Understanding MAdhyamaka - 2

nanda chandran vpcnk at HOTMAIL.COM
Wed Jun 14 11:34:50 CDT 2000

The Dialectic

As said before schools envisaged the world as made up of individual
souls and matter or souls and atoms or only atoms or nothing at all.
The NyAya school had even analyzed the means of knowledge through
which reality could be known.

NAgArjuna mainly questions what we call as knowledge. For whatever
we know of the world is dependent on our knowledge of it. He analyzes
the validity of this knowledge.

NAgArjuna opens up the MAdhyamaka ShAstram with an attack on causality.
A thing is neither self-caused (SAmkhyan position), nor caused by
external conditions (HinayAnists), nor caused by both itself and
external conditions (JainAs), nor neither caused by itself nor external

The seed gives rise to the sprout. But without sunshine and water and
other favorable climatic conditions it could not have sprouted. But
external conditions itself will not do, else even a stone will also
sprout with the aid of sunshine and water. So is it that it was both
self-caused and also aided by external conditions? For the conditions
to act upon it, the seed needs to exist. But without the conditions,
how did it come into being in the first place? ie the seed itself
couldn't have come into being without the external conditions. So which
came first? So even self-caused plus aided by external conditions is
ultimately not intelligible. To say it was neither self-caused nor was
it aided by external factors would mean that sprouts could come out of
anywhere! So causation is an ultimately meaningless concept and hence
empty or shUnya.

If you say something changes, what's it that changes? If the thing
itself didn't change, then what's it that changed? The moment the
slightest change occures in a thing, it is no more the original thing,
but a totally new thing. So how can it be said that the thing changed,
when it doesn't exist anymore? And again when something has ceased to exist,
is it right to say then that it is no more? For then there's no point of
reference to that claim. The exact moment when a thing changes to something
else is beyond knowledge. We see a thing and the next moment we see a
totally new thing. Even here how could something come out of nowhere?

If it is said that something which constitutes the core of
the thing's being remains unchanged (*if* something like that can be
identified), then that itself is the thing and not that which changed.
But again, if there's even something like the essence of things, which
remains changeless, then being the true nature of things it will not
allow change at all. So the whole world would remain without change.

So production and destruction are ultimately meaningless concepts.

Plus all knowledge of change requires a prior knowledge of a thing before
the change and knowledge of the thing's current status as a changed thing.
Prior knowledge requires the use of memory, which makes it representative
knowledge. But representative knowledge being a thing of the past is
unreliable and not reliable like presentative knowledge as one gets in
direct perception. This is approved even by the NaiyAyikas and the
Miimaamsakas. So change is beyond knowledge and the conception of it empty
and hence shUnya.

We say desire is the root cause of all misery. For desire to be, there
must be a desirable thing. But for a desirable thing to be, it needs to
be desired. So which came first? The desire or the desirable thing?
The existance of one depends on the other. Remove one and the other
cannot exist. As one depends on the other they can neither be simultaneous
nor can they be totally apart. Though it seems like they are dependent
originated, we still do not know the exact nature of the relationship
between them.

Desire and the desirable thing are unintelligible and our conception
of them is only of practical value. Since they are not things in
themselves they are empty or shUnya.

We see with our eyes. If vision is the inherent quality of the eye, it
should be able to see itself. But it doesn't. How can that which cannot
see itself see another? Again, for a seer to see, the seer needs to be
different from seeing i.e he needs to be of a different nature than
vision. Else you cannot say that they're two distinct entities - seer
and seeing (if they're of the same nature they'll be one entity). But
then if the seer's different in nature from seeing, how does he see?

The same is the case with the rest of the senses. The self and the
senses exist only in relation to each other. Neither can be perceived
in itself.

Plus if the Self can exist apart from the senses, can't the senses
likewise exist by themselves without the Self? So what's the need to
postulate a Self beyond the mind and the senses?

Are they one or are they different? We do not know. Hence the Self
and the senses are all shUnya.

Likewise a substance without attributes is as meaningless as
attributes without a substance. Each exists only in relation to the

Using similar logic he shows the unintelligibility of concepts like
time, motion, agent and action etc. All these are concepts which
are ultimately meaningless and hence shUnya.

Next he explores language.

We call something gold. But gold is just a word. If it had been named
silver we'd right now be calling it silver instead of gold. If you say
it is a metal, metal too is just a word. What you call gold, is called
so because of certain properties - like lustre, malleability,
conductivity etc. Plus the application of it i.e it can be used to make
ornaments etc are the factors which make the concept of gold.

But what's it in itself?

We simply do not know. Our knowledge about an object based on its
attributes and its application or use to us. But we do not know what the
thing in itself is. Likewise the case with all objects in the world.
Absolute objective ontological knowledge is an impossibility.

Similarly subjective knowledge doesn't go beyond one's sex or position
in the family or society or the organization one works in. For what do
we know of ourselves other than our name, being a man or a father or a
software engineer? What we're in ourselves we've no idea. (Actually
NAgArjuna makes no such psychological arguments. His arguments are
primarily objective logical ones. But the above argument is the
subjective implication of the previous objective one).

What we know of the world is only a conceptual construction which is not
ultimately intelligible. Concepts sustain other concepts. All things exist
only in relation to something else and there's nothing by itself.And even
the relationship between things which seem to be dependent originated is not

It's in this sense that NAgArjuna says that everything is shUnya and that
the whole world is like an illusion or mAyA. Language and reason are
themselves the veil (samvritti) which shields us from the truth.
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