Understanding svabhava (Pali: sabhava) is critical for understanding the Buddha’s project. Failing to understand it can make the Buddhist understanding of living well seem incoherent.
The word means, literally, “own-being” or “own-becoming.” It can be translated as “self-nature,” “self-essence” or simply “essence.” Such translations, though, are nearly useless to someone not already familiar with Buddhist thought or classical Indian philosophical terms.
Though I’m neither a sage nor a scholar, I may understand enough to enable you at least to avoid misunderstanding Buddhist “emptiness” as meaning nothingness.
After the Buddha himself, Nagarjuna may be the greatest thinker in the Buddhist tradition. He seems to take the Buddha’s basic message to be the elimination of all reification, of all hypostatic theoretizations. His most famous (or notorious!) thesis is that all things are empty, that every thing is devoid of a svabhava.
Many have taken this to entail that Nagarjuna is committed to nihilism, which is the thesis that nothing at all is real. This, some insist, shows that Buddhism itself is committed to nihilism.
Properly understood, Buddhism is not nihilistic. The charge that it is comes from misunderstanding emptiness as nothingness (void, nonexistence, nonbeing). One source of this misunderstanding is a failure to appreciate Nagarjuna’s intellectual context.
A few centuries after the Buddha’s death, many of his followers were seriously engaged in arguing among themselves as well as with those who didn’t practice Buddhism. This intellectual ferment produced a number of new ways of thinking and, so, new Buddhist schools. The most important of those schools was that of Mahayana Buddhism with its Prajna-Paramita (Perfection of Wisdom) literature. Nagarjuna was the most important thinker of this new school.
‘Svabhava’ was a technical term used by Indian philosophers. They used ‘svabhava’ to refer to entities that create themselves and, so, are independent and self-defining as well as immutable. (If you are familiar with western philosophy, Spinoza’s God [Being] would fall under the concept of svabhava.)
The most important entities for Hindu thinkers that are svabhava were Brahman and The Self. Perhaps the Buddha’s most important doctrine was his doctrine of “no-self” (anatta), which Nagarjuna explicitly extends to all entities.
Perhaps Nagarjuna’s reasoning is as follows: A svabhava is, by definition, independent, uncaused, and unconditioned. All entities, however, are dependent, caused, and conditioned. Therefore, no entity is a svabhava.
That argument is valid. Is it sound? Only if its second premise is true. Why think its second premise is true?
Because Nagarjuna thinks that it is an implication of the Buddha’s doctrines of impermanence and dependent origination (conditional co-arising). Suppose that all phenomena arise in dependence on causes and conditions, remain in existence in dependence on causes and conditions, and cease to exist in dependence on causes and conditions. Suppose that all phenomena are dependent on causes and conditions and the processes of arising, remaining, and ceasing are always going on. Suppose, in other words, that the Buddha is right about impermanence and dependent origination.
Is dependent origination itself produced by causes and conditions or not?
Garfield suggests that we put it this way (Nagarjuna, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way [Mulamadyamadhyamakakarika], p. 167]: Either every arisen entity depends upon an ontologically prior arising or not. If it does, then there is an infinite regress. If it does not, why is that entity exempt from an explanation?
(Incidentaly, ‘depends upon’ here refers to either causes or conditions or both. To claim that X “causes” Y is to say that part of X’s svabhava is the power to bring about Y. To claim that X is a condition of Y is only to claim that X is something that may be appealed to without ontological commitment in explaining Y.)
Nagarjuna’s solution to the problem? “The arisen, the nonarisen, and that which is arising / Do not arise in any way at all.” What does that mean?
It certainly seems that entities are in the incessant flux of arising, remaining, and decaying. This is their conventional appearance. However, whatever arises, remains, or decays is not ontologically independent. No entity is ontologically independent. No entity is a svabhava.
Instead, “Whatever is dependently arisen, / Such a thing is essentially peaceful.” Such things are not really entities that arise, remain, and decay. Yes, conventionally that seems to be the case, but, ultimately, it is not the case.
What would arise, remain, or decay? It must be a substratum. What’s that? There is no such thing!
(If you disagree, ask yourself seriously, “What is it?” and “What is it like?” It could not have any qualities, since qualities are similarities or differences that could be added or subtracted. Therefore, it must be without qualities. However, only nothing is without qualities!)
There are no independent qualities of arising or stasis or cessation. If so, all phenomena are literally momentary and are only connected relationally or relatively. This means that all phenomena must be understood dependently. This means that they cannot be understood independently. This means that no phenomenon is a svabhava.
There is a lot more to be said about Nagarjuna’s solution. My chief interest here, though, is simply in the big picture.
Nagarjuna’s solution is an attempt to provide a middle way between thinking that some phenomena have svabhava and that there is only nothingness. For Nagarjuna, it is false that any phenomenon has svabhava and it is false that nothing is real. Instead, the conventional world of arising, stasis, and cessation is just as it appears to be. However, nothing is a svabhava, which means that all phenomena occur (arise, remain, and cease) in accordance with causes and conditions. To make this claim is to claim that they are empty in the sense that they are empty of a svabhava, which is not to make the claim that they are nothing.
This is a brilliant attempt to provide a middle way between continuity and discontinuity. If Nagarjuna is right, then ordinary objects like trees and tables and people are neither continuous nor discontinuous. They are something like spacetime worms whose momentary segments are related by causes and conditions.
From Nagarjuna’s point of view, not only does emptiness not mean nothingness, but also it is what permits there to be a world at all. There would be no world without phenomena in flux. Without emptiness there could be no flux or change of any kind!
His idea that there are two kinds of truth, conventional and ultimate, requires additional explanation. The basic idea, though, is this: dependent origination applies to all phenomena, all conventional entities (and nonentities), and that means that they are impermanent and, so, ultimately empty (although not ultimately nothing).
He heralds this in the dedicatory verse of his great book. He dedicates it to the Buddha “who taught that / Whatever is dependently arisen is / Unceasing, unborn, / Unannihilated, not permanent, / Not coming, not going / Without distinction, without identity, / And free from conceptual constructions” (Garfield translation).
Please pay attention to the phrase about conceptual constructions. It’s the key. Our chief sin is precisely that! What blocks us from enlightened living, from nirvana, is our ignorance that is due to our conceptual constructions, our incessant reifications of phenomena into putative entities. The result is that we become slaves to our languages and conceptualizations to such an extent that we blind ourselves to the real way things are.
“What language expresses is nonexistent. / The sphere of thought is nonexistent. / Unarisen and unceased, like nirvana / Is the nature of things” (Garfield translation).
The only conditioned “entities” are those of language and thought (conception). They are the result of reification and the root cause of craving and, hence, suffering. Those of us who are not yet sages should work hard against this tendency to reify. We reify whenever we take conventional “entities” to have a svabhava.
To abandon this tendency is to awaken. “There is not the slightest difference / Between cyclic existence and nirvana” (Garfield translation).
We inhabit samsara, the domain of cyclic existence, of the incessant flux of arising, remaining, and ceasing. To live well is to cease inhabiting samsara and, instead, to inhabit nirvana. How?
It’s by coming to “see” how things really are. We do that when we stop reifying, which stops us from craving and attaching and, so, undermines suffering.
“Whatever is the limit of nirvana, / That is the limit of cyclic existence. / There is not even the slightest difference between them” (Garfield translation).
How can we come to “see” for ourselves that there is no difference between samsara, the conditioned cycle of birth and death, and nirvana, the unconditioned?
That is the point of all Buddhist practice. It pacifies all reification and, so, undermines ignorance and delusion, which automatically undermines craving and attaching. Since that is what causes suffering, the point of Buddhist practice is to end suffering by opening us to a better way of being here.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.
Recommended post: The Buddha’s Footsteps.
Recommended readings: Nagarguna, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Jay L. Garfield translation and commentary); Paul Williams with Anthony Tribe, Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition; and Dan Lusthaus, “Nagarjuna” in Ian P. McGreal, ed., Great Thinkers of the Eastern World.