15 August 2021

The Dogma: On Not Taking Nāgārjuna Seriously (Seriously!)

I wrote this for my Facebook group on Heart Sutra research. As I haven't posted anything here for a while I thought I'd repost it. 

In response to a post about the word tathatā, two people responded by rehearsing aspects of Madhyamaka dogma. I'm just going to call this the Dogma and people who promote the Dogma as Dogmatics. When people cite the Dogma they present it as a transcendent truth that brooks no contradiction, though it is also frequently (and unironically) presented as a series of contradictions.

I want to address anyone who takes the Dogma seriously by explaining why I don't take it or them seriously.

The Dogma is a body of religious rhetoric that emerges at a time when sectarian Buddhism was maturing. Mahāyāna Buddhism was still nascent but existed as an uncoordinated series of reforms centering, in my view, around the problem of the absent Buddha. Gautama sought his own liberation and left this world, leaving us to find our own way out. And later Buddhists found this narrative intolerable (even selfish), so they changed it in various ways, some of which are (in essence) what we now call Mahāyāna. 

The foundation of Dogma is principally associated with Nāgārjuna who is believed to be a real person that lived near the beginning of the first millennium of the Common Era. But Dogma has been augmented numerous times by commentators (right up to the present). Most scholars now question the orientation of Nāgārjuna. For example, it is apparent that in composing the Dogma, Nāgārjuna was not re-interpreting Prajñāpāramitā. When he cites scripture, he cites Sanskrit translations of early Buddhist texts. Some have questioned whether he would have identified as Mahāyāna at all. That said, in proposing the Dogma, Nāgārjuna was making a break with early Buddhist rhetoric.

The Dogma makes a number of erroneous assumptions that lead it to dubious conclusions: 1. that dependent arising is a theory of everything; 2. that experience is reality; 3 that existence must be permanent; 4. the experience of emptiness is reality. So let's take each of these in turn.

1. Dependent Arising

As hinted at above, dependent arising was never intended to be a theory of everything. Early Buddhists set out to explain how experience arises. Simple observation shows us that the dynamics of objects are not the same as the dynamics of experience. This is largely implicit in early Buddhist texts.

Somewhere along the line Buddhists began to apply dependent arising to everything. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I can easily imagine things that are physically impossible, that defy the laws of physics. I can imagine flying, for example. Not possible in reality, possible in imagination. Because the contents of our minds don't behave like real things, we conclude that they are like illusions. Note, early Buddhists did not conclude that the contents of our minds are unreal. One of Nāgārjuna's touchstone texts was a Sanskrit version of the Kaccācagotta Sutta. In this text, the Buddha tells the eponymous Kaccāna* that the world is generally divided into existent (attitā) and nonexistent (n'atthitā) but that in his [i.e. the Buddha's] view neither applies to "the world" (loka). Here, I think we must follow Sue Hamilton and others and take loka to be the "world of experience". The Buddha does not take experience to be either existent or nonexistent, rather experience is dependently arisen. And this is precisely the Buddha's "middle way" between extremes. 

* i.e. Kātyāyana: a younger member of the Kātya tribe, who are the descendants of the ṛṣi Kati. Kātya is an adjectival form meaning "of or related to Kati". The head of the Brahmin Kātya clan would be called Kātya, while younger male members of the clan would add the yuvan "youth" suffix, i.e. yāyana: hence Kātyayāyana or Maudgalyāyana. 

If we make dependent arising a theory of everything then contradictions ensue. We end up saying that things don't really exist because they are dependent on other things. But think about it. Why would anyone say something like this? What is is about dependency that makes an object unreal. Is a rock any less solid because is was formed by a process? No.

2. Experience versus Reality

Early Buddhists appear to have understood that sensory experience was different from reality. The Dogma, by contrast, refuses to make this distinction. In the Dogma, experience is a lesser form of reality. But experience is not reality. Experience is experience. Experience is what happens when a sentient subject encounters an object. Experience is subjective, that is to say that its mode of existence is subjective.

A good way of talking about it is Thomas Metzinger's use of the term "virtual". We don't have a self, we have a virtual self model, generated by the brain. As a virtual rather than a real thing, our sense of self has qualities and characteristics associated with subjectivity. For example, how we see ourselves is affected by mood. Our virtual model can be disrupted by drugs which do not change "reality", they change the way the brain generates our virtual self model.

3. Existence

The Dogma has a perverse definition of "real". I understand that some people may want to undermine the Abhidharma approach by criticising the nature of categories of experience. The fact that such categories rely on the concept of svabhāva qua distinctive characteristic smacks of essentialism.

But there svabhāva is an epistemic term: it is how experience appears to us, not the thing in itself. Moreover, when we categorise dharmas, we are mainly concerned with thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

It is useful, for example, to distinguish the ethical character of a thought. Was is motivated by greed? Or by generosity? And by "useful" here I mean soteriological. This distinction is important for anyone wanting to live an ethical life, and if you believe in liberation from rebirth in saṃsāra then it is an essential concept to understand.

In arguing against perceived (but in fact nonexistent) essentialism in Abhidharma, the Dogma changes the meaning of svabhāva so that it definitely is essentialist. Now it means the sole condition for the existence of an object. And it is trivial to show that this entity cannot be real, since nothing can be the sole condition for its own existence. Everything is more complex than that.

So how does this trivialism take on such gravitas in the Dogma? It's partly because people who adopt the Dogma attribute their own definition of svabhāva to other people (who almost certainly never did held that view and definitely do not now). Having created the strawman, they triumphantly burn it down. But so what? No one believes it anyway.

4. Emptiness is reality.

The final point is that, in the Dogma, it is assumed that the absence of sensory experience is reality. And this is the heart of the matter. It is this assumption that leads to all of the others.

We all know, either first or second hand, that the cessation of sense experience without the loss of awareness is a profound and potentially life-changing experience. And it's fairly obvious that the techniques to bring experience to a halt were in widespread use in the Ganges valley by the time of the second urbanisation, from about the 6th Century BCE onwards. The new cities attracted Brahmin immigration from the West, too, which is another story.

We should not be too harsh on this point. The assertion--that lack of experience is reality--is one that is common in Indian religious thought. The cessation of sense experience was taken to be reality by Brahmins, Jaina, and Sāṃkhyakas as well as Bauddhikas.

But here's the thing. The cessation of experience is simply the cessation of experience, it is not reality. And this can be seen in how different religions interpret it as Brahman, ātman, puruṣa, jīva, pudgalaadvaitaśūnyatā, etc.


Perhaps the problem is the preternatural clarity of mind that accompanies cessation; the purity of a mind without content, is hyperreal. The very vividness of the state makes it seem more real than reality. Certainly it can be more attractive than reality. Because in that state all ones desires and discontents cease along with other kinds of thought.

Still, the conclusion that reality is the absence of sense experience is fundamental to the Dogma. And it allows Dogmatics a peculiar form of rhetoric which I sum up this way: everything the Dogmatic says is true, while everything the non-Dogmatic says is an illusion, a conceptual proliferation.

I've dealt with this rhetoric for more than 25 years now. At first it worked as expected on me. When I tried to ask certain types of questions that seemed natural to me, a Dogmatic would simply shut down the conversation by pointing out that my questions were based on conventional reality or illusions. The truth is the Dogma and anything else is simply and self-evidently false.

The choice with Dogmatics is either to accept the Dogma or be dismissed as a deluded pṛthagjāna.

However, I reject the framing of the discussion in Dogmatic terms. I see no reason to believe that the cessation of sense experience gives one insights into the nature of reality. One cannot know more by closing off all sources of knowledge about the thing one wishes to know, one can only know less.

I grant that one may discover something about the way that our minds create our virtual models of body, self, and world. And how we use these virtual models to navigate our way through a complex and ever-changing world, especially the social world. The social world deserves a much greater prominence in our thinking about Buddhism. But this is all the province of epistemology. And the result, in Buddhism, is always some kind of knowledge: an epistemic inquiry resulting in epistemic insights.

I'm not arguing within the Dogma framework because it is both false and perverse. Nāgārjuna is not someone I revere at all. I count him the worst philosopher in history, precisely because he does not examine his own assumptions, even when the result is nonsense or contradiction.

The biggest problem with the Dogma is that Dogmatics hold it to be a self-evident truth that not only resists external criticisms, but resists all criticism. It is Holy Writ that can never be challenged. Like Richard Feynman, I'd rather have questions that cannot be answered than answers that cannot be questioned. But the thing is that we can answer many seemingly intractable questions if we only give up Dogma. Dogma is the greatest impediment. It is an extreme view, a wrong view.

The resolution of this issue is simply to make a distinction between metaphysics and epistemology and allow that Buddhism is principally concerned with the latter. Our conclusions about what we know, especially what we know about the cessation of sense experience, can be interpreted as metaphysics, but they need not be.

Religious dogmas now pose the greatest threat to the long-term survival of Buddhism. On the other hand, secular interest in "awareness without content" is now the subject of scientific scrutiny and is already beginning to escape from the religious chains in which it has been bound. Like the preliminary practices we put under the heading of "mindfulness" the practices that culminate in what we call "emptiness" are on the verge of escaping into the secular world. And that is something to celebrate.

Note: I've added a new tab at the top of the page where I'm going to keep a running bibliography of works that I think are relevant to the topic of secular emptiness. 

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