating the negation itself, relinquishing the notion of emptiness as soon as it is realized. He acknowledged the accepted Buddhist doctrine that all things are destitute of individual essence and are “marked with emptiness,” but went further to assert that even the emptiness is hypothetical, unsubstantiated, and therefore should also be negated (Nakamura 187).
To judge him as a nihilist or wallowing in negativity would not be giving a true account. However sharp his skepticism may seem, in his texts and letters a balance was kept between combating false assertions and emphasizing the importance of traditional Buddhist morality (Santina 2). It is in the context of the very insubstantiality of things that true Buddhist compassion can flourish. If money is no longer clung to or absolutized, then the virtue of giving can take place. The same goes for personal views, emotions, and opinions. If they are all emptied of their importance, then they will no longer obstruct clarity with delusion.
Delusion, however, has an importance all its own, one that Parmenides does not acknowledge. For how can truth exist without falsehood? Such extremes have a way of supporting one another. This is another Buddhist truth that Naagaarjuna mentions and describes in his works, that of prataatyasamutpaada, or “dependent co-origination” (Garfield 221). This basically denotes the interdependence of phenomena in which events depend on other events, composites depend on their parts, and everything has a remarkable way of sustaining everything else. Naagaarjuna defines this in his own dialectic style:
Impurity cannot exist without depending on purity so that we explain purity by impurity.
Therefore purity by itself cannot be attained.
Purity cannot exist without depending on impurity, so that we explain impurity by purity.
Therefore impurity cannot exist by itself. (Nakamura 61)
In the same respect, Naagaarjuna’s truths interlock and support one another. Subject and object are mutually conditioned, and the essences of both are beyond verbal definition or intellectual comprehension. If not for relative truth, absolute truth would be unattainable (Stryk 284). This is the one positive assertion that can be made in response to Parrmenides’ Being: we are not bound forever to our conditioned nature because we, as conditioned entities, already are in our ultimate nature the unconditioned reality.
Some of these points actually ring true with Parmenides. His system of Being must require that our sense of separateness is an illusion, and it entails that if we could always manage to think perfectly, we would think only as Being thinking of itself (Phillips 558). He concedes that language fails in many attempts, and continuously falls short of the awareness of the whole of existence as a single, continuous, undivided and unchanging unity (Randall 2). If mortals were mindful of this, annoying things like “non-Being exists” would have never been said to begin with. Thus, he persists in criticizing any doctrine that cannot distinguish Being from non-Being; if they are the same and yet not the same, then they are said to be “backward-turning” (Taran 72). So although the two thinkers may agree that language is at best inadequate, Naagaarjuna would have been described by Parmenides, had they met, as a very, very confused individual.
Still, similarities persist. The highly negative dialectic and the cryptic verse form of Naagaarjuna’s MMK are indeed forbidding, and his tactic of arguing not only against each extreme but also that the contradictory extremes are in fact mutually entailing can be adverse to anyone attempting to assert anything whatsoever. But the way Plato presents Parmenides is not exactly easygoing either: “It seems that, whether there is or is not a one, both that one and the others alike are and are not, and appear and do not appear to be, all manner of things in all manner of ways, with respect to themselves and to one another” (Hamilton 956). This is not only reminiscent of the relative and absolute truths of Naagaarjuna, but also of prataatyasamutpaada (dependent co-origination). Also, in describing Being, Parmenides uses the descriptive phrase: “Evenly balanced in every direction from the middle” (Robinson 122). One is reminded of the very school that Naagaarjuna founded, that of the Middle Doctrine.
While these two sharp critics of their own relative disciplines may seem quite similar, still this is no assurance that they would have agreed with one another. Naagaarjuna is quoted as saying, “Those who deny emptiness and find fault with it are like a horseman who forgets that he is on horseback” (Stryk 286), while Parmenides’ rule of not mentioning “non-Being” at all would most certainly have provided Naagaarjuna with reason enough to engage in perhaps the most challenging dialectical debate in human history. Cultivating awareness in what we assume or what we say, however, is always of utmost importance, so we must honor these ancient thinkers for providing us the chance to do so in a penetrating and unflinching manner.
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