Saturday, April 20, 2013

Nirvana and Sunya, Chinese Philosophy, Summary and Critique

Nagarjuna wrote Mulamadhyamakakarika, or Treatise of the Fundamentals of the Middle Way. The content of these chapters attempts to explain the metaphysics behind Buddhist thought, introducing the belief that everything is sunya, translated in class as “empty” or “open” or “undefined.” Also, as discussed in class, Nagarjuna believes there are two types of truths: one of ultimate truth, which is where all things are ultimately sunya, and instrumental or conventional truths, which may be true within a context but are not ultimately true.

In Chapter 1, Nagarjuna establishes that both creation and destruction are not ultimately possible. He comes to this conclusion using the fundamental Buddhist concept that 'self' or individuality is an illusion. From here Nagarjuna asserts that nothing can be destroyed because nothing individual has existed in the first place (Inada, ch. 1 sec. 9). Likewise, he asserts that creation is ultimately impossible because, “the statement, 'from the existence of that becomes,' is not possible,” because nothing has existed in an independent state, (Inada, ch. 1 sec. 10). Since there is not truly anything with a specifically different self, relationships and non-relationships are not possible, for to have a relationship there must be two or more existing 'things' which are in relation (Inada, ch. 1 sec. 14).

In Chapter 25, Nagarjuna responds to an opponent who is inquiring about how the relationship between nirvanaand sunyais possible. The opponent asks:
“If all is sunya, and there is neither production nor destruction, then from whose abandonment (of defilements) or from whose extinction (of suffering) can nirvana be attained?” (Inada, ch. 25 sec. 1)
The opponent's argument has three parts, touching first on Nagarjuna's claim that all is empty, then on chapter one's assertion that creation and destruction are impossible, and then asks if these are both truths, who is it that has the suffering in the first place from which nirvana is attained when the suffering is extinguished.

Nagarjuna's response is that the opponent is having difficulty understanding because the opponent is looking at suffering as existing within a person (Inada, ch. 25 sec. 2). In actuality, there is no individual upon which the suffering is occurring. Nagarjuna demonstrates this by describing nirvana, in the rest of the chapter, as part of the “uncreated realm while existence and non-existence are of the created realm,” and as indistinguishable from samsara, or the world of ordinary experience (Inada, ch. 25 sec. 13 & 19). As such, it is as if nirvana is always 'going on' or 'being,’ (to use rough language).

I had questions about nirvana prior to reading Nagarjuna's Treatise. It seemed that though nirvana was described in class as the absence of dukkha, as free of the cause of suffering, and as free of grasping, it was nonetheless under this definition that a state where the lack of suffering is existing. It didn't make sense that a state of being could be without self, because obviously 'lack of suffering' is discernible from 'suffering.' Because one state is different from the other, I saw this as individual, which doesn't hold up with the Buddhist doctrine of 'no-self.'

Nagarjuna cleared this up for me. The idea I get from reading Nagarjuna, particularly the concept conveyed in section 13 of chapter 25, is that nirvana is like the primary pre-potential that is so ineffable it is even beyond existence and non-existence. The potentials of the concepts of existence and non-existence have to be born from something, and it is as if nirvana is the platform from which these potentials sprang, so to speak. Perhaps, I think, this is why Nagarjuna saw nirvana as uncreated. To be uncreated is to be like a potential. If nirvana is uncreated, then it is no longer as simple as a state of non-suffering. This reconciles my questions, because suffering and non-suffering are both of the created realm.

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