Emptiness: A Comparative Review of Classical Daoist & Buddhist Thought

By Eran Dror




In this paper I shall examine the meaning and implications of the concept of Emptiness (Śūnyatā, शू ता) in Buddhist thought, particularly through the lens of Nagarjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā,

and compare it with the possibly similar concept of Emptiness or Nothingness (Wu, 無) in the classical Daoist texts of the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi.

In this endeavor, I shall not be focusing on usage or semantics. In other words, I will not be very interested in exploring whether the word is used to connote exactly the same aspect of existence. Rather, I shall use it to explore to what extent the two respective philosophies, examined holistically, are describing a similar or different view of reality and of man’s place in it.

Despite the lack of clear separation into different philosophical branches in these source texts, I will attempt to examine the materials according to five broad categories:

  1. Ontology & Metaphysics – An examination of the Buddhist and Daoist philosophical view of what exists, and the universe’s basic characteristics.
  2. Epistemology – An examination of how the above views of reality affect the Buddhist and Daoist view of knowledge, its limitations, and our relationship to it.
  3. Ethics – An examination of how, given the above conclusions about the universe and the limitations of our mind, one should live, and what constitutes a good life according to these two traditions.
  4. Practice – An examination of meditative practice, a key component of the Buddhist path to realizing emptiness, and possibly a component of the Daoist path as well.
  5. The Limits of Emptiness – An examination of both traditions’ relationship with the limits of their own key insight. Is Emptiness the ultimate answer? Is it an absolute truth? Or is emptiness itself empty?

It goes without saying that any simple statement about these two enormously complex philosophical movements, each with its many branches, variations, and interpretations can be easily contradicted by evidence to the contrary. Therefore, any such statements in this paper should be read as referring only to the particular sources quoted, and in the case of multiple suspected authors, the particular chapters as well. None of this should be construed as a claim that the two systems are identical, in details or in essence, but simply that one could be used to illuminate the other, both in similarity and in difference.


1. The World is Empty

How similar or different are the Buddhist and Daoist views of reality in its most fundamental sense? A good place to start might be with this description of the Buddhist Perfection of Wisdom literature from Rupert Gethin:

“The great theme of the Perfection of Wisdom thus becomes… the emptiness of all things that we might be tempted to think truly and ultimately exist in and of themselves. To see any dharma as existing in itself is to grasp at it, to try to hold on to it, but dharmas are like dreams, magical illusions, echoes, reflected images, mirages, space; like the moon reflected in water, a fairy castle, a shadow, or a magical creation; like the stars, dewdrops, a bubble, a flash of lightning, or a cloud – they are there, but they are not there, and if we reach out for them, we find nothing to hold on to.”

This view of things as fundamentally impermanent and therefore lacking in real, substantial existence seems to be echoed in the Laozi: “Is not the space between Heaven and Earth like a bellows? Empty yet inexhaustible! Work it and more will come forth.” This idea is featured in the Zhuangzi as well:

“Things indeed die and are born, not reaching a perfect state which can be relied on. Now there is emptiness, and now fulness – they do not continue in one form. The years cannot be reproduced; time cannot be arrested. Decay and growth, fullness and emptiness, when they end, begin again… The life of things is like the hurrying and galloping along of a horse. With every movement there is a change; with every moment there is an alteration.”

We see one clear difference right away: in the Zhuangzi emptiness alternates with fullness, whereas in Nagarjuna, fullness does not exist. Both philosophies, however, seem to recognize that the fact of change is meaningful. That it means that things do not exist in the fixed way we seem to intuitively grasp them.

What does it mean, though, that things lack “real” existence? Or to lack “a perfect state which can be relied upon”? Writes Allen:

“The emptiness Nagarjuna alludes to means absence. What is absent or lacking is svabhava, meaning “self-nature,” “inherent existence,” or “own being.” A thing has svabhava when a specific characterizing property individuates it and renders it nameable and knowable. Candrakirti, in a classical commentary on Nagarjuna, says, “This is the definition of it: Svabhava is not artificially created and not dependent on anything else.” To use a Greek expression, the svabhava is auto kath auto, itself from itself, self-identical, enjoying substantial, non- relational identity and existence. Nagarjuna’s teaching on emptiness is a correction of a mistaken belief in svabhava. The emptiness it reveals is the utter absence of anything with svabhava being.”

In other words, the things around us don’t have a fixed and separate nature. In modern parlance, things might be viewed as emergent phenomena, rather than true substance. This at first seems to fit quite well with the Daoist view of Oneness. As in the Laozi: “The Way produces the One. The One produces two. Two produces three. Three produces the myriad creatures,” or in the Zhuangzi:

“You should not specify any particular thing. There is not a single thing without (the Dao). So it is with the Perfect Dao. And if we call it the Great (Dao), it is just the same. There are the three terms, “Complete,” “All-embracing,” “the Whole.” These names are different, but the reality (sought in them) is the same; referring to the One thing… That which makes things what they are has not the limit which belongs to things.”

So here, there seems to be some agreement on what can be termed the non-separateness of things. But already we see another important difference. Daoism, in discussing non-separateness, speaks of oneness in positive language. Here is Zhuangzi again:

“It produces fulness and emptiness, but is neither fulness nor emptiness; it produces withering and decay, but is neither withering nor decay. It produces the root and branches, but is neither root nor branch; it produces accumulation and dispersion, but is itself neither accumulated nor dispersed.”

Particular things, according to Daoism, seem to be emergent phenomena of something real, permanent, and fundamental that lies beyond. In fact, it seems they are only seen as things when they are named. As long as they are unnamed, there is only the one constant thing: “Nameless, it is the beginning of Heaven and Earth; Named, it is the mother of the myriad creatures.” Nagarjuna, or indeed most early Buddhist texts, do not speak of oneness, and virtually never mention any positive existent that lies beyond separateness.

In relation to “conventional things” then, it seems that there is a sort of agreement between Nagarjuna and Classical Daoism – they do not truly exist in themselves, as separate objects with clear boundaries. Classical Daoism, however, seems to take the conclusion a step further and say that things exist within or because of the Dao – a constant, though dynamic, element which gives rise to all the rest. Nagarjuna, while making sure to reject the claim that nothing exists at all (or that there is nonbeing), remains silent on the question of what does exist. He stops at the point of calling “conventional things” illusory.


2. Knowledge is Empty

Since the principles of epistemology are supposed to be of a more concrete and practical nature, we should have better luck at finding common ground between the two philosophies. Indeed, we begin by finding a very similar dilemma in both philosophies – that of saying something vs. saying nothing at all about reality. Writes Zhihua Yao:

“For the Daoist and Buddhist philosophers who realize the ultimate reality, the dilemma between speaking and not speaking is unavoidable. Because both these traditions, among all the major philosophical schools East and West, have adventured into the domain of negativity, ultimate reality—be it Dao or nothingness, nirvana or emptiness—has to be expressed in negative terms.”

Here, there seems at first to be agreement. As Zhuangzi writes:

“Heaven, Earth, and I were produced together, and all things and I are one. Since they are one, can there be speech about them? But since they are spoken of as one, must there not be room for speech? One and Speech are two; two and one are three. Going on from this (in our enumeration), the most skillful reckoner cannot reach (the end of the necessary numbers), and how much less can ordinary people do so! Therefore from non-existence we proceed to existence till we arrive at three; proceeding from existence to existence, to how many should we reach? Let us abjure such procedure, and simply rest here.”

Zhuangzi, then, seems to recommend a policy of speaking of three things only (which seems to correlate with the Dao, Human Language, and their Union – or Ultimate Existence, Consciousness, and Non-Dual Reality), and to avoid speaking about the rest of the myriad separate things.

Nagarjuna, it seems, has found another way of resolving this dilemma. Throughout the Madhyamaka, he proceeds to systematically demolish what he views as common illusions and misconceptions, sticking primarily to conclusions in the negative. He negates the conventional views of causality in the strongest of terms in the very first chapter:

Neither from itself nor from another,

“Nor from both,

Nor without a cause,

Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.

And somewhat later, in the same strictly negative tone, he negates the existence of all things:

From this it follows that there is no characterized

And no existing characteristic.

Nor is there any entity

Other than the characterized and the characteristic.”

In this systematic destruction, Nagarjuna spares nothing. In the words of the great commentator Candrakirti: “The one who sees dependent origination correctly does not perceive a substance even in subtle things.” This strictly negative approach is what makes Nagarjuna’s writing so challenging, but it is also its strength. Writes Barry Allen:

“Are Nagarjuna’s assertions empty? If so, then he has nothing to say, and says nothing. If he communicates at all, then it cannot be true that all is empty, because that assertion is not empty, not if it truly is an assertion. Nagarjuna agrees with this argument but says it does not apply to him. “If I had a proposition, this defect would attach to me. But I have no proposition. Therefore I am not at fault.”

In sticking to negative statements, Nagarjuna can remain accurate in his language, and avoid the metaphorical and often vague language that is the hallmark of Daoism. This vagueness is necessary when talking about a reality where no separate objects or relationships truly exist. Laozi seems to recognize this when he writes:

“There is a thing confused yet perfect, which arose before

Heaven and Earth.

Still and indistinct, it stands alone and unchanging.

It goes everywhere and is never at a loss.

One can regard it as the mother of Heaven and Earth.

I do not know its proper name;

I have styled it “the Way.”

Forced to give it a proper name, I would call it “Great.”

The Great passes on;

What passes on extends into the distance;

What passes into the distance returns to its source…”

It seems that both philosophies, then, view the severe limits of language and knowledge as a central insight. Nagarjuna, however, chooses to speak primarily in the negative, whereas Laozi and Zhuangzi are content sometimes to use language metaphorically and vaguely, as a tool of transformation or pointing rather than as a tool of exact philosophy.

The key epistemological claim of both Daoism and Madhyamaka Buddhism, then, seems to be this: Since things are not truly separate or self-existent as they appear to be, language itself must be understood as merely a conventional or relative construction, or one that at the very least has severe limitations. This insight, in itself, seems to be enough to be free of the most harming effects of delusion. It is in this context that this verse of the Daodejing seems to make most sense: “The Dao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel; and in our employment of it we must be on our guard against all fulness.”



3. The Self is Empty

As in many Western philosophies, the Buddhist and Daoist ethics are informed by a view of the universe and of man. For if things don’t have self-nature, and are not truly separate from the rest of existence, the same must be true of man and everything he encounters. The implications, if accepted, are truly radical.

In this section, I will explore the guidance that Daoism & Buddhism provide their students, taking them through the realization of the emptiness of self, the process of letting it go, and describing the benefits of doing so.

Self  as Illusory

The idea of non-self (Pali: anattā, अनत्ता), is a fundamental tenet of Buddhism and one of the Buddha’s Three Marks of Existence. In Buddhism, it is often presented with the phrase sabbe dhamma anatta from the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, The Sutra on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma. This is commonly translated as “All phenomena / things are not self.” Writes Gethin:

“The gist of the Buddhist critique of the notion of ‘self’ is then this. It cannot be denied that there is a complex of experience going on… But where precisely in all this is the constant, unchanging self which is having all these experiences? What we find when we introspect, the Buddha suggests, is always some particular sense datum, some particular feeling, some particular idea, some particular wish or desire, some consciousness of something particular. And all these are constantly changing from one moment to the next; none of them remains for more than a mere moment. Thus, apart from some particular experience, I never actually directly come across or experience the ‘I’ that is having experiences. It is something entirely elusive. This looks suspicious. How can I know it is there? For it is impossible to conceive of consciousness apart from all these particular changing details, and if we abstract all the particular details of consciousness we are not left with a constant, individual ‘self’ but a blank, a nothing.”

The principle of non-self reads very much like an application of Nagarjuna’s (and perhaps Zhuangzi’s) insights about self-nature to the realm of the individual. From another perspective, it may also be seen as an application of the problem with “naming names.” In the famous opening of the Milinda Paiiha, King Milinda asks:

“‘How is your reverence known, and what sir, is your name?’ ‘O king, I am known as Nàgasena but that is only a designation in common use, for no permanent individual can be found.’ ”

This understanding of self as merely a useful convention seems to correspond with the Laozi, in the verses “Always eliminate desires in order to observe its mysteries.” In Nagarjuna’s own writing, the self receives a rigorous deconstruction, where it is proven to neither exist nor not-exist, but occupy the same seemingly contradictory sphere of all self-nature:

“Whatever comes into being dependent on another

Is not identical to that thing.

Nor is it different from it.

Without identity, without distinction;

Not nonexistent in time, not permanent.”

The idea of self as an illusion does not seem to be a strong theme in either the Laozi or the Zhuangzi. There is, however, a famous passage in the Zhuangzi that seems to indicate a view of self as something other than fully substantially real. When the the student Yan Cheng Zi-You sees his master Nan-Guo Zi-Qi in a static, seemingly inanimate posture, he is alarmed. In a conversation afterwards, Nan-Guo Zi-Qi explains:

“I had just now lost myself… When the breath of the Great Mass (of nature) comes strongly, it is called Wind. Sometimes it does not come so; but when it does, then from a myriad apertures there issues its excited noise… When the fierce gusts have passed away, all the apertures are empty (and still) – have you not seen this in the bending and quivering of the branches and leaves?”

The self in the Zhuangzi, then, might also be understood as something emergent and contingent, and not as a substantial and permanent phenomena.


Letting Go of Self

The letting go of self is easier to find in Daoism, quite apart from the question of whether the self is illusory or not. “The Perfect man,” writes Zhuangzi, “has no (thought of) self; the Spirit-like man, none of merit; the Sagely-minded man, none of fame.” And Laozi asks us: “Is it not because [the sages] have no thought of themselves, that they are able to perfect themselves?”

Daoism goes further than simply recommending to limit thoughts about the self. In advocating Action in Non-Doing (Chinese: Wuwei, 無爲 ), it seems to embrace a program of action lacking not only in intention and effort, but in selfhood. Writes Moeller, Hans-Georg:

“As a verb you means ‘being there’ or ‘being present,’ and also ‘to have’ and sometimes ‘to own.’ It can denote both the existence and the possession of something. As a noun you can be translated as ‘existence’ or even as ‘being.’ Wu is simply the negation of you. Accordingly it means in verbal usage ‘not being there’ or ‘not being present,’ and also ‘not having’ or ‘not possessing.’ ”

Thus we find in the Daodejing the verse:

“Act, but through nonaction.

Be active, but have no activities.

Taste, but have no tastes.”

And in the Zhuangzi:

“If a man can empty himself of himself, during his time in the world, who can harm him?’

Buddhist philosophy, as might be expected from its view of the self as an illusion, places the letting go of this illusion as an important, if not the ultimate spiritual goal. As in this famous sutta:

“Now, bhikkhus, this is the way leading to the cessation of identity. One regards [all of one’s faculties and experiences] thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’”

The benefits of letting go of the self is also a point of similarity between Daoism and Buddhism. Nagarjuna addresses this in his verse on the liberation from the self:

“Action and misery having ceased, there is nirvāna.

Action and misery come from conceptual thought.

This comes from mental fabrication.

Fabrication ceases through emptiness.”

Other Buddhist thinkers, including the Buddha himself, tend to be more positive when describing this freedom from the self:

“Nibbāna is still the destruction of lust, hatred, and delusion, but as such it is, among other things, peaceful, deathless, sublime, wonderful, and amazing. Such descriptions indicate that Nibbāna is a state of supreme happiness, peace, and freedom to be experienced in this present life.”

In Daoism also, Wuwei is described as an idyllic state of ease and harmony:

[Wuwei is] ‘‘a state of personal harmony in which actions flow freely and instantly from one’s spontaneous inclinations . . . and yet nonetheless accord perfectly with the dictates of the situation at hand, display an almost supernat- ural efficacy, and (in the Confucian context at least) harmonize with the demands of conventional morality.”

Laozi seems to take this even further, is claiming that going beyond selfhood makes one invulnerable to at least certain kinds of disasters. In Chapter 13 of the Daodejing he writes:

“I can suffer calamity only because I have a body.

When I no longer have a body, what calamity could I possibly have?”

I believe the use of body here should be understood in the sense of “self”. The verse in its entirety makes the point that once the conventional self is gone, one is both above harm, and above doing harm. Above harm because there is no individual self to be harmed. Above doing harm because there is no part of the world that is not the self.

Zhuangzi goes further in describing the simple benefits of this original selflessness and simplicity of the “True men of old”:

“[They] knew nothing of the love of life or of the hatred of death… Composedly they went and came. They did not forget what their beginning had been, and they did not inquire into what their end would be. They accepted (their life) and rejoiced in it; they forgot (all fear of death), and returned (to their state before life). Thus there was in them what is called the want of any mind to resist the Dao, and of all attempts by means of the Human to assist the Heavenly. Such were they who are called the True men. Being such, their minds were free from all thought; their demeanour was still and unmoved; their foreheads beamed simplicity.”

This theme of being free from the fear of calamity, sickness, old age and death repeats itself many times in the Zhuangzi, and equally often in the story of the Buddha himself. In fact, it is how the Buddha, as he is portrayed in the Pali canon, describes the spiritual path:

“And what is the noble search? Here someone being himself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, seeks the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to aging, having understood the danger in what is subject to aging, he seeks the unaging supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to sickness, having understood the danger in what is subject to sickness, he seeks the unailing supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna; being himself subject to death, having understood the danger in what is subject to death, he seeks the deathless supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna… This is the noble search.”

Finally, there is the benefit of seeing reality clearly. This benefit, expressed thoroughly enough in all of Nagarjuna’s quotes already given, is also expressed in the very first verse of the Daodejing:

“Always eliminate desires in order to observe [the Dao’s] mysteries;

Always have desires in order to observe its manifestations.”

This key verse, I believe, can be read as a reminder that desire necessarily distorts our perception of reality as it is. The Dao’s “mysteries” lie in its unity, its universality, its limitlessness. The Dao’s “manifestations” are another name for the “myriad creatures”, for particular things mistakenly grasped as separate objects. To see emptiness in the world, we must be empty ourselves.

In this sense, Daoism and Buddhism seem to have opposite but perhaps complementary motivations: Buddhism is primarily interested in liberation from suffering, and uses the metaphysics of emptiness for that purpose. Daoism, on the other hand, seems primarily interested in grasping the Oneness of the Dao, and the emptiness of the self is primarily a means for achieving that end. These divergent priorities might explain why early Buddhism (and the historical Buddha) remains silent on many questions of metaphysics which do not directly contribute to psychological liberation, whereas Daoism is comparatively rich in what one might term mystical or metaphysical descriptions.


Practicing Selflessness

Given how different the goals and motivations of Buddhism and Classical Daoism seem to be, and how different the context in which they developed, it is not surprising that we find quite a difference in their respective emphasis on meditation and mental practice. The Buddha’s own meditative education is described as extensive in the Pali canon. Long before his enlightenment, he is described as having learned meditation from two leading teachers of the day, Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta and have gained the topmost meditative distinction with each of those teachers. Furthermore, the Buddha’s own enlightenment is described as coming to him through and in the moment of meditation:

“When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings… Thus with the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, I saw beings passing away and reappearing, inferior and superior, fair and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate, and I understood how beings pass on according to their actions… I directed [my concentrated mind] to knowledge of the destruction of the taints. I directly knew as it actually is: ‘This is suffering’;…‘This is the origin of suffering’;…‘This is the cessation of suffering’;…‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering’;…‘These are the taints’;…‘This is the origin of the taints’;…‘This is the cessation of the taints’;…‘This is the way leading to the cessation of the taints.’ When I knew and saw thus, my mind was liberated from the taint of sensual desire, from the taint of being, and from the taint of ignorance. When it was liberated there came the knowledge: ‘It is liberated.’ I directly knew: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.”

The passage above can be said to be one of the earliest surviving texts describing the technique of Vipassana or “Clear Seeing” meditation. Through the cultivation of concentration and mindfulness, the meditator is led to greater and greater insights into the nature of things through direct experience. The purpose of insights is not a pure, academic understanding of the world or the self, but Nirvāṇa. A ceasing of the normal processes of selfhood, and with them a fading of unbeneficial states of mind, and suffering itself. Through practice, the Buddhist practitioner is told, one can gradually learn to let go of clinging until not even a residual selfhood remains:

“Suppose, friends, a cloth has become soiled and stained, and its owners give it to a laundryman. The laundryman would scour it evenly with cleaning salt, lye, or cow dung, and rinse it in clean water. Even though that cloth would become pure and clean, it would still retain a residual smell of cleaning salt, lye, or cow dung that had not yet vanished. The laundryman would then give it back to the owners. The owners would put it in a sweet-scented chest, and the residual smell of cleaning salt, lye, or cow dung that had not yet vanished would vanish. So too, friends, even though a noble disciple has abandoned the five lower fetters, still… there lingers in him a residual conceit ‘I am,’ a desire ‘I am,’ an underlying tendency ‘I am’ that has not yet been uprooted…. As he dwells thus contemplating rise and fall in the five aggregates subject to clinging, the residual conceit ‘I am,’ the desire ‘I am,’ the underlying tendency ‘I am’ that had not yet been uprooted—this comes to be uprooted.”

Despite what seems to be a different motivation in Classical Daoism, hints in the Zhuangzi seem to indicate that a sort of naturally-occurring form of meditation was part and parcel of the wise man’s life.  In the story mention earlier, the student Yan Cheng Zi-You walked in on Nan-Guo Zi-Qi in having just such a moment. Nan-Guo Zi-Qi has a tough time explaining it: “Yan, you do well to ask such a question, I had just now lost myself; but how should you understand it?”

It seems that “losing yourself”, rather than a goal-oriented form of practice, is seen here as an unintentional, even accidental occurrence than might occasionally happen to one who is adept at seeing and understanding the Dao.

This union with the Dao as a unique state of consciousness seems to make an appearance in the Laozi as well:

“The (state of) vacancy should be brought to the utmost degree, and that of stillness guarded with unwearying vigour. All things alike go through their processes of activity, and (then) we see them return (to their original state). When things (in the vegetable world) have displayed their luxuriant growth, we see each of them return to its root. This returning to their root is what we call the state of stillness.”

This call for a state of vacancy and stillness is not dissimilar to many later meditative instructions. Still, it wasn’t until much later than forms of Daoist meditation, and in particular that of “Guarding the One” (shouyi, )  – came to the scene. Writes Livia Kohn:

“[T]he notion of guarding, embracing, attaining, or realizing the One may refer either to the recovery of a primordial oneness lost in the course of life on earth or to the realization of an original unity that has always existed and will exist in eternity. Among the actual practices leading to a realization of the One in Taoism, seven representative methods may be distinguished. In each case, the immortality attained is defined slightly differently… All in all, guarding the One generally means concentrating the mind on one object, whether through visualization or abstract focusing of attention. Successful practice always results in the physical strengthening of the adept, explained through the metaphysical identification of the One with the primordial energy of the universe.”

And the similarities in technique seem not to end with shouyi, but to extend to other forms of Daoist meditation as well. Yet even then, there are also considerable differences in motivation, reliance on different traditions, and the ontological primacy given to change.  Kohn writes:

“The mystical ideal found in these texts appears to reflect basic Buddhist notions of salvation very closely. Adepts are made to realize that the world is as impermanent as they are. Practitioners come to see that everything is changing without interruption (anitya), and they are led to give up any personal identity or well-defined self (anātman). They are also promised complete freedom from suffering, which, caused by desires, rules all human existence (dukkha). The way to mystical realization, moreover, is described as a process of mental purification, and practitioners must accept certain precepts regarding their behavior… Can we therefore conclude that the type of Taoist theory and practice found in certain Tang dynasty documents is just another form of Buddhism? The answer is yes and no… We may affirm the assumption insofar as much of the terminology and many of the concrete practices involved were taken from Buddhist sources… Yet the theory is also incorrect, because every single item in the description of the process of Taoist mysticism goes beyond its Buddhist appearance and is deeply rooted in the indigenous Chinese tradition. The worldview underlying the theory, and the deeper reasons behind the practices, as well as the exact procedure of practice itself, can be traced back to Chinese thought well before the Buddhist conquest. The notion of eternal change and ongoing transformation of all things, for example… Being and non-being are alternate states of the same cycle of existence. Change is what existence means, it is neither deplorable nor delightful.”

All in all, it seems that practice belongs with both Buddhist and Daoist philosophies. Being so contrary to our normal ways of seeing, these philosophies require constant effort, direct experience, and gradual revelation to take hold. While in India of the Buddha’s time meditation was already an old and respected tradition with a multitude of techniques, it seems that in China those techniques developed both as a result of Daoist philosophy and of Buddhist influence.



4. Emptiness is Empty

When one looks at the history of religion and philosophy, one has to search hard to find examples of such intellectual modesty about one’s own conclusion as are found in the schools of early Daoism and Buddhism. This modesty, rather than being a testament to these thinkers personal inborn virtue, seems to stem from these philosophies’ key insights about the limits of knowledge and language. Still, once one has grasped the principle of emptiness – the temptation must be great to advocate and promote it vigorously and thus to identify with it, believe in its essential truth, and treat it, in other words, as full. To a large extent, both Daoism and Buddhism seem aware of this danger, and arrive at two similar approaches to countering it.

The first approach is to see that the world can be seen and interacted with in two ways, each legitimate and useful when used correctly. Even the strict Nagarjuna, despite his avoidance in saying almost anything positive about ultimate reality in the Madhyamaka, finds a compromise with daily reality, in the form of the longstanding Abhidharmic distinciton between Relative and Absolute truth:

“The Buddha’s teaching of the Dharma

Is based on two truths:

A truth of worldly convention

And an ultimate truth.

Without a foundation in the conventional truth,

The significance of the ultimate cannot be taught.

Without understanding the significance of the ultimate,

Liberation is not achieved.”

In other words, despite the relative and ultimately groundless nature of “conventional reality”, it is the one in which we must live, and which gives all our insights into “absolute reality” their meaning. A very similar compromise seems to be on Zhuangzi’s mind when he writes:

“[L]et us give up our devotion to our own views, and occupy ourselves with the ordinary views. These ordinary views are grounded on the use of things. (The study of that) use leads to the comprehensive judgment, and that judgment secures the success (of the inquiry). That success gained, we are near (to the object of our search), and there we stop. When we stop, and yet we do not know how it is so, we have what is called the Dao.”

To learn about things in the world, in other words, is not wrong in itself. The thing to avoid is to go one step further and to assume that this represents real knowledge of truly existing things. To think that we “know how it is so.”

The other approach that both Daoism and Buddhism seem to arrive at, is that of a different kind of teaching: teaching “without words”. This, I believe, is what Laozi aims at when he warns us that:

“The Dao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel; and in our employment of it we must be on our guard against all fulness.”

A more explicit connection between Laozi’s epistemology and his ethics can be found, I believe, in chapter 2 of the Daodejing. The chapter starts with a description of the inseparability, in reality, of the things we tend to believe are opposites:

“To have and to lack generate each other.

Difficult and easy give form to each other.”

It then continues in describing the behavior of the sage:

“This is why sages abide in the business of nonaction,

and practice the teaching that is without words.

They work with the myriad creatures and turn none away.

They produce without possessing.

The act with no expectation of reward.

When their work is done, they do not linger.

And, by not lingering, merit never deserts them.”

To truly practice the understanding that knowledge and language are limited, it seems, one has to go beyond words.  One cannot simply argue for this view or that, or act as if this view is right and all others wrong. One must not “possess” this view, precisely because that would be a distinction that separates the self from the rest of existence. And one can’t “linger” either, in the sense of waiting to receive selfish recognition, but also perhaps in the sense of your views “cohering” from a recognition of nothingness into a fixed something.

Zhuangzi seems to recognize a similar danger when he writes about Great Knowledge and Small Knowledge:

“Where their utterances are like arrows from a bow, we have those who feel it their charge to pronounce what is right and what is wrong; where they are given out like the conditions of a covenant, we have those who maintain their views, determined to overcome… Then their ideas seem as if fast bound with cords, showing that the mind is become like an old and dry moat, and that it is nigh to death, and cannot be restored to vigour and brightness.”

When people “feel it their charge to pronounce what is right and what is wrong,” their ideas become rigid, inflexible, and dead. The become like a “dry moat”, even if before they enjoyed “vigour and brightness.” Even views that have validity and value, it seems, can be transformed into something dead by fixation or clinging, by making them into certain, positive claims.

Nagarjuna, it seems, very much agrees. He writes:

“So, because all entities are empty,

Which views of permanence, etc., would occur,

And to whom, when, why, and about what

Would they occur at all?

I prostrate to Gautama

Who through compassion

Taught the true doctrine,

Which leads to the relinquishing of all views.”

To Nagarjuna, then, true understanding consists of relinquishing all views and not clinging to any. The same is true, he concludes with a shocking revelation, of the Buddha’s teaching itself: “No Dharma was taught by the Buddha at any time, in any place, to any person.”

This emphasis on the limits even of one’s own key insight is, in my view, the most remarkable similarity between Classical Daoist and Buddhist philosophy. These two philosophies, seeming to emerge from a similar recognition of the radical challenge that change represents to all of our usual ideas and perceptions, end up developing (or in some places co-developing) parallel philosophies of knowledge, behavior, psychology, and practice and – in a final act consistent with that realization – place the same restraints and reservations on the systems that they themselves created. It is in this way that I understand the meaning of the very first phrases of the Daodejing:

“A way that can be followed is not a constant Way.

A name that can be named is not a constant name.”

That is, not to merely say that we are somehow lacking in our ability to follow or name the Constant, but that the act of trying to make any teaching or a way constant severs it from a reality which is complex, indivisible, and ever-changing.


Summary & Conclusions

In this paper, I endeavored to show that beyond the semantic differences in how words like “emptiness” or “nothingness” are used, lie two complex but often parallel philosophies. That emerging from the selected sources of the Daodejing, the Zhuangzi, the Pali canon, and Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka, are similar views of the world, of the limitations of language and knowledge, of the value of letting go of selfhood and strong identification, and finally – of letting go of emptiness itself as an absolute truth.

When attempting to compare two highly subtle and complex philosophies (indeed schools of philosophy), and especially ones that call on us to be aware of the limitations of knowledge and language, I believe it is worthwhile to be less literal and more “holistic” in our approach to their meaning. We should allow them the use of language in a pointing, rather than defining capacity, because that is how they propose to use language. We must use our experience and imagination to fill in the gaps, because that is what’s expected of us. We may speak of similarities and differences because it helps us gain a new understanding of a familiar text, and not because any pattern we find represents an essential truth about them, or reduces them to our conclusions. With this in mind, comparisons can be a fruitful and illuminating exercise.

I have not focused on the question of any influences that early Buddhism and Daoism may have exerted on one another. Proving such influence, I believe, is not required for the similarities to be meaningful. One may simply accept that a similar underlying reality (whether metaphysical, epistemological, or psychological) can be perceived, uncovered, and developed by two unrelated thinkers at different times and places, and that such lines of thinking may develop in somewhat parallel ways despite differences in language, tradition, and geographic location.




  • Candrakīrti, Prasannapadā, 559:3–4, translated by Jan Westerhoff in Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Laozi, Daodejing, translated by James Legge, Chinese Text Project.
  • Laozi, Daodejing, translated by Philip J. Ivanhoe, Seven Bridges Press, New York, 2002.
  • Nagarjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK), translated by Jay L. Garfield in The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995.
  • Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi, translated by James Legge, Chinese Text Project.
  • SN 56.11, from the Pali Canon, Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (Kindle Edition), Wisdom Publications, Somerville, Massachusetts, 2000.
  • Milinda Paiiha, 1, classic Theravada text translated by Bhikkhu Pesala, in The Debate of King Milinda, Inward Path, Penang, 2001, p. 32.
  • MN, 148.22, from the Pali Canon,  Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (Kindle Edition), Wisdom Publications, 1995, Kindle Loc. 19451-19454.
  • MN 26.12, from the Pali Canon,  translated by Bodhi, Bhikkhu, in In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Wisdom Publications, Somerville, Massachusetts, 2005, p. 55.
  • MN, 4.31, from the Pali Canon,  Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (Kindle Edition), Wisdom Publications, Somerville, Massachusetts, 1995, Kindle Loc. 1797.
  • SN 22:89,, from the Pali Canon, translated by Bodhi, Bhikkhu in In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, p. 405.



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