Buddhism - conceptual doubts

Anna-Pya Sjödin annapya.sjodin at AFRO.UU.SE
Tue Oct 12 08:09:30 UTC 1999

There is a very illuminating book on this subject below by J.F.
Streng,"Emptiness- A Study in Religious Meaning".

>NAgArjuna's basic attack is towards this - that there can be
>no substance without attributes or attributes without substance.
>So the concept of an "essence" or "inherent existence" is
>logically untenable. Further, he and his disciples explicitly
>attack and refute all the rival concets of Reality - Atman, anu,
>vijnAna etc
>So what's his nirvAna?
>Contrary to the claims that the mAdhyamika has no positions -
>NAgArjuna in his MUlamAdhyamaka KArikA - asserts that there's no
>difference between samsAra and nirvAna and that the limit of
>samsAra is the limit of nirvAna - in short he seems to be equating
>nirvAna with samsAra itself!
>For all of other schools, Reality is ontologically different from
>the empirical world as a whole - either as spirit or atoms or
>So considering NAgArjuna's refutation of the concept of essence
>(and also identifying Reality with Atman or anu or vijnAna) and his
>assertion that nirvAna is no different from samsAra, he's saying
>that Reality is not ontologically different from the world.
>So then what's Reality? NirvAna is samsAra free of conceptual
>activity. NAgArjuna's reality is more epistemological than
>ontological. When the mind wheel ceases, samsAra is nirvAna.

One way to interpret Nagarjuna is to turn the mind, not to an ontological
reality, but, to an attitude of the mind. With such a perspective one could
say that he denies every notion of an absolute reality/ontology as a means
to enlightenment. The concepts nirvana and samsara are alike in that they
are mere concepts. They can be used, or utilized,in the teaching of
buddhist disciples within the context of conventional truth but fall short
in the context of ultimate truth which is not reached or attained by way of
thinking but through the act of meditation -purifying ones mind. One could
say that the world/reality remains the same but the mind apprehending the
reality is utterly changed. In this sense the ultimate truth/nirvana is not
a truth of something but rather a way of behaving in relation to the world,
an attitude.

>But isn't this stance which denies the Self and also equates
>nirvAna with samsAra, in contradiction to the fundemantal doctrine
>of the middle way, which tries to take a middle position between
>the existence and the non-existence of the Atman or Self?
>One more thing that I've against the MAdhyamika is that - if
>nirvAna is but samsara devoid of conceptual activity - why
>wouldn't the Buddha himself said so? Clearly this is not a very
>difficult concept to understand. So I find it difficult to
>accept that something as simple as this, is the truth behind
>the TathAgatha's thundering silence! And this hardly relates
>favorably to the TathAgatha's dialogue with KAshyapa, where he
>says that nirvAna is something which cannot be predicated of
>anything in relation to the empirical world.

There is of course a limit to language, it is fornulated within "the world"
and cannot but guide the mind towards enlightenment. This might be the
reason of "the silence". Furthermore I think Nagarjuna saw a need of
reinforcing the old teaching in a new way because he apprehended many of
the buddhists schools active at that time as straying to far away from the
right path, saying too much about things about which one cannot say much.

It is not an easy subject this and I fear that the above is more confusing
than clarifying. So here are some more books (and an article):

Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, "Abhidharma Buddhism", Eds. Potter,
Buswell, Jaini and Reat.(1996)

Sprung, M. "Lucid Eposition of the Middle Way -The essential Chapters from
the Prasannapada of Candrakirti"(1979)

Huntington, C. W. "The System of the Two Truths in the Prasannapada and the
Madhyamakavatara: A Study in Madhyamikan Soteriology" in Journal of Indian
Philosophy, 11(1983)pp.77-106.

with kind regards Anna-Pya Sjodin.

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