Manual Awareness and Emptiness: Songs of Nagarjuna

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So I shall try and explore some of these: firstly, the value and freedom of Buddhist ideas for artistic creativity and the value of awareness practices standing against perceived differences of intention and the ossification of institutions that have often provided a stumbling block for the creativity of committed practitioners; secondly, the mutual need and division between individualism and constraint.

I fear I bring no pictures, just ideas. And I shall start with the fundamental ideas of Buddhist philosophy that I believe are also wellsprings of, and for creativity. Yet before I begin I must make a detour.


Without doubt the Far Eastern approaches based on a pr-existing response to nature and experience embraced artistic expression. It is not for nothing that so many of the artists I have and will mention have links to Zen Buddhism. The fields of Chinese and Japanese arts, poetry, writing, and painting are some of the greatest in the world.

They owe much to the Taoist background which so profoundly marked Chan and Zen. Tibetan Buddhism, perhaps again based on a shamanic past and close to the earth life has always sung in verse, though its subject matter has usually been more closely tied to the dharma itself rather than the Far Eastern more understated and oblique perspective rooted within the natural world of the ten thousand things. Indian Buddhist traditions I personally feel are the furthest from artistic expression verbally, though extraordinary in sculptural expression, perhaps especially of the human body, note Gormley below, though this interestingly may have been through Greek influence.

All traditions however, in one form or another, share the central teachings that I have considered fundamental to artistic creativity. Dependent arising and emptiness. Suchness and emptiness and the awareness practices that reveal them: to me these are the founts of creativity whether for practitioners or artists; for artistic practitioners who understand them within the framework of Buddhist teachings, or from those, the solitary pratyekabuddhas, who have found them from their own attention. For writing about emptiness, and I understand that it was this writing on emptiness and artpractice that largely elicited my invitation here today, I found that it was through their practice of attention that many artists in all fields had uncovered ideas of emptiness for the contemporary western world.

The exemplars that I cited frequently came from outside or the periphery of dharma practice, Yet inspiration distinctly comes from those who have, for whatever reason and cause, been able to see the dance of emptiness and arising. Some know the teachings, directly: Gary Snyder pursued Asian studies academically and practiced traditionally in Japan, finally setting up his own sangha Ring of Bone Zendo in California; one of the most influential artists in many fields John Cage, attended the lectures of D.

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Others came to the knowledge more academically, T. Eliot studied Indian philosophy, Heidegger we now know, had many conversations with Japanese philosophers and students and attempted at one time a translation of the Tao Te Ching. Others such as Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Rainer Maria Rilke, maybe Rothko appear not to have had any connection with such teachings but through their own artpractice come to express ideas that are in tune with the teachings of emptiness and arising.

If there is one thread that links these artists, so different in their work and in their personal histories it would seem to be a concern with attention, whether it comes from Dharma practice or from their own personal experience. We are habituated to philosophies and ideas of presence and substance. We are deep believers in the law of the excluded middle that is far from the tetralemma of Nagarjuna. To overcome this default setting takes practice, takes attention, pure open attention, freed from expectation and habit.

Artists particularly understand and transmit this understanding, the fruits of attention, in their works.


A receptive attention and openness to life itself is, I believe, a mark of the good artist. Such artists see and express the play of emptiness and fullness, the patterns of contingency. Becket wrote a piece titled Neither for the composer Morton Feldman, whose music is an embodiment of aural attention and emptiness. Feldman was a friend to Mark Rothko and John Cage, writing a wonderful piece of music for the opening of the Rothko Chapel at the University of Houston. Through the cessation of this and that, this and that will not come about.

The entire mass of suffering thereby completely ceases. Change is merely, first this, then that. There is nothing more to causality than concomitance. Things what we call things have no latency, no virtuality, no nature, no principle; there is nothing to them that was not already actual in their causes, and so on forever. Every- thing borrows its nature from its causes and lacks a nature of its own. Everything depends on everything else, everything completely con- ditioned by everything else.

Nothing has a nature, identity, virtue, latency, power, or intensity. Everything is what it is conditioned to be, and that leaves everything empty, empty of reality, empty of actuality, phenomena behind which is nothing. That may seem to make emptiness a new name for being, but the subtle Nagarjuna skirts this paradox.

Critics were eager to fault his self-refuting irreal- ism.

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If so, then he has nothing to say, and says nothing. If he communicates at all, then it cannot be true that all is empty, because that assertion is not empty, not if it truly is an assertion. Nagarjuna agrees with this argument but says it does not apply to him.

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  8. But I have no proposition. Therefore I am not at fault. It is not assumed that they stand for entities or even make sense, whatever that means. It would be impossible for Nagarjuna to be more clear in repudiating the premise of the imputed self-refutation. It has to be one or the other. Unless, of course, p depends on an assumption. If not-p depends on the same assump- tion, then anyone who rejects the assumption can, indeed must, deny both p and not-p, which is what Nagarjuna does.

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    Either cold or not cold. But to be cold is to be a body; if something were not a body it would be neither cold nor not. Either empty or not empty implies that something enjoys a self-nature, a self-identity, a being of its own. Nagarjuna rejects that assumption. He is a mirror image of Parmenides. To think x is to think that something is x, which is to think there is something x is not, from which it is differ- entiated.

    Buddhists seem as touchy about this dualism between being and not-being as the Eleatics were. Parmenides says we must suspend the not, say and think only is. For Nagarjuna, although, the emptiness of not being does not imply the ultimate reality of being. Instead, the distinction between is and is-not is defec- tive. Nagarjuna never says emptiness is the truth. In fact, he says that nothing is true in the sense Parmenides assumes. To insist on these distinctions, to say we must make them, make them clear, might to alert Buddhist eyes look like cling- ing, an expression of suffering, suffering from the delusion of sense.

    Another word for emptiness is nonduality. Perhaps that is not obvious. The usual contrary of dualism is monism, as for instance in materialist theories of nature from Democritus to Diderot. However, monism is not the same as nonduality; indeed, monism is dualistic through and through, as it discriminates and attacks dualism.

    The most consistent nondualism is not monism but emptiness.

    First you overcome all the distinctions, then you overcome your overcoming, overcome thinking of yourself as having overcome something, of having accomplished something others have not. Duality may seem inextricable from thought. What would we think if we made no distinctions, differentiated no opposition? Nondualistic thought would have to be nonobjective too. It is not just that thought has no objects, one is not interested in them, does not care about objectivity or lack of it, whether things are the same or different, better or worse, right or wrong, and so on.

    The cessation of ignorance is not to arrive at the truth of emptiness; it is to realize the emptiness of truth. The wisdom of the enlightened is not knowledge of the empty; it is the emptiness of knowledge.