Already in the dedicatory verses of the MMK, Nagarjuna tells us that there is no origination or cessation of any kind. There is no arising whatsoever. I understand that this absence of arisen things is identical to the doctrine of dependent origination. But if that's the case, what sense does it make to speak of an dependent origination if it has already been established that there are no things that have arisen? Doesn't dependent origination presuppose the existence of things to make any sense?

2 Answers 2


In Mahayana Buddhism, the term Dependent Origination has two distinct corollaries or implications.

Outwardly, it implies that every (physical, objective) phenomenon is nothing but a transient combination of other phenomena, and every single one of these phenomena is also like that, and so on ad infinitum.

Inwardly, it implies that the entire world, with what looks like objectively distinct phenomena, is actually an experience of a model built by the mind.

Combining the two, you should be able to understand the following: The actual reality is amorphous and perpetually in-flux, without ontologically discrete phenomena. The perception of distinct clearly delineated phenomena is merely a result of the mind's modeling activity.

If you are with me so far, it should be easy to see why the concepts Origination and Cessation do not apply. Indeed, if phenomena are delineated and projected by the observing mind, and, what we see as distinct phenomena are only moment-in-time impressions of what in reality is something like perpetually mixing soup, shifting, mixing and morphing like the clouds in the sky, then how can we talk about Origination and Cessation, except as in the phenomenological sense?

And that's exactly what Mahayana Buddhism and Nagarjuna are trying to say when they talk about Emptiness as the fundamental nature of things. In the absence of mind's modeling, delineating, and evaluating activity, there indeed are no distinct phenomena, no Origination, no Cessation, and, as they say in the Heart Sutra, nothing pure or impure, no need for purification, and nothing to attain.

As to the nature of the mind, it is nothing special either, it is nothing but accumulated impressions of the interactions of the same "soup", emerging as ability to recognize patterns and regularities.

Therefore, Emptiness and Dependent Origination are two ways to conceptualize what in reality is the same "grand scheme of things". Emptiness is Dependent Origination and Dependent Origination is Emptiness. In other words, form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

  • 1
    Neat last paragraph. I previously read, "form is emptiness and emptiness is form" as a paradox and confusing (and maybe close to nihilistic). But you're saying "A is B because (or 'in that') they are both referring to the same/one reality".
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 12 at 16:19
  • I think I understand. The tendency to "grasp" things is what determines them as independent and discrete entities. It seems to me that you've explained the relationship between Cittamatra and Madhyamaka very well with your explanation. However, I believe that asserting a state of continuous flux is affirming too much because flux depends on there being things to be something. It seems to me that impermanence (= ¿flux?) has more to do with both change and permanence being impossible, since they are empty, and hence the impossibility of establishing any enduring identity beyond conventions.
    – Ian
    Commented May 14 at 20:25
  • yeah, maybe, but I wanted to keep it simple and clear without too much philosophical baggage. Sometimes when we try too hard to make things accurate the reader can't see the forest behind the trees. But this is also about the Rangtong/Shengtong split, of which I belong to the latter.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented May 14 at 20:28
  • Oh, I see! It always comes in handy to be reminded of the luminous aspect of emptiness. I, on the other hand, prefer to highlight the dark side!
    – Ian
    Commented May 15 at 12:08

Dependent origination is with regards to conventional reality. Emptiness is with regards to Ultimate reality. If you are reading Nagarjuna's MMK, I suggest you look at ch.24 v.18. Whatever is empty, that is said to be dependently originated. Emptiness is regards to phenomena having no objective existence, no independent existence. Precisely because they dont have an independent existence, dependent existence is granted.

  • It's been quite clear when you said that dependent origination is an assertion of dependency and emptiness a denial of independence. What I don't quite understand is why you first say that "Emptiness is with regards to Ultimate reality (...)", and then "Emptiness is regards to phenomena having no objective existence". Could you clarify this?
    – Ian
    Commented May 14 at 20:16
  • Could it be said that asserting dependent origination is the "best" positive way we have of talking about emptiness conventionally, and that emptiness, being a characteristic denoting absence, is precisely a negative and oblique way of showing the non-substantial nature of things?
    – Ian
    Commented May 14 at 20:19

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