The Term Shunyata (Zimmer)

The Term Shunyata (from Philosophies of India, by Dr. Heinrich Zimmer, edited by Prof. Joseph Campbell, 1952, London 1967)

The term shunyata, as applied to the metaphysical reality, insists on the fact that reason and language apply to only the finite world; nothing can be said of the infinite. But the term is applied also to all things of the phenomenal sphere, and here is the great stroke of Shunyavada. “As applied to the world of experience,” writes Dr. Radakrishnan in his Indian Philosophy, “shunyata means the ever-changing state of the phenomenal world. In the dread waste of endlessness man loses all hope, but the moment he recognizes its unreality he transcends it and reaches after the abiding principle. He knows that the whole is a passing dream, where he may sit unconcerned with the issues, certain of victory.”

In other words, the concept of emptiness, the void, vacuity, has been employed in the Madhyamika teaching as a convenient and effective pedagogical instrument to bring the mind beyond that sense of duality which infects all systems in which the absolute and the world of relativity are described in contrasting, or antagonistic terms. In the Vedanta Gitas, as we have seen, the non-duality of Nirvana and Samsara, release and bondage, is made known and celebrated in rhapsodic verses; but in this Buddhist formula, one word, shunyata, bears the entire message, and simultaneously projects the mind beyond any attempt to conceive of a synthesis. Philosophically, as a metaphysical doctrine, the formula conduces to a thoroughgoing Docetism: the world, the Buddha, and Nirvana itself become no more than the figments of an absolutely empty dream. This is the point that has been attacked, always, in argument, and, of course, it is an easy point to make seem absurd if one takes absolutely the usual categories of reason. But the circumstance to be borne in mind is that this Buddhist philosophy is not primarily an instrument of reason but an instrument to convert reason into realization; one step beyond the term is the understanding of what it really means. And as a device to effect such a transformation of knowledge – first standing between all the contrarities of ‘the world’ and ‘release from the world’, then standing between the moment of preliminary comprehension and that of realized illumination – it would be difficult indeed to find a more apt and efficient term.

This is why the doctrine is called Madhyamika, the ‘Middle Way’. And actually, it brings, as far as possible, into systematic philosophical statement the whole implication of the ‘Middle Doctrine’ of the Buddha himself. For as we read in the orthodox Pali Samyutta-Nikaya: “That things have being, O Kaccana, constitutes one extreme of doctrine; that things have no being is the other extreme. These extremes, O Kaccana, have been avoided by the Tathagata, and it is a middle doctrine that he teaches.” The Buddha continually diverted the mind from its natural tendency to posit an abiding essence beyond, or underlying, the endless and meaningless dynamism of the concatenation of causes. And this is the effect also of Nagarjuna’s metaphysical doctrine of the void.

Contradictions to be taken literally… (Deguchi c.s.)

Contradictions meant to be taken literally, be accepted, and as unambiguous (from The Way of the Dialetheist: Contradictions in Buddhism, by Yasuo Deguchi, Jay L. Garfield and Graham Priest, in Philosophy East and West, Honolulu, July 2008)

We have seen that there are various ways in which apparent contradictions in Buddhist discourses may be defused. And some contradictions, as we have seen, are best defused in this way. But we have also seen that contradictions may not always be defused by these mechanisms. Indeed, the discussion has taken us to the point of seeing why some contradictions in some Buddhist texts cannot be defused. To suppose that one ought to defuse them would be to misunderstand.

There are no ultimate truths. As we have put is before [elsewhere]: “Ultimate truths are those about ultimate reality. But since everything is empty, there is no ultimate reality. There are, therefore, no ultimate truths. We can get at the same conclusion another way. To express anything in language is to express truth that depends on language, and so this cannot be an expression of the way that things are ultimately. All truths, then, are merely conventional.”

If Buddhists were content merely to point mutely to ultimate reality, there would be nothing more to be said. But they are not. They explain how conventional reality is simply the imposition of conventional conceptual categories on ultimate reality, and they explain the delusion about the nature of ultimate reality to which this gives rise. In the very process, they describe certain things about ultimate reality. The indescribable is described; indeed, even to say that is is indescribable is to describe it. In this respect, Buddhism is akin to any of a number of positions that claim that there is an ineffable reality, and then go on to explain why this is so, in the process, saying things about that reality. The phenomenon is to be found, for example, in Neoplatonism, in Advaita Vedanta, and in Heidegger on Being.

It could be said that such descriptions are simply upaya, to be jettisoned as soon as one can appreciate the nature of ultimate reality directly. Although they might be seen in this way, this would not do justice to the texts. The texts in question are simply too carefully reasoned and too explicit, and are read by their commentators as correct. There is indeed a difference recognized in all Mahayana Buddhist traditions between, on the one hand, the conceptually mediated, and hence indirect, apprehension of ultimate reality that one obtains through reasoning and discursive practices, and, on the other hand, the immediate, direct, perception of emptiness that is the goal of meditative practice. However, the object of these two modes of apprehension is the same: emptiness, which is identical with [inter]dependent origination – the ultimate truth, which is in turn identical with the conventional truth properly understood. The descriptions of ultimate reality, however thin they may be, and however imperfectly they capture the object of yogic direct perception, are, nonetheless, taken to be veridical. And again, since the things claimed about ultimate reality are often contradictory to things claimed about conventional reality, if these two things are ultimately the same reality it is a contradictory one.

It might be suggested that although such contradictions are true, their truth is incomprehensible. Such truths, in this view, have the deictic function of ostending the incomprehensibility of ultimate reality, but cannot themselves be understood. This view concedes our point that such contradictions are intended as true, but we do not concede the view that they are incomprehensible. Those who hold that contradictions are always and obviously only false will of course find supposing them to be true incomprehensible. However, despite various orthodoxies, East and West, the view that some contradictions are true is a perfectly coherent and intelligible view, as modern studies in dialetheism and paraconsistency have established.

Nirvana truly realized is Samsara properly understood (Iyer)

Nirvana truly realized is Samsara properly understood (from Buddha and the Path to Enlightenment, by Raghavan Iyer, Theosophy Library Online, Internet 1986)

The Madhyamika school traces its origin to Nagarjuna, the brilliant philosopher and formidable dialectician who flourished in the late second century A.D. Taking Buddha’s advocacy of the Middle Way between harmful extremes, between avid indulgence and austere asceticism, and between sterile intellectualization and suffocating mental torpor, Nagarjuna developed a rigorous dialectical logic by which he reduced every philosophical standpoint to an explosive set of contradictions. This did not lead to the closure of scepticism, as the less vigorously pursued pre-Socratic philosophies did, but rather to the elusive standpoint that neither existence nor non-existence can be asserted of the world and of everything in it. The Madhyamikas, therefore, refused to affirm or deny any philosophical proposition. Nagarjuna sought to liberate the mind from its tendencies to cling to tidy or clever formulations of truth, because any truth short of shunyata, the voidness of reality, is inherently misleading. Relative truths are not like pieces of a puzzle, each of which incrementally adds to the complete design. They are plausible distortions of the truth and can seriously mislead the aspirant. They cannot be lightly or wholly repudiated, however, for they are all the seeker has, and so he must learn to use them as aids whilst remembering that they are neither accurate nor complete in themselves.

By the fifth century two views of Nagarjuna’s work had emerged. The followers of Bhavaviveka thought that Madhyamika philosophy had a positive content, whilst those who subscribed to Buddhapalita’s more severe interpretation said that every standpoint, including their own, could be reduced to absurdity, which fact alone, far more than any positively asserted doctrine, could lead to intuitive insight (Prajña) and Enlightenment. Chandrakirti’s remarkable defence of this latter standpoint deeply influenced Tibetan Buddhist traditions as well as those schools of thought that eventually culminated in Japan in Zen. Nagarjuna’s dialectic revealed the shunya or emptiness of all discursive, worldly thought and its proliferating categories.

For the Madhyamikas, whatever can be conceptualized is therefore relative, and whatever is relative is shunya, empty. Since absolute inconceivable truth is also shunya, shunyata or the void is shared by both Samsara and Nirvana. Ultimately, Nirvana truly realized is Samsara properly understood. The fully realized Bodhisattva, the enlightened Buddha who renounces the Dharmakaya vesture to remain at the service of suffering beings, recognizes this radical transcendental equivalence. The Arhant and the Pratyeka Buddha, who look to their own redemption and realization, are elevated beyond any conventional description, but nonetheless do not fully realize or freely embody this highest truth. Thus for the Madhyamikas, the Bodhisattva ideal is the supreme wisdom, showing the unqualified unity of unfettered metaphysics and transcendent ethics, theoria and praxis, at the highest conceivable level.