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Nagarjuna's doctrine of emptiness and its relevance for essence work

By: Dr Claus Springborg, July 2021, Copenhagen

I can highly recommend watching Guy Newland’s nine lectures on the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna is one of the central figures in the development of Mahayana Buddhism, and his ideas have profoundly influenced my approach to essence work.

Nagarjuna’s doctrine of emptiness

Nagarjuna | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Buddha famously prescribed a path to enlightenment that was a “middle way” between the self-indulgence of regular people and the self-mortification of the ascetics. Nagarjuna expanded the notion of the “middle way” to mean a middle way between existence and non-existence. He developed a philosophical system in which he argued against both the view that things are permanent and the nihilistic view that nothing exists at all. Nagarjuna argues that it is wrong to believe that phenomena exist in themselves – autonomously, independently, and permanently and that it is also wrong to believe that nothing exists and that everything is a mere illusion. Both views are part of the ignorance that according to the four noble truths causes human suffering.

To answer the question of the true nature of all phenomena, Nagarjuna developed the famous doctrine of emptiness (shunyata) which states that the true nature of all phenomena is not absence of existence but absence of intrinsic existence. That is, phenomena exist in relation to other phenomena. For example, a table is only a table in relation to chairs and human beings and plates and other things humans tend to place on tables. If you removed all the things related to tables and the human use of tables, it is difficult to see in what sense the table would still be a table. If you then called the table a wooden piece of furniture, you could repeat the argument and say that “a wooden piece of furniture” is only that in relation to trees and carpenters and so on. This view resonates with the structuralist view in Western philosophy, which holds that things are what they are because they hold a specific place in relation to other things – not because of their intrinsic properties.

Why Nagarjuna’s doctrine of emptiness is important for essence work

If suffering arises from the mistaken view that phenomena have intrinsic existence, then suffering is overcome by realising the true way in which phenomena exist. One way of understanding essence work is to see it as a series of explorations that can reveal to us the truth about how phenomena exist and thus relive our ignorance and the ensuing suffering.

One of the main types of explorations we engage with in essence work is to first list out all the ideas we have about a particular phenomenon (such as vulnerability, anger, strength, joy, etc.), and then notice what this phenomenon is like separately from these ideas. For example, we may investigate what vulnerability feels like once it is separated from ideas, such as, vulnerability is weak, vulnerability is painful, vulnerability must be protected, and so on.

When we do this, the phenomenon under investigation can seem to undergo profound transformations. If we investigate a phenomenon we saw as something to be feared or avoided, we may find, much to our surprise, that the phenomenon transforms into the delightful kind of inner states we call essence. For example, once the phenomenon of “vulnerability” is separated from our negative ideas about it, it may suddenly appear as the inner state of delicate tenderness and loving-kindness we call the green essence. Similarly, once the phenomenon of “anger” is separated from all the ideas we have about anger as destructive and dangerous, as a response to an offence, and so on, the phenomenon of “anger” may transform into the exquisite inner state of aliveness and vitality, we call the red essence.

The doctrine of emptiness can help us understand the often baffling transformations we experience during our explorations in essence work. If phenomena have no intrinsic existence but depend upon their relationship to other phenomena for their existence, then removing parts of the context within which we normally place a phenomenon must transform our experience of this phenomenon. By removing part of the context, we are removing part of the phenomenon itself. If the transformation surprises us or seem strange, it is because it does not match our belief that phenomena have inherent existence. If “vulnerability” were a thing in itself, it shouldn’t become another thing by placing it in another context. The fact that it does draws our attention to the mistake we make in thinking that phenomena exist in themselves.

When we separate “vulnerability” from phenomena such as “weakness” and “pain”, “vulnerability” is no longer weak or painful but transforms into something that might better be described as sensitivity, tenderness, or loving-kindness. On one level, this process can relieve the fear of vulnerability which is indeed a valuable outcome. However, this is still merely a pleasant by-product of the inquiry process. A far more valuable teaching arises from the direct experience of the fluidity of phenomena as such.

The exploration of “vulnerability” reveals to us that “vulnerability” does not exist in itself but rather in relation to all our ideas about vulnerability and the phenomena to which vulnerability is linked through these ideas, such as “pain”, “weakness”, “protection”, etc. Observing how severing these relations transforms our experience of “vulnerability” into an experience of completely different phenomena, such as, loving-kindness, tenderness, compassion, and sensitivity, shows us that all these phenomena are the same experience placed in different contexts.

When we experience this during explorations of one phenomenon after another, we may learn the more general and more profound truth that phenomena are far less stable than we normally believe because they are empty of inherent existence. Whereas experiencing essence in various forms and finding essence at the heart of phenomena we otherwise feared is wonderful and pleasant, the true potential of the explorations we engage with in essence work is that it shows us that phenomena are empty of intrinsic existence.

Using Nagarjuna’s doctrine of emptiness, essence work can be understood as a vehicle for dispelling the ignorance that is the root of human suffering. However, there is more. Nagarjuna’s doctrine of emptiness can not only help us understand what the inquiries into the essence of various phenomena can potentially teach us, it also shows a danger hidden within essence work. If we do not engage in essence work from the right view that phenomena are empty of inherent existence, essence work may end up reinforcing the very ignorance that causes suffering. This can happen if we begin to see essences as phenomena with intrinsic existence, i.e. if we believe that the white, red, black, green and yellow essences exist in themselves – independent of other phenomena. If nothing has intrinsic existence, this must be true for essence as well. However, in essence work, we often talk about the essences as if they do exist in themselves. We talk about feeling “the essence of joy flowing in our body”, “losing connection to the essence of strength”, “receiving the essence of peace”, and so on. Nagarjuna’s doctrine of emptiness warns us that taking in this way is inaccurate and may reinforce a view of essence that will lead to suffering. And indeed it does. The moment we look at essences as substances we can gain or lose, have or not have, receive or be deprived of, we are trapped in what Chögyam Trungpa calls spiritual materialism. I.e. we hunt essence in the manner a traditional materialist might hunt material goods.

When vulnerability transforms into tenderness and loving-kindness it is remarkable and worth noticing. However, more importantly, we must notice the transformation itself. The fact that the transformation is possible reveals to us the true nature of all phenomena. Realising tenderness and loving-kindness is wonderful and important. Realising the truth of how phenomena exist is essential to the relief of human suffering.

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