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Emptiness Appraised (A Critical Study of Nagarjuna's Philosophy)

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Item Code: IDD569
Author: David Burton
Language: English
Edition: 2001
ISBN: 8120818148
Pages: 248
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.9" X 5.9"
Weight 450 gm
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Book Description
About the Book:

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.


Preface ix
Abbreviations xiii
1Introduction 1
The Purpose of this study 1
Three Readings of Nagarjuna’s Philosophy 2
Some General Reflections on the Interpretation of Nagarjuna 5
The Philosophical Study of Madhyamka 11
The Problem of Authorship 13
Part I 17
2Nagarjua and Scepticism 19
Introduction 19
The Nature of Scepticism 20
Scepticism Negative Dogmatism and Positive Dogmatism 21
The Scope of Scepticism 21
Undogmatic and Dogmatic Global Scepticism 22
Present Global Scepticism and the future 23
Classical Scepticism 23
Isosthenia and epoche in Classical Scepticism 24
Academic and Pyrrhonian Scepticism 27
Nagarjuan Interpreted as a sceptic 30
A Refutation of the Sceptical Interpretation 34
A Non Sceptical Reading of MMK XIII, 8 37
A Non Dceptical Reading of YS 50-51 38
The Non Sceptical purpose of Nagarjuna’s Method of Argumentation 39
A Final Objection Considered 40
3 Non Conceptuality and Knowledge of Reality 45
Introduction 45
Conceptualizatbility and Expressibility 48
Interpretation (1) Non Conceptual Knowledge of an Unconceptualizable Reality 49
The Unconceptualizable Reality Immanent or Transcendent 52
Is Interpretation (1) Supported by Textual Evidence 53
A Philosophical Critique of Interpretation 55
The Paradox of Unconceptualizability and ineffability 55
The Problem of the Two Truths 57
The Night in which all cows are black 62
S. Katz etc on Non conceptual Religious knowledge 64
Concluding philosophical reflections on Interpretation 65
Interpretation (2) the Non Conceptual Meditative Knowledge Experience of Emptiness 66
Knowledge of Reality Versus the Reality which is known 68
Knowledge of Reality is an experience 69
A short Digression the Private Nature of Experience 70
(1) Knowledge by Acquaintance 73
(2) Lack of Explicit Conceptualization 77
(3) Focused Conceptualization 79
Concluding remarks on and Criticism of Interpretation 81
The Problem of Emptiness as a Mere Absence 82
Interpretation (2) and the question of Nihilism 83
4 The Problem of Nihilism 87
Introduction the Charge of Nihilism and Nagarjuna’s Response 87
The Abhidharma Notion of Svabhava 90
Nagarjuna’s notion of Nihusvabhava understood in the Abhidharma context 92
A Terminological Difference 92
Universal Absence of Svabhava as Equvalent or Prajnaptimatra 93
Evidence for Prajnapatimatra in Nagarjuna’s writings 95
Dependence on Parts 95
Samrti and Samrat in the AS 96
Synonyms and vyabvahara in MMK XXIV 96
Synonyms for Prajnaptimatra 97
The Non Origination of Dependently Originating entities 98
Comparisons with Dreams illusions etc 99
MMK XXIV 18 an Analysis 101
Prajnaptimatra and Karma 104
Prajnaptimatra and the possibility of a public world 107
The Nihilsitic Consequences of Prajnaptimatra 109
An Alternative Reading 111
Textual Difficulties 113
A Philosophical Problem 114
Conclusion 116
Part II 123
5 The Purpose of Part II 125
6 The Nyaya Pramana theory 127
Introduction 127
Cognition (jnana) 130
Cognition in the NS 130
The Developed Nyaya Theory of Cognition 131
Pramana-s 131
Prameya-s 133
Nyaya Realism 136
7 Nagarjuna’s Non Apprehension of Entities 141
The Opponent’s Objection at VV/VVC 5-6 141
Nagarjuna Response at VV/VVC 30 142
8 Mutually Dependent Existence 145
Nagarjuna’s Position 145
Mutual Dependence and nibsubhatra 146
A Critical Analysis of Nagarjuna’s Position 147
9 The Attack on validation Introduction 151
Nagarjuna’s Challenge to the Realist 151
The Purpose of Nagarjuna’s Attack 152
The Theories of Validation refuted by Nagarjuna 154
The Validation of Knowledge episodes Versus the Reflexivity of Consciousness 155
10 The Attack on Intrinsic Validation 157
Intrinsic Validation the Pramana-s are validated by other premana-s 157
Nagarjuna’s Refutation of Intrinsic Validation (1) 158
A Solution to the Infinite Regress Problem 158
Intrinsic validation (2) The Pramana-s are self Evident 160
The Fire lamp analogy 161
Nagarjuan’s Refutation of Intrinsic Validation (2) 162
Critical Analysis of Nagarjuna’s five arguments 166
An Argument against both intrinsic Validation (1) and (2) 175
11 The Attack on Extrinsic Validation 181
Extrinsic Validation (1) The Pramana-s are validated by the Prameya-s 181
Nagarjuna’s Refutation of Extrinsic Validation (1) 183
Extrinsic validation (2) Pramana-s and prameya-s are mutually validating 186
Nagarjuna’s Refutation of Extrinsic Validation (2) 186
A Reply to Nagarjuan’s Refutation 186
12 The Attack on Validation Conclusion 189
13 The Argument from the Three Times 191
Analysis of the argument 191
The Naiyayika Objection 194
Nagarjuna’s Response to the Naiyayika Objection 195
Another Madhyamika Response Considered 196
14 Further Arguments in the Vaidalyaprakarana 201
The Analysis of the Perception of a pot 201
Refutation of the Pramana as a cognition which corresponds to the object as prameya 204
The Object Cognized is just a condition of the Knowledge episode 204
The Cognition is a Prameya According tot eh Naiyayikas Themselves 206
15 Conclusion 209
Appendix Some Further Reflections on Svabhava in Indian Madhyamaka 213
Candrakirti’s claim the actual svabhava of entities is their lack of svabhava 213
Adumbrations of Candrakirti’s view in Nagarjuna’s Writings 214
A Gzhan interpretation of AS 44-45b 218
Bibliography 211
Index 228
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