In verses 19 and 20 of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā in the chapter analyzing Nirvana, Nāgārjuna states that
“There is no distinction whatsoever between samsara and nirvana.
There is no distinction whatsoever between nirvana and samsara.
What is the limit of nirvana, that is the limit of samsara.
There is not even the finest gap to be found between the two.”
How do we make sense of these claims without undermining the basic Buddhist premise that Samsara and its causes are to be abandoned in favor of Nirvana? If there is no distinction to be made whatsoever between the two, then this either implies that all effort is pointless or that any effort whatsoever is sufficient to accomplish goals. In order to reconcile Nāgārjuna’s claims with the premises of the path, we can use the technique of delimiting statements to either one of two domains of explicability: that of the ultimate and that of the conventional/relative, with Nāgārjuna’s claims about the identity of Samsara and Nirvana being relegated to the domain of ultimate explicability and the difference between them to the domain of relative explicability. Since the ideas are properly confined to their appropriate domains of explicability, there is no contradiction between Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka analysis and the premises of the path to awakening.
It should be emphasized however that the domains in question are at the level of explicability and not reality; this is principally an epistemic question about what we can know and say about Samsara and Nirvana. An even greater question includes the two domains of ultimate and relative explicability within an expanded domain of explicability which stands outside of and distinct from a domain of inexplicability. The domain of inexplicability also includes ultimate and relative domains, with the inexplicable relative domain including notions that are properly nonsense and the inexplicable ultimate domain consisting of the non-categorical direct apprehension (i.e. gnosis) of reality as such.
Now that we have qualified Nāgārjuna’s statements on Nirvana and Samsara through the technique of partitioning domains, we have what we can call a “bi-negation” of Samsara and Nirvana in which the relationship between the pair can be understood in terms of both the negation of their identity and the negation of their difference. What follows is a cursory elaboration on the two ways in which this bi-negation can be expressed, resulting in a four-fold configuration (not to be confused with the tetralemma).
The Four-fold Configuration of the Bi-Negation of Samsara and Nirvana
There are two different ways of understanding the
bi-negation (neither identical nor different)
of Samsara (defined as the cyclic recurrence of suffering and its causes)
and Nirvana (defined as a complete cessation of this cyclic recurrence):
In terms of their symmetrical logical entailment
and in terms of their asymmetrical causal unfolding.
In terms of their symmetrical logical entailment:
Nirvana by definition is the absence of Samsara which implies the existence of Samsara, and Samsara qua Samsara implies the existence of Nirvana since Samsara is defined as that which is to be negated by Nirvana. Samsara and Nirvana “inclusively-exclude” one another, which is to say that the identity of one includes the other as an absence and that the presence of this other would entail the absence of the identity of the one. One “mirrors” (reflects and inverts) the other and it is through this mutual mirroring that each is constituted by the other.
So they are not distinct because they are inseparable aspects of the same problem but they are also not identical because they fulfill distinct functions in the constitution of the overall problem, like the differing sides of a whole mathematical equation.
In terms of their asymmetrical causal unfolding:
The phenomena which rise and fall in the cycles of Samsara are derivative expressions of what we can call a “natural flow,” which consists of a procession of spontaneously arising and perishing appearances as an unbroken continuum. This spontaneous natural continuum is devoid of any specific qualities or particular characteristics because it is the original basis that precedes, and which makes possible, the identification of discrete phenomena as having qualities and characteristics; for this reason the natural flow is empty of any essence.
The cause of Samsara is the assumption that any given discrete phenomenon has an identity of its own existing independently of its relationship to others. Since the spontaneous procession of appearances is unceasing and occurs moment-by-moment, phenomena perish before they can be identified. In order to identify at all, one has to grasp onto an object for longer than its temporal existence allows, as well as divorcing it from its embeddedness in an extended nexus of relations; in fact, we can say that an identified object is produced by that very act of grasping itself, and that because of this the object necessarily bears a nature that is contrary to the basis of its origin. The discrete, grasped object seems as though it has an existence of its own, being independent and relationless as opposed to being a mere derivation from the ungraspable natural flow, being dependently originated from a matrix of relations.
Once a grasped object is produced by the grasping subject, it generates an imperative to resolve the contradiction between the nature of the object as independent from the cognitive operations of the subject and the nature of the object as dependent upon them. If the contradiction is attempted to be resolved without eliminating the underlying assumption that the object has an identity of its own, a wayward path is produced whereby one’s experience starts to diverge from what would otherwise have been an experience that is in accordance with the way things naturally flow. This wayward path is Samsara itself: the way in which the natural flow flows when one diverts from the order of its original state.
Nirvana occurs when the wayward path is eliminated at its root before it is allowed to unfold, by recognizing that the object of apprehension is nothing other than an empty and identityless expression of the natural flow that is co-produced by the grasping subject. Hence the recognition of the true nature of the object as empty of identity is the cause of Nirvana. Though Nirvana is mostly characterized as a cessation (of Samsara) the nature of this cessation implies that Nirvana is nothing other than the self-expression of this natural flow when it is allowed to express itself freely and maximally in the absence of any obstruction.
So Samsara and Nirvana are not identical because they are both different ways in which the natural flow can express itself, where Samsara is the divergence of this flow from its natural state through grasping at or becoming attached to an object and Nirvana is the resting upon this flow in its natural state through the relinquishing or letting-go of all objects of grasping. But they are also not different because Samsara does not exist independently of the natural flow, but rather is, paradoxically, an “unnatural flow of the natural flow,” and hence is a real derivation of it, while Nirvana is simply the pure expression of the natural flow itself.
So Nirvana, as the authentic self-expression of the natural flow in its original purity unmired by the adventitious obstructions and afflicted predispositions produced by Samsara, can be said to exist asymmetrically in relation to Samsara: Nirvana is cause for both itself and Samsara, but Samsara is only cause for itself.
This has been a cursory elaboration on the four-fold configuration of the bi-negation of Samsara and Nirvana.