In my opinion, the Sutta Pitaka and Mahayana Agamas (the Mahayana equivalent of the Pali suttas) discuss the nature of the self (anatta, empty of self, dependent arising) in such a way that it is useful to the path towards liberation from suffering (such as overcoming self-view or sakkāya-diṭṭhi).

Meanwhile, the Sutta Pitaka and Mahayana Agamas (the Mahayana equivalent of the Pali suttas) do not discuss the nature of other non-sentient things (e.g. a chair, the universe, atoms, five aggregates), beyond noting that other things are conditioned (sankhara) and impermanent (anicca).

On the other hand, Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka seems to have expanded on these concepts to cover the nature of all reality (empty of inherent nature / svabhava, dependent arising, dependent designation). On top of this, Madhyamaka also posits that emptiness itself is empty of inherent nature.

To a non-Mādhyamika practitioner, Madhyamaka's discussion on the nature of all reality may appear to be an exposition on the "poisoned arrow". That is to say, it is not useful to the path towards liberation from suffering. Some might even say that the nature of all reality falls under the fourth imponderable (Acintita Sutta).

From a Mādhyamika practitioner's perspective, how is Madhyamaka useful to the path towards liberation from suffering? How is it useful to personal practice?

This should not be seen as negative criticism towards Madhyamaka. Rather, I seek to understand its usefulness to personal practice.


Madhyamika posits that both persons and phenomena (i.e. phenomena other than persons) are empty of true existence. While traditional text do not mention the emptiness of chairs, table, etc. They do say that persons and phenomena [other than persons] are empty of true existence. The Heart Sutra says:

Phenomena also are empty.

This citation means that both persons and phenomena are empty of true existence. Thus, it is not true that "Mahayana Agamas do not discuss the nature of other non-sentient things".

In his Commentary on Aryadeva’s Four Hundred, Chandrakirti says:

Through the division of phenomena and persons [selflessness] is understood as twofold, “a selflessness of phenomena and a selflessness of persons.”

In addition, traditional Mahayana texts explicitly posits that phenomena one encounters and "deal with" on the path to enlightenment are empty. For instance, the objects of abandonment are empty, nirvana and samsara are empty, afflictions are empty, minds are empty, and so forth. Why? This is because while our misconception of the nature of a cup is not that which binds us in samsara, seeing the afflictions, etc. the way they exist is most relevant. phenomena the way they exist is relevant, while it is not so much our misconception of the nature of a table that binds us in samsara.

Nagarjuna’s Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness says:

Compositional activity is caused by afflictive emotions. The afflictive emotions that motivate actions have a nature of [contaminated] actions. The body is caused by [contaminated] actions. All three are empty of inherent existence

The types of phenomena of which emptiness is usually emphasized, though, are the aggregates. According to Madhyamika tenets, one cannot obtain even the path of seeing without directly realizing both the emptiness of person and that of phenomena [simultaneously]. Here, phenomena refers to the aggregates.

In Precious Garland, Nagarjuna says:

As long as conception of the aggregates exists,
So long is there conception of an I in them.

This is because we posit that the conception of self of person is based on the conception of self of phenomena, and that it is not possibly to eradicate one [ignorance] without eradicating the other.

  • When I wrote Mahayana Agamas, I meant the equivalent of the Pali Suttas, not the Heart Sutra, Avatamsaka Sutra, Prajnaparamita Sutra etc. This is a very good answer, especially this excerpt: "As long as conception of the aggregates exists, So long is there conception of an I in them."
    – ruben2020
    Feb 7 '18 at 3:11
  • Sorry for having mistaken what you meant with "Mahayana Agamas", a polysemic expression. I might rephrase my answer a little, but Madhyamika is exclusively based on the Prajnaparamita sutras (they are 17 and the Heart Sutra is one of them). Feb 7 '18 at 10:24

How is Madhyamaka useful on the path towards liberation from suffering?

The traditional answer in Tibetan Mahayana (esp. in Gelug) is that for certain personality types, Liberation from suffering requires deep intellectual understanding of, and liberation from, one's own conceptual obscurations (kleshas).

In other words, some people are just not satisfied by a simple statement like "there is no self or core in anything", they need to really see it in detail before they can internalize it and therefore let go of grasping. So Madhyamaka systematically shows examples of this statement and analyses them in great detail, until the person is not only convinced, but his/her very vision of life in all its aspects changes in light of this deep realization.

In my own practice, I started getting first glimpses of what "corelessness" could mean way before I officially studied Madhyamaka, picking it up from casual remarks from teachers and books. I must say, seeing how deep the habit of reification goes in everything we humans do, has changed my perspective and attitude dramatically. Nearly every frustration we face in our personal lives as well as in our public social discourse, can be traced to, or is made difficult by, mistaken reification somewhere up the chain.

Buddha himself said:

He who sees Dependent Co-Arising, sees the Dharma.

And Nagarjuna explains that Dependent Co-Arising refers not to the regular causation, but to the logically relative and context-dependent nature of all experienced phenomena.

“It is Dependent Co-Arising
Is what we call Emptiness.
Understanding this point
Is walking the Middle Way.”

Now, some schools of Buddhism, such as Zen and some lineages of Nyingma, do not really emphasize philosophical analysis of Emptiness. Instead, they get you to an intuitive vision of the same, through practical examples in one's immediate life. So in the traditional Buddhism, Madhyamaka had its niche as special medicine for intellectual types.

However, the world nowadays is a lot more sophisticated than it was ~2600 years ago, or even just 200 years ago. We live in a realm of concepts to a lot greater degree than we used to back in the Buddha's times. So not understanding the major flaw and danger of the deepest perceptual/interpretative assumptions that our entire civilization is built upon, puts us in a very weak position as far as getting deluded and losing the way.

So in my opinion, solid understanding of Emptiness is a broad requirement in this new era, critical for helping the common people not just be less attached and more open-minded, but most importantly to obtain a much needed immunity to manipulations by non-human forms of existence - the conflict of interests that is only beginning to unfold.

  • So the Gelug approach is like "top-down", while the Zen approach is like "bottom-up"? Top-down and bottom-up
    – ruben2020
    Feb 7 '18 at 3:18
  • You can say that, sure. Generally speaking Gelug is pro-intellectual and Zen is pro-directly-pointing-out but there are different approaches within each.
    – Andrei Volkov
    Feb 7 '18 at 3:29

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