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 ( http://www.medialens.org/index.php/current-alert-sp-298539227/cogitations-archive/67-the-curious-case-of-the-disappearing-football-team-part-1.html )
“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.
“The things we normally see do not exist” is one of the phrases for which Geshe Kelsang Gyatso would most like to be remembered. it is a wake-up call to us all, heartfelt advice that we should integrate into our daily lives and our way of perceiving the world.
The reason why “the things we normally see do not exist” is because the things we normally see appear to exist inherently, independent of their parts and the minds which perceive them. During his Universal Compassion teachings in Summer 2008, Geshe Kelsang explained how we can overcome our ignorant grasping at inherent existence. He described how we should analyze with wisdom the way things normally appear to our minds. The following paragraphs are my edited notes from his teaching:
“What does it mean to search for things with wisdom? Through wisdom we develop the sincere wish to understand the way things really are, which is called ultimate truth. With this wish, if we search for things, then we are doing so with wisdom. This is called an ultimate search.
“When we search for things that we have lost such as our car we are searching for things with ignorance. This is called a conventional search. If we lose our car we believe that the car we normally see is lost, but this car does not exist! This is ignorance. Then we believe we have found the car that we normally see. This is also ignorance! We should know that although we see things, our way of seeing things is mistaken.
“When we see a car we see a car within its parts. In reality a car does not exist within its parts because neither the individual parts nor the collection of parts is the car. If we search with our wisdom eye we will not find the car. We will realize that it does not exist in the way we think. We will realize the emptiness [Sanskrit: shunyata] of the car. We meditate on this single-pointedly for as long as possible until we develop deep familiarity.
“In the same way we see our body. Whenever we see our body we see it within its parts. In reality our body does not exist within its parts, because they are the parts of the body not the body itself, however there is no body other than its parts. Through understanding this we will perceive the emptiness of our body.
“In the same way when we see our self we see our self within our body and mind. In reality our self does not exist within our body and mind because they are our possessions and our self is the possessor. However there is no self other than our body or mind.
“We can apply this to all phenomena. Then we will realize the emptiness of all phenomena. We should meditate on this and hold it without forgetting.”
(For more detailed teachings on emptiness, please refer to Heart of Wisdom by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, available from http://www.tharpa.com)
In a separate teaching Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has said that the mind which is completely mixed with the emptiness of all phenomena can validly be called God (see my article God and Buddhism). So, when the veils of illusion are removed, what remains is God.
In a poem called The Theophany of Perfection by Ibn Arabi, God addresses the disciple, revealing the veiled truth behind “the things that we normally see”.
“Oh, my beloved! How many times I have called you without your hearing Me!
How many times I have shown myself without your looking at Me!
How many times I have become perfume without your inhaling Me!
How many times I have become food without your tasting Me!
How is it that you do not smell Me in what you breathe?
How do you not see Me, not hear Me?
I am more delicious than anything delicious,
More desirable than anything desirable,
More perfect than anything perfect.
I am Beauty and Grace!
Love Me and love nothing else
Let Me be your sole concern to the exclusion of all concerns!”
(quoted in An Ocean With Shore by Michel Chodkiewicz, State University of New York, 1993)