Sunshine! Nice to see you.
["Things have no essence" is] not an early way of saying things have no essence as in a "god" or "soul" doesn't exist. It's not an "early" way of saying anything of the sort. It's a way of showing the absence of duality.
Jay's MMK page 220 says "Essence by definition is eternal and independent." This defines what essence meant to Nagarjuna and his nefarious opponents. Now you and I are talking about the purpose Nagarjuna may have had for asserting things have no essence, like exegicists interpreting ancient texts. From MMK, page 103,
Jay L. Garfield wrote:
When Nagarjuna uses the word "cause" (hetu, rgyu), he has in mind an event or state that has in it a power (kriya, bya-ba) to bring about its effect and has that power as part of its essence or nature (svabhava, rang bzhin).
So we could say "Nagarjuna's purpose was to show nothing is self-caused" but would barely receive a passing grade because we did not follow this through to the absence of a quintessential first cause, aka God, aka self or soul, etc.
I think debates between theists and nontheists were as lively two millenia ago as they are today. Buddhism is unique in its soteriological solution to self-induced suffering: rather than imagine oneself as a deity's child, one can realize there is no suffering self in the first place. Both approaches provide relief and both require practice
Nonduality is a term made popular by new-age writers.
That you think you're a physical body, in a physical world with objects outside of you which are alien to you, but this is simply a misconception derived from our false conditioned perception. The outcome truly is that "you" as a subjective entity are removed completely. And the feeling that there are "things" outside you is removed completely. Whatever it is you would call "experience" is all that's left. But a singular, zero-dimensional experiencing in-and-of-itself.
You talk the talk, Sunshine, but consider my dilemma. All I have left is a little prajna. Oh, and cooties. That's it, prajna and cooties.
Magazines like Time and Newsweek periodically run an article on meditation subjects. I recall one where a scientist told the story of waiting for a train one day when his perception of "outside" suddenly collapsed and he felt no separation between himself and the world he gazed upon. The experience passed but he was blown away and it left him with an enormous curiosity about what had happened in his mind. He did not burst out exclaiming "trains don't really exist!"
I think we all have the capacity for these realizations, our interpretations may still differ, like they do for the texts we study.
At the end of the day, suffering is not caused by clinging to a tree, tree hugging is probably soothing, suffering is caused by clinging to a self and the Buddhist technology for dismantling that self is excellent, I have only thumbs up for emptiness of internal phenomena, my main concern here has been the projection of this onto emptiness of external phenoma, of language, and other ancillary things.
People, hummingbirds, and snails must all "go around the tree" to get to the other side. Words and perceptions may differ, but the "tree" is real in this sense and no personal hubris of mine causes this to be so.
This isn't some philosophy which is left on the level of a humored intellectual contemplation. You seem to want to rationalize it to be that way. I can't say that I blame you being that you have no reference point to gauge it in it's ultimate sense. But it surely isn't a mere "early" way of pronouncing some philosophical notion.
Now you are reifying and rationalizing and comparing yourself to others. Right on.