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Mâdhyamika Buddhism (Part III)
« on: March 07, 2015, 04:57:59 am »
The Religious Dimensions of Mâdhyamika Buddhism
based on a series of unpublished lectures presented by Fredrick Strengh, Ph.D

Part III: Truth and Emptiness

So far we have focused on the need for deep awareness of how people themselves contribute to the immediate experience of their existence. How easy it is to have false assumptions! We have gotten some glimpse of how the Buddhists of ancient India dealt with the issues of the use of language in apprehending the truth. In the last lecture we dealt with two problems: (1) assumptions in using language that create false expectations and partial images, and (2) naive realism in the perception of material things. In this lecture we want to focus on Nâgârjuna's use of the term "emptiness" to indicate the reality of existing things, and then discuss his claim that there are two modes, or two kinds, of truth. The purpose of looking at the notions of emptiness and two kinds of truth is to learn how they function in Nâgârjuna's purpose to release human beings from false perceptions about themselves and their world.

When many people hear the claim made in The Fundamentals of the Middle Way that all things are empty, they interpret this as a pessimistic expression. After all, he claimed that the basic factors of existence (dharmas) -- basic patterns and structures of inter-relations between forces or energies, the constituents of the "objective world" -- are empty. So it is natural to conclude that there must be nothing good or valuable in life, and that it doesn't make any difference what we think, say, or do. From Nâgârjuna's point of view, this understanding of emptiness is a total misconception. He himself was confronted by people who interpreted emptiness as a nihilistic expression, but he tried to make clear that this was inappropriate.

       Emptiness, if dimly perceived, utterly destroys the slow-witted.
       It is like a snake badly grasped or a magical incantation incorrectly done. (MMK 24:11)

At various places in both this treatise and the shorter work Averting the Arguments, Nâgârjuna has to defend himself against the charge of a nihilistic view of life or of an illogical claim which does not stand the rigors of clear analysis. Let us look at some of the key statements that he makes about emptiness.

       The "originating dependently" we call "emptiness".
       This is the designation, "dependence on"; it is indeed the Middle Way. (MMK 24:18)

Here we see that emptiness is equated with dependent co-origination. It is also equated with the designation or idea that existence arises while being dependent on other things; and all of this is then equated with the Middle Way. Already here we see what we will elaborate further on in this lecture: that emptiness is not seen as a thing, but as a process of release; it is a procedure which is the "middle way." Nâgârjuna is also very clear, however, that emptiness is not just another theory, not just another viewpoint. the designation "empty" itself cannot be taken as a thing in itself. This we see in the following two stanzas:

       If something would be non-empty, something would [logically also] be empty,
       But nothing is non-empty, so how will it become empty?

       Emptiness is proclaimed by the victorious one as the refutation of all viewpoints,
       But those who hold "emptiness" as a viewpoint -- [the true perceivers] have called them "incurable." (MMK 13:7-8)

Here we see that emptiness is not a thing, nor is it an idea. Thus, anyone who takes the notion of emptiness as something that is marked off from what is not empty is not understanding it in its most profound meaning.

       Whoever argues against "emptiness" in order to refute an argument,
       For him, everything, including the point of contention, is known to be unrefuted.

       Whoever argues by means of "emptiness" in order to explain an understanding,
       For him, everything, including the point to be proved, is known to be misunderstood. (MMK 4:8-9)

This leads to the conclusion that nothing can be absolutely of the nature of emptiness or non-emptiness if these terms are assumed to refer to non-relative entities.

       One should not say "empty," nor "non-empty,"
       Nor both, nor neither;
       The purpose for the designation is [only] for communication. (MMK 22:11)

The communication then is not seen so much as a description of the way things really are, but as a catalyst to reorganize the thinking and feeling processes of those who are confronted with the inadequacy of any word to describe or designate the co-dependent reality of things coming in and going out of existence.

From the above quotation we can see how the claim that all things are empty intends to be a spiritual insight that cannot be reduced to a viewpoint. One of the most dramatic ways of expressing this insight was through the negative dialectic that pervades The Fundamentals of the Middle Way and the shorter work Averting the Arguments. The insight, as we will analyze in the next two lectures, is more a process of viewing the world than a particular proposition about the world. Here we want to focus on the dialectic as the way of articulating, or communicating, the claim that all things are empty. We see that Nâgârjuna makes full use of logic in his negative dialectic. This does not mean that the negative dialectic is simply a destructive force which cleared the ground for a positive formulation of reality; nor is it simply a dissipation of the error surrounding some presupposed essence that then eternally remains.

The dialectic itself is a means of knowing the truth. It is a movement, a process, which moves from notion to notion. By negating a presumed meaning of a term or by avoiding a conclusion, by requiring the acceptance of the opposite of a certain claim as well as the claim, the negative dialectic moves the experiencer to a more comprehensive perception, which is at an ever more removed level from the naive realistic view of existence. Any concept, for example -- "conditioned existence" -- is pressed by the negation until it becomes indistinguishable from its opposite -- in this case, non-conditioned existence. From this it is clear that concepts are useful very often for naive realistic experience, but for analysis of the relationships between things and for experiencing the things of the world as a process, concepts are seen to be only relatively significant. At the same time, as we have said before, Nâgârjuna uses language and logic, which means that despite the limited usefulness of language it is still a means whereby life, together with an awareness and sensitivity to the depth dimensions of experience, can become richer in content and more comprehensive in scope.

In denying the counter-thesis as well as the thesis in this negative dialectic, Nâgârjuna seeks to establish a way of apprehending oneself and the world that is less and less prone to positing a self-existing essence in anything. Thus, the dialectic continually leads from concept to concept without finding the reality of life capsulized in an absolute concept. The process of the negative dialectic is a way of avoiding the superimposition of an absolute onto the flow of experience. This flow -- that is, the emptiness, the inter-relatedness of everything to each other -- is known by the self-negating character of logical inference. This self-negating character avoids grasping after a supposed essence of changing existence. Thus, the dynamics of the dialectic is itself an effective force for realizing the emptiness of things. We might still ask, "Can the dialectic, then, be regarded as a principle of relativity, thereby becoming a dynamic absolute corresponding to some kind of eternal essence?" No, the dialectic is never an independent force or first cause. It operates only in relation to phenomenal, or ideal, entities. It is a spiritual answer, a medicine, to the problem of grasping after self-existent entities. It is a means of quelling the pain found in existential becoming that results from longing after an eternal reality.

A negative dialectic which avoids asserting that something is, or is not, or is both, or is neither, is sometimes used in some religious traditions as a way of destroying logic and language in order to perceive in an entirely different way. Sometimes interpreters of Mâdhyamika have seen the negative dialectic to function in this way. I think that this is not the entire story for Mâdhyamika. The power of the dialectic is not simply the removal of illusion -- especially if one presumes that by removing an illusion, some kind of self-existent reality will emerge. Rather, the negative dialectic both continues and destroys the activity of discriminating, of defining, and inferring. In this way Nâgârjuna will say that the highest truth exists because it is dependent on everyday activities while yet transcending and purifying them. Rather than simply rejecting all use of reason and logic because it often binds human beings when they perceive their experience, Nâgârjuna uses them to reform people's thinking. There is no unchanging, inherent quality that requires all logical use to be illusory. Rather it can be used to free people from pain and greed when it is not misused. Logic becomes a tool to break open the linguistic fetters with which logicians and common everyday people have bound themselves. When this happens, as Nâgârjuna intends with the negative dialectic in these texts, then its effect is to dissipate the illusory self-existence of entities rather than to multiply attachment to more concepts for logical relationships.

We might also ask the opposite questions about Nâgârjuna's use of logic. If we are affirming that he does not simply destroy logic, we should also ask whether his use of logic has the same limitations as other claims about the nature of existence. Since every viewpoint is empty of self-existence according to Nâgârjuna, is not his own denial of self-existence an empty proposition? His opponents argued that indeed it was; and he readily agreed. However, Nâgârjuna maintained that the supposed victory of such an argument results from faulty reasoning. In his short work Averting the Arguments, he takes up the problem directly. In verses twenty through twenty-nine, he rejects the opponent's claim that his own denial constitutes a use of words as if the words had self-existent power. He argues that in his denial of self-existence he does not have to assume what his opponents assume, namely that the words themselves have meaning because of self-existence. Rather, he claims, both his opponents' claims and his own denials do not have self-existence. They both exist on a level of conventional truth -- they are empty. His own denial is equated with a phantom who destroys another phantom. He ends his argument with a verse:

       If I would make any proposition whatever, then by that I would have a logical error;
       But I do not make a proposition; therefore I am not in error.

In the same work, Nâgârjuna insists that since his denial does not presuppose an opposite absolute claim, he is not making a proposition. This is despite the fact that any casual rethinking of the previous verse indicates at least the proposition that "I am not in error" or "I do not make a proposition." When the opponent further argues that Nâgârjuna unwittingly presupposes an entity in order to deny it, Nâgârjuna answers:

       Since anything being denied does not exist, I do not deny anything;
       Therefore [the statement] "You deny" -- which was made by you -- is a false accusation.

In the next verse he affirms that his expression is simply a means of conveying information, and that the mechanics of speech which do appear to be like other forms of speech should not be construed to imply a power which negates some metaphysical entity:

       Regarding what was said concerning what does not exist:
       "The statement of denial is proved without a word."

       In that case the statement expresses: "[That object] does not exist";
       [The words] do not destroy [the object].

The goal of complete unattachment through realizing the highest truth of emptiness, claims Nâgârjuna, is not "a view" and certainly is not the negation of something that exists. It is rather a catalyst or a process whereby one can become unattached to the very forms that one must use. In order to be a means of release from mundane experience, this process, this designation of things being related to each other, must be expressed.

As a verbal expression, this assertion participates in the limitations of mundane speech -- in fact, it capitalizes on the very nature of mundane speech, in the sense that speech operates through the projection of opposites (discrimination) and distinguishes one thing from another by the use of names and words of relationship (especially propositions). The negative dialectic that is so prominent in The Fundamentals of the Middle Way carries the principle of opposition and discriminating analysis to its limits. Thereby it indicates that the notions used are simply verbal constructs of empty "becoming." By criticizing every assertion which intends to bring the "reality of becoming" into the confines of a dogmatic perspective, Nâgârjuna expressed the traditional Buddhist affirmation of the Middle Way which avoids extremes of either nihilism or absolute eternalism.

The negative dialectic as a way of communicating the emptiness of both words and things is related to another notion which we want to focus on in this lecture. This is the notion that there are two kinds of truth, or two modes of true perception.

       The dharma-explanation by the Buddhas has recourse to two truths:
       The world-ensconced truth (samvriti) and the ultimate truth (paramârtha).

       Those who do not know the distribution of the two kinds of truth
       Do not know the profound reality (tattva) of the Buddha's teaching.

       The ultimate truth is not taught apart from conventional practice,
       And without having obtained ultimate truth one cannot achieve nirvâna. (MMK 24:8-10)

The affirmation that there are two kinds of truth that are useful in spiritual life is a recognition, I think, that there are two important functions of religious expression. The first of these functions is to present a correct understanding of human existence. This means that some formulations, some verbal images, and some uses of language are better than others in guiding people's thinking and experiencing in the most free and unattached manner. The second function of religious speech is to transform a person's attitudes about him- or herself and the world whereby that person will become free from an illusory self-image.

The first function -- that of analyzing the way that the world comes into existence and the way people apprehend this continually changing existence -- is what Nâgârjuna calls the realm of conventional truth or world-ensconced truth. That there are certain things or ideas that one should know that help clarify the understanding of one's role in existence is made clear when Nâgârjuna writes:

       He who perceives dependent co-origination (pratîtya-samutpâda)
       Also understands sorrow, origination, and destruction as well as the path. (MMK 24:40)

Likewise, Nâgârjuna argues for a correct understanding of the Buddha's teaching by appealing to the statement in the Pali suttas (Samyutta-Nikâya 22.90), where the Buddha explains to the disciple Kaccana that the right view is a "middle doctrine" between a belief in a self-substantiated being (eternalism) and a belief in non-being (nihilism). Nâgârjuna says:

       Those who perceive self-existence and other-existence, and an existent thing and a non-existent thing,
       Do not perceive the true nature of the Buddha's teaching.

       In the Instruction of Kâtyâyana both "it is" and "it is not" are opposed
       By the Glorious One, who has ascertained the meaning of "existence" and "non-existence."  (MMK 15:6-7)

Here we see Nâgârjuna's clear concern to interpret the Buddha's teaching correctly if a follower of the Buddha is to have a correct conceptual apprehension of existence. In this way Nâgârjuna does not hold that all conceptual formulations are equally good or bad. One must understand the notion of dependent co-origination -- which as we have seen before is equal to the emptiness of all things.

The recognition that all things are empty, then, does not mean that the advocate of the Middle Way wants to avoid dealing with everyday conditioned existence. In fact, Nâgârjuna says that unless a person perceives existence as empty, he or she will not be able to account for conditioned and mundane life. He argues that if a person holds to the notion of self-existence or an inherent character of any particular form, that person will not be able to account for the arising and dissipation of existence. Therefore, he claims:

       You reject all mundane and customary activities
       When you deny emptiness [in the sense of] dependent co-origination. (MMK 24:36)

He confronts his opponents with misunderstanding the notion of emptiness when he says:

       Time and again you have made a condemnation of emptiness,
       But that refutation does not apply to our emptiness.

       When emptiness "works," then everything in existence "works."
       If emptiness does not "work," then all existence does not "work."  (MMK 24:13-14)

Here we see that the term "emptiness," when it is a term for dependent co-origination, applies as much to conditioned existence as to the freedom from grasping after existence as an ultimate reality. Everyday experience is not a reality different from emptiness.

"Emptiness" is the basic term for Nâgârjuna through which one can understand both the arising and cessation of pain; it is a situation that is in itself neutral, allowing for both the production of illusion and its cessation. To perceive the emptiness of everything is the highest insight into the nature of life. Thus, this perception is not a rejection of conditioned existence per se, as if it were a kind of reality qualitatively different from unconditioned reality. Rather, a different kind of distinction must be made to account for the difference between pain and the release from pain: the difference between grasping after assumed ultimate entities and the use of particular existing forms for attaining insight and serenity.

When applying this distinction to the use of language, we see that conceptual formulations which are assumed to describe self-substantiated reality end in delusion; these formulations are different from those which in a practical and relative sense express the nature of the world or an understanding of the nature of the world but are themselves recognized to be empty of any inherent quality.

Whether human beings live in everyday painful consciousness or in the highest insight, the situation that makes either possible is the reality labeled "emptiness," or "dependent co-origination." The only situation there is, is that of empty interdependent conditions; but most people exist inappropriately in this situation by acting as if one's "self," or some existing "thing," or an idea were self-existent.

The emotional impact of this -- which we will be discussing more in subsequent lectures -- is that when people think that some form of existence, even an ideal or a special quality of life, is self-existent, that form will be seized as if it were absolute. Actually, many conditions present for the arising of illusion and pain are also present for the release from pain and the realization of truth. The formation of conditioned existence does not automatically carry with it a unique quality or self-inherent quality of evil by comparison to some supposed unconditioned reality.

If one of the functions of the negative dialectic and the use of such terms as dependent co-origination and emptiness are to bring about a clearer mental understanding of the arising and dissipation of changing existence, the other function which we want to talk about here is just as important. This is that the articulation of truth must go beyond the formulation of a proposition. It must transform the very character, the very mechanism, or process, of awareness in an individual. The highest truth, a correct formulation of the arising and dissipation of existence, would not be of spiritual benefit unless it helped to avoid the personal attachment to an illusory self-existing reality in the phenomenal world or in a mental world. The highest truth, however, is not a total rejection of conventional truth. The realization of nirvâna is not attaining a self-existent opposite to some sorrow -- as was the highest reality conceived in some other forms of Indian spirituality. Rather, the highest truth is the realization that all distinctions are "empty." This realization requires a transformation of self-awareness much more drastic than eliminating all constructed entities -- including ideas and interpersonal relations -- in favor of an undifferentiated transcendent reality.

To realize emptiness as the basis for both samsara, or conditioned existence, and nirvâna is to recognize also that the terms "world-ensconced truth" and "ultimate truth" are themselves empty of self-existence. The highest wisdom is not a rejection of all mental formulation in the expectation that there is a self-existent absolute reality, even though both the Abhidharma analysis and the perfection of wisdom path stress the importance of avoiding the formation of thought forms in the process of freeing the mind from attachment to them. Rather, the highest wisdom includes the attitude or mental-psychic condition which permits the spiritual advocate to function without pain and with great joy. This condition can be compared to health as a condition of the body which permits it to function properly. The world-ensconced truth has the capacity to point beyond the limitations inherent in the distinctions which it must use; thus, it is useful for pointing to a condition of freedom from the tendency of concepts to break up the flux of existence into apparently self-established entities and to crystallize them into false expectations.

Likewise, the ultimate truth is the situation of being illumined about the dependent co-origination of all things which devoids a person of anger, greed and fear in regard to any conditioned entity. The deepest illusions are thereby dissipated through the highest insight, and these illusions are not simply faulty identification of existing entities, but attachment to the notion that identification of entities can ensure absolute truth. Absolute truth is not only a definition of the way things are; it is a situation of freedom, health, and joy.

One way of showing the distinction between the ultimate truth and the conventional truth is to remember that designations and specifications in conventional truth depend upon the attribution of some kind of sign or condition (nimatta). This attribution applies to any object of consciousness. The attribution of some quality or sign by which it is known has a tendency to crystallize the object of knowledge as an external reality. This moves towards a process of thinking according to convention, habits, or naive realism. From the perspective of the ultimate truth, by contrast, all phenomena are composite; they are complex, and in that regard any definition of them will only be a partial definition. From the highest perspective it is important to recognize that every phenomenon in life is only partially describable. This is why it no "thing" can be said simply to exist, nor not to exist, nor both, nor neither. When these four logical alternatives of being are thus denied, the phenomenon is said to be empty: it is empty of any being-in-itself or of any complete designation. In this light, it is understandable that words such as "empty" are used to describe and communicate ultimacy. A similar dialectic applies to the term "nirvâna":

       It is not expressed if the Glorious One [the Buddha] exists after his death,
       Or does not exist, or both, or neither.

       Also, it is not expressed if the Glorious One exists while remaining [in this world],
       Or does not exist, or both, or neither.

       There is nothing whatsoever which differentiates the existence-in-flux (samsâra) from nirvâna;
       And there is nothing whatsoever which differentiates nirvâna from existence-in-flux.

       The extreme limit of nirvâna is also the extreme limit of existence-in-flux;
       There is not the slightest bit of difference between these two.

       The views regarding whether that which is beyond death is limited by a beginning or an end or some other alternative
       Depend on a nirvâna limted by a begining and an end.

       Since all dharmas are empty, what is finite? What is infinite?
       What is both finite and infinite? What is neither finite nor infinite?

       Is there anything which is this or something else, which is permanent or impermanent, or which is neither?

       The quieting of acquisition is a salutary quieting of image-production;
       No dharma of anything anywhere has been taught by the Buddha. (MMK 25:17-24)

Here we see that while the conventions of religious speech in the Buddha's teaching have distinguished nirvâna from existence-in-flux or samsâra, from the highest perspective these two are not totally separate nor different. When seen from the non-attached perspective, the world as we know it is not outside the highest reality. When we are using understandings that focus on distinctions and try to specify causal relations and specify differences, then this emptiness is known as "arising" and "dissipating." It is seen as moving continually. But when it is understood without reference to partial formulations or any perspective or viewpoint, then it is called nirvâna.
       That state which is the rushing in and out [of existence] when dependent and conditioned --
       This, when not dependent or not conditioned, is seen to be nirvâna. (MMK 25:9)

As both nirvâna and samsara are different expressions of emptiness, so both world-ensconced truth and the highest truth participate in dependent co-origination. There is no way to eliminate dependent co-origination in its most important sense. The highest awareness, which is needed for release from attachment to imposed self-identities, is not the result of moving from the finite to the infinite as if these were two separate things; it is the spontaneous recognition in every moment that all things, ideas and feelings are dependently co-originated. The highest truth, then, is living in full awareness of dependent co-origination rather than in a limited, "tunneled," awareness about the conditions of existence. It is a living without fear of the interdependent nature of things and without the desire for an unconditioned self-existent reality -- both of which are just fantasies, a mirage. Indeed, the reality of dependent co-origination is a relative existence; but according to the highest truth, the relative character, the recognition that there is a dependence of everything on everything else, is not seen as an imperfection. It is not to be negated for some opposite; for the realm of opposites is a function of the crystallization of fanciful eternal entities. From the perspective of the highest truth, therefore, both the highest truth and conventional truth are empty.

In sum, we can say that, whereas the communication of emptiness is not unique to any specific proposition (even that "all things are empty"), the formulation of words and thoughts may themselves be a process for the experience of emptiness. Speaking, thinking, or image-ing can be a way of incarnating the wisdom of emptiness by means of the conscious mind. The quality or attitude of emptiness can be seen as a kind of "energy" that takes form in words, emotions, or actions which may appear very much like other words, emotions, and actions, but which expose the emptiness -- the total relatedness -- of existence. There is a flavor or intimation of emptiness which we may sense that is very vague and sometimes weak until we establish it or give it a ground in our words, images, or actions. These very words and actions are conventional reinforcing mechanisms for much more profound awareness. The more emptiness (relatedness) that emerges in form, the more room there is to emerge, since when people are self-consciously informed about their existence there is a deeper concern with both wisdom and compassion. The continual opening up of oneself by cutting back on self-limitations applies not only to propositions and ideas, but also to images of selfhood and interpersonal relations.

Part I: An Introduction

Part II: Language and Insight

Part III: Truth and Emptiness

Copyright ©2004 by the Estate of Fredrick J. Streng, Ph.D
Reprinted on FreeSangha Forum with Permission
(07 March 2015)
« Last Edit: March 07, 2015, 05:36:52 am by Dharmakara, Reason: link to other pages »


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