Nagarjuna and Madhyamika Buddhism (Potter)

Nagarjuna and Madhyamika Buddhism (from Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies, by Prof. Karl H. Potter, 1963, Westport, Conn. 1976)

Nagarjuna, the most famous exponent of the Madhyamika school of Buddhism, contends that there is no basis on which one can posit a dependence relation of the asymmmetrical sort sought by Vasubhandu and Dharmakirti. When the Buddha said that everything was interdependent he meant just what he said. He did not mean that some things depended on other things which were themselves independent, a theory which other philosophers, both Buddhist and Hindu, have espoused; he meant that all things are on a par, dependent on one another. Nagarjuna develops a rather unusual terminology for the status of all things. Since they are interdependent, he says, and since to depend on something else is to have no nature of one’s own (no svabhava, to use the technical Buddhist term), they must be without any nature, that is to say ‘void’ (shunya). Nagarjuna’s philosophy is frequently called shunyavada, the doctrine of the void.

Nagarjuna harps upon the concept of dependence. That which depends upon something else is less real than something else. This, argues Nagarjuna, is accepted by all philosophers. But all the other philosophers conclude that there must be some positive reality upon which other things depend but which does not depend on anything else.. Even among the Buddhists, the logicians think there are elements which do not depend on others but are depended on, and the idealist Yogacaras suppose that everything else depends on consciousness but not vice-versa. But these theories are all wrong, says Nagarjuna, and proceeds to show by a masterly dialectic that they are.

Is Nagarjuna a skeptic? No, since he allows that causality has a limited play: that is what the dialectic itself shows. Causality is what the dialectic demonstrates, since causality is interdependence. The skeptic, such as the materialistic Charvaka, does not even go so far as to admit the interdependence of things. Nagarjuna may with reason claim that if the empirical world were not ordered by the principle of dependent origination even the dialectic would fail. Nagarjuna is not anti-rational; in fact, he elevates reason to the position of the prime means of attaining freedom. Unlike skepticism, his is a philosophy of hope: we can achieve freedom by our own efforts, through remorseless application of the dialectic.

Yet freedom is release from the conceptual, for Nagarjuna as for all Buddhists. This seems to be an insoluble paradox. How can we free ourselves from the conceptual by indulging in a dialectical play which is conceptual through-and-through? The answer is that through application of the dialectical method we convince ourselves that everything is interdependent, and we develop a special kind of insight (praj├▒a) into the void itself. This insight has no content, i.e. its content is the void. It is nonsensuous and nonconceptual, although it is rational in the sense that it is developed through a rational procedure.