Nays Have It: Four Pairs of Negations at the Core of Buddhist Thought

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The use of negations is one of the teaching methods the Buddha employs effectively in his discourses. Thus, in his discourse on anatta, or “non-self”, the Buddha negates each one of the five aggregates of form, perceptions, feelings, mental formations and consciousness to have self, saying: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” As these three negations are repeated for each one of the five aggregates, the total number of negations the Buddha employs in this case comes up to fifteen. Needless to say, what is important is not the total number of negations employed but the idea of non-self, namely, the idea that each one of the five aggregates is empty of self.

Nagarjuna (ca. 150-250), who is known for his logical approach in the development of Buddhist thought, carries the Buddha’s method of using negations furthest. In the dedicatory verses that appear at the beginning of his Mulamadhyamakakarika, Nagarjuna employs the logic involving eight negations to expound the Buddha’s concept of dependent origination:

I prostrate to the Perfect Buddha,
The best of teachers, 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 construction.1

By employing these eight negations, Nagarjuna shows us that dependent origination (pratitya samutpada) implies emptiness (sunyata), namely, that nothing in this world exists as a separate and independent entity. What is important to note here is that these eight negations are not presented as repetitions of a negation eight times but as repetitions of a pair of negations four times. In order to clarify that these eight negations actually consist of four pairs of negations, they can be rephrased as follows: Whatever is dependently arisen is neither ceasing nor arising, neither annihilated nor permanent, neither coming nor going, neither one thing nor many things. To begin with, whatever is dependently arisen is neither ceasing nor arising, which is the same as saying neither dies nor is born, because it exists, if at all, in a web of causes of conditions that connects it with all other things in the universe. The same can be said about other three pairs of negations, for they all reinforce the idea that nothing in the universe exists by itself and, hence, is devoid of a separate and independent self.

The Heart Sutra is another well-known Buddhist text that teaches us the idea of emptiness. As a matter of fact, the lines similar to Nagarjuna’s eight negations appear in the following part where six negations, or three pairs of negations, are employed: “Listen Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness. They are neither produced nor destroyed, neither defiled nor immaculate, neither  increasing nor decreasing.”2

There are some commonalities as well as differences between Nagarjuna and the Heart Sutra. The words “neither produced nor destroyed” in the Heart Sutra can be construed as corresponding to the words “unceasing, unborn” in Nagarjuna. Both can be replaced by the words “no birth, no death”, which are often employed in English translations of both the Heart Sutra and Nagarjuna. Two other pairs of negations in the Heart Sutra—“neither defiled nor immaculate” and “neither increasing nor decreasing”—have no corresponding pairs in Nagarjuna. This does not mean, however, that the Heart Sutra is trying to convey a different message from Nagarjuna. What both Nagarjuna and the Heart Sutra teach us is the importance of avoiding the application of the “either-or” logic, or what is known as the law of “excluded middle” in philosophy, to things and phenomena in the universe.

One clear difference between Nagarjuna and the Heart Sutra is that while the former employs four pairs of negations, the latter three pairs. What should we make of this difference in the number of negations between Nagarjuna and the Heart Sutra? Does not the Heart Sutra need one more pair of negations to make the two comparable as a logical scheme of expounding the idea of emptiness? It is easy to fill the gap between the two by simply adding another pair of negations to the Heart Sutra. This is, in fact, what Thich Nhat Hanh does in his recent re-translation of the Heart Sutra, where he adds “no being, no non-being” to other three pairs of negations.3 By adding another pair of negations, Thich Nhat Hanh wants to make sure that the message the Heart Sutra tries to convey is the idea of emptiness, or the idea of “interbeing”, which means the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena in the universe.

Actually, the absence of an additional pair of negations in the Heart Sutra is less of a problem than the repetition of too many negations without pairing. In the original Chinese version of the Heart Sutra by Xuanzang (ca. 620-664), which is widely used in China, Korea and Japan, the Chinese character that signifies “no” appears twenty-one times. Thus, the line, “no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind”, is followed by the line, “no realms of elements, no interdependent origins and no extinctions of them”. The upshot is that we are tempted to interpret the Heart Sutra as teaching us the idea of non-existence, or non-being, of all dharmas. However, what dependent origination implies is not non-existence, or non-being, but emptiness, that is, all dharmas are empty of separate self as they are all connected in the evolving web of causes and conditions in the universe. To emphasize the idea of emptiness that follows from dependent origination, we are well advised to use negations as a pair whenever negations are employed as in “neither produced nor destroyed”, for example. Indeed, we can keep on adding other negations to the ones already included by Nagarjuna and in the Heart Sutra as long as we employ this “neither … nor …” format. This way, we are making sure that the Middle Way is the heart of the Buddha’s teaching and the path towards perfect understanding.

  1. Garfield, Jay, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 2.
  2. Nhat Hanh, Thich, The Sciences of the Buddha, Plum Village, 2012, p. 10.
  3. Nhat Hanh, Thich, Retranslation of the New Heart Sutra, Plum Village, September 11, 2014.