Posted by: Soh

The Buddha rejected the extremes of eternalism and nihilism and taught the middle way which is free from extremes. This post examines what each of these mean with pictorial aid.


There is a water. Water truly exists. Hydrogen and oxygen are attributes of the water.


The water does not exist. OR The water that exists now annihilates later.

Middle Way

Co-dependently arisen hydrogen and oxygen are empty of water, but is conventionally called water. Hydrogen and oxygen are not attributes of an entity "water" (no such thing can be pinned down), not contained by an entity called "water", nor is there a "water" that is "made up of" hydrogen and oxygen. Rather, two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms co-dependently arising ARE what is conventionally imputed as water.



Self view is the held position that there is a self. Self truly exists. Self may be seen as attributeless (as some attributeless pure consciousness as in advaita), or a self that owns or contains attributes, or an agent that manifests, owns, observes, or controls, its aggregates. The precise view of self varies from eternal, partially eternal, to nihilistic (for a lengthy discourse by Buddha on the numerous "thicket of views", refer to From an eternalist perspective, the self remains unchanged despite the changes in life. It remains unchanged even after bodily death. It is either seen as the unchanging self [as an individual soul], or the Self [as an infinite Self or Presence] that is unaffected by the passing aggregates or phenomena.


The self does not exist. OR The self in this life annihilates upon death. There is no karma, cause and effect, or rebirth.

Middle Way

Co-dependently arisen five aggregates are empty of self, but is conventionally called self. Seeing is not a self seeing, but is simply the experience being seen. Volition is not via a doer, but is simply action-activity-process, co-dependently arisen. Consciousness is not a self, it is simply auditory consciousness manifested dependent on ear, sound and attention, so on and so forth. Taste of chocolate has nothing to do with a taster but is simply the process or seamless activity of biting, tongue touching chocolate, consciousness of taste, etc. Ultimately, whatever dependently originates is also empty of any true existence (five aggregates are also empty) - but appearances are not denied.

Now replace "water" or "self" with anything - mind, matter, Buddha-nature, Truth, awareness, cars, houses, atoms, universe, etc. All applies the same way.

Diamond Sutra: "Subhuti, all dharmas are spoken of as no dharmas. Therefore they are called dharmas."

Anuradha Sutta: "And so, Anuradha — when you can't pin down the Tathagata as a truth or reality even in the present life — is it proper for you to declare, 'Friends, the Tathagata — the supreme man, the superlative man, attainer of the superlative attainment — being described, is described otherwise than with these four positions: The Tathagata exists after death, does not exist after death, both does & does not exist after death, neither exists nor does not exist after death'?"

Ted Biringer: "...According to Dogen, this “oceanic-body” does not contain the myriad forms, nor is it made up of myriad forms – it is the myriad forms themselves. The same instruction is provided at the beginning of Shobogenzo, Gabyo (pictured rice-cakes) where, he asserts that, “as all Buddhas are enlightenment” (sho, or honsho), so too, “all dharmas are enlightenment” which he says does not mean they are simply “one” nature or mind."

Thusness (2008): The key is in "emptiness" so that there is complete non abiding and (non-)staying (thus avoiding eternalism) and "luminosity" so that there is aliveness and clarity without falling into nihilism.

Note: does that mean that conventionally self truly exists? No. Conventional truths are not in fact true nor existing but are merely deluded projections as a result of ignorance. Five aggregates are deludedly conceived as a self. Such a self may conventionally be considered true, yet there is actually no truth to it. It is merely a false name used by the enlightened for pragmatic purpose, but taken to be true and existing by the ignorant. Nagarjuna: "Since the Jina proclaims that nirvana alone is true, what wise person would not reject the rest as false?"

The diagrams are inspired by Julian Baggini's speech on Ted talk:
8 Responses
  1. Harsha Says:

    I have a question about this - even though 'water' is a label, the underlying parts could have inherent existence. Atoms themselves have parts. But ultimately, there are basic inherent things in the Standard Model of physics - the backgroud spacetime itself and quantum fields whose vibrations we name as elementary particles. Using physics is double edged as even though the models will say somethings are basic, some other things will be.

    True, this model is not final and is in the process of being changed. But the next model will also have inherently existing features. My question is how can we as practitioners without any direct access to physics experiments can directly rule out any model which has inherently existing qualities.

    When one says that one sees sunyata in all dharmas, this seems like an analysis of first person sensory and conceptual experience. I also dont understand this btw - but hopefully will discuss this later.

  2. Harsha Says:

    small correction - the last line of paragraph should end 'models will say some things are not basic, some other things will be.'

  3. "This isn't what annihilation means. When you look at salt under a microscope, you are looking at photons not salt, which are annihilated on your retina. Particles are not objects, they are packets of energy. This energy dissipates into heat when it interacts with cells in your eyes that are photosensitive."

  4. (Continued) Reasons to Meditate on the Nature of Mind

    It is important to know why we practice meditation. There are two main types of meditation: analytical meditation and placement meditation. The Madhyamaka school has given us extensive, clear explanations of how external things or phenomena are actually emptiness. In analytical meditation we meditate on these reasons and arguments; however it is very difficult to actually meditate on the emptiness of phenomena. In the tantric, or Vajrayana, tradition of Tibet, rather than meditating on the nature of external phenomena, we meditate on mind itself. The technique of mahamudra meditation is essential and unique to the Vajrayana tradition."

    Etc etc

    Anyway I like what this guy had to say:

    An object is seen by a hundred different people like a hundred reflections in a hundred mirrors. But is it the same object? As a first approximation, it’s the same object, but one that can be perceived in completely different ways by different beings. Only one who has attained enlightenment recognizes the object’s ultimate nature – that it appears, but is devoid of any intrinsic existence – as the direct contemplation of absolute truth transcends any intellectual concept, any duality between subject and object.

    Buddhism’s position is that of the ‘Middle Way: the world isn’t a projection of our minds, but it isn’t totally independent of our minds, either – because it makes no sense to speak of a particular, fixed reality independent of any concept, mental process, or observer. Rather there is interdependence. In this manner, Buddhism avoids falling into either nihilism or eternalism. Phenomena arise through a process of interdependent causes and conditions, but nothing exists in itself or by itself.

    Colors, sounds, smells, flavors, and textures aren’t attributes that are inherent to the objective world, existing independently of our senses. The objects we perceive seem completely ‘external’ to us, but do they have intrinsic characteristics that define their true nature? What is the true nature of the world as it exists independently of ourselves? We have no way of knowing, because our only way of apprehending it is via our own mental process. So, according to Buddhism, a ‘world’ independent of any conceptual designation would make no sense to anyone. To take an example, what is a white object? Is it a wavelength, a ‘color temperature’, and or moving particles? Are those particles energy, mass, or what? None of those attributes are intrinsic to the object, they’re only the result of our particular ways of investigating it.

    Buddhist scriptures tell the story of two blind men who wanted to have explained to them what colors were? One of them was told that white was the color of snow. He took a handful of snow and concluded that white was ‘cold’. The other blind man was told white was the color of swans. He heard a swan flying overhead, and concluded that white went ‘swish swish’... The complete and correct recollection of the story aside, the point being the world cannot be determined by itself. If it was, we’d all perceive it in the same way.

    That’s not to deny reality as we observe it, nor to say that there’s no reality outside the mind, but simply that no ‘reality in itself’ exists. Phenomena only exist in dependence on other phenomena.

  5. To put it in another way - the practice we, as insight practitioners, undergo is to understand the nature and essence of experience (Awareness) for the purpose of liberation.

    Our approach is phenomenological and therefore we do not look elsewhere other than this immediate moment.

    The view challenges our existing dualistic and inherent framework and attempt to neutralize it so that we can have a clean, pure, direct and immediate authentication of "experience" as suchness. The purpose is to liberate our deeply rooted held view rather than to establish anything. When experience is in primordial and natural condition, views are also dropped. The problem is only about dropping it too early.

  6. Harsha Says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this long reply. I am occupied for a few days, but will try to respond once I am free.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Yes truly thank you
    One question, what realizes the emptiness of self?

  8. Bane Says:

    Pretty cool, and a very easy way to grasp dependent origination. I also watched the talk; it's cool to see this getting more professional attention in the west.

    While it wasn't directed to me, Harsha, I have some thoughts on your comment.

    The atom arises dependently just as the molecule did; on its respective fundamental particles. Protons, neutrons, electrons. So too do those arise from quarks. My understanding of modern science is too primitive to go farther, but I'd put forth that it's as valid to say that the universe is more 'form' than 'stuff'; pattern than substance. I'll bet that any smaller 'constituents' we might discover will turn out to be the same way.

    For even substance itself to arise there must be the 'gap', a condition for the arising of form. Form is emptiness, etcetera. I extrapolate that future models will fall in line with this, although I don't think it's necessarily that out of line as is. Between the discrete and the continuous; that's a middle way, no?