accusation made against the Madhyamaka philosophy of emptiness ('suunyataa) is that it entails nihilism.
One needs to look no further than Naagaarjuna’s own works—such as
the Stanzas on the Middle Way, the Refutation of Objections, and the Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness—to find this
criticism made by his opponents. If everything is empty, the opponents
contend, then nothing exists at all. Madhyamaka philosophy thus destroys
the entire world, and with it the very possibility of the Buddhist
Maadhyamikas are quick to refute this claim that the emptiness of
things means that these things do not exist at all. Naagaarjuna warns
against such a nihilistic misunderstanding of emptiness, saying that
by this misperception of emptiness ‘a person of little intelligence
is destroyed, like by a snake wrongly seized or a spell wrongly cast.’
His intention is not to negate the world, nor does
the teaching of emptiness, when rightly understood, destroy the possibility
of the Buddhist spiritual life.
contrary, emptiness means, Naagaarjuna says, not that entities are
non-existent but rather that they are empty
of, i.e. lack, independent or
autonomous being. Entities are without
inherent existence (svabhaava).
Emptiness denotes that things exist but their existence
is never self-standing. The existence of entities is always dependent
on many conditions.
these conditions are external to the entities themselves. The existence
of a tree, for example, depends upon various extrinsic conditions—such
as the earth in which it is rooted, rain, sunshine, the seed from
which it grew, and so on. Without these conditions, the tree would
not exist. But the Maadhyamika also says that entities depend for
their existence upon intrinsic factors—namely, the various necessary
parts which make up the entity. The tree cannot exist without its
essential constituents, such as the roots, the trunk, the branches,
and so forth. So, the tree does not have an autonomous existence.
It does not and cannot stand alone in the world, as it were, unsupported
by other entities and independent of its indispensable parts.
is true of the tree in this respect is equally the case, according
to the Maadhyamika, for all other things. This can be most potently
realized in the case of one’s own self. One’s existence is clearly
dependent on numerous factors both external and internal. One’s existence
depends, for instance, on the benign environmental conditions in which
one lives—that there is enough oxygen to breathe, and that the sun has heated
the world to a temperature which makes human life possible, that one
lives in a peaceful society and one without epidemics. Further, one’s
existence depends on the continued functioning of one’s various parts—one
would cease to exist if one’s essential parts such as one’s heart,
lungs or brain stopped working. In terms of traditional Buddhist categories,
one’s existence relies on the five constituent aggregates (skandhas)
of form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness.
Naagaarjuna is able to claim—in both the Stanzas
on the Middle Way and the Refutation
of Objections—that it is only because things are empty, i.e. devoid
of autonomous existence, that they can come into existence in dependence
upon various conditions. It is the rejection, rather than the acceptance,
of emptiness which in fact destroys all entities.
If things were not empty of autonomous existence
then there could be no explanation of the manifold dependently originating
entities which undeniably do occur. The world would be static, unchanging,
which is evidently not the case. Naagaarjuna declares that ‘since
a phenomenon not dependently originating does not exist, a non-empty
phenomenon certainly does not exist.’
for the Buddhist practitioner, it is, according to Naagaarjuna, the
emptiness of all things which makes spiritual life possible. It is
because all entities lack autonomous existence that change can occur.
Things change when the things change upon which they depend. And Buddhist
practice is fundamentally about change. That is, Buddhism is about
transforming—by means of ethical conduct, meditation, ritual, mindfulness
and so forth—unskilful mental events into skilful mental events. Buddhism
is about progressing from a state of unenlightenment to a state of
enlightenment, from ignorance to wisdom. If entities were not empty—if
they possessed an independent existence unaffected by any alterations
in other things—they would be unchanging and unchangeable. And, thus,
if we were autonomously existing beings, we would be unable to gain
enlightenment, or indeed to make any spiritual progress at all. We
would be stuck, spiritually speaking, with the way we are at present.
Madhyamaka claim is that everything—including, most importantly, the
spiritual life itself—is made possible by emptiness. The contention
that entities are not empty contradicts the empirically verifiable
reality that things change when the factors upon which these things
rely alter, and would, furthermore, completely undermine the possibility
of spiritual transformation. As Naagaarjuna says, ‘For whom emptiness
exists, all things are possible. For whom emptiness does not exist,
nothing is possible.’
The teaching of emptiness is actually an affirmation
of the dynamic interconnectedness of all things.
the Madhyamaka teaching of emptiness appears to be a re-statement
of the venerable and central Buddhist teaching of dependent origination
(pratiityasamutpaada). Indeed, Naagaarjuna
proclaims in the auto-commentary to the Refutation of Objections that emptiness and dependent origination
And in the Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness he declares
that ‘since all entities are empty of inherent existence, the unequalled
tathaagata taught the dependent origination
This Madhyamaka rejection of the accusation of
nihilism is expressed succinctly by Candrakiirti, in his commentary
on Naagaarjuna’s Stanzas on the Middle Way:
Some people insist that the Maadhyamikas are not different
from nihilists, since the Maadhyamikas say that good and bad acts,
the agent, the consequences of acts, and the entire world are empty
of an inherently existing nature. As the nihilists also say that these
things do not exist, the Maadhyamikas are the same as nihilists. We
reply that this is not the case. Why? Because Maadhyamikas are
proponents of dependent origination. Having apprehended causes and
conditions, they explain that the entire present and future world
is without inherent existence, because dependently originated.
case, it appears that the Madhyamaka philosophy is not really saying
anything new. Madhyamaka is re-affirming a doctrine which seems to
have been at the heart of Buddhism from the earliest times. The doctrine
of emptiness—understood as a re-statement of the dependently originating
nature of all things—is the true Middle Way (Madhyamaka) philosophy.
It avoids the extremes of nihilism (which says that all entities are
non-existent in reality) and eternalism (which says that some or all
entities in reality have existence independent of conditions).
The Middle Way of dependent origination promulgated
by Siddhaartha Gautama has been expressed again by Madhyamaka, albeit
perhaps in a somewhat novel and developed form.
The charge of nihilism is thus easily refuted.
However, the accusation of
nihilism actually has more weight to it than this analysis indicates.
Let me explain. Maadhyamikas claim
not only that the emptiness, the absence of inherent existence,
of entities means that these entities originate in dependence upon
conditions. In addition, many Madhyamaka statements indicate that
all entities lack inherent existence in the sense that they are conceptual
constructs, mental fabrications. It is not just that the tree, for
example, originates in dependence upon numerous conditions—such as
the water, the earth, the sun, the seed. It is, furthermore, the case
that the tree, the water, the earth, the sun, the seed, etc. originate
in dependence upon the mind. As this is sometimes expressed in Madhyamaka
texts, all entities are simply conventions (sa.mv.rti,
saamv.rta) or fictions (kalpanaa, parikalpa, and vikalpa).
And other Madhyamaka statements declare
entities to be name-only (naamamaatra)
, and to have a merely conceptual existence (praj~naptisat).
In Tibetan (Praasa'ngika) Madhyamaka, things
are said to have no ‘existence from their own side,’ (rang ngos nas grub pa) and no ‘existence from the side of the basis
of designation’ (gdags gzhi’i
ngos nas grub pa).
Hence, Maadhyamikas often compare all entities
to illusions, dreams, mirages and so forth.
Entities are—like illusions, etc.—simply fabrications,
merely appearances to the mind which have no further reality. This
is why in Madhyamaka texts one finds statements that dependently originating
entities do not really originate.
In other words, the whole world of dependently
originating entities is simply a phantasm, a show, a mental creation,
a mere appearance. So, the absence of inherent existence, the emptiness,
of all things in the final analysis means, for Madhyamaka, not simply
that all things dependently originate. It means, furthermore that
all these dependently originating things are mere mental fabrications.
does the Maadhyamika reach this conclusion? The Madhyamaka contention,
it appears, is that the dependent origination of entities actually
entails that these entities are conceptual
constructs. This is because an entity, by virtue of its origination
in dependence on various internal and external conditions, is always
analysable into these conditions. Thus, according to Madhyamaka, the
entity is simply a name or concept attributed to the conglomeration
of conditions. The Maadhyamika would challenge us to examine any entity
whatsoever. A tree, for example, is made up of various components—the
trunk, roots, branches, bark, leaves and so forth. And the tree is
also dependent on various external factors, such as soil, sunshine,
water, and so forth. The Maadhyamika contends that, if one examines
the entity which one calls ‘tree’ one finds that, in reality, there
is nothing there other than these various parts and external conditions
operating in conjunction. There is not in fact a separate ‘tree-entity’.
As the Maadhyamikas sometimes put this point, when analysed, an entity,
any entity, is actually unfindable.
When one searches for the tree-entity, for instance,
it dissolves—so to speak—into its components and external conditions.
Actually, the Maadhyamika would say, the entity which we call ‘tree’
is simply a name, a concept, which the mind attributes to these various
conditions. There is no mind-independent tree-entity. Hence, dependent
origination means that dependently originating entities have a merely
is well-known for carrying out this sort of analysis with regard to
the self (aatman). The self, when examined, is discovered
to be composed of five ever-changing psycho-physical factors. Physical
form, feelings, conceptions, volitions, and consciousness. What one
calls ‘the self’ is simply the inter-play and constant flow of these
various factors. If one looks closely at one’s experience, there is
no additional factor, it is argued, which might be called the self.
The self is, then, just a name, a concept, which is attributed by
the mind to this ever-changing psycho-physical process. The Milindapa~nha
famously compares the self in this respect to a chariot, which
(it is claimed) is simply a name imputed to the collection of its
parts—the axle, wheels, frame, reins, yoke, and so forth.
applies this reasoning to each and every thing. Just as the self or
a chariot cannot withstand analysis, so it is with every entity. If one examines any entity, it can be analysed
into internal and external conditions. The entity itself will be found
to be nothing more than a name or concept which is used to label the
conjunction of these conditions. These conditions will themselves
be found to be mere names or concepts used to label their own conditions,
and so on. In no case is an entity anything in itself; it does not
exist inherently, mind-independently. In all cases entities will be
found, in other words, to be empty. Thus, every entity whatsoever
is simply a name, a concept, a mental fabrication with no further
must not make the mistake, according to Madhyamaka, of thinking that
the mind itself escapes this analysis. The mind too is empty. When
analysed it is found to be just a name or concept given to its components
and external conditions, and the components and external conditions
are themselves liable to the same sort of analysis into their components
and external conditions. This appears to be the principal objection
of Madhyamaka to the Yogaacaara philosophy, an objection which stimulated
a number of sustained critiques by Maadhyamikas of what they claim
to be the Yogaacaara contention that consciousness or the mind has
The Maadhyamika is insistent that the entire dependently
originating world—both physical and mental—has a merely conceptual
But this Madhyamaka claim that everything
is mentally fabricated is surely problematic. Contrary to the Madhyamaka
position, it does not seem to follow that, because all entities can
be analysed in terms of their internal and external conditions, the
entities are nothing more than names or concepts attributed to the
conglomeration of conditions. The Madhyamaka equation of dependently
originating existence with conceptual existence is questionable. It
is true that entities exist in dependence on internal and external
conditions. But this does not entail that these entities are merely
mental fabrications. Arguably, an entity may be a mind-independent
reality, but nevertheless depend for its existence on a variety of
external conditions and essential components. A tree, for instance,
may exist independently of the mind even though it is dependent on
numerous external conditions and components for its existence. An
entity is not necessarily simply a concept, entirely reducible to
the intrinsic and external factors on which its existence depends.
The Madhyamaka claim—a form of extreme ontological reductionism—that
entities which can be analysed into external and internal conditions
have a merely conceptual existence can be resisted.
it would appear that many Buddhists
and non-Buddhists would have found unacceptable
the Madhyamaka contention that all entities have a merely conceptual
existence. Their objection would be that, even if it is true that
everything dependently originates, it is not true that everything
whatsoever is a fabrication. One can see here why opponents of Madhyamaka—as
represented even in Madhyamaka texts—accused the Maadhyamikas of nihilism.
They perhaps have a point after all. For an entirely fabricated world—with
no basis at all which is real, i.e. anything more than a conceptual
construction—would seem to be hardly distinguishable from a non-existent
world. Conceptually constructed things, it can be contended, need
an unconstructed basis out of which they are constructed. Arguably,
also, conceptual construction requires an agent of the construction—someone
or something which is doing the constructing—which is not him/itself
a conceptual construction. Perhaps, then, Maadhyamikas have gone too
far in asserting the merely fabricated nature of all things. The Madhyamaka
philosophy, it can be claimed, is not the Middle Way after all. It
has fallen into the extreme of nihilism.
However, Madhyamaka texts are
notoriously difficult to unravel, and they can often admit of a variety
of interpretations. It is also possible that the Madhyamaka tradition
is not entirely internally consistent. There may be more than one
philosophical stance advanced in Madhyamaka texts. Furthermore, it
may be that the Maadhyamikas in some respects had not considered the
possible implications of their often laconic statements, and that
some of these statements may be compatible with more than one philosophical
position. In studying Madhyamaka, one is often faced by the problem
of interpretative uncertainty. But it is this very interpretative
uncertainty which can perhaps offer some possible ways out of the
nihilistic predicament. While the reading of Madhyamaka which I have
presented is supported by many textual passages, and the nihilistic
interpretation of Madhyamaka is thus plausible, it need not be the
only understanding of Madhyamaka which can be countenanced. Even if
one finds that the nihilistic interpretation of Madhyamaka is a credible
reading of many Madhyamaka texts, it is worth investigating some ways
in which the Maadhyamika might claim that things have a fabricated,
conceptually constructed existence, while avoiding the charge of nihilism.
I will consider briefly three non-nihilistic readings of this Madhyamaka
and the Unconditioned. The nihilistic interpretation of Madhyamaka
says that everything is empty in the sense that everything lacks inherent
existence, which means both that everything is dependently originating
and that all these dependently originating things are mere fabrications.
But surely, it might be suggested, this philosophy of emptiness does
not for Madhyamaka apply to nirvaa.na? Buddhists often say that nirvaa.na is an unconditioned (asa.msk.rta)
sphere attained by the liberated person. There is some room for interpretation
about the nature of this unconditioned sphere. However, quite a few
Buddhist texts seem to suggest that it is a permanent reality which
transcends the conditioned (sa.msk.rta)
world of dependently originating entities, a permanent reality which
is apprehended by the liberated person and, it seems, into which the
liberated person passes—in some undefined sense—after his death (the
parinirvaa.na). It is a
true refuge and the source of real bliss, unlike the conditioned,
mundane things of this world. In which case the Buddhist claim that
everything is dependently originating actually means that every conditioned thing is dependently originating. The Unconditioned is,
by contrast, not subject to dependent origination. Similarly, perhaps
the Madhyamaka claim that everything is a mental fabrication applies
only to the conditioned world, and there is for the Maadhyamika an
Unconditioned reality which is real, unfabricated, and blissful.
are a number of Madhyamaka texts which might be understand as advocating
such an Unconditioned Reality. Passages that might support this reading
of Madhyamaka are found even in the writings attributed to Naagaarjuna
himself, especially but not exclusively in his corpus of hymns. Thus,
for example, the Hymn to the Inconceivable says that,
Convention arises from causes and conditions and is
dependent. The dependent is proclaimed in this way [by the Buddha].
But the ultimate is uncreated. Also, it is called svabhaava,
nature, reality, substance, essence, and true being.
Reality can be called ‘emptiness’, but not in the sense that it lacks
inherent existence. Rather, this Unconditioned Reality is empty in
the sense that it is beyond all words, beyond all conceptualisation,
and empty of all the taints/defilements of the conditioned world.
There are certainly passages in Madhyamaka works which refer to reality
as ineffable and as transcending conceptualisation. Thus, the Stanzas
on the Middle Way state:
Not dependent on another, calm, not diffused by verbal
diffusion, free from conceptual discrimination, without diversity—this
is the description of reality.
case, even the word ‘emptiness’ is merely a provisional aid, which
will at best point us towards the ineffable reality which words cannot
possibly describe. When talking about the Unconditioned Reality, only
metaphors and not descriptions are appropriate.
There is always a degree of distortion or falsification
of the Unconditioned Reality whenever it is expressed in words, yet
some words are required in order to assist those who have not yet
realised this Unconditioned Reality for themselves. As Candrakiirti
What hearing and what teaching can there be of the
unutterable truth (dharma)?
And yet, the unutterable [truth] is heard and taught through superimposition.
is itself empty, i.e. unable to describe the Unconditioned Reality
as it actually is. It is itself a superimposition (samaaropa). This explains, it might be argued, the common Madhyamaka
claims that the Maadhyamika has no view (d.r.s.ti), position (pak.sa)
or thesis (pratij~naa).
The Maadhyamika, according to this interpretation,
has no philosophical stance at all about the nature of the Unconditioned
Reality, knowing that this Reality is in fact quite indescribable.
of course debatable whether this notion of an indescribable reality
is intelligible. One might object that the claim that reality is indescribable
is itself a description of this reality.
And it is perhaps difficult to comprehend how the
Maadhyamika can avoid incoherence if he treats as metaphors rather
than descriptions his claims that the Unconditioned Reality is unconditioned,
permanent, and unfabricated.
aside these philosophical problems, such an understanding of Madhyamaka
need not deny that Madhyamaka teaches that the things of the conditioned
world are one and all empty in the sense that they are mental fabrications.
But this mundane sense of emptiness needs to be complemented by the
teaching of the higher emptiness, which points us towards the ineffable
here we are faced again by the problem of interpretative uncertainty.
For many Madhyamaka texts seem to imply that emptiness is not an ineffable Unconditioned Reality, itself exempted from the general
rule that all entities are empty of inherent existence. Rather, emptiness
is nothing more than the ultimate truth about entities—it is how they
actually are. It is purely and simply their lack of inherent existence.
The Hymn to the Inconceivable says that ‘the
ultimate truth is the teaching that objects are without inherent existence.’
And in the Seventy
Stanzas on Emptiness Naagaarjuna declares that the ultimate is
no more than the teaching that things are dependently originating,
because they lack inherent existence.
Naagaarjuna’s famous claim that ‘there is no difference between sa.msaara and nirvaa.na’
can be interpreted to mean that, just like the
entities which constitute cyclic existence, nirvaa.na
as an unfabricated Unconditioned Reality is itself a fiction, a mental
creation. So, Candrakiirti proclaims that nirvaa.na
is simply a convention, and thus lacks inherent existence.
It is not in fact an inherently existing Unconditioned
Reality. It is true that these statements might be read as an attack
on the term ‘nirvaa.na’, if understood as ultimately denoting what is actually
an ineffable Reality. But it is also possible that Naagaarjuna and
Candrakiirti are here negating the ineffable Reality itself, and not
just the ability of the term ‘nirva.na’
to describe it. In this latter case, it would appear that the only
genuine nirvaa.na which the Maadhyamika can accept is the psychological state
of freedom from craving, attachment and suffering which supposedly
results from the realisation that all things are empty. As the Sixty Verses of Reasoning declares, ‘the
thorough knowledge of sa.msaara
On this verse, Candrakiirti comments that the thorough
knowledge in question is that sa.msaara
arises without inherent existence.
from being an unfabricated, unconditioned ontological realm—is simply
the insight into the merely conventional nature of the all things.
texts which state that Maadhyamikas have no views, positions, or theses
are thus to be understood as meaning only that Maadhyamikas have no
views, positions or theses which assert the inherent existence of
anything. Maadhyamikas do assert the emptiness, the absence of inherent
existence, of all entities. This emptiness is permanent only in the
sense that the absence of inherent existence is always and everywhere
the true nature of things. Emptiness is the emptiness of the chair,
the emptiness of the tree, the emptiness of the person, and so forth.
Maadhyamikas in the dGe lugs tradition of Tibetan Buddhism say, therefore,
that there are as many emptinesses as there are entities. There is
an emptiness, an absence of inherent existence, for each and every
Emptiness is itself empty, according to this interpretation
of Madhyamaka, precisely because it is not an autonomous, Unconditioned
Reality. On the contrary, emptiness only exists in dependence on the
things of which it is the emptiness. Without entities, there would
be no emptiness. Emptiness is itself dependently originating.
about the meaning of emptiness entails, or is entailed by, quite divergent
and incompatible understandings of Madhyamaka philosophy. On the one
hand, there is the understanding of Madhyamaka as asserting that reality
is simply the lack of inherent existence of all entities. On the other
hand, there is the understanding of Madhyamaka as advocating, in addition,
a further Reality—the higher emptiness—which is quite beyond all conceptual
and linguistic categories. It is undefinable and indescribable. Madhyamaka
understood in this latter way is, it might be argued, not nihilism
for, even if the conditioned world is envisaged by them as totally
fabricated, there is for the Maadhyamika an entirely unfabricated
Unconditioned Reality. However, it might be objected that such a version
of Madhyamaka simply combines nihilism with regard to the fabricated,
conditioned world with an eternalistic belief in a permanent and blissful
nirvaa.na. If this objection
is correct, far from treading the Middle Way, such a Maadhyamika appears
to fall into both extreme views simultaneously.
(2) Madhyamaka as Process
Philosophy. The nihilistic reading of Madhyamaka contends that for Madhyamaka all
things are conceptual constructs. There is no unconstructed basis
on which the conceptual construction takes place. But perhaps the
Maadhyamika might claim that, although all entities are indeed conceptually
constructed, there is nevertheless an unfabricated substratum for
conceptual construction. This substratum is to be envisaged as an
entity-free flow of pure change, with no divisions or distinctions.
When conceptual construction occurs, this undifferentiated process
gets carved up, so to speak, into distinct entities. What is really
there is the entity-free flow of change. The manifold world of entities
is a superimposition on this basic and unfabricated flow. Nihilism
is thus averted, because there is a substratum on the basis of which
conceptual construction can take place. And the Madhyamaka claim that
all entities are conceptual constructs or conventions is also preserved,
because the substratum is not itself an entity—it is the undifferentiated
stuff out of which the conceptually constructed world of entities
is, however, that there seems to be little textual evidence which
would give any explicit support to this reading of Madhyamaka. If
the Maadhyamikas did think that there is such an undifferentiated
substratum for conceptually constructed entities, they certainly have
not, as far as I can see, expressed this vital point in their texts.
The interpretation is thus rather speculative, being ungrounded in
textual evidence. Nevertheless, one might argue that, though the Maadhyamikas
do not articulate that there is such a substratum, it remains a possible
philosophical solution to the problem of nihilism, which is compatible
with what they do say.
though it overcomes the problem of nihilism, this reading involves
philosophical problems of its own, two of which I shall highlight.
it can be argued that the idea of ‘change’ always presupposes something which is changing. Change is
arguably always a characteristic of an entity. The notion of change
without an entity of which it is the change is perhaps incomprehensible.
In other words, the notion of an entity-free substratum of change,
upon which conceptually constructed entities are imposed, may be incoherent.
it is far from clear that it is correct to claim that the world as
it exists independently of the fabricating mind is undifferentiated
into distinct entities. This interpretation is philosophically suspect
in that it contends that all distinctions, all differentiations between
and within entities, are a result of conceptual construction. This
seems to give the constructing mind an inordinate amount of power.
It seems far more likely that many of the distinctions which are made
between and within entities have a basis is a mind-independent reality,
even if this mind-independent reality is distorted or added to in
the process of the perception of it.
(3) Emptiness as an Epistemological
Doctrine. In which case, perhaps the Maadhyamika means that,
although the world is not entirely
a mental fabrication, it is difficult to disentangle what is actually
the case about the world as it exists independently of one’s own mind
from the interpretations and valuations which one imposes upon the
undeniable that many of our perceptions and understandings of the
world are heavily influenced by our prejudices and fantasies. Most
importantly from a Buddhist point of view, we are (it is thought)
afflicted by the fantasy that entities have a permanence and reliability
which they simply do not have in reality. According to the Buddhist
analysis, on the basis of this fantasy we crave, get attached and
then suffer. We would do well, the Buddhist thinks, to see this fantasy
for what it is. We must, in this case, see that the permanence, and
reliability which we attribute to the things which we covet do not
actually inhere in the entities themselves; these characteristics
of things are simply false attributions by one’s deluded mind. Things
are certainly empty of the permanence and reliability which one’s
mind tends to impose upon them.
there is a serious epistemological problem in establishing how the
world exists independently of our interpretation-laden perceptions
of it, for one’s apprehension of the world is necessarily of the world
as perceived, not as it is in itself. One can never step outside one’s
perceptions, so to speak, in order to see the world as it really is
in itself, for this very seeing would itself be a perception.
when the Maadhyamika says that entities lack inherent existence perhaps
he means that entities as perceived
lack inherent existence, because so much of the perception of the
entity is actually a contribution of the perceiving mind. Entities
are empty of inherent existence—i.e. are conceptual constructs or
mere conventions—insofar as entities as perceived are always subject
to the interpretative framework of the perceiver.
that the world as it is independently of our perceptions is inaccessible
to us is quite different from the nihilistic position that everything
is fabricated. It is saying that the apprehension of things necessarily
involves fabrication, because of the interpretative contributions
of the apprehendor, rather than that the things themselves, independent
of the apprehension of them, do not exist.
however, feel quite suspicious of this interpretation of Madhyamaka
because it seems to turn Madhyamaka philosophy into a species of Kantianism.
Thus, the charge of anachronism might be made. Nevertheless, it is
surely not impossible that philosophical traditions from distinct
times and cultures might have developed similar insights. And there
is perhaps some textual evidence in support of such a reading of Madhyamaka.
there is an extensive critique in the Refutation of Objections (and its commentary) of the means of knowledge
(pramaa.na) and objects
of knowledge (prameya).
Naagaarjuna attempts to demonstrate that there
is no way of proving that the means of knowledge—identified as perception,
inferential reasoning, analogy and verbal tesimony—do actually apprehend
objects of knowledge as they exist mind-independently. It seems, then,
that Naagaarjuna’s intention in this critique is not to prove that
there are no mind-independent entities, but rather that we cannot
establish that our means of knowing these objects are able to apprehend
them as they actually are, without distortion or superimposition.
the Treatise of Pulverization
(and its commentary) stresses the mutual dependence of the means of
knowledge and the object of knowledge.
Perhaps the point is that knowledge requires an
object (in order to be knowledge of something) yet the object as known
(as opposed to how it is in itself) is altered and contributed to
by the very act of knowing it. Objects as they are in themselves are
inaccessible to the mind. Objects as known are conventions and lack
inherent existence insofar as the entity as it is in itself remains
concealed behind the veil of the mind’s own interpretative activity.
reading of Madhyamaka, nihilism is replaced by scepticism. The ontological
claim that all entities are mere fabrications is supplanted by the
epistemological notion that entities as they exist in themselves are
unknowable, obscured by the fabricating activity of the mind. The
Madhyamaka philosophy of emptiness treads the Middle Way between the
nihilistic claim that everything is totally a fabrication and the
naive realists’ contention that one has access to the unfabricated
world as it actually is. However, it might be objected that this scepticism makes too
severe a break between mind-independent things and one’s efforts to
apprehend them. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that things in
themselves are known to us—they are present to us
when we apprehend them—but this knowledge is nevertheless always a
negotiation between the known entity and the knower.
the scepticism I have described, this position—which might be called
—would claim that the mind-independent entity is
not inaccessible. Yet, unlike naive realism, it acknowledges that
the limitations and contributions of the apprehendor entail that the
apprehended entity is never fully available to us. One’s apprehension of the entity is always
mediated by the knowing mind and its perceptual apparatus. However,
this mediation does not cut one off from mind-independent things. On the contrary, it is our only means of access to them.
But it does entail that our access is always incomplete, imperfect.
realism seems to be compatible with the Madhyamaka statements that
prameya and pramaa.na are mutually dependent, and that pramaa.nas cannot be established to apprehend prameyas as they are mind-independent. Entities as known are empty in the sense that they
originate in dependence upon both the mind-independent entity and
the knowing mind. But this does not mean that the mind-independent
entity remains entirely concealed from us. The Middle Way is here
between scepticism and naive realism, for the Maadhyamika acknowledges
that mind-independent things can be apprehended—there is no unbridgeable
gulf between the mind and reality—but that the apprehension of these
things is always from a particular vantage point.
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