KARL JASPERS FORUM

TA 109 (Bhatt)

 

Commentary 3

 

 

QUESTIONS ABOUT NAGARJUNA

by A. Priya

31 July 2008, posted 9 August 2008

 

 

I am sending a response to your queries as requested by Dr. Ulrich Mohrhoff.

 

[I have added paragraph numbers, to aid in the discussion - HFJM]

 

<1>

Before discussing the specific questions, I would first summarize the Madhyamaka doctrine so that its variants can be pointed out to show the source of confusion. According to the Madhyamaka position, there are two levels at which we could analyze truth - the conventional and the ultimate. The conventional truth is the level of apparent phenomena. It is the mere fact that there are undeniable experiences of the phenomenal world, no matter whether they exist in reality or not. For example, the appearance of 'moon in the lake' is indeed a phenomenon irrespective of the fact that 'moon in the lake' is not suitable to be asserted as existent. Causes and conditions lead to the interdependent arising of such phenomena. For example, there are causes and conditions for the 'display' of moon in the lake, though no cause and condition 'produced' a moon in the lake. The conventional analysis establishes the conventional validity of such phenomena and explores the laws of such conventional appearances. Various tools of logic are applied for its study. The ultimate analysis deals with the true nature of those phenomena. During such an analysis the appearance of phenomena is not taken as a proof for their existence. For example, the 'appearance' of the moon in the lake does not prove the 'existence' of moon in the lake. The only tool of logic used for ultimate analysis by Nagarjuna and his later commentator Candrakirti is reductio-ad-absurdum. All views about truth are then deconstructed. Nagarjuna concludes through such an analysis that no view of conventional elaboration can comprehend the true nature of reality. This is emptiness, and that itself is the dependent arising of phenomenal display.

 

<2>

At one level, ultimate truth or emptiness is the lack of inherent existence of all apparent phenomena. This is called the ultimate truth with synonyms (*paryāya paramārtha)* and is arrived at through the reductive reasoning of ultimate analysis. Here there is a separation of the two truths - (i) that phenomenal appearances are present at a conventional level, and (ii) all phenomena lacks inherent existence or substantiality at the ultimate level. These two are the result of two vectors of analysis. The former is that of conventional analysis establishing that within the scope of our ordinary conventionalities a particular phenomenon is not a mistaken appearance. The later is the result of ultimate analysis establishing the insubstantial nature (lack of inherent existence) of phenomena. When we analyze the truth this way, we cannot get to the truth in its entirety in one go, all we can do is to alternate between the two truths. This is the true nature of phenomena that can be 'asserted' through words - though it appears and is established through conventional analysis it is utterly non-existent in the ultimate analysis.

 

<3>

At a deeper level is the ultimate truth of direct experience, called the ultimate truth beyond synonyms (*aparyāya paramārtha).* This is the view beyond elaborations that experiences the truth 'as it is' - neither the ordinary view of the phenomenal world, nor the mere negation of its ultimate status. This is in contrast to the previous approach of taking separate stands on the two vectors of analysis. This is the view of the dharmadhātu (sphere of experience) 'as it is' without imputation. This non-conceptual ultimate can be arrived only through the direct experiential wisdom that does not fall into the extremes of conceptual elaborations. Even the words dharmadhātu and 'as it is' are just labels to designate the truth that is not amenable to be elaborated into conceptual terminology. So, these labels are not to be confused to indicate a Being. Nagarjuna refutes four extremes (known as the tetra-lemma - catushkodi) - i.e., the true nature of the apparent phenomena can not be elaborated into one of the four extremes:

 

i) a Being (as if an ultimate Being is the root of apparent phenomena)

 

ii) a Non-being (as if the absence of an ultimate Being is the root)

 

iii) both Being and Non-being (as if the presence of a Being and absence of another Being leads to the phenomenal presence),

 

iv) neither Being nor Non-Being (as if the phenomena is rooted on a substantial foundation that transcends the categories of Being and Non-Being.)

 

<4>

Reductio-ad-absurdum is employed to refute each of these extremes. By gaining certainty through the reasoning of reductio-ad-absurdum one cuts away the habits of elaborating into these extremes. The natural state of self-arising awareness then knows the truth "As It Is".

 

<5>

Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, the scholar from 19th Century Tibet, states:

 

"If you analyze the nature of Freedom from the four extremes of elaboration, certainty is gained.

 

By this, the penetrating insight of self-arisen

 

Luminous wisdom (*prajna*) becomes clear like a lamp"

 

[verse 3.2.2.2.2 *nge-shes sgron-ma* (translated as The Beacon of Certainty by John Petit, Wisdom Publications]

 

 

<6>

This is the true ultimate with no synonyms to indicate it. It can not be elaborated as either a subject or an object in itself, since such a pair co-arises only in the extremes of elaboration. Nagarjuna's philosophy of deconstruction is not one of building a meta-framework where all other views of philosophy are fit into an all-encompassing structure. It is rather a complete deconstruction of all elaborations such that the basic space of all phenomena appears vividly as the natural state of self-arisen pristine wisdom (*jnāna*) free from the habitual winds of elaborations. This self-arisen awareness also is empty in its ultimate status, and by itself a display. It is also an apparent phenomenon, but unlike other ordinary states of awareness, it maintains its spontaneous nature by not falling to the extremes.*

 

 

<7>

Now let us get down to the specifics:

 

1. SUBJECT-INCLUSIVE NATURE*

 

Equating the interdependent arising with the emptiness, Nagarjuna proclaims:

 

"We explain that whatever conditionally arises, that is emptiness. That being a dependent imputation, that itself is the middle path."

[Verse 18 of chapter 24, Mūla-madhyamaka-kārika]

 

Here Nagarjuna refers to the subject-inclusive nature of conventional phenomena through his usage of the phrase "dependent imputation". In fact, 'dependent imputation' is only a rough translation of the Sanskrit term used - *prajnāptir upādāya*. Its actual meaning is 'arrived at through *prajna *(*prajna* is our mental structuring that leads to specific ways of our understanding)'. The conventional world and its objects (apparent phenomena) are of the nature of conditional arising that depends on conventions arrived through prajna, our mental structuring. The middle path of Madhyamaka is the understanding of the mutual-inclusiveness of the three - emptiness, conditional arising and dependent imputation. All other positions fall into extremes. For example if emptiness is not understood as one with the other two, it would tend to be a nihilistic view of emptiness. Similarly, if understood incorrectly conditional arising could fall to the extreme of realism and dependent imputation to the extreme of idealism.

 

 

<8>

Nagarjuna further clarifies his position about how insubstantial and subject-dependent the world is, through another statement in the same text :

 

"There is not even the slightest of distinction in essence for Samsāra compared to Nirvāna,

 

There is not even the slightest of distinction in essence for Nirvana compared to Samsara"

[Verse 19, Chapter 25].

 

<9>

In the above verse, Samsara refers to the mundane world brought forth through ordinary perception. Nirvana realms are spheres of experience reached upon purifying the mental continuum and passing beyond Samsara. Nagarjuna (as well as the wisdom perfection sutras of the Buddha) points out that essentially Samsara and Nirvana are not two distinct realms. When one does not realize the insubstantiality of all phenomenal appearances, one falls to extremes and then the phenomenal appearances themselves and the world that is brought forth takes the shape of the mundane world with objects that we can hit across and be hurt, with heat and cold, with the ugly and the pleasant, etc. One's conventional truth is thoroughly transformed into the realm of Nirvana - that of peace beyond all elaborations - when one is rooted in the direct realization of the ultimate truth and has developed *prajna* that realizes that ultimate nature. The world that we bring forth is transformed into Nirvana.

 

<10>

Thus, within the conventional realm, consciousness/mind has a primacy in establishing the way we bring forth the world. However, this view does not assert an ultimate status to the mental structures. Like its objects, the mind too is a conditionally arising phenomenon. Consciousness depends on the object that it is being conscious of. It also depends on the past moments of consciousness that shapes up the specific mental structure. Thus both the subject and its object co-arise through conditional arising and dependent imputation. Both lack ultimate status. Even the process of imputation lacks ultimate status beyond the framework of conventionalities.

 

<11>

While examining the psycho-physical aggregates, Nagarjuna states:

 

"The mode of Being of feeling, mind, perception and volitional formations are in every way similar to that for form"

[Verse 7, Chapter 4]

 

Thus the logic he applied prior hand to all objective phenomena, is further extended to the subjective phenomena as well, and their emptiness is established.

 

<12>

Candrakirti states the following while commenting on a scripture called Lankāvatāra-sūtra (a sutra that is often misinterpreted as a thesis of mind-only school- subjective realism):

 

"The sutra speaks of "mind-alone" because the mind is chief within the world. That form is absent is not the scripture's sense."

 

[verse 80, chapter 6, Madhyamaka-avatāra (translated as The Introduction to the Middle Way, by Padmakara Translation Group, Shambala Publishers) ]

 

 

<13>

Candrakirti further continues in the same text:

"For once the outer objects are disproved, The Buddhas have declared, the mind that knows them is easily refuted. Perceiver is discounted with the percept; The outer world was thus negated first"

[verse 96, chapter 6]

 

And, further down in the same text:

 

"According to its very nature, Form is void of form. Sound, smell, taste, and touch are also void, And likewise all the workings of the mind"

[verse 183, chapter 6]*

 

 

<14>

2. IS IT MICRO-MATERIALISM ? *

 

All idealist views of philosophy are refuted right from the very foundational theses of Buddhism. This is done even in the lowest schools through the theories of selflessness and impermanence. The mind-only (*cittamātra) *and experience-only* (vijnāna-vāda) *views of Buddhism goes one step further by rejecting 'objective realism'. The Madhyamaka position goes further by rejecting even 'subjective realism'. Thus, both realism and idealism are completely deconstructed. Thus, the question of micro-materialism does not really arise. However, at the level of mundane conventionality (that is the level of conventional world view where we fall to extremes), it is accepted that the apparent phenomena consists of both material forms and mental phenomena, and they have equal ontological status in being equally empty.

 

<15>

In other words, once we fall into extremes, our experiences are structured such that we perceive both the object and subject. When we realize ultimate truth and recognize the true nature of all phenomena, both objects and subjects cease. The unelaborated ultimate of the truth 'as it is' is experienced without divisions of object and subject.

 

<16>

The confusion about micro-materialism arises in some specific interpretations of Nagarjuna. Lama Tsongkhapa tends to keep the ultimate and conventional as separate in his later writings though he has also written about the inseparability of the two truths in his earlier writings. In most of his later writings he focuses on the 'ultimate truth with synonyms' and maintains ultimate and conventional truths as two separate truths to be altered between. This could have been a skilful method on his part to tilt towards the extreme of existence to avoid his disciples from falling to the extreme of non-existence. Lama Tsongkhapa reduces Nagarjuna's tetra-lemma into a di-lemma as a simplification. His position is that the extreme of Being needs to be refuted only at the ultimate level and the extreme of Non-being needs to be refuted at the conventional level. He equates the extreme of Being as an extreme of 'true existence' and the extreme of Non-Being as an extreme of 'utter non-existence'. In other words, unlike Nagarjuna, Lama Tsongkhapa does not regard 'existence' and 'non-existence' by itself to be extremes of elaboration. He further claims that the other two extremes are redundant. Thus he arrives at his unique interpretation of Nagarjuna that phenomena are 'merely existent' at conventional level. So, he refutes only 'true existence' while arguing for 'mere existence'. He maintains that one has to be careful in choosing the negandum so that what is not to be negated (mere existence) is not negated. This is in contrast to the argument of other scholars that reason should be given a free hand without protecting any part away from reason. For example, if the conventional existence of a moon in the lake is negated through reason, so be it. There is no need to protect that away from reason. All that remains for the moon in the lake is the mere appearance of the moon in the lake, not its conventional existence.

 

<17>

Lama Tsongkhapa points out that the distinction between 'true existence' and 'mere existence' is very subtle and can be only known by someone who has directly experienced the ultimate truth. However, many followers and later commentators of Lama Tsongkhapa take his term of 'mere existence' to mean that 'objects' are existent at a conventional level in a subject-independent manner. They say that a pillar is not empty of being a pillar and that it is only empty of inherent existence. This approach is thoroughly off the track since the conventional pillar for all practical purposes is then accepted as an objectively existent phenomenon. Refuting only the 'inherent existence' is then like removing only a superimposition of 'inherent existence' while leaving the perceived phenomena intact in its entirety. That would be a realist position and materialistic. As Mipham Rinpoche points out in *nge-shes sgron-ma*, it contradicts the original intent of the Prajna Pāramita Sutra that "Form is empty of form".

 

<18>

However, this interpretation by the followers of Lama Tsongkhapa may not have been his original position. Elsewhere he also takes the position that conventional phenomena are mere labels imputed on a suitable basis. This again is correct according to Madhyamaka and shows the subject-dependent nature of conventional reality. However, most of his followers again take this 'suitable basis' as a subject-independent material object (whereas this basis should actually be treated as the 'ultimate truth beyond synonyms', or the truth 'as it is' over which the imputations create our mundane world). Some of his followers also end up keeping a view of separation between Samsara and Nirvana unlike the quote from Nagarjuna above, and verses from Prajna-pāramita stating "Samsara is Nirvana and Nirvana is Samsara". They claim that conventionally Samsara and Nirvana are separate objective phenomena and the scriptural statements are to be interpreted as referring only to their ultimate nature, which according to them is merely the emptiness of absolute negation. However that is not the intent of the scriptures since in that case one could also make statements like water is dog, dog is water', just because their ultimate nature is the same. However, that is not correct because a dog is not transformed into water, however much we transform our structure of experience.

 

<19>

Critical analysis of Lama Tsongkhapa's view may be found in Gorampa [Distinguishing the Views (translated as Freedom from Extremes by Joes Ignacio Cabezon and Geshe Lobsang Dargyay, Wisdom Publications)] and Mipham Rinpoche (nge-shes sgron-ma). Some of the pre-Tsongkhapa Tibetan masters to refer for varying views on Nagarjuna would be Longchen Rabjampa and Sakya Pandita.

 

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Dr. A. Priya

e-mail <a.priya.a (at) gmail.com>