Understanding MAdhyamaka - 3

nanda chandran vpcnk at HOTMAIL.COM
Fri Jun 23 16:24:44 CDT 2000

Some objections against shUnyatA answered

Objection : shUnyatA is nihilism.

Answer : NAgArjuna repeatedly warns that shUnyatA should not be
made an end in itself. According to him nihilism leads to hell
and it is better even to uphold a view of an eternal Self than
nihilism. ShUnyatA is just a tool to raise one to a higher
level of philosophical consciousness, after which it should be
abandoned. In this context Chandrakiirti quotes the Ratnakura
SUtra to the effect that a purgative taken for constipation,
should after cleaning the stomach should itself also come out.
If misunderstood, like a snake wrongly caught, shUnyatA will
destroy the aspirant. Chandrakiirti says that knowing that
shUnyatA cannot be easily grasped, the Buddha just after his
enlightenment became silent and uninclined towards teaching.

The misunderstanding of shUnyatA as nihilism
is mainly due to interpreting the MAdhyamaka dialectic from
an ontological standpoint. NAgArjuna doesn't say
that a hard rock is empty in its physical sense. One has to just
try to punch through it to know that's not what he means :-)
NAgArjuna is arguing from an epistemological standpoint i.e, from
the stand point of knowledge. He only says what we know as a rock
is only a conditioned concept and is ultimately empty, because it
doesn't reveal to us the true nature of the object.

Objection : If everything is empty, shUnyatA too is empty.

Answer : As a person in a dream cannot negate the dream as false
during the dream, the phenomenal world too cannot be negated by its
own logic. ShUnya is not mere negation, but the relativity of all
phenomena. Phenomena are neither real nor unreal. It is not real
because it is ultimately unintelligible. But that doesn't mean it
is unreal - for that is what is.

Objection : ShUnyavAda has no pramAna to establish itself.

Answer : The validity of pramAnas (means of knowledge) themselves
cannot be established. Like fire which cannot burn itself, a
pramAna cannot prove itself. A PramAna cannot be established by
another pramAna, for that would mean infinite regress (ie the pramAna
which acted as the basis of proof would itself need another pramAna
as proof for its own existence, which itself would need another
pramAna and so on). A pramAna cannot be proved by an object of
congnition (prameya), for that itself depends on the pramAna for
proof of existence! So the validity of pramAnas can be established
neither in itself, nor by other pramAnas nor by prameyas nor by

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