The philosopher Victor Cousin spoke of a "cult of nothingness" (1) and of "this deplorable idea of annihilation which is the basis of Buddhism" (2), while another philosopher, Jules Barthélemy-Saint-Hilaire , translator of the works of Aristotle, described Buddhism as a “hideous system”, “implacable nihilism” (3) and stated: “It begins with nothingness or ignorance; it ends in ignorance or nothingness” (4). Closer to home, Paul Claudel affirmed that “the Buddha found only Nothingness and his doctrine taught monstrous communion” (5).
What does Buddhism say about extreme views?
Buddhism rejects two views which it describes as extreme concerning the nature of phenomena: nihilism and materialism (or naive realism). The refutation of these conceptual extremes is ubiquitous in the founding texts of Buddhism.
In the Ratnakutasutra, for example, the Buddha says: “Kashyapa, what is called eternalism, is an extreme. What is called nihilism is another extreme. »
Le Fundamental Treatise of Transcendent Knowledge (the prajnaparamita) specifies: “Being is eternalism; non-being, nihilism. To fall into extreme eternalism or extreme nihilism is to be ignorant. And ignorance prevents freedom from samsara” (6).
As for nirvana, it is in no way a question of any "extinction" into nothingness, but of the extinction of suffering and its causes. As specified The ornament of the sutras (Sutralankara): “Deliverance is the exhaustion of error”.
Buddhism considers that it would be absurd to deny the existence of phenomena since obviously they manifest themselves in infinite ways through the effect of a multiplicity of interdependent causes and conditions. Phenomena do not arise from nothing, do not occur randomly and cannot be their own cause. By recognizing the interdependent production of phenomena, Buddhism refutes the nihilism.
“It is precisely because phenomena are devoid of intrinsic existence that they can manifest themselves ad infinitum. »
Phenomena exist, of course, but how?
A superficial examination can make us believe that things exist as they appear, in the form of entities endowed with their own existence. For Buddhism, this naïve realism constitutes another erroneous conceptual extreme. Through a series of logical reasonings, Buddhism comes to the conclusion that there cannot exist autonomous entities endowed with their own existence. The 'emptiness' of Buddhism is not an 'absence' of phenomena or their non-existence, but the fact that they are 'empty of intrinsic existence'.
La prajnaparamita specifies: “Appearing, things are empty; empty, they appear. Emptiness is not only the ultimate nature of phenomena, but the potential that allows these phenomena to unfold ad infinitum. This understanding is summed up in this famous phrase of Nagarjuna: "Because all is emptiness, all can be." Indeed, it is precisely because phenomena are devoid of intrinsic existence that they can manifest themselves ad infinitum. A universe made up of autonomous entities endowed with real existence would be frozen forever, because it would prohibit the process of the laws of cause and effect, which is linked to the interdependence of phenomena.
In essence, the union of emptiness and appearances is the most accurate way to describe phenomena and their ultimate nature and to counter nihilism as well as materialism.