Nagarjunian Disputations: A Philosophical Journey through an Indian Looking-Glass

Nagarjunian Disputations: A Philosophical Journey through an Indian Looking-Glass

Nagarjunian Disputations: A Philosophical Journey through an Indian Looking-Glass

Nagarjunian Disputations: A Philosophical Journey through an Indian Looking-Glass

Synopsis

This is a dfense of the earlier, nihilist interpretation (NI) of the Madhyamaka against some of the leading non-nihilist interpretations (NNI) that have arisen to challenge it in recent times.

Excerpt

For over fifteen hundred years, the prevailing view of the Mādhyamikas in India has been that they were absolute nihilists. According to the Mīmāṃsakas, the Vedāntins, the Naiyāyikas, the Jainas and even their fellow-Mahāyānists, the Vijñānavādins, the Mādhyamikas denied the reality of both nirvana and saṃsāra.

In the first part of this century, St. Schayer (1931) and Th. Stcherbatsky (1927) rejected the nihilist interpretation of the Mādhyamikas, but at that time theirs was very much the minority view. It was not until the middle 1950s—about the time of T. R. V. Murti's influential book, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism—that non-nihilist interpretations of the Madhyamaka clearly became the dominant force in Mādhyamika studies.

Until that time, the prevailing view of Western scholarship had been represented by scholars like E. Burnouf, H. Jacobi, M. Walleser, I. Wach, A. B. Keith and L. de La Vallée Poussin. According to these scholars, the Madhyamaka was nihilism, pure and simple. Burnouf (1844: 560), the first Western scholar to publish translations and interpretations of the Mādhyamika writings, described the Madhyamaka as a "nihilisme scholastique." H. Jacobi saw the Madhyamaka as holding that "all our ideas are based upon a non-entity or upon the void." M. Walleser described it as "a negativism which radically empties existence up to the last consequences of negation," and as a philosophy of "absolute nothingness"; whereas there is a counterpart to the negations of the Vedānta, there is none in the Madhyamaka: negation in the latter is the "exclusive ultimate end" (Selbstzweck). I. Wach held that the Mādhyamikas were the most radical nihilists that ever lived. L. de La Vallée Poussin—"still the unsurpassed master of Buddhist studies," as Chr. Lindtner (1982: 7) has recently described him—saw the Mādhyamikas as describing things from two points of view, and therefore as "hesitating between two positions." From the point of view of worldly or relative reality, or the truth of experience . . .

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