I hope the following passage I’ve written on Nagarjuna will be of use for this 
discussion on the nature of self. The passage is from a manuscript I’ve just 
completed on silence and postmodernism.

Nagarjuna’s thinking is deeply conversant with silence and with the use of 
paradox as well. For him, contradictory things are never “either/or,” but are 
always “both/and.” Refusing to choose between opposing metaphysical problems, 
he would recommend responding through silence instead. For an example of his 
reductive reasoning process, consider the following: 

Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.

Something that is not dependently arisen
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a nonempty thing
Does not exist.

Nagarjuna is criticizing the common paradoxical occurrence that when we 
attribute abstract concepts (“something that does not dependently exist”) like 
emptiness to the status of “reality” (like we do with the Platonic forms), then 
they seem to be applicable to everything, while on the other hand when we 
emphasize instead the individual uniqueness and particularity of any one thing 
(“whatever is dependently co-arisen”), this emphasis makes it impossible to  
categorize its likeness with other things. Nagarjuna’s point is that the 
abstract concept of emptiness and the concrete nature of any particular empty 
thing are in fact codependent. He calls this codependency “Conditioned 
Arising.” His “middle way” resolves the paradox by viewing neither the abstract 
idea nor the concrete thing as having a separate reality — both instead are 
characterized as “‘thought constructions’ founded on experience.’ As such, they 
are not absolutely real or absolutely unreal. …This middle path could thus be 
adopted in understanding all forms of experience, whether they be linguistic, 
social, political, moral, or religious.”

Another way of approaching an understanding of the middle way has to do with 
recognizing it as constituting a resolution of the identity/difference problem. 
 According to standard Buddhist doctrine the most dangerous false view possible 
is the belief in a permanent, independent self (also commonly referred to as 
the concept of identity). This notion of self is symptomatic of our deepest 
fears, concerning things like death and the possibility of our personal 
nonexistence. The concept of difference, which is the other side of the 
problem, is the belief that nothing is real; it also asserts the absence of all 
identities. This position would lead to the most mundane things becoming 
unintelligible. Nagarjuna’s solution to this problem is his assertion that 
neither identity nor difference is real. Both notions, when seen properly, are 
“empty” of self-essence. They can exist only together and not separately. 
Nagarjuna’s way of resolving this problem, by pointing to the interdependency 
of identity and difference, is remarkably similar to the one proposed by 
Merleau-Ponty many years later.

Steve Bindeman

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