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Shunyavada: Constructive Dialectic

Shunyavada: Constructive Dialectic

Shunyavada: Constructive Dialectic, Nagarjuna defines Reality (tattva) as that which can only be directly realized, that which is Calm and Blissful, that where all plurality is merged, that where all cries of intellect are satisfied, that which is the Non-dual Absolute.  

Buddha’s teaching relates to two aspects of Truth— the empirical and the absolute. The first is Samvrti or Vyavahara; the second is Paramartha. Those who do not know these two standpoints cannot understand the teaching of the Buddha. Samvrti is a sort of covering. It hides the real truth. It is a workable reality, a practical makeshift, a necessary compromise. In the end it is no truth at all. But this can be realized from the absolute standpoint only. Though this distinction is a distinction within and by finite thought itself, yet it has got to be transcended. Intellect must be transformed into Spiritual Experience. But this distinction is quite valid in the phenomenal sphere. The empirical cannot be condemned by its own logic. A dreamer, while he is dreaming, cannot condemn his own dream. Pure negation is an impossibility. It necessarily pre-supposes affirmation. Even an illusion, a mirage, a dream, a reflection, as such exists. Appearances are not to be utterly condemned because it is only through the lower that we can go to the higher.

Shunyavada: Constructive Dialectic

                    Nagarjuna explains the meaning of Shunyata. It has a double aspect. In the realm of the phenomenal it means Svabhava – Shunyata or Nissvabhava. It means that appearances are devoid of ultimate reality It is Pratityasamutpada or Relativity. It means that everything that can be grasped by the intellect is necessarily relative. It is the Madhyama-marga or the Middle Path between affirmation and negation —  a Path which ultimately transcends both. The twelve-linked Wheel of Causation beginning with Ignorance and ending with Decay-and-Death will go on revolving unless and until its root-cause, Ignorance, is destroyed. And this can be destroyed by knowledge alone. This knowledge is the knowledge of Reality. Shunyata, in its second aspect, is therefore Reality itself wherein all plurality is merged; all categories of intellect are transcended. Absolutely speaking, Reality is neither Shunya nor Ashunya nor both nor neither. It is called Shunya only from the empirical standpoint. In the phenomenal, Relativity reigns supreme. What is not relative is for intellect as good as nothing. But it does not mean that we should take Relativity itself as the final truth. To do so is to refuse to rise above the phenomenal. Relativity itself is relative. It is related to the Absolute without which it loses all meaning. The Buddha have preached Shunyata in order to enable us to rise above all the entangling categories of the intellect. Those who take Shunyata in the sense of a category of intellect, in the sense of affirmation or negation or both or neither are incorrigible and hopeless and are destined to doom. Chandrakirti quotes Ratnakuta – Sutra to the effect: A doctor administers a very strong purgative to a patient of constipation. Now, that purgative, after throwing all impurities out of the abdomen, should itself also come out. If that strong purgative does not itself come out but remains in the abdomen, do you think, O Kashyapa, that that person is cured? Shunyata, if wrongly understood in the sense of any category of intellect, will surely sound the philosophical death-knell of the person who misunderstands it, just as a snake, if carelessly caught, will bite the person who catches it and will kill him by its poison or just as wrong knowledge may create havoc or tantra, if wrongly practiced, will destroy the person who practices it. Knowing that Shunyata cannot be easily grasped, the Buddha just after his Enlightenment, became silent and uninclined towards teaching. But if rightly understood Shunyata itself is Nirvana.

Shunyavada: Constructive Dialectic

                    People, says Nagarjuna, not understanding the meaning of Shunya, accuse us of nihilism. Taking Shunya in the sense of mere negation they urge that we have negated all phenomena, that we have utterly denied the Four Noble Truths, the Bondage and Liberation, the Order, the Religion and even the Buddha, and that we have logically no room even for practical compromises. We reply: These people do not understand even the meaning of Shunyata much less its real significance. Misunderstanding Shunyata in the sense of mere negation, they wrongly criticize it and charge us with defects which our doctrine does not possess. Shunyata is the negation of all views and is itself not a view. It is the realization by thought, at a higher level of dialectical self-consciousness, of its relative self-contradictory nature and of its inability to reveal the Real and an attempt to rise above and merge in spiritual experience.

Shunyavada: Constructive Dialectic

                     If everything is Ashunya, then it must exist independently and must be absolutely real. Then there should be no dependent origination and hence no production, no destruction, no bondage, no liberation, no Noble Truths, no Order, no Religion and no Buddha. Everything , being real, should be eternal and motionless. Then there should be no change, no motion, and no world. Thus those who maintain the absolute reality of world-objects undermine the distinction between the relative and the absolute with the result that they lose even the phenomenal. They deny Dependent Origination and by denying Relativity they negate all phenomena and all worldly practices. On the other hand, if everything is Shunya in the sense of absolute negation, then the world cannot be called even an appearance. Verily the hare’s horn does not even appear. Absolute negation is an impossibility. It must logically pre-suppose affirmation. Again, if everything is Shunya in the sense of being relative then too there is no production, no destruction, no bondage and no liberation. This view is also one-sided because Relativity itself is relative; it is related to the Absolute without which it becomes meaningless.

Shunyavada: Constructive Dialectic

                    We, the Shunyavadins, take Shunyata in its double aspect. We know that phenomena are essentially relative and therefore ultimately unreal, and we also know that Reality is the Non-dual Absolute where all plurality is merged. Therefore we alone, and not our opponents, can truly understand and explain the reality and the worth of all appearances together with their intellectual, ethical and religious implications. It is we, who know that Relativity reigns supreme in the phenomenal world, who can realize the true significance of Dependent Origination and of the four Noble Truths.

                    In his Vigraha-Vyavarttani, Nagarjuna gives the anticipated objections of the opponents against Shunyata and then refutes all of them. The arguments of the opponents are:

Shunyata which denies the existence of all dharmas is not true:

  • Because the arguments used for the existence of Shunyata  are also unreal;
  • And if they are not unreal, they undermine the Shunyavadins premises for then he at least maintains the reality of his arguments ;
  • And Shunyavada has no pramana to establish itself.

Nagarjuna replies:

Shunyata which denies the ultimate reality of all dharmas is true:

  • Because the ultimate unreality of words and arguments does not render Shunyata unreal. By Shunyata we do mean mere negation; by it we mean Dependent Origination or Relativity.
  • Our arguments do not undermine our premises. We do not say: This particular argument of ours is true while all others are false. We say: All arguments are ultimately unreal. Absolutely speaking, we have no thesis to prove and hence no words and no arguments. How can we be charged with defects then? But from the empirical standpoint we admit the reality of arguments because the phenomenal cannot be condemned by its own logic.
  • The validity of pramanas themselves cannot be established. A means of cognition (pramana), like fire, cannot prove itself. If fire can enkindle itself, it will also bum itself. If fire can enkindle itself and other subjects, then surely darkness too will cover itself and other objects. A pramana cannot be established by another pramana for it will lead to infinite regress. A pramana cannot be proved by an object of cognition (prameya). The opponent admits that a prameya is to be proved by pramanas. If he now admits that pramanas, in their turn, are to be proved by prameyas , his argument amounts to this laughable position: a father begets a son; now that son in his turns, should beget his own father. And of course a pramana cannot be proved at random. The validity of pramanas, therefore, can be established neither by them-selves nor by other pramanas nor by prameyas nor by accident.

                    Reality is above refutation and non-refutation. We do not negate anything. There is nothing which can be negated. Even the charge that the Shunyavadin negates everything is made by our opponent. We, however, go beyond affirmation and negation.

                    In his Ratnavali, Nagarjuna says that just as a learned grammarian may teach even the alphabets, similarly Buddha taught according to the capacity of his disciples. To the ordinary people he taught affirmation so that they may avoid all evil deeds. To the mediocres he taught negation so that they may realize the unreality of the ego. Both these are based on duality. To the best he taught the blissful Shunya, the deeper truth, terrible to the fools but kind to the wise. Nagarjuna condemns nihilism (nastika) by saying that negation leads to hell; affirmation leads to

Heaven; and non-dual truth which transcends affirmation and negation leads to liberation. This Pure Knowledge where affirmation and negation, good and evil, heaven and hell are merged is called Liberation by the wise. From the absolute standpoint we have no thesis, no morality, no intellect, because they are all grounded in Pure Knowledge (bodhi), the Reality. How can we be condemned as nihilists then? Negation is possible only as a destruction or as an antithesis of affirmation. But when there is no affirmation, how can there be any negation? Synthesis alone is real. Both thesis and antithesis are appearances. The universe therefore is neither real nor unreal, and hence only an appearance. Please ask the Sankhya, the Vaishesika, the Jainas, the Soul-upholders and the Skandhavadins whether they declare the world as ‘neither existent nor non-existent’. The Real transcends all categories of intellect and the phenomenal is the relative as it is ‘neither real nor unreal’— this is the noble Present of our Religion, the Deep Truth, the Nectar of the Teaching of the Buddha.

Shunyavada: Constructive Dialectic

                    What is called the phenomenal world or the cycle of birth-and-death from the empirical standpoint, viewed through the glasses of Causation and Relativity, that very world is called Nirvana or the Absolute, from the ultimate standpoint, viewed without Causation and Relativity. Bondage, viewed sub specie aeternitatis, is Liberation. The Absolute is its appearances. There is not the slightest difference between Samsara and Nirvana. Those who want to bring the non-dual Buddha within the four categories of the intellect cannot realize the Tathagata, entangled as they are in the meshes of plurality. The essential nature of all objects, like Nirvana, is beyond production and destruction. When this truth is realized, the subject-object duality is transcended and the cries of intellect are satisfied. Intellect is transformed into realization. Philosophy is equated with silence. From the absolute standpoint, to no person, at no place, no doctrine was ever taught by the Buddha. He, out of compassion for all beings, descended to the phenomenal level and preached the truth in order to enable us to raise above all the categories of the intellect, to shake off all plurality and to directly realize Reality. Reality cannot be realized by negating appearances. We can rise to the higher only through the lower. We cannot give even an idea of the Absolute without the help of the phenomenal. And if we know nothing about the Absolute, how can we try to realize it? Thus it is that he, who has realized the truth of Shunyata, realizes the meaning and significance of everything and can explain everything. On the other hand he who has not realized the truth of Shunyata, fails to realize the meaning and significance of anything and can explain nothing.

Shunyavada: Constructive Dialectic

                    Aryadeva says that the world is like a moving fire-brand, a magical creation, a dream, an illusion, a reflection, an echo, a mirage, a passing cloud. But he also preserves the empirical reality of all phenomena. Egoism, he says, is far better than nihilism. Our doctrine is not nihilism. Nihilism trembles with fear even at the very name of our doctrine. It is true Nairatmya as it transcends the empirical ego. It is terrible to the false notions. It is non-dual and blissful. It can be realized only by the Buddha. However, it can be preached only from the phenomenal standpoint. One can explain a thing to a Mlechchha only when one speaks his language. Similarly one can explain Reality only when one descends to the level of thought and language. Reality  transcend intellect and he who seeks to prove neither existence nor non-existence nor  both can never be refuted.      

                    Reality, according to Aryadeva is the Pure Self (chitta). In its real nature, it is above discrimination, is absolutely pure, unoriginated, uncontaminated, and self-luminous. On account of ignorance it appears as intellect, even as a white marble appears as colored on account of a colored object placed near it. The Jewel of Self appears to be fouled with the mud of Ignorance. A wise person should at once busy himself with clearing away this mud instead of increasing it. Ignorance (Avidya) is error (bhranti). Just as when ‘shell’ is known the ‘shell-silver’ vanishes, when ‘rope’ is known the ‘rope-snake’ vanishes, similarly when know-ledge dawns ignorance vanishes.

Shunyavada: Constructive Dialectic

                    Chandrakirti  fully supports and explains Nagarjuna. The Prasangika – Madhyamika school of Buddhapalita which condemns logic is upheld by Chandrakirti against the Svatantra -Madhyamika School of Bhava – viveka which wants to support Shunyavada by independent reasoning. Chandrakirti says that for him who accepts the ultimate validity of logic the Madhyamika system is a hindrance rather than a help. Logic has only a negative value for us. We only refute the theory of our opponent without, however, accepting the converse view. Our words are not policemen. They cannot arrest us. They simply enable us to express something. Ultimately every argument is either unreal (asiddha) or self-contradictory (viruddha). But then, urges the opponent, is not this very argument, being an argument, ultimately unreal or self-contradictory? Chandrakirti replies: this objection is valid only against those who give an independent status to reasoning. For us logic has only phenomenal validity. We simply repudiate the arguments of our opponents. We have no thesis of our own to prove. We are not positively proving that every argument is either unreal or self-contradictory for the simple reason that we cannot do so. We accept the empirical reality of logic, but it is a reality which ultimately undermines itself. From the absolute point of view Reality is silence. But we descend to the phenomenal and point out to our opponent that his thesis cannot be supported even by his own logic. We have no thesis of our own. We only demonstrate negatively that every argument is ultimately unreal because self-contradictory. Criticism of all views is itself not a view; rejection of all

theories is itself not a theory.

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