Among the most important concepts that Buddhism has contributed to the world's history of ideas is the concept of śūnyatā which is often translated as "emptiness." Commonly, we understand things in the world as falling into two ontological categories: being and nothingness. Given this duality, emptiness is often misunderstood as simply another way of referring to nothingness. It is, however, better understood as marking a third ontological category that is neither being nor nothingness. At the same time, emptiness has important relations to these two standard ontological categories. To understand emptiness, consider a chess set. It is composed of eight white pawn, eight white pieces, eight black pawns, eight black pieces, and a board. If we imagine a chess set sitting before us on a table we might say that there are 33 objects on the table; however, we might also say that there is a chess set on the table. Could this really mean there are 34 objects on the table? Not if by an object we mean something that exists independently of all other things, since the chess set exists only dependently on its 33 independently existing objects. The chess set, while certainly existing, has an ontological status that is different from its component elements. Buddhists call this form of existence "dependent existence" and say of dependently existing objects that they are "empty." Among the most striking observations that has come out of the Buddhist tradition is the view that all things in the phenomenal world are empty. This is not a doctrine that all Buddhist embrace, but it is one which was clearly articulated by the second century Indian philosopher Nagarjuna.
Dependent existence might also come about not by a mereological relation, but by a causal dependency. States of affairs that that currently exist only exist as a product of the prior conditions which brought them about. They exist dependent upon their causes. Buddhists refer to this relationship as "dependent origination." Again, as with mereological dependence, all things in the phenomenal world originate dependently. More simply put: all things have a cause. All things are a result of prior conditions.
The idea of dependent origination and emptiness appear in some of the earliest Buddhist texts, but as mentioned above, it did not take center stage in Buddhist thinking until it was highlighted by Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna's most significant work is the Mulamadhyamikakarika which Stephen Batchelor translates as Verses from the Center. There are several translations of the Mulamadhyamikakarika, most recently, Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura translated it in their work Nagarjuna's Middle Way. Another important translation appears in Jay Garfield's The Fundamental Wisdom off the Middle Way which Batchelor recommends as "a more literal, academic translation." Nagarjuna's work is composed of 27 chapters. The shortest chapter is made up of six, four-line verses, while the longest chapter is made up of 40, four-line verses (at least this is how Garfield parses the text within the chapters). To illuminate the concept of emptiness, Nagarjuna discusses a variety of metaphysical topics, including time, motion, causation, actions, and the self as well as specifically Buddhist concepts like nirvana, the Buddha nature, and the Four Noble Truths. The basic strategy of the work is to demonstrate through close logical analysis that all theories about the metaphysical concepts under scrutiny cannot be correct. Through reductio ad absurdum arguments, Nagarjuna shows that the tools of reason cannot lead to an adequate understanding of of ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is accessible to us only after we understand this and open ourselves to a direct understanding through an intuition of the emptiness of all things in our experience.
Nagarjuna's doctrine of emptiness is a monumental achievement in the history of ideas. From it, the numerous schools of Mahayana Buddhism emerged, particularly the Madhyamaka schools present in Tibet today and the Chinese and Japanese schools of Ch'an and Zen Buddhism. These later school have, of course, additional important influences besides Nagarjuna. We are particularly fortunate that Stephen Batchelor took up the task of translating and commenting on the Mulamadhyamakakarika in that he brings a thorough understanding of the Tibetan tradition (particularly the Dge lugs) as well as Zen. Furthermore, Batchelor brings a critical Western perspective to his interpretations. Batchelor became steeped in the scholarly study of Buddhism while studying under the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. He eventually felt a need to go beyond scholarship and seek out a more direct understanding of Buddhism. Traveling to South Korea, Batchelor joined a Zen monastery, where he pursued a path of meditation. Ultimately, he left the monastery to marry, move to England, and become a lay Buddhist. Nonetheless, he has continued to write and lecture on Buddhism. He has become well-known as a "secular Buddhist," seeking to preserve the practical, rational elements of Buddhism while discarding the religious, speculative, and magic elements. Batchelor believes that only by doing this will Buddhism find wider acceptance in the West.
His translation of the Mulamadhyamakakarika is clear, crisp, and poetic. It seems to reflect the sensibility of the Japanese haiku. For example, he translates a verse in chapter on the self as follows:
When the Buddhas don't appear
And their followers are gone,
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself.
Compare this to Garfield's more "literal, academic translation:"
When the fully enlighten ones do not appear,
And when the disciples have disappeared,
The wisdom of the self-enlightened ones
Will arise completely without a teacher.
Or compare it to the Siderits-Katsura translation:
Though the completely enlightened ones do not arise and the sravakas disappear,
The knowledge of the pratyekabuddhas arise independently.
Or compare the translations of another verse in a chapter on the body. First, Batchelor:
I have no body apart
From the parts which form it;
I have no parts
Apart from a "body."
Apart form the cause of form,
Form cannot be conceived.
Apart from form,
The cause of form is not seen.
Rupa is not found separate from the cause of rupa.
Nor is the cause of rupa seen without rupa.
One is immediately attracted to Batchelor's verses. In most instances, they have the capacity to capture the imagination of the reader and prompt deep reflection, when the other translations seem flat or simply puzzling; however, the Garfield and Siderits-Katsura are certainly more faithful translations of the original work. While someone not well acquainted with the concepts that Nagarjuna is explicating will certainly find Garfield and Siderits-Katsura puzzling, both translations are accompanied with helpful commentary. So the reader is left with two options: reading Batchelor for the pleasure of his style or reading Garfield or Siderits-Katsura to deepen one's understanding of Nagarjuna. In defense of Batchelor, though, one might justly argue that he has done a fine job of conveying the spirit of the original and that for the most part one does not need a strong background in the Madhyamaka tradition to get a passable understanding of the force of the root text. Still, reading Batchelor's translation alone will not leave one with a full understanding.
It should be noted, though, that Verses from the Center also contains Batchelor's very fine introduction, entitled "Intuitions of the Sublime." The title clearly conveys Batchelor's approach to Nagarjuna. While Nagarjuna is well-known for the incisiveness of his arguments, his final goal is to demonstrate that argumentation cannot lead us to a true understanding of the world. This can be achieved only through intuition. Batchelor appears to use the Mulamadhyamakakarika as an inspiration to write poetry that is often only loosely based on the root text, but which may have the ability to ignite the reader's intuitions and lead one to an understanding that a "more literal, academic translation" cannot.