Thinking in Buddhism:
Nagarjuna's Middle Way
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."
(SHOWING THE LIMITS OF CONCEPTS)
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
(A CONCEPT / A DUALITY / A SKILFUL MEAN)
As a conventional truth, the Madhyamika
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
- 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
No doer is there; naught save the deed is
Nirvana is, but not the man who seeks it.
The Path exists, but not the traveler on
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
- 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
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
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