Emptiness as Concrete Universal

According to Buddhist epistemology (à la Dignaga & Dharmakirti), what is otherwise considered by realist Hindu philosophers as the nature of a universal, as a reality exemplified by the particulars which instantiate it, are nothing more than combinations of  percepts (non-conceptual mental datum) which are made to take on the role of fictional proxies that function to represent particular entities by means of a double-negation operation (“apoha”), whereby all particulars which are un-like the particular concerned are excluded from recognition. This allows one to interact with reality without a commitment to the existence or non-existence of universals, both of which end up being self-undermining approaches to the problem of the universal.

Positing the existence of universals entails that all particulars which instantiate it are identical in their being, but this obscures the diversity of the world, and since universals function by uniting differences, the obscuration of diversity results in the inability to pose universals in the first place. Positing the non-existence of universals entails that no particular is instantiated by a universal and hence everything is intrinsically different from everything else, but this obscures the interconnectedness of the world, and since particulars are sorted out by means of categories that connect particulars to each other, the obscuration of interconnectedness results in the inability to meaningfully distinguish between particulars in the first place.

So without a commitment to the true existence of universals (like the theistic Hindu realists) or their true non-existence (like the atheistic Charvaka skeptics), the engaged Buddhist can meaningfully operate in the world in order to fulfill her motivating values without undermining either the diversity or the interconnectedness of things.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the engaged Buddhist is indifferent to the problem of universals. In fact, Buddhist ontology (à la Nagarjuna & Candrakirti) provides the resources for understanding the nature of a concrete universal, which is a real universal which not only does not undermine the diversity or interconnectedness of the particulars which it instantiates, but is the very basis of all diversity and interconnectedness.

This concrete universal is called “sunyata” or emptiness, which refers neither to a positively existing entity or property but is rather a qualified negation of “svabhava” or intrinsic self-identity. It is a qualified negation because it is not a negation by means of a replacement (we are not negating something in favor of positing something else), but rather a negation that indicates the mere absence of something. To say that things are absent of an instrinically self-identical nature is to merely say that one’s being is such only by reference to and in dependence upon every other. This allows forms of “soft” identity and “soft” difference to function simultaneously, whereby things work together to mutually establish each other’s identities, and their distinctive roles in this process establish their differences. Since “hard” identity or “hard” difference undermine themselves, they undermine the ability to explain how things come to be, work, and come to an end at all, and so only by means of the lack of intrinsic self-identity can we make sense of how things come to be, work, and come to an end.

Since everything lacks, or is absent of, intrinsic self-identity, nothing at all inheres this way, which entails that emptiness is a (or rather, is the) true universal, because it instantiates all particulars equally without undermining their identities and or their differences. And it is concrete because it is principally a percept, and is not abstract because the concept only functions to direct one’s attention towards an unmediated perception of it. Since it is not just a universal, but the universal, it is ever-present everywhere at all times without remainder, and hence, available to ascertain without limit. But it is difficult to ascertain because the history of natural selection (which prioritizes the development of self-reproductive capacity over reality-tracking awareness) and class society (which poses our social interests against our human interests) has conditioned us with the habit of operating in the world as if things possessed intrinsically self-identical natures. It is beneficial for natural selection to select for this since intrinsic self-identity gives an artificial precedence to the value of one’s own being at the expense of others’ being, which instills the value of the process of self-reproduction by which natural selection operates. Likewise, it is beneficial for class society to condition people this way because it helps obscure the reality of the material conditions that produce those immiserating social relations, and hence, helps continuously reproduce said class society. It is as if we are ingrained and habitually conditioned to experience reality as the opposite of how it actually is!

But all hope is not lost. Buddhist phenomenology (à la Asanga & Vasubhandhu) gives us the resources to learn how to change the nature of our unconscious cognitive processing in order to realize that the fictitious proxies we use to interact with the world are only useful illusions, that they have no ultimate reality of their own because they are linguistically mediated constructions that are historically and culturally contingent, and that the actual reality of things are not what these proxies represent them as. Through a laborious process of transforming our mind-body complex, we are able to follow a path or trajectory that progressively realizes the negation of inherent existence—and hence realizing the concrete universal—in lived experience. With the total generalization of this sort of experience, where not a single moment goes by that one is not cognizing ultimate emptiness, one realizes that one’s own being is a real instantiation of the concrete universal. Following this, an immense reservoir of potential power becomes unlocked and freely available, allowing one to maximize the actualized fulfillment of any and every need.

Now the great difficulty is thinking how all of this can be translated into politics….Revolution is basically the concrete instantiation of the realization that how things appear to be are not how they really are, and that what presents itself as the only real reality is often obscuring the fact that there is more to reality than what presently exists. In a way then, emancipatory political revolution that overturns the ruling order and experiential spiritual insight into ultimate emptiness are two distinct ways of embodying the same concrete universal in living praxis.

5 thoughts on “Emptiness as Concrete Universal

  1. Hi,
    Almost anything you write here seems to resonate with my own thinking over the last few years – a preoccupation with Buddhist philosophy and practice, similar political preferences, an interest in pan-psychicism etc.

    Maybe I am more sceptical of the Madhyamaka and Buddhism in general, especially as it is practised in the west.

    Even in it’s classical eastern forms, it has been riven by divisions between schools, equally as contentious as the divisions between philosophers in the west. In that sense, the “Middle Way” functions in the same way as Philosophy with a capital P does in the west – as a transcendent placeholder from which one is able to overcome division by fiat.

    One simply decides on the truth. One justifies that decision by structuring experiential evidence, (mundane or meditative) into an already functioning matrix in which experience or empirical data just are dharmic manifestations of “buddha nature”, “suchness” or “emptiness”, or any the designations which Buddhism deploys according to it’s particular historical or geographical instantiation.

    By this means each contentious school is able to go it’s own way, confident it alone is in possession of “right view”. One tolerates the opposition precisely because the “Dharmic Reality”, inclusive of the opposition and it’s conceptualisations, has already been put through the conceptual matrix and found to coincide (surprise, surprise) with one’s already formulated conception of the relation between absolute and relative truth.

    I think it is better to admit that we are not cognisant of all the motivations which enable us to connect with this or that mode of thought or practice. We find ourselves at a particular juncture etc; which is just another way of saying that our path is lived as a nexus of modes and levels prior to the unifying systematisations which would subject the human to philosophical appropriation in the guise of an explanation of her essential identity, essence or motivation.

    No doubt we need a coherent path of thought and a practice orientated towards our inner transformation, if only to save us from our own reactivity and destructiveness. The horrible thing is that, as Marks predicted, all such paths have “melted into air” in the face of the commodification of every aspect of life.

    Obviously, Madhyamaka philosophy and practice is robust enough to withstand criticism. Nargarjuna would have been the first to admit, I think, that all paths are interdependent originations. The professed purity or exclusivity of any Buddhist path is an aspect of it’s thaumaturgical specularity or of the charisma of its Guru, often professed to be a living manifestation of the dharma.

    At best, I think one has to settle for an experiment in which one systematically permeates one’s mental, psychic and physical continuum in the tropes and ritual practices of a particular Buddhist path, or in the teachings and oracular displays of a particular guru. One would have to admit, though, that one was engaged in a “suspension of disbelief” on a par with what happens when you immerse yourself in the world created by a work of fiction. One is immersed in, and suffused by, the unique “aroma” of that world and changed thereby.

    Buddhist tantric paths are essentially just that, perhaps.

    I suppose what I am advocating for is the practice of phylo-fiction and for a pluralism of modes, of conceptual systems, and of ritual practices.

    And a critical assessment of the consequences, good and bad, of doing just that.

    Anyway thanks for your writing here. I look forward, with each post, to seeing where thought will lead you.

    P.S I mistakenly pingbacked to here from my arts blog instead of posting this comment. So if you like, you can delete it.


    1. Hi, thank you for your great comment. You summed up a lot of my own issues with Buddhism and the Madhyamaka that I am still processing, and I am ambivalent on whether or not to consider myself a Madhyamika because, while proper names allow us to grab a hold of something, we also risk falling under its spell, mistaking the quantifier of a quality with the quality itself. Once you start from such a basis, all differences of view that you encounter become systematically accounted for in terms of your hidden notion of what the Madhyamaka is, differences whose placements are configured through ad hoc rationalizations that are made to support the hidden thesis in the form of a consummate conclusion. Of course all that ends up happening is that your circularly justify whatever you already wanted to assert.

      I think this is precisely what has happened with the “Prasangika Madhyamaka” school, which if you didn’t know, has quite a complex existence in that its origins are retrospectively attributed to Indians by later Tibetans, Indians who never understood themselves in the same way. The subdivision of Madhyamaka into Svatantrika v.s. Prasangika was said to be of only of doxographical significance sorting out different views, but there is reason to believe that there is more to the story, if one takes into account the shifting power structures of the day in that region. It is curious to note (I think it’s in Dreyfus and McClintock’s book on the Svatantrika-Prasangika distinction) that the Tibetan scholar who retrospectively identified Candrakirti and Buddhapalitas as working Prasangikas avant la lettre identified himself as one. And of course, Prasangika presentations of tenets tends to situate itself as the highest view. Surprise surprise indeed.

      I wrote a short piece before on Marxism in Name and without name, where it could turn out that the Named becomes precisely the adversary of the one without a name, to the extent that it ends up using tools developed to destroy in order to create. Maybe the same thing can be said of the Madhyamaka.


  2. Hi,
    How complex the whole subject is, in so far as a critical assessment the madhyamaka would be diminished by limiting one’s investigation to an analysis of the logic of the arguments put forward on both sides of the Svatantrika/Prasangika divide. One must take into account the social, political and economic conditions in which the original arguments were made; and especially the rise to power and eventual domination of the Gelugpa founded on Tsongkapha’s interpretation of the relation between conventional and absolute truth.

    Inevitably, one must make use of the scholarship of historians but with the added complication that historians too are embedded in their own socio-political complex.

    No philosophical argument, including one’s own, can be taken at face value and yet we are condemned, it seems, to argumentation. A thicket of views indeed!

    Laruelle’s solution (although he makes no reference to Asian philosophy) is to begin with the working axiom that the human never entered into the philosophical circle in the first place, an idea that has some sort of relation to the radical negations of the madhyamaka.

    With the proviso that the axiom cannot be reified in any positive way as indicative of an a-historical or transcendent human essence or Buddha nature.

    Laruelle’s thought has it’s own difficulties. Apart from the fact that his idea of decision seems too bound by a structural metaphor which excludes degrees of decision along a continuum of the development of a path of thought, (a diachronic as opposed to a synchronic image of thought) there is also the problem of positing an axiom of the human that cannot bear a relation with the experiential and/or empirical actuality of our ordinary experience.

    The axiom remains locked into a structure in which it functions at the transcendental pole while we ourselves, in our ordinary live experience, remain at the experiential or empirical pole and never the twain shall meet.

    Which again has some sort of strange relation with the absolute/relative conflict at the heart of the conflict between the Tibetan schools.

    On a personal note I suffer from a sort of nausea whenever I contemplate the conceptual complexity into which one is drawn in an effort to make sense of the arguments. Even if one accepts that, at an “absolute” level the human exists (or in-sists as Laruelle puts it) as a non-thetic continuum foreclosed to conceptual capture, at the experiential level one is thrown into a world founded on conceptual systems and structures of social relation which condition experience in reciprocal feedback loops of thinking and practice.

    One is thrown, in other words, into the practice of philosophy and/or non-philosophy. Exactly the thicket of views Buddhist and Non-philosophical “enlightenment” promises to extract us from!

    But by what means exactly?


  3. P.S of course you have already answered my question via ” But all hope is not lost. Buddhist phenomenology (à la Asanga & Vasubhandhu) gives us the resources to learn how to change the nature of our unconscious cognitive processing in order to realize that the fictitious proxies we use to interact with the world are only useful illusions…” and so on.

    I don’t doubt this at all and I think you have gone a long way to establish a credible conceptual foundation for such a practice, even if I am sceptical as to its immediate outcome. I think it is not at all a matter of individual practice. Or rather, individual practice is an instance of the manifestation of a concrete universal. Spiritual evolution is at once personal and collective, traversing the experiential continuum not only humans but of all sentient beings who together form a planetary or Gaian ecology composed of a complex of reciprocal feedback loops of living entities and material affordances.

    We are faced with neither an already determined outcome or a freely chosen one. A far better metaphor for such a practice is the image of a dance in which we negotiate a terrain of unfolding possibility in which the real shows us now it’s face of freedom, now of necessity.


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