This is the first of several posts examining the question, "Are Brahman and Emptiness the Same?" Collectively, the posts form an extended essay. The essay itself arises in response to a short article that appeared in the journal, "What is Enlightenment?" that had suggested the two are the "same" based on the impression that certain Buddhist and Upanishadic texts contain similar manners of expression. Basically, my approach here will be to contrast the typical attitude of perennialism, which tends to equate the two, with how the question might have been, and was, viewed in the classical Indian tradition.
I. Historical Background to the Question of Concordance
Before looking at how the Indian tradition viewed this question, some preliminary historical background into how the question of identity arose might prove illuminating.
Historically speaking, though the Indian tradition has on occasion suggested such identities across traditions, it is Western based traditions of thinking and inquiry that have most often suggested the identity of brahman and emptiness. Thus, the thesis of their identity is, I would suggest, more or less a product of Western interpretations of the Indian tradition. Lately, the equation has been taken over from scholars of comparative religion and put to use by various apologists for the "philosophis perennis," as well as by exponents of certain eclectic spiritual movements who draw from a variety of teachings and traditions and who require a unity of purpose and method.
In the recent past, the potential for the positing of the identity of brahman and emptiness came from two scholarly directions. One derived from methodologies grounded in certain forms of nineteenth-century philosophical thought, in particular that of Arthur Schopenhauer, whose general point of view was that, "the sages of all times have always said the same." During the later nineteenth century we find, for example, Paul Deussen -- an Indologist who held chairs in both philosophy and Sanskrit and is perhaps best known for his important study of Shankara's thought, The System of Vedanta -- publishing his ambitious world history of philosophy, Allgemeine Geschichte der Philosophie. A disciple of Schopenhauer, Deussen was also an exponent of the "philosophia perennis," an eirenic interpretive tendency that continued to attract writers, such as Aldous Huxley, well into the middle of the 20th century. At select moments in his Allgemeine Geschichte der Philosophie, Deussen indulges in noting the "inner points of unity" between philosophers such as Plato, Kant, Schopenhauer and Shankara; he writes, "In all countries and at all times, both near at hand and far away, it is one and the same nature of things that is contemplated by one and the same spirit."
In Europe at the turn of the century, the predominant interpretation of the Madhyamika was that it constituted a form of "nihilism," an interpretation that was in keeping with, and probably drawn from, the general view presented in the classical Indian handbooks on philosophy. But a distinct change in the Western interpretation of Madhyamika thought came with the publication of Theodore Stcherbatsky's Conception of Buddhist Nirvana in 1927. In this work, Stcherbatsky broke with the received "nihilistic" interpretation of the Madhyamika and aligned it with the mystical traditions of India, recasting its negative dialectic in terms of the apophatic method of mystical theology. Stcherbatsky interpreted the polarities of the Madhyamika dialectic in terms of the Kantian antinomies: reason is unable to grasp ultimate reality and it dissolves into antinomic conflict and contradiction whenever it attempts to do so. According to Stcherbatsky, the Madhyamikas did, however, hold that it is possible to apprehend the ultimate nature of reality through what he called "mystic intuition" (for which he offers the Sanskrit, "yogi pratyaksha"). In Stcherbatcky's eyes, the Madhyamakas were not "nastika-vadins," that is, "nihilists," and nor were they mere "vitanda-vadins," a term used in the Indian tradition to describe various debaters who indulged in mere eristic -- a group that the Madhyamakas were often associated with.
More importantly, Stcherbatsky understood the Madhyamika "metaphysic" as amounting to what he called "monism," and by this he meant something analogous to the metaphysical conception of reality found in Advaita Vedanta. Throughout his translation of passages from Chandrakirti's Prasannapada, Stcherbatsky gratuitously inserts descriptive terms such as "monist" and "monistic." At times, these liberties with the text -- as, for example, in subsection 13 of the "Examination of Causality" -- significantly distort his presentation of Chandrakirti's thought to the point of making it incoherent. Stcherbatsky's interpretation of the Madhyamika, and Mahayana in general, was in keeping with the universalist predilections his time. He writes, "The position of Sankara is interesting because, at heart, he is in full agreement with the Madhyamikas, at least in the main lines since both maintain the reality of the One-without-a-second." (p. 44) And on Mahayana Buddhology he writes, "The conception of Buddha here is quite the same as the conception of God (ishvara) in the advaita of Shankara." (p. 214)
Stcherbatsky's interpretation proved to be very influential. Publishing his own translations and studies of Chandrakirti a few years later, Stanislav Schayer identified the ultimate reality (paramartha) of the Madhyamika with what he called the "totality of being," and suggested that in the act of "mystic apprehension" the saint apprehends "the totality." Similarly, almost all of the essential elements of Stcherbatsky's interpretation can be found in T.R.V. Murti’s The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, though Murti would emphasize what he called the "epistemic" aspect of the Madhyamika over Stcherbatsky's "ontological" interpretation. (A later post will review Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, and his interpretation of Madhyamika, in greater depth.) Significantly, both Stcherbatsky and Murti saw the Madhyamika as a form of absolutism, and throughout their works both refer to emptiness (shunyata) as "the Absolute." This absolutism would color how the concept of "emptiness" would be understood in the West for some time, and it facilitated the idea that emptiness was in some sense analogous, if not identical, to the Advaitin's brahman.
We find, for example, the absolutist interpretation of the Madhyamika and the Prajnaparamita Sutras at work as late as the studies of Edward Conze, another admitted perennialist, who also applied the term "monism" to Prajnaparamita thought. Like Stcherbatsky, Conze at times takes liberties with the Sanskrit of his sources so as to suit the needs of his interpretation. For example, in a passage in his article, "The Ontology of the Prajnaparamita," he translates a particular Sanskrit phrase as, "the unbroken unity of all dharmas," and then goes on to describe this as a kind of "monism." Yet when we look to the Sanskrit offered in the footnote (17), it merely says that no dharma is separate (sambheda) from any other dharma. The idea here is that for Prajnaparamita thought, no phenomenon is an absolutely discrete entity, which is how the Abhidharmists had defined their "dharmas." I would suggest that the point being made by Prajnaparamita, contra the earlier Abhidharmists, is that all such "dharmas" arise in relation to, and mutually determined by, each other, and that it is in this sense that the Prajnaparamita Sutras speak of all dharmas being "non-separate" from one another. Conze's label of "monism" here is thus rather misleading.
While the absolutist interpretation of Madhyamika thought served a kind of propaeduetic ("skillful means"?) end by replacing the earlier more egregious interpretation that took it as a form of "nihilism," most contemporary scholars of Mahayana reject it as inadequate to the task of describing the subtleties of Mahayana thought. For some, however, the attraction persists. This may be so for a variety of reasons. Some appear to remain attached to the older Romantic and universalizing patterns of thought; others are lulled by the ecumenical spirit of perennialism; yet others seem to be driven by a theological need to reconcile two traditions they greatly admire -- Advaita Vedanta and Madhyamika -- but that they cannot bring themselves to choose between.
The second great impetus for the comparison of Advaita Vedanta and Madhyamika came with the rise of the discipline of Religionswissenschaft, Religious Studies, the principle approach for which was the act of comparison itself. One of its primary methods, which was dominant late into the 20th century, was the phenomenological method. It is worth noting that this method tends to see its objects in terms of generalities, as instances of universal "essences" transcending historical and cultural differences. Thus, like those trends in nineteenth century thought that sought out the "timeless truths" and insights that remain the "same" throughout different times and places, the phenomenological comparative approach also tends to view its subject primarily in terms of a kind of universality, often to the detriment of the particularity of traditions. An example of the application of this kind of approach is Rudolph Otto's Mysticism East and West, a work that had attempted to find a "common foundation" for the theologies of Shankara and Meister Eckhart.
It is along phenomenological lines that the comparison of emptiness and brahman might most profitably proceed. In the next section I will make use of a phenomenological comparative method that at the same time stays close to the Sanskrit sources that speak of brahman and emptiness. The general idea will be that, phenomenologically speaking, it is possible to understand the two respective traditions that speak of brahman and emptiness -- Advaita Vedanta and Madhyamika -- as analogous expressions of a form of mysticism.
II. The Question of Concordance Viewed Phenomenologically
To be precise, any phenomenological comparison of emptiness and brahman should first properly restrict the sense of brahman. It is purportedly the formless brahman of Advaita Vedanta, the nirguna Brahman, that is meant when it is suggested that "emptiness and brahman are the same." In Advaita Vedanta, the formless brahman is the absolute in its pure and transcendent aspect. It is named variously, the supreme (param), qualityless (nirguna), distinctionless (nirvishesha) brahman, and it is often contrasted with the brahman with quality and distinction. This contrast between the two aspects of brahman is particularly important in the exegesis of Shankara, who abstracts the essential nature of brahman from the various Upanishadic sources. Part of Shankara's aim in doing so is the reconciliation or "harmonization" (samanvaya) of conflicting passages in the Upanishads. This is achieved through the subordination of certain teachings to others. Shankara wishes to distinguish between those teachings whose aim is mere upasana, which is a collective term that covers ritual, meditation and devotion, from those teachings aimed at jnana. These two aspects of the practice of Vedanta are then coordinated with the two aspects of brahman -- with jnana being related to the formless brahman, and meditation and devotion being related to the brahman with form.
Paralleling the distinction between two kinds of texts is the doctrine of the "two truths": the relative (samvrti) or conventional (vyavahara) truth of the phenomenal domain, and the ultimate (paramartha) truth. This distinction was first posited by the Buddhist tradition. It was later adopted by Advaita Vedanta along the lines of the Upanishadic distinction between "higher" (para) and "lower" (apara) knowledge (vidya). The second truth, the ultimate truth, has historically been interpreted in various ways by the Buddhist tradition. It began its life as the idea that some texts are literally true (vis a vis those which are only metaphorically true). Among the Abhidharmists, however, it comes to refer to the truth expressed in their metaphysical re-description of reality, that is, to the result of an analysis of objects and events that reduced phenomena to their essential constituents or "dharmas" (metaphysical ultimates akin to the "sense-data" of empiricists or "essences" of phenomenologists). With the Prajnaparamita Sutras and Madhyamika, the ultimate truth eventually comes to refer to the transcendent nature of reality. The tradition of Advaita Vedanta would later adopt this latter sense of ultimate truth (with emendations). Generally speaking, it is this idea, that reality ultimately transcends discursive thought, that the Madhyamika basically shares with Advaita Vedanta.
It might serve us well to look a little at the history of the development of this idea of transcendence. One of the first declarations of the idea can be found at Taittiriya Upanishad 2.4.1 which describes Brahman as, "that before which words are turned away, it not having been grasped by the mind" (yato vaco nivartante, aprapya manasa saha). In a similar manner, the later Katha Upanishad says, "it cannot be attained by words or the mind" (naiva vaca na manasa praptum sakyo). The Katha Up also describes brahman as "indescribable" (anirdeshya), "subtle", and "beyond reasoning" (atarkya). Echoing the Katha Upanishad, the Gita describes the supreme form of Krishna as "indescribable" (anirdeshya) and "unthinkable" (acintya). The Mandukya Upanishad would, in turn, draw upon the Gita when it describes the non-dual turiya as "indefinable" (avayapadeshya) and "unthinkable" (acintya). When referring to the pure and formless Brahman, Shankara will often draw upon such passages to establish his point.
An analogous set of terms could be drawn from the Buddhist tradition. Indeed, several Pali scriptures contain terms quite similar to those used in the Katha Upanishad. For example, with respect to the so-called "unanswered questions" (avyakrta-vastuni), we find the Buddha-dharma being described as "subtle" and "beyond reasoning" (atarkya) just as the Katha Upanishad describes its teaching. In an article on "proto-Madhyamka" in the Pali canon, Luis Gomez has drawn our attention to what can be seen as the forerunner of the Prajnaparamita and Madhyamika traditions. One of the most forceful works from this class of texts is the Atthakavagga from the Suttanipata. It refers to a truth that is beyond discussion (vada), description (kathaka), reckoning (samkhya) and discursive proliferation (prapancha). In a similar way, the Prajnaparamita Sutras contain phrases like, "the dharmas are inexpressible," "the Buddha is speechless silence," and so on. Nagarjuna, in turn, describes the ultimate truth in the following way: "What can be expressed in words comes to an end when that which is within range of the mind comes to a stop (nivrttam abhidhatavyam nivrtte cittagocare)." (MK 18.7) Frits Staal has noted the proximity of Nagarjuna's language here to that of the Taittiriya Upanishad.
It is in this sense, then, that we can speak of the "mysticism" of Advaita Vedanta, the Madhyamika, and their forerunners. Before explicating more specifically the nature of this mysticism, it would be helpful to first elucidate the phenomenological category of the "mystical" and contextualize the term historically by referring it to its Western roots.
Most accounts of the history of mysticism trace the mystical stream of spirituality in the West, and the thinking associated with it, back to a work by Dionyisius the Areopagite (or the Pseudo-Dionysius as he is known): On the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology. It is here that the distinction between theologia kataphatika, or "positive theology," and theologia negativa, or "negative theology" is perhaps first fully elucidated. Positive theology approaches God through positive means and describes God through the use of positive epithets such as Truth, Love, Goodness, and so on. Negative theology refers to the practice of describing God primarily through the use of negative epithets, that is, through the use of terms that refer to exclusion and negation. It is this negative theology that is usually associated with the "mystical." The basic idea underlying negative theology is the teaching that God can only indirectly be referred to and not directly denoted. This is because, for the theologia negativa, God, as such, essentially transcends all words and concepts, and thereby all speech and discursive thought. Accordingly, negative theology also makes use of paradoxical formulations in its descriptions. Indeed, the very idea of attempting to describe what cannot, properly speaking, be described is itself inherently paradoxical.
The Pseudo-Dionysius had actually drawn upon the work of Proclus the Neo-Platonist in his construction of a Christian theologia negativa. Christian mysticism is thus indebted to the Neo-Platonic and Neo-Pythagorean tradition. After the Pseudo-Dionysius, the negative approach was later transmitted to John Eriugena, John the Scot, who carried on the tradition of mystical theology during the dark ages. It was later picked up by Meister Eckhart during the high middle ages, and then received by Nicholas of Cusa at the cusp of the Renaissance. Among all of these theologians there is a marked tendency toward dialectical thinking and manner of expression, an inheritance from their Neo-Platonic forerunners, as the dialectical modality is aptly suited to the treatment of negation and paradox. Another theme that runs through the early dialectical theologians is that of agnosia, which refers to not agnosticism per se, but to a special kind of knowing that, according to the mystics, can only be described as a kind of "unknowing," an idea that appears in the works of Cusanus as the "learned ignorance" (docta ignorantio). The idea is that since God transcends discursive thought, God cannot be approached through ordinary means of knowledge. The defining characteristics of this form of mysticism are, therefore, the idea that God or ultimate reality transcends the categories of language and thought, and the idea that, if God or ultimate reality is to be approached at all, it must be approached in a certain negative way.
The characteristic of negativity not only applies to the end result of mysticism but to the practice of mysticism itself, and in this sense mysticism is sometimes referred as the "via negativa." Accordingly, the Western mystical tradition draws a distinction between mysticism as path and mysticism as goal, between the propaedeutica mysticum and silentium mysticum. The practice of mysticism, the via negativa, can be described as a process of removing names and concepts, or more specifically, as a kind of "emptying" of the mind and soul. In the Eastern Orthodox church, this is known as kenosis. This process is closely allied with the act of detachment, which Eckhart refers to as Abgeshiedenheit or "cutting away."
Many of these characteristics of the "mystical" can be found in the representative works of Advaita Vedanta and Madhyamika and it is with reference to these characteristics that we can, phenomenologically speaking, refer to these traditions as forms of mysticism. We have already indicated several relevant passages from both traditions. As for the tradition of Advaita Vedanta there is a wealth of evidence. To begin, it is significant that Shankara's comments on the section in the Brahma Sutras dealing with the highest brahman -- which runs from 3.2.11 to 3.2.21 -- contains many of the most pertinent passages relating to the mystical character of Advaita Vedanta. In his comments on 3.2.18 Shankara says that since the highest Self transcends speech and mind -- a reference to Taittiriya 2.4.1 -- it is to be indicated (upadeshya) by way of the negation (pratisheda) of all characteristics other than pure consciousness (chaitanya). Shankara's comments on Gita 13.12, which states that the supreme brahman cannot be said to be a "sat" (existent) or an "asat" (non-existent), reiterate this point. Here, Shankara again says that since brahman is beyond the range of speech, it can only be indicated by the negation (pratisheda) of all particular characteristics (vishesha). Shankara's comments on Brahma Sutra 3.2.17 also mention some secondary sources that refer to the highest brahman as beyond words and thought. Shankara writes, "Of similar purport is the passage that relates how Bahva, when questioned by about brahman by Vashkalin, explained it to him by remaining silent. He said to him, 'Learn of brahman, O friend,' and then became silent. When questioned (as to what the teaching was), he replied, 'I am indeed teaching you, but you do not understand. The Self is silence'."
Perhaps the most well known of the Upanishadic passages that make use of negation is the description of brahman found in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, in particular Brhad Up 2.3.6 which states, "There is no other more appropriate description of brahman than 'neti, neti' (not this, not that)." We also find in the Brhad Up perhaps the first use of the term "advaita." There it means "non-other" (an-anya), and by this it does not mean "non-different" so much as that there is no "other" to brahman, no second thing. The non-dualism of the Brhad Up differs in this regard from the monism of the Chandogya Upanishad, which uses images, such as many rivers flowing into a single ocean, that are more suggestive of immanence.
The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad is particularly important in Shankara's Advaita in that it tends to stress the transcendence of brahman over brahman's immanence. It is important to note that for Shankara, the modality of negation, exclusion and transcendence is given precedence over imputation, inclusion and immanence. In their writings, both Shankara and Gaudapada evoke a version of the principle of "skillful means" and relegate certain teachings, such as the teaching that the world emanates from brahman, to a merely propaedeutic and provisional status. But while Gaudapada teaches that the world is ultimately no different from the Self and but a projection of consciousness, Shankara emphasizes the distinctiveness of the Self from the world.
Accordingly, in Shankara's advaita, brahman is defined in opposition to the world. In the comments on Brahma Sutra 3.2.14, brahman is defined as "nih-prapancha" or "devoid of the worldly expanse." Nagarjuna too describes the ultimate truth as "a-prapanchitam". This term, "prapancha," not easily translatable into English, literally means proliferation and diversity. In Advaita Vedanta, it refers, more or less, to the "worldly expanse and its diversity." In Mahayana thinking, it takes on a different significance. Stcherbatsky notes its affiliation with verbal designation (vak) in Nagarjuna's Madhyamika Karikas (18.9). In the Madhyamika, its sense is closer to the idea of "verbal and conceptual proliferation."
Still, there are ties between these two senses of the term "prapancha." For Shankara, the world is ultimately constituted by "name and form" (nama-rupa) and when referring to the creation of the world, or true lack thereof, he quotes Chandogya Up 6.1.4, which states that the world originates from "words only." For the Vedantins prior to Shankara, this passage had a kind of cosmic and metaphysical significance in that it was taken to refer to the idea that the creation of the world takes place via the primoridial "word." With Shankara it takes on a different sense, one that is apparently influenced by Mahayana thought. What it means for Shankara is that the world emanates in "name only." Creation is, in other words, but a figure of speech. We get a sense here that for Shankara, as for the Madhyamakas, the proliferation of "things" in the world is due in large part to the function of language. For Nagarjuna, where there is a verbal designation (prajnapti), we find a "thing" (bhava), and where there is a thing, we find a verbal designation. In a way, this can be understood as a semblance of a metaphysical theory as to the "origin" of objects in the world.
Both Advaita Vedanta and the Madhyamika describe their respective goals, the silentium mysiticum, with similar terminology. It is defined for both as "the quieting of discursive proliferation" (prapancha upashama). Gaudapada uses this terminology at Karika 2.35 to describe the muni's state of final release. In his dedication at the opening of the Madhyamika Karikas, Nagarjuna associates the supreme beatific state (shiva) with the quieting of discursive proliferation (prapancha upashama). This expression is repeated in the final verse of chapter 25, "The Examination of Nirvana" (25.24), to which Nagarjuna adds a note on the ineffability of the Buddhist truth: "At no time has the Buddha ever uttered any dharma." In his commentary on this verse, Chandrakirti says that this means that, for the Madhyamakas, nirvana is the quieting of discursive proliferation, and he glosses the term "prapancha-upashama" as the cessation (apravrtti) of speech (vacam) and thought (citta).
There are also resemblances between the respective paths, the silentium propaedeutica, of Advaita Vedanta and Madhyamika, especially with regard to the traditions ushered in by Shankara and Chandrakirti. Both the Shankara Advaitins and the Prasangikas makes use of an kind of analytic inquiry (vichara) in their disciplines. In a seemingly paradoxical way, both Chandrakirti and Shankara admit a role to reasoning in their respective paths. For Shankara, however, such reasoning only occurs within the carefully circumscribed context of transmitted tradition (sampradaya), which for him involves receiving instruction of a teaching (upadesha), based upon divine revelation (shruti), from a fully qualified teacher (acharya). Both Shankara and Chandrakirti are highly critical of the mere "logicians" (tarkika) who think that ultimate truth can be established by means of independent reasoning alone. In this sense, both have a pronounced conservative streak.
Rather than the positive establishing or positing of some truth or other, the process of analytic inquiry aims at the removal of "discursive proliferation." For the Prasangikas this takes place through a kind of analytical undermining of the manner in which the mind constructs and reifies "things" (bhava) and "views" (drshti) about such things. The point of such analysis is to see that such "things" are ultimately empty of any essential "thing-hood." In the past, Western commentators have described this analytic process as kind of "negative dialectic" that functions to clear away conceptual obfuscations (kalpana; vikalpa). Contemporary commentators have likened it to a kind of "deconstructive" process. In any case, the result of this process is clearly described by the Prasangika commentators as the negation of "discursive proliferation".
For Shankara as well, there is nothing "established" by way of the process of the Advaitic inquiry, as brahman is always ever self-established. In his comments on Gita 18.50, he says that all that is necessary is the elimination of the confusion that associates the Self with what is not Self. Likewise, at Brhad Up 4.4.25 he says, "by the exclusion (apoha) of the superimposed attributes, that is, by their removal (apanaya) through the process of "neti, neti," the truth (tattva) is known." Accordingly, he describes moksha as the cessation (nivrtti) of the causal ignorance (avidya) that falsely constructs this association via the superimposition of the non-Self onto the Self. Here again, the overriding principle is one of exclusion and negation. Throughout his writings, Shankara says that the point of the path of knowledge is understanding that the Self and non-Self are distinct (vivikta).
In this sense, discrimination (viveka) plays a decisive role in Shankara's conception of soteriological knowledge (jnana). He often refers to the saving knowledge itself as "viveka-jnana" and defines the nature of ignorance as the absence of discrimination (a-viveka). This brings his view of liberating knowledge close to conception found in the path of Samkhya, which culminates in the discriminative apprehension (viveka-khyati) of the distinction between purusha and prakriti. Shankara's Advaita goes one step further, however, as it is not enough for him that the two simply be distinguished. For him, that which is not-Self must ultimately also be negated as "an-artha," insubstantial and worthless, so that what remains is the absolute Self alone. In his comments on Chandogya 7.1.13 he writes, "once the body-mind complex and so on has been negated (pratyakhyayamana) the inner Self (pratyatma) alone remains (parishishta)."
In his comments on Chandogya Up 7.1.1, Shankara likens the gradual form of this teaching to a kind of ascent (arohana); he says, "first the gross (sthula) is indicated, and then the increasingly subtle (sukshmam sukshmataram) until finally the self-sovereign (svarajya) infinite can be indicated." This "indication" is indirect, however, and he likens it to indirectly indicating the moon by pointing to the branches of a tree through which the moon may be seen. In other places he likens this "indirection" to pointing to a bright star that is in the vicinity of a more faint star so that the more dimly lit star might be noticed.
Shankara's entire inquiry into the nature of the Self can be characterized as a process of negation and exclusion. Through a gradual reductive process, various alternatives indicated above are eliminated -- first the physical body, then the senses, then the "inner organ" (antahkarana) or mental apparatus, and so on. What remains at the end of this process is the pure "seer" or pure witnessing consciousness: the self-luminous Self. It is in this context, that we find the consideration of the various states of consciousness.
Discrimination also plays a role in the soteriological knowledge of the Prajnaparamita as well. The term "prajna" is often translated as "discriminative wisdom." In the pre-Mahayana work "The Questions of Milinda," Milinda asks, what is meant by the term "manasikara," attention, and what is meant by "prajna"? The answer given by Nagasena is that attention "gathers" while prajna "cuts through," and he supplies the image of the reaper of grain who gathers stalks together with one arm and uses a scythe to cut through the stalks with the other. In a similar way, prajna is often likened to a sword in the Mahayana. Such images are suggestive not only of discrimination and exclusion, of "cutting away," but of the related volitional act of detachment.
T.R.V. Murti and D.T. Suzuki take "prajna" as a kind of "intuition" and by this they mean a kind of direct and non-conceptual cognition. In his article, "Reason (vijnana) and Intuition (prajna) in Buddhist Philosophy," D.T. Suzuki describes prajna as, "the noetic principle whereby the synthetic apprehension of the whole becomes possible." This idea, which reminds us of Stcherbatsky's and Schayer's interpretation of Madhyamika, is problematic and inadequate. Writing in response to Stcherbatsky and Schayer, J.W. de Jong notes, in his address "The Problem of the Absolute in the Madhyamika School," that such interpretations are, "contrary and alien to the spirit of Buddhist thought, which never at any stage visualizes unreal constituents forming a whole which is real." Indeed, the synthetic construction of wholes out of constituent parts is precisely how Buddhist thought has traditionally defined impermanent entities and conditioned reality. Simply because the Madhyamika rejects the particularism of the Abhidharmists in no way necessitates that it advocates some form of "monism." Indeed, a survey of the various analyses offered by both the Prasangika and Svatantrika authors shows that they rejected the entire metaphysical edifice that thinks in terms of "whole" and "parts", "one" and "many".
In his book The Emptiness of Emptiness, C.W. Huntington notes that many of the differing senses of the term "prajna" can be shown to share a common sense -- that of "cutting through" illusion, delusion and so on. It is in this capacity that prajna is often related to the cognition of emptiness itself. However, here, as both F. Streng and Huntington note, "emptiness" need not be taken as referring to some positive, transcendent entity -- "the non-dual Void" -- but simply may be taken as referring to the emptiness of the delusional process itself, the process of discursive and conceptual obfuscation that constructs seemingly self-posited "things" and imputes an independent reality upon them, treating them as if they were ultimately real and independent.
It is at this point that the similarities between Advaita Vedanta and Madhyamika, between Shankara and Chandrakirti, begin to give way to significant differences. These differences not only relate to how they conceive, respectively, of emptiness and the highest brahman, but, I would suggest, to fundamental assumptions about the nature of their respective paths and soteriological goals. I will leave the discussion of these specific differences for the final section of this essay. For now, we will close the present section by reinterating that, phenomenologically speaking, both Advaita Vedanta and Madhyamika can be understood as analogous forms of mysticism, as forms of the "via negativa."