Nāgārjuna and the Suffering of Being Sick
While studying Nāgārjuna one comes to the realization that the prasaṅga reasoning he used was not only to refute the philosophical views that existed at his time, but to provide his readers with the tool to deconstruct any belief system or dogma they tend to grasp at spontaneously(the cause of suffering-second Noble truth). Just after my final exam this semester, I had another great opportunity to face one aspect of the first Noble truth, the suffering of being sick, health issues that localize you with the walls of your room. It deconstructed immediately my grasping with the idea that since I am young I would not be sick, or I would not die. But when I delved deeper into this denial of the idea of being sick, or dying, I felt that there actually is a constant fear of being sick, dying, losing one’s existence, any moment, every moment. Because of that we conjure up this denial as a defense mechanism.
When I got sick I asked Nāgārjuna for help. To my surprise he didn’t give me any medication, or alchemical potion (we all know that he was a great alchemist, don’t we?). He also didn’t suggest me to contemplate on four noble truths or to give up my denial of the fact that I could be sick. He simply told me to use his consequential reasoning (prasaṅga) and to see if the idea of being sick or sickness really exists or not. So here is what I came up with when I used his famous tool.
Sickness or disease can be of various types, ranging from purely physical to purely mental. Whatever the sickness might be there would essentially be a sick person and a sickness that afflicts him.
One may assert that sickness is real because there are so many sick people we come across every day and we ourselves fall sick occasionally.
“Before the existence of the sickness,
There could not be any sick person whomsoever.
If it would have been the case,
A sick person without sickness would exist forever.”
“Sickness” is the defining characteristic of the sick person. No any entity exists prior to its defining characteristic. Because for an entity to be an entity it is absolutely necessary that it must possess its defining characteristic. Therefore, a sick person cannot exist prior to its sickness. But if it would have been the case a person would be called a sick without sickness which is quite absurd. But even, in spite of that if he were to be deemed a sick he would for ever be sick, which is even more untenable.
Then one may assert that in the past they have experienced lots of people “falling sick”, at present also lots of people are getting sick, and in future a person healthy at present might get sick as well.
To think of someone “falling sick” in the past,
What an absurdity!
A person’s “falling sick” at present, and in future,
How could it ever be?
In past there could not be the act of “falling sick” because it is already past and no traces of past moment remain. In the future time, which has yet to come, to conceive of someone “falling sick” is completely untenable. Apart from someone “falling sick” in the past and the future, how could it be conceived of someone “falling sick” at present, because there is not a moment which could be pin pointed as the present. Without someone’s falling sick in any of the three times who would be called a sick?
“Sick without a sickness,
Does not exist any where,
If there exist no sick to apply it to,
To apply it to somebody else, would it be fair?
It is obvious that sick and sickness have dependent relation with each other but if there would be no sick person in any of the three time, then how could we conceive of sickness without a sick person because for the sickness to be existent there needs a sick person in any of the three times. But since that’s not the case would it be tenable to conceive of this sickness applicable to somebody else than the sick. No it’s completely untenable.
Since that is a case untenable
Without its basis” the sick”, ” the sickness” is not applicable
Without sickness to be held culpable.
To whom would the designation “the sick” be conceivable?
It is proved in the previous verse that it’s untenable for the sickness to be applicable to somebody who is not sick, because “the sick” is the basis of “the sickness” in which it manifests itself. But if there is no sick person upon which the sickness is based on, there could not be any sickness existing to afflict any person. And since there is no sickness to be blamed for a person’s becoming sick, who then could be called “the sick“?
But if one may further insist that “No, no a sick person really exists because we see him.”
then we may investigate into his mode of existence.
Neither is the sick the same as sickness,
Nor different, or supported by the other,
Nor is it the support by itself,
Nor is it endowed with the other.
So, if there is the existence of the sick person then we have to investigate into his mode of existence in relation to the existence of the sickness. If he can exist he must exist either in one of the five ways viz. as being the same as the sickness, or different from the sickness, or being the support for, or supported by the sickness, or being endowed by sickness; otherwise, it can’t exist at all.
The sickness and the sick can never be the same because, if it would be the case we would have two problems, Firstly, we would have the flaw of the sick being multiple as the sicknesses could be multiple. Secondly, if we claim that they are same the sick and the sickness would be identical and would have the flaw of agent and the object being the same as the classic example of woodcutter and wood being the same.
If it is claimed that the sick and the sickness are different then they could be found existing separately from each other but since they are mutually dependent, their separate existence is not tenable. If two things are established based on the dependence on one another then they are in fact not established at all.
If it is asserted that the sick is the support for the sickness, then we have to assume that the sick is already established. But for a “sick person” to be “sick” we need an already established sickness first of all.
Similarly, if it is asserted then that the sick person is supported by the sickness, the same anomaly would arise, because to establish a relation of dependency two things must be existent at first. Otherwise if we try to prove the dependency of one on the other, then the question that: “which one of the two is established first?” would arise. Moreover, to establish a relation of dependency between the two things, first of all they must be established as separate entities. Yet, since they are not separate entities, to call one is the support of the other would also be untenable.
If it is posited that the sick may be endowed with the sickness, then this endowment might be possible only in one of the two case like: Devadatta being endowed by his life force and Devadatta being endowed by wealth? In this case the sick must either be essentially the same as sickness in which case he will always be sick, or he must be different from the sickness in which case a sick could exist without the sickness, in which case he is not a sick anyway. So, to say that a sick is endowed with the sickness is also logically untenable.
But one may say that the person after being inflicted by the sickness gets sick.
A sickness could not afflict a non-sick,
Neither could it afflict an already sick one,
Except for the sick and the non-sick,
Could it in anyway afflict anyone?
Now we may investigate into another possibility that if sickness really afflict some person, would it afflict a person who already is a sick or a person who is not yet sick?
A person who is not a sick can never be made a sick by any sickness whatsoever. A person who is already sick cannot be made sick second time because there is no need to make a sick again a sick as the classic example of a child who already being born need not be born again and again from its parents. Except for these two options who else could it afflict anyway?
If sickness is not present,
A person can’t be called a sick,
If there is no sick person,
The existence of sickness itself is at risk.
Since it is explicitly established that a sickness can’t afflict any person in anyway, it would clearly implied that there is no sickness at all, because for a sickness to be “sickness” it requires the quality of being able to afflict someone. But since there is no sickness at all, no one could be called “a sick” and in the absence of a sick person the existence of the sickness itself is unestablished.
But one may again say that since you have successfully proved that sickness is not established, then its opposite “health” must be truly existent.
In that case,
If sickness is not established,
Neither is health established intrinsically.
They are like light and darkness,
One exists opposite to other diametrically.
It’s the tendency of deluded mind that if something is proved to be not truly existent, its opposite, the non-existence is established at once. But on the contrary, since one is diametrically opposite to the other if one is unestablished, its counterpart is also unestablished automatically. Similarly, if “sickness” is not established the intrinsic nature of “the health” is also unestablished as well, as the two being diametrically opposite, like the light and the darkness.
Although their existence could not be proved,
Neither could their non-existence be addressed.
It’s like sweetness for a dumb,
It can never be expressed.
Since the existence of both “the sickness” and “the health” is unestablished their non-existence as well is unestablished using the same reason of their being diametrically opposite, as in the previous verse. Thus we can say that the phenomena like sickness, health and so forth can neither be claimed to be existent nor non-existent, and obviously a phenomena can neither be both existent and non-existent at the same time, nor neither of the two. So in other words, any apparent or experiential phenomenon is like a taste of sweetness in the tongue of a dumb person. It cannot be expressed in words whatsoever, and howsoever one tries.
The sick and sickness (and health) are both unestablished.
“Unestablished” let them be.(the path-fourth Noble truth)
Knowing thus their abiding nature,
That’s how one gets free.(the state: third Noble truth)
– Ishwor from Nepal