Blog Archives

Practical application of Nagarjuna’s philosophy

a leaf

a leaf

The most common, practical application of Nagarjuna’s philosophy is mentally deconstructing compound objects. This sounds technical but is relatively simple with practice. It is one of the most important Buddhist practices, but it is not exclusively Buddhist, in fact it is universally applicable because it is based on reason and sound philosophical principles.

Buddha famously taught ‘anātman’ (no-self). He taught that people are made up of five constituent parts or ‘aggregates’: form, feeling, discrimination, compositional factors, and consciousness. Form = body and the other four = mind. People are compound objects because they are composed of these multiple constituent parts. The ‘trick’ come when you search for a real self or essence among these parts — when you look for the +real+ person. Buddha said that if you systematically look for the real person within the body and mind you will not find it, and the implication is therefore that it doesn’t exist: that there is no real person, self or essence in the aggregates. You have mentally deconstructed the compound object that is the person and found ‘anātman’ (no-self). The same technique can be used on any compound object (i.e. anything which has parts), e.g. tables, chair, cars, sports teams, armies, forests, trees, leaves etc. In the passage below David Edwards deconstructs the England football (‘soccer’) team using Nagarjuna’s technique ( )

“What do we mean by ‘the England football team’? On the face of it the question is absurd – obviously we mean the squad of players, and maybe the manager and his coaching staff. But when we check more carefully something curious happens. Consider the players: is David Beckham the England football team? Obviously not – he is merely a part of the team, not the team itself. If Beckham were the England team then that would mean all the other players were also England teams – there would be eleven England teams on the pitch every time they played. Is Wayne Rooney the England team? Again, obviously not. All of the players are merely ‘parts of the team’, not the team itself. People were not unhappy because any individual player had failed to win Euro 2004 – if completely different players had been involved, they would have felt the same – but because something beyond the individuals involved, ‘the England team’, had failed to win. The England team is understood to be the collection of players. But we have already agreed that each of the players, individually, is not the team. So when we consider the collection, we are considering a collection of parts that are all +not+ the England team. It seems remarkable to suggest that by bringing together individuals – none of whom are the England team – they might suddenly transform into an actually existing ‘England team’. Again, if we remove, one by one, the individuals who are not the England team – Beckham, Rooney, Lampard – there is nothing left, no England team. In fact, of course, ‘the England team’ is merely a mental label that we apply to a collection of individual players, but this collection does not actually exist as an object or entity; it is just a product of the mind. The public, then, is upset or delighted because a non-existent entity, a mental label, ‘England’ – a label that they themselves have applied to a group of individuals – has ‘lost’ or ‘won’. In reality, of course, a non-existent entity can neither win nor lose – a label is just a label, a mental construct.

“It is not just the England team that goes missing on closer inspection. When we search for a forest we only ever find trees. The trees are considered part of a forest, but actually they are part of nothing inherently existent – the forest is just a label in our minds. Similarly, leaves, twigs, branches and trunks are deemed to be parts of things called ‘trees’ – but a leaf is not a tree, nor is a twig, nor is a branch, nor is a trunk, nor is bark, nor is a root. What on earth, then, is ‘a tree’? In fact a ‘tree’ is just a label applied to a collection of parts – it is nowhere actually to be found, just like ‘a forest’ and just like an ‘England team’. Remarkably, this understanding applies to all phenomena made up of parts. If we look for an ‘army’, we will only ever find individual soldiers, generals, tanks and guns – the term ‘army’ is just a label. If we look for a ‘book’, we will only ever find individual pages, none of which is a book. If we search for a car, we will find wheels, doors, windows, nuts, bolts and bumpers – none of which is the car – but which we label ‘car’ and then mistake for an actually existing object. Reggie Ray at Naropa University, Colorado, asks: “Where is the essential nature of the car located, exactly? If we begin removing parts of the car, at which point does it stop being a car? The answer is that there is no point at which it stops being a car other than when I stop thinking of it in that way. Moreover, in taking the car apart, ten people would probably have ten different points at which they felt that the essential nature of car had ceased to be. This indicates clearly that essential nature is not something residing in the object, but rather something that resides just in our own thinking. The car, in and of itself, possesses no essential nature.” (Ray, Indestructible Truth, Shambhala, 2000, p.408)”

The phrase ‘inherent existence’ means absolute or real existence, or existence ‘from the side of’ the object. Following Nagarjuna we can conclude that everything in the world is empty of inherent existence: if we go looking for the real object we will not find it. However, this doesn’t mean that objects are completely devoid of existence: they can have a relative or conventional existence. If you offer to give me a lift to the airport in your car I will say ‘thank you very much’ rather than deny your car exists. Even though there is no real car to be found in its parts, your ‘car’ functions as a workable, conventional label to describe a set of gears, wheels, seats etc which can convey me to the airport. The problem is that these conventional labels become sticky. We get so used to them, and they work so well, that we assume that something ‘out there’ in the world really corresponds to the label. In technical terms we ‘reify’ (or thingify) the label.

What is the relevance of this to Sufi Islam? The immediate relevance is that Nagarjuna’s technique is philosophically valid and demonstrates that compound objects have no essence or real existence, whether or not we are atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians or whatever, therefore we need to take it on board. Moreover, from the position of ‘tanzih’ (incomparability) Sufism accepts that nothing in the world is real, because ‘there is no real but the Real (Allah)’, and Allah is not in this world. Nagarjuna’s philosophy therefore helps us to understand Sufism, particularly the work of Ibn Arabi.

Once we have established no-self (anātman), or ’emptiness’ (shunyata) as Nagarjuna called it, then we can enjoy considering how things appear from their emptiness or lack of self. In so doing we move from the ‘profundity of the ultimate’ which Buddha expressed as “form is empty” to the ‘profundity of the conventional’ which he expressed as “emptiness is form”. In a similar way, once we have established Allah’s Oneness, we can enjoy considering how the myriad things appear.

Non-Violence and the Self-Cherishing Mind

On 2nd December 2007 David Edwards and David Cromwell of Media Lens were presented with the Gandhi International Peace Award by Denis Halliday, former UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Iraq and himself a recipient of the award in 2003. Here Matthew Bain, a friend of the Gandhi Foundation, asks David Edwards about the relationship between Media Lens’ work and the Gandhian principle of ahimsa.

Bain: In his struggles against oppression, Gandhi sought to break down the barriers between oppressors and oppressed, seeing them all as victims. Whereas the oppressed often suffered from physical or economic degradation, the oppressors suffered from moral degradation. Is this theory relevant to Media Lens’ work?

Edwards: The great Buddhist sage Shantideva said the “ancient enemies” of living beings, the real enemies, are greed, hatred and ignorance. These are the three causes and effects of the self-cherishing mind described above. It is greed, hatred and ignorance that lead people to believe their own suffering and happiness matter more than everyone else’s. This leads us to put ourselves first and to ignore the consequences for others. Many of the miseries of the world are rooted in this fundamental willingness to subordinate the interests of others to our own.

It’s tempting to see particular groups of people as the cause of all problems. But actually we’re all afflicted by the “ancient enemies”. So, for example, people are outraged if someone expresses racist or sexist prejudice — these are rightly seen as sources of immense suffering. But there is a far more deep-rooted prejudice — the bias whereby we see ourselves as far more important than all other people. Geshe Lhundub Sopa does a good job of explaining what we know but don’t really recognise in ourselves:

“We think everything should focus upon us – all services and good things should be for me. Then of course we try to gain enjoyment, fame, wealth, and everything else that we feel is necessary for this me. We become angry if we see that something might prevent us getting those things or if anyone else gets something better. These feelings make us think, act, and speak in negative ways. Everyone is subject to this problem: we all act from selfishness.” (Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment, Volume 3, Wisdom Books, 2008, p.111)

We are almost always massively prejudiced in our own favour. We feel virtuous when we have one or two compassionate impulses, but it’s actually shocking how many of our thoughts are concerned with squeezing just a little more pleasure into our lives. Not into other people’s lives, into our own. We want the best for ourselves; we’re the centre of the universe. The human universe never was heliocentric, it has always been egocentric. Racial and sexual prejudices are sub-divisions of this ultimate bias.

Shantideva delivered his amazing “J’accuse!” to his own selfish mind as far back as the eighth century:

“O my mind, what countless ages
Have you spent in working for yourself?
And what great weariness it was,
While your reward was only misery!

“The truth, therefore, is this:
That you must wholly give yourself and take the other’s place.
The Buddha did not lie in what he said —
You’ll see the benefits that come from it.”
(Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambhala Publications, 1997, p.132)

He added:

“And so it is that if I want contentment,
I should never seek to please myself.
And likewise, if I wish to save myself,
I’ll always be the guardian of others.” (p.134)

Shantideva was here doing nothing less than rejecting his own favouritism towards himself! And this was not some kind of gesture or stunt — his work, The Way of the Bodhisattva, is a precise, step-by-step guide to actually achieving this result. When he advises that we “take the other’s place,” he means that we should work for the benefit of others as though it were our own, rather than working for our own benefit.

That this aspiration can emerge in a product of nature “red in tooth and claw” is astonishing. In my opinion, Shantideva’s words constitute the ultimate revolutionary statement — the complete rejection of self-interest out of concern for the welfare of others.

Shantideva was not advocating this as a matter of righteous, hair-shirted stoicism. His point is that we need to replace the inevitable misery of the self-cherishing mind, of the “ancient enemies”, with the almost unimagined happiness of the compassionate mind liberated from greed, hatred and ignorance. Of course the self-cherishing that Shantideva rejected is at the heart of all individual exploitation and of all exploitative systems of power. It is self-cherishing that causes us to build and participate in these systems.

The claim is that thoughts pretty much obey the laws of Newtonian physics — they build psychological momentum in the absence of an opponent force. The more we are angry, the stronger our anger becomes. On the other hand, the more we are compassionate, the more anger dissipates. There is a marvelous quote that sums up the logic of self-restraint in a discussion on training the mind to become more patient:

“It is not productive to one’s practice to become impatient with those who are impatient.” (Sopa, op. cit., p.284)

What we’re trying to do is to increase compassion in the world, to decrease self-cherishing. This is achievable when we perceive greed, hatred and ignorance as the enemy. When we perceive particular individuals as the enemy, we tend to achieve the opposite result.

Bain: Gandhi named his active method to combat oppression ‘satyagraha’, meaning struggle for truth. Satyagraha looks for the moral levers in the oppressor’s own psychology or mythology, and then discovers a way to pull them. Gandhi was successful in pulling the levers in the British psychology. As rulers of India we considered ourselves to be upholders of righteous constitutional rule, so when Gandhi allowed himself to be imprisoned by us he forced us to look in the mirror and see that we were not acting in accordance with our own self-image. Do you believe that there are elements of satyagraha in Media Lens’ work?

Edwards: In his book, Web Of Deceit, the historian Mark Curtis showed how the mainstream media promote one key concept above all others: “Britain’s basic benevolence.” ( This provides an obvious lever for challenging exploitative power – the challenge to live up to the hype.

For example, in 2002, journalists like David Aaronovitch and Johann Hari claimed their real concern was for the welfare of the Iraqi people. So we investigated how this compassion has manifested itself during the subsequent catastrophic occupation. We examined to what extent they have drawn attention to the suffering of Iraqi refugees, to the patients dying in hospitals for the lack of the most basic equipment, to the small children dying from a lack of basic sanitation, and so on. (See: and

The claim of humanitarian intent is a very powerful propaganda weapon for systems of concentrated power, but it does allow dissidents to offer a challenge in that moral arena. And power is under pressure to provide credible answers, to be seen to live up to its own claims. The fact is that people in our society do need to be persuaded to support violent interventions on humanitarian grounds. If these claims are shown to be bogus, then powerful interests have much greater difficulty in waging war — they can’t railroad the population completely; they can’t afford for democracy to be exposed as a total sham.

Government support for the Iraq war went ahead against overwhelming public opposition in several countries in 2003, but at a very high political cost to the likes of Blair, Aznar and Bush. It’s fair to say that Blair’s career was ruined by his mendacious campaign to manipulate Britain into war – his reputation has been demolished. It’s hard now to remember just what a source of optimism he was for many people (liberal journalists in particular) before 2003.

Bain: Media Lens can only do so much. What other ‘moral levers’ are out there, that you would like other people to pull?

Edwards: Especially on the left, I think people need to look to the moral levers in themselves. It’s so easy to place all our trust in facts and rational argument to win the battle of ideas, to convince everyone of the need for progressive change. But as discussed, the self-cherishing mind is highly adept at simply deflecting these facts and arguments from awareness. We should also be seeking to strengthen the capacity for kindness, compassion, love, patience and generosity in ourselves and others. We need a compassionate revolution, as opposed to a bomb-throwing revolution. Basically the left needs to start meditating on these subjects.

People often think this means sitting cross-legged on a cushion and emptying the mind of thoughts. But fully one-half of Buddhist meditation is called ‘analytical meditation’. This type of meditation involves simply reflecting on these issues exactly as we’ve been doing here. What are the disadvantages of the self-cherishing mind? Have I ever felt self-obsessed, really greedy for pleasure? What was the impact of indulging these thoughts on my sense of well-being? Where did they lead? Have I ever felt coldly indifferent to everyone else who just seemed to be a damned nuisance? How did I feel in those moments? Have I ever been really generous? Have I given something to someone solely out of an intention to make them happy with no thought of reward? How did I feel in those situations? How did other people react?

A good place to start in this internal analysis is Matthieu Ricard’s book Happiness (Atlantic Books, 2006). Geshe Lhundub Sopa gives an idea of how the mind can be trained:

“The way to meditate on love is similar to the manner of meditating on compassion. Where compassion is wanting sentient beings to be free from misery, love is wanting them to possess happiness, enjoyment, and bliss. So here we look at sentient beings, beginning with our relatives, and see that they do not even have worldly happiness… Go back and forth, first thinking that sentient beings lack a specific thing and therefore they suffer this or that type of misery, and then wishing that they have the cause of happiness. Think this way again and again and you will come to feel like a mother whose dear child is in need of many things. A mother wants her child to have the things that will make him or her happy; she sincerely desires to help her child obtain these things.” (Sopa, op. cit., p.89)

This kind of repetitive practice gradually moves the momentum of the mind away from ruthless, unrestrained self-cherishing, towards kindness. We can sensitise our minds to the suffering of others, to compassion.

Many of us think we’re prevented from trying harder to help others because of indifference. But this couldn’t be more wrong. The problem is not indifference; it’s our passionate dedication to serving ourselves. Our problem is not laziness but that we’re working so hard to satisfy our desires, to indulge our egos, to get everything we want.

But the response to the self-cherishing habit is not to somehow just try harder, to whip ourselves into being more committed people. Our self-cherishing minds will certainly not tolerate this for very long — it’s far too much like hard work. We might manage for a while but pretty soon we’ll decide all this suffering is deeply unfair — ‘It’s not my fault the world’s full of suffering, and anyway what can one person really achieve?’ — at which point we’ll likely disappear off to have some fun.

The solution is to challenge the false claims of the self-cherishing mind and to investigate the liberatory potential of the other-cherishing, compassionate, mind.

And there are real surprises here. The principal one being that focusing primarily on our own happiness guarantees suffering for ourselves and others. Curiously, happiness lies in exactly the opposite direction.

An extended version of this article can be found at