How not to criticize Nāgārjuna: A response to L. Stafford Betty
By David Loy

Philosophy East and West
Vol. 34, No. 4 (October 1984)
pp. 437-445

Copyright 1984 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA


 

 

p. 437 How not to criticize Nāgārjuna: A response to L. Stafford Betty
Philosophy East and West, Vol. 34, No. 4 (October 1984)

Interest in Mādhyamika continues to increase, and now no Eastern philosopher is receiving more attention than Nāgārjuna. Hopefully we have finally reached the point of being able to do more than just "follow" his dialectic -- always granting Nāgārjuna the benefit of a doubt -- and can begin to subject the Mādhyamakakārikā to an impartial critique. Such a "radical criticism" is the intention of L. Stafford Betty's paper "Nāgārjuna's Masterpiece -- Logical, Mystical, Both, or Neither?" [1] One must be grateful to Professor Betty for the attempt, but his critique does not succeed. Of course I shall argue that he misses the point of Nāgārjuna's arguments, but more generally I think it can be shown that Betty, too, falls victim to that perpetual pitfall of all Mādhyamika interpretation: seeing Nāgārjuna's quite unique approach through a very different set of philosophical spectacles. Usually this has involved viewing Mādhyamika through the categories of another system -- Stcherbatsky's Kant, Murti's Vedānta, Gudmundsen's Wittgenstein -- which (as with earlier interpretations of nirvāṇa) reveals more about the interpreter than the interpreted. Apparently Betty has no such metaphysical ax to grind, but there remain more deep-rooted Western presuppositions about the nature and role of philosophy which are alien to Nāgārjuna's enterprise and, not surprisingly, result in incomprehension.

    One turns to Betty's critique with high hopes but is disappointed to see that it consists of two points, neither of which is new. First, what is admitted to be an inconclusive argument is made that Nāgārjuna plays on -- or rather with -- words, citing two examples from the "Motion and Rest" chapter of the Kārikās. Second is the apparently more telling objection that there is "no way of salvaging the Kārikās from the scourge of their own conclusions" [2] -- that is, the śūnyatā of all views -- and that Nāgārjuna is inconsistent because the Kārikās are in fact littered with views. Betty concludes that the Kārikās are logically faulty and therefore (answering his title-question) should be viewed as a mystical manifesto rather than a work of philosophical logic. [3]

    Many contemporary Mādhyamikas would, I suspect, be inclined to grant Betty his weaker first point, ameliorating the damage with a reference to Nāgārjuna's historical context: that we must take into account the accepted philosophical categories of his time; they would then concentrate on challenging his second point. I propose to do the opposite. First, we shall see that Nāgārjuna's argument in the "Motion and Rest" chapter is not a case of wordplay, but points to a serious flaw in our "movement-language" -- more precisely, he is demonstrat- ing the unintelligibility of ascribing motion-predicates

 

 

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to substantive objects. Second, I shall agree with Betty that the Kārikās are full of Nāgārjuna's own views, but not with his conclusion that this is the shipwreck of Mādhyamika logic. On the contrary, these views are a necessary part of the Mādhyamika project. How this can be true requires the more general discussion in Part II of this article.

 

I

(1) Betty quotes approvingly Streng's objection to Nāgārjuna's method, that it is "an analysis which appears to be rather arid and often simply a play on words." [4] To support this Betty cites only two passages in chapter 2 ("Motion and Rest") and he emphasizes the second, stanzas 19-20, which he quotes in full:

    ... if the "act of going" and the goer are identical, The fallacy logically follows that the "person acting" (kartā) and the action (karman) are identical.

Alternatively, if the "goer" is different from the "process of going" (gati), The "act of going" (gamana) would exist without the "goer" and the "goer" would exist without the "act of going."

Since both alternatives are absurd, Nāgārjuna concludes that neither the "process of going" nor the "goer" exists (v.25). Betty agrees that the formal logic is valid but balks at the reification of "the act of going." Because the word gamana is "empirica- lly meaningless" and we need not grant that there is any such "thing" in the empirical world as a bare "act of going," the argument fails. [5] But isn't Betty here looking in the wrong place? The Kārikās are an analysis, not of the nature of the world itself (which is, after all, śūnya), but of our ways of looking at the world, it is these ways of thinking (which according to Nāgārjuna can be shown to be inconsistent) that make the world "empirical" for us. If this is true, we should look for a gamana in our categories of thought -- and there I think we do find one in our ingrained tendency (perhaps due to, and certainly enshrined in, the subject-predicate structure of language) to distinguish our experience into self-existing entities and their activities. We do think of ourselves, for example, as persons distinguishable from our actions, and this implies some sort of reification not only of ourselves but also of the act, as our substantives "act, " "action," and "activity" reveal. The import of Nāgārjuna's argument is that this way of understanding motion does not make sense, for the interdependence of the "goer" and the "act of going" shows that both are unreal. His logic here (as in so many other cases) proceeds by demonstrating that once we have thus reified the distinction between them it is impossible to understand their relation -- a difficulty familiar enough to students of the mind-body problem. The problem is seen by inquiring into the status of the subject: is it a mover or not? Neither answer makes sense. For a mover to move would be redundant ("a second motion") and a nonmover moving is a contradiction. This is the point of stanzas 2-11, and it is not a "logical sleight-of-hand" which "resembles the shell game." [6] In contemporary analytic terms, Nāgārjuna is pointing out a flaw in

 

 

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the everyday language we use to describe (and hence our ways of thinking about) motion and rest: our ascription of motion predicates to substantive objects is unintelligible.

(2) According to Betty himself, his first argument does not so much refute as discredit -- an odd conclusion, since showing that an argument depends on meaningless terms should be enough to refute it. But for Betty the more serious flaw, running through the whole fabric, is that there is no way to save the Kārikās from their own conclusions -- that the śūnyatā of everything, including all views, implies the ineffectiveness of Nagarjuna's own logic. "If all is empty, then on what grounds can one meaningfully teach the emptiness of all views?" [7] This, too, is hardly an original objection -- Betty recognizes that Nāgārjuna himself wrote the Vigrahavyāvartanī to answer it -- but he thinks that the difficulty has not been squarely faced. Betty is aware of Nāgārjuna's answer to this criticism: that this does not refute his thesis but establishes it, for an opponent can make this rebuttal only by accepting his claim. But because Betty does not see its cogency, he gives an inappropriate analogy to make his point: "It is as if the objector had said to Nāgārjuna, "You're wrong," and Nāgārjuna had answered, "Of course I'm wrong; that's precisely what makes me right," [8] an answer which in Betty's view is an evasion. But Nāgārjuna's response is not that of the Cretan liar. To admit, happily, that his view is śūnya is very different from admitting that his view is wrong: it is to agree that, among other things, all questions of rightness and wrongness are from the highest point of view inapplicable. Contrary to the analogy, it is not because Nāgārjuna's view is empty that it is right; he does not argue for his own view in this way, but simply shows how the opponent's argument must presuppose what it wants to refute. The Cretan liar paradox involves what might be called a "horizontal" self-contradiction -- if he's wrong he's right, and if he's right he's wrong -- which Nāgārjuna does not fall into because his self-negation involves the "vertical" movement from one level to another.

    Betty is also aware that the "two truths" doctrine constitutes the definitive answer to objections such as his, but he does not seem to understand it; for he is

sure that any reversion to a "two truths" methodology is not conducive to philosophical knowledge of the real. For ultimately there is only one truth, not two, and any discussion at a lower level is, for a philosopher, discussion at the wrong level. [9]

Yes and no: Nāgārjuna would agree that the two-truths doctrine is not conducive to "philosophical knowledge of the real" (because there is no such thing) and that ultimately there is only one truth, but his point is that "discussion at a lower level" is the only level accessible to philosophy. The higher truth is not available to philosophical description; in fact, from a purely philosophical perspective there is ultimately no such truth, which is why Nāgārjuna's statements, like those of all philosophers, are śūnya.

 

 

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    Betty concludes that because the Kārikās are "alogical," they are "like a fabulous picture without a wall to hang on or a marvellous tangle of ivy without a trellis to support it," whose "foundation is next to nonexistent." [10] The irony of these similes is that Nāgārjuna would of course agree with them, to the extent of happily removing the "next to" qualification. More disturbing is the accusation that Nāgārjuna "suffers" (his quotes) from the "common Indian trait of dichotomizing truth into the transcendental and the empirical, in effect wholly unconnected from each other" (quoting Narain). [11] Betty repeats this charge in his conclusion, where he criticizes Nāgārjuna for looking down "from his spiritual plateau" on "the phenomenal order he had risen above. It [his spiritual plateau] stood quite alone -- it was real -- it alone was real... -- all else was not less real, but unreal, empty, śunya." [12] Nāgārjuna should have admitted that "the phenomenal world was at least a reflection of the Real," and is compared unfavorably with Aquinas who also realized that one could not talk of God but employed the "analogical mode" of predicating attributes to God. [13]

This criticism might be justifiable against Śaṅkara's conception of Brahman, but it hardly applies to Nāgārjuna, for whom saṁsāra is nothing other than nirvāṇa itself. [14] Even Śaṅkara would have admitted that the phenomenal world is a reflection of the Real -- this is why "the universe is an unbroken series of perceptions of Brahman" [15] -- but Nāgārjuna accepts no wedge whatsoever between them. There is no "real" or "Absolute" for Nāgārjuna apart from phenomena. Nirvāṇa is nothing other than the true -- that is, śūnya -- nature of saṁsāra; as I understand it, the only difference between them is whether we perceive ("take") the world dualistically (with the delusive sense of a distinction between oneself and the object) or nondually. Nāgārjuna could not accept any analogical descriptions of reality, for all such descriptions are still attempts to "re-present" what is presented, which have the dualistic effect of objectifying that-which-is talked-about and subjectifying he-who-talks-about-it.

(3) Much of Betty's argument is devoted to defending the view that Nāgārjuna did not reject all views. "My thesis is that Nāgārjuna resorts to views in destroying views, and that therefore his Kārikās are self-contradictory-in other words, that it and not the dṛṣṭi of the rival schools stands self-convicted." [16] Betty claims, contra Murti, that there is no "negative judgment" but only "negative judgments," which are views, and quotes Robinson that Nāgārjuna affirms propositions, which for Betty are views; [17] Nāgārjuna may have intended to undermine logic, but he relies on logic to do so. [18] Stanzas 1-3 of chapter 1 are quoted as presuppositions (thus views) which are "the rules of the contest," and Nāgārjuna is said to have "held the view that svabhāva, existent or not, had to be defined in this way [as not produced]" and "that all existing ... things are characterized by old age and death." [19]

    Part of this critique amounts to criticizing Nāgārjuna for employing (and by implication accepting) the logical relations and definitions of his time -- an

 

 

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objection which falters when we ask what alternative Nāgārjuna had. Does Betty expect Nāgājuna to use some other type of logic, or none at all? Any other logic would be subject to the same sort of objection: in one sense, all argument is history-contextual, in that it must use terms and categories commonly accepted by those for whom it was written. The only alternative is to employ no logic at all -- that is, not to argue at all, accepting Betty's implication that Nāgārjuna's whole enterprise is impossible from the very beginning.

    The usual prāsaṅgika reply to Betty's critique is that we must distinguish, as Murti does, between views about reality and views which criticize another view. Whether or not this distinction is valid, I agree with Betty that Nāgārjuna does have views. An obvious and important example is the view that no view are adequate to describe reality. [20] This view is logically distinct from the refutation of any particular views, no matter how many, for it is a case of the problem of induction: no enumeration of consecutive events can ever establish the casual necessity which scientific law requires. As I see it, this particular view is essential to Nāgārjuna's case -- otherwise, why not keep searching indefinitely for the correct philosophical position? -- and is in itself enough to refute any naive version of the prāsangika position. But I disagree with Betty's conclusion that this refutes Nāgārjuna. On the contrary, such views are essential to the success of his project. To explain and defend this requires a digression into Mādhyamika interpretation generally.

 

II

    There have been many Western interpretations of Mādhyamika. but the significant ones can be lumped into one of two major categories. The more classical readings are those of Th. Stcherbatsky [21] and T. R. V. Murti; [22] although the former is Kantian and the latter somewhat more Vedāntic, both interpret the distinction between saṁsāra and nirvāṇa as the difference between phenomena and noumenal absolute. The more recent interpretation of Frederick Streng [23] and Chris Gudmundsen [24] are influenced by contemporary analytic philosophy, particularly Wittgenstein, and understand śūnyatā "meta-system" term which does not refer to anything in the world but rather indicates the inability of all language (systems of representation) to refer to anything. By itself each of these systems of interpretation is wrong because it is one-sided, but a critique of them can reveal far more than mere one-sidedness. I suggest that these two misinterpretations are not historical accidents but are natural and countervailing tendencies, diametrically and dialectically opposed, for each emphasizes one of the two main aspects of the Mādhyamika "system" at the expense of the other. Therefore, each is a salutary corrective to the other, and Mādhyamika consists in an unavoidable tension between these two poles.

    Philosophy originates in the awareness that the apparently objective and unproblematic reality of the world is in fact questionable, and in our uncertainly as to how we relate to it. We realize that our everyday understanding of the world

 

 

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is just an understanding, and philosophy is the resulting search for the correct understanding, an attempt to construct that set of categories which, when superimposed upon reality, will "mirror" it. Thought thus distinguishes itself from the world in order to divine its structure -- but in the process perpetuates the dualism between conscious mind and external world. In the Buddhist tradition, the Ābhidharmika attempt to extract the Buddha's "core teaching" is such a search for the correct categories, and Mādhyamika originates in the belief -- the view -- that this quest is a distortion of the Buddha's teaching. The important realization which prompts the Mādhyamika critique is that any view about the world -- any correspondence between a set of philosophical categories and the world -- must ultimately be unsatisfactory, for the Buddhist goal is to dissolve the dualism between inside and outside which every view implicitly maintains. The self-consciousness of Mādhyamika is the paradox that all efforts to express this philosophically are inherently self-negating, for any attempt to describe the relationship between duality and nonduality is, by definition, a dualistic view about... and thus part of the problem to be overcome. The internal contradiction of Mādhyamika is that its project assumes some such understanding -- some such view -- of the relationship between them; but this contradiction, rather than refuting Mādhyamika, as Betty believes, is resolved in the "two truths" doctrine -- which is itself a view to be negated as part of the lower truth. So Mādhyamika must be perceived as a philosophical moment in a self-negating process of mental development. Having climbed up the ladder, we must kick it out from beneath us -- or rather have it fall away, since this is not something that the self can do but rather something that happens to the self.

    This shows us the two main and opposing aspects of the Mādhyamika "system." The first one is that all philosophy, and indeed all language insofar as it is understood to correspond to something, is inescapably dualistic. There is no Archimedean point which is accessible to the intellect and from which one can objectively describe the relationship between duality and nonduality. The second aspect is the view that there is a very important difference between experiencing the world dualistically (mediated by cravings and views) and nondualistically (immediately) . The two currents of Mādhyamika interpretation distort the whole by emphasizing only one of these two aspects: the Kantian/Vedāntic approach emphasizes the second, and the linguistic approach the first.

    The main problem with a Kantian/Vedāntic reading is the dualism that occurs when a wedge is driven between noumena (whether knowable or not) and empirical phenomena. Any such distinction between an "apparent" world and a "real" world is irremediably metaphysical and inconsistent with the fundamental Mādhyamika tenet that saṁsāra is nirvāṇa. There is nothing to be gained, only something to be removed. This is why "empirical" and "absolute" are deceptive translations of saṁvṛti-satya and paramārtha-satya. Śūnyatā is said to be the ultimate truth, but emptiness is a soteriological therapy, not an onto-

 

 

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logical category. In other words, emptiness, the relativity of all things, is itself relative; the ultimate truth, like the conventional, is devoid of independent being. [25]

    Therefore, the above interpretation naturally inspires another one. Śūnyatā is now understood to imply nothing about the nature of some "real world" (thus avoiding any metaphysical dualism), but is rather a second-order term which points to something about the nature of language (and thought): that the world is śūnya here amounts to a denial that words gain meaning by corresponding to something extralinguistic. This "neonominalism" emphasizes that language cannot describe the world. But by itself this approach also yields only half the truth about Mādhyamika. One must be careful about concluding that the end of confused language games "leaves everything as it is" (Wittgenstein) . What Wittgenstein himself meant by this is controversial, but certainly Nāgārjuna would not accept the realistic conclusions which some have drawn. It is in a very different sense for Mādhyamika that the end of views leaves the world as it really is, for this nondual world is in fact very different from the way we now "take" it. Until we are enlightened we cannot "leave everything as it is" but rather meddle with it and bifurcate it. That saṁsāra is nirvāṇa must not be misinterpreted as reducing nirvāṇa to saṁsāra, but rather vice versa. To understand Mādhyamika only in a linguistic way is to ignore the religious context which Nāgārjuna as a Buddhist always took for granted and which provides the situation for his philosophical enterprise.

Nāgārjuna never denied the relevance of the whole gamut of ethical and psychological practices offered by the Buddhist tradition as effective means of altering the undesirable character of experience conditioned by negative and dualistic propensities and so realizing the transformed mode of experience known as enlightenment. If the end of the process is the discarding of the apparatus as indicated in works like the Mūlamādhyamikakārikā, it is analogous to the discarding of the raft once the river has been crossed...

    For the Madhyamaka, language and ordinary experience are neither true nor false. If the Madhyamaka resorts to ordinary modes of expression in order to suggest the transformed mode of experience which is the goal of the soteriological process, it is merely a concession to a conventional usage sustained by a prevalent illusion. The Madhyamakas are very explicit about their condemnation of ordinary linguistic convention. [26]

    To summarize: The Mādhyamika project of criticizing all views has no meaning except in the context of some understanding -- which is a view -- about a difference between saṁsāra (duality) and nirvāṇa (nonduality). This is the point of the Kantian metaphysical interpretation, here necessary as a corrective to a one-sided linguistic one. A tension exists between these two poles of interpretation which subvert each other even as they are dependent upon each other. There is no philosophical way to resolve this tension without distorting Mādhyamika, as each does by itself -- but this does not mean that there is no solution. Mādhyamika should be understood not statically as some synthesis of

 

 

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these two contradictory approaches, but dynamically as a philosophical moment in an evolving "way of liberation" which, in order to become a fully consistent antiphilosophy, had to negate even antiphilosophy in pointing beyond itself to an experience which is nonphilosophical. It is in this historical sense that the logic of Nāgārjuna is "dialectical" and gave birth to the "syntheses" of Ch'an and Tibetan tantra, which are philosophy-negating systems of practice. So the Zen master has nothing at all -- not even antiphilosophy -- to teach, but simply uses whatever techniques are helpful -- often unconventional and illogical ones -- to awaken a student according to the situation.

    One could reply that all the above is a philosophical evasion: a "dynamic" interpretation of Mādhyamika is an excuse to avoid the criteria of philosophical argument, by which Nāgārjuna's project must be judged self-contradictory. The problem with this objection is that it is a mistake to judge the Mādhyamikakārikā as if it were a Western philosophical treatise. It is ironic that, despite the title of his paper, Betty can only see the alternatives as either-or: either the Kārikās are a philosophical work or they must be a mystical tract. Since Betty thinks the philosophical arguments do not hold water, he concludes that the Kārikās are "a mystical manifesto in philosophical guise" [27] -- an odd verdict indeed to anyone who has studied them, and Betty admits that they are unlike any other mystical work he has encountered. But this allows him to emphasize their "greatness" and insist that they are "not overrated," [28] damning them with faint philosophical praise as "one of the most powerful and persuasive works of mystical literature" [29] -- even if Betty himself is not one of the persuaded. He quotes Conze's insistence that any Buddhist work is first of all "motivated by man's spiritual needs; and aims at his salvation from the world and its ways," [30] and is only secondarily philosophical. But because for Betty a work is either philosophy or not, he misses the fact that Nāgārjuna has a very different understanding of how reason relates to liberation. Perhaps Nāgārjuna's view should not be assumed prima facie to be wrong just because it does not agree with the modern Western sundering of religion from philosophy -- a division which, it might be argued, has had deplorable consequences for both.

    Yet, as Nāgārjuna would be quick to point out, it makes no sense to say that the Kārikās are both philosophical and a mystical tract, since, as these alternatives have developed in the West, they are indeed incompatible. For us, logic and intuition do not fit together very well; like mind and body, since they have been split it has become very difficult to rejoin them. So perhaps the best description of the Kārikās is that they fall into neither category as we have come to understand them in the West but are, rather, sui generis, requiring a new (to us!) view of how the philosophical enterprise relates to the path of liberation -- as neither identical with it, nor divorced from it: a conclusion which I suspect Nāgārjuna would be pleased to agree with.

 

 

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Notes

Note: The author is grateful for comments on an earlier draft of this article by Drs. Peter Della Santina, Ranjit Chatterjee, Ranjit Nair, and John Drew.

1. L. Stafford Betty, "Nāgārjuna's Masterpiece -- Logical, Mystical, Both, or Neither?" Philosophy East and West 33, no. 2 (April 1983): 123-138; hereafter cited as Betty, "Nāgārjuna's Masterpiece."

2. Betty, "Nāgārjuna's Masterpiece," p. 126.

3. Ibid., p. 133.

4. Frederick J. Streng, Emptiness -- A Study in Religious Meaning (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1967), pp. 181-182, quoted by Betty, p. 124.

5. Betty, "Nāgārjuna's Masterpiece," pp. 125-126.

6. Ibid., p. 135.

7. Ibid., p. 126.

8. Ibid., p. 128.

9. Ibid., p. 132.

10. Ibid., p. 132.

11. H. Narain, "Śūnyavāda: A Reinterpretation," Philosophy East and West 13, no. 4 (1964), p. 338, quoted by Betty, p. 132.

12. Betty, "Nāgārjuna's Masterpiece," p. 133.

13. Ibid., p. 133.

14. Kārikās XXV: 19-20.

15. Śaṅkara's Vivekacūdāmani, trans. Mahavananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1974), p. 194, v. 521. In these terms, māyā may be defined as the error of taking the relection for the original.

16. Betty, "Nāgārjuna's Masterpiece," p. 128.

17. Ibid., p. 129.

18. Ibid., p. 130.

19. Ibid., pp. 130-131.

20. Which is why, for example, "no truth has been taught by a Buddha for anyone, anywhere" (Kārikās XXV:24).

21. Theodore Stcherbatsky, The Concept of Buddhist Nirvana (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1968).

22. T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, (London: Allen and Unwin, 1960).

23. See note 2.

24. Chris Gudmundsen, Wittgenstein and Buddhism (London: Macmillan, 1977).

25. Kārikās XIII:7-8 and XXII:11. I am indebted to Dr. Peter Della Santina for this way of expressing the point.

26. From "The Madhyamaka and Modern Western Philosophy" (unpublished paper by Dr. Peter Della Santina).

27. Betty, "Nāgarjuna's Masterpiece," p. 133.

28. Ibid., p. 133.

29. Ibid., p. 135.

30. Ibid., p. 133.