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Thinking in Buddhism:
Nagarjuna's Middle Way

by Jonah Winters

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Chapter 6


As with any subject, much more could be said about Madhyamika, and often has been. Candrakirti's commentary, for example, runs to many hundreds of pages. This thesis, too, far exceeds the normal length of bachelor's theses. In light of Nagarjuna's teaching that excessive theorizing is one of the main causes of suffering and bondage, it may seem that lengthy commentary is self- negating. This objection would be quite valid, were the intent of these research projects to express truth and the nature of reality. However, as exemplified in the Introduction, were that the intent of these works, they likely would have said no more than "this flax weighs three pounds."

The purpose of the philosophy of Madhyamika, with its stress on emptiness, is not to discard all theorizing. Rather, the point is to demonstrate that theories are not ultimately valid. Ascribing excessive validity to the products of thought will cause one to grasp onto them and lose sight of the true nature of things, which is empty. The truest conceptual expression of reality will always be a paradox. "A saint (bodhisattva) is a saint because there is no saint," says the Perfection of Wisdom school, "and that is why there is a saint!"

Note: quoted in Nagao 1989, vii
  • Concepts are applicable in the conventional sphere only. This is the place of commentary and research: such projects can clarify the nature of the phenomenal world and discuss the relative validity of various theories within that plane. Neither the Buddha nor Nagarjuna would have said that the rational faculty has no function, for, though no theory is absolutely true, some theories are certainly better than others.
  • When one wishes to speak of the ultimate sphere, thoughts can point the way towards a proper understanding of it and teach one how to achieve the Perfect Wisdom which can perceive it, but theories themselves cannot express its nature.
As a conventional truth, the Madhyamika philosophy propounds a system of ordering one's thought, and then it shows where such thought must end. This system includes
    • the theory of dependent arising,
    • the four Noble Truths,
    • the constitution of the psychophysical personality,
    • and the Noble Eightfold Path;
    • the theory of emptiness points out the limit of the mental faculty.
    Nagarjuna demonstrates that all of his ideas are pragmatic only in one of the most famous verses of his treatise:
"We state that whatever is dependent arising, that is emptiness.
That is dependent upon convention.
That itself is the middle path."
Note: karika XXIV.18
    This verse succinctly ties together his entire philosophy, shows where it comes to an end, and defines the point of it all.
    Nagarjuna's thought can be summed up in the first two terms of the verse: dependent arising and emptiness.
    From these all other elements of his philosophy are derived.
    • Dependent arising explains all aspects of the relative world, for it details the process of causation and, hence, the ontology of the world.
    • Emptiness is the only possible description of ultimate truth, for it demonstrates relativity and provides a sort of anti-theory on which the rational faculty can focus.
    • Neither of these, though, should be relied on as valid in themselves, for they are both "dependent upon convention."
      Note: The original of this latter phrase, sa prajnaptir upadaya, is a famously difficult one to translate. For example, Nagao renders it "a designation based upon (some material)," Ramana as "derived name," and Sprung as "a guiding, not a cognitive, notion, presupposing the everyday." Kalupahana's translation was used here because, while not necessarily more accurate than any others, it is clearer and more succinct.
    • Any theory, even one as all-encompassing as emptiness, is still a theory based on convention.
    • Were there no dependently arisen things, there would be no theory of dependent arising.
    • Further, even though these things are empty, they are at least phenomenally real; if they were not, there would be no theory of emptiness, for there would be nothing on which to base it.
    • The whole of Nagarjuna's philosophy is dependent upon convention, for it all presupposes the perception of everyday things and their phenomenal reality. It is vital that one following his philosophy understand that it, every bit as much as the things it describes, is relative.
    • Dependent arising and emptiness are relative to each other, and both are relative to the perceived world. They thus constitute a middle path.
    • One must remember that dependent arising would be no more proper a description of ultimate truth than emptiness, and vice-versa, else either materialism or nihilism would result.
    • Likewise, one must find a middle ground between theorizing and refraining from doing so.
    • The philosophy of Madhyamika is of vital importance, for it explains reality and points the way to an escape from it. Were one to accept no philosophy, the mental faculties would be ungrounded and directionless. On the other hand, one must remember the proper place of philosophies as based on convention only; they have no final validity. This, Nagarjuna says, is the middle path of the Buddha.
Perhaps the most important thing demonstrated by the equation Nagarjuna presents in the above verse is that the Madhyamika philosophy is, in its essence, very simple. "Independently realized, peaceful, unobsessed by obsessions, without discriminations and a variety of meaning: such is the characteristic of truth," he says. [Note: karika XVIII.9 ] The one clear perception underlying Madhyamika is the interconnectedness and complete dependence of all things. Becoming and being, past and future, reality and emptiness, subject and object, arising and ceasing are all real things, but only in relation to each other. None exist absolutely. Unfortunately, this insight, while utterly simple and clear, is not so easily explained. The function of language and concepts is to make distinctions and impose artificial boundaries. The very word "define" has in its roots the connotation of creating boundaries (de + finis). The Buddha and Nagarjuna had no choice but to explain their insight into the nature of reality in philosophical terms, formulas, and theories. Nagarjuna's brilliance lay in his ability to explain it so clearly, and then to build such effective safeguards against excessive philosophizing into his system.

Ultimately, the one thing that is of importance is the Buddha's three-faceted teaching of transitoriness, soullessness, and suffering, the goal of which teaching being freedom. Only in light of this can Buddhism and Nagarjuna's enterprise be understood correctly. Rejecting all conceptual extremes and advocating a middle path is not an exercise in philosophy, but an aid to help people escape suffering and become free. The Visuddhimagga expresses poetically but succinctly the reality that remains when the Buddha's teachings are truly understood:

"Misery only doth exist, none miserable,
No doer is there; naught save the deed is found.
Nirvana is, but not the man who seeks it.
The Path exists, but not the traveler on it."
Note: Visuddhimagga, quoted in Warren, 146


This research project was not merely an academic exercise. I would like to address briefly what I consider to be the importance of Madhyamika to our modern world, Occidental or otherwise. To my knowledge, there has never been in recorded history a philosophical system so exhaustively apophatic as Nagarjuna's that was not also a nihilism. Even Zen, the champion of paradox, is not really either apophatic or a system. I have defended the value of Madhyamika within the Buddhist tradition as being a defense of and an explanation of the twin doctrines of soullessness and transitoriness, the purpose of which being an aid to escape suffering. Outside the Buddhist tradition the importance of Madhyamika is slightly different, for it is not likely that the Western undercurrents of essentialism could easily be unseated — -nor would I want to.
  • One value of this philosophy for the West lies in its potential to undercut the habits of "I-making" and grasping, both grasping onto the things of the world and grasping onto the products of rationality.
  • Another value is the contribution Madhyamika could make to Western philosophy and theology.
Many of the structures of the modern world are based, in some way or other, on distrust of individual authority. For example, that which has become American democracy is rooted in a party system. The hope is that, if two or more parties compete for election and for legislation, then compromises will emerge in the long run, and no individual will have too much power. The method on which science is based is founded on a similar safeguard. One can never prove, but only disprove. Third, the quest for objectivity underlying all academia certainly betrays this distrust. There is a strong emphasis on removing all personal reference from research and attempting to make it uninfluenced by any personal emotions or prejudices. These safeguards are necessary components of the structures we have. However, it is not certain that these structures are the only option.

The Buddha's teachings demonstrate that, in a way, emphasis on the self is the root of all evil. It is an excessive "self-ishness" that causes one to desire passionately, to assert forcefully one's opinions and thoughts, to want to be right, to desire to possess. "Self-ishness" is that which, in whatever situation, causes one to seek one's own well-being and ignore the thoughts and needs of others. The Buddha's path, especially as enunciated so radically by Nagarjuna, subverts this "I-making." I do not know what the result would be if the doctrine of soullessness were introduced into our systems of politics, science, and academia, but my suspicion is that the results would be beneficial.

The other importance of Nagarjuna's agenda for me is the impact it could have on our rational structures of philosophy and theology. There are many discerning thinkers in these fields whose philosophies are in no way simplistic, but there are far too few. A study of Madhyamika philosophy has not forced me to abandon my belief in concepts like God, the soul, and the afterlife. What it has done is shown me, if I am to retain those beliefs, of what they may and may not consist. Nagarjuna's teaching of emptiness can vastly deepen and enrich one's religious and philosophical notions. Further, his teachings can demonstrate to what extent those notions are self-created and, thus, which notions may be true, which false, and which merely helpful guides that must ultimately be abandoned.

The philosophies of the Buddha and Nagarjuna offer trenchant explanations of the constitution of reality, the function of the human mind, and the purpose to which an individual's life and, in some cases, academic career should be devoted. A study of Madhyamika, if approached with a receptive attitude, will complement any philosophy, no matter how antithetical.


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