I thought it might be interesting to explore how western psychological concepts fit into a graduated path inspired by the Buddha. The path I lay out uses the four refutations of Nagarjuna’s tetralemma or fourfold path. Nagarjuna is one of the greatest Buddhist philosophers who founded the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism. He refutes the various positions we hold about ourselves and the world. I plugged needs-based psychology into his refutations to inspire understanding of how emptiness can be applied in very practical ways in our daily lives.

Although our growth and development are more complex and uneven than these kinds of graduated presentations suggest, I find it a useful tool for understanding. So as you read through these levels, it is useful not to take them as absolute levels through which we neatly progress from one level to the next in a linear fashion, or to interpret them to mean that, once we reach a certain level, we are forever exempt from returning to the lower level. I think development is more chaotic than these linear notions suggest. However, even with these limitations, there is much value in laying out a template for understanding our experience and relationship to western notions of psychological needs.

The meaning of the word emptiness in this article is to indicate how objects exist. To say a table, a psychological need, or a self-sense is empty in nature or lacks inherent existence means that these objects don’t exist independently of causes and conditions. They exist as interdependent forms and not at all as independent forms as our language suggest. These objects have many other relationships with other things in order for them to appear to us in the form that they do. We typically use language to make objects static or reify them. There is a certain convenience and functionality in using language this way. We can put a label “table” on the assemblage of wood and tell people we will eat at the table, and people won’t eat off the assemblage of wood known as the floor.

There are pitfalls as well to labeling. When we use static language repeatedly, we begin to forget about the interdependency and start to assume that objects of our awareness inherently exist. In other words, we believe objects of our awareness exist independently of causes and conditions. This may not be that problematic for objects like tables, but when it comes to the objects of our awareness like psychological needs or a self-sense, such static language labels begin to constrict and limit our experience in life. We shall see how the actualization of emptiness of psychological needs and a self-sense can actually create more functionality and liberation than if we hold them as inherently existent.