illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
by Julio Robles:
Zen and śūnyatā. (for advanced level)
Nāgārjuna was not trying to create a new philosophical view. Quite the contrary, he explicitly denied śūnyatā as a philosophy:
"The emptiness of the conquerors was taught in order to do away with all philosophical views. Therefore it is said that whoever makes a philosophical view out of “emptiness” is indeed lost."
Zen, like the Madhyamikas, used emptiness, śūnyatā, as a convenient device to lead the ignorant to wisdom rather than as a truth.
The Mulamadhyamakakarika (and the old Zen masters) knew that “Right knowledge is not right understanding of some thing, but rather to understand that things are empty.” But if one were to think of emptiness as some kind of substance or essence, then one cannot be cured of the illness of misunderstanding.
Zen also took up the practical application of the Mulamadhyamakakarika principle of ‘two truths’. According to both practices, truth is “pragmatic in character” and the truth. Once suffering and ignorance have been dispensed with, there is no longer any need for ‘truth’ and it too is abandoned. As Robert Aitken says in the Introduction to the Book of Serenity, “To particularize essential nature is to present the harmony of the universal and the specific. … To get at the harmony, it is important not to get lost in the specifics.” Many Zen koans allow the student to explore the relationship between the universal and the specific, the Ultimate and the conventional, and, thereby, allow one to get lost between the two in the process. For the Zen student, finding a way out of this thicket is the task at hand.
Nāgārjuna was following the teachings of the Buddha to relieve suffering. Through the four-fold negation of classical Indian logic, he was attempting to do away with all forms of clinging, including clinging to his views. So the Mulamadhyamakakarika should not be seen as some ‘path to liberation’ but rather a teaching of the importance of abandoning all views. Liberation from suffering does not depend on some kind of philosophical speculation. As John Schroeder wrote, “sunyata is not a panacea at all, but an attack on the very tendency to think in this way.” One of the most significant teachings of the Buddha was non-attachment and should one become attached to any philosophy, even non-attachment, dependent arising or emptiness, is to go against the teachings and live in ignorance.
When Bodhidharma described his teaching as, “A special transmission outside the scriptures; not founded upon words and letters; by pointing directly to man’s own mind, it lets him see into his own true nature and thus attain Buddhahood,” he was pointing at this reality of Zen that sees ignorance in attachment, even to the teachings. This does not deny the value of the teachings, just the attachment to the teachings. So Lin-chi (J. Rinzai) can say, “There is nothing to appear before you, and nothing that is lost. Even if there were something, it would all be names, words, phrases, medicine to apply to the ills of little children to placate them, words dealing with mere surface matters.”
Chang Chung-Yuan in his book “Original Teachings of Ch’an
Buddhism” claims, “The Madhyamika maintains that when all particular existence is reduced to śūnyatā, or Emptiness, by the dialectic process of negation of negation, Supreme Enlightenment takes place and prajñāparamita, or “non-dual knowledge,” is fulfilled.” Given that Nāgārjuna “taught in order to do away with all philosophical views” this seems like an unlikely purpose to Nāgārjuna’s works although this was taken up by the Sun-lun school in China. It was Kumarajiva who, at the end of the fourth century, brought the Madhyamika to China and it was Niu-t’ou Fa-yung who was one its greatest teachers. But Lin-chi’s teacher, Hung-po, (Obaku) said of Fa-yung, “he still did not know the secret of making the further leap to the Ultimate,”
Nāgārjuna fought against all forms of grasping, including grasping his own works as an ultimate truth, the idea that the Madhyamika itself could lead to liberation or was anything other than upāya would be an anathema to him.
Nāgārjuna was careful to deny that he was creating any kind of philosophy or metaphysical theory, stating “I have no proposition” reminds us that the Mulamadhyamakakarika “is an attack on traditional Buddhism” which was sinking into philosophical argumentation and becoming attached to these arguments, each saying that they represented the highest wisdom of the Buddha. Huntington suggests that the Mulamadhyamakakarika “be read as a radical attempt at abandoning the obsession with a metaphysical absolute that dominated the religious and philosophical thought of post-Upanisadic India.” Differing viewpoints may well be relatively innocuous but it is the blind grasping of the views that leads to ignorance. Nāgārjuna was trying to release people from this grasping of viewpoints by pointing out that all things are, without exception, empty and this includes causality, the Four Noble Truths, the Dharma, and Buddhism itself. This is Nāgārjuna’s good medicine to overcome the sickness of attachments and erroneous views.
Likewise, Zen teachers try to undercut a student’s attachment to discursive logic and attachment to the ‘words and letters’ of the teachings. As Yun-yen T’an-sheng (and many others) said, “The basic point of Zen study is to clarify the mind and awaken to reality.” One cannot “clarify the mind” if one is attached to a particular teaching or a rigid view. Only by jettisoning the deeply ingrained tendency to search for some ‘essential’ nature to things and to our life, can we find liberation and “awaken to reality”. This obsessive delusion we have in thinking that we are dealing with ‘an existing substance’ is ignorance as all we really have is “a construction of our minds.” How to teach this is a problem for all Zen teachers and has led to a mountain of words and letters, metaphors and seemingly illogical constructs coming from the mouths of teachers over the millennia.
All Zen teachings can be seen as nothing more than upāya, expedient or skillful means. Buddhist teaching is nothing more than that a method to overcome deeply ingrained ignorance. The Buddha himself used the metaphor of a raft for his teachings, something to get one to the other shore (wisdom and release from suffering) but which should then be abandoned. Upāya is building a raft that is suitable for a particular person, a particular ‘sickness’. Ma-tsu expressed this when asked by Yuen-shan Wei-Yen to explain how Zen can point directly to the human mind to see its essence and realise buddhahood.
Lin-chi could “see through them [students] all”, never worrying “whether on the outside they are common mortals or sages, or get[ting] bogged down in the kind of basic nature they have inside.” (This insight gave him the freedom to treat each sickness as he saw it and one of the greatest sicknesses he battled was the sickness of attachment to the teachings. Hence he said, “I don’t have a particle of Dharma to give to anyone. All I have is cure for sickness, freedom from bondage.” He rails against students who “seize on words and form their understanding on that basis.”
Yet words and language are often what we are dependent upon to convey meaning. Certainly Nāgārjuna’s dialectic is dependent upon words. He constructs a sword of words in his attempt to cut us free from the limits of our thoughts and beliefs. Likewise, Dogen’s “Shobogenzo” often relies on word-play and metaphorical language to teach the truth of non-attachment to the very words being used. The old masters, when they found that words were leading to attachment, when the words were becoming more important than the experience
they were trying to convey, resorted to striking, shouting, or direct action, such as Chao-chou putting a sandal on his head or Kuei-shan kicking over the water jug. Just as ‘conventional’ reality cannot be separated from ‘ultimate’ reality, so language cannot be separated from the experience of our world. As Chinn points out, “the existence of the world is just as dependent on language as the language that we use is dependent on the world.” Furthermore, he continues, “The implication of pratityasamutpada is that our language, like anything in the world, is shaped by the environment we live in, and that our language cannot be ‘out of touch with reality’ any more than we can.” Nāgārjuna, like all Zen teachers, draws us back to this real, mundane, human world which is none other than nirvāṇa, through his use of language. We live in this world of saṃsāra, of suffering, deception, ignorance and Zen does not deny it nor attempt to escape it.
When Chao Chu was asked, “In the day there is sunlight, at night there is firelight. What is ‘divine light’?” Chao Chu replied, “Sunlight, firelight.” The divine and the mundane are one and the same. Nor does Zen
attempt to transcend language per se, but to “reorient within it,” to
become fluent in expression without dualisms or attachment to the words. Gonsen koans are designed to study and investigate the meaning of words, to penetrate “into the innermost meaning of words and phrases”. Hence, Dogen cries out in the Sansuikyo fascicle, “How sad that they do not know about the phrases of logical thought, or penetrating logical thought in the phrases and stories.” Words can liberate or they can bind. When Chao-chou was asked “What is the one word?”, he replied, “If you hold on to one word it will make an old man of you.” Nāgārjuna’s words were designed to liberate but not all who read them can penetrate their subtle meaning or their mystery. All too often Nāgārjuna’s words, like the Zen masters’ words, are taken as an Ultimate Truth instead of as upāya.
Nāgārjuna expounded the Buddha’s teaching through the logic of the India of his time. Through the process of reductio ad absurdum he negated all truths without affirming any truth. By affirming that all things are empty, he was able to negate both existence and non-existence without contradiction. The great Sun-lun master, Chi-tsang wrote, “Originally there was nothing to affirm and there is not now anything to negate.” The influence of Madhyamika thought on Zen becomes obvious when one remembers the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng wrote:
There is no Bodhi-tree
Nor stand of mirror bright
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?
Zen eschews all philosophical speculation and is often but a practical application of pratityasamutpada, śūnyatā and the two truths. It is this practical application that may make Zen appear illogical or irrational to the uninitiated. Dogen railed against this categorization of Zen as illogical, lashing out “The illogical stories mentioned by you bald-headed fellows are only illogical for you, not for buddha ancestors.” Zen’s adoption of śūnyatā as a soteriological device negates all intellectual speculation and places the emphasis on the practical aspects of achieving enlightenment and liberation. At first, this seems quite different from Nāgārjuna’s dialectical approach and it is indeed different. But the difference is only in the methodology, the upāya, not in the purpose. Both Nāgārjuna and the old Zen masters were after the same goal: a method of awakening the ignorant and the suffering to the truth of Buddhism.
Picture, Kasumi Bunsho - EMPTINESS (Sunyata)
Extracted from "The Zen Teachings of Nāgārjuna"
by Vladimir K. (2004)
Abe, Masao (1997)
Zen and Comparative Studies, ed. Steven Heine, University of Hawai’i
Burton, David (1999)
Emptiness Appraised: a critical study of Nāgārjunaj’s philosophy, Curzon
Cheng, Hsueh-li (1991)
Empty Logic: Madhyamika Buddhism from Chinese Sources, Motilal
Banarsidass Publishers, Pvt. Ltd, Delhi
Chinn, Ewing (2001)
Nāgārjuna’s Fundamental Doctrine of Pratityasamutpada, Philosophy East
and West, Jan., Vol. 51, Issue 1, p.54, 19pp