This seminal exchange between the Buddha and Maha Kaccana, one of his enlightened disciples, elaborates on this expression:
At Savatthi. Then the Venerable Kaccanagotta approached the Blessed One, paid respects to him, sat down to one side, and said to him, “Venerable sir, it is said, "Right View, Right View." In what way, Venerable sir, is there Right View?”
“This world, Kaccayana, for the most part depends upon the dualism of the notions of existence and non existence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with right understanding, there is no notion of non existence with regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with right understanding, there is no notion of existence with regard to the world.
“This world, Kaccayana, is for the most part shackled by bias, clinging, and insistence. But one such as this [with Right View], instead of becoming engaged, instead of clinging – instead of taking a stand about "my self" through such a bias, clinging, mental standpoint, adherence and underlying tendency – such a one has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only dukkha arising, and what ceases is only dukkha ceasing. In this their knowledge is independent of others. It is in this way, Kaccayana, that there is Right View.
“"All exists," Kaccayana, this is one extreme, "All does not exist," this is the other extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by the Middle Way: With ignorance as condition, volitional formations come to be; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness comes to be... Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.
“But with the remainderless fading away, cessation and non- arising of ignorance there comes the cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, when there are no volitional formations, there is the cessation of consciousness, consciousness does not come to be... Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.”
Interestingly enough, there seems to be a very close connection to the principles embodied in this discourse to Ven. Maha Kaccana , and the words of Acarya Nagarjuna in his Mulamadyamakakarika, "The Treatise on the Root of the Middle Way." This text is considered a cornerstone of Mahayana movement, and has informed the philosophy and practice of the Northern School for around 1800 years. Ironically it makes no mention at all of such characteristic Northern elements as bodhisattvas and bodhicitta. And furthermore it clearly extols nirvana as the goal of the spiritual life and does not distinguish it from bodhi in the way other Northern texts tend to do. In fact Nagarjunas chapter on nirvana immediately follows his chapter on bodhi.
No letting go, no attainment, no annihilation, no permanence, no cessation, no birth: that is spoken of as nirvana.
So, even though Nagarjuna is taken to be a great banner waver of the Mahayana, scholars such as Kalupahana and Warder have pointed out that actually there"s nothing particularly "Mahayana" in what he says. Significantly, his teachings about self and the Middle Way seem to be informed directly by the Pali Canon. Both teachings point out how to understand the feeling of self: how to recognize what it is and learn to see through it – and ultimately, to break free from the tyrant. They both indicate that clinging to the sense of self is what obstructs knowing the Middle Way, the pure essence of the Buddha"s teaching.
The discourse to Maha Kaccana is the basis for Nagarjunas discussion (in his Chapter 14, "Essence") about the error of clinging to beliefs in existence or in non existence. In that chapter he writes:
"Existence" is the grasping at permanence; "non existence" is the view of annihilation. Therefore, the wise do not dwell in existence or non existence.
Now, although we might have had an insight into selflessness, realizing that the ego is transparent and insubstantial, still the question can arise: Do I not exist? Is this whole thing just a dream? An illusion? And if it is, then who or what is experiencing the illusion? Something definitely seems to be happening "here"– wherever "here" is. Whether we call it a self or not, there appears to be something going on, and it feels like some kind of a being – this is the knot that the Buddha and Nagarjuna unpick using the awl of the Middle Way.
What these teachings point to is the fact that yes, there is the experience, the feeling of selfhood, but that that feeling of the "I" is dependently arisen. So emerges the insight: It"s not an absolute truth and it"s not a complete delusion. This then leads us to ask: What exactly is going on here?
There might be the feeling of "I", yet like all feelings, it arises and then ceases. Along with its dependent arising there is also its dependent cessation. The experience of being, the experience of "I", arises due to causes. These causes are habits rooted in ignorance and fired by the compulsions of craving. Furthermore, when the causes are not created for the ego to come into existence, then it does not arise. It"s not a permanent "thing".
Nagarjuna"s treatise is considered a core teaching on emptiness for the Northern tradition, however, even though it"s a brilliant piece of philosophical analysis, this teaching is really most significant as a meditation tool. It helps us to see that “Do I exist?” or “Do I not exist?” are irrelevant questions. Instead the perspective shifts to one of cultivating and maintaining a mindful awareness of the feeling of "I" arising and ceasing. This is the essence of vipassana – insight meditation.
The blissful experience of seeing through the conceit of "I am" was described by the Buddha as “Nibbana here and now” (Ud 4.1); and most significantly, along with that blissful experience, an abundant, exalted, immeasurable kindness and compassion for other beings naturally arises. Through unselfishness the heart attunes to caring for all beings.
The direct knowing of the Middle Way thus resolves itself into two very simple qualities: emptiness and altruism.