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Thinking in Buddhism:
Nagarjuna's Middle Way

by Jonah Winters

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Chapter 1


The study of Buddhism has in recent years become quite a vogue in the West. Post-Enlightenment Europe found Buddhism to offer an attractive alternative to the authoritarianism implicit in Christianity's doctrine of revelation and in its priestly structure. Buddhism seemed to offer a "natural" religion, one based on common sense and teaching truths accessible to anyone, yet without surrendering mysticism.
    Note: Cf. Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 300

Buddhism also seemed curious to the Western mind because, like so many Oriental philosophies, it was neither really a philosophy nor a religion, but something with elements of both. As such, it posed unique solutions to the problems of Western thought, as well as whole new types of problems of its own.

The form of Buddhism that has most captured the attention of the West, especially America, is Japan's Zen. Zen represents a religion that is in many ways a diametrical opposite to America's Protestant Christianity. Its unorthodox means of transmission, complete rejection of ritual, doctrine of the spiritual nature of all beings, and emphasis on direct, personal perception of the Truth have proven fascinating to the American mind. Unfortunately, this is often all that is known of Buddhism. It is not uncommon to encounter the belief that Zen represents the culmination of or even the entirety of Buddhism. This is far from true. In fact, it could be defended that the history of Buddhism has witnessed more internal philosophical diversity than almost any other religion, with the possible exception of Hinduism. Even more egregious, the non-doctrinal nature of Zen has allowed Westerners to conflate Buddhism with a number of other systems of thought, be they "Eco- spirituality" or watery "New-Ageism," declaring them all to be compatible. That Buddhism has dogma and is a widely variegated, autonomous religion not always reconcilable with modern philosophies and movements is often not seen.

The uniqueness of much of Buddhism lies in the way it seeks "Ultimate Truth" and the manner of Ultimate Truth it finds. Truth, for Buddhism, is relative. There is no single, unchanging, absolute ground of being like there is in most of the world's thought. To make a broad generalization of Occidental philosophy, the entire Abrahamic tradition, stretching from the pre-Israelites to the Bahá'í religion, sees the universe as in some way contingent on a transcendent, absolute level of Being. Even the most mystical or skeptical of the early Western schools of thought accepted an ultimate essence of reality. For Pythagoras it was numbers, for Heraclitus it was a reification of process itself, for Plotinus it was Mind, and for the Jewish Qabala it was a super-attenuated form of divine light. Even the most skeptical of philosophers, such as Zenoo or Pyrrho, did not deny an ultimate ground of being. Rather, they just said that it was inconceivable. The Oriental religions, too, agree that there is an ultimate essence in things. The Taoists insist that it is utterly ineffable, Advaita Vedanta declares it to be beyond existence itself, and the Materialists deny that it is of the nature of spirit. Nonetheless, all agree that there is an "Ultimate."

    Note: This generalization is not meant to suggest that the philosophies listed agree in any way on the nature of the Ultimate. More, there were trends of thought within some of these philosophies that come very close to the Buddha's theory of the Ultimate; the Rg-veda X.129, for example, states that in the beginning "there was neither existence nor non- existence, …neither death nor immortality," and the Tao te Ching chapter II says that "being and non-being create each other." Nonetheless, the general trend within all of these schools of thought was to seek and find some form of "Absolute."
In contrast with all of these is Buddhism. The Buddha did not teach that there is an Ultimate, nor did he deny it. He did not declare the Ultimate to be ineffable because mystical and inherently beyond the scope of thought, nor did he embrace agnosticism and say that we just can never know its nature. The Buddha simply would not talk about it. When a concept was discussed in relation to a metaphysical thing, he would declare this concept to be neither wrong, nor right, nor both, nor neither. It just should not be discussed.
  • This approach has no parallels.
  • It is not a form of skepticism, for the Buddha was very clear in enunciating doctrines that his followers must accept on at least a conventional level.
  • It is not agnosticism, for the Buddha did not just say that we cannot know about the nature of Ultimate reality, but rather he said that it truly is "not this, not that, not both, and not neither."
  • It is not pessimism, for the Buddha taught that all unpleasantries can be overcome and that there is a definite goal to be striven for.
  • Finally, it is not mere mysticism, for the Buddha stressed the importance of directing one's consciousness to concrete affairs.
This unique non-affirming non-negating approach of the Buddha is implicit in all schools of Buddhism. It is the most explicit in three: the Perfection of Wisdom school of the first centuries BE., the Madhyamika and Yogacara movement of the first millenium C.E., and Zen and its predecessor, Ch'an, of the modern era. All of these teach the non-dual, non-conceptual, non-existential nature of reality and the applicability of mentation to the pragmatic sphere only. Any one of these three would have been desirable subjects for study.

The one school I chose to research and explain here is Madhyamika. This school has been chosen partly because early Buddhism has been little studied in the West. Madhyamika has, of late, begun to attract much scholarly attention, but it is still a little-recognized word and an even less- understood philosophy. The Perfection of Wisdom school was, for my purposes, too early to be the focus of study here. It was superseded by and amalgamated into the Madhyamika-Yogacara movement, and so a discussion of the latter will explain much of the former. Yogacara would also have been a fascinating object of study, but I feel that the Yogacara school introduced concepts into Buddhism which were somewhat foreign to the tradition. This is not a criticism, but what I desired to study was Buddhism as expressed by the Buddha. Madhyamika seems to be the better of the two in representing this.

    Note: Cf. Gadjin M. Nagao, "Yogacara, a Reappraisal" in Madhyamika and Yogacara (New York: State University of New York Press, 1991), 219-225, where Yogacara is represented as adding to the tradition of Buddhism and completing the move from the original Theravada to the innovative Mahayana.

Whether Madhyamika represents the original essence of the Buddha's teaching is a matter of speculation that can never be fully resolved. However, many if not most scholars of Madhyamika are of the opinion that it is perhaps the truest philosophical systematization of the Buddha's ontology.

Cf., for example, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, volume I (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1929), 643, or T.R.V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1960), 55

Perhaps my main reason for selecting Madhyamika was the same as that felt by Europeans over a hundred years ago when they first "discovered" Buddhism: it represents a fascinating approach to philosophy and a general worldview the likes of which are not to be found in the history of Western thought.

Finally, Zen, too, would have been a compelling research topic, and, unlike Yogacara, it does not seem to conflict with or add to the philosophy of the Buddha as preserved in the earliest writings. There is, however, one difficulty in approaching Zen from an academic perspective. Both Zen and Madhyamika agree that concepts have no final applicability, but they differ in their internalization of this fact. If one asks a Zen master what the nature of reality is, one is likely either to be hit or to be told "this flax weighs three pounds."
    Note: Cf. the anecdotes told of Zen teaching methods in Paul Reps, ed., Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books (no impress date))

This may be an appropriate way of expressing the school's philosophy of the nature of reality, but it does little good to one who needs to write about that philosophy. A proponent of the Madhyamika school may, in essence, give the same answer as the Zen master. He or she will, though, at least be kind enough to explain the answer in words and sentences, making this school more amenable to the scholarly approach.

Notes on the Methodology of this Thesis

The goal of this thesis is to present the philosophy of Madhyamika in as clear and concise a manner as possible. Given both the length and time constraints of this research project and the limited degree of education I have thus far enjoyed, it was necessary to investigate this topic with a tight focus. I have chosen to use only Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika, "Verses on the Fundamentals of the Middle [Way]," as the lens through which to view Madhyamika. This treatise is the premier work both of Nagarjuna and of the school as a whole. It includes all of the main themes of the school, it serves as the model for the school's method of argumentation, and it is the focus of the subsequent history of the school. Following Nagarjuna, Madhyamika commentaries addressed, not just "what did the Buddha mean?", but also "what did Nagarjuna mean?"

In following this procedure of discussing only the Mulamadhyamakakarika, I often faced the tantalizing temptation to draw quotes from other of Nagarjuna's works. There are instances where a concept in this treatise may be spelled out gradually over the course of five or so verses, while the same concept in another text may be expressed succinctly and pithily. Unfortunately, these cannot be quoted in such a context as this. Once another text of Nagarjuna's is used, it is only a short step to back up Nagarjuna by quoting aryadeva, and then only another short step to explain Nagarjuna by recourse to Candrakirti. Since this would ultimately result in a distortion of the treatise, I have deemed it best neither to quote nor discuss any other works.

The other methodological issue I had to consider is whether to use any concepts or tools from Occidental philosophy in this analysis of Madhyamika. There are numerous parallels between Madhyamika and various schools of thought in the Western tradition. These parallels include concepts, intentions, methods, and results. Once again, though, I chose to examine the Mulamadhyamakakarika on its own and within the tradition of Buddhism only. It must be admitted that much understanding of the work may have been lost by such a limitation. Notwithstanding, there are two definite advantages of bringing to bear no Western philosophy here. First, and most simply, I had neither room, nor time, nor sufficient education. Even had I those luxuries, though, I doubt that I would have utilized them. Interpreting Nagarjuna using Occidental tools may seriously misrepresent him. For example, a major criticism of T.R.V. Murti's analysis of Madhyamika is exactly this; in contrasting Nagarjuna with Kant, even favorably, Murti may have seen Nagarjuna through distorting lenses. The approach of this research project is thus to try to arrive at an understanding of Madhyamika by examining only the central work of its central figure with as few contrasts and comparisons as possible.

A final note of the methodology of this project regards which things were selected for examination, and in what depth. What has been chosen was to explain the philosophy as well as possible to the lay, not the scholarly, reader. An extra chapter, "The Buddha and His Teachings," has been included that would not have been necessary had the intended audience been a specialized one. This has resulted in extra length of the thesis, but I deemed it well worth while. The philosophy of the Buddha is not just foreign and difficult for a modern Western audience, but was found to be abstruse even by the Buddha's ancient and Eastern one. Providing plenty of background can only help in understanding this topic.

The depth of this study proved to be a trickier issue. On the one hand, each chapter of the Mulamadhyamakakarika could be summarized in a mere five sentences. On the other hand, fifty pages or more would not be sufficient to explain fully any chapter, and entire books could be devoted to some of them. Likewise for the three subjects highlighted as foundational for the school, i.e. self-nature, dependent arising, and emptiness — -each could have been explained in one page or one hundred. The depth I have chosen is thus completely arbitrary, guided only by considerations of what could investigated in one year and in less than two hundred pages total.

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