Logic, mysticism, both or neither

In a recent exchange with Graham Priest, Massimo Pigliucci (who works mainly in philosophy of science) takes aim at this notion that most Western philosophers’ disdain for Buddhism has to do with an aversion to contradictions, easily understood if one’s pursuit of knowledge and truth is rooted in a recognition of the Aristotelian principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle. Priest, as is known, has been defending for some time the notion that Buddhist philosophy is full of contradictions (most recently here) and that, actually, that might not be such a bad thing (if dialetheism is to have a place of pride in the logical space of reasons).

Now, I am always happy to see mainstream philosophers take an interest in what is being said about Buddhist philosophy by fellow mainstream colleagues. The only problem is that whomsoever gets to speak on its behalf matters to what is being said about it. Pigliucci should be forgiven therefore for walking away with the impression that Buddhist philosophy means Nāgārjuna and his catuṣkoṭi, and that much of what Buddhist thinkers, both classical and contemporary, are concerned with is figuring out what the Buddha said and did, and why.

And what Priest thinks Nāgārjuna’s Buddha meant is something like this:

“The language we use frames our conventional reality (our Lebenswelt, as it is called in the German phenomenological tradition). Beneath that there is an ultimate reality, such as the condition of the enlightened dead person. One can experience this directly in certain meditative states, but one cannot describe it. To say anything about it would merely succeed in making it part of our conventional reality; it is, therefore, ineffable. In particular, one cannot describe it by using any of the four possibilities furnished by the catuṣkoṭi.”

And so here we go again: Eastern thought is intuitive and mystical and Western philosophy is rational and argumentative, and the twain shall never meet. No matter all those wonderful analogies between the *contradictions* of Madhyamaka* Buddhism and logical developments in the West since Aristotle that Priest marshals, the damage is already done. For Pigliucci all this talk of paraconsistency in Buddhism is just a veiled attempt to import logic into mysticism and to make paradoxical Buddhist ideas as rigorous as Western logic and math. As he puts it: “the rigor in the latter comes out of the ability to very precisely spell out formalism, build arguments and proofs, defend or abandon axioms, and so on. Nothing of the kind appears to be the case within Buddhist tradition.”

End of story!

Now, let’s just say, for the sake of argument Pigliucci had for a colleague at CUNY someone who was both a philosopher and a scholar of Buddhist philosophy, say, someone like Jan Westerhoff (on the principle that one most often learns about traditions of thought wholly outside one’s purview from one’s colleagues, if at all). How might this exchange have gone? Let’s see.

Westerhoff’s Nāgārjuna is concerned not with why ultimate reality cannot be described “by using any of the four possibilities furnished by the catuṣkoṭi” because it is ineffable, and saying anything about it renders it a part of our conventional reality. Rather, the main concern is with precisely how we are supposed to acquire knowledge of emptiness: that is, of the notion that things, including the sources of knowledge we rely on to access them, lack the intrinsic features typically ascribed to them. Now, Nāgārjuna’s critique of epistemology is mainly the critique of a version of the Nyāya** theory of knowledge (the quintessential school of analytic philosophy in early India, and the Buddhists’ arch-opponents). Nāgārjuna’s point is that knowledge does not come from the use of a set of epistemic procedures. Rather, the sources of knowledge and their objects are mutually entailing: objects are established as such by the sources that give us access to them, and in turn our successful practices establish which sources and under what circumstances are trustworthy. The point (for Nyāya) is to achieve what Westerhoff calls a “reflective equilibrium”: our beliefs about the nature of what there is are put to test by our best hypotheses about how we come to know what there is; at the same time these hypotheses furnish us with basic modes by which we assess what there is.

Unfortunately, the reflective equilibrium the Nyāya strives to achieve is problematic, because methods determine outcomes: which sources are deemed reliable is going to determine the type of reflective equilibrium that is achieved. And here’s the real problem: there is no neutral ground from which to deliberate about the different reflective equilibriums!

Insofar as it showcases the presumed relativism of such epistemic claims, Madhyamaka is surely no mysticism. And furthermore, the Mādhyamika’s criticism leaves no epistemic stone unturned. Its stand is no stand at all (at least on one version of the story). But, as Siderits has convincingly argued (“Nyāya realism, Buddhism critique,” 2000), the Mādhyamika’s critique of epistemology rests on an internalist framework of justification: one has to know somehow that one is justified in rejecting the Naiyāyika’s realist epistemology. The problem is that the Naiyāyika is an externalist about knowledge: reliable cognition is the product of reliable causal processes and thus cannot be subsumed under the internalist framework of justification the Mādhyamika has assumed. So, on Westerhoff’s meticulous analysis of this project, “the Mādhyamika’s criticism [of epistemology] loses its force, for it is now based on an assumption––namely epistemic internalism––which its opponent does not share” (Westerhoff, Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka, 217).

This is not a Madhyamaka wrapped up in paradox, but one we can make sense of (even as the story told here is awfully incomplete. It is true that in his magnum opus, the MMK, Nāgārjuna does set out to deny that causation is a mind-independent phenomenon capable of guaranteeing the efficacy of those epistemic practices that rely upon it. But, as I see it, there is a deceptive simplicity in Nāgārjuna’s argument: our conception of causal relations entails cognition of the operations of causality. If we can assume that cause precedes effect, then the missing link between the existing cause and the not yet arisen effect is supplied by cognition. Causation may transmit features of the object to cognition, but only as grasped by a cognizer who can articulate its structure.

This account of Nāgārjuna’s project is much closer to what Pigliucci thinks is going on with, for instance, Kant’s delineation of an “epistemically inaccessible zone”––one whose contents may be inaccessible, but whose contours can be easily traced. There is no contradiction is saying that cognition has an articulable structure, even though the constitutive elements of that structure are conceivable only in terms of our best ‘conventional’ epistemic practices. Drawing the contours of ineffability is just an indirect way of marking off the domain of the conventional. Surely, the relativism implicit in the Mādhyamika’s focus on the conventional threatens our robust conceptions of truth, of what there is and how we come to know it. But where is the paradox in asserting that, although we can only talk about things as experienced, what we experience does not exhaust what there is? It’s not like Nāgārjuna establishes the truth of emptiness by claiming its ineffability. Rather, the claim seems to be that a svabhāva***-based view of reality is fundamentally incoherent.

Madhyamaka: logic, mysticism, both or neither?  It really depends on whom you ask.


*Madhyamaka (“Middle Way”) is the name of a school, founded by Nāgārjuna. A follower of that school of thought is known as a ‘Mādhyamika’.

Nyāya** (“School of Reason”) is the name of a school, founded by Gautama. A follower of that school of thought is known as a ‘Naiyāyika’.

***svabhāva–This is a difficult term with no straightforward philosophical equivalent in English. It encapsulates at once an ontological (things defined in terms of their ‘essences’), a cognitive (mental states as ‘intrinsically’ ascertained), and a semantic dimension (meaning or truth as an ‘immanent’ feature of language).

About Christian Coseru

Christian Coseru's current research is in the philosophy of mind, phenomenology of perception, naturalized epistemology, and Buddhist philosophy. His most recent work focuses on the intersections between phenomenology and cognitive science, and on classical Indian and Buddhist theories of perception. He is the author of Perceiving Reality: Consciousness, Intentionality, and Cognition in Buddhist Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2012), and his articles have appeared in various journals and edited collections. He is currently working on his second book entitled Presence of Mind: A Theory of Reflexive Sensibility.

15 thoughts on “Logic, mysticism, both or neither

  1. Thanks for this, Christian, for both introducing a problem and mapping the relevant space in such an economical way.

    We know that it is an inescapable fact of scholarship that there are “many” great thinkers. That is each one of them is manifold; rich, diverse, profound philosophy invites disparate interpretations and thus there are many Platos, many Wittgensteins, etc., etc. Heck, there are many Putnams, and that’s just following his own intellectual development and evolution over time.

    Do you think that the problem for Madhyamaka is perhaps distinct and particularly problematic given how little it is known by the Western academy? Whoever is speaking, as you note, becomes the only authority locally available. Or is this just par for the course, in a way like the thinkers above, and we need merely be a bit sensitive to this fact?

  2. It’s remarkable how often otherwise intelligent people who should know better attempt to speak with authority if not conviction on topics they are not at all well-versed in. I thought it serendipitous that a copy of Daniel Perdue’s latest book arrived at our doorstep around the time of this post: The Course in Buddhist Reasoning and Debate: An Asian Approach to Analytical Thinking Drawn from Indian and Tibetan Sources (Snow Lion, 2014)

  3. It’s a problem for non-Western philosophy in general, though Madhyamaka may provide an extreme example, given the wide range of interpretations it has elicited so far. As Ruegg put it some time ago in his survey of the literature “the doctrine of the Madhyamaka school, and in particular that of Nāgārjuna has been variously described as nihilism, monism, irrationalism, misology, agnosticism, skepticism, criticism, dialectic, mysticism, acosmism, absolutism, relativism, nominalism, and linguistic analysis with therapeutic value” (The Literature of the Madhyamaka School, p. 2). Now add to that list paraconsistent logic.

    The irony is that hardly anybody (in scholarly Madhyamaka circles) is bothered by this plethora of diverging interpretations. A few years ago, Jay Garfield organized a conference at Smith gathering some of the main players to hash it all out and do some pruning of the ever luxuriating Madhyamaka tree (prompted by an exchange Garfield had with Huntington in the Journal of Indian Philosophy, 2008: 36 and 2007: 35; many of those talks are now available through iTunes). Hard to judge the outcome, but the Moon series of books (Pointing at the Moon and Moonshadows, with another one to follow soon) give some indication of where the conversation is going.

    In any event, I belong to the school of thought which says that all news is good news when it comes to bringing Indian philosophy into the mainstream. Graham Priest is a terrific logician. But neither is Buddhism full of contradictions nor is Nāgārjuna championing the ineffable.

  4. Thank you very much for this very interesting first post, Christian. Part of the problem, I think, lies in the fact that we (=scholars of Indian philosophy) are often invited to conferences, edited volumes and the like as “token” of “Indian philosophy” tout court. Thus, it happens that people ask us any possible question about “Indian philosophy” (in some cases even about “Asian philosophy”) as if we were the only expert available. This leads to unavoidable over-simplifications (something similar would happen if one were to ask an expert of pre-Socratic philosophy about the Brain-in-the-Vat argument, but in the case of Indian philosophy this is even worse, given that there is much less ground which has already been safely established by in-depth studies).

    What can one do against it? I will not say that the invited token ought not to answer any question ranging beyond her expertise (after all, one expert of Indian philosophy at a conference is better than no one), but perhaps all the others (me included) could consider writing accessible books and articles that can be used by philosophers working from a Western perspective. Otherwise, we loose the right to blame Western scholars for not taking Indian philosophy seriously:-)

  5. There are a number of issues to consider here. Firstly the central insights of Buddhism are associated with meditation. Since most scholars don’t meditate, they seem to be insensitive to the nature of meditative experience. Those scholars oriented towards philosophy tend to down-play the experiential nature of insight compared to the cognitive counterparts. Those who are oriented towards experience tend to play down the cognitive aspects of insight. This split in approaches to Buddhism is early enough to have a canonical discourse associated with it, see. Mahācunda Sutta. Aṅguttara Nikāya 6.46 (PTS: A iii.355). My translation and essay: http://jayarava.blogspot.co.uk/2009/12/meditation-scholarship.html In other words the argument referenced here predates Western scholarship of Buddhism by some 2000 years.

    As someone who came to reading Nāgārjuna from a basis in early Buddhist thought, and particularly looking at texts from the point of view Sue Hamilton, I find most discussions of Nāgārjuna puzzling. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Nāgārjuna is a Buddhist thinker at all, since he is so often presented as disconnected from a Buddhist context.

    I know that David Kalupahana is far from fashionable as an interpreter of Nāgārjuna these days, but he did make some important points that seem to be lost in the fray, particularly in highlighting Nāgārjuna’s citation of the Kātyāyana Sūtra.

    It’s interesting that in recent work on the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā both Paul Harrison and Richard H Jones play down the idea that the text is contradictory. Both are unconvinced that the intention of the author was paradoxical. Harrison’s reinterpretation of the syntax of the passages which appear contradictory make the intention clearer. The author of the Vaj and other Prajñāpāramitā texts (so often paired with early Madhyamaka) were responding not the Nyāya Realism per se but to the Realism which had become prominent in Buddhist circles. Both the Sarvāstivāda and Pudgalavāda got their names from the Realist stance they took. Like many early Buddhist texts, Vaj is arguing against any implied substance ontology. Harrison’s re-reading and re-contextualisation make all the contradictions in Vaj disappear. It’s a rather hyperbolic attack on Realism, but there’s no paradox in that.

    Perhaps it seems natural to look for external sources of Realism in Buddhism, but in fact there are good reasons why Buddhists might have drifted into Realism. These are outlined by Collett Cox in her article on Sarvāstivāda Dharma Theory, but also in an important article by David Bastow on the argument for sarva-asti vāda in the Vijñānakāya (a Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma text). Firstly the early Buddhists were faced with a contradiction between karma (which requires delayed effects of actions) and dependent arising (which forbids delayed effects “when this ceases, that ceases”). What I call the problem of action at a temporal distance. The problem is always resolved in favour of karma. As Bastow related, the Vaibhāṣya answer was to allow dharmas to function as conditions for effects in the future and past. Dharmas are thus always existent (sarva-asti) in the sense of being able to function as conditions. The second factor was a natural consequence of the project of cataloguing dharmas. A taxonomic project fails unless the categories are well defined and stable. At first svabhāva defined a category. But it’s almost inevitable for members of a fixed category, to themselves become fixed. Svabhāva becomes a fixed characteristic of dharmas. So Sarvāstivāda was Realist in response to theoretical and practical challenges internal to the development of Buddhism. Were they also influenced by Nyāya? Well, maybe, but this should not obscure the internal factors.

    Nāgārjuna’s beef with svabhāva is really quite simple. He defined it as a dharma having itself as a condition for existence. If such a dharma does not presently exist then it can never exist. If such a dharma presently exists then it will always exist. A dharma is a mental event, and we know from simple introspection that mental events never meet the criteria for having svabhāva. Dharmas constant change, leaving us disappointed and nothing that disappoints can be ultimate (the trilakṣana: anitya, duḥkha, anātman).

    And this is where the Kātyāyana Sūtra is so vital to understanding the argument. KS argues that when we examine our experience we see only dharmas arising and passing away. Because of this feature of experience neither astitā nor nāstitā can apply to loka, where loka means world of experience. Loka is polysemic, but Hamilton has shown that in these situations it means “the world of experience”. This meaning of loka is also prominent in Jan Gonda’s long essay on the word in Sanskrit. Thus no dharma can have svabhāva in the sense of being a condition for itself. The world of experience denies this possibility by it’s nature.

    It’s important to emphasise in the strongest possible terms that early Buddhists had nothing to say about the nature of objects or the nature of reality. All attempts to engage in ontological speculation are rebuffed. The Buddhist seeker is repeated referred back to their own experience and to the mental events that make up experience. It is in examining experience, through the techniques of meditation, that insight arises.

    The domain of interest for all these discussions, the only domain where any of this really make sense is the domain of experience. It’s this that places limits on knowledge. In effect the early Buddhists argued that we could gain no knowledge outside the domain of knowledge. Compare the Sabba Sutta (SN 35.23) which defined “everything” as the sense objects and sense faculties: i.e. the precursors to sense cognition (vijñāna) and conscious experience (vedanā). [note that both object and faculty are required in all cases of conscious experience].

    This conclusion of Hamilton’s about the domain of experience is now quite widely accepted by scholars of early Buddhism (cf Shulman, Gombrich, etc). However the consequences of it have yet to make much impact in the reading of early Mahāyāna texts. There is still a tendency to see early Mahāyāna thinkers as disconnected from this intellectual stream. And yet my reading of the Prajñāpāramitā texts suggests that they were concerned precisely to reiterate and reinforce the focus on the nature of experience in response to the ontological tendencies of the Ābhidharmikās. If we situation Nāgārjuna in this milieu, and I think we should, then we need to review his contribution in this light.

    The knowledge we gain through meditation is precisely knowledge of the nature of experience (this is what serious meditators I talk to all say and my own experience). For all that there are arguments against the effability of the experience of liberation; there are too many descriptions of the experience for us to consider it ineffable in any absolute sense.

    The argument has become hyperbolic because there are people who discuss the theory with no intention of trying to put it into practice, i.e. with no intention of seeking out the kind of experiences that underlie the whole discussion. In a discussion with someone who has no intention of pursuing meditative experience I would also probably resort to saying “you’ll never understand it.” It’s a rhetorical stance rather than mysticism.

    It’s just that it really is necessary to spend time in samādhi to see what is being talked about. To watch the “world” ceasing to exist as one withdraws entirely from sense perception; and to watch it coming into existence as one emerges from samādhi. This is not an ontological position – the argument is not about the existence of the world qua substantial entity; again the subject is the world of experience.

    The subject of Buddhism is experience. Anything to get people to pay attention to and analyse the nature of their experience. The promise of mystical union, of insights into the nature of Reality, ultimate happiness, have all been held out as carrots. And it’s easy to be defined by such promises, but that would be to mistake the intent. To me Nāgārjuna makes most sense in this context and the discussions of his philosophy which entirely ignore the early Buddhist context all seem to be tangled up in wrong views of various kinds. Once we get the domain of interest and application sorted out, things fall into place.

    Buddhist ideas applied to ontology do produce a certain amount of nonsense, but the best way to deal with this is not to argue over the value of nonsense, it’s to re-establish the proper parameters of the discussion so as to eliminate the nonsense.

    Apologies for a long winded, at times oblique reply, it’s a discussion I would like to have with the profession but have not yet had the chance.


    Bastow, David. (1995) ‘The First Argument for Sarvāstivāda.’ Asian Philosophy 5(2):109-125. http://buddhism.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-ADM/bastow.htm

    Cox, Collett. (2004) ‘From Category to Ontology: The Changing Role of Dharma in Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma.’ Journal of Indian Philosophy 32: 543-597.

    Gombrich, Richard. 2009. What the Buddha Thought. London:

    Gonda, J. 1966. Loka: World and Heaven in the Veda. Amsterdam: N.V. Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers Maatschappij.

    Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London:

    Harrison, Paul. (2006) ‘Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā: A New English Translation of the Sanskrit Text Based on Two Manuscripts from Greater Gandhāra’, in Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection (Vol. III). Hermes Publishing, Oslo, p.133-159.

    Jones, Richard H. (2012) The Heart of Buddhist Wisdom: Plain English Translations of the Heart Sutra, the Diamond-Cutter Sutra, and Other Perfection of Wisdom Texts. New York: Jackson Square Books.

    Kalupahana, David J. (1986) Nāgārjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. State University of New York Press.

    Shulman, Eviatar. 2008. ‘Early Meanings of Dependent-Origination,’ Journal of Indian Philosophy, 36(2): 297-317.

    • Thanks for this, Jayarava. I’m going to focus on your discussion of the Pali texts rather than of Nāgārjuna because I think they’re at the heart of your comment.

      The Mahācunda Sutta reference is important: indicating there were supposed to be monks focused on dharma transmission and ones focused on jhāna, and each was considered important and not to be disparaged. However, it’s not clear to me that the other claims here follow from this. Historically most Buddhists, lay or monastic, didn’t meditate (in the sense that they did not practise the kind of instructions recommended in the Satipaṭṭhāna or Sāmaññaphala Suttas), and it’s important to remember that the Cunda Sutta is just as insistent that they not be disparaged.

      And when we look at most texts from the Pali dhamma, we find very little reference to meditation – and indeed to experience. The Kaccānagotta Sutta is asking about the nature of right dṛṣṭi – very similar to the (more common later) term darśana, literally meaning “sight” but always having the sense of “belief”. (For that reason I prefer to translate it “view”.) And there is really nothing in that sutta that refers to experience; the only word that even has some connection to experience is dṛṣṭi itself (and passati, which is just a form of dṛṣ). It is about views, about seeing the world as it is, but how does one get those views? The text does not specify, and it may just as easily be through study as through meditative practice; historically, the former path would have been more likely.

      • Hi Amod

        One of the reasons I cited my sources so extensively in a blog comment was that I was sure that someone would doubt my reading. In fact it’s backed up by considerable scholarship. You don’t given your opinion on that scholarship at all. Have you read it? What is your opinion of it?

        The Kātyāyana Sūtra is preserved somewhat more completely in Sanskrit and Chinese (which resemble each other more than either resemble the Pali). All versions are fragmentary, but Pāli omits several passages found in Skt and Ch. and is defective in other ways, though also better in one or two aspects (I’m analysing it at present and hoping to publish the results). Knowing the Pāli is insufficient. It’s also a text that must be read in context. Sue Hamilton has done this, if you like to read her book. I have run with her argument for many years. My essay : Is Paṭiccasamuppāda A Theory of Everything. http://www.jayarava.org/writing/paticca-samuppada-theory-of-everything.pdf includes a discussion of the word loka as it relates to this text.

        If one looks at Gonda’s exploration one can see that it is certainly within the usual usage to say that it means “one’s perceptual world”. The following texts bring out this idea:

        Rohitassa Sutta (S 2.26, PTS S i.61; also A 4.45, PTS A ii.47)
        Lokantagamana Sutta (SN 35.116)
        Loka Sutta (S 12.43, PTS S ii.73)

        The latter particularly says:

        “With the eye and forms as condition, eye-consciousness arises. The coincidence of the three is contact. On the basis of contact there are sensations, which give rise to desires. Desires are fuel which support becoming. With becoming there is birth, and from birth old-age, and death; and grief, lamenting, misery, dejection, and trouble are produced. This is the origin of the world.”

        Emphasis on the last sentence, since the origin of the world is what we are talking about in the Kātyāyana Sūtra. This is significant in that it links the origin of suffering with the origin of the world. Elsewhere we find in the Vajirā Sutta (S 5:10; S i.136):

        “Dukkhameva hi sambhoti, dukkhaṃ tiṭṭhati veti ca;
        Nāññatra dukkhā sambhoti, nāññaṃ dukkhā nirujjhatī’’ti”

        “For only suffering is produced; suffering persists, and ceases.
        None other than suffering is produced, none other than suffering ceases.”

        So *only* suffering arises (cf Kātyāyana also); it arises through the nidāna process; but “the world” also arises through the nidāna process. Hence loka = dukkha. Hamilton discusses this at length and extends it as well. Loka = dukkha = pañcakkhanda. If one takes in all the arguments it all holds together. Taken together with the fact that elsewhere it’s clear that dharmas are what arise in dependence on conditions and we have a picture of texts like the Kātyāyana Sūtra focussed on experience.

        As Bhikkhu Bodhi says on this issue:

        “The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience.”

        (Bodhi (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: a Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.p. 394, n.182.)

        This seems to me to be a given amongst early Buddhism scholars that “loka” is the “world of experience”. Certainly if one reads loka in some other way, as you do then some bizarre ontology results. For example neither atthitā nor nātthitā apply to the world; the world neither exists nor is non-existent; or the world is neither real nor unreal! It starts to sound like the kind of nonsense that Nāgārjuna is accused of. But read as the “world of experience” and this is a straightforward statement about the nature of experience: we have experiences but they are not existent and not non-existent; experience is neither real or unreal. Substance ontology does not apply to experience. If we can rescue the Kātyāyana Sūtra from nonsense, and Paul Harrison can rescue the Vajracchedikā from nonsense, then perhaps we can rescue Nāgārjuna as well?

        It is at the very least a hermeneutic which produces very useful (from a meditation point of view) and sensible readings of Buddhists texts. There’s no very good argument against it that I’m aware of. All I am doing is suggesting that the hermeneutic can be applied beyond early Buddhist texts with very productive results.

        Your claim regarding the place of meditation in the early Buddhist texts is one that has merits. It’s true that many monks and few lay people did not obviously meditate. And that suits a particular reading of Buddhist history. My reading is that all the doctrinal material was primarily intended to be reflected on in meditation. And thus I see plenty of meditation subjects in the early Canon. Not a great deal of meditation instruction of the type we find in modern meditation manuals, perhaps, but that kind of instruction was person to person and may simply not have been written down. We cannot assume that the canon is a complete record. Even today, in my experience, most meditation instruction beyond the basics is oral and specific to the person. It’s just not the kind of thing that gets written down for general readers.

        I would also put your remarks into the context of Jan Nattier’s observations about early Mahāyāna in A Few Good Men (alongside supporting material from Paul Harrison and many others) that what set the original Mahāyāna monks apart was precisely their *commitment to awakening through the practice of meditation*. The bodhisattvas were intent on awakening (bodhi-sakta).

        • Regarding scholarship, Hamilton’s work is the only one you cited in the original post as related to the topic at issue, so having read the other sources in the bibliography is not really an appropriate question. I have not read this work of Hamilton’s, so I am willing to go for the moment with her hypothesis as you characterize it – that loka in this text means, roughly, “the world as perceived by a given perceiver”. That still doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with meditation – which is something that the word “experience” tends to confuse us on, since it is sometimes assumed that “experience” in a Buddhist context must mean a special mystical or meditative experience, as opposed to the experiences of perception in daily life. (Words that are reasonably translated as “experience” – say anubhāva or its equivalent – do not show up much in early Buddhist texts, to my knowledge.)

          I have read Nattier’s book multiple times (though it was a while ago), and I don’t recall that being in there. There may be something about meditation, but the main difference of the Mahāyāna monks was their commitment to a more demanding practice involving the saving of all beings.

          Regarding gaps in the texts, they don’t give us licence to fill in those gaps based on what we imagine to be true now. There are over 2000 years between contemporary lineages and the composition of the texts, and what seems obvious now would not have been then.

          • There’s a difference between being uninterested and being unconvinced. If it were the former, I wouldn’t have written a response at any length. But I’m happy to leave it there for the present.

        • “This seems to me to be a given amongst early Buddhism scholars that “loka” is the “world of experience”. Certainly if one reads loka in some other way, as you do then some bizarre ontology results. For example neither atthitā nor nātthitā apply to the world; the world neither exists nor is non-existent; or the world is neither real nor unreal! It starts to sound like the kind of nonsense that Nāgārjuna is accused of. But read as the “world of experience” and this is a straightforward statement about the nature of experience: we have experiences but they are not existent and not non-existent; experience is neither real or unreal. Substance ontology does not apply to experience. If we can rescue the Kātyāyana Sūtra from nonsense, and Paul Harrison can rescue the Vajracchedikā from nonsense, then perhaps we can rescue Nāgārjuna as well?”

          Exactly. In fact, the claim that references to meditation are sparse in the early sūtras seems rather odd to me. The discourses are littered with references to jhāna. And then there tons and tons, especially in the Samyutta Nikāya, of references to the three characteristics, the five aggregates, and so on: these are all meditation instructions, telling the listener to direct their mind in a certain way. Whenever the Buddha talks about the five aggregates or the six sense-spheres, he is talking about experience.

          In a way, I think Piligucci is correct, because what the early Buddhist practitioners (I say “practitioners” because they were probably a smaller subset of Buddhists) were concerned with was the world of experience – they would probably say that after all, that’s the only world there is. Any belief in an ontological world is mere speculation. So these early practitioners were not interested in the questions that most Western philosophers were/are interested in. Indeed, they would have considered such a pursuit a waste of valuable time. While a Buddhist might not consider it mysticism, I suspect most philosophers who are not Buddhists would indeed consider this mysticism.

          By the time we get to the Abhidharmikas however, things have diverged, as Jayarava points out. And indeed, what Nāgarjuna et al were doing was to attempt to correct the course of thought back to what they saw as the path set out by the Buddha: focus on the world of experience and avoid unnecessary speculations.

  6. Thanks, Christian. I was thinking much the same thing in reading that piece from Pigliucci.

    When discussing Plato most professional philosophers today at least have a “cartoon version” of Plato for introductory courses. Discussion of Plato scholarship then at least has a place to start, a place from which you branch out into deeper, more interesting, and more uncertain terrain.

    Nāgārjuna is as difficult as Plato, but the vast majority of professional philosophers lack a “cartoon version” of Nāgārjuna. This means there’s no solid place from which to swim off into the murky waters of Nāgārjuna scholarship. So when a respectable philosopher like Graham Priest comes along his Nāgārjuna becomes the cartoon Nāgārjuna, and indeed a stand in for the entire Buddhist tradition. If you can forgive a riff on Plato, philosophers mistake one shadow on the wall for the real thing!

    Perhaps we need to remind our colleagues that the great philosophers of the Western tradition are still subject to competing interpretations and have been for a long time. People have been arguing about Plato for over 2,000 years! Thinking about a Buddhist philosopher like Nāgārjuna is like diving into Plato scholarship without having recourse to the cartoonish, simplified version of Plato. Learning about many philosophers is a complex process of going from simplistic shadows on the wall to the complexity of the real thing (or depending on how you feel about scholars, perhaps it’s the other way around!). For me, this is part of what makes the study of Indian philosophy exciting and interesting.

    But how do we convince people that all this work is worthwhile? Which Nāgārjuna do you start with to even begin a serious conversation?

  7. I’m a bit late to this and it’s definitely not in my area of specialty, but I would venture to say ‘both.’

    I can’t add too much original thought on the topic, except to say that the rigorous logic-chopping done in the Buddhist tradition was often (or always) closely connected with Buddhist soteriology, so if it is read by some as sounding a bit mystical, that should be no surprise.

    Kapstein’s Reason’s Traces (2001) has a quick note in the introduction that may be of interest. On pp.16-18: he writes that “The visionary aspect of the text [an Exposition of Dignāga’s system of Logic and Epistemology, Pramāṇavārttika] tends to undermine the assumption that there was any great divide between the worlds of the Buddhist logician and the Buddhist mystic. Lcang-skya, by placing this sketch of Buddhist rationalism in the context of a dream-vision, effectively annuls the gulf separating religious experience from reason.”

  8. “The language we use frames our conventional reality (our Lebenswelt, as it is called in the German phenomenological tradition). Beneath that there is an ultimate reality, such as the condition of the enlightened dead person. One can experience this directly in certain meditative states, but one cannot describe it. To say anything about it would merely succeed in making it part of our conventional reality; it is, therefore, ineffable. In particular, one cannot describe it by using any of the four possibilities furnished by the catuṣkoṭi.”

    Is this an accurate description of sunyata? It sounds more like Vedanta rather than Buddhist. Isn’t the ‘ultimate reality’ simply the understanding that there is no ultimate reality?

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