Nagarjuna and Theravada

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths - what can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
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tiltbillings
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Re: Nagarjuna and Theravada

Post by tiltbillings » Wed Feb 18, 2009 5:21 am

if his main contender was Pudgalavavada and the Theravadins asserting that the Five Aggregates were paramatha,
Depends upon what is meant by paramatha. I am not sure the Theravada tradition speak uniformally on that matter, even as late as Buddhaghosa. Nanamoli in a footnote in his PATH OF PURIFICATION, pages 317-8, states: "In the Pitakas the word sabhaava seems to appear only once...," it appears several times in Milindapanha, and it is used quite a bit in the PoP and it commentaries. He states it often roughly corresponds to dhaatu, element and to lakkhana, characteristic. An interesting passage from the PoP reads:

"On the contrary, before their rise [the bases, aayatana] they had no individual essence [sabhaava], and after their fall their individual essence are completely dissolved. And they occur without mastery [being exercisable over them] since they exist in dependence on conditions and in between the past and the future." Page 551 XV 15.

And another, XV 21:

"These are elements (dhaatu) since they cause [a state's] own individual essence [sabhaava] to be borne (dhaarenti)."

It is a problem with language, it seems, and no matter how hard we try not to, we tend to end up making whatever it is we are talking about solid. I think the Pali Abhidhamma seems have tried to resist this, even into the later commentaries, and it probably did better than some other systems, but there is an obvious reification going on some of the more modern abhidhamma discussions that really does not seems warranted from the earlier Abhidhamma, particularly the Abhidhamma Pitaka, nor from the suttas.

What kind of "ultimate things" are dhammas? Piatigorsky, in his studies of the Theravadin Abhidhamma Pitaka texts (THE BUDDHIST PHILOSOPHY OF THOUGHT 1984, 181) points out dharmas are not substances; they are not 'things' in and of themselves:

We simpy cannot say that 'a dharma is... (a predicate follows)', because a dharma, in fact, 'is' no thing, yet [it is] a term denoting (not being) a certain relation or type of relation to thought, consciousness or mind. That is, dharma is not a concept in the accepted terminological sense of the latter, but a purely relational notion.
Nyanaponika ABHIDHAMMA STUDIES, page 41 BPS; page 42 Wisdom. wrote:By arranging the mental factors in relational groups a subordinate synthetical element has been introduced into the mainly analytical Dhammasangani. By so doing, the danger inherent in purely analytical methods is avoided. This danger consists in erroneously taking for genuine separate entities the “parts” resulting from analysis, instead of restricting their use to sound practical method with the purpose of classifying and dissolving composite events wrongly conceived as unities. Up to the present time it has been a regular occurrence in the history of physics, metaphysics, and psychology that when the “whole” has been successfully dissolved by analysis, the resultant “parts” themselves come in turn to be regarded as little “wholes.”
http://www.zeh-verlag.de/download/dhammatheory.pdf wrote:In the Pali tradition it is only for the sake of definition and description that each dhamma is postulated as if it were a separate entity; but in reality it is by no means a solitary phenomenon having an existence of its own. . . . If this Abhidhammic view of existence, as seen from its doctrine of dhammas, cannot be interpreted as a radical pluralism, neither can it be interpreted as an out-and-out monism. For what are called dhammas -- the component factors of the universe, both within us and outside us -- are not fractions of an absolute unity but a multiplicity of co-ordinate factors. They are not reducible to, nor do they emerge from, a single reality, the fundamental postulate of monistic metaphysics. If they are to be interpreted as phenomena, this should be done with the proviso that they are phenomena with no corresponding noumena, no hidden underlying ground. For they are not manifestations of some mysterious metaphysical substratum, but processes taking place due to the interplay of a multitude of conditions. Prof. Dr. Y. Karunadasa, THE DHAMMA THEORY, page 9.
Harvey, in his excellent INTRODUCTION TO BUDDHISM, characterizes the Theravadin position, page 87: wrote: "'They are dhammas because they uphold their own nature [sabhaava]. They are dhammas because they are upheld by conditions or they are upheld according to their own nature' (Asl.39). Here 'own-nature' would mean characteristic nature, which is not something inherent in a dhamma as a separate ultimate reality, but arise due to the supporting conditions both of other dhammas and previous occurrences of that dhamma."
A.K. Warder, in INDIAN BUDDHISM, page 323, discussing the Pali Abhidhamma commentarial literature, states: wrote: "The most significant new idea in the commentaries is the definition of a 'principle' or element (dharma): dharmas are what have (or 'hold', 'maintain', dhr. is the nearest equivalent in the language to the English 'have') their own own-nature (svabhaava). It is added that they naturally have this through conditions."
Dhammas are "ultimate things" only as a way of talking aspects of the relational flow of experience, not in terms of describing static realities. In other words, dhammas are empty of self.

Now, I am sure there will be those who will disagree, which is fine. This is about as much as I am going to defend the Abhdhamma.
>> Do you see a man wise [enlightened/ariya] in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.<< -- Proverbs 26:12

This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond. -- SN I, 38.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” HPatDH p.723

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Re: Nagarjuna and Theravada

Post by Individual » Wed Feb 18, 2009 6:19 am

tiltbillings wrote: "On the contrary, before their rise [the bases, aayatana] they had no individual essence [sabhaava], and after their fall their individual essence are completely dissolved. And they occur without mastery [being exercisable over them] since they exist in dependence on conditions and in between the past and the future." Page 551 XV 15.
Doesn't this perspective pre-suppose the standpoint of the present (seeing dhammas as the arising and cessation of sabhaava), whereas outside this standpoint, "sabhaava" has no meaning?
tiltbillings wrote: It is a problem with language, it seems, and no matter how hard we try not to, we tend to end up making whatever it is we are talking about solid. I think the Pali Abhidhamma seems have tried to resist this, even into the later commentaries, and it probably did better than some other systems, but there is an obvious reification going on some of the more modern abhidhamma discussions that really does not seems warranted from the earlier Abhidhamma, particularly the Abhidhamma Pitaka, nor from the suttas.
I think the problem would be craving with regard to language, not language itself. By that, I mean we should not place the burden of right speech solely on the speaker (except with ourselves, of course -- I mean in a broad sense), because right mindfulness ("right listening" maybe?) is necessary for right speech to be heard. If a person writes down something that can be regarded as right speech, it might help one person, confuse another, frighten another, anger another, and another might ignore it -- many people react to various statements by the Buddha like this -- but it doesn't change the clarity of the speech. I don't think it's possible to ever create a perfectly pure or right word or set of words, because they are impermanent and subject to distortion, misinterpretation, and annihilation. But if Buddhists develop a pure mind, then any words which follow should be just fine. The obsession with any kind of post-canonical commentary seems to miss these facts.
tiltbillings wrote:Now, I am sure there will be those who will disagree, which is fine. This is about as much as I am going to defend the Abhdhamma.
It doesn't come across as dogmatic at all, in my opinion and it's very nice, very informative. :) The idea of a dhamma as a "relational notion" is a very interesting and insightful idea. It reiterates the idea that the dhamma is not a set of metaphysics, phenomenology, or any kind of philosophy at all, but a pragmatic path for the elimination of craving and suffering.
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Re: Nagarjuna and Theravada

Post by jcsuperstar » Wed Feb 18, 2009 7:00 am

not sure if this helps but a couple years ago thanisarro wrote something about the theravada version of emptiness and how it was superior to the mahayana understanding.. it was in one of the big buddhist mags, maybe someone knows what im talking about?
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the mountain may be heavy in and of itself, but if you're not trying to carry it it's not heavy to you- Ajaan Suwat

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Re: Nagarjuna and Theravada

Post by jcsuperstar » Wed Feb 18, 2009 7:02 am

tiltbillings wrote:An interesting and probably worthwhile book on Theravada (or probably more correctly, the Pali suttas) and Nagarjuna is David Kalpahana's NAGARJUNA: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. This book is a translation of Nagarjuna's central text, the Mula. Tibetan type hate the book, which probably speaks well of it. The translation, while not perfect is good and the commentary is interesting, often referencing the Pali suttas.

But for me, the Theravada/Pali suttas do not need Nagarjuna.
is that the one that asserts that he's a nihlist?
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the mountain may be heavy in and of itself, but if you're not trying to carry it it's not heavy to you- Ajaan Suwat

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Re: Nagarjuna and Theravada

Post by tiltbillings » Wed Feb 18, 2009 7:36 am

is that the one that asserts that he's a nihlist?
No.Not all.
>> Do you see a man wise [enlightened/ariya] in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.<< -- Proverbs 26:12

This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond. -- SN I, 38.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” HPatDH p.723

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Re: Nagarjuna and Theravada

Post by Prasadachitta » Wed Feb 18, 2009 3:05 pm

Individual Wrote
The important thing, I think, is not whether one agrees with Nagarjuna, but in how one reaches their opinion. In the Brahmajala sutta, the positions, "x," "y instead of x", "both x and y", tend to be associated with meditation, but the fourth position, "neither x nor y," is associated with logic and reasoning, with regard to several particular wrong views. If a person comes to conclude this -- that the self neither exists nor doesn't exist, that the world is neither real nor unreal, etc., if this is concluded on an intellectual basis, nothing has been achieved.
Hi Individual,

I agree with this in a sense except your first sentence above. Nararjuna is not giving out anything to agree with. Therefore, it is important that you do not agree with him. Through seeing what he is getting at you see that he does not provide any kind of established assertion. At the same time he upholds the path and the goal as operative. He is imploring us not to get stuck on any kind of intellectual tail chasing.

Metta

Gabriel
"Beautifully taught is the Lord's Dhamma, immediately apparent, timeless, of the nature of a personal invitation, progressive, to be attained by the wise, each for himself." Anguttara Nikaya V.332

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Re: Nagarjuna and Theravada

Post by Dharmajim » Thu Feb 19, 2009 1:56 am

A few comments regarding Nagarjuna:

First, Theravada does not need Nagarjuna. I would argue that no one does, meaning that no Buddhist tradition needs his analyses in order to practice, follow the path, attain realization. In other words, I don't think Nagarjuna is particularly insightful nor do I think his writings particularly relevant to how the vast majority of practitioners engage the Dhamma and Dharma.

Nagarjuna is obsessed with articulating a finely wrought analysis; but how does that help one's practice? How does that help one achieve realization? I think it is all colosally irrelevant.

Here's an analogy as to why I think this way: Cultivation does not require perfect understanding of ultimate nature. If two gardeners have different understanding about the ultimate nature of "flower", those different understanding will not impinge on their abilities to garden effectively. Both can still produce wonderful gardens.

Similarly, understanding precisely and meticulously the exact nature of emptiness does not, in and of itself, prove conducive to effective practice of the Dhamma Path. It isn't needed in order to practice the precepts, enter into the foundations of mindfulness, or practice metta. Whether one comprehends emptiness as a non-affirming negation, or an affirming negation, or as a mystical darkness, all of these are equally compatible with Dhamma practice.

On the level of logic, I remain unconvinced by many of Nagarjuna's arguments, particularly those that rely on equating an infinite regress with a logical error (see, for example, his analysis of motion). Not all infinite regresses are fallacies; one has to further establish that the regress is logically vicious and Nagarjuna does not do that which, in my opinion, vitiates many of analyses. In addition, Nagarjuna often wins his arguments by defining his terms in an eccentric way; the link that Tilt gives offers one example of this. 'Self-nature' as used in Abhidhamma/dharma does not necessarily entail separate existence, which is how Nagarjuna treats it. Just as an ecological analysis of a field does not entail the separate existence of the elements of that field (the science of ecology would actually deny that conclusion), so also the listing of mental dhammas does not entail that they have separate existence. Nagarjuna uses a sleight of hand here to win an argument, but his victory had almost no influence on his opponents because he wasn't really addressing their claims.

I have a deep admiration for thinkers like Proclus, Spinoza, and Nagarjuna who are able to manifest a finely wroght analytical structure. There is something beautiful, to my mind, about these offerings, but they are not the final say on Dhamma. One philosopher I greatly admire, Alfred North Whitehead, says in his preface to "Process and Reality" that there is no such things as a final system of analysis. Creating a final system is not really the function of these kinds of analyses.

One of the things which disturbs me about the focus on Nagarjuna is that Mahayana Buddhism seems completely stuck in this medieval system and logic has come a long way, just as mathematics has. It reminds me a lot of Catholics who remain stuck with St. Thomas Aquinas. Western Theravada Buddhists have already made some interesting offerings integrating contemporary western philosophy, applying it to Theravada Dhamma; I'm thinking of Gowans as a good example. I would like to see Mahayana Buddhism follow this example instead of remaining fixated on Nagarjuna.

Best wishes,

Dharmajim

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Re: Nagarjuna and Theravada

Post by clw_uk » Thu Feb 19, 2009 9:22 pm

Sorry for lack of posts, been caught up in the other thread

Thanks to everyone for posting such full and interesting posts, they have given be some good understandings


:namaste:
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Re: Nagarjuna and Theravada

Post by tiltbillings » Thu Feb 19, 2009 11:05 pm

Dharmajim,

Thanks for the msg. I agree with what you say.
Nagarjuna is obsessed with articulating a finely wrought analysis
And this finely wrought analysis has been refined even further by various followers, which has lead to, among the schools that follow the Nagarjunian path, the belief that this finely wrought analysis is an absolute necessity that must be mastered if one is going to have right, for without it, no right view, no awakening. Another problem is that this analysis has been structured in such a way as to be a basis for beating the begeesus out every other point of view, as if that establishes the absolute correctness of it.
>> Do you see a man wise [enlightened/ariya] in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.<< -- Proverbs 26:12

This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond. -- SN I, 38.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” HPatDH p.723

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Re: Nagarjuna and Theravada

Post by Dharmajim » Fri Feb 20, 2009 1:09 am

Hi Tilt:

I find the point you made one of the most disturbing of the madhyamika tradition. Chandrakirti explicitly says you have to be a madhyamikan to have full enlightenment. In order for that to be the case one would have to establish a causal connection between awakening and learning a system of analysis. It isn't too difficult to comprehend a causal connection between overcoming the five hindrances and awakening; since nibbana is stated to be "peace" in the Pali Canon one can grasp the connection in a fairly straightforward way. But what would be the connection between nailing down a system of analysis and awakening? Since awakening is often claimed to be non-conceptual it would seem to me to be generating a hindrance rather than clearing an obscuration.

Hi Gabriel:

The idea that Nagarjuna has no view of his own, as he states in, I believe, the Vigrahavyavartani, is one that I do not agree with. First, Nagarjuna clearly believes in the efficacy of analysis and that entails having a view as to the nature of analysis. Many people would not agree with this view; for example many would argue that comprehension of higher states is intuitive and non-analytical. So this is not obvious or something to be taken for granted.

I regard Nagarjuna's claim that he doesn't have a view as identical to Newton's famous "Hypothesi non fingo", "I have no hypotheses", or B. F. Skinner's claim to have no axioms or Derrida's similar claim. All of these have proven to be false and for anyone outside of the madhyamika haze the view they have is fairly blatant.

Best wishes,

Dharmajim

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Re: Nagarjuna and Theravada

Post by Prasadachitta » Fri Feb 20, 2009 5:19 am

Dharmajim wrote: The idea that Nagarjuna has no view of his own, as he states in, I believe, the Vigrahavyavartani, is one that I do not agree with. First, Nagarjuna clearly believes in the efficacy of analysis and that entails having a view as to the nature of analysis.
May you not turn whatever it is that you find has efficacy into a view.
Many people would not agree with this view; for example many would argue that comprehension of higher states is intuitive and non-analytical.
Yes indeed many people including myself

Metta

Gabriel
"Beautifully taught is the Lord's Dhamma, immediately apparent, timeless, of the nature of a personal invitation, progressive, to be attained by the wise, each for himself." Anguttara Nikaya V.332

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Re: Nagarjuna and Theravada

Post by Individual » Sat Feb 21, 2009 3:53 pm

Dharmajim wrote: Nagarjuna is obsessed with articulating a finely wrought analysis; but how does that help one's practice? How does that help one achieve realization? I think it is all colosally irrelevant.
This is a valid point, but one could say the same of folks like Buddhaghosa and Buddhadasa. Some people seem to feel helped by Nagarjuna's analysis, so why not? If you personally don't feel helped, but if others do, is there anything wrong with that?
Dharmajim wrote: Here's an analogy as to why I think this way: Cultivation does not require perfect understanding of ultimate nature. If two gardeners have different understanding about the ultimate nature of "flower", those different understanding will not impinge on their abilities to garden effectively. Both can still produce wonderful gardens.
But a gardener must be subtly aware of the emptiness of the garden, in order to engage in gardening. That is, he must know or accept, on some basic level, perhaps unconsciously, that the garden is impermanent, devoid of self, and the specific mechanism of causality of "gardening," in order to grow anything.
The best things in life aren't things.

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Re: Nagarjuna and Theravada

Post by Dharmajim » Sat Feb 21, 2009 6:20 pm

Individual:

I agree that it's possible to use Nagarjuna to assist one's understanding. Kalupahana seems to have been able to do this. But as Tilt pointed out, the madhyamika tradition (though perhaps not Nagarjuna himself) makes much larger claims as to the importance of their analysis. They do not consider madhyamika to be one among a number of possible interpretations. The view of madhyamika is that without an understanding of madhyamika one cannot awaken. I disagree with that and if Nagarjuna really meant that then I respectfully disagree with Nagarjuna.

Regarding the perception of the garden as a subtle emptiness, I don't think that is so. Perception does not, in itself, entail an ontological position. I can imagine a devout monotheist looking at the garden and feeling that the beauty of the garden is a sign of the beauty of the Lord, the Creator of All. This is not a view of subtle emptiness. Most people, I suspect, don't really give it much thought one way or the other, and there's something to be said for just getting down to the gardening.

Best wishes,

Dharmajim

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Re: Nagarjuna and Theravada

Post by Individual » Sun Feb 22, 2009 7:32 pm

Dharmajim wrote:Individual:

I agree that it's possible to use Nagarjuna to assist one's understanding. Kalupahana seems to have been able to do this. But as Tilt pointed out, the madhyamika tradition (though perhaps not Nagarjuna himself) makes much larger claims as to the importance of their analysis. They do not consider madhyamika to be one among a number of possible interpretations. The view of madhyamika is that without an understanding of madhyamika one cannot awaken. I disagree with that and if Nagarjuna really meant that then I respectfully disagree with Nagarjuna.

Regarding the perception of the garden as a subtle emptiness, I don't think that is so. Perception does not, in itself, entail an ontological position. I can imagine a devout monotheist looking at the garden and feeling that the beauty of the garden is a sign of the beauty of the Lord, the Creator of All. This is not a view of subtle emptiness. Most people, I suspect, don't really give it much thought one way or the other, and there's something to be said for just getting down to the gardening.

Best wishes,

Dharmajim
Madhyamakans make the claim that emptiness is ontological and metaphysical (that there is emptiness, and emptiness=form), whereas Theravadins make the claim that it is merely teleological and merely an extension of anatta and anicca (people should realize emptiness, in the sense of impermanence and notself) .

However, as I've pointed out elsewhere, to say that there are "strategies for reducing suffering," well, such strategies don't exist in a vaccuum. In order for them to be effective, they have to be based upon reality. The Buddha spoke of both internal and external sunnatta, which suggests that sunnatta isn't merely a mental property or fabrication. He also said in the Cula-suññata Sutta, "And so this, his entry into emptiness, accords with actuality..."

So, I don't think there's really anything worth arguing over. If you emphasize sunatta as an ontological, metaphysical, philosophical concept, etc., there is the risk of it merely being papanca, manifesting using Buddhist terminology. However, if you emphasize sunnatta as purpose-driven, without acknowledging that it's a teaching based on reality or truth, then what you're saying can be seen as incoherent.

For Madhyamakins: If everything is sunnatta, then where is it? (What is the cause for the apparent "suchness" and variety?)
For Theravadins: If there is no sunnatta, then how can sunnatta be realized?

Madhyamaka should not be misunderstood as nihilism, mysticism, or nonrealism, and Theravada should not be misunderstood as materialism, agnosticism, or a kind of realism.
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Re: Nagarjuna and Theravada

Post by Prasadachitta » Sun Feb 22, 2009 9:40 pm

Individual wrote:Madhyamakans make the claim that emptiness is ontological and metaphysical (that there is emptiness, and emptiness=form), whereas Theravadins make the claim that it is merely teleological and merely an extension of anatta and anicca (people should realize emptiness, in the sense of impermanence and notself) .
Where does the Madhyamaka make such a claim? What do you mean by teleological?

Just Curios.

Metta

Gabe
"Beautifully taught is the Lord's Dhamma, immediately apparent, timeless, of the nature of a personal invitation, progressive, to be attained by the wise, each for himself." Anguttara Nikaya V.332

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