VI. The Question of Concordance in Svatantrika Madhyamika
At this point I will turn to the writings of Bhavaviveka and examine in detail the evidence for identifying brahman and emptiness on their basis.
Bhavaviveka, or "Bhavya" as he is often known, was a follower of Nagarjuna. He founded the school of Madhyamika that became known as Svantantrika Madhyamika, a school that had set itself up in contradistinction to Buddhapalita's interpretation of Nagarjuna. He is the author of the Madhyamaka-hrdaya, one of the first Indian doxographies (works that survey the doctrines of the various schools of the Indian tradition). One of the chapters of the Madhyamaka-hrdaya is devoted to the examination and refutation of Vedanta. The chapter is titled, "Vedanta-tattva-vinischaya," or "An Inquiry into the Truth of the Vedanta."
This chapter has been translated and commented upon by several scholars including V.V. Ghokale, H. Nakamura, and most lately Olle Quarnstrom. It contains elaborate refutations of the Vedanta metaphysics and soteriology, and some of its material reappears in later Buddhist and Jain doxographies. I will not dwell on the details of Bhavya's refutation of the Vedanta at this time. It is perhaps enough to note that the fact he chooses to refute the Vedanta indicates what he thought about the relationship between the two schools.
It was the scholar V.V. Ghokale who first pointed to the possibility that brahman and emptiness, or brahman and the dharmakaya, might be comparable on the basis of certain comments found in Bhavya's Madhyamakahrdaya. Ghokale published an important translation-article on the Vedanta-tattva-viniscaya chapter of Bhavya's Madhyamakahrdaya. Near the end of that article, he observed:
Bhavya's own detailed estimate of the Vedanta position... confirms the recognition of some common ground between the two idealistic trends in Indian philosophic thought. Bhavya is generous enough to acknowledge that whatever is good in the Vedanta may be considered as taught by the Buddha himself.
This comment is based upon something that Bhavya says in an earlier chapter. In a chapter of the Madhyamaka-hrdaya that that deals with the Hinayana, Bhavya makes the following comment: vedante ca hi suktam tat sarvam buddhabhashitam. Translated literally the passage says, "Whatever is well said in the Vedanta, that has been said by the Buddha." Now, this statement is, in turn, actually a response to a criticism made by a Hinayana detractor against the Mahayana. The Hinayana interlocutor says: "The Mahayana cannot represent the teachings of the Buddha because it is not included in the Sutranta (i.e., the Pali canon), and because it teaches a false path like the Vedanta." (Interestingly, this criticism is analogous to the sort of accusation the non-dualist Vedantins will later face from the dualist schools of Vedanta.) It is at this point that Bhavya responds, "Whatever is well said in the Vedanta, that has already been said by the Buddha." Here, a commentator to Bhavya's text explains that if the Vedas say something that is in conformity with the Buddha-dharma, it need not be taken as false simply because it is found in the Veda; likewise, just because the Madhyamika says something that happens to agree with certain brahmanic doctrines does not mean that the Madhyamika is wrong. As Bhavya suggests, the coincidence may very well have to do with the fact that certain teachers of Vedanta have borrowed from the Buddha-dharma. And indeed, at one point in his refutation of Advaita Vedanta, this is precisely what Bhavya says: "Being interested in our own faultless teaching, you have made it your own. But your teaching is heterogeneous and contradictory and as such no one will want to have faith in a heterogeneous and contradictory teaching." Thus, Ghokale's interpolation of the passage distorts the direction that Bhavya is taking the discussion.
From comments found elsewhere in his article, Ghokale seems interested in the perennialist idea of a "common ground" between the Madhyamika and Advaita Vedanta. In a footnote, he says that the Ratnagotravibhaga (a tathagatagarbha text) insinuates a comparison between the Tathagata and Brahma and speaks of the "brahmyam padyam." Ghokale brings up the issue of a "common ground" between the two again in another article that draws upon chapter three of Bhavya's Madhyamakahrdaya. There he quotes an entire section dealing with the nature of the dharmakaya. The passage is interesting and deserves careful examination.
Verse 276 of chapter three says that because the dharmakaya is inconceivable, or rather beyond the bifurcating conceptions (avikalpatva), it is indescribable (avacya). This idea actually implies a piece of Buddhist linguistic philosophy, according to which predication is dependent upon the bifurcating conceptions (since in order for a thing to be an X it cannot be non-X).
Verse 277 says with regard to the dharmakaya, "Here, words are turned away; it is not within the range of the thought." The Sanskrit of this verse is interesting; it reads: atra vaco nivartante cittasya ayam agocharah. This verse can be compared with two others. Consider first Taittiriya Upanishad 2.9.1: yato vaco nivartante aprapya manasa saha... "Words being turned away it cannot be grasped by the mind." And now note Nagarjuna's Madhyamika Karika 18.7: nivrttam abhidhatavyam nivrtte cittagocare... "When there is the turning back of what is within the range thought, there is the turning back of that which can be talked about." Bhavya's verse would appear to be a kind of composite that draws from both the Upanishads and the works of Nagarjuna, as the first part of the verse is a reference to TaitUp 2.9.1, while the second part refers to MK 18.7. In this verse, Bhavya brings our attention to the proximity of the language used by the two traditions. He is as much as saying that Nagarjuna is drawing upon the earlier mysticism of the Upanishads, something suggested by the scholar Frits Staal in his book Exploring Mysticism.
Verse 278 says that the dharmakaya is the beneficent/quiescent (shiva) calming of discursive proliferation (prapancha-upashama). This is a reference to Nagarjuna's definition of nirvana at MK 25.24.
Verse 279 says that the dharmakaya cannot be seen by either the physical eye or the divine eye (divya chakshu), nor grasped by either savikalpa or nirvikalpa cognition. This would appear to be a reference to early Buddhist works that describe the extreme subtly of the highest teachings. Interestingly, as I have pointed out previously, the Katha Upanishad uses language that closely parallels this kind of language.
Verse 283 is the most important for our present purposes. It says literally that the dharmakaya is the supreme "brahman" that cannot be grasped by the gods Brahma and the rest. At this point, a commentator to the work says that the term "brahman" here can mean either the creator God of the Vedantins, or nirvana. He then says that it is to be understood in the latter sense. He adds that it cannot be grasped by the gods because they remain deluded by the conception of a self, and because their knowledge remains attached to an object (sa-alambana). The final clause here can be interpreted as: because their conception reifies the absolute into some kind of "thing."
Ghokale comments on the above: "Thus we have in the above passage a Madhyamika criticism of the Vedantic term 'Brahman' which, if properly understood could be equated with Nirvana or Dharmakaya according to Bhavya."
I think that Ghokale's rather loose language here leaves the door open for some spurious interpretations of Bhavya's intent. Ghokale's presentation makes it sound as if all that is needed is a rejection of the conception of brahman that takes brahman as the creator god, that is, as the brahman with form, and that once this is done, brahman and the dharmakaya can then be seen as identical. It means, in other words, that as long as the Vedantin applies the critical method of discrimination toward his conception of brahman, the Madhyamaka and Advaitin are in full agreement.
Now there may be something to this idea that Bhavya is asking the Vedantin to apply the critical method to his conception of brahman. But the outcome here, I would suggest, will not what the perennialist has in mind. If Bhavya is indeed suggesting something like this, he is saying that the Advaitin has not gone far enough in his application of the negative method, that though the Advaitin is willing to accept the "emptiness of other," he does not accept the "emptiness of self," and the truth is: "the emptiness of self and other." In other words, as far as Bhavya is concerned, for the Advaitin and the Madhyamika to "agree," the Advaitin would have to accept the teaching of the emptiness of self. But this would be tantamount to rejecting the Upanishadic teaching concerning the absolute self and converting to Buddhism. This, as we have seen above, is something that Shankara clearly rejects. So I think Bhavya's intent here is much more ironic, and polemical, than Ghokale suggests.
On Bhavya's approach to the Vedanta, Wilhelm Halbfass has written:
The Buddhists... also utilized the inclusivist model in their argumentation against other schools, including the Vedanta. As the Madhyamaka philosopher Bhavya stated, the ultimate concern of the Vedanta, although misunderstood by the Vedantins themselves, is the principle of absolute 'emptiness' (shunyata) and freedom taught by the Buddhists; the concept of Brahman ultimately amounts to the Buddhist notion of nirvana and sunya. On the other hand, Bhavya countered the Buddhist thinkers who tended to interpret the principle of 'suchness' (tathata) as a real entity with the argument that this would amount to adopting the Vedantic Atman ("The Sanskrit Doxographies", in India and Europe, p. 357).
Here, Halbfass says that for Bhavya, the conception of brahman "ultimately amounts to the Buddhist notion of nirvana and shunya." While what he says here is essentially correct, I think we need to be careful in understanding just what this statement means in terms of Bhavya's thought. The Buddhist doxographers like Bhavya did indeed use "inclusivist" language in their doxographies. But their intent was not, as the perennialists suggest, some kind of happy syncretism where everyone joins hands as equals; rather it was primarily polemical and apologetic. The classical traditions of Buddhism and Jainism were "outsider" traditions, and as such, they made references to mainstream brahmanic culture and thought whenever they could -- incorporating it where it proved advantageous, rejecting it where it didn't. Jain thought in particular relishes in twisting the doctrines of their opponents into ideas that conform with their own teachings by showing how the original presuppositions of their detractors logically entail the Jain point of view. Therefore, when Halbfass says that for Bhavya, brahman "ultimately amounts to shunya," this means that the Madhyamaka is saying that ultimately, the "neti, neti" must be turned against the conceptions of brahman and atman. Otherwise, it stops short of its implied goal, and thereby remains inconsistent.
Bhavya does indeed use the term "brahman" to describe the dharmakaya. But in doing so, I don't think Bhavya has some kind of ecumenical spirit in mind here. Rather, Bhavya is appropriating the Lankavatara Sutra's rhetorical and "skillful means" use of the term "brahman." We find such literary usages in many Buddhist works -- for example, in the positive use of terms such as "brahmin" and "arya" in Buddhist narratives. It is clear from the contexts in which such terms appear that their use in no way implies the acceptance of traditional Vedic values other than accepted norms of usage wherein the terms "brahmin" and "arya" neutrally refer to noble beings. At the same time, however, they are also using such terms ironically. Indeed, the point in the Buddhist and Jain narratives and stories is often that the "true" brahmin is not the one who blindly follows the Vedic ritual dharma to the letter, but the one who lives his life morally and with pure intent. Vasubandhu seems to be attuned to Bhavya's basic spirit here when he comments that the term "brahman" here means "quiescent and cool," an apparent reference to the use of the term "shiva" in the Buddhist description of nirvana.
Thus, Bhavya may indeed be admitting that there is a kind of kinship between the traditions of Advaita and Madhyamika. But all this need mean is that at the time of Bhavya's writing, the proximity of the Mahayana schools and Advaita Vedanta had already been noticed by others. This being the case, one of Bhavya's aims in writing the Vedanta chapter was to distinguish the two schools. So, he is not simply acknowledging the proximity of the two when he compares them. He is using this proximity toward his particular rhetorical end, that of "converting" the position of the Advaitin into that of the Madhyamika, and thereby showing the ability of the latter to absorb and super-cede the former.
VII. The Question of Concordance According to the Prasangikas
In this next section I will address how I think the Prasangikas would respond to the question of identity.
It is generally thought that the teaching of "emptiness" represents a kind of extension and radicalization of the teaching of an-atma, or "no-self." The teaching of no-self is also related to the teaching of a-nityatva, "impermanence," the teaching that there are no eternal entities and that all being is transitory being. When the Buddhist schools taught that there is no self, what they meant is that there is no eternal self, no independent self that will continue to abide after death and for all time. It is important to note that the teaching of impermanence here is no mere metaphysical doctrine. It has a practical dimension related to the practice of detachment and renunciation. The idea is that if all beings are transitory, then we should not become attached to them, and certainly we should not treat them as if they will last forever, for to do so is to invite duhkha, suffering.
In order to understand how the teaching of emptiness is kind of extension of the teaching of no-self, it is necessary to consider first what is meant by "atman" or "self." In Sanskrit, the term "atman" does not simply refer to the personal self. It has a much broader semantic range. It is often used with personal pronouns to denote reflexivity, as in "he did it himself." And when incorporated into a Sanskrit compound as the final component, it means "the nature of...". In this latter case, it takes on a metaphysical sense in that it denotes the essence of a thing -- "the thing in itself." In this sense, it is synonymous with terms such as "svarupa" and "svabhava".
With the Prajnaparamita Sutras we find the no-self teaching extended to include all things, all "dharmas" (dharma-nairatmya). This can be understood as both a specific critique of the Abhidharmists, who had attempted to re-describe reality in terms of individual "dharmas," and a general critique of all forms of metaphysics. What the Prajnaparamita Sutras say is that all dharmas are without "self," are an-atma, and by this they mean that all dharmas are without an essential nature (nih-svabhava). The other way they express this is by saying that all things, all dharmas, are empty (shunya) of an essential nature.
To understand what exactly they mean by this, we must first elucidate what they mean by an "essential nature." The term used by both the Prajnaparamita Sutras and the Madhyamika for "essential nature" is "svabhava." The exact definition of "svabhava" is given by Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti. Literally it means "own-being," and according to both this means independent, unchanging, self-existent being. Here, it would appear that Nagarjuna is in fact invoking the old Upanishadic definition of being or "sat." In the Upanishads, true being is absolute being, being that never comes into being nor goes out of being; the implication, drawn by the later tradition, is that it is being that never changes. What Nagarjuna is saying, is that essence means "svabhava" and "svabhava" means absolute being. At this point, however, he breaks with the Upanishadic connotations. What Nagarjuna and the Prajnaparamita Sutras are saying is that all beings are empty of this very "own-being." This is tantamount to saying that there are no self-existent independent entities, or, in other words, that there are no absolute beings. Another way of saying this is to say that all things are dependent on other beings, and thus that all beings are, in a sense, interdependent. This latter idea is how the Prajnaparamita Sutras and Nagarjuna reinterpret the teaching of pratitya-samutpada, "conditioned co-arising." It is in this sense that Nagarjuna speaks of pratitya-samutpada and shunyata as synonymous.
Now even though Nagarjuna adopts the Upanishadic definition of being, this does not make him beholden to admitting, like the Upanishads, that absolute being exists, as those who wish to turn Nagarjuna into an absolutist claim. I would suggest that Nagarjuna expresses his teaching in the form of a kind of conditional: "Being means absolute being. If being is absolute being, then there are no absolute beings." Again, what Nagarjuna is doing is drawing upon the assumptions of a rival tradition, here the Upanishads, and using them toward a particular effect.
The precedent for this kind of move can be found in the earliest Buddhist Suttas. As K.R. Norman has shown, in "A note on atta in the Alagadupama-sutta," some of the Buddha's earliest addresses make use of contemporaneous brahmanic conceptions of the atman. One such conception is the notion that the self is bliss. In his analyses of the skandhas, the Buddha has his audience agree that the skandhas are not the self, since they are not conducive to happiness. But this is no way entails that the "Buddha" (and I use this term metonymically) accepts the existence such a self. Jayatilleke remarks that in such contexts, the Buddha "makes use of the definition of the concept of the atman without assuming its existence." (p. 39) Thus, though the Buddha's approach here is similar to the "this is not mine, this is not my self" formulation that we find in the Samkhya and the Upanishads, it does not mean that he accepts the Upanishadic teaching of the self. What the Buddha is doing in such contexts is addressing an audience that is already acquainted with certain methods and conceptions of the self and using that familiarity for a particular persuasive effect.
The early Suttas also suggest that the Buddha was able to turn a teaching against itself. Quoting an early work, Jayatilleke writes of the Buddha, "He is also reported to have 'known the trick (mayam) of turning (his opponents over to his views) with which he converted the disciples of heretical teachers'." (p. 408) The procedure here would be to start with the assumptions of a rival teaching and then show how they entail a contradiction or some other undesirable consequence.
Occasionally, the Madhyamika and the Prajnaparamita Sutras use the term "svabhava" in its more traditional sense, that is, as referring to "the nature of reality." They use other terms, such as "tathata" and "dharmata," in this way also. When they do so, however, we need to understand that they are doing so in a non-technical way only, in accordance with the hermeneutic principle of primary and secondary meanings of terms. This usage sometimes leads Western commentators astray. Some, such as Alex Wayman, who has a rather obvious perennialist agenda, even elevate this kind of usage to a matter of fact, making the exception into a kind of rule. I would suggest that when we do find terms such as "svabhava" used in this manner, we need to interpret such usage as a kind of figurative application. The Prasangika commentators are clear on this point: the "svabhava" or "essential nature" of reality is, precisely, its emptiness of essential nature.
This brings us to a general evaluative difference between the emptiness of the Madhyamikas and the formless Brahman of Advaita Vedanta. If emptiness refers to the emptiness of our essential selves, of things in the world, and to our views, then if there is an analog to emptiness, it should be "maya," "mithyatva" (illusoriness), and so on, and not brahman. Occasionally, however, especially in Mahayana scriptures, we find the term "emptiness" used in a "nominal" manner as if it were referring to some kind of absolute or supreme state. D.S. Ruegg has pointed to the bi-valency of the term "emptiness": it refers to both the emptiness of the world, considered as consisting of absolute objects, but also to ultimate reality (paramartha). But according to the Prasangika Madhyamikas, when this term is used it should be taken as referring to the teaching of the emptiness of all dharmas, and not to some reified entity. Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti are quite clear on this point. Nagarjuna says, "An improperly conceived emptiness is like a badly seized cobra." And what is the nature of an improperly conceived emptiness? Nagarjuna warns, "Those who think that emptiness is some kind of view (drshti) are said to be incorrigible." We can extrapolate from this and say that for Nagarjuna, "emptiness" does not refer to some kind of absolute entity like "the non-dual Void." Chandrakirti is even more explicit on this point. "Emptiness," he tells us, is itself empty of own-being. This aspect of the Madhyamika teaching is known as "the emptiness of emptiness," and it shows the reflexivity of the concept of emptiness itself. Buddhapalita comments, "As for those attached to emptiness as an entity, that attachment cannot be removed by anything else.... Those who see that emptiness is empty see reality."
The Gelukpas have their own way of anchoring "emptiness" in the Buddha-dharma. They do, in fact, speak of particular "emptinesses" and liken them to objects of cognition. Yet even for them, there is no emptiness as such. For them, each emptiness is tied to a particular thing. Emptiness is always the emptiness of something, as Streng notes, and in this sense, it always has a kind of "intentionality" or relatedness involved with it.
We are now at a position to consider more specific differences between the Prasangika approach and Shankara's advaita. In Meditation on Emptiness, Jeffery Hopkins brings out the basic difference between the two approaches. He acknowledges that there are similarities between the two (though it is not clear, due to the odd manner in which this work is written, whether this similarity was recognized by the Prasangikas themselves or whether Hopkins is entertaining a question that has entered his mind on its own). Following the Prasangikas, Hopkins characterizes the difference thus: the approach of Advaita Vedanta can be described as aiming at the "emptiness of other," or "parata-shunyata." Given our description of Shankara's advaita above and Shankara's own comments on the shunyavada, this would appear to be an appropriate description. Following the lead of the Brhadaranyaka Up, Shankara's advaita aims at the discrimination of what is "other" than Brahman, or the highest Self, and at the negation of this "other" as "an-artha", worthless (Brhad Up 1.1.1), and "an-rta", false (Brhadaranyaka Up 3.5.1; Brahma Sutra Bhashya 2.1.14). At the same time, the "neti, neti" leaves the highest Self, or formless brahman, untouched, as Shankara says.
In contradistinction to Advaita, the Prasangika path teaches, in addition to the emptiness of other, "the emptiness of self," or "svatah-shunyata". Now, we should not assume that this simply refers to the emptiness of a personal self (pudgala-nairatmya), of a subject in opposition to objects, as if this were simply a restatement of the an-atma doctrine. The term "self" here also, and perhaps more importantly, refers to the idea of a metaphysical essence. So it refers not only to our personal selves, but to the nature of things and reality in general. In a way then, the two paths could not be more diametrically opposed. One seeks by means of its negative dialectic to unearth a metaphysically ideal reality beneath or beyond appearances. The other also seeks to dissolve the veil of appearance but, at the same time, it is also designed to undermine the very search for such metaphysical idealities.
As Shankara admits, the shunyavada does not leave the highest Self or formless brahman untouched in its negative dialectic. Similarly, though Gaudapada accepts Nagarjuna's definitions of svabhava, he insists that there is at least one being that is not empty of svabhava: the non-dual Self, which for Gaudapada is self-existence itself. For the Madhyamikas, though, the non-dual Self is also empty of all sva-bhava or "own being." Given that Advaita Vedanta defines the highest Self and formless brahman with every manner of reflexive term -- "self-luminous" (svayam-jyotih), self-established (svatah-siddha), self-reliant (sva-tantra), self-existent (svayam-bhu), self-abiding (sva-stha), and so on -- the Madhyamika approach of "emptiness of self" is tantamount to the denial of the Vedantin's very conception of reality.
Thus, the Madhyamaka's conception of reality and the Advaitin's conception of reality are diametrically opposed to one another. For the Advaitin, reality is ultimately that which is the self-existent, while for the Madhyamaka, reality is ultimately empty of such self-existence. While both indeed refer to the ultimate truth as "signless" (animitta), the similarity stops there as their conceptions of reality are completely contrary to one another.
There is another manner in which the Madhyamika and the Advaita Vedanta are fundamentally opposed in their conceptions of reality. As noted above, part of the point of Nagarjuna's analysis is to undermine the way in which language and conceptualization serve to reify "things" in the world. Although Nagarjuna does not specify in his analysis any theory as to how words are related to reality, other than to say that they are conventional and relational, it may be possible to abstract certain assumptions from the Prasangikas' presentation that are suggestive as to how they might be related for them. To begin, for the Prasangikas, words do not obtain their meaning by referring to "objects" in the world. Nor do they obtain their meaning due to the effect of some transcendental essence. In other words, the Prasangikas accept neither an extensionalist nor an intensionalist theory of meaning. Rather, words have meaning, and are able to predicate objects, primarily by virtue of their use (prayojana) and imputation (aropita). In this sense, words are mere nominal signifiers (prajnapti) and their application is merely conventional (vyavahara). This line is in general keeping with the Buddhist tendency toward nominalism. Drawing upon this analysis, later Buddhist thinkers will articulate a theory of meaning something like Saussure's: words refer to objects by virtue of the exclusion (apoha) of their counter-positives.
There are parallels here with the thoughts of Wittgenstein on such matters, though it is important not to emphasize such similarities beyond the point of their being mere heuristic devices for understanding the Madhyamika. Wittgenstein, for example, also held that words do not obtain meaning by reference to objects. For him, the primary determinant in meaning is how words are used. The Madhyamakas, however, go further than Wittgenstein by insisting that, in reality there is no "thing" as such to which words refer, and that all such "things" are but conceptual constructs that are logically dependent upon their conceptually constructed counter-positives. At this point, a better analog for Prasangika thought might be the Derridean analysis of the Husserlian conception of "essence." According to Derrida, there is no unchanging self-same "essence" that fixes the denotation of signifiers -- no "transcendent referent" that anchors meaning. This is because "essence" is as much determined by its own iterations as it determines those iterations. Like the Prasangikas, Derrida argues that "meaning" is determined by a series of oppositional relations -- signifier/signified, universal/particular, substance/attribute, essence/iteration, concept/thing, scheme/content, map/territory -- in which both poles are mutually determinate, and in which no priority can be granted to one of the poles. Similarly, for the Prasangikas, there is no independent thing or essence that determines meaning. Thus, for the Prasangikas, there is no transcendent referent that determines and has priority over the term "emptiness". As Chandrakirti says, "emptiness" is itself empty of any essential nature. There is, then, no ultimate "thing" to which the term "emptiness" refers.
As a Vedantin, the Advaitin sees things differently. He does not reject both poles of the dichotomy between the absolute and relative, the transcendental and contingent. As we noted above, the Advaitin is only concerned with the emptiness of "other." But he does not negate the essence, the "self", the transcendent referent.
With respect to this difference between Advaita and Madhyamika, T.R.V. Murti has written in an article, "Samvriti and Paramartha in Madhyamika and Advaita Vedanta":
The Vedantist will not reject both terms as relative; he accepts one as the reality or basis of the other. For the Madhyamika, substance and attribute are equally unreal, as neither of them can be had apart from the other. The Vedanist would say that... substance or the universal is inherently real...; it has a transcendent nature without the relation. The general formula applicable to the Vedanta is: the terms sustaining a relation are not of the same order, one is higher and the other lower; the terms are not mutually dependent.... One term, the higher, is not exhausted in the relationship; it has a transcendent... existence which is its intrinsic nature.
The upshot here is that to suggest that the terms "emptiness" and the "formless brahman" both refer to the same unconditioned reality begs the question as to the nature of the relation between designators and their referents, and prejudices the Vedantin's position by presupposing an account of the relation between language and reality that the Madhyamika rejects.
VIII. Concordance and Respective Conceptions of the Path
I will conclude this essay with a consideration of what I understand to be the basic difference between Advaita Vedanta and Prasangika Madhyamika, considered as soteriological paths.
The ideas of "emptiness" and "brahman" are both place-holders that only make sense within the respective traditions in which they occur. So it is actually something of an abstraction to suggest that "brahman" and "emptiness" can be removed from their respective soteriological contexts and be treated in terms of some rather superficial metaphysical similarities. It is not metaphysics that ultimately counts for either tradition but soteriology. Thus, it is in terms of their respective paths that these two traditions need to be considered if we are to ultimately judge the similarities and differences of their respective metaphysics. In other words, their respective conceptions of reality need to be considered in relation to their respective conceptions of the nature of release (nirvana; moksha) and the nature of the path to release.
According to Frederick Streng, the Madhyamika is best understood as the application of a particular soteriology. It is within this context that Streng situates the meaning of the reflexive nature of emptiness. This line of interpretation has recently been developed by C.W. Huntington. For both Streng and Huntington, the teaching of emptiness is meant to address not only our attachment to the mundane "things" in the world; it also is meant to address our need to attach ourselves to "transcendent realities" and "metaphysical absolutes" like "brahman" and "God." According to this line of interpretation, the Madhyamika analysis is designed to show that there are no metaphysical absolutes to which we might anchor ourselves and in which we might find shelter. The Madhyamika analysis is thus also meant as a kind of remedy for the need for such absolutes, as a kind of therapy for the search for transcendental idealities
It is here that I think we can enunciate a basic difference between Advaita Vedanta and Madhyamika as soteriological paths. To highlight these differences, I think it might be helpful to return to their respective roots and underscore some of the assumptions these two traditions hold as to the nature of release and the path to release.
We begin with the how release was conceived in the Vedanta. According to the Brahma Sutra 4.4.1, moksha is the "manifestation of the 'own-nature' (svena rupena) of the Self". This definition is derived from Chandogya Upanishad 8.12.3 and it was accepted by both Shankara and Mandana Mishra. However, the way this conception was understood by the early Vedantins was not entirely satisfactory for the Advaitins. Shankara adjusts the definition so that it comes to mean that moksha is the Self's state of being "established in its own nature." For the Advaitins, release cannot be something "becoming manifest." The Self is always ever self-established; all that is required is the removal of that which obscures this reality. In his Brahma Siddhi, Mandana Mishra agrees that moksha is the "manifestation of the own-nature of the Self" (p. 122). Both Shankara and Mandana Mishra liken this "manifestation" to the removal of a red flower that has been sitting next to pure crystal. When the flower is removed, the crystal no longer appears red, and it then shines with perfect clarity. Here, nothing has really changed with respect to the crystal. All that has happened is that an adventitious condition, which has been artificially imposed upon the crystal, has been removed. The crystal then abides as it is.
In the Gaudapada Karikas we find this same conception of release. Karika 3.38 says that when jnana rests in itself (atma-samstha) the state of "sameness" (samata) is attained. In his notes, V. Bhattacharya directs our attention to Chandogya Up 7.24.1 where the question arises, "Where does the Infinite rest?" The answer given is, "In its own greatness." At Karika 3.47, the highest bliss (uttama sukha), profound peace (shanti), and nirvana are all related to the term "sva-stha", which means, "abiding in one's self."
The idea linking together all of the above definitions of moksha is the conception that release is a particular state of being -- the state in which the Self rests in its own essential nature. It is, in other words, the state of self-abiding.
The Madhyamika orientation toward release and the path to release is, I think, very different. To see the roots of this orientation, we return to the so-called "proto-Madhyamika" writings. These works, such as the Suttanipata, enunciate a path of radical renunciation in which the general attitude and demeanor is one of complete detachment -- the total absence of clinging to any objects, conceptualizations, or metaphysical views. The dominant concept here, and the term that keeps re-occurring in these works, is that of "an-abhinivesha." The term "abhinivesha" -- which also occurs in the GK, Yoga Sutras, and elsewhere -- means attachment, but it is the kind of attachment that exists at the very core of one's being. With the negative particle "an" added -- "an-abhinevesha" -- it denotes a radical detachment. In "The Ontology of the Prajnaparamita," Conze interprets its meaning as "non-settling down." According to Conze, its technical meaning is three-fold: It means that there should be the absence of any conviction that any dharma is real; that there should be no inclination toward any dharma; and that there should be no attachment toward any dharma. According to Luis Gomez, it specifically means, "having no mooring" or "having no station." It refers, in other words, to an attitude of radical non-abiding.
As Gomez notes in his article "Proto-Madhyamika in the Pali Canon," the proto-Madhyamika Suttas, Prajnaparamita Sutras, and Prasangika Madhymika are all characterized by an particular attitude that elevates "anabhinevesha" or "non-abiding" to a kind of supreme virtue. There is in all three the overriding concern that there be absolutely no "settling down," no "abiding" in any state or condition no matter how profound, transcendent, or absolute it may seem. Theirs is an attitude of extreme detachment, and this includes detachment toward all metaphysical absolutes.
In conclusion, we can now see how the Advaita metaphysics of the Self is related to its conception of release, and how the Prasangika critique of self-existence (svabhava) is related to its conception of nirvana. Just as the Self is defined as "self-abiding" (sva-stha), so too, the ultimate "practice"in Advaita, as well as release itself, is seen as abiding in the Self, as the Self. In an analogous way, the Madhyamika critique of self-existence, and of all such absolutes, reflects its ultimate practice of non-abiding (anabhnivesha). Thus, just as their conceptions of reality are diametrically opposed to one another, so too are their conceptions of the path to release.
This concludes the series of posts on the question, "Are brahman and emptiness the same?"