Weighing the Butter, Levels of Explanation, and Falsification (Newland)

Weighing the Butter, Levels of Explanation, and Falsification: Models of the Conventional in Tsongkhapa’s Account of Madhyamaka (by Guy Martin Newland, in  Moonshadows – Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy, by The Cowherds, Oxford 2011)

Following Candrakirti’s interpretations of Nagarjuna, Tsongkhapa (LRC [Byang chub lam rim che ba, Xining 1985] 606-607) argues that if things had any sort of essence or intrinsic nature [svabhava] of their own, this nature would have to be located under ultimate analysis. Therefore, the fact that things are not found under ultimate analysis means that they utterly lack intrinsic nature (not that they are nonexistent). Things lack the sort of existence that would be found, were it there, through ultimate analysis. For Tsongkhapa, not existing under ultimate analysis, not existing ultimately, and not existing intrinsically or essentially are three ways of saying the same thing. The knowledge that things lack essential reality is a liberating insight into emptiness, the absence of intrinsic existence [nisvabhava].

(The difference between Prasangika and Svatantrika, according to Tsongkhapa, is that Svatantrikas, while recognising that nothing withstands ultimate analysis, regard things as having an intrinsic nature conventionally, while Prasangikas take intrinsic nature to be just that which would be found by ultimate analysis if it existed, concluding from the fact that nothing withstands ultimate analysis that nothing has any intrinsic nature at all, even conventionally.)

Thus, the deeper and ultimate ‘level of explanation/analysis’ in Madhyamaka is in fact that level upon which we see the utter lack or absence of any core or pith to which all matters can be reduced. This very lack, emptiness, is all that is ever discerned at that level. It is the entirety of what can be observed from that perspective – but is certainly not on that account the only thing that exists. Still, it must give us pause to consider that ultimate analysis – the mind that knows the final nature of things – does not at all find persons or cars. When persons and cars cannot withstand such rational analysis, when their vivid and seemingly solid presence recedes and finally evaporates as they are scrutinized, then does this not suggest that scrupulous investigation has at last refuted them? And if so, then how can anyone talk about things having any kind of meaningful existence at all once they have been refuted by reasoning?

Tsongkhapa has an interlocutor pose this very question (LRC 606). In response, he argues that this question comes about through conflating (1) the inability to withstand rational analysis with (2) invalidation or refutation by reason. While it would be foolhardy to claim that things are refuted by reason and nonetheless exist, he argues, things may very well exist although being unable to withstand rational analysis. To ask whether something can withstand rational analysis is to ask whether it is ‘found’ or demonstrated by a line of reasoning that analyses what exists ultimately. This kind of analysis is intent upon seeking out the essential nature that is the core reality behind an appearance. When such reasoning analyses a car, it does not find any such essential reality, and this is what it means to say that a car is ‘unable to withstand rational analysis’ (LRC 606-610).

Thus, the unfindability of a car under ultimate analysis is not a sign of a car’s nonexistence; it is only a sign of a car’s not existing in the manner sought by this sort of analysis. That is, it is a sign of the utter nonexistence of an essentially real car. We do not expect to see Saturn looking through a microscope; we do not expect a sociologist to find quarks; we do not expect rational analysis to find conventional existence and so do not conclude that there is none just because it is not found thereby. As Tsongkhapa says, we cannot expect to see sounds even when we look with utmost care.

Two Types of Negation (Huntington)

Two Types of Negation (from The Emptiness of Emptiness, by Prof. C.W. Huntington Jr., with Geshe Namgyal Wangchen, 1989, Delhi 1992)

Within the Madhyamika system, soteriology plays an integral role as the practical application of philosophical reflection. Although things do not bear their individual existence within themselves, as they appear to do, they are nevertheless quite real insofar as they are efficacious. The eminent Tibetan scholar Tsong kha pa has referred to the concept of causal efficacy – the sole determining criterion for conventional truth and reality – as “the most profound and subtle matter within the Madhyamika philosophy”. One needs, then, to appreciate the interdependent nature of appearances and to adjust attitudes accordingly in order to avoid a considerable amount of suffering.

Indian philosophers traditionally define two distinct types of negation: (i) Negation which indirectly affirms the existence of something else (paryudasa); and (ii) Negation which leaves nothing in its place (prasajya). The Madhyamika has assigned a particular significance to each of these. The first type of negation is “relative”, “implicative”, or “presuppositional” negation. Taken as a philosophical principle, it leads to the opposed ontological positions of nihilism and absolutism. The second type, “nonimplicative” or “nonpresuppositional” negation, is used by the Madhyamika to express the radical, deconstructive negation effected through application of the concept of emptiness. When one negates the reality of a reflection he necessarily affirms the reality of the reflected entity, but when the Madhyamika philosopher negates the reality of the world, he affirms neither a “something” nor a “nothing” in its place. In other words, he does not supply the old, reified concept “reality” with a new, more refined and abstract referent, a metaphysical substrate of some novel and convincing variety. On the contrary, in order to know and accept the world as it is both in its everyday appearance and in the paradox and mystery of this appearance, he steps entirely outside the language game that can be played only by holding onto propositions (pratijñas) and views (dristis). In taking this step he makes the first critical move away from a form of life caught up in the anxious and generally manipulative attitude associated with this way of thinking and acting.

This is a very subtle point, and it lies at the heart of the Madhyamika philosophy for, as Candrakirti and others have often indicated, no matter what ingenious things may be written or said about emptiness by the cleverest philosopher, ultimately it must be “seen by nonseeing” and “realized by nonrealization”. It is not an epistemic or ontic fact dissociated from everyday life, ensconced “out there” somewhere waiting to be discovered and possessed through the power of critical rationalism. “Emptiness” is a conventional designation (prajñapti), an ordinary word used, like all words, to accomplish a specific purpose registered in the intention of the speaker. In accordance with what the texts say, it is perhaps best understood as a way of being, a way of existing, knowing, and acting with complete freedom from clinging and antipathy. In the direct (noninferential) realization of emptiness, the claims of the part or individual are immediately experienced as harmonious with the claims of the whole world of sentient and insentient being. The direct realization of emptiness, what I call the “actualization” of emptiness, is the source of the bodhisattvas’s universal compassion.

The Doctrine of Karman in Candrakirti (Kragh)

The Doctrine of Karman in Candrakirti (by Ulrich T. Kragh, in an email presentation, 2001)

In Buddhist texts, one finds detailed debates on the problem of continuity and change. As the Buddhists generally rejected the concept of a self, there arose certain difficulties in explaining the link between stages in a causal process. If A is the cause of B, and there is no continuous entity, such as a self, that binds them together, what is then the link between them?

The Abhidharma schools came up with a number of different explanations for this question, which were strongly opposed by Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamaka tradition. His critique is found in its most concentrated form in chapter seventeen of the Madhyamakakarika and verses 33-44 of the Shunyatasaptati. Among the various Madhyamaka commentaries to these passages, those of Candrakirti are the most interesting in relation to the above-mentioned problematic, since Candrakirti presents the most radical interpretation of the matter. I have therefore selected the seventeenth chapter of Candrakirti’s commentary (entitled Prasannapada), which comments on the seventeenth chapter of Madhyamakakarika, as one of the main sources for this study. A study and French translation of this chapter was published by Lamotte in MCB 1935-36.

In this chapter, Candrakirti, along with Nagarjuna, first briefly presents the Abhidharma theories of karman along with a critique of these models. Thereafter, their own Madhyamaka presentation of karman is given. It is, of course, important to notice at this point that the Madhyamikas indeed accept the theory of karman. In the view of Candrakirti, causality is possible in the manner of [inter]dependent arising, which is understood as a causal process involving no independently existing elements and which is therefore empty of self-existence. In other words, unlike the Abhidharma models, Candrakirti presents an understanding of causality that involves no concrete basis linking cause and effect. This is done based on the argument that cause and effect do not exist as separate entities in need of being linked. It is a profound process-oriented way of thinking that allows causality to function without introducing any existential ground for it.

At the end of the chapter, Candrakirti refers the reader for further details to the Madhyamakavatara, another of his Madhyamaka-related works. Although Candrakirti does not directly cite a particular passage, this general reference must be taken as indicating verse 14-97 (and its auto-commentary) of the sixth chapter of this text. In this section, Candrakirti criticises the concept that an effect arises from a cause which is different from itself. This in turn has strong bearing on the general Buddhist understanding of causality or karman-theories.

Candrakirti here focuses his polemic against the Yogacarin’s understanding of the karman-theory, in which alayavijnana is posited as the necessary base for causality; i.e. it is consciousness that binds cause and effect together and ensures the individual continuity of the process. Candrakirti’s critique further underlines his understanding of causality as being [inter]dependent arising, involving no individually existing elements and requiring no existential basis for it to function. The Madhyamakavatara thus adds this critique of the Yogacara position on the debate.