For over fifteen hundred years, the prevailing view of the Madhyamikas in India has been that they were absolute nihilists. According to the Mimamsakas, the Vedantins, the Naiyayikas, the Jainas and even their fellow-Mahayanists, the Vijnanavadins, the Madhyamikas denied the reality of both nirvana and samsara. In the first part of this century, St. Schayer and Th. Stchetbatsky rejected the nihilist interpretation of the Madhyamikas.
The present work is a defence of the earlier nihilist interpretation (NI) of the Madhyamika against some of the leading non-nihilist interpretation (NNI) that have arisen to challenge it in recent times. This defence is conducted on two fronts. First, as a purely exegetical matter, it will be argued that the NI fits the Madhyamika writings better than the NNI. Secondly, it will be argued that the NNIs are not, as they are often claimed to be, more defensible on philosophical grounds.
Thomas Wood received his B.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley. He has taught Eastern and Western philosophy at the California State University at Fresno and the State University of New York at New Paltz. He is presently an Adjunct Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where he teaches comparative philosophy and religion. He is the author of two other books in Indian philosophy, The Mandukya Upanisad and the Agama Sastra: An Investigation into the Meaning of the Vedanta (1990) and Mind Only: A Philosophical and Doctrinal Analysis of the Vijnanavada (1991)
I am indebted to Eli Franco and anonymous reviewers for comments and criticisms on earlier versions of this work. Whatever errors remain is my own.
Although the Madhyamika works I cite have all been translated previously, I have provided in the Appendix translations of the ones that I cite the most frequently-the Vigraha-vyavartani (VV) and MMK 1, MMK 13, MMK 15, MMK 24 and MMK 25 for the benefit of readers who are not already familiar with these texts. Such readers may find it useful to have the VV and whole chapters of the Mula-madhyamaka- karikas to consult, rather than merely the isolated verses (karikas) that come up in the course of my own discussion of the texts.
I have tried to stay as close as possible to the texts, but have made some concessions in the interests of readability. As a result of this compromise, the translations are not literal. For example, I have included words and even short phrases that are not in the original Sanskrit when I have felt that these were required to convey clearly the meaning of what are often very laconic verses.
1. For over fifteen hundred years, the prevailing view of the Madhyamikas in India has been that they were absolute nihilists. According to the Mimamsakas, the Vedantins, the Naiyayikas, the Jainas and even their fellow-Mahayanists, the Vijnanavadins, the Madhyamikas denied the reality of both nirvana and samsara.
In the first part of this century, St. Schayer (1931) and Th. Stcherbatsky (1927) rejected the nihilist interpretation of the Madhyamikas, but at that time theirs was very much the minority view. It was not until the middle 1950s-about the time of T. R. V. Murti's influential book, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism-that non-nihilist interpretations of the Madhyamaka clearly became the dominant force in Madhyamika studies.
Until that time, the prevailing view of Western scholarship had been represented by scholars like E. Burnouf, H. Jacobi, M. Walleser, I. Wach, A. B. Keith and L. de La Vallee Poussin. According to these scholars, the Madhyamaka was nihilism, pure and simple. Burnouf (1844: 560), the first Western scholar to publish translations and interpretations of the Madhyamika writings, described the. Madhyamaka as a "nihilisme scholastique." H. Jacobi saw the Madhyamaka as holding that "all our ideas are based upon a non-entity or upon the void." M. Walleser described it as "a negativism which radically empties existence up to the last consequences of negation," and as a philosophy of "absolute nothingness"; whereas there is a counterpart to the negations of the Vedanta, there is none in the Madhyamaka: negation in the latter is the "exclusive ultimate end" (Selbstzweek). I. Watch held that the Madhyamikas were the most radical nihilists that ever lived. L. de La Vallee Poussin "still the unsurpassed master of Buddhist studies," as Chr. Lindtner (1982: 7) has recently described him-saw the Madhyamikas as describing things from two points of view, and therefore as "hesitating between two positions." From the point of view of worldly or relative reality, or the truth of experience, all things are empty (sunya) because no substantial reality-no "being in itself"-can be attributed to them.' However, from the point of view of reality or truth (tattva, paramartha-satya), where one criticizes experience itself, one arrives at the conclusion that all those things that are said to be caused are not caused at all. One cannot attribute any manner of being to them whatever. Causal production is in fact a non-production, and even the so-called relativity does not exist. According to Poussin, therefore, the Madhyamika analysis ultimately destroys the notion of causality just as effectively as it destroys all ideas of experience and religion. Not only do the dharmas of Buddhist philosophy not exist substantially: they do not exist at all, either in reality or appearance. "They are like the daughter of a barren woman, like the beauty of the daughter of a barren woman: this beauty evidently does not exist except in so far as it may be described; but, in reality, the object described, the description, and the person describing are all similarly non-existent."
2. The present work is a defense of the earlier, nihilist interpretation (NI) of the Madhyamaka against some of the leading non-nihilist interpretations (NNI) that have arisen to challenge it in recent times. This defense is conducted on two fronts. First, as a purely exegetical matter, it will be argued that the NI fits the Madhyamika writings better than the NNI. Second, it will be argued that the NNIs are not, as they are often claimed to be, more defensible on philosophical grounds.
Proponents of the NNI have often claimed, implicitly or explicitly, that the nihilist position is philosophically untenable and even manifestly foolish or absurd, and that it is therefore preposterous to suppose that the Madhyamikas actually held it. I shall be arguing, however, that the NI is no more difficult to defend philosophically than the NNI, although in the case of the NI the problems are epistemological, whereas in the case of the NNI, they are primarily logical.
3. The dispute between the proponents of the NI and the NNI may seem complex, but this appearance is somewhat deceptive, for all the disputes basically come down to a disagreement over how the Mahayanist conception of "sunyata" (emptiness, voidness) is to be interpreted.
According to the NI, the Madhyamika doctrine that all dharmas are void (sarva-dharma-sunyata) is the logical culmination of the attack undertaken by early Buddhism against the doctrine of the self (P. atta; Skr. atman). The arguments that were developed in early Buddhism against the atman doctrine were of a quite general nature. For example, it was said that a self or ego would have to be unchanging; and it was held to be untenable (even absurd) to maintain that someone could remain the same from birth to death, since the mental and physical properties of a person undergo change all the time. This criticism is closely related to very general objections to the distinction between substances and properties-a distinction which has of course been attacked in .the Western philosophical tradition by Hume and many others.
Early Buddhism analyzed a person reductively into five sets or heaps (skandhas) of constituent mental and physical elements called dharmas. A Hinayanist text of the classical period called the Milinda-pafiha employs the useful example of a chariot to explain this anatta/dhamma doctrine. Just as, it is said, it would be an error to think of a chariot as an entity apart from its constituent parts like the axle, the hub, the wheel etc., so it is an error to think that there is an entity or substance apart from the constituent elements of form, feeling, perception, impulses and consciousness. The ever-changing stream of constituent physical and psychophysical elements or dharmas is real, but the self is unreal.
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