Monday, July 24, 2006

Are Brahman and Emptiness the Same? Part III

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?"

Friday, July 21, 2006

Are Brahman and Emptiness the Same? Part II

III. The Question of Concordance and Indian Scriptures

We will now look at some scriptures that refer to the question of the identity of brahman and emptiness.

In A History of Early Vedanta Philosophy, Vol. I, H. Nakamura notes that though the early Buddhist texts make mention of "Brahma" at several places, as well as to soteriological teachings associated with Brahma, they do not refer to the impersonal, neuter case "brahman." This may strike us as odd; however, the terms "brahman" and "Brahma" are used inter-changeably throughout the Upanishads. Where we do find mention of teachings concerning Brahma in the early Buddhist sources, it is almost always within the context of what the early Buddhists refer to as the "pernicious views" or drshti. In particular, "Brahma" is associated with the insidious view of permanence and eternality (shashvata-vada), that is, with the idea of an eternal (nitya) unchanging (avichalita) reality. Often, where we find mention and critique of the view relating to the motionless (kutastha) reality, we find associated with it the problematic teaching of "akriya-vada," the teaching that "nothing can nor need be done with respect to release." Here, it is worth noting that the early Buddhists are not merely criticizing a particular metaphysic when they refer to the eternality of an unchanging reality, they are also relating that metaphysic to the practice of a particular ethos, an ethos that they happen to see as anathema to the possibility of action.

In the Mahayana scriptures, we find a few references to brahman and to what would appear to be Upanishadic thought. One of the distinguishing features of Mahayana sources is use of the hermeneutic principle of "skillful means" (upaya-kaushalya), the idea that various teachings are applicable according to the differing capacities of students. Like the Advaitins, who will later adopt this strategy, the Buddhists use this principle as a basis for harmonizing seemingly incongruous materials. "Why is it," some texts ask, "that the Tathagata at times taught the existence of a self and at others of no-self?" Answer: For the nihilists and materialists, the Buddha taught the existence of a self, but that for those who already believe in the existence of a soul, he taught the ultimate remedy of "no-self."

One Mahayana work that does refer to brahman happens to be one whose metaphysic most closely approximates certain forms of Advaita Vedanta: the Lankavatara Sutra. In this work, Visnu, Shiva, and Brahma are given as names for the Tathagatagarbha. The Lankavatara adds, "The supreme state is also known as Brahma." However, when in the same work the bodhisattva Mahamati asks the Buddha, "does this not amount to atma-vada?" the Buddha replies, "This dharma is not the same as the atma-vada of the outsiders." He then goes on to explain that ultimately, the meaning of the Tathagatagarbha teaching is emptiness and nirvana, but that the bodhisattvas of the Mahayana, by their use of skillful means, teach the Tathagatagarbha for those who may be frightened of the teaching of no-self and the emptiness of all dharmas. Thus, in the Lankavatara Sutra, the teaching that "the supreme state is also known as Brahma" is merely a provisional and propaedeutic teaching subordinate to the final teaching of emptiness.

At times, it is indeed the case that we find language used by these respective traditions to be remarkably similar, not only in terms of their conceptual content, but with respect to actual terminology and turns of phrase. In some cases, it may certainly be the case that one tradition is borrowing from the other. For example, the Mandukya Upanishad contains turns of phrase that are almost certainly Buddhist in their origin. Scholars have pointed out that the term "prapancha-upashama," or "the quieting of conceptual-verbal proliferation," which occurs in the Mandukya Up, does not occur in any pre-Buddhist brahmanic works. So it is highly probable that the Mandukya Up has borrowed the term from the Mahayana lexicon, which may tell us something about how late this "Upanishad" really is, and why Shankara did not regard it as revealed scripture.

Nonetheless, the Mandukya Up is an important work in the development of the tradition of Advaita Vedanta in that it is here that we find the Upanishadic references to the "three states of consciousness" developed into a coherent doctrine. What is significant about the Mandukya Up's use of these ideas, however, is that, at the same time, it appears to incorporate ideas found in Buddhist works such as the Potthapada Sutta from the Digha Nikaya. In the Potthapada Sutta we find a description of three "selves" and the association of these selves with terms that will later be associated with the three "lokas" of Abhidharma Buddhism. The Potthapada calls the first self "gross" (olarika) and associates it with the four elements and with "food"; it is described as being "with form" (rupa). The second is also described as having "form" (rupa) but as "consisting of mind" (mano-maya). The third "self" is described as "formless" (arupa) and as consisting of "conception/consciousness" (samjna). In Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, K.N. Jayatilleke notes the resemblance here to the teaching of the five "sheaths" (kosha) found in the Taittiriya Up (p. 317-318). While there may indeed be parallels with the Taittiriya Up here, the three-fold structure referred to by the Potthapada perhaps more significantly points in two directions: to the three-fold "loka" or "dhatu" scheme of the Abhidharma, and to the "gross" (sthula), "subtle" (sukshma), "causal" (karana) structure of consciousness described by the Mandukya Upanishad.

It would appear, then, that the Potthapada is referring to certain Upanishadic teachings. But, I would suggest, it is doing so for a reason: it recasting and thematizing the Upanishadic material on its own terms. Thus, though we find a structural similarity between the Mandukya Upanishad and the Potthapada Sutta, it would be incorrect to say that the Potthapada is simply "agreeing" with the descriptions of the self found in the Upanishads. It is important to note that the Potthapada rejects the reality of these selves on the ground of their being relative to one another, or "attained" (atta-patilabha), the idea being that when one self is existent the others are not. (This idea was appropriated by Advaita Vedanta, which also speaks of the various states of consciousness as "vyabhichara," that is, as "deviating" from the self when they come and go.) Thus, the Potthapada Sutta's reference to the "three selves" should be seen as a general critique of certain Upanishadic ideas. It is for this reason that we find a resemblance between its contents and ideas found in the Upanishads: it is addressing an audience that is familiar with ideas contained in the Upanishads and making use of those ideas to steer its audience away from them. The context of their use is thus polemical, not ecumenical.

Viewing the relationship between the sources in this way, what becomes significant about the Mandukya Upanishad is its postulating of a "fourth" state beyond the other three. The Mandukya would appear to be aware of the Buddhist critique, and indeed, if it has in fact borrowed terms from the Buddhist vocabulary, it stands to reason that it was aware of Buddhist thought. The Mandukya appears to be saying: "Yes, the three states may indeed belong to conditioned reality, as you Buddhists suggest, but there is a fourth that stands beyond the other three; and that fourth is the non-dual Self, which you have not mentioned." For the Advaitin commentators, the precedent and authority for this "fourth" will be located in the Chandogya Up's apparent rejection of the formless self of dreamless sleep at 8.11.1, and the reference at 8.12.3 to the "supreme Purusha" that stands beyond the other three. Thus, while it is certainly possible that one tradition is influencing the other, or borrowing from the other, or even that they are referring to "shared structures," it is necessary to take into account the polemical context of the interaction between the two so as to see how it is that they respectively treat what might indeed be "shared" between them. Such distinctions will point to subtle yet important differences between their respective teachings.

We also cannot rule out the possibility that a more literary, rather than literal, message may be implied when we come across nearly identical expressions used by different traditions. One of the rhetorical strategies in both the scriptural and philosophic writings of India is that of taking the language of rival teachings and using it ironically. For example, both the Jain and Buddhist narratives take traditional brahmanic stories and twist their teachings around so as to suit their own moral purposes. The Jains are particularly fond of this sort of thing, and make use of puns and plays on words to humorous effect.

And it may also be the case that the matter goes in the other direction, that the brahmanic sources are making use of Buddhist teachings. The Katha Up, for example, appears to ape the story of the Buddha's dissatisfaction with worldly existence in its opening sections. It also uses the term "dharma" in a sense that is Buddhistic, though it does so in contexts that imply criticisms of the heterodox teachings of the Buddhists. Here again, we have a case in which a particular text is addressing an audience that is already familiar with specific teachings but, at the same time, is using those very teachings to persuade its audience from accepting them.

As a specific example we may note the Buddhist Udana, which contains references to a "place" where the "sun and moon do not shine," and to the stars and earth "having no footing." This may very well be an oblique reference to various teachings found in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. There, we find Yajnavalkya being asked various questions by other brahmins. Among the things he is asked is what it is that provides illumination for man once the sun has set, the moon has waned, and the ritual fire has gone out. The answer given by Yajnavalkya is that it is the self-luminous Self that ultimately serves as light for man. Yajnavalkya is also asked what the "footing" of the earth and sky is, and he answers, the ether; and when he is asked what the footing of the ether is, he answers, the Self. Thus, while it would appear that the Udana is willing to accept the Brhad Up's tendency toward "negative" descriptions of reality and transcendence, its reference to there being no "footing" for the earth and sky indicates, at the same time, that it does not accept the teaching that the supreme Self serves as the ultimate ground of existence for man and the universe.

In the Mundaka Up, at 2.2.10, we find a similar reference to the "place" where "neither the sun nor moon shine." This same verse is repeated at Katha Up. 2.2.15. The Katha and Mundaka Upanishads, which are roughly contemporary with each other, exhibit a more pronounced emphasis upon transcendence than the earlier Upanishads. This may partly be a result of an interaction with Buddhist thought and with the world-renunciatory tendencies of its day ("mundaka" means renunciate). Or it may, at the same time, reflect an internal development associated with its own form of yogic mysticism. In any case, when comparing passages from the Mundaka with those from the Udana, and pointing to their similarities, we should also take note that for the Mundaka Up, though the "sun and moon do not shine" in that transcendent "place," there is indeed a light that shines there, the Light of lights, as is stated in verse 2.2.9. This "Light of lights" is a reference to the self-luminous Self, which for the Upanishads is the source of all being, and which, as far the later Upanishads are concerned, is what the Buddhist teachings, such as those in the Udana, either omit or do not admit. So while there may appear to be a superficial similarity between the language of the Udana and the Manduka Upanishad, when we dig a little deeper into the context underlying this similarity, some rather stark differences between their respective teachings appear.

IV. The Question of Concordance according to Dualist Vedanta

While the Indian tradition has on occasion spoken of concordances, and even identities, existing between the Mahayana schools and Advaita Vedanta, such comparisons were usually made by the opponents of the two traditions, in particular, by those schools of Vedanta that opposed the non-dualist interpretation of the Brahma Sutras and Upanishads.

Here, it might be worth noting that dualist challenges of the non-dual interpretation of the Brahma Sutra have some basis in fact. A close reading of the Brahma Sutra itself shows that it was not originally non-dualist in its orientation. Its original position was almost certainly closer to that of the "identity in difference" school of Vedanta, as the Brahma Sutra refers favourably to both identity and difference throughout its text.

Curiously, today, there are no extant commentaries of the Brahma Sutra earlier than Shankara's. We do, however, find references to earlier commentaries in the works of Shankara and his disciples. It would appear from these references that in its day the non-dualist interpretation was not the received interpretation of the Brahma Sutras, as Shankara's own direct disciples at times attempt to reconcile their master's teaching with the "identity and difference" teachings. The idea that Shankara was some sort of religious and philosophical "world conquerer" (dig-vijaya) would appear to be a 15th century fabrication.

The commentatary of Bhaskara, who follows Shankara by about a century, is perhaps the closest we have to the traditional and original interpretation of the Vedanta. His school of Vedanta -- technically called "bheda-abheda," which means "identity and difference" -- posits that brahman is both the same and yet distinct from the world, just as, for example, a clay pot is the both the same and different from a lump of clay. The early Vedantavada, which Bhaskara draws upon, had posited a modal difference between brahman and the world, for reasons primarily concerned with its theodicy, to wit, if the world of samsara is basically impure and has elements of evil built into it, then brahman and the world must be distinct, for if they are the same, then brahman must share in the world's impurity and evil, for, as brahman is the cause of the world, the world must dissolve back into brahman at the end of each cosmic cycle; therefore, the two must be, in some sense, distinct. By saying that brahman and the world are both the same and different, these early Vedantins were able to safeguard brahman from the ascription of any fault. This kind of rationalization is called a "theodicy."

The bheda-abheda point of view also posits that the jiva-atman and the param-atman are also both the same and different. For Shankara, on the other hand, any real distinction between the two cannot obtain, and he rejects this doctrine on soteriological grounds. For him, the higher self and the embodied self can only be non-different (abheda) and in essence identical (tadatmya), for if this is not the case, then jivan-mukti will be impossible, since if there is any real difference between the two, the jiva will be bound to samsara for all eternity. For Shankara there can be no question of the "transformation" of the self into the supreme self, as change belongs to the realm of impermanence and samsara. The self can therefore only be "always already" identical with the supreme. This manner of thinking, which can be referred to as a kind of “logic of being,” is something that Advaita Vedanta shares with the Madhyamika.

At Brahma Sutra 2.1.14 -- which, in terms of metaphysics, is perhaps the most important and contentious sutra in the Brahma Sutra -- brahman is said to be non-other (an-anya) from the world. The idea here is that, as the material cause of the world, brahman cannot be said to be essentially distinct from the world. This means that the world is dependent upon brahman, its cause, as without brahman there would be no world. In his comments on this sutra, Shankara begins by first acknowledging the emanationism (technically called "brahma-parinamavada") of the early Vedanta. But by the end of his comments on 2.1.14, he has discarded the problematic metaphysics of emanationism altogether, along with any notion of a material causal relationship between brahman and the world (and hence, the ascription of the term "emanationism" to Shankara's cosmology is incorrect). Here, Shankara is not only responding to (and agreeing with) the Samkhya critique of Upanishadic emanationism -- namely, how can brahman, which is essentially consciousness, give rise to what is essentially insentient; the cause must share its essence with its product -- but also shows his understanding of the Madhyamika critique of the notion of causality, which had been applied by Buddhapalita and Chandrakirti to the Hindu theories of causation.

Echoing Chandrakirti, Shankara speaks of how the dualist Samkhya and Vaisheshika conceptions of causality themselves exist as a polarity, as diametrically opposed to one another. This is an idea that Gaudapada appropriates from the Prasangika Madhyamakas and transmits to Shankara. For Shankara, such polarities (Samkhya: cause and effect are the same; Vaisheshika: cause and effect are different) are instances of the inherently conflicted nature of human opinion and reasoning on the basis of that opinion. Here, a close philosophical affiliation between Shankara and Chandrakirti can be seen with respect to the issue of unrestrained speculation.

In his commentary on Brahma Sutra 2.1.1 - 2.1.27, Shankara deals repeatedly with the problems of emanationism. Finally, acknowledging that the conception of creation is inherently contradictory, Shankara, in a clever hermeneutic move, quotes Chandogya Upanishad 6.1.4: "emanation (vikara) has the word (vacam) as it is basis." In this way he is able to avoid the metaphysical quagmire that is the cosmogony of the Vedanta. Now, the traditional Vedantic interpretation of this passage had been that it refers to the idea that creation comes about due to the powers of the holy utterance (vac). But from his comments, it is clear that Shankara does not intend this idea at all. What he means -- and here he integrates Upavarsha, an early Vedantin, with the Madhyamika -- is that any mention of "creation" is but mere talk, mere words.

The traditional Vedantin Bhaskara vehemently rejects the interpretation of Vedanta provided by Shankara and his followers. In his commentary on the Brahma Sutra, he says, "No one but a drunkard would believe such a teaching (1.1.4).... This is the teaching of the maya-vadins, who rely upon the theories of the Buddhists (2.2.29).... They destroy the meaning of the Brahma Sutras and lead its students into error (3.2.3).... They teach the worthless and groundless maya-vada and mislead the entire world (1.4.25)." What annoys Bhaskara in particular is Shankara's attempt to distance himself from the Buddhists, and when Shankara begins to criticize the Buddhists by resorting to the standard refutations, Bhaskara is infuriated by Shankara's seeming conservatism.

Here, it may be worth pondering, for a moment, the term "maya-vada." Originally, the term "maya" meant a kind of creative power that the gods held and used toward their particular ends. There, though it had certain magical connotations associated with it, it did not necessarily refer to something negative. Later, however, especially under the influence of certain Mahayana philosophical works, "maya" becomes specifically associated with deception, illusion and delusion.

In the later Indian tradition, the term "maya-vada" was often used in a derogatory manner by many of the Hindu schools. At first, the term was applied to the two philosophical schools of the Mahayana; but later, when a more specific terminology came into vogue, the term "maya-vada" came to refer to the school of Advaita Vedanta in particular. As such, the term functionally parallels the terms "shunya-vada" and "vijnana-vada," which were applied to the Madhyamika and Yogachara schools respectively. All three terms, mayavada, shunyavada, and vijnanavada refer to respective answers to a particular metaphysical question, namely, "what is the ultimate status/nature of the world?" Of the three schools, only the Yogachara appropriated its appellation and happily accepted the designation, "vijnana-vada."

It is the Padma Purana, a Vaishnava text, that perhaps first calls the Advaita Vedantins -- or "maya-vadins", as they are known disparagingly -- "crypto-Buddhists" (pracchana-bauddha). Later, Yamuna, Ramanuja's forerunner, also refers to the Advaitins as "crypto-Buddhists" in his Siddhitraya. In his Shri-Bhashya commentary upon the Brahma Sutra, Ramanuja, the acharya of qualified non-dualism (vishishta-advaita), also calls the Advaitins "crypto-Buddhists" (2.2.27). Vijnana-bhikshu, who wrote one of the most important commentaries upon the Yoga Sutra, writes in another work, the Samkhya-pravacana-bhashya, that though the Advaitins calls themselves Vedantins, they are in fact "crypto-Buddhists." He then interestingly adds that they should be regarded as a sub-sect of the vijnana-vada or Yogachara. All of these teachers appear to be drawing upon the language of the Padma Purana when they refer to the Advaita Vedantins as "crypto-Buddhists".

Even more interesting are later commentaries upon the Brahma Sutra. Another important commentator, Vallabha, who founded the third of the later schools of Vedanta, says that the Advaitins are but "another incarnation of the Madhyamika" (madhyamikasya eva aparavatarah). And Madhva, the dualist Vedantin and fourth acharya of the schools of Vedanta (Bhaskara's school is no longer extant by this time) states that the emptiness of the Madhyamikas corresponds to the brahman of the Advaitins. He writes in his commentary on Brahma Sutra 2.2.9, "yad shunyavadinah shunya, tad eva brahma mayinah.... What is called emptiness by the shunyavadins, that is the brahman of the mayavadins." Here we do find an explicit declaration from the Indian tradition of the identity of brahman and emptiness.

But this statement of identity needs to be seen in the polemical context in which it occurs. Madhva is not talking about a favourable or ecumenical comparison of brahman and emptiness. He is saying that if we accept the Advaitin's teaching concerning brahman, we are putting our faith in a vacuous teaching, for as far as he is concerned, that is what the Advaitin's brahman is: no more than a nothing. As such, no Advaitin would ever take the word of Madhva as it stands, for Madhva was a most trenchant and uncompromising dualist.

Madhva's declarations also touch upon an issue of some importance. What indeed do we mean by the terms "brahman" and "emptiness?" When Madhva says that the brahman of the Advaitins is the same as the emptiness of the Madhyamika, we are inclined to think that he is referring to some kind of ultimate reality or absolute. And yet, "emptiness" primary refers to the emptiness of phenomenal reality, to the insubstantiality of all subjects and objects. In this sense, emptiness should be more of an analog to the idea of maya. We will return to this point below.

V. The Question of Concordance in Advaita Vedanta

Several scholars have noted the various ways that the earliest work of Advaita Vedanta, the Gaudapada Karikas, is indebted to Buddhist thought. Basically, the Gaudapada Karikas adopt various aspects of both Yogachara and Madhyamika thought, as well as adapt the general Mahayana strategy of interpreting certain teachings as propaedeutic. Traditional Indian philosophers have also noticed the similarity between the Advaita of the Gaudapada Karikas and Mahayana Buddhism. In the works of Shantarakshita -- an important Buddhist doxographer whose own school represents a synthesis of Yogachara, Sautrantika, Svatantrika Madhyamika, and the logicians-- we do find an admission that the teachings of Advaita approximate the teachings of the Mahayana, as well as the idea that the Advaitins have borrowed Mahayana teachings. In the Tattvasamgraha, the great compendium of Buddhist thought compiled by Shantarakshita, he says with regard to the Advaita Vedantins, "Their fault is subtle, but it consists in the fact that they teach an eternal self." Here, Shantarakshita acknowledges the proximity of early Advaita Vedanta to the Mahayana. However, from his comments it is apparent that what Shantarakshita is referring to is the proximity of early Advaita Vedanta to the teachings of the vijnanavada.

Many scholars have argued over the extent to which the Gaudapada Karikas should be called a Buddhist work, with some, like H. Nakamura and V. Bhattacharya, saying that at least the final chapter can be called Buddhist, and other more traditionally minded scholars, like T.M.P. Mahadeva and R.D. Karmakar, saying that it is not influenced by Buddhist thought at all. Both sides of the debate appear to overstate their cases and overlook the subtleties of language in this work. It is important to note that all such texts are not only philosophical but literary works as well. I tend to agree with Louis de la Vallee Poussin, who, noticing this literary aspect wrote, "One cannot but read the Gaudapadakarikas without being struck by the Buddhist character of the leading ideas and wording itself. The author seems to have used Buddhist words and sayings, and to have adjusted them to his Vedantic design: nay more, he find pleasure in double entendre." Again, we have an example of a text that is addressing an audience that is acquainted with a rival teaching and using the categories of its rival in its presentation toward a particular persuasive effect. Thus, though the Gaudapada Karikas may indeed use both Upanishadic and Buddhist ideas, it may not be as erenic or ecumenical as appears at first sight. We will return to the Gaudapada Karikas later.

Turning to Shankara's later views on the question of the relation of brahman and emptiness we find some rather interesting comments made by him in his commentary on Brahma Sutra 3.2.22. There, the question arises as to whether or not brahman as such is negated by the "neti, neti," or whether it is only the two forms of brahman that are negated. His interlocutor suggests that not only are the two forms of brahman to be negated, but brahman itself is to be negated. Either that, or brahman alone is negated, for if brahman transcends speech and the mind, then its existence is doubtful. To this Shankara replies: "It is not possible that the 'neti, neti' negates both brahman as such and all form since this would result in the undesirable consequence (prasanga) of accepting the shunya-vada (i.e., the teaching of the Madhyamika)."

He then says something else quite interesting for our present purposes:

For whenever we negate something unreal (aparamartha), like the (illusory) snake, we always do so with reference to something real (paramartha), like the rope. And this is only possible if there is some really existing entity. If everything is negated, and nothing is left, it will not be possible to negate any other thing, which will mean that something that is actually unreal will have to be accepted as real.

In other words, accepting the shunya-vada will mean the abandonment of the distinction between the real and the unreal. This kind of reductio ad absurdum is characteristic of how the other schools responded to the Madhyamika teaching of emptiness, including the Yogacharins who accused them of straying from the middle and indulging in excessive negation (apavada).

Shankara continues that, just as the passage from the Taittiriya Up, "beyond speech and mind," does not mean that brahman as such does not exist, so too the "neti, neti" of the Brhadaranyaka Up does not negate brahman as such. It means, he says, that brahman transcends speech and mind, and that it is not an object of knowledge, and this means that it can only be the unconditioned subject, the Self, which is pure consciousness. The "neti, neti," he says, denies all "discursive proliferation" (prapanca) and all form (rupa), but leaves the pure brahman as such untouched. He suggests that the repetition can be taken to mean that it denies gross form in the first instance, and all subtle form in the second, but he says that he prefers the interpretation that takes the second "neti" as added for effect, emphasizing that whatever can be thought (utpreksha) is not brahman. He concludes: "therefore, the 'neti, neti' negates all that is 'prapanca,' but leaves brahman itself untouched."

As for the later Advaitins, the most sophisticated among them, Shri Harsha, whose deconstructive efforts closely parallel those of the Prasangika Madhyamikas, himself admits that his own method of vitanda parallels the prasanga method of the Madhyamikas. But he distinguishes the respective outcomes of the two approaches: whereas his method seeks to describe reality as non-different (abheda), that is, as the self-same non-dual reality, the Prasangika attempts to demonstrate its inherent emptiness (shunyata).

The later Advaitin doxographers often made use of an "inclusivist" approach to describe their relation to the rest of the Indian tradition, an approach inspired, to some degree, by earlier conceptions put forward by the Buddhists doxographers. In the model of Indian philosophy presented by the doxographers of Advaita Vedanta, the various Indian schools and sampradayas are treated sequentially and structured hierarchically, with the traditions of Vedanta grouped near the top and the school of Advaita Vedanta standing at the very pinnacle. While it may be true that this model offers a kind of "dialectical reconciliation" of the various sub-traditions and schools of the Indian tradition, it is, at the same time, essentially a reductionist model that subordinates all other schools to the tradition of Advaita Vedanta. There is no compromise here, no abandoning of the "own-position" (sva-siddhanta) in favour of some kind of syncretic holism. Rather, the own-position of the Advaitin is elevated over all other teachings through its claim to both encompass and surpass all other traditions. The Sarva-darshana-samgraha, or "Collection of All Points of View," falsely attributed to Shankara, claims that though they may not know it, all traditions ultimately seek the Atman of the Advaitins. Though we find a semblance here of the idea that one thing is "really" another, there is also clearly implied by its expression the claim that one of the two things is "more real" than the other, that one is in fact superior to the other.

This theme of the "concordance of all philosophies" (sarva-darshana-samanvaya) continues late into the 18th century. The very late Advaitin work, Prasthanabheda, goes so far as to state that all the great sages of the Hindu tradition, Vyasa, Kapila, Patanjali, etc., taught the "same" truth, but that they adapted this "truth" in accordance with the abilities of different students -- an interpretation clearly derived from Buddhist conceptions concerning the Buddha's "skillful means" (upaya-kaushalya) and applied to the Vedic notion of "qualification" (adhikara). However, throughout the history of the doxographical works of the Advaitins, there is no attempt to truly synthesize the Buddhist teachings with the teachings of Advaita. Though the even-handed commentator Vacaspati Mishra says, in his Bhamati, that the shunya-vada is intended for the most capable of students, the heretical Buddhist tradition is, in general, treated in these works as if it were but one step removed from vulgar materialism. In the doxographies of the Vedantins, we routinely find the Buddhist schools at the bottom of the heap. The Madhyamika in particular is treated with contempt by the Vedantins, who classify the shunya-vadins as nihilists (vainashikas), and as akin to the later skeptics whose only intent is the destruction of the truth (tattva-upaplava). The doxographies of the classical Vedantins are therefore not universalist in their outlook, and they do not extend their attempts at "harmonization" to include the teachings of the Madhyamikas.

This spirit of subsumption and subordination itself can perhaps ultimately be traced back to Upanishads like the Chandogya Up, which makes use of a reductionist method when teaching the ultimate nature of the self. Like a honeybee reducing the nectar of each flower to honey, or like the ocean absorbing the waters of all the various rivers, Being or Sat, is the final end of all beings and the ultimate nature of the self. He who knows this essential Self knows the principle underlying all teachings, as he knows the "all," the all-encompassing metaphysical principle. This idea is perhaps the metaphysical inspiration of much of Indian "inclusivism." Vijnana-bhikshu himself makes use of the image of the rivers and the ocean when he argues that all the all the various paths imply the Yoga of Patanjali.

In its structure and function, the inclusivism and hierarchical modelling of doxographical works of the later Advaita Vedantins can be said to be based upon several preceding factors. One is a dialectical tendency in Indian thought, rooted in the traditions of debate and "dharma combat," that seeks to situate one's own-position within the larger tradition by referring to, and dispensing with, other points of view. In this way, the doxographies of the Vedantins can be seen as extensions and applications of strategies used in earlier debates, in particular those concerning the epistemological status of perceptual error (khyati), a problem that receives considerable attention from Advaitins after Shankara. In their attempt at resolving this particular problem, the Advaitins present their own position as a kind of final resolution of all other debates on the matter, that is, as the dialectical culmination of all preceding positions.

Another source of the tendency of the later Advaitins to think inclusively and systematise hierarchically can be found in Shankara's own conception of "samanvaya" or "concordance." "Samanvaya" in general refers to the hermeneutic strategy of attempting to resolve inconsistencies within and conflicts between scriptural sources. In Shankara's case, this "harmonization" is effected by recourse to the soteriological subordination of one set of teachings to another. Those teachings, for example, that speak of a brahman with form are related to devotion and meditation -- which, strictly speaking, are not soteriologically efficacious -- while those teachings that speak of a brahman without form are intended for the "practice" of jnana, which for Shankara is the only truly efficacious means to release. Through this act of subordination, various inconsistencies and conflicts in the statements of the Upanishads are effectively neutralized. Like the Mahayana, both Shankara and Gaudapada speak of those scriptural writings that are to be taken at face value, and those that need to be taken with a grain of salt, as it were. It is in this context that Shankara invokes the notion of a two-fold truth.

The Advaitin strategy of subsuming other traditions is perhaps first suggested by statements made by the Gaudapada Karika concerning the relation between non-dualism and the various forms of dualism. According to the GK, all duality requires non-duality. GK 3.18 says, "The non-dual is the supreme reality, and duality is said to be its effect." In other words, since all duality entails non-duality, all dualistic points of view entail non-dualism. GK 4.4 reads: "Disputing among themselves, these dualists actually demonstrate non-duality and promulgate the teaching of non-orgination!" Karika 4.5 adds ironically: "We agree with them and do not dispute this! Learn now how there is no dispute (vivada)." This last statement is a reference to the teaching of "non-conflict" (avivada), which perhaps first makes its appearance in the proto-Madhyamika literature and in the quietism of the early Indian skeptics (ajnanikas). The GK also describes non-dualism as avirodha/aviruddha (GK 3.17-18), which means non-conflicting (but also, incontestable and irrefutable). Shankara comments at GK 3.17, "Our view, the teaching of the oneness of the Self, does not conflict with other views, which are mutually contradictory (anyoyavirodha), because it is based upon the inseparability of everything (sarva-ananyatva), just as one's limbs are not in conflict with one another."

The metaphysical principle that the conditioned requires the unconditioned is also the principle that all impermanent entities are dependent upon a permanent substrate, an idea that underpins the classical critiques of the Buddhist doctrine of momentariness. The basic argument against the doctrine of momentariness is that change implies something permanent acting as a substrate for change; otherwise we would not see causal regularity in the world and sesame oil would come from sand and mango trees would yield dates. Shankara makes use of another version of this idea when he counters the Madhyamika teaching of emptiness by arguing that whenever we negate something as unreal, we do so only with reference to something real (BrSuBh 3.2.22).

The Gaudapada Karika derives the essentials of many of its arguments from the Madhyamika Karikas. This should not surprise us though, as Nagarjuna takes his own "logic of being" over from the Upanishads, wherein we first find the principle, Being cannot come from nothing (Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.2). In the Madhyamika Karikas, Nagarjuna implies that the positing of self-existing entities will require that these entities be, in essence, permanent, unchanging, and non-arising. MK 15.2 describes this unchanging reality thus: " 'svabhava', self-existence, means something that is not dependent upon another (nirapeksha) and unproduced (akrtrima)." Echoing Nagarjuna, the GK says at 4.9, "self-existence (svabhava) means: that which always already established (samsiddhi), never produced (akrta), and innate (sahaja); it is that nature (prakriti) which is never abandoned." The terms "sahaja" and "akrta," are roughly synonymous with the term "akritrima" used by Nagarjuna. At MK 15.8, Nagarjuna says "a being whose nature is otherwise (prakrter anyathabhavo) is not possible." Gaudapada Karika 4.7 uses exactly the same turn of phrase: "a thing becoming otherwise than its nature (prakrter anyathabhavo) cannot be."

With this premise in hand, Nagarjuna sets to work at demolishing essentialist metaphysics. His arguments are, perhaps, not directly intended to subvert the eternalism of the Upanshads as much as they are directed at curious developments that had been occurring in the Abhidharma schools of his day. In their attempt to overcome the various problems posed by the doctrine of momentariness, certain Abhidharmists had posited an odd sort of eternalism. This development, Nagarjuna suggests, is not accidental, but the necessary outcome of the Abhidharma metaphysics, which had understood its "dharmas" (metaphysical ultimates) as possessed of a kind of inherent existence (svabhava). Nagarjuna argues that the very idea of an inherent existence implies the idea of eternal and unchanging being. Of course, a doctrine of permanence contradicts the Buddhist teachings; and besides, we see in the everyday world that there are no permanent and unchanging things; thus these "dharmas" can have no inherent existence. But this is only because all beings are already empty (shunya) of an inherent self-existence: there are no entities that exist absolutely in this manner. In this way, Nagarjuna attempts to purge the Abhidharma of what he sees as an heretical and insidious teaching: essentialism. But along the way, he has turned the Upanishadic "logic of being" against itself. We will return to Nagarjuna's use of the concept of "svabhava" below.

For his own part, Gaudapada takes the argument in another direction. He agrees that the positing of conditional entities requires the existence of a permanent and unchanging being, and that contingent beings are indeed without an inherent self-existence (GK 4.22). But, his comments seem to suggest, there must be at least one being that is not empty of its own being, and that being is none other than the supreme self of the Upanishads, which is described as self-established (Chandogya Up 7.24.1) and self-existing (Isha Up 8). The final few karikas of the GK suggest that this teaching is absent from the Buddha-dharma; GK 4.95-99 read: "Only those who have successfully realized the unborn that is the equality of all things can be said to have the supreme knowledge (mahajnana)... All dharmas are by their nature pure, released (mukta), and awakened (buddha). This the sages understand. The knowledge of the sage is untouched. But this teaching has not been declared by the Buddha." In his comments, Sankara unpacks the sense of the karika as he understands it: "The knowledge of the supreme non-dual reality is found in the Vedanta alone."

Thus, though their arguments seem, at first glance, to be very much alike, in an important way, Gaudapada and Nagarjuna are diametrically opposed to one another. Gaudapada adopts Nagarjuna's "logic of being" but turns it around, giving back to it its original Upanishadic intent. In this way, Gaudapada not only meets the challenge of the Madhyamika, but does so using the very terms set by the Madhyamakas. At the same time, Gaudapada lays the ground for an inclusivist framework with which later Vedantins will use in their attempt to "accommodate" the dualist viewpoints of the other schools.

For their own part, Nagarjuna's followers will take over Nagarjuna's idea, presented in the Bodhicittavivarana, that all metaphysical positions entail emptiness and develop it into a doxographical strategy for their encounter with other schools. This style of writing begins with the works of Bhavaviveka and it is to his Madhymakahrdaya that we will turn to next.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Are Brahman and Emptiness the Same? Part I

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."