In the Madhyamaka, or Middle Way School, a critical element of wisdom is seeing beyond the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism. In transcending eternalism and nihilism, you’re not trying to achieve some half-and-half mix of the two; you’re transcending both. So you’re not trying to cling to some new thing in the middle or to a both existent and nonexistent state, or some such oddity.
Nihilism may be more familiar and easier to identify in our culture. You might have friends whom you would say have a nihilistic bent, or maybe you, yourself, have certain leanings in that direction. But what is eternalism? Eternalism, on the surface, would be a belief in a permanent soul. There are, of course, many people in the world who have such a belief. However, Buddhist teachings speak to a subtler and more pervasive form of eternalism, one that’s related to clinging to things around you as real, as being self-existent. In the Buddhist view, all material objects are radically impermanent. According to physics as well, what seems to be a solid object is primarily space anyway—there’s a bunch of energy dynamically whirling around in there; it’s only an illusion of solidity. The Madhyamaka tradition would definitely agree that if you investigate physical objects, you will not be able to find a stable basis.
They say every seven years all the cells in your body change. Literally, the physicality that you identify as you is gone. What appears to be a person is actually a very dynamic process, and nothing is stable within that.
Each moment of mind, too, is understood to be freshly arising through causes and conditions. The light is reflecting off the wall, hitting your eye faculty, and eye consciousness arises; each moment of eye consciousness looking at that wall is a fresh experience of the energy of this light. The light comes from the sun and bounces through the window. Every moment is arising in this dynamic fashion, but our mind creates the illusion that things aren’t changing, and we then create the psychological state of boredom and so on.
From the Buddhist point of view, the idea that there’s a stable self seems absurd when you start looking at the mechanics of how moments of consciousness arise and how no two moments are the same. Buddhism further posits that this process of cause and result, this momentary dynamic process, is structured in such a way that nonvirtuous actions motivated by nonvirtuous mental states generate negative effects, while positive mental states and actions generate positive effects. Nihilists, of course, typically deny this. They view causality as random: good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to good people. It’s all random, and therefore they don’t accept the idea of morality; they tend to reject virtue and nonvirtue. Nihilism, for this reason, is a very harmful mental state, more harmful than eternalism.
But even nihilists, from the point of view of clinging to objects and clinging to themselves as real, seem to be eternalists. If you are really proud of your new Tesla or your Kona coffee from Hawaii—if you’re really proud of your possessions and cling to them—then your sense of self is strengthened, nihilist or not. So even nihilists are eternalists from the point of view of clinging to our sense of self to create a sense of stability—even when, if we’re honest, we all have an inkling that everything is slightly unstable and subject to falling apart. If both matter and consciousness are very dynamic and there’s no stability in them, how is it then that we create this strong sense of stability in objects and in ourselves?
One of the principal tools used to create this illusion is conceptuality. For example, when you say something like, “That’s my TV,” “That’s my cell phone,” “That’s my best friend,” you contribute to the idea that there’s a unit there. We use pronouns—it, she, he, they—and they have the same effect. Every concept is like a rug with a bazillion threads: if I pick up one part, the whole thing comes along with it, as if it is a unit, but it is not.
Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, in his book The Language Instinct, describes the process by which we use language: “Slicing space–time into objects and actions is an imminently sensible way to make predictions given the way the world is put together.” Giving a name to all the parts “invites the predication that those parts will continue to occupy some region of space and will move as a unit. Lift the rabbit by the scruff of the neck, and the rabbit’s foot and rabbit’s ears come along for the ride.”
In thinking about things, we create a connectedness, a unity, a cohesion that’s not there. There are parts there, but we misconstrue them as having some sort of unit-ness. When you have a composite object like a chair, you can see that it’s got composite parts, like nails, fabric, wood, glue, and varnish on the outside. There are all these different parts that are brought together, and in a given moment, you can see it’s really a collection of components, each different from every other. There’s not really a chair there, only this collection of parts.
In a similar fashion, for mental experience, there’s the creation of a sense of self over time. We tend to think of past moments as being part of this same person of the present moment. The cognitive scientist Francisco Varelao writes in The Embodied Mind about how we create the illusion of continuity, which is really a process of moments arising into the illusion of a self:
In our habitual and unreflective state, we impute continuity of consciousness to all of our experience…But this apparent totality and continuity of consciousness masks the discontinuity of momentary consciousnesses related to one another by cause and effect. A traditional metaphor for this illusory continuity is the lighting of one candle with a second candle, a third candle from that one, and so on—the flame is passed from one candle to the next candle without any material basis being passed on. Taking this sequence as a real continuity, however, we cling tenaciously to this consciousness and are terrorized by the possibility of its termination in death. Yet…it becomes obvious that consciousness as such cannot be taken as that self that we so treasure.
Here we have the proposition that consciousness does vividly arise, but also that it’s fresh. Each moment is arising. It does have a causal relationship with the past; if you were in a situation that harmed your hearing, for example, your present ability to hear will be diminished. So what has happened in the past does affect the present. But the present moment of sound—the present moment of consciousness apprehending that sound—is a fresh new event. It’s not the same consciousness as before; you can talk about the causal link going back, but not about a substantial identity. There’s no person who was the same back then and as they are now.
If conceptuality helps contribute to this illusion of unity and cohesion of objects, then how accurate are concepts? This points to epistemology, the study of how we know. Consider your concept of a tangerine: when you compare the vividness of actually putting a tangerine into your mouth, your concept of a tangerine is pretty pathetic. The actual taste is called a specifically characterized phenomenon, a gloriously detailed phenomenon, but the concept is merely a vague, shimmering, mental construct called a generally characterized phenomenon.
Here’s an exercise: wherever you are, look around you and find an object that is fairly large, something that you could pick up, that has some heft or size to it. Don’t touch or pick it up yet, but anticipate what it’s going to feel like to pick it up, what the weight of it is going to be.
Form a mental concept, a mental anticipation, of what that weight will be like. The question is, how close is your anticipated experience of the weight to the actual weight? There’s a tendency to think we know what it weighs. Whenever you’re ready, with a clear sense of the anticipated weight of the object, go ahead and pick the object up.
What was that like? How close was your concept of it to the actual experience? Sometimes people are very surprised to find that it’s way heavier or lighter than they thought it would be. Or maybe you got close. Sometimes people say it was exactly the same as they expected (I always wonder when they say that). In any case, you can try this with different objects. You could do this several times throughout your day and examine this relationship between your concepts, your anticipation of the experience, and the actual experience. The suggestion is that there’s always this disjunction—the concept is not the object. We might occasionally get close to being correct using conceptuality, but there are also times when our concepts are pure delusion.
Another way to look at conceptuality is through the experience of prejudice, experiencing deep differences between yourself and someone else. For example, you can observe differences of physical features between different groups of people, and different conduct and ways of dressing. There are observable characteristics, but then there’s this additional quality that we viscerally feel is present, such as inferiority or superiority. From a Buddhist point of view, this is sheer fabrication, an utter projection of your own mind. But you can react to it very intensely and emotionally, and those emotions give it a realness, a plausibility that this projection of inferiority or superiority is not merely conceptual. The mind has this capacity to create an idea, to believe it’s truly real, and then to have strong emotions about it. But none of it has any basis.
This can all be a little unsettling. If you insist that someone investigate an object, fairly quickly they’ll acknowledge, well, yeah, it is composite. It is made of parts. It will break down into all these different units. But more unsettling is extending this to oneself. When you investigate whether there’s any stability not only within the body but also of mental states, you won’t find any. This can be quite disturbing.
It may be the case that, from an evolutionary point of view, it was beneficial to conceive of ourselves as cohesive units. I think it’s reasonable to say that all animals, including humans, have a sense that they need to take care of themselves: we identify with this body and mental processes so when we have sensations of hunger, there’s a process of identifying, oh, I’m hungry. Or, if there are sensations of thirst, cold, or pain, we’re able to identify what’s going on, and make a decision to act: to get water, a sweater, an aspirin. Animals and humans need some sense of this collection of processes in order to be able to respond to important needs.
For humans, however, this process has gone awry. This strong sense of identifying, separating, and then creating all sorts of emotions around it has caused a lot of harm. The question is, can we take care of ourselves without imputing some sort of stable self in there?
Consider, for example, how you take care of a car or a bicycle. You’re constantly changing things out: the alternator needs replacing, or the tire is flat, or the windshield gets cracked. There’s no true car in there. There’s a bunch of parts, and, in seeing that, we have this capacity to make decisions about changing those parts. We as humans are the same way. If consciousness is this dynamic process where we feel hunger and so forth, then we make a decision to address it. However, we tend to imagine ourselves removed, as if we’re gods sitting on Mount Olympus, surveying all of our experiences while we remain unchanged by them. But knowledge is a dynamic process: both the perceiver and what is being perceived are dynamic.
This sense of I’m over here and the world’s over there, and that’s threatening to me or I’m drawn to that is built on the ground of conceiving of things as being solid and separate. And this state of mind, of clinging to objects as real, is deeply involved in our suffering.
Madhyamaka offers a different way to understand and relate to our experience; it proposes that things arise without being solid and that we are not separate from the environment. Within seven minutes I would perish if I weren’t able to breathe. If I didn’t have water for seven days, I would die. We’re deeply interdependent, and they say every seven years all the cells in your body change. Literally, the physicality that you identify as you is gone. It’s no longer even in this body anymore, and yet we’re still saying that the me of seven years old, and fourteen years old, and twenty-one years old, and seventy years old is the same me. At the physical level, it’s simply not true. There’s a pattern to the shape that things were placed in, so it looks like there’s a semblance between how I looked at twenty-seven and how I looked at thirty-seven, and so on. But according to this analysis, that’s an illusion. What appears to be a person is actually a very dynamic process, and nothing is stable within that.
The ultimate goal of investigating emptiness is to undermine the solidification of the world and the clinging that we have to this illusion of solidity and separateness of self. We really can’t separate ourselves from the world and from others. You can’t collapse dependent origination. There’s this vast amazing display of appearances; they are never the same, and they’re also unfindable under analysis. There’s a quality of vivid, dynamic, illusory present moment unfolding. When you are around great masters of the tradition, you have a sense of their luminosity and their vivid present-ness and attentiveness; they’re very alert and perceptive to what’s going on. But there’s no sense of solidity. There’s a sort of miraculousness around them that’s infused with kindness. So, from the tradition’s point of view, the realization of this dynamic emptiness is inseparable from the qualities of compassion and loving-kindness. Rather than viewing the world as separate or threatening, all is embraced in the union of appearance and emptiness.
This teaching is based on talks by Phil Stanley in the online course series The Three Turnings
of the Wheel, produced by Lion’s Roar and Naropa University. To enroll in the course, visit: