Onto-theology and Emptiness: The Nature of Buddha-Nature

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Onto-theology and Emptiness: The Nature of Buddha-Nature
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Citation: Duckworth, Douglas S. "Onto-theology and Emptiness: The Nature of Buddha-Nature." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 82, no. 4 (2014): 1070–90.

Abstract

In this article, I chart a trajectory from deconstruction to embodiment in the intellectual history of Buddhist traditions in Tibet. I focus on embodiment as a participatory approach to radically deconstructed and unthematized meaning, in contrast to an interpretation of truth as purely an analytic category or an approach to meaning that deals with values, such as emptiness, as simply truth claims or representations. I show how certain Buddhists in Tibet have represented the meaning of emptiness as a uniquely participatory encounter in such a way that its meaning is necessarily embodied. To speak of it otherwise, I argue, is to misrepresent its meaning fundamentally. An important way that the embodiment of emptiness is formulated is through the discourses of buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha). I show how Tibetan interpretations of Buddha-nature reflect postmodern concerns about metaphysics and onto-theology.

Competing interpretations of the Perfection of Wisdom discourses (Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra), exemplified in the discourses of the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) and Yogic Practice Schools (Yogācāra) that stem from medieval Indian Buddhist thought, can be seen to prefigure two directions in “postmodern” thought: one toward deconstruction and one toward embodiment. By deconstruction, I mean to represent the culmination of modern rationality, in which a disembodied ego’s quest for a central core or true essence has finally come to an end; that is, an "end" in the sense of a hard-won recognition that the quest for essence is doomed from the start. By embodiment, I mean to suggest a turn to the body, and other (constructive) participatory encounters with meaning in response to this failed modern project. We could just as well call the project of deconstruction “most modern” as “postmodern,” since it is a continuation (and culmination) of a predominant feature of the same old modern paradigm—although with a different result. With deconstruction, the result is incompleteness—the ever unfinished truth that “there is no essence.”

The discourses of modernity flow from the Cartesian assumptions of certainty and that essence is foundational, and by the perpetuation of the fantasy that the future will inevitability discover the presumed essences that constitute the foundation or grounding of things. In the discourses of both deconstruction and modernity, however, we see the same paradigm play out. The same story unfolds, only with deconstruction it is retold, or unwound, such that the modern fantasy is uncovered and exposed for what it is—empty. Yet the modern ideal of an essence or foundation lies at the heart of both discourses. In other words, deconstruction thrives like a parasite on its host; its survival depends upon the presumptions of modernity.

Being without essence, however, brings the possibility of an alternative, something else that expresses the lived and living dimensions of meaning that are not simply truth claims tied to a predetermined and determinate, limited and limiting, schematic paradigm, as in the case of modern notions of meaning and their binary counterparts—their deconstructions. Within a recognition of the fully contingent, constructed nature of essence (the “result” of deconstruction), we have the opportunity to recognize meaning (and the role of our minds and bodies) in the constitution of our worlds in new ways—ways that do not simply follow the same old patterns of the modern, Cartesian, and Kantian legacies (Ferrer and Sherman 2008: 32–36). It is in these lived, decentered spaces—with/in and between the body/mind—where a truly “postmodern” turn can become meaningful (and not simply in “deconstruction,” which I argue here is simply the regurgitation of the modern, reacting against it while still buying into its fundamental framework). Hence, it is the turn to the lived and living body where the hallmark of what is truly postmodern, or nonmodern, can be discovered—the unthematized, lived spaces where the re-membered body can re-mind us about the (enminded) nature of being (empty).

I attempt here to chart a trajectory from deconstruction to embodiment in the intellectual history of Buddhist traditions in Tibet. I focus on embodiment as a participatory approach to radically deconstructed and unthematized meaning, in contrast to an interpretation of truth as purely an analytic category, or an approach to meaning that deals with values, such as emptiness, as simply truth claims or representations. I show how certain Buddhists in Tibet have represented the meaning of emptiness as a uniquely participatory encounter in such a way that its meaning is necessarily embodied. To speak of it otherwise is to misrepresent its meaning fundamentally. (Duckworth, "Onto-theology and Emptiness," 1070–72)

Read the rest of this article on Academia.edu.

Conclusion

I have tried to frame discourses on buddha-nature in a way that they not only speak meaningfully to the (ever renewed) present, but do so in a way that can be understood in response to a parallel issue that Heidegger has pointed out as the Western “onto-theo-logical” tradition. Some formulations of buddha-nature, particularly what we find in the Jonang tradition, can be seen to reflect a tendency toward romanticism. That is, this tradition appeals to what we may call “theological” over ontological formulations of truth, or a tendency that we may call “anti-intellectual” or “mystical.” I have also suggested ways in which the Geluk tradition can be understood as a correlate to modernity. Certainly, the hegemony of deconstruction and the eclipse of buddha-nature by absence in this tradition, or in other words, the succumbing of theology to ontology (in direct contrast to the Jonang), is characteristic of a “logic of domination”—culture over nature, reason over emotion, mind over body—the modern man’s dream.

In Buddhist traditions, emptiness can be seen to reflect a logic of culture and buddha-nature an appeal to a mythos of nature. Emptiness (as absence) is a product of culture in that it reflects the deconstruction of (cultural) constructs to let the nature of reality shine forth. In this light, the Geluk tradition represents the triumph of culture. The Jonang tradition, on the other hand, seeks to represent nature in its notion of “other-emptiness,” for any idea we have is just a construct and buddha-nature is the ground of all of our ideas. When we undo constructs, empty them—or better yet, let them be (empty) themselves—we let (buddha-)nature manifest. Yet “nature” can also be a construct, as in conceptual constructs of (buddha-)nature that “miss the mark.” (Unlike “deconstructive postmodernism,” for Buddhist traditions, there are not simply cultural surfaces to deconstruct; there is unconstructed nature. Buddhism is not nihilistic; there is nirvana.) This is where Mipam contributes: by showing how unconstructed nature can and should be distinguished from its constructed (and romanticized) ideal.

We should not forget that the unity of emptiness and buddha-nature in Mipam’s works can be thought of as onto-theo-logical, in the sense that he brings emptiness (ontology) and buddha-nature (theology) into an explicit synthesis. In fact, unlike the Jonang tradition, where buddha-nature and (self-)emptiness maintain distinct domains—that is, buddha-nature remains fully theological and self-emptiness remains fully ontological—for Mipam, buddha-nature and emptiness are an integral whole. Also, unlike the Geluk school’s presentation of Madhyamaka, where there is nothing theological because both emptiness and buddha-nature fall solely within the realm of ontology (because buddha-nature really refers to the mind’s absence of essence), it is Mipam’s tradition, not that of the Jonang or the Geluk, which may be the best candidate for wedding the ontological and theological. Yet the unity that Mipam represents in his characterization of buddha-nature is dialectical, and may offer something to avoid the potential pitfalls of monological determinism that plague ontotheology. I have attempted to argue that it is the gesture, or directionality, toward openness (to mystery) in the irreducibly open-ended dialectical movement that can avoid the pitfalls of onto-theological closure. This openness—to the mystery that is buddha-nature—is by no means exclusive to Mipam’s Nyingma tradition, but also can be found (or rather, discovered) in the Geluk tradition’s radical deconstruction and the Jonang tradition’s “other-emptiness” as well.

In any case, we have seen how for Buddhists in Tibet, the ultimate truth is represented in the second wheel of doctrine primarily as emptiness that is a negation of essence, which clearly resembles the modern discourses of deconstruction. In contrast, in the last wheel, the ultimate truth is explicitly represented as an immanent presence. As an immanent truth, the ultimate here calls for a lived, participatory experience, eluding not only a simple reduction to a “thing” or essence, but also any simple reduction to the absence of such an essence or entity as well—because presence and absence are intimately bound together, just like the modern notion of essence and its deconstruction. It is here that interpretations of (buddha-)nature can become reified as a static essence or absence or move beyond to fresh and creative formations.

The interchange between presence and absence, like the field of energy between the positive and negative charges of a battery, is something like a force that drives Buddhist philosophical traditions to reinvent themselves and keep the discourses of buddha-nature relevant and alive. The re-creations always involve a creative process, as traditions draw from the past but must continually respond anew to the ever unfolding present. Buddha-nature does not stop or repeat, but continues to challenge the boundaries of tradition and push the limits of those boundaries further and further. This is exemplified in the shift in the nature of nature in Buddhist exegetical discourses: from a reductive essence, to a lack of essence, to a metaphysical ground, to a process of creative disclosure. . . . This disclosure can be seen as the ongoing “revelation” of buddha-nature and enacts the quality of buddha-nature that defies definition. By derailing the worn-out tracks of habitual thought and representation, this unfolding process unsettles the settling tendencies of thought that attempt to seize, stabilize, and define what buddha-nature is. (Duckworth, "Onto-theology and Emptiness," 1085–87)

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