I like this verse, it is simply stated, and I like simple statements that can be made into something, or understood as, important.

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But I'm totally unsure how to make sense of its four (famous) components! I probably think that "emptiness" means no causation, the idea that conditioned (caused) things don't exist in reality: that any supposed knowledge about them is bound to be found out as a form of ignorance. So then I understand them as:

  • causation isn't real
  • this is real
  • we can study this
  • and we already are

Is that an OK-ish understanding, or have I fallen into a trap? If it is, do all four of these teachings permanently replace our deluded conceptualisations?

4 Answers 4


No, this is not an OK-ish understanding, since it does not approach traditional interpretations (whether that of Tsongkhapa or his opponents belonging to the Jonang school or the Nyingma tradition).

First, from the Madhyamika-Prasangika viewpoint (Buddhapalita, Candrakirti, Shantideva, Tsongkhapa, etc) there are thee types of dependent-arising:

  1. Dependent on causes and conditions
  2. Dependent on parts
  3. Dependent on names

From the Madhyamika-Svatantrika viewpoint (Bhavaviveka, Haribhadra, Kamalasila, etc). There are only the first two types (or maybe this is forced on them by Prasangika proponents).

The point is: all objects of knowledge are dependent arising, even those that do not arise from causes and conditions and are therefore permanent phenomena (such as space, cessation, emptiness). This accords with the next verse of the same chapter:

Something that is not dependently arisen, Such a thing does not exist. Therefore a non-empty thing Does not exist.

Traditionally, we say that the meaning of dependent-arising is emptiness. This is an interpretation of the verse, since dependent-arising is not said to be emptiness, but the meaning of emptiness. This is because realizing emptiness does not equate realizing dependent-arising. One can not realize something as being a dependent-arising without having emptiness prior. That 'this is a provisional name' refers to emptiness being dependent-arising. Since it is a permanent phenomena, it does not depend on causes and conditions. However, it depends on parts and names: the emptiness of the mind, for instance, depends on its basis (i.e. the mind). Emptiness is necessarily emptiness of something and depends on its basis, therefore it is a dependent-arising.

This was stated because some think that emptiness exists truly (inherently) while it is not the case.

I suggest you attend teachings on this text and commentaries. One needs to rely on a teacher to study such texts. You started saying that you like simple statements, but it might be a trap leading you to think you can understand on your own.

  • hi, i appreciate the reply... i have actually read a fair bit on this, including the authors you mention, i just like simplifying things too much :/
    – user2512
    Jun 9, 2016 at 15:18
  • 1. is causation real? 2. if not, is that real? 3. and can we have non deluded knowledge about what causes what?
    – user2512
    Jun 9, 2016 at 15:56
  • From a Prasangika viewpoint, causation is not real (because there is no 'real conventionalities'), but it is 'real in relation to just the world' because it is an existent. On the other hand, the horns of the rabbit are not real even in relation to just the world, since they are utterly non-existent. Causation does exist conventionally. What is refuted is not causation altogether, but the four extremes of production, that is: inherent production. Jun 9, 2016 at 17:39
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    The omniscient mind of a buddha is divided into two: the second disivion is "the exalted knower of all aspects that knows the main causes and effects with regard to the seventy topics". (so, yes, one can have non deluded knowledge about what causes what) Jun 9, 2016 at 17:39
  • hey thanks for the reply, that is really great of you to do so, so clearly etc. :( !!
    – user2512
    Jun 9, 2016 at 17:47

Nagarjuna is the master who gave a clear definition to the school of Buddhism that is known today as Mahayana Buddhism. So when you question whether what he thought in the quoted text is the real knowledge or not, it brought a smile to my face. How "emptiness" is defined in the Mahayana, and in the Pali Canon is different. I cannot remember where I came across it, so I will not comment further on this. You are not sure whether you have fallen into a trap or not.

All what I can tell you is that the Buddha taught us to be vigilant in the present and strive to understand the Dhamma by analyzing and investigating carefully. In society there are two predominant views. They are right view and wrong view. Right view leads to the proper path while the latter to a wrong road. One thing that I know is that both the Mahayanins and the Theravadins believe in the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Noble Path, the Dependent Origination, the Three Characteristics of Existence and a number of other basic tenets. Above all, both the schools accept Gotama Buddha as their Teacher. So that is a good place to start.

  • I apologize for downvoting this; I did because I thought it didn't answer the question at all.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 9, 2016 at 15:02
  • @ChrisW I upvoted because I think that it points to what the referenced "Middle Way" is. Define that, and the answer is clear. As I understand it, Buddhism asserts that we can only really know for ourselves, through experience and perhaps reflection. So looking outside oneself for direction might be a help, but it can never be an "answer". This Answer basically says this... "you are not sure whether you have fallen into a trap or not." This is the beginning of Knowledge.
    – user2341
    Jul 9, 2016 at 12:42
  • @nocomprende Maybe it's a mystic, read-into-it-what-you-will answer (of a style that might appeal to you). I read it as saying, "That is a question about 'emptiness' in Mahayana, but I've forgotten where I came across that so I won't comment. The Buddha did tell us to be vigilant and investigate carefully, and here's a list of some doctrines which all schools of Buddhism have in common." The problem IMO is that an answer like "I don't know but the Buddha told us to investigate carefully" could be copy-and-pasted as an answer to any/every question: it's therefore not a (specific) answer at all.
    – ChrisW
    Jul 9, 2016 at 21:01
  • @ChrisW I agree with you that on the face of it, this does not appear to be an answer, and I agree with your point that it could be "the answer" to lots of questions about undefined terms in Buddhism. The question is basically: "Does X = Y, because someone clearly said this, but I don't understand X?" One possible answer is to say, "Well, continue with Y then, which you have some understanding of, and eventually X will become apparent." This Answer tackles the Middle Way half of the equation, and the others try to address the Dependent Co-arising / emptiness side. I think that both are useful.
    – user2341
    Jul 10, 2016 at 23:45
  • Work towards experiential knowledge of the realization of the Dhamma. Right view (Sammaditthi) is twofold: conceptual right views or the intellectual grasp of the principles in Buddha's teaching, and the true (experiential) right view. It is the wisdom that arises by direct penetration of the teaching. You will never come to the true right-view if you are not rooted in faith in the Triple Gem and driven by a keen aspiration to realize the truth. It starts with confidence and the state of Sotha-Aapanna – to get into the stream – is the arrival. Then you will see the otherness. Jul 11, 2016 at 1:01

Some philosophical interpretations of Nagarajuna do phrase it in terms of dependently arising things not really being caused.

there is no causation, when causation is thought of as involving causal activity. Nonetheless, he [Nagarjuna] notes (1: 2), there are conditions... Suppose that you ask, "Why are the lights on?" I might reply as follows: (1) Because I flicked the switch. I have appealed to an efficient condition. Or (2) because the wires are in good working order, the bulbs haven't burned out, and the electricity is flowing. These are supporting conditions... [etc.] none of them makes reference to any causal powers or necessitation.

Garfield seems here to be saying that things are caused, but their causes aren't real.

I am quite unsure though whether he would say:

  1. that's because knowledge of what causes what is deluded;
  2. we can have non deluded knowledge
  • I'm sorry I don't understand the subject matter well enough to understand/judge this, but: is this as an answer to your original question, or, is it an addition/supplement/follow-on to the original question, or is it a comment/question to Tenzin Dorje's answer?
    – ChrisW
    Jun 9, 2016 at 16:10
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    hi @ChrisW don't be sorry. i suppose it's an incomplete answer to my question
    – user2512
    Jun 9, 2016 at 16:19
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    I will wade in to the conflagration and say that I think that one possible understanding is that #2 is false: we are unable to have non-deluded knowledge. But we can be clear about that and not get further deluded and wander farther into the maze. To me, knowledge of Dependent Co-Arising means seeing that causes, reality, concepts, etc are all made-up. We cannot have 'knowledge' of something that we just created in our minds out of nothing. Realizing that that is the state of affairs, is what I would call Emptiness.
    – user2341
    Jul 10, 2016 at 23:51

You are actually misunderstanding the verse.

The verse is in fact the KEY to unlocking the understanding of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras - Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra as well the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra.

Here is an alternative English translation (You Zai) of the verse from Mulamadhyamaka Karika from the Chinese translation by Kumarajiva

All dharmas that arise from causes and conditions,

I call them emptiness.

They are also provisional names,

And also the Middle Way.

The Chinese text



What Nagarjuna is saying, is that because all dependent originated phenomenon are due to causes and conditions, by their very conditionality they are impermanent and without self. As stated by the Buddha.


"When this is, that is;

This arising, that arises;

When this is not, that is not;

This ceasing, that ceases."

Therefore because things are impermanent and without a true lasting self. He call them 'empty'.

However the term 'emptiness' is also just a convenient label, because it does not fully explain the complexity of the phenomenon and all the causes that made up something. To say something is 'empty' is that it ultimately lacks an underlying 'essence', but does not mean that it does not exist but that it does not truly exist.

This is therefore the Middle Way between Eternalism and Annihilationism. To be annihilationist is to say nothing exists and that there are no causes for anything to occur. This isn't the definition of emptiness as used by Nagarjuna. It is because there are causes, there are outcomes, but because they are made up of causes, there are also impermanent, hence is not Eternal.

So whenever you come across a text like the following:

Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is form.

Heart Sutra

Your should consider the meaning of emptiness.

Form is dependently generated, Dependent origination is form.

Form is impermanent, Impermanence is form.

Form is without self, Without self is form.

So the question would be, why did Mahayana Buddhist Nagarjuna rephrase what is already a known Buddhist concept into 'emptiness'.

It because of what they perceived as the reification of Buddhist teachings in the Abhidhamma by schools such as the Sarvastivada (one of the ancestors of the Theravada), recall that even in modern Theravada teaches that Nibanna is unconditioned, a deathless dimension, and that the Arahants are perfect etc.

Nagarjuna denies such permanence and eternalism.

This is why it is stated:

There is No Wisdom, and There is No Attainment Whatsoever.

Because wisdom is itself conditioned (by the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path), and therefore wisdom too is impermanent. Hence the fruit of Four Stages of Attainment (Stream Entry, Once Returner, One Returner, Arahantship) are impermanent too.

It is not saying that there wisdom does not exist or the fruits of the contemplative life does not exist. They do exist, but like everything else are impermanent and not self.

Nagarjuna is breaking our attachments to the attainments within the very Dharma itself! Even Nirvana itself is impermanent! The end of suffering as is suffering is caused and conditioned and is impermanent!

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