This review has gone on longer than I thought it would, but still I think it is worth a brief review of Singh’s An Introduction to Madhyamaka Philosophy, originally published in 1968. This 64 page booklet describes the difference between Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna Buddhism, which turns out to also hinge on a similar distinction of dualism and non-dualism as does Singh’s discussion of Vedanta and Shaivagama. Hīnayāna is also known as “Southern Buddhism,” or “Original Buddhism,” and is found largely throughout Southern India and Southeast Asia, (1). Mahāyāna is also known as “Northern Buddhism,” and “Developed Buddhism,” and spread from Northern India into Tibet, China, (influencing Zen), and into Japan and Korea. These terms that we have and that scholars use have an obvious political or polemical nature as those followers of Mahāyāna described their school as “the higher vehicle” and Hīnayāna as the “lower vehicle.” Singh follows the development of Madhyamaka Philosophy, a root aspect of Mahāyāna Buddhism.
Madhyamaka traces back to Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka Śāstra. Many of the Madhyamaka texts were lost in their original Sanskrit, but have survived through translations into Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan. In the 1830s a series of bundles of Sanskrit texts were found in Nepal, including Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka Śāstra. Madhyamaka refers back to the Buddha’s teaching of “madhyamā-pratipad (the middle path),” (4).
Nāgārjuna (c. 250-150 BCE) has a legend associated with his name, as Singh describes.
Nāga means a serpent or dragon. Arjuna is the name of a tree. It is said that he was born under an Arjuna tree, and he visited the submarine kingdom of the Nāgas, where the Nāga king transmitted to him the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra which had been entrusted to the Nāgas by the Buddha.
The word ‘Nāga’ however, is symbolic of wisdom. The Buddha is said to have remarked, “The serpent is a name for one who has destroyed the āsavas (passions),” (5).
One of the core teachings of Nāgārjuna is śūnyatā. This word is often translated as “emptiness” or “insubstantial.” Here we find the universal truth of the mystic that “empirical knowledge could not give us an insight into Reality,” (8). Singh reviews the literary sources of Madhyamaka Philosophy.
The most important of these works are the prajñāpāramitā sūtras. Prajñā-pāramitā is generally translated as ‘perfect wisdom.’ The word ‘pāram-itā’ i.e. ‘gone beyond’ suggests that it would be better to translate prajñā-pāramitā as ‘transcendent insight’ or ‘transcendent wisdom.’ The Tibetans translate it in this way. In all countries where Mahāyāna is a living religion, the following prajñā-pāramitā mantra is generally recited: Gate, gate, pāraṁ-gate, pārasaṁgate Bodhi, svāhā i.e. “O wisdom which has gone beyond the beyond, to thee Homage,” (9).
Another important Madhyamaka text is the Vajracchedikā, Diamond Sutra, an early abridgement of the prajñāpāramitā sūtras, “translated into Chinese probably in the 5th century A. D. This translation was printed in China on 11th May, 868. This is said to be the oldest printed book in the world,” (9). Singh writes that the Prajñāpāramitā was later condensed into mantras. One of these “Ekākṣarī says that the perfection of wisdom is contained only in one letter, viz. ‘a’. Ultimately Prajñāpāramitā was personified as a goddess to be worshipped,” (9-10).
Nāgārjuna’s primary philosophical tool was prasaṇga which reduced any statement of ultimate fact in words or argument to absurdity. Given the true nature of Reality as śūnyatā (emptiness), any positivistic description of Reality was bound to fall short of capturing reality. One can trace this concept into Zen teachings which constantly challenged the novice to drop their discursive mind’s attempt to understand and put reality into words. Ultimate reality is found more in silence and stillness than in mental and verbal description, thus the emphasis on silent meditation in so many spiritual traditions.
We will not go into detail of Nāgārjuna’s method of prasaṇga, other than to mention that any argument or statement can be broken down into a four-part dialectic:
A positive thesis
A negative counter-thesis
A conjunctive affirmation of the first two
A disjunctive denial of the first two (16)
Nāgārjuna draws on Buddha’s statement that “he neither believed in Śāśvata-vāda, and absolute affirmation, nor in Ucchedavāda an absolute negation. His position was one of madhyamā prati-pada (literally, the middle position),” (15).
Singh describes the positive contributions of Nāgārjuna around the concept of dharmaiṣanā. This concept teaches that even in error there is a secret longing for truth. “It says that the tendency of man to seize the relative as the absolute is, at root, the secret-inchoate longing in the heart of man for the absolute (dharmaiṣanā),” (21). Thus, there is an inherent longing for the absolute in every person, however the longing can get attached to something fleeting and passing, but even in its delusion, it still is revealing the essence of the longing for the divine. Nāgārjuna wrote, “That which is of the nature of coming and going, arising and perishing, in its conditioned aspect is itself Nirvāṇa, in its unconditioned aspect,” (22). There is non-duality, again according to Nāgārjuna, “Nothing of phenomenal existence (saṁsāra) is different from nirvāṇa, nothing of nirvāṇa is different from phenomenal existence,” (29).
Once he is awake to the conditionedness (Śūnyatā) of the conditioned, his sense of values changes. He becomes a transformed man and then his dharmaiṣanā, his mysterious longing for the Real finds its meaning and fulfillment, (21).
If one already has dharmaiṣanā, but does not know one has it, how does one seek and find it? “The only way of reaching the goal is to realize that in the ultimate sense there is no goal to be reached,” (26). Thus, it is not a matter of seeking, it is a matter of stopping the seeking after a long period of exhausting seeking. To shift from outward action into inward stillness. “It is not the world that we have to change, but only ourselves,” (29).
Returning to the distinction between Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna, Singh sums it up: “the ideal of Hīnayāna is individual enlightenment; the ideal of Mahāyāna is universal enlightenment,” (30). The Hīnayāna-ist understands the concept of enlightenment, but seeks it for the escape of the wheel of birth and death, making the categorical mistake of thinking that his or her ego is separate from all of humanity and all of existence. This is still a form of dualism. The Mahāyāna-ist recognizes that there is non-difference between self and other and thus that enlightenment must include all sentient beings, otherwise it is only partial. “The Bodhisattva (Pāli, Boddhisatta) seeks supreme enlightenment not for himself alone but for all sentient beings,” (31).
Another distinction is in the nature of the Buddha as well as between dualism and non-dualism.
Hīnayāna was entirely intellectual…it was the human aspect of the Buddha which was emphasized.
In Mahāyāna, Buddha was taken as God, as Supreme Reality itself that had descended on the earth in human form for the good of mankind, (35).
The philosophy of Hīnayāna was one of radical pluralism, that of Mahāyāna was undiluted non-dualism (advaya)…
The approach to truth adopted in Hīnayāna was one of mystically-tinged rationalism, that adopted by Mahāyāna was one of super-rationalism and profound mysticism, (36).
The source of dualism for Hīnayāna (as well as for Vedanta) is in splitting the dual meaning of Śūnyatā (or maya). Śūnyatā is the pregnant void, emptiness which yet contains all things. “Śūnyatā is an abstract noun derived from śūnya. It means deprivation and suggests fullness,” (37). To view something as separate, or even to believe that one can separate from or transcend one aspect of reality to enter another reality is a false presumption, because there is only Absolute Reality.
The world is not a conglomeration of things. It is simply process, and things are simply events. A ‘thing’ by itself is ‘nothing’ at all. This is what is meant by the śūnyatā or emptiness of all dharmas, (39).
Thus, all teachings, all explanations of reality are empty. The development of philosophies and schools of thought that positivistically explain reality are doomed to failure. In fact the Truth is beyond all philosophies.
“Śūnyatā was declared by the Buddha for dispensing with all views or ‘isms’. Those who convert Śūnyatā itself into another ‘ism’ are verily beyond hope or help, (43).
Śūnyatā is not the final goal of the teachings, however.
Meditation on the śūnyatā (emptiness) is only a preparation for the spiritual discipline of prajñāpāramitā…The functional prajñā puts an end to the darkness of ignorance and thus the eternal prajñā comes to the fore. In the eternal prajñā, one cannot find even the distinction of ignorance and knowledge. It is an ever-present luminous knowledge. It is the ‘eternal light in the heart of man.’ Particular objects arise and perish, but the light of this prajñā keeps ever shining, (45).
While Nāgārjuna teaches the emptiness of all dharmas (which can mean “scripture, doctrine, religion” as well as the “impersonal energy behind and in everything”), there is a more expansive concept of Dharmakāya meaning “the principle of cosmic unity,” (47).
The Dharma-kāya is the essential nature of Buddha. As Dharmakāya, the Buddha experiences his identity with Dharma or the Absolute and his unity (samatā) with all beings. The Dharmakāya is a knowing ; loving, willing being, an inexhaustible fountain-head of love and compassion, (47).
I remember in my East Asian Religions class at university, with Professor Peter N. Gregory, he would talk at length about Buddha nature. Professor Gregory would recount all the different stories about monks asking masters about what Buddha nature was and who or what had it and did not have it. I remember him gleefully recounting one story in which the answer was that Buddha nature was “even in shit and piss!”
Extreme, one-sided views lead to fundamentalism, a dangerous issue so prevalent in today’s world. Fundamentalism is based on a belief that there one’s own belief-group owns the truth and is justified in discriminating against, imprisoning, or even killing those who are do not share the same beliefs. Singh reminds us of the Buddha’s teaching of the Middle Way.
Extremes become dead-ends of eternalism and annhilationalism. There are those who cling to nonbeing and there are others who cling exclusively to being. The great Buddha meant, by his doctrine of madhyamā pratipat (Middle way), to drive home the truth that things here are neither absolute being nor absolute non-being, but are arising and perishing, forming continuous becoming, and that Reality is transcendent to thought and cannot be caught up in the dichotomies of the mind, (50).
The Absolute and the world are not two different sets of reality posited against each other, (51).
Reality is not one thing or another thing, but all things. Reality is “both transcendent and immanent. It is transcendent as ultimate Reality, but it is present in everyone as his inmost ground and essence,” (57).