The text from which the following selection is taken is Nagarjuna's Exegesis on The Great Perfection of Wisdom (Mahaapraj~naapaaramitaa Upadesha), an immense exegesis to the Mahaapraj naapaaramitaa Sutra in 25,000 lines.
Question: If within the Buddha's Dharma it is said that all
dharmas are empty and nowhere is there a "self", why then is it declared
at the very beginning of the Buddha's scriptures, "Thus `I' have heard
Reply: Although the Buddha's disciples are aware that there is
no self, they accord with common practice in speaking. The "I" thus used
is not an actually-existent "I". This is just as when one uses gold
coins to purchase copper coins. Nobody laughs at this. Why not?
Because the protocols of commerce dictate this way of doing things.
Saying "I" is just the same as this. Within the Dharma of no-self, one
nonetheless says "I" in conformance with worldly convention. Therefore
one need not call this practice into question. This is as referred to
in a verse from The Questions of the Gods Sutra:
If there be an arhat bhikshu Who has forever ended outflows And who dwells in his very last body, May he speak of an "I" or not?
The Buddha replied:
If there be an arhat bhikshu Who has forever ended outflows And who dwells in his very last body, He may speak as if there were an "I";
When in accordance with worldy convention one speaks of a self,
it is not spoken from the standpoint of the supreme and actual meaning.
For this reason, although dharmas are empty and devoid of a self, there
is no fault in speaking of an "I"; [simply] to take into account [the
dictates of] worldly convention.
Three Bases of Worldly Discourse
Moreover, worldly discourse has three bases: first, false views;
second, conceit; and third, names. Of these, two are impure and one is
pure. The discourse of all common people is characterized by three
types: false views, conceit and names. The discourse of those with more
to study on the path of seeing is characterized by two types: conceit
The discourse of the sages is characterized by one type: names.
Although in their minds they do not contradict the actual Dharma,
because they go along with the practice of worldly people, they
participate in the perpetuation of this type of discourse. Because they
have gotten rid of the worldly man's false views, in their going along
with common practice, there is no disputation. On account of this they
have gotten rid of both kinds of impure bases of discourse. Because
they go along with the worldly convention, they employ one of the types
of speech. Because the disciples of the Buddha go along with common
practice, their speaking of an "I" is without fault.
Moreover, if a person becomes attached to the characteristic of
no self, saying, "This is actual; everything else is false discourse,"
he should be challenged with a difficulty: "If for you the actual
characteristic of all dharmas is devoid of a self, why do you say, `Thus "I" have heard;'
Now, for all of the Buddhas disciples, all dharmas are empty and
devoid of anything which exists. Their minds are not attached herein.
Nor are they attached in their speech to the actual characteristic of
all dharmas. How much the less are they attached in their thoughts to
the dharma of no self. On this account one need not challenge with the
difficulty; Why do you say "I"; This is as referred to in a verse
from The Treatise on the Middle:
If one has something which has not been rendered empty, Then one ought to have that which is rendered empty. Non-emptiness has still not been attained, How much the less has emptiness been realized?
The views of the common person have not been rendered empty. And so they also have a view of emptiness. To have no view of either views or absence of views: This is truly what is known as nirvana.
The gate to the security of non-duality Is able to shatter all false views. The place where all the Buddhas course,--- This is known as the dharma of no self.