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Svabhava and Sunyata

The central concept around which all of Ngrjuna's philosophy is built is the notion of emptiness (nyat). Emptiness is of course always the emptiness of something, and the something Ngrjuna has in mind here is svabhva. Different terms have been used to translate this word into English: inherent existence and intrinsic nature appear to be the more popular choices, but substance and essence have also been proposed. None of these cover the full complexity of the term, however. We therefore have to give some more detailed account of the way svabhva is characterized in Ngrjuna's thought. By understanding what empty things are supposed to be empty of we simultaneously gain a more precise understanding of the concept of emptiness. We can distinguish two main conceptual dimensions of the concept of svabhva, an ontological one, which refers to a particular way in which objects exist, and a cognitive one, which refers to a way in which objects are conceptualized by human beings. Within the ontological dimension we can distinguish three different understandings of svabhva: in terms of essence, in terms of substance, and in terms of absolute reality If we understand svabhva in terms of essence it has to be considered a property an object could not lose without ceasing to be that very object: the svabhva of fire is to be hot, thesvabhva of water to be wet: whatever ceases to be hot is no longer fire, whatever ceases to be wet is no longer water. According to this understading svabhva is also identified with the kind of specific qualities (svalakaa) that allow an observer to distinguish an object from other things: by knowing that something is hot, together with a variety of othersvalakaas we know that what we have in front of us is fire rather than something else. It is important to note that this concept of svabhva (which plays only a small role in Ngrjuna's writings but becomes more important in later Madhyamaka writers) is not the target of the Madhyamaka critique. When Ngrjuna argues that things are empty ofsvabhva it is not this notion of essence he is concerned with. The philosophically more important understanding of svabhva is an understanding in terms of substance. In Buddhist philosophical thought preceding Ngrjuna we find the distinction between primary existents (dravyasat) and secondary existents (prajaptisat). Primary existents constitute the objective and irreducible constituents of the world out there while secondary existents depend on our conceptual and linguistic practices. Some Buddhist schools would hold that only atomic moments of consciousness are really real whereas everything else, including shoes and ships and sealing-wax is a mere aggregate of such moments constructed by our conceptualizing mind. According to this theory the entire world around us would be relegated to the status of mere secondary existents, apart from the moments of consciousness which are primary existents. In this context svabhva is equated with primary existennce and denotes a specific ontological status: to exist with svabhva means to be part of the basic furniture of the world, independent of anything else that also happens to exist. Such objects provide the ontological rock-bottom on which the diverse world of phenomena rests. They provide the end-point of a chain of ontological dependence relations. Ngrjuna argues, however, that there is no such end-point. It is the understanding of svabhva as a primary existent or substance that constitutes the main target of his philosophical criticism. Before we have a closer look at the form this criticism takes we must briefly mention the final ontological understanding of svabhva, namely svabhva as absolute reality. Ifsvabhva is regarded as the true

nature of phenomena it is sometimes characterized as not brought about by any causal process, as unchangeable and as independent of any other object. The interesting problem arising here is that for the Madhyamaka the true nature of phenomena is emptiness, i.e. the absence of svabhva understood as substance, and thatsvabhva understood in this way is also characterized as not brought about by any causal process, as unchangeable and as independent of any other object. So it seems to be the case that something that has all these properties must exist (since there is svabhva which is the true nature of phenomena) and must not exist (since, the Madhyamaka argues, svabhvaunderstood as substance does not exist). In the Buddhist commentarial literature we find several different ways of dissolving this contradiction (for more discussion see Westerhoff 2009: 4046). One way of tackling the issue is by differentiating two senses in which svabhva can be independent of any other object. This can be understood as the familiar understanding of substance as a primary existent noted above. But it can also be understood as meaning not dependent on any specific phenomenon. We could then argue that emptiness as the true nature of phenomena is to be understood as svabhva and thus as independent only in the second, but not in the first sense. This is due to the fact that svabhva in the sense rejected by Madhyamaka thinkers is regarded as a superimposition mistakenly projected onto objects which in fact lack it (see below). Thus emptiness only exists as long as svabhvaunderstood as substance is mistakenly projected onto some object or other. Emptiness does not depend on any specific phenomenon to exist, but there has to be some phenomenon mistakenly conceived for emptiness to exist. Emptiness is not some kind of primordial reality ante rem but a corrective to a mistaken view of how the world exists. This account boils down to saying that there really are only two ways of understanding svabhva: as essence and as substance. What was earlier called svabhva as absolute reality is only a specific form of svabhva understood as essence: in the same way as heat is an essential quality of fire emptiness is an essential quality of all phenomena. Things could not be the things they are without being empty. In concluding our exposition of the different conceptual dimensions that make up the concept of svabhva in Madhyamaka thought we finally have to consider the cognitive understanding of the term. This constitutes an indispensable component of Ngrjuna's concept since for him the purpose of determining the existence or non-existence of svabhva is not just to arrive at a theoretically satisfactory understanding of reality but is taken to have far more comprehensive implications for how we interact with the world. Realization of the non-existence of svabhva is supposed to have important soteriological consequences as part of Buddhist practice; ultimately it is understood to be the way to the liberation from suffering, the final of the famous four noble truths expounded by the Buddha. It is important to realize that svabhva understood as substance that Ngrjuna rejects is not a theoretical posit, an entity an insufficiently sophisticated philosopher might postulate, but a kind of cognitive default, a way of superimposing something onto the world that is automatic and immediate and not the result of detailed theoretical reflection. We carry out such superimpositions when we regard the rapidly changing set of psycho-physical aggregates that constitutes us as a single, permanent, independent self but also in our daily interaction with other persons, medium-sized dry goods, linguistic representations and so forth. These then lead to all sorts of painful emotional entanglements and constitute the key source of suffering described in the Buddhist teachings. It is crucial to keep in mind in this context that the Madhyamaka distinguishes between the understanding of the absence of svabhva or emptiness and its realization. The former is a purely intellectual response resulting from being convinced by the Madhyamaka arguments; it does not entail that phenomena will no longer appear as having svabhva. They will only cease to appear in this way as a result of the realization of emptiness. The aim of

Madhyamaka thought is therefore not simply to present an accurate account of the nature of the world, but to bring about a cognitive change, a change in the way in which the world appears to us. It is useful to compare this situation with the perception of an optical illusion such as the Mller-Lyer illusion in which two lines of equal length appear to be of different length. By using a ruler we can convince ourselves that our perception deceives us; by learning more about perceptive mechanisms we can understand why we perceive the lines in the way they do. But none of this implies that the lines will in the end look as if they are equally long.