- The Foundational Standpoint of Maadhyamika Philosophy. By
Gadjin Nagao. Translated with preface by John P. Keenan; and Maadhyamaka Schools in
India: A Study of the Maadhyamaka Philosophy and of the Division of the System into the
Praasangika and Svaatantrika Schools. By Peter Della Santina. Foreword by Lai Mani
- Reviewed by David Loy
Professor Nagao's book is an attempt to understand Maadhyamika along
the lines of Tsong-kha-pa's Steps on the Way to Enlightenment (Lam-rim chen-mo), a text
that Nagao (now emeritus professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Kyoto) first
studied during visits to Lamaist monasteries in Mongolia. This reading is contrasted with
the more familiar one (at least in East Asia) of Chi-tsang's San-Lun school, whose
overemphasis on emptiness falls into a dogmatism that devalues dependent co-arising and
hence the conventional world. Two main themes are interwoven. First, the fundamental
standpoint of Maadhyamika is that emptiness (`suunyataa) is identical with dependent
It is important not to elevate one over the other, for then one ends up
with either a purely negative logic of emptiness or a merely organismic view of
dependent-arising being. This also relates to Nagao's lifelong concern to understand the
relationship between Maadhyamika and Yogaacaara as not adversarial but complementary;
identifying emptiness with dependent co-arising makes other-dependence ( paratantra in
Yogaacaara) the key term for both, the gab between delusion andliberation. "
The other-dependent pattern entails the path and plays a mediating role
among the three patterns as the skillful method for entering the unmarked" (p.82).
This seems to me not only right but essential, although the point goes beyond the
importance of cause- effect relationships for any spiritual path: for both schools,
other-dependence is the intermediate stage that dissolves our essentialist commitments
and, by then refuting itself (if there are no things, there are no others) , opens up the
possibility of tathataa, "thusness." The other main theme is the absolute
disjunction between the two P.188 truths.
"The only true and absolute dichotomous contradiction, which can
never be resolved, is between worldly convention and ultimate meaning" ów a claim
soon contradicted: "The actual world is not two but one, and therefore the two truth
realms cannot be made so completely other as to refer to separate worlds of meaning."
Final absolute meaning is "completely other," beyond cause and effect, ineffable
and silent, yet on the other side, "the ordinary realm of worldy convention itself
comprises the entire content of ultimate meaning (pp. 26, 97, 102, 110). The book becomes
a series of reflections, usually erudite and often insightful, on both of these claims.
Nagao's reason for describing the two truths as unrelated is to avoid
overemphasizing either: if we don't distinguish them they tend to fuse into one, and we
either end up prisoners of the conventional, as the only truth we konw, or suppose
ultimate meaning to govern worldly conventions. The opposite danger of dissociating them
completely is to end up detesting all worldly and conventional activity (pp.100-102) .
Then isn't the challenge to understand the difference-in-identity or
identity-in-difference of the two perspectives?
Whatever the limitations of thought, it becomes the task of Buddhist
philosophy to illuminate this relation as much as possible. Although Nagao elaborates
both, I can't see that these two apparently inconsistent claims are ever reconciled.
However, the prose is so dense and difficult that another factor may be interfering with
his argument: the quality of the translation.
The reason I can only suspect this is that nowhere in the text could I
find the title of the Japanese original from which this book is translated, and my efforts
to discover it in Japan have also been unsuccessful. One of the main attempts to clarify
things introduces an element that is not part of the foundational standpoint of
Maadhyamika. Nagao refers to another kind of "other- awareness": the dependent
co-arising manifestation of truth "comes from beyond"; it is a turning toward as
of an other-power (pp.48,59) .
This Pure Land notion may be somewhere in Tsong-kha-pa, but it may also
originate in Nagao's own Joodo Shinshuu background; in either case, there's no reference
to this sort of "other dependence" in the Muulamadhyamikakaarikaa. Any appeal to
an other power is inconsistent with the main thrust of Naagaarjuna, who works to
deconstruct all dualisms such as that between other-power and self-power, and to deny what
Nagao asserts, that "the light [of discernment] must be introduced from
elsewhere" (p.47) .
This also applies to Nagao's concept of two-dimensional activity, the
ascent to transcendence ("the divine realm") and the descent to worldly
reengagement ("the human realm") , both of which he judges necessary for
authentic religious teaching. Again, these dualistic metaphors are not Naagaarjuna's and I
think we remain more true to his perspective if we look at them critically, asking how
much they help us and how much they hinder. That ties in with our tendency today to ask:
what might these meta- P.189 physical claims mean phenomenologically? Nagao touches on the
important point when he quotes the Diamond-Cutter suutra that "this understanding
arises when one has no abiding point when he quotes the Diamond-Cutter Suutra that
"this understanding arises when one has no abliding point."
Emptiness cannot be "grasped" without experiencing the
freedom of nonattachment, exemplified in the nonabiding cessation (aprati.s.thita-
nirvaa.na) of the bodhisattva. It is clear in the other prajnaapaaramitaa suutras (as long
as we are not in quest of somewhere to abide) that this is what liberates: "No wisdom
can we get hold of, no highest perfection, no Bodhisattva, no thought of enlightenment
either.... In form, in feeling, will, perception and awareness, nowhere in them they find
a place to rest on. Without a home they wander, dharmas never hold them, nor do they grasp
at them..." (The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and its Vers Summary,
trans. Edward Conze (Bolinas, California: Four Seasons Foundation, 1973), 1:5-6, pp.
9-10). This is not a process of ascent to some divine realm followed by return to the
human realm, but a transformation in the way we experience this world: "To the extent
that beings take hold of things and settle down in them, to that extent there is
defilement.But no one is thereby defiled. And to the extent that one does not take hold of
things and does not settle down in them, to that extent can one conceive of the absence of
I-making and mine-making. In that sense can one form the concept of the purification of
beings, i.e., to the extent that they do not take hold of things and do not settle down in
them, to that extent there is purification . But no one is therein purified " (ibid.,
When this is applied to the concept of truth, it becomes a
self-reflexive critique that kicks the ladder out from beneath itself as well as all other
attempts to grasp the truth ów including the two-truths doctrine ów which is why the
foundational standpoint of Maadhyamika is that no foundation is to be found in anything,
anywhere. That is how Maadhyamika can be, as Nagao concludes, "a standpoint that is
not a standpoint; it comes into play only in regard to 'that which is admitted by the
other'"(p.141) Nagao ends by observing that Maadhyamika reasoning, which he little
discusses, can be studied only in connection with the split between the Svaatantrika and
Maadhyamaka Schools in India does just that. It develops an
interpreation of their debate first suggested by bSod-nams Sen-ge, a fifteen-century
Tibetan scholar, in The General Meaning of Maadhyamaka (dBu-ma spyi-ston) . The usual
understanding of that disagreement (as in Tsong-kha-pa) locates the divergence in
different attitudes toward language: the Svaatantrika spokesman Bhaavaviveka affirms that
essences exist in languange, while the Praasangika defender Candrakiirti denies even those
essences. bSod-nams Sen-ge saw the principal issue as more subtle, being pedagogical as
well as epistemological.
Della Santina puts this in context by describing the formalization of
Indian logic after Naagaarjuna, which was an inevitable response to the P.190 evolving
tradition of public debate. Bhaavaviveda's independent syllogism (svatantra-anumaana) is
"an obvious compromise on the part of a Maadhyamika scholar with the increased
formalization of Indian logic, "but this tendency also affected the Praasangikas,
including Candrakiitri (p.55). They disagreed over what is convernitoally real
(vyavahaara). Praasangika denies such validity even to common processes of cognition (they
presuppose duality), which meant they had to rely solely on reductio ad absurdum
arguments; the Svaatantrikas (epistemlolgical realists) believed it was necessary to agree
to the conventional existence of a common substance in order for arguments to result in
valid inferences logically compelling to one's opponent. In explaining the issues
involved, Della Santina discusses in detail Naagaarjuna's Vigraha-vyaavartani, which
refutes all supposedly valid forms of cognition. One argument is just as effective against
all " foundationalism " in philosophy : " If it is held that all entities
must necessarily be established through the valid instruments of cognition themselves are
established or proved" (stanza 31).
There is no escape from infinite regress. In discussing the first
stanza of the Muulamadhyamikakaarikaa, Della Santina reviews all of Naagaarjuna's
arguments against origination and then devotes a chapter to her refutation of each of the
four alternatives, refutations which are just as important today because they not only
refer to Indian theories of Naagaarjuna's time but reflect the dialectical nature of
reason: our tendencies to perceive (respectively) identity, permanence, and substance;
difference, impernamence, and modes; syncretism; and skepticism or nihilism.
The debate over the acceptability of the independent syllogism finally
came down to the nature of the logical subject ( substratum ) . The syllogism`s validity
was questionable because it employed emutually opposed orders of reality : it was agreed
that the predicates ( which negated origination ) belong to the level of ultimate reality,
while the subjects and reasoning belong to the level of empirical reality. Their
incompatibility meant such arguments could not be valid. Della Santina concludes that the
Praasangikas won logically as well as historically: they were more consistent with
Naagaarjuna himself and more sophisticated ów but that sophistication was largely a
product of the debate. The Praasangika/Svaatantrika debate makes me wonder what is really
at stake in all such quests to discern what is really (as opposed to conventionally) real.
When we decide that something is real or unreal, as part of our search for being, what
difference does that make to our lives? If our intellectual search is a sublimated attempt
to ground ourselves by "grasping the concepts that grasp reality," we have yet
to feel the force of the Maadhyamika critique of philosophy.
Philosophy East & West, Volume 42, Number 1,