I haven’t posted in a long while, but I was recently inspired to write a post on this famous quote by the Buddhist master, Nagarjuna. Nāgārjuna (c.150 – c.250 CE) was an influential Indian Buddhist monk who also founded the Madhyamaka school or “Middle Way” school of Buddhist philosophy. Many works are attributed to him, but only one is certain: the Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way or Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā.
The FVMW is a series of verses where Nagarjuna expresses the Middle Way school, and negates absolutes by other schools. The most famous quote is this one quoted in the book Nagarjuna’s Middle Way:
sarvaṃ ca yujyate tasya śūnyatā yasya yujyate
sarvaṃ na yujyate tasya śūnyaṃ yasya na yujyate
All is possible when emptiness is possible.
Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.
In other words, because nothing is static, because everything is “empty”, everything is possible.
This statement has profound implications, both negative and possible. Something very positive can decline, fade or change into something unwholesome, but likewise something awful and seemingly impossible can become something wholesome.
This applies to people too. A person who’s addicted to drinking can sober up and become a respectable person. A person can transform lust into brotherly goodwill. And so on.
That’s the other implication of Nagarjuna’s emptiness (śūnyatā): things arise because of other causes and conditions. The Buddha taught the same thing in such early sutras as the Assutavā Sutta (SN 12.61):
“The instructed disciple of the noble ones, [however,] attends carefully and appropriately right there at the dependent co-arising:
“‘When this is, that is.
“‘From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
“‘When this isn’t, that isn’t.
“‘From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.
Thus, one can’t simply change their mind, or change their ways at the drop of a hat. Genuine change comes under the right conditions. When wholesome conditions exist, the right states of mind arise, leading to further change, conditions and so on. Just like a pistol: when the hammer hits the powder, there’s a flash and a chain reaction goes off.
Nagarjuna’s teachings in the FVMW provide us with the necessary confidence to effect change in our lives, but the Buddha’s teachings provide us with a simple formula about how to go about it.