It seems to be a natural tendency that an inquiring mind in the west and India tries its best to find an unchanging substance behind (ontologically different from) the changing phenomena and an eternal Self behind the temporary human beings, in order to avoid metaphysical and moral nihilism. The result of establishing such a substantial extreme is a “vertical” hierarchy of realities and, furthermore, a forgetfulness of the true meaning of Being in Heidegger ’s sense . However, we find at least one influential exception to this substantial ontology in India — Buddhism . The well known “Three Characteristics” of Buddha’s Teaching or “The Three Stamps of Karma ” says: “all the constituents of being are transitory. ... all the constituents of being are misery. ... [And] all the elements of being are lacking in an ego”. Philosophically, Buddhism is properly characterized in the tenets of “dependent origination ” (Pratityasamutpada ) and “non-self” (anatta or Anatman). It is a brilliant effort to avoid both substantial ontology and nihilism.
The basic meaning of “dependent origination” is: nothing arises and disappears unconditionally. It is essentially a middle way between the substantial assertion of being and the nihilistic assertion of no-being. The Samyutta-nikaya says:
That things have being, O Kaccana, constitutes one extreme of doctrine; that things have no being is the other extreme. These extremes, O Kaccana, have been avoided by the Tathagata [Buddha], and it is a middle doctrine he teaches.
However, the Buddhist doctrine of no-self (Anatman) sounds like the opposite extreme to the substantial “Self” (Atman ). In the common view, Anatman is a strange and nihilistic assertion. For Descartes and Samkara , to deny a substantial self involves an intrinsic contradiction. “I think, therefore, I exist”. To doubt the Self is just another way to assert its existence, because there must be a doubter (a self) who exerts the doubting. In Samkara’s words, “for of that very person who might deny it is the Self”. To a Buddhist, this counter-argument is invalid because “doubting” or “thinking” does not necessarily entails a doubter or thinker as a substantial Self. We can only infer: there is something happening there as a person’s doubting or thinking. Who is the person? According to “dependent origination”, a “person” is not an unchanging and independent substance (Self) but a human being as a dependent existent. There is person and a phenomenological self, but not the substantial Self. So, the proper translation of Buddhist “Anatman” (anatta) should be “non-Self” rather than “no-self”. And the real tidings of non-self is “there is no permanent and enduring entity in man [the dependent self]”. The doctrine of non-self is still on the middle path of dependent origination.
However, the authentic meaning of the middle way still needs to be uncovered. Early Buddhism presented the reason for non-Self as “gathering”. That is, since every person is merely a gathering of elements in both physical and mental senses, there is no substance in him. The gathering, although non-substantial, is not completely null . In this way, it is believed that this interpretation avoids two extremes — substantial being and no-being. The real person is neither a substance nor a nothing, but the empirical, collected, conditional and becoming self. Even now, this is still a popular perspective of Buddhist central doctrine. Some scholars, such as Kalupahana, still hold that Buddhism is nothing more than an empiricist positivism or pragmatism. Although this interpretation cannot be asserted to be totally wrong, I believe it does not go deep enough to uncover the ontologically enlightening sense of dependent origination. It seems that before the gathering and after the dissemblance of the gathering, the self is nothing. The impermanence of self is taken as its spatial separability and temporal “not-yet” and “no-longer”, which in Heidegger’s scope is the inauthentic mode of the spatial-temporal. Furthermore, since this interpretation has not understood “dependent origination” in its full and complete sense, i.e., reached the appropriational state of, in Chuang Tzu ’s words, “being small until no-inner and being big until no-outer”, it leaves room for substantial comprehension of the “elements” or “constituents”. According to this view, the self is insubstantial because it is merely a gathering. But the elements that constitute the impermanent self may be interpreted to be absolute and ultimate. For example, Vaibhasika, a Hinayana school, holds that “the dharmas, ultimate constituents of existence, are absolute, and independent of our consciousness ”. These “ultimate constituents” are distinct and irreducible point-instants. According to this view, the “dependent origination” means “the causal connections between successive point-instants”. That means, the existence of any point-instant depends on the existence of its immediate predecessor that brings about it.
From these facts, we see that understanding dependent origination as an empirical gathering is more like a conceptual mixture of “nothingness” (not-being) and “ultimate constituent” (substantial being), rather than a transformed and topological regioning. However, this criticism is not suitable for Mahayana Buddhism that takes dependent origination in its full and authentic sense. If the dependent origination is understood in all dimensions and on all levels, like the inter-mirroring in a mirror house, there is no “room” left for the absolute and distinct constituents, not even for the nothingness of “not-yet” and “non-longer”; but only a pure state of inter-dependence. What we have is not a linear causation but a thoroughgoing mutual mirroring and dependence. This is a state beyond any ontological distinction (formation) and assertion since you cannot speak about one part of it without involving an infinite “steps” of mutual mirroring. Therefore, Nagarjuna expresses this state only negatively:
non-origination [occurrence], non-extinction,non-destruction, non-permanence,non-identity, non-differentiation,non-coming (into being), non-going (out of being).
For Nagarjuna, any attempt to debase this primordial state into a conceptual relation or state that is distinguishable from the middle way necessarily entails contradictions. He calls, therefore, the “essence” of all beings “sunyata ”, meaning the “emptiness” (of all conceptual ontological distinctions). In a well-known verse, he says, “We declare that whatever is relational [dependent] origination is sunyata. It is a provisional name (i.e., thought construction) for the mutuality (of being) and; indeed, it is the middle path”.
In light of this, what the thinking of non-self and impermanence is really to deny is not merely an assertion but the assertive manner of thinking and speaking. “Non-self” as well as “dependent origination” is not an assertion in either negative or positive sense, but essentially a disclosedness of a more primordial, non-conceptual dimension of thinking and saying. Nothing is possible without this dimension that is comparable to Heidegger’s appropriating horizon. Nagarjuna says:
Any factor of experience which does not participate in relational [dependent] origination cannot exist. Therefore, any factor of experience not in the nature of sunya cannot exist.
With this insight , Nagarjuna arrives at his “most cryptic and bewildering utterance” that “Samsara (i.e., the empirical life-death cycle) is nothing essentially different from nirvana. Nirvana is nothing essentially different from samsara”. ”Samsara” designates the impermanent and “lower” realm; and “nirvana” means “what is never cast off, seized, interrupted, constant, extinguished, and produced”. Because, according to Nagarjuna’s full understanding of dependent origination, the samsara is essentially of sunya, expressed as the “eight-nons” (cited above) and thus being ontologically indistinguishable from ”nirvana”, they are mutually identified with each other. He says:
The limits (i.e., realm) of nirvana are the limits of samsara. Between the two, also, there is not the slightest difference whatsoever.
In this sense, the “sunyata” also means “fullness”, for nowhere and nothing in all realm is not essentially of sunya. The “emptiness” and the ”fullness” together signify the authentic meaning of dependent origination. This profound thinking philosophically points to the Way on which Heidegger’s discourses on Da-sein, temporality and appropriation move “back and forth”. Therefore, it is reasonable to translate “Dasein ” into Chinese as “yuan tsai” (”the dependent-originational being”) and ”Ereignis ” as “yuan-ch’i ” (”the dependent origination”). And the appropriational “relation” between samsara and nirvana is somewhat parallel to that between inauthentic mode of Dasein’s existence and authentic one in Heidegger’s Being and Time.
We may also notice some similarity between Nagarjuna’s identity of samsara with nirvana and Upanishadic identity of Atman with Brahman . The pairs are identical because, due to their primordiality, there is no conceptual form or standard that can be found between them. This identity is essentially not logical but appropriational. Nevertheless, some obvious differences between these two identities can be recognized when we compare the expressively negative “Eight-Nons” with the positive characterization in Upanishads . Nagarjuna’s identity is that between two supposedly different levels (a higher one and a lower one), while the Upanishadic identity is between two poles in the same realm that is asserted to be higher than the experiential one. To my judgment, Buddha’s and Nagarjuna’s presentation of the ultimate (dependent origination) much more clearly points to a horizontal-regional appropriation. Its conclusion is that the “higher” and the “lower” realms and truths are essentially and ontologically identical with each other. In Upanishads and in Samkara, the ontological distinction between the two realms are always maintained. The identity merely refers to that of “inner” with “outer”, or that of the immanent with the transcendent. The difference is crucially important for Chinese way of thinking since for the ancient Chinese mind, only such a doctrine that can expose the ultimate truth in this world moves on the middle Way (Tao ).
Another interesting point is that for both Buddhism and Upanishadic thinking, it is “names and forms” (nama-rupa ) that “superimpose” upon us the empirical and illusive self. But they are disparate in their expressions of the formless. To Upanishads and Vedantics, the formless may be asserted as Atman, Brahman and their identity. For Buddhists, it can only be expressed in dependent origination or sunyata. A Mahayana Buddhist may argue that if Atman (Self) is identical with Brahman, it cannot be a “Self” in the proper or substantial sense. The mutual dependence of the two, the subjectivity and objectivity, must eliminate their substantial status and hence make the designation “Self” inappropriate. On the other hand, the Vedantic may argue that this Self indicate a realm that is higher and more original than any empirical and conceptual one.
After Nagarjuna’s purification of the meaning of dependent origination, the need to attach to “non-self” is greatly reduced, since on the level of sunyata, neither “Self” nor “Non-Self” are the proper expression of the bodhi or wisdom. A more primordial region has been pointed out, although merely negatively. Therefore, in the later development of Mahayana, the Buddhists freely used “Buddha-Nature ”, “Pure Consciousness or Mind” (Yogacara), and “Self-Nature (Chan or Zen) to indicates this enlightened and enlightening region. In India, however, this substantial-oriented tendency entailed some unfortunate results for Buddhism. One of the most serious was the gradual loss of the non-substantial way of expressing Buddha’s central insight. Without it, Buddhism cannot be truly distinguished from the Upanishadic thinking. This may be an important reason for the extinction of Buddhism in India. However, Buddhism found its new root in Chinese culture because what Nagarjuna negatively expressed had been more positively thought of there long ago. It was, therefore, Nagarjuna’s Middle Way and Mahayana rather than Brahmanism and Hinayana that were successfully introduced into China and greatly prospered there.