Apophatic and Kataphatic Discourse in Mahāyāna: A Chinese View

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Apophatic and Kataphatic Discourse in Mahāyāna: A Chinese View

Citation: Gimello, Robert M. "Apophatic and Kataphatic Discourse in Mahāyāna: A Chinese View." Philosophy East and West 26, no. 2 (1976): 117–36.

It is a widely held view, among modern scholars of Mahāyāna as well as within certain of the Mahāyāna traditions themselves, that Prāsaṅgika-Mādhyamika of the sort one finds in such works as Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhya-makāirika and Vigrahavyāvartanī[1] is the definitive rendition of the Greater Vehicle's ultimate purport. T. R. V. Murti, in his classic study, has called Mādhyamika the "Central Philosophy of Buddhism."[2] Kenneth Inada has called Nāgārjuna "the giant among giants" of all Buddhist thinkers.[3]Bimal K. Matilal has recently argued that "there is a sense in which the Mādhyamika position may be considered logically unassailable," thereby raising it to a status of universal rather than just Buddhist preeminence.[4] Such judgments abound in the literature of Buddhist scholarship. Nor is it surprising that they should, for they only echo the centuries-old conviction of many eminent Buddhist that Nāgājuna's thought is the most perfect expression of the Buddha's own middle path. The pride of place accorded to it by Tsoṅ kha pa and his dGe lugs pa school is only one of the relatively more recent traditional examples of this tendency.
      There is no doubt excellent reason for such acclaim as this. The clarity, force, and elegance of Nāgārjuna's arguments are undeniable. They can easily overwhelm, and often have. However, the lavish traditional and modern appreciations of Nāgārjuna's thought have not been without untoward consequences for our understanding of other varieties of Mahāyāna. The Mahāyāna is a far more various thing than a reading of the Kārikas, or even of their antecedent Prajñāpāramitā scriptures, would indicate; and the Mādhyamika position has hardly gone unchallenged in Buddhist intellectual history. Indeed, much of the subsequent history of Mahāyāna thought may be read as a cumulative qualification of the Śūnyavāda that one finds in the Perfection of Insight Literature and in Nāgārjuna. Such at least was the case with the Yogācāra and Tathāgatagarbha traditions; and when Buddhism found its way to China, Chinese Buddhist thinkers often expressed a clear preference for the later qualifications or modulations of Mādhyamika rather than for the severity of an unadulterated Nāgārjunism. It may well be that our enthusiasm for Nāgārjuna along with the comparative complexity and inaccessibility of other traditions have predisposed us to give less attention than deserved to the alternative forms of Mahāyāna.[5] Should this be so, the remarks that follow may be taken as an effort at compensation.
      The criticisms, explicit or implicit, that have been leveled against classical Śūnyavāda are many and diverse. One might undertake to examine the question of whether Mādhyamika is normative for the whole of Mahāyāna by investigating, for example, the claim of the Madhyāntavibhāga that an understanding of emptiness is crude and incomplete unless tempered by an understanding of the reality and potency of constructive imagination. For the Yogācāra authors of this text, emptiness is always and ever coincident with the imagination of the unreal (abhūtaparikalpa; hsü-wang fen-pieh) and it is only the coefficiency of the two principles that can wholly account for the way things really are.[6] It is in recognition of this—the essential duplexity of reality—that the Madhyāntavibhāga may say, as one would not expect Nāgārjuna to say:

              na śūnyaṁ napi caśūnyam tasmat sarvvam vidhīyate
              satvad asatvāt satvāc ca madhyama pratipac ca sā

              ku shuo i-ch'ieh fa    fei k'ung fei pu-k'ung
              yu wu chi yu ku    shih ming chung-tao i

              Therefore it is said that all dharmas
              Are neither empty nor nonempty,
              Because they exist, do not exist, and yet again exist.
              This is the meaning of the "middle-path."[7]

      One might choose also to consider the theory of the "three revolutions of the wheel of the law" found in the Saṁdhinirmocanasūtra:

      Formerly, in the second period and for the sake only of those aspiring to practice of the Mahayana-reckoning on the fact that all dharmas lack own-being, neither arise nor perish, and are originally calm and essentially of nirvāṇa—the Lord turned the Wheel of the Law which is characterized by a hidden intent (i yin-mi hsiang). [But] this too (i.e., like the first turning) had [other teachings] superior to it to which it deferred. It was of a sense still to be interpreted (yu wei liao-id; neyartha), and [thus] the subject of much dispute.
      In the present third period and for the sake of aspirants to all vehicles—reckoning [again] on the fact that all dharmas lack own-being, neither arise nor perish, are originally calm and essentially of nirvāṇa, and have the lack of own-being as their nature-the Lord has turned the Wheel of the Law which is characterized [this time] by a manifest meaning (i hsien-liao hsiang). This is the most rare and precious [of teachings]. There is nothing superior to this Turning of the Wheel of Law by the Lord and nothing to which it defers. It is of truly explicit meaning (chen liao-i; nīthārtha) and not the subject of disputes.[8]      The third revolution of the dharmacakra here described is, of course, the annunciation of what was to become Yogācāra Buddhism. The second corresponds to the Śunyavāda of the Prajñāpāramitā canon and, proleptically, to its Mādhyamika systematization. The implication of this passage is that although both dispensations of the law teach emptiness (here called "lack of own-being," "nonarising," etc.), the Prajñāpāramitā and Mādhyamika versions of the doctrine are inchoate, eliptical, imprecise and a source of controversy, whereas the Yogācāra version is definitive, explicit, and not liable to conflicting interpretations.

      A third approach might be to follow the masterful lead of Ruegg,[9] Takasaki,[10] and Wayman[11] in considering the claims of the Tathāgatagarbha tradition to superiority over classical Śunyavāda. The Tathāgatagarbha, after all, is a tradition which argues forcefully that the reality of all things is as much "nonempty" (aśūnya; pu-k'ung) as it is "empty" (śūnya; k'ung)[12] and which employs such un-Mādhyamika terminology in its locutions about reality as "permanence" (nītya; chang), "purity" (śubha; ching), and even "self" (ātman; wo).[13]
      A fourth option, and the one we take here, is to look at the differences among Mādhyamika and the other varieties of Mahāyāna through the eyes of those Chinese Buddhist who, in devising their own systems of thought, were given the opportunity to compare and choose. I refer here to the numerous sixth-and-seventh-century Chinese thinkers who formulated "division of the doctrine" (p'an-chiao) and similar schemes in the course of fashioning new and uniquely sinic schools of Buddhism. Almost without exception these thinkers chose to subordinate Śūnyavāda of the sort one finds in the Perfection of Insight literature and the Kārikās to other kinds of Mahāyāna, often to doctrines and texts of Tathāgatagarbha provenance or association. The Hua-yen p'an-chiao system, for example, relegated Śūnyavāda to the category of "incipient" or "elementary" (shih) Mahāyāna but held the Tathāgatagarbha tradition to be representative of an "advanced" or "final" (chung) Mahāyāna, both of which fell short of the perfection of its own "rounded" or "comprehensive" (yüan) teaching.[14]
      A theme that unites all of these challenges to Mādhyamika primacy—the Yoācāra, the Tathāgatagarbha, and the Chinese—is a profound dissatisfaction with the seemingly relentless apophasis of Nāgārjuna and, to a lesser extent, of his sources. All are able to acknowledge Nāgārjuna's caution—that uncritical use of the constructive language of philosophical views is a species of intellectual bondage—but they acknowledge it only as a caution, a corrective to false views. They insist, however, that the way of denial and negation, the unremitting distrust of positive language, is necessary but not sufficient unto enlightenment. It allows one to fend off error but does not actively advance one toward the truth and may even impede the practical religious life by generating more subtle forms of error and by inhibiting compassion. Therefore, the various alternatives to Mādhyamika that we have mentioned took it upon themselves to reassert the salvific value of kataphasis, the spiritual utility of positive and affirmative language. They chose, in short, eloquence over silence.
      In what follows we offer for consideration one example of the rejection of an exclusive apophasis in favor of a disciplined kataphasis. We will examine the argument of a brief but important text entitled Discernments of the Dharma-Element of the Avataṁsaka (Hua-yen fa-chieh kuan-men)[15] attributed to Tu-shunq (557-640),[16] the reputed "first patriarch" of China's Hua-yen (Avataṁsaka) school of Buddhism. This very influential text has been put to many uses in the history of East Asian Buddhism, both within and without the Hua-yen tradition. It is, of course, not simply a text "about Buddhist theories of language." But without denying the broader range of its meanings we do suggest that it does serve our particular purpose well; it offers a significant vision of the place of language in the religious life. (Gimello, "Apophatic and Kataphatic Discourse," 117–20)

  1. I do not assume that these two works are typical of Nāgārjuna's thought in general. A consideration of all works validly attributable to him might yield a quite different picture of Nāgārjuna's Buddhism. See, for example, D. S. Ruegg, "Le Dharmadhdtustava de Nāgārjuna," in Etudes tibétaines dediées a la memoire de Marcelle Lalou (Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve, 1971), pp. 448-471
  2. T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1955).
  3. Kenneth K. Inada, trans., Nāgārjuna: A translation of His Mūlamadhyamakakārikā with an Introductory Essay (Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1970), p. 3.
  4. Bimal K. Matilal, Epistemology, Logic, and Grammar in Indian Philosophical Analysis. Janua Linguarum, Series Minor, III (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), p. 146.
  5. One is reminded, for example, of the comment of Edward Conze, a partisan of the less complex forms of Mahāyāna, about a key doctrine of Yogācāra. He called the ālayavijñāna doctrine "a conceptual monstrosity." See Edward Conze, Buddhist Thought in India (London: Allen and Unwin, 1962), p. 133
  6. Nagao Gadjin, ed., Madhyāntavibhdga-Bhāṣya (Tokyo: Suzuki Research Foundation,1964), p. 17 and T1599:31.451a15-17. The Chinese is Paramārtha's version.
  7. Ibid., p. 18 and T1599:31.45a25-26.
  8. T675:16.697a28-b9.
  9. David Seyfort Ruegg, La theorie du Tathāgatagarbha et du Gotra (Paris: EFEO, 1969); and several other publications.
  10. Jikido Takasaki, A Study of the Ratnagotravibh5ga (Uttaratantra), Being a Treatise on The Tathāgatagarbha Theory (Rome: ISMEO; 1966.
  11. Alex and Hideko Wayman, trans., The Lion's Roar of Queen Srimala (New York: Columbia, University Press, 1974).
  12. T353:12.221c16-18 and T1666:32.576a24-26
  13. T353:12.222a4-b3.
  14. T1867:45.509a24-513cl8.
  15. T1878:45.652b12-654a28. The authenticity of this text is much disputed but in an as yet unpublished study I have found reason to accept its attribution at least to Tu-shun's period, if not to him.
  16. Principal biography: T2060: 50.653b15–645a13.