Universal ≠ Eternal: On the nature of truths

In a discussion session for a directed readings course on Madhyamaka last year sometime, the student asserted that the truth of emptiness must be eternal and unchanging, and therefore, an absolute, because it is always true. While I sensed that there was something wrong with this claim, the limited time available that day—and my own lack of ready wit—meant that I was not able to formulate a response right then that I found satisfactory. (Warning to readers: in other words, this is not offered as some brilliant new insight, but is rather simply me talking to myself, trying to work out my own ideas on this matter.)

Upon further reflection, it seems to me that employing the phrase “the truth of emptiness” leads all too easily to an implicit reification, such that “the truth of emptiness” is itself treated as substantive—something which either changes or doesn’t change. However, “the truth of emptiness” is a concept, which is conditioned; while emptiness is not a thing, and therefore certainly not the kind of thing that either changes or doesn’t. “Emptiness” is simply a descriptive term for which the claim is made that it is universally applicable. In fact, universally applicable by definition, since to exist is to be impermanent, which is just the same as being empty. Those with much more ready knowledge of Madhyamaka thought would no doubt have seen that this is the “emptiness of emptiness,” which in this instance, I take to mean that emptiness as an evaluation applies to emptiness as a concept, as much as it does to anything else. Or, the judgement “X is empty” is itself something that is conditioned, and impermanent. I just recently encountered this same way of distinguishing between emptiness as universally applicable and emptiness as a concept—Dan Martin expressed this distinction in his discussion of the Guhyagarbha Tantra, saying “The permanence of the interdependent origination itself was not an issue since it is a principle and not a thing.” (Dan Martin, “Illusion Web—Locating the Guhyagarbha Tantra in Buddhist Intellectual History,” in Christopher I. Beckwith, ed., Silver on Lapis: Tibetan Literary Culture and History, Bloomington, Indiana: The Tibet Society, 1987. 177.)

For the sake of thoroughness, we can note that the same is true of the components of the phrase, that is, “truth” and “emptiness” themselves, so that there is no substantive lurking somewhere within the phrase. Emptiness is not a “truth” in the grandiose sense of an eternal verity existing in some transcendent realm of pure ideas (it is not a Buddhist corollary to the neo-Platonic One), but rather simply a descriptive term for a characteristic of all existing beings.

The recognition that emptiness is to be applied to itself in this way is what makes Madhyamaka so effective in countering foundationalism or essentialism. And, this is what makes Nagarjuna’s thought a brilliant advance, moving beyond the ongoing analytic process of reductionism (as in the abhidharma’s reduction to dharmas) to a view that pulls the conceptual rug out from under everything. It is exactly reductionism that is unending, an infinite regress, and therefore always allowing for another foundation or essence to be asserted.

Or, in some people’s view the autocriticism of the emptiness of emptiness apparently simply makes Nagarjuna a tricky sophist. But it seems to me that the sophistry lies in the conflation of “permanent” and “universally applicable.”

By a kind of loose association, this makes me think about a critique of Buddhist thought that I’ve encountered recently. This critique is that “the emptiness/impermanence of each and everything in the universe does not establish the emptiness/impermanence of the universe itself.” This, however, strikes me as at best a problem in set-theory, i.e., the attribution of ontological status to the set itself separate and independent from the items that constitute the set, and as something more than simply a word, label or concept. Or, it is another instance of sophistry leading to a kind of self-delusion—one motivated perhaps simply by the desire for there to be something more…

Since the emptiness of emptiness is something that I learned very early in my study of Buddhist thought, and have myself taught repeatedly, I find it worth noting the importance of working such ideas through for oneself. While I’d had the ideas previously, I’d not been able to bring them to bear promptly when confronted by a claim that was new to me, but which was in fact subject to the same autocriticism.


Although Daniel Vanderveken is not directly addressing the ontological status of epistemological claims, the distinction intended here is exemplified in his claim:

“The conclusions of the book [his Meaning and Speech Acts] are transcendental. They state universal laws of language use and comprehension that reflect the a priori forms of thought and of experience of human speakers.” (2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990; I.5)

The closing prepositional qualification “of human speakers” makes it clear that Vanderveken is not intending that the conclusions toward which he is working are eternal, everlasting, timeless, or unconditioned. To be “universal” means simply that the conclusions are expected apply to all human speakers. To be “transcendental” means simply that the conclusions are not limited to any specific context (time, place, language, etc.). To be “a priori” means logically prior, and neither chronologically nor as an eternal verity. In other words, it is possible to claim that some specific item of knowledge (the emptiness of all existents, or any of Vanderveken’s conclusions) is universal and transcendental (applying without qualification to the entirety of some set at any time), and at the same time to say that as a conceptualization it is historically conditioned.

Thus: “Emptiness” is a claim regarding the ontological status of all existents. As a claim it has epistemological status—true, false, unverified, dubious, well-evidenced, etc. However, as a claim, it is itself an existent, and the claim therefore also applies to itself. This seems relatively simple and straightforward, despite its applying recursively to itself.

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