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The great 2nd-3rd century CE preceptor of Madhyamaka Buddhism, Nāgārjuna, is best known for enshrining "emptiness" as the bedrock concept of all Great Vehicle Buddhist philosophy that would come after him. But there has been much argument, among both classical and modern practitioners and scholars of Buddhism about exactly what Nāgārjuna means by this notion. Chapter 24, verse 18 of Nāgārjuna's major work for Buddhists, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, where "emptiness" is explicitly defined, has therefore been taken to be the most crucial stanza for understanding it. A consensus has arisen among modern translators and scholars of this work that the verse declares that "emptiness" should only be understood as a "nominal" or "conventional" term meant only to deter us from any metaphysical theorising or attachment. In this presentation, I will subject this standard reading to a close textual, historical and philosophical critique. I will argue that MMK 24:18, rather than steering us away from any metaphysical commitments at all, insists only that "emptiness" means exactly the same thing as "conditioned co-arising" (pratītyasamutpāda), which is a very specific Buddhist causal theory about the interdependence of all things.
Douglas L. Berger is Professor of Global and Comparative Philosophy and the Director of the Centre for Intercultural Philosophy at Leiden University in the Netherlands. His areas of research and teaching include Indian and Chinese philosophical traditions and cross-cultural hermeneutics. He has written dozens of essays and book chapters on these topics, as well as four independent monographs, including "The Veil of Māyā:" Schopenhauer's System and Early Indian Thought (Global Academic Publications, Binghamton, New York, 2004) and Encounters of Mind: Luminosity and Personhood in Indian and Chinese Thought (SUNY Press, Albany, 2015). From 2014-2016, he served as the president of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy.
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