This book argues that though Nagarjuna advocates the Middle Way between nihilism and eternalism, his philosophy of emptiness neverthless entails nihilism. Burton also refutes the interpretation that Nagarjuna is a sceptic, and examines Nagarjuna's notion of non-conceptual knowledge of reality. In addition, Nagarjuna's critiques of the Nyaya theory of knowledge (pramana) are critically scrutinised.
About the Author:
David F. Burton is a Junior Research Fellow at Keble College, Oxford.
‘Emptiness’ (sunyatã) Is a religious/philosophical concept which is
central to much Buddhist thought. It is employed in numerous
contexts, by different thinkers and schools, with a variety of
meanings. A thorough comparative study of the uses and meanings
of the notion of emptiness throughout the history of Buddhism is
certainly a desideratum.
The present study has a more modest ambition, however. This
book is an investigation into the philosophy of emptiness as
expressed by the second century Indian Buddhist thinker Nagarjuna came to be known as the founder of the Madhyamaka school, a school which was particularly influential in Tibetan and Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness has also been the subject of considerable interest and controversy amongst modern scholars of Buddhism.
My study of Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness has two principal concerns, These might be summarily described under the headings of ascertainment and appraisal. Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness has famously (perhaps infamously) yielded many diverse, divergent (often contradictory) interpretations. My first principal concern in the present book is, through close study of texts reliably attributed to Nagarjuna, to ascertain the possible meaning or meanings of Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness. My second principal concern is with critical analysis. There is a need for an assessment of Nagarjuna’s philosophy. Too few hooks about Nagarjuna, it seems to me, take the crucial step from exposition to evaluation. I intend to take this (admittedly danger-fraught) step.
Having ascertained the character of Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness, I shall subject this philosophy of emptiness to an appraisal. I shall investigate to what extent Nagarjuna’s notion of emptiness, and his arguments in support of this notion, withstand rational scrutiny.
This book is, then, a philosophical study of Nagarjuna’s writings. I hope that this hook may, therefore, he of use and interest to both students/scholars of Buddhism and philosophers. There is, think, a great need to engage with historically significant Buddhist writers, such as Nagarjuna, as serious thinkers who address fundamental philosophical questions. I am confident that, whether or not one finds Nagarjuna’s arguments and ideas convincing, the critical consideration of Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness can be a valuable stimulus for one’s own reflections about the nature of existence.
There is a common interpretation that Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness is simply a re-assertion of the Buddha’s original teaching (in the early drama-s) of dependent origination (pratttyasamutpada). This re-assertion was required, this interpretation continues, because some Abhidharmikas had departed from the Buddha’s original teaching of universal dependent origination by asserting the autonomous, permanent existence of the atomic dharma-s out of which the dependently originating world is formed) Thus, Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness re-affirms, in the face of this Abhidharma heterodoxy, the orthodox teaching that everything in the world arises and ceases in dependence upon conditions. All the manifold entities of the world, including the atomic dharma-s themselves, have a dependently originating sort of existence, and thus are empty of independent, permanent existence.
The present hook rejects this interpretation. I accept neither that Nagarjuna’s Abhidharma opponents departed from (though they certainly did develop) the original teaching of dependent origination nor that Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness is simply a reassertion of this original teaching. Nagarjuna’s Abhidharma opponents did not think that the dharma-s out of which the dependently originating world is formed are themselves not dependently originating. But they did claim that these dharma-s, unlike the entities formed out of them, have an existence independent of the constructing activity of the mind. Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness is, I shall argue throughout this book, fundamentally a rejection of this Abhidharmika claim that dharma-s have a more-than-conceptually constructed existence. For Nagarjuna, all entities, including the dharna-s, originate entirely in dependence upon mental construction. All entities whatsoever are thus empty of unconstructed existence. So, Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness is not simply a re-statement of the basic teaching of dependent origination; emptiness means, furthermore, that all dependently originating entities — including the dependently originating dharma-s which the Abhidharma says exist independent of mental fabrication — have a conceptually constructed existence (prajñaptisat).
No doubt Nagarjuna felt that his philosophy of emptiness, i.e. his position that all dependently originating entities (including the dharna-s) are conceptual constructs, was justified by buddhavacana. (Nagarjuna often declares, especially in his ‘verses of praise’ (stave), that emptiness is the Buddha’s teaching). However, I suspect that the buddhavacana which Nagarjuna would rely on here would he not so much that of the early agama-s as that of early Mahayana sütra-s, especially of the Prajñdpdramita tradition, the main theme of which is that all entities (including even the dharina-s) are empty, i.e. lack more-than-conceptually constructed existence. Or, at least, his reading of the ãgama-s would have been heavily influenced by the theme of emptiness as found in the early Prajnaparamita sutra-s.
This book is a substantially revised version of my doctoral thesis, which was written between 1994 and 1997 while I was a research student at the Centre for Buddhist Studies of the University of Bristol. Many people and institutions have played an important part in its development. Particular thanks are due to the University of Bristol, Curzon Press, Mark Izard at Laser Script, Dr Rupert Gethin, Dr John Peacock and Dr Damien Known.
I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Professor Paul Williams for so much kind encouragement, and for so many invaluable criticisms of this book at various stages in its development. Thank you also for all of the stimulating and enlightening conversations. I have been greatly inspired by your enthusiasm for and knowledge of Buddhist philosophy.
Franky Henley has been a genuine and very generous friend over the years that I have been writing this work especially at times of great need. Thank you. I rejoice in your tremendous energy and positivity!
I have undertaken this study as a Buddhist who wishes to understand more deeply the spiritual tradition to which he is committed. I would like to thank my benevolent preceptor, Dharmacari Suvaja for first suggesting that I undertake this project and for his unfailing support.
This book is dedicated to Sangharakshita as a token of gratitude.
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