“An Indian philosophy of universal contingency: Nagarjuna’s school” (Fernando Tola & Carmen Dragonetti)

The Normal Experience and the Philosophical Study of the Empirical Reality

The ordinary experience reveals to us a reality composed of beings and things which present themselves as existing in se et per se, as compact, continuous and unitary, as permanent and as real, i.e. as being such as we perceive them.

The Madhyamika school of Buddhism, founded by Nagarjuna at the beginning of our era, studies the reality we perceive and reaches a conclusion regarding that reality completely different from our ordinary experience. The empirical reality is composed of beings and things absolutely contingent. In this empirical reality, in which we live there is nothing existing in see! per se; nothing has a being that belongs to it by own right (svabhava); in this reality everything is conditioned, relative, dependent, contingent. Moreover everything without exception is constituted of parts. No entity exists as a whole; there are only ensembles, conglomerates of parts,’ elements, constituting factors. Besides that nothing is permanent, inalterable; everything is in a process of change, submitted to an evolution which proceeds under the sign of decay and deterioration. And, as a consequence of what precedes, there is nothing which exists truly as it manifests itself before us (substantial, compact etc.). The empirical reality, as we perceive it, is only an appearance to which nothing real corresponds, something similar to a dream, to a mirage, to an illusion created by magic.

The conditionedness, the relativity, the dependence on another, the composedness, the impermanency, in a word, the contingency is the true nature, the true form of being of the empirical reality; and the form under which this reality appears to us is only an unreality, an illusion. So the ordinary experience is the opposite of the conclusion to which arrives the philosophical study of the perceptible world done by the Madhyamika school.

Two Realities: The Reality of Concealment Samvrtisatya), the True Reality (Paramarthasatya)

According to what precedes, for the Madhyamika school there are two realities: on one side, an apparent, phenomenic reality, the empirical reality as it appears before us (substantial, compact etc.), and on the other side, the true form of being of the apparent reality (unsubstantial, composed etc.), which is the true reality, in the same way as the serpent, under whose image we perceive the rope in the darkness, is the apparent reality, while the rope is the true reality.

The rope is a concealing reality, the threads that compose it are the true reality in regard to the rope; but at its own tum each thread is a concealing reality in regard to the filaments that compose it, and the filaments that compose it are the true reality in regard to the thread, and so on, without finding a last substantial reality. Speaking in general modem terms, it could be said that the world as it appears to us is the concealing reality of the Madhyamikas and that the atoms and energy which constitute the world are, in regard to it, the true nature of the world, the true reality. The Madhyamika would add that the atoms and energy are, at their own turn, a concealing reality in regard to the elements which compose the atoms and energy and which are the true nature of the atoms and energy, the true reality, and sdon, without finding a last substantial entity.

The apparent reality, the empirical reality as it manifests itself to us is called, by the Madhyamika school, ‘envelopment reality’ or ‘concealment reality’ (samvrtisatya). This is an appropriate term, because the appearance under which the empirical reality is perceived by us envelops or conceals its true form of being, which is the true reality (paramarthasatya).

Universal Contingency. ‘Svabhāvaśūnyatā’ and ‘Pratītyasamutpāda’ as Denominations of the True Reality

The true reality (paramārthasatya) can be designated with the words svabhavasunyata and pratityasamutpada. Svabhāvaśūnyatā means ‘emptiness (=absence) of an own being’.

Pratītyasamutpāda literally means ‘dependent origination’, but in the area of the Madhyamika school it can be translated by ‘Universal Relativity’ as Stcherbatsky rightly does.’ Both words designate the true nature, ‘the true way of being (conditionality, relativity, etc.) of the empirical reality-true nature that is concealed under the false appearance of the empirical reality and which is the true reality. Both words express the basic and, from all points of view, important conception of the Madhyamika school about the empirical reality: it is only a totality of contingent beings and things, in which there is nothing that exists in se et per se.

Many Western thinkers have deduced, from the contingency of the world, the existence of a non-contingent supreme principle, God. Cf. for example Copleston in ‘The Existence of God: A Debate between Bertrand Russell and Father F.C. Copleston, S.J.,’ in Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian, and other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (London: Unwin Books, 1967), p. 139:

Well, for clarity’s sake, I’ll divide the argument (for contingency) in distinct stages. First of all, I should say, we know that there are at least some beings in the world which do not contain in themselves the reason for their existence. For example, I depend on my parents, and now on the air, and on food and so on. Now, secondly, the world is simply the real or imagined totality or aggregate of individual objects, none of which contain in themselves alone the reason for their existence. There isn’t any world distinct from the objects which form it, any more than the human race is something apart from the members. Therefore, I should say, since objects or events exist, and since no object of experience contains within itself the reason of its existence, this reason, the totality of objects, must have a reason external to itself. That reason must be an existent being. Well, this being is either itself the reason forits own existence, or is not. If it is, well and good. If it is not, then we must proceed further. But if we proceed to infinity in that sense, then there’s no explanation of existence at all. So, I should say, in order to explain existence, we must come to a being which contains within itself the reason for its own existence, that is to say, which cannot not-exist.

Nagarjuna’s school affirms also the contingency of everything, but from such a fact does not draw the conclusion that a noncontingent supreme principle, God, exists. For him the universal contingency has had no beginning. is anadi, and consequently it is irrelevant to ask when, how and why did it begin. The hypothesis of a beginningless contingency has the same function as the hypothesis of a beginningless god.

TOLA, Fernando; DRAGONETTI, Carmen, On Voidness: A Study on Buddhist Nihilism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1995.