The Middle Way (Madhyamaka) philosophy pioneered by the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (2nd–3rd century CE) uses reason to negate our mistaken concepts about reality. Take a pair of opposites, such as real and unreal. Madhyamaka logic looks at four possibilities—that things are either real, unreal, both, or neither—and refutes them in turn. So in this case, the four negations are:
1. Not real. 2. Not unreal. 3. Not both real and unreal. 4. Not neither real nor unreal.
According to the classical Madhyamaka thinkers, all phenomena (dharmas) are empty (śūnya) of "nature," a "substance" or "essence" (svabhāva) which gives them "solid and independent existence," because they are dependently co-arisen. But this "emptiness" itself is also "empty": it does not have an existence on its own, nor does it refer to a transcendental reality beyond or above phenomenal reality.
Its character is neither existent, nor nonexistent, Nor both existent and nonexistent, nor neither.
(Centrists should know) True reality is free from these four possibilities.
Atishadescribes the ultimate as "here, there is no seeing and no seer,
No beginning and no end, just peace...
It is nonconceptual and nonreferential...it is inexpressible, unobservable, unchanging, and unconditioned."
Because of the non-conceptual nature of the ultimate, according to Brunnholzl, the two truths are ultimately inexpressible as “one” or “different.” <enfolded ???>
I prostrate to the Perfect Buddha, The best of teachers, who taught that Whatever is dependently arisen is Unceasing, unborn, Unannihilated, not permanent, Not coming, not going, Without distinction, without identity, And free from conceptual construction.
By employing these eight negations, Nagarjuna shows us that dependent origination (pratitya samutpada)implies emptiness (sunyata), namely, that nothing in this world exists as a separate and independent entity. What is important to note here is that these eight negations are not presented as repetitions of a negation eight times but as repetitions of a pair of negations four times. In order to clarify that these eight negations actually consist of four pairs of negations, they can be rephrased as follows:
"Whatever is dependently arisen is neither ceasing nor arising, neither annihilated nor permanent, neither coming nor going, neither one thing nor many things."
To begin with, whatever is dependently arisen is neither ceasing nor arising, which is the same as saying neither dies nor is born, because it exists, if at all, in a web of causes of conditions that connects it with all other things in the universe. The same can be said about other three pairs of negations, for they all reinforce the idea that nothing in the universe exists by itself and, hence, is devoid of a separate and independent self. <<enfolding, implicate order ???>>
The Heart Sutra is another well-known Buddhist text that teaches us the idea of emptiness. As a matter of fact, the lines similar to Nagarjuna’s eight negations appear in the following part where six negations, or three pairs of negations, are employed:
“Listen Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness. They are neither produced nor destroyed, neither defiled nor immaculate, neither increasing nor decreasing.”
There are some commonalities as well as differences between Nagarjuna and the Heart Sutra. The words “neither produced nor destroyed” in the Heart Sutra can be construed as corresponding to the words “unceasing, unborn” in Nagarjuna. Both can be replaced by the words “no birth, no death”, which are often employed in English translations of both the Heart Sutra and Nagarjuna. Two other pairs of negations in the Heart Sutra—“neither defiled nor immaculate” and “neither increasing nor decreasing”—have no corresponding pairs in Nagarjuna. This does not mean, however, that the Heart Sutra is trying to convey a different message from Nagarjuna. What both Nagarjuna and the Heart Sutra teach us is the importance of avoiding the application of the “either-or” logic, or what is known as the law of “excluded middle” in philosophy, to things and phenomena in the universe.
One clear difference between Nagarjuna and the Heart Sutra is that while the former employs four pairs of negations, the latter three pairs. What should we make of this difference in the number of negations between Nagarjuna and the Heart Sutra? Does not the Heart Sutra need one more pair of negations to make the two comparable as a logical scheme of expounding the idea of emptiness? It is easy to fill the gap between the two by simply adding another pair of negations to the Heart Sutra. This is, in fact, what Thich Nhat Hanh does in his recent re-translation of the Heart Sutra, where he adds “no being, no non-being” to other three pairs of negations. By adding another pair of negations, Thich Nhat Hanh wants to make sure that the message the Heart Sutra tries to convey is the idea of emptiness, or the idea of “interbeing”, which means the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena in the universe.
Actually, the absence of an additional pair of negations in the Heart Sutra is less of a problem than the repetition of too many negations without pairing. In the original Chinese version of the Heart Sutra by Xuanzang (ca. 620-664), which is widely used in China, Korea and Japan, the Chinese character that signifies “no” appears twenty-one times. Thus, the line, “no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind”, is followed by the line, “no realms of elements, no interdependent origins and no extinctions of them”. The upshot is that we are tempted to interpret the Heart Sutra as teaching us the idea of non-existence, or non-being, of all dharmas. However, what dependent origination implies is not non-existence, or non-being, but emptiness, that is, all dharmas are empty of separate self as they are all connected in the evolving web of causes and conditions in the universe. To emphasize the idea of emptiness that follows from dependent origination, we are well advised to use negations as a pair whenever negations are employed as in “neither produced nor destroyed”, for example. Indeed, we can keep on adding other negations to the ones already included by Nagarjuna and in the Heart Sutra as long as we employ this “neither … nor …” format. This way, we are making sure that the Middle Way is the heart of the Buddha’s teaching and the path towards perfect understanding.
The 'Four Extremes'
The 'Four Extremes' is a particular application of the Catuṣkoṭi:
Being (: yod)
Non-being (: med)
Both being and non-being (: yod-med)
Neither being nor non-being (: yod-med min)
Nāgārjuna disproves all conceivable statements, which can be reduced to these four (the ninth negation is sunyata !):
All things (dharmas) exist: affirmation of being, negation of nonbeing
All things (dharmas) do not exist: affirmation of nonbeing, negation of being
All things (dharmas) both exist and do not exist: both affirmation and negation
All things (dharmas) neither exist nor do not exist: neither affirmation nor negation
With the aid of these four alternatives (catuṣkoṭika: affirmation, negation, double affirmation, double negation), Nāgārjuna rejects all firm standpoints and traces a middle path between being and nonbeing. Most likely the eight negations, arranged in couplets in Chinese, can be traced back to Nāgārjuna: neither destruction nor production, neither annihilation nor permanence, neither unity nor difference, neither coming nor going.
Images for the Twelve Links in the The Wheel of Life
Ignorance - An old blind person groping for his way with a cane
Karmic formations - A potter shaping a vase on a wheel. The pots the potter makes symbolise the actions of body, speech and mind with which he moulds his karma in the wheel of life. Karmic imprints or traces from actions in previous lives affect our present and future lives in the form of certain propensities, just as the potter’s wheel keeps turning after a single push.
Consciousness - A monkey swinging from a tree. The monkey represents our consciousness, the way we tend to spring from one thought to another in an uncontrolled manner.
Name and form - A person (or people) on a boat. The five skandhas that make up our sense of ‘self’ need a physical body: form (the boat) and a psyche: name (the mental skandhas: feeling, perception, mental formations, consciousness).
Six sense organs - A house with five windows and a door. This symbolises the six senses by which the outer world is perceived. In the wheel of life they are represented by an empty house because this is a time when the organs of the embryo are developing but not yet functioning.
Contact - A couple embracing
Sensation - A person with an arrow in their eye
Craving - A woman offering a drink to a man
Grasping - A man plucking fruit from a tree
Becoming - A beautiful bride (sometimes depicted as a couple making love or a pregnant woman)