Nagarjuna and the Madhyamika School (Ling)

Nagarjuna and the Madhyamika school (from A History of Religion East and West, by Prof. Trevor Ling, 1968, Basingstoke 1988)

We have seen that one of the earliest developments in Buddhist thought in the Mahayana direction was the idea that even dhammas (regarded by the Theravadins as the indivisible ultimate events of which all existence is composed) are in fact substanceless; all things, even dhammas, are void of substance, or shunya. This idea is first found in a Mahayana text which was translated into Chinese at the end of the second century C.E. and which may therefore be regarded as having had its origin somewhere in north-west India in the first century C.E.

Those who assert (vadin) this doctrine of the voidness of substance (shunya) even in dhammas, are called shunyavadins. Another name for this school of thought is the Madhyamika school, or school of the ‘middle position’ (madhya is cognate with Latin media). The middle position referred to was not that of the earlier period of Buddhism, when the Buddha’s teaching was known as ‘the Middle Way’, that is, between self-mortification and sensuality, but between the complete realism of the Sarvastivadins who asserted that all dhammas, past, present and future, were real; and the absolute idealism of the Yogacharin school.

The Madhyamika school is generally regarded as having been founded by Nagarjuna in the second century C.E. It is significant that Nagarjuna was a brahman from south central India (Andhra) who had thrown in his lot with Buddhism. The school of thought which he developed certainly has affinities with brahman philosophical thought; although it was developed in opposition to certain of the orthodox brahman philosophies (Sankhya and Vaishesika), it was generally more akin to these schools than to the early Abhidhamma of Pali Buddhism. An excellent account of the Madhyamika school has been provided by T.R.V. Murti (1955). His view of the development of this school is that it may be described in terms of a dialectic. The original thesis was the atma-affirming doctrine of the Upanishads; the antithesis to this was the denial of any enduring atta (atma) in early Buddhism, formalised in the Abhidhamma; the synthesis is found in the Madhyamika.

According to Murti is was the inadequacy and inconsistency of the Abhidhamma system, especially the Sarvastivadin Abhidhamma, which led to the development of the Madhyamika. The essential concern of the Madhyamika is with the relation between the empirical world of the senses, which in Buddhist thought generally is known as Samsara (the continued round of existence), and the transcendental reality Nirvana. According to the Madhyamika, Nirvana is present in Samsara, but men are prevented from recognising this and entering into it because of the false constructions they put upon the world. The removal of these false constructions (the negation of the negation) and the attainment of Nirvana is the religious goal, in the Madhyamika Buddhist view. The way to do this is by cultivating a view of the substanceless nature of things. To accomplish this, they hold, needs a long course of meditational training.

The Distinction between Problem and Mystery (Marcel)

The Distinction between Problem and Mystery (from Existentialist Thought: Gabriel Marcel, by Ronald Grimsley, 1955, Cardiff 1967)

To raise the question of Being is to reveal the limitations of all pure ‘problems’. A problem is in some way outside us, something apart from our intimate experience and something towards which we adopt a merely impersonal attitude. Hence it can become an object of general knowledge and public inquiry. As ‘ob-jective’ a problem confronts me in the manner of an obstacle which has to be overcome. In scientific investigation it seems possible to make a clear-cut distinction between the subject which interrogates and the object which is being examined, between what is in me and what is before me. In this way a problem emerges as something definite and specific and of a fixed pattern. This is revealed through the way in which we believe that a given problem may be resolved in terms of a ‘solution’ which can be tested and verified in experience. There is a ‘universal reason’ or ‘thought in general’ capable of laying down certain conditions necessary for the acceptance of any particular solution as valid. When those conditions have been satisfactorily fulfilled, we say that the solution has been ‘verified’. It is normal to suppose that such verification is carried out by a mind of a ‘depersonalized subject’ and that one investigator ought to be able to reach exactly the same conclusion as another. This is an essential condition for the establishment of any kind of objective knowledge, the search for which always entails, says Gabriel Marcel, a certain form of concupiscence by which the world is brought to myself and compelled to submit to a set of techniques considered suitable for dominating it.

As soon as we begin to inquire about Being we are faced by a different situation. Whereas the objective problem is conveniently located in a region which is apart from us, questions about Being immediately make us realize that in some intimate and perhaps perplexing way we are implicated in it from the very outset. In fact I cannot separate the question: What is Being? from the further question: Who or what am I? Whenever I interrogate Being I also have to ask: Who am I who ask this question concerning Being? Since questions concerning the totality of Being always involve my own existence and since questions about myself also involve an interrogation of Being, we are forced to admit the insufficiency of the distinction between the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’ as it emerges in questions concerning limited aspects of the physical world and man in his natural aspects. The conventional distinction must be transcended. It is this general consideration which prevents Marcel from speaking of the ‘problem’ of Being. We are here dealing not with a problem but with a ‘mystery’.

The ‘mystery’ of Being brings us to the region of the ‘metaproblematical’ where it is necessary ‘to transcend the opposition of a subject which would affirm Being and of Being which is affirmed by this subject’. The very antithesis involved in the subject-object relationship is only possible, in the first place, through the existence of a ‘metaproblematical’ sphere which gives priority to Being over knowledge. A cognition is always enveloped by Being and therefore in some sense ‘within’ Being. A mere theory of knowledge and an epistemological distinction between subject and object can never account for the full depth of a mystery which springs directly from Being itself. A mystery is really a ‘problem which encroaches upon its own data’ – and therefore ‘transcends itself as problem’. In whichever way the polarity of the questioner and the object of his question be conceived in the case of a mystery, we are forced to recognize the existence of a kind of reciprocal penetration of the inquiring self and the ontological reality to which it is related. This interpenetration makes it quite impossible to reduce the question to the level of those usually treated in terms of rational categories.

The Madhyamika Absolute is epistemic (Chatterjee)

The Madhyamika Absolute is epistemic (from The Yogacara Idealism, by Ashok Kumar Chatterjee, foreword by T.R.V. Murti, 1962, 1975, Delhi 2007)

Self-consciousness of Reason itself is the Madhyamika Absolute. The approach is purely negative here. Negation is not complete in the Vedanta and the Yogacara; it is in the service of an affirmation, which is really the guiding principle of these systems. Negation is simply the removal of the outer husk as it were, which hides the inner core, the affirmation. For the Madhyamika, it is bare negation, total and absolute, so far as thought goes. The Absolute is identified with nothing within thought, i.e. within phenomena. Though the Absolute in both other systems is said to be beyond thought, the transition is made easy by indicating something within phenomena themselves which is not exhausted in it and has a transcendent existence. The gulf between phenomena and noumenon is not frightfully abrupt in these systems. It is bridged by that which is itself not phenomenal but can yet be shown to work within it. This reality is pure Being in the Vedanta and pure Will in the Yogacara. But, for the Madhyamika, it is not anything within phenomena. His interest in phenomena is indirect; primarily he criticises the various views; but, as in metaphysics there can be had no neutral fact which is not coloured by one view or another, that is, which is not subject of any predication, affirmative or negative, his criticism of all views amounts to the rejection of phenomena in toto. It is not merely one aspect of it that is negated, the other being preserved and exalted as the Absolute. No aspect is preferred to any other; criticism is complete here. Avidya is not viewing things as objective which are really identical with consciousness [as it is in Yogacara], nor viewing things as different which are in reality identical [as it is in Vedanta], but it [i.e. avidya] is “viewing” as such, Reason itself.

The argument of both the other systems is that illusion is not possible without a substrate reality. For them the Madhyamika is an extreme position where there is an illusion without any underlying reality which alone makes it possible. This substrate is Consciouness for the Yogacara and Being for the Vedantin. The Madyamika does not deny the necesssity of a substrate; his contention is that it cannot be identified with anything within the context of the illusion itself; in that particular context everything is relative to each other and is therefore equally false. The substrate is the critical consciousness itself, which, when diversified by the views, becomes false. Remove all thought categories and the basic reality, the Dharmata or Tathata of things, shines forth. It has not to be led to in a particular way; it is just the cancellation of all ways.

The Madhyamika Absolute is therefore epistemic. At first sight it might seem to be utterly transcendent, but a closer inspection reveals the fact that it is nothing outside thought, not a thing-in-itself. The Vedantic as well as the Yogacara Absolute are both ontological. In the Vedanta it is one reality without a second, the only existent; it is rather existence itself. In the Yogacara also it has no other than itself, being the only reality. In the Madhyamika however, what is negated is not any second reality other than the Absolute, as in the former two systems, but rather any view about it. As has just been said, the Absolute is purely epistemic [epistemological] here. Contrasted with this, the Vedantic Absolute may be said to be ontological and the Yogacara Absolute psychological.

Karl Popper’s theory of World 3 (Magee)

Karl Popper’s theory of World 3 (from Popper, by Bryan Magee, London 1973)

Throughout his account of the evolution of life and the emergence of man and the development of civilization, Popper makes use of the notion not only of an objective world of material things (which he calls World 1) and a subjective world of minds (World 2) but of a third world, a world of objective structures which are the products, not necessarily intentional, of minds or living creatures; but which, once produced, exist independently from them. Forerunners of this in the animal world are nests built by birds or ants or wasps, honeycombs, spiders’ webs, beavers’ dams, all of which are highly complicated structures built by the animal outside of its own body in order to solve its problems. The structures themselves become the most centrally important part of the animal’s environment, towards which much of its most important behaviour is oriented – indeed, it is commonly born in one of them, which in that case constitutes its very first experience of the physical environmenmt outside its mother’s body. Furthermore, some of the animal kingdom’s structures are abstract: forms of social organization, for instance, and patterns of communication. In man, some of the biological characteristics which developed to cope with the environment changed that environment in the most spectacular ways: the human hand is one example. And man’s abstract structures have at all times equalled in scale and degree of elaboration his transformation of the physical environment: language, ethics, law, religion, philosophy, the sciences, the arts, institutions. Like those of animals, only more so, his creations acquired a central importance in the environment to which he had then to adapt himself, and which therefore changed him. Their objective existence in relation to him meant that he could examine them, evaluate and criticize them, explore, extend, revise or revolutionize them, and indeed make wholly unexpected discoveries within them. And this is true of his most abstract creations of all, for example mathematics. “I agree with Brouwer that the sequence of natural numbers is a human construction. But although we create this sequence, it creates its own autonomous problems in its turn. The distinction between odd and even numbers is not created by us: it is an untintended and unavoidable consequence of our creation. Prime numbers, of course, are similarly unintended autonomous and objective facts; and in their case it is obvious that there are many facts here for us to discover: there are conjectures like Goldbach’s. And these conjectures, though they refer indirectly to objects of our creation, refer directly to problems and facts which have somehow emerged from our creation and which we cannot control or influence: they are hard facts, and the truth about them is often hard to discover. This exemplifies what I mean when I say that the third world is largely autonomous, though created by us.” World 3, then is the world of ideas, art, science, language, ethics, institutions – the whole cultural heritage, in short – in so far as this is encoded and preserved in such World 1 objects as brains, books, machines, films, computers, pictures, and records of every kind.