I published an essay about five and a half years ago on an alternative reading of Nāgārjuna’s MMK 24:18 (PEW 60:1) which was first disputed by Jay Garfield and Jan Westerhoff a year later (PEW 61:1) and then by Mattia Salvini (JIP 39:3). Though I certainly accept some of Salvini’s grammatical correctives regarding my original rendering of the verse, I would like to defend my foregoing interpretation and then suggest a slightly different reading from my original one here.
In the original essay, I questioned the earlier renderings of MMK 24:18 that appeared prior to 2010, and I will add one below that has appeared in a major rendition since.
“It is dependent arising that we term emptiness; this is a designation overlaid (on emptiness); it alone is the middle path.” (Robinson, 1967, 40)
“We declare that whatever is relational origination is śūnyatā. It is a provisional name (i.e. thought construction for the mutuality of being), and indeed, it is the middle path.” (Inada, 1970, 148)
We interpret the dependent arising of all things as the absence of being in them. Absence of being is a guiding, not a cognitive notion, presupposing the everyday. it is itself the middle way.” (Sprung, 1979, 238)
“We state that, whatever is dependent arising, that is emptiness. That is dependent upon convention. That itself is the middle path.” (Kalupahana, 1986, 339)
“Whatever is dependently co-arisen, that is explained to be emptiness. That, being a dependent designation, is itself the middle way.” (Garfield, 1995, 304)
“Dependent origination we declare to be emptiness. It (emptiness) is a dependent concept; just that is the middle path.” (Siderits and Katsura, 2013, 277)
These are closely, though variously interpreted, renderings of the Sanskrit verse:
yaḥ pratītyasamutpādaḥ śūnyatāṃ tāṃ pracakṣmahe / sā prajṅaptir upādyāya pratipat saiva madhamā //
No difficulty is created by the first line of this stanza, which simply equates the meaning of śūnyatā or “emptiness with that of pratītya samutpāda or “casually conditioned co-arising.” The translators, in rendering the second line into English, rather straightforwardly take it to be saying that “emptiness” is further being called a “prajṅapti upādāya,” a standard Buddhist technical term meaning a notion or label (prajṅapti) that is “derived from” or “dependent on” (upādāya) something else. Their understanding follows Candrakīrti’s explication in Prasanapadā, where the exegete harkens back to the Milindapaṅṅha and Kathāvattu in pointing out that the label (prajṅapti) “chariot” is analytically reducible to the parts that make up the chariot, and so does not denote an independent entity. Candrakīrti is then suggesting that “emptiness” is, like “chariot,” just a “derived notion” that should be understood in terms of its constituent parts rather than understood as a term denoting some discrete metaphysical reality. As I have stated previously, given the support of this reading in the commentarial tradition and what seems at first blush to be an uproblematic chain of reasoning, this is indeed a legitimately possible reading of the verse. Indeed, it is the dominant interpretation found not only in contemporary commentators, but also traditional Indian, Chinese and Tibetan ones. Given the seeming plausibility of the Prasańgika interpretation and the credentials of those who support it, why even doubt it? I got in some hot water a few years ago not merely for making some errors in my original alternative translation that I’m happy to admit and correct, but even for questioning the Prasańgika reading to begin with. I’m no sage, I’m just a scholar, so how I dare I? Why dredge it all up again.
I dredge it all up again because a number of factors continue to make this reading uncompelling for me. Some of these factors are exegetical and some philosophical considerations. And they lead me to suggest a I a possible alternative grammatical construal of MMK 24:18.
First of all, the term prajńapti is predominately used in the MMK, either in nominal or verbal form (prajńapyate) is its most generic senses of “notion” or “label,” as in 9:3, 18:6-7, 19:5 and 23:10-11. On some occasions, such “notions” or “labels” are certainly false ones, but they can also legitimately make something known or reveal something to us. The one set of stanzas where upādāyaprajṅapti is invoked in a technical Abhidharma sense as a “derived notion” is 22:1-11. But here, it is argued that tathāgata, the Buddha after his final liberation from rebirth, an “empty” being in this state, cannot be understood as being dependent on the skandhas or “personality aggregates.” That is to say, the empty Buddha should not be understood in terms of “derived notions” (upādānena sa kathaṃ prajṅapyate tathāgataḥ). So, if an empty Buddha cannot be reduced to the aggregates in the manner in which other “derived notions” can, then how could Nāgārjuna consistently say in 24:18 that the notion of “emptiness” itself is just such a “derived notion?” Furthermore, the cluster of verses surrounding MMK 24:18, such as verses 16-20, give no indication whatsoever that Abhidharma “derived notions” are relevant to the discussion at all; they merely emphasize that all empty phenomena are conditionally co-arisen phenomena. There seems, within the entirety of the text of the Kārikā, to be very little corroboration of the suggestion that Nāgārjuna considered “emptiness,” a synonym for “causally conditioned co-arising,” to be a “derived” notion reducible to its constituent parts, like a “chariot” is reducible to its wheels and axles or a “person” is reducible to her pyschophysical aggregates.
And yet, this is precisely Candrakīrti’s reading of the stanza. He insists that “emptiness,” meaning “causally conditioned co-arising” is a “derived notion” (upādāyaprajṅapti) in the same sense as the idea or label “chariot” is. The idea and word “chariot” is “derived from the wheels and the other parts of the chariot” (cakrādinyupādāya rathāṅgāni rathaḥ prajńapyate). But if, like the notion of a “chariot,” “emptiness” is reducible to “parts,” (ańgāni), what would these parts be? Candrakīrti himself does not say. But we can probably safely deduce that, if “emptiness” means the same thing as “conditioned co-arising,” then the “twelve limbs” (dvādaśāṅga) of conditioned co-arising, such as ignorance, craving, volitional habits, clinging, birth-and-death and so on are the “parts” of emptiness. However, the early Buddhist philosophers, merely because they identified the “limbs” or processes of conditioned co-arising, did not classify “conditioned co-arising” as a mere conceptual construction that did not point to the way the world really is or that things come to be and cease. On the contrary, for them, pratītya samutpāda was the “right view” of the causal relations between both natural and mental phenomena–it was not considered a fiction that needed to be analytically “deconstructed” lest it mislead us. And yet, Candrakīrti posits that “emptiness” is indeed merely just such a “derived notion.” The exegesis does bear the stamp of Prasaṅgika thought. And yet, there is, I believe, something deeply philosophically odd about this interpretation. After all, Candrakīrti himself exerts a great deal of effort to show how the MMK dismantles the Abhidharma ontological scheme to its core. That dismantling cuts through even the most basic Abhidharma distinctions between a dravyasat or an irreducible “elemental entity” and a saṃskṛtasat or a “compound entity,” the latter of which the Abhidharma would have us believe are “derived notions” to be analytically reduced to their fundamental constituents. So why would a text that undermines the very ontological dichotomy between irreducible and reducible entities than invoke that very dichotomy to explain the relationship between “emptiness” and its supposed parts? The reasons Candrakīrti offers, therefore, for reading MMK 24:18 in this way are for me, on a philosophical level, quite mysterious, to say the least.
But let us return to other textual considerations. Candrakırti claims that MMK 24:18 equates the meanings of four “identifying terms” (viśeṣasaṃjṅā), namely “conditioned co-arising,” “emptiness,” “the middle path” and “derived notion.” That is to say, for Candrakīrti, “emptiness” means “conditioned co-arising,” and the two together make up the “middle path” of Buddhist understanding, but all of these terms are nothing but “derived notions,” reducible to their ingredients. One does not find a “four-term equation” of this sort in other works attributed to Nāgārjuna, however. In the “auto-commentary” to Vigrahavyāvartani 70, Nāgārjuna proclaims that “conditioned co-arising,” “emptiness” and “the middle path” are synonymous, but no mention at all is made of “derived notions.” Likewise in Lokatitastava 22 and Acintyastava 40, crucial verses that announce the equivalence in meaning of “conditioned co-arising” and “emptiness,” “derived notion” is not invoked; the verses merely underline that “conditioned co-arising” is the “true principle” (sadharma) of the Buddha’s teachings. If we are to believe that a bedrock of Nāgārjuna’s thought is found in the warning that “emptiness” is only a “derived notion” to be analyzed away, should we not expect to find that point emphasized in similar verses in other of his writings identifying the equivalence of “conditioned co-arising” and “emptiness,” not to mention in other verses inside the MMK itself?
However, philosophical inconsistencies and textual evidence aside, are we not forced to grammatically read MMK 24:18 just as Candrakīrti has? In view of all the foregoing difficulties with the standard Prasaṅga interpretation, I suggest that there is a grammatical ambiguity in the crucial second line of the text of MMK 24:18 which makes an alternative reading possible. That ambiguity lies in the fact that the syntax of the line may force us to read it as two separate sentences rather than one compound sentence.
sā prajńaptir upādāya pratipat saiva madhyamā /
Were this a single compound sentence to be understood as saying something like: “this (emptiness) is a derived notion and is itself the middle path,” we should expect the two instances of “sā” in the sentence to be connected by the conjunctive particle “ca.” Instead, the second “sa” is accompanied by the emphatic particle “eva,” and this clearly indicates that the second “sa” stands for a different subject term than the on that begins the line. If then we do have two separate sentences here, both possessing the often omitted indicative verb “asti,” then we can parse the line like this.
sā prajṅaptir (asti) / (tāṃ) upādāya pratipat saiva madhyamā (asti) /
In this version, the line reads: “This (“emptiness”) is the idea (prajṅapti). After apprehending (upādāya) that (“emptiness”), this is truly the middle path to be walked upon.” Here the verse does nothing more than underscore that “emptiness” means, not “non-existence” (abhāva), but “causally conditioned co-arising,” and this accords with the Buddha’s teaching and puts one on the “middle path.” This would make the verse utterly consistent with the immediately surrounding verses, with the larger framework of what Nāgārjuna asserts about “emptiness” in the rest of the treatise, and with the stated relation between “emptiness” and “conditioned co-arising” in other works attributed to him.
I freely concede that the translation of 24:18 immediately above is somewhat forced. After all, we could observe the two-sentence formulation and still translate the second line of the stanza like this: “sā prajṅaptir upādāya (asti) / pratipat saiva madhyamā (asti)” and we would still have Candrakīrti’s parsing. The grammatical ambiguity of the second like of 24:18 hardly decides the interpretive question by itself. But I believe this fact reinforces my argument rather than undercutting it. Given all the problems I have found with the standard Prasańga reading explained above, I think an alternative way to understand MMK 24:18 is at least justified and plausible. And for me, it’s a philosophically preferable reading of Nāgārjuna. After all, if “conditioned co-arising” is a conceptual fiction just as much as, and just as dangerous as, the fiction of an eternal, fixed “self,” than recommending Buddhist “derived notions” over those of other traditions will always lack a vindicating explanation. And if we must, as Nāgārjuna says in MMK 24:10, rely on conventions to attain our highest aim, then good grounds for distinguishing between reliable and unreliable conventions will always be needed. If we eliminate all grounds for making such distinctions, then “right view” as the first step on the eightfold path is deprived of its importance, and all the work Nāgārjuna has put into refuting false theoretical constructions is rendered unnecessary.