The Middle Way and Nagarjuna

Almost all existing philosophical discussion of the Middle Way (beyond that in the Buddha's original teachings, at least) is confined to discussions of Nagarjuna and his fellow Madhyamika Buddhist philosopher, Chandrakirti. It is certainly in Nagarjuna that the central recognition that the Middle Way consists in the avoidance of metaphysics is found and explored. If I was to be a respectable academic scholar of the Middle Way I should spend many years mugging up on Sanskrit, or even Tibetan, in order to become an expert on Nagarjuna in the original, and only then venture any remark on the relationship between Nagarjuna and Western philosophy. However, I have not pursued this path because I think it would very largely be a waste of time. Nagarjuna offers key insights into the Middle Way for which we are all indebted. However, further reading of him, in my experience, does not reveal any further insights, and certainly does not show how those insights apply to our experience in the modern world. Moreover, Nagarjuna appears not to have understood some of the important implications of the Middle Way, perhaps because his time, tradition and context prevented him from doing so. Developing and applying Nagarjuna's central insights is, in my view, far more interesting and relevant than studying Nagarjuna himself, at least beyond a very basic level.

Nagarjuna identified eternalism with the assertion of metaphysical ontology, and nihilism with its denial. In between, he identifies the Middle Way with conditioned arising or pratityasamutpada. Rather than seeing objects as independently real or unreal, he argues, we should see them as dependent on conditions. Our spiritual mistake, for him, consists in seeing objects, including ourselves, as separate things, and it is as separately existent things that they can become objects of attachment. It is by recognising and meditating on the dependency of all phenomena on one another that we can overcome our attachment and so make progress.

This is OK as far as it goes, but it does not really seem to go very far. By that I do not mean that really recognising the interdependency of all phenomena in our experience is easy, only that even if we succeeded in this it would probably leave many of our other unhelpful attitudes untouched. It would be quite possible to recognise the interdependency of phenomena and yet not reform our judgement, because we have accepted the word of Nagarjuna or of the Buddha that all things are interdependent, but not started to investigate our experience critically or developed our own provisional theories about it. Nagarjuna (along with a lot of the Buddhist tradition) seems to confuse the provisionality of holding a theory with the content of that theory. But really it is not what phenomena are described as being like that matters, epistemologically and morally, so much as how we go about holding theories about them. Nagarjuna gives us a metaphysical account of an anti-metaphysical doctrine, and thus frequently misses the real point that would better express the insight that he is driving at. Deconstructing metaphysics using metaphysics is a bit like trying to pull out a nail using a hammer. We actually need a rather different tool to do the job.

This missing of the point in Nagarjuna is closely related to an important philosophical mistake that he makes. This mistake is often known as the "Two truths theory". Because Nagarjuna insists that all phenomena are ultimately empty (in the sense of having no ultimately independent existence), he also needs to give some account of common sense reality. He thus draws a distinction between ultimate truth and conventional truth. We should meditate on ultimate truth and reflect on it as a philosophical position, he says, to change our long-term outlook, but in the meantime we live in an unenlightened world of common sense reality that we have to accept. This means that, for example, ethics for Nagarjuna must simply be a function of the conventional world, to be accepted not because of its truth but on conventional grounds like its social role or authority in tradition. There is thus no objective justification for ethics in Nagarjuna's account of things, because he has maintained the gulf between absolute and relative. The judgements we make in everyday life thus can receive no guidance from Nagarjuna, whose account of emptiness remains remote from them. Many writers on Nagarjuna treat this as a minor side issue (or ignore it altogether), but it is a major problem undermining his whole philosophy.

There is an alternative to this, which involves recognising the relationship between a critique of metaphysics and incrementality. Metaphysics is not absolutely wrong, and it is not wrong because of its specific content, but because of the way it is held. If we recognise this, then we can recognise that beliefs can be held with differing degrees of provisionality, and it is not the wholesale renunciation of belief in "independent existence" that is most needed, but a weakening of the extent to which we think a particular belief can be held independently of experience. The more we allow that belief to be considered in the light of experience, then the more it will become adequate to conditions. Even a lengthy reflection on Nagarjuna's account of what conditions are like will not substitute for the more indirect methods actually needed to get to grips with conditions.

We do not need a sudden leap between the conventional world and an "enlightened perspective". Instead, our way of judging the conventional world needs gradual modification. A moral explanation of how that way of judging can be improved is far more useful to us than any attempt to describe an "enlightened perspective" that is beyond our experience. Nagarjuna, however, not only does not offer us that moral explanation directly, but after a certain point he misleads us as to how to go about finding it. If we were to rely upon Nagarjuna in interpreting the modern world, we would be just as stuck in the dichotomy of absolutism and relativism as ever.

If Nagarjuna is the best philosopher that the Buddhist tradition has come up with (which I believe, though I am not going to make a survey of all the other schools here), then his limitations reveal the limitations of the Buddhist tradition generally. Not engaging incrementally with conditions, the Buddhist tradition could not develop science. Reliant on the conventional and not really allowing the ultimate perspective to influence it directly, its ethics are too often determined by ethnic tradition rather than universal thinking. Nagarjuna's best-known philosophical heir, the Dalai Lama, shows an insightful awareness of the value of his enemies at one moment, but turns to traditional Tibetan divination as a basis for decision-making the next. Nagarjuna illustrates very well the Buddhist tradition's betrayal of its own insights.

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