You Can Change!

Hi guys,

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.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

3 thoughts on “You Can Change!”

  1. I feel lucky to have found your site, as so far as I know, I wasn’t looking for it particularly, and I am sure there are many, many other similar, but not exactly the same sites in the wide Net. I ma interested in Buddhist philosophy, And I have discovered a broad range of Buddhist sites in English and probably there are in other languages. I could, if I wanted, look and compare the others to this one, or I could stay here for a long time, or I could, despite my interests see there are other more pressing priorities, and stay away so long that I never return here, despite a recognition of the value of what I find here now. I am constantly beset by decisions on what to do with my time. I think that progress in this world depends on setting a persistent course, despite the inconsistencies that appear from moment to moment. the progress of my internal/external responsibilities depend on my fulfilling some fixed obligations to relationships that exist within economic/social structures. In exchange for my dependability, reliability, productivity, quality of productivity I get the means to support myself and my family, and extend something to others. The more successful I am, the more I can extend to others outside my immediate circle of relations, if I so choose. I see this as a sea of change happening all around me, but I have found a Pole Star to guide my ship towards. that star is reliable, by my standards, enough to develop my apprenticeship in this world. I am not saying anything about my past history of this journey, or what will happen in the future, only now, in the time of this year, last year, and the future as far as I can see. I am not saying anything about the quality of my navigation, either. This isn:t a completely relative state, because I do comparisons and I receive feedback on my progress in certain areas by 3rd parties. This is to say that I, like all the other adults I know around me, who are salaried, working for and within an organization much larger than themselves, who have connections to family members connected to a web of similar responsibilities, we live in a measurably more complicated world than the world of even 200 years ago. This is in one sense good, because the more we are aware of these responsibilities, the more we can cause an effect that will ripple to some degree outward.
    I enjoy your posts, and I will return, or so I expect.

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  2. Regarding change. I am reminded of something I have read in the Holy Qur’an, Surah Nuh, a few weeks ago: “He prayed; O my Lord verily I invited my people night and day. Nothing does my invitation increase but their desire to flee from it! Every time I have invited them so that Thou mayest give them grace., they have put their fingers in their ears, closed their hearts against me and moved away in great distain. Verily I invited them openly, Then I called to them in public and persuaded them in private: I told them, ‘Ask ye forgiveness of your Lord, for, verily He is most forgiving. He will send yoou clouds pouring rain in plenty. He will help you….’

    What I gather from Nagarjuna, especially is regarding internal conditions, as to my mind emptiness is not a familiar condition I encounter in my experience in the external world. It was very thoughtful of you to add your observations, as I had not considered that emptiness as a condition for change. as a moment before or after some change. and we and everything we experience are always in conditions of change. AN Whitehead made this observation a fundamental principle in his philosophy, as I recall from grad school. So, I return to this quote from the Sura Nuh. God:s messengers stand at the door and knock, waiting for the invitation to come into our hearts. They are all powerful, but outside agents of change. We will listen or we will not. There are definite rewards for listening and making those conditions right for acceptance, If this is called Divine bribery, so be it. However there is no such thing as a free lunch. As you say, we cannot change at the drop of a hat, or we cannot sustain that change. One may be seduced by the visions of celestial virgins and on the outside make a change, but because that change is not part of a rather complex chain reaction, it will not sustain itself, it will have to have rather immediate physical returns to gratify itself. The Holy Qur’an in the Meccan suras, which I am most familiar with and quoted here, frequently refer to physical rewards for making that change. However they are obviously not really physical, except in the minds of the childish and the ones who hate Islam. It is really underneath a spiritual, internal, invisible process of cause and effect. In addition to your last paragraph, I would add that the Holy Qur’an especially more so than the Holy Bible, repeats, as an outside agent, encouragement to make that change in our lives.

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    1. Right, what people think of as “rewards” might mean something else on a higher level. Our narrow understanding may not be able to comprehend this though. Pure Land Buddhism is much the same way.

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