Thoughts on Buddhism – Logic – Part 2 – Understanding Nagarjuna

I need to recant yesterday’s blog entry because, after a long lecture in my Buddhism class tonight, I understand what Nagarjuna was saying now.

The statement that plagued me over the weekend was “A non-moving thing is not stationary,” so let us begin with that.

First, Nagarjuna doesn’t necessarily redefine words, but he was certainly using them in a manner I did not understand. The key phrase is “inherent existence,” and the important thing to understand is that nothing possesses inherent existence. Inherent Existence means, essentially, that something exists without condition, without cause or effect, and this thing is permanent. It cannot change, and as such, it can be neither interacted with nor can it interact with anything else.

Let us therefore use the example of a ball. There are two things we might say about a ball. First, that it is made of various components; its existence is conditional upon being put together of different pieces, chemicals, what-have-you by various people in various places. It does not purely exist without cause; something and someone had to make it. Second, balls roll. They can bounce and go places.

If a ball is not moving, it is stationary, but when Nagarjuna states that a non-moving thing is not stationary, he’s not really talking about something so simple as “not moving.” Rather, he is referring to its conditional existence. In referring last time to potential motion, I wasn’t far from the mark of understanding a ball’s conditional existence. Because the ball does not inherently exist, it is capable of change. It is not permanent. And because it is capable of change, it is capable of rolling. It can be affected, and it can affect other things.

To be stationary would be to inherently exist, or to be incapable of change. A non-moving thing is simply not-moving, but it is capable of being moved, conventionally speaking.

About an hour and a half into tonight’s lecture, it all clicked for me, and I find Nagarjuna far more intriguing now. I really look forward to finishing this book and digging into the commentary. The problem was that I had come at this text from a very Western perspective, with a preconceived definition of the word “emptiness.” Nagarjuna states that everything is empty and that nothing inherently exists; I interpreted that as a very negative statement, and if you walked up to a person and told them that they are empty, they probably would too.

But Nagarjuna didn’t mean it as an insult, just as an observation. Inherent existence means permanence; it means that the thing in question had no cause and subsequently is incapable of acting on anything else. Inherent existence means that the thing in question cannot change. To be capable of change, to be impermanent, to not have inherent existence… that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me now. And certainly, within Buddhism, it was not; inherent existence, permanence, would mean that one is incapable of nirvana.

Later I will have to write, however, about my disagreement with the view that nothing inherently exists. But for now, it is enough that this text makes a bit of sense to me, and I’m excited to read more.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Buddhism – Logic – Part 2 – Understanding Nagarjuna

  1. Can you give me an example of something you believe would inherently exist? (I know you said you’ll address it later, but…)
    Interesting post.

  2. I probably won’t be able to sit down and write on the topic until this weekend, but I’ll let you know when I get something published early next week on the topic 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and reading!

  3. I find it interesting that you mention that heaven and Nirvana are nothing alike. I reject their pursuit for very similar reasons. I miss the struggle of my youth. I long for the days when I had a passionate desire giving me satisfaction in a hell of a life.

    I envy those that face greater adversity than me. I envy those that have a strong reason to live and die. I envy that bright fire that burns in the shadow of complete annihilation and utter failure.

    To me happiness, sadness, pain, and ecstacy are all nothing more than colors of our life. I can only enjoy the brilliance of white set against a black border. It would be an ugly world if we only had pastel colors.

    Buddhism recognizes this contrast as part of our world, but like Christiainity it ends the same. You must give up your desires in Buddhism, and you must give up yourself to Christ in Christianity. Both promise a rose colored world without suffering, death, or anything else I want to struggle against if I must live for eternity.

    My essence will have to be annihilated, because I can’t see myself ever being anything other than horrified at the suffering complete happiness would bring.

    1. I don’t know that “give up yourself to Christ in Christianity” is quite an accurate statement, at least if defined as on par with giving up desire in Buddhism. Christianity isn’t about becoming less human or less individual–it isn’t a precursor for the singularity–but instead calls us to become the individuals God wants us to become. To grow and learn, which has the happy circumstance of making us even more individualized.

      I am not the sort who thinks we lose our personalities in heaven and sit around basking all day long, but of course, there is great disagreement on what the afterlife will be like–my thoughts on it have no stronger foundation than any other Christian’s.

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