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Figure 1

Mahayana Buddhism, of which 2nd century Indian philosopher Nagarjuna is a chief actor, offered a broader definition of soullessness and declared that, not only are persons devoid of a self, but that all of the elements comprising existence are also without essence. They are empty, sunya, of the very notion of self-nature.


Semiotic Object


Figure 2

'John' Noun Sign

'Male, Young, Athetic' Adjective Object

'Won the race' Verb Interpretant

Figure 3

An analogy from the history of Western physics (Western) might help clarify the aparent conflict between the emptiness and something. Classical Newtonian physics saw everything as comprised of irreducible atoms with a determinable location and momentum. Belief in the determinism made possible by such a reified existence led French mathematician Pierre de Laplace to declare that, could he theoretically know the location and momentum of every monad in the universe, he could predict the exact future history of the entire cosmos. Quantum physics revolutionized this view by describing the qualities of the monadic elements of existence as being inherently unknowable (emptiness, or mere possible possibility as devoid of the very idea of self-nature).

Further, the utter smallness of the particles and the sheer distances between them shows matter to be little more than empty space and existence ultimately nothing more than interactions of abstract energy fields. That the truest cosmological quality of things is emptiness, sunyata, came to be regarded as the central notion of Buddhism.




Figure 4

Not only are things empty, the Mahayana school declared, but the very notion of emptiness is itself empty (sunyata).


Chromatic (Range of Qualifications)


Figure 5

On the one hand, early Buddhism saw emptiness as a lack of being but, on the other, something remains which cannot be negated. These statements will not make sense in Buddhist terms unless reconciled with the Buddha's absolute rejection of an ultimate ground of reality. The meaning of the paradox, according to the Perfection of Wisdom writings, is that emptiness is both and neither being and non-being, both and neither negation and affirmation . Emptiness is not really a thing any more than a thing is really empty, for reality cannot be pinned down in concepts.

'God' 'Shakespeare' Universal Existent; Universal Non-Existent

All Possible Qualifieres; No Possible Qualifiers

Universal Becoming; Universal Non-Becoming

Figure 6

This paradoxical, non-conceptual use of the notion of emptiness is reflected in the fact that certain of the Perfection of Wisdom writings used the notion without ever mentioning the term. The Diamond Sutra, for example, taught that the notion of emptiness was to be used like a hard diamond to cut away all unnecessary conceptualization, including the idea of emptiness itself. The discourse accomplished this by presenting a series of paradoxes that demonstrated emptiness without using the word.

For example, the Buddha is made to say: "As many beings as there are in the universe of beings, ...all these I must lead to nirvana, into that realm of nirvana which leaves nothing behind. And yet, although innumerable beings have thus been led to nirvana, no being at all has been led to nirvana."

'It' Universal Noun

Universal Qualifier

Becoming Non-Existent; Non-Permanence

Figure 7

The actual use of the term emptiness (sunyata) was likely avoided in the Diamond Sutra because, even though the paradoxes were half affirmative and half negatory, the potential for misunderstanding and seeing only the negative side of the equation was great. Equally dangerous was the possibility of clinging to the notion of emptiness as yet another, albeit apophatic, theory. These were dangers the Buddha was quite aware of. He said that, following his death, the monks will no longer wish to hear and learn [my teachings], deep, deep in meaning, ...dealing with the void (sunyata), but will only lend their ear to profane [teachings], made by poets, poetical, adorned with beautiful words and syllables.

Nagarjunas Tetralemma, the standard for Mahayana Buddhism, is comprised of four propositional formulations expressed positively or negatively. Where x is any proposition and x is its negation, a positive tetralemma takes the form of:

X! -X! Both X and X! Neither X nor X!

The self is real (conventionally true, i.e., it exists in a dependent reality along with everything else we derive from experience)

The self is not real (ultimately true, i.e., it has no essence)

The self is both real and not real (conventionally real but ultimately unreal) The self is neither real nor not

Conventionally real (= word, concept, perspective interpretation). Nonconventionally real (= neither a word nor a concept nor a perspective nor an interpretation). Conventionally real (= either what is or what is not, in whichever case: a sense of permanence). Nonconventionally real (= both what is and what is not and neither what is nor what is not, in whichever case: impermanence).

0 O

Figure 8

0 O

Figure 9
( 0 contemplation, musement, openness)

It is like the difference between Game and Play

Game (either winners or losers).

Winner (+), loser (-).

Play (neither winners nor losers).

+ Both + and Neither + nor

Is this (+) Is that (not-this) () Is possibly both this and that (both + and ) Is neither this nor that but something else (neither + nor , but: ( 0 ) )

But: There is no inconsistency, no cause for disagreement and nothing to discuss (Nagarjuna) And: Openness wrongly conceived destroys the dimlywitted. It is like a snake grasped by the head or a garbled incantation (Nagarjuna)

Hence it is possibly an impossible task to describe a changing reality in words because they inevitably make it appear fixed and unchanging.

To ask What is it? or How does it change? To describe the domain of becoming in essentialist language leads to contradiction and incommensurability. To describe becoming in nonessentialist language leads to paradox.

Any description of becoming taken literally is incoherent, but can be loosely described as an open-ended process.

The open-ended process is Nagarjunas middle way, or in a

manner of speaking, it is the

mediating third way in Peirces triadicity, that is, if we take the 0 in


into consideration.