“Well Fred, are you ready to discuss Jizang (549–623 AD)?”
“I read the selections on his philosophy [in Chan: Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy], but it’s rather confusing. I’m still sort of in a fog Karl.”
“That’s natural for anyone who hasn’t been exposed to ‘Buddhist speak.’ A real problem is that he represents a Chinese version of a philosophy that was developed in India in a different historical and cultural context than that of China.”
“That I know. Chan refers to the ‘Philosophy of Emptiness’ or ‘The Three Treatise School.’ Briefly, he points out that Jizang’s school was one of the two major schools of Indian Mahayana Buddhism, that it was developed by an Indian philosopher named Nagarjuna (c.150-c.250)in the Second Century A.D. and brought to China by Kumarajiva (344-413) who arrived in 384 A.D. Kumarajiva translated into Chinese many Indian Buddhist texts including the three most important texts of this form of Buddhism (hence ‘Three Treatise School’).”
“And those texts were...?”
“The three are, by Nagarjuna Treatise On The Middle Doctrine and Twelve Gate Treatise and by his student Aryadeva (fl. 3rd century AD) One Hundred Verses Treatise.”
“That’s a good summary, Fred. Buddhism had been in China before Kumarajiva, but he got the ball rolling. It became very popular, powerful, and prestigious due to the unsettled political and social conditions of the times and because of its apparent congruence with Neo-Taoism which was dominant at this time: the Wei-Jin period (220-420 A.D.) we mentioned in our previous discussion.”
“OK, Karl, this needs explaining.”
“The term or concept which is the central point of the philosophy of the Three Treatise School, namely, Shunyata, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘Emptiness’ or ‘Void’. I don’t understand what Chan means when he says this is the ‘central concept’ of this philosophy in ‘the sense that the nature and characters of all dharmas, together with their causation are devoid of reality.’ What are ‘dharmas’?”
“If we are going to play the Buddhist game I see we will have to learn some basic rules on how to play! First I’ll explain ‘dharma’ and then ‘shunyata.’ The rule book I’m using is one we have used before: The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion.”
“So you are being influenced by Wittgenstein again: Buddhism as a language game.”
“Only as a heuristic device Fred. I just want to understand what is going on and seeing how words are used, or misused, in the context of a philosophical or religious system is one way of doing so. As to whether the ‘game’ is also congruent with ‘reality’, I’ll let you be the judge, but I think as ‘Westerners’ and people committed to the Prime Directive [using logic and reason instead of faith and authority] we may be playing a different game.”
“I got it Karl. Let the game begin.”
“OK. In Buddhism the word ‘dharma’ can mean both the doctrine of the Buddha and also the law of the cosmos (Spinoza: 1632-1677 would say the law of nature) but normatively applied according to one’s karma. The dharma are also appearances of things or the phenomena we experience as reality. In Chinese the word is ‘fa’ 法.”
“Well, Chan [Source Book in Chinese Philosophy] explains what fa means in his Appendix and concludes that it is very difficult to translate and best left untranslated unless it means ‘the Law of the Buddha’--i.e., his teachings. ‘It connotes all things,’ he says, ‘with or without form, real or imaginary, the material or principle of an entity, something that holds on to its nature as a particular thing.’ The closest we can get in English is ‘element of existence.’ Dharma itself means ‘that which is held to.’”
“This could also be the Vedic ‘rita’ and what the Ancient Egyptians called maat.”
“Now I know what dharma are. Here is the rest of Chan’s quote. After pointing out the dharma are ‘devoid of reality,’ he continues, ‘Thus all differentiations, whether being or non-being, cause or effect, or coming-into-existence or going-out-of-existence are only “temporary names” and empty in nature.’”
“What this means, Fred, is that things don’t have their power ‘to be’ built into themselves-- they don’t last, they come and go. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion says shunyata ‘does not mean that things do not exist but rather that they are nothing besides appearances’. This means that things ‘arise conditionally’ not on their own. There is a very big Sanskrit word for this Fred.”
“So, what is it?”
“It's the doctrine of pratitya-samutpada (‘conditioned arising’). I again quote the Encyclopedia: ‘The doctrine of conditioned arising says that all psychological and physical phenomena constituting individual existence are interdependent and mutually condition each other; this at the same time describes what entangles sentient beings in samsara (the cycle of existence).’”
“Well it’s a mouthful Karl. It’s also translated as ‘dependent origination’ isn’t it?”
“Yes. That or ‘conditioned’ or ‘conditional arising’ or ‘interdependent arising’ or ‘conditioned nexus’ or ‘causal nexus’ among other possibilities. You get the idea. That’s what ‘Emptiness’ really means-- ‘dependent origination.’”
“What does the Encyclopedia say about this?”
“We should note that this doctrine (pratitya-samutpada) is ‘together with the anatman [no- self or no self subsisting permanent Ego] doctrine, the core teaching of all Buddhist schools. Attainment of enlightenment and thus realization of buddhahood depends on comprehending this doctrine.’ So it is very important we get this down, Fred.”
“Anything specific to the San-lun, I mean ‘Three Treatise School’ ?”
“I see you used the Chinese name. But yes, the Encyclopedia continues, ‘In the Madhyamika system pratitya-samupada is equated with emptiness (shunyata). Here conditional arising is taken to show that because of their relativity, appearances have only empirical validity and are ultimately unreal.”
“Now we can turn to Jizang who represents the culmination of this school in China. He lived from 549 to 623 A.D. His father was Persian and his mother Chinese. Too bad for Jizang was the fact that he was never able to mix any Chinese elements into his interpretation of the Three Treatise School: “San-lun” in Chinese (san = three). So, Chan says, the Chinese never took to it; ultimately because it was too ‘Indian’. By the ninth century it had declined. Let’s note the three foundational views of the San-lan School: 1. Two levels of truth: This is hoi polloi truth and philosophical truth; i.e., things exist vs. ‘all dharma are empty.’ Ultimately things neither exist nor do not exist-- dependent origination being a middle way between these two extremes.``
“An Hegelian synthesis? Being, Nothing, Becoming?”
“Anyway Karl, this is why its Indian name is the Madhyamika (Middle Doctrine) School. Now, 2. The Refutation of Incorrect Doctrines: We get to Emptiness by replacing an incorrect view with a correct one, realizing that the new view is itself incomplete so it needs to be replaced, etc., until we arrive at Emptiness.”
“Fred, that is so much like the Hegelian dialectic as it is popularized with thesis--antithesis--synthesis = new thesis, etc., culminating in the Absolute.”
“Finally, 3. Eightfold Negation which is the dialectical method of argument employed by Nagarjuna and which, as Chan says, ‘denies that dharma come into existence or go out of existence, that they are permanent or come to an end, that they are the same or different, and that they come or go away (p.359).’ Jizang uses the Four Points of Argumentation to arrive at his conclusions. These points are, for any x, 1) x is; 2) x is not 3) x both is and is not; 4) x neither is nor is not. Chan doesn’t seem to approve of all this. ‘It is obvious that this approach is as nihilistic as it is destructive.’”
“What writings are we going to go over?”
“Two of them: the Treatise on the Two Levels of Truth and the Profound Meaning of the Three Treatises. So, from the first Jizang says: ‘Ordinary people say that dharma, as a matter of true record, possesses being, without realizing that they possess nothing. Therefore the Buddhas propound to them the doctrine that dharma are ultimately empty and void. When it is said that dharma possesses being, it is ordinary people who say so. This is worldly truth, the truth of ordinary people. Saints and sages, however, truly know that dharma are empty in nature.’”
“OK, there are two levels.”
“That’s right Karl. He calls this the ‘first level of twofold truth.’ The second level is to grasp that for hoi polloi things have being and non-being but for philosophers they have neither. Thus Jizang says, ‘Because the absolute [truth of non-being] and the worldly truth [truth of being] and the cycle of life-and-death and Nirvana are both two extremes, they therefore constitute worldly truth, and because neither-the-cycle-of-life-and-death-nor-Nirvana are the Middle Path without duality, they constitute the highest truth.’”
“This is getting problematic.”
“Hold on, big comment from Chan coming up soon.”
“Let’s go to the third level. ‘Previously it has been explained that the worldly and the absolute and the cycle of life-and-death and Nirvana are two extremes and one-sided and therefore constitute worldly truth, whereas neither-the-worldly-nor-the-absolute and neither-the-cycle-of-life-and-death-nor-Nirvana are the Middle Path without duality and therefore constitute the highest truth. But these are also two extremes. Why? Duality is one-sided while non-duality is central. But one-sidedness is an extreme and centrality is also an extreme. One-sidedness and centrality, after all, are two extremes. Being two extremes, they are therefore called worldly truth. Only neither-one-sidedness-nor-centrality can be regarded as the Middle Path or the highest truth.’”
“Clear as mud.”
“Here is Chan’s comment. Does it help? ‘The similarity of this dialectic is strikingly similar to that of Hegel and Zhuangzi. With Zhuangzi, both the right or the wrong, or the “this” or the “that” are infinite series and are to be synthesized in the all-inclusive Dao. It has been said that while the dialectic of Hegel includes all in the Absolute, that of Nagarjuna excludes everything from Emptiness. This is not correct, for worldly truth is not denied but accepted as such. However, like Hegel, every new synthesis is regarded as higher, and worldly truth is therefore considered inferior. In this respect, Daoism is different from both of them, for Daoism grants equality to all things, whether worldly or not.”’
“It helps somewhat, but let me read to you what I think is a little clearer.”
“This is from Alan Fox’s commentary on Jizang in Great Thinkers of the Eastern World. Fox quotes a passage from Kumarajiva’s translation of The Treatise On The Middle Doctrine: 'The Great Sage [Buddha] taught the Dharma of emptiness In order to overcome all views. If one persists in viewing emptiness as an existent [thing], Such a one cannot be saved by all the Buddhas.' This means that shunyata is actually only a heuristic device-- not an ontological commitment to a metaphysical reality! Buddha doesn’t want us to suffer, to have sorrow ( duhkha-Skt.), by being attached to things, so the doctrine of Emptiness is put forth to help us overcome duhkha -- it's for the ‘annihilation’ of sorrow or suffering-- what Hindus call Duhkha-Nirodha in Sanskrit. Fox says the point is to not commit to the doctrine of emptiness itself making it a new ‘thing’ or dharma. He says this is ‘emptying of emptiness’ or shunyata, shunyata, and then gives a quote of his own from Jizang : 'One speaks of non-being only because there is initially the illness of [attachment to] being. If the illness of [attachment to] being subsides, then the medicine of emptiness is discarded, and one finally realizes that the holy path has nothing to do with being and non-being. Originally nothing is asserted; subsequently nothing is denied.' This makes a lot of sense to me. ‘Emptiness’ is one of those ladders we throw away after we climb it, as we discussed earlier, Fred.”
“Well I’m glad we figured this out. Now here are some selections from Jizang’s’the Profound Meaning of the Three Treatises. Chan has four selections from this work, namely selections 2,3,4 and 5. Let’s begin with number 2 “Causes and Effects.”
“Fine with me. Let’s do it.”
“Jizang writes: ‘Some heterodoxical schools say that the Great Lord of Heaven can produce the myriad things, and that when they perish, they return to the original Heaven. Therefore they say that if the Great Lord is angry... living beings will suffer, and if the Great Lord is pleased, there will be happiness.... But Heaven is not the cause of things and things are not the effects of Heaven. They are imagined by an erroneous mind and are therefore called erroneous causes and erroneous effects. The objection is this: Good deeds invite happy reward, and evil influence bring fruits of suffering. For [this world] is the home of interactions [of cause and effect] and the realm of retribution. These schools do not understand this principle and therefore produce such falsehood.’”
“This is, for the time, very forward looking. The denial of a creator God is certainly advanced compared to Western thought at this time and would not clash with educated opinion in China. His views about karma are more problematic.”
“This next quote confuses me Karl. He speaks of effects without causes! ‘There are other heterodoxical schools that have exhaustively traced the origin of the myriad things and have found that they are derived from nothing. Therefore they say that there are no causes, but that if we presently look at the various dharma we should know that there are effects....The shadow exists because of the body, and the body exists because of the Creator. But the Creator originated from nowhere. If the root exists of itself, it means that the branches are not caused by anything else. Therefore there are no causes but there are effects.’”
“Perhaps, to some, this way of thinking doesn’t make too much sense today. We can say that the branches are ‘caused’ by the root meaning no root, no branches. And it appears I was wrong to jump the gun and say that Jizang didn’t believe in a Creator God. Not as advanced as I thought! But then again this may just be a metaphorical use of the word 'God'. Let’s use his notion of a ‘Creator’ then to argue that since God creates everything the things emanate from him as branches from roots, so they are just him in another form-- so there are ‘effects’ but no ‘causes.’ This is pantheism. He means there is no completely separate independent reality (the ‘cause’) that produces another completely independent separate reality (the ‘effect’). This just seems to be an argument over how to use words!”
“Jizang next considers the possibility that things exist ‘spontaneously.’ He is asked a question concerning the difference between ‘absence of cause and spontaneity (ziran). Jizang says, ‘Absence of cause is based on the fact that no cause exists, whereas spontaneity shows that the effect exists.’ This is very confusing, but he concludes with an observation borrowed from Laozi. Jizang says, ‘Cause and effect produce each other very much like long and short contrast each other. If there is already an effect, how can there be no cause? And if there is no cause,how can there be an effect alone?’ “ What is he doing here? Does he believe in cause and effect or not?
“He doesn’t seem to be attached to a particular view, Fred.”
“But I have to figure out what his view is first!”
“His view is that all four opinions-- there are effects and no causes, causes and no effects, both causes and effects, and neither causes nor effects are all wrong.”
“I’m trying to get this. I note he says the last of the four ‘perverse’ doctrines ‘is the most harmful’ because it maintains there is no fruit of actions good or bad.”
“I thought there was a problem about karma earlier.”
“I did too-- but he says this is perverse because ‘It cuts off good for the present and produces an evil state of life for the future....’”
“His objection shouldn’t be acceptable.”
“Because both ‘cuts’ and ‘produces’ are causal words and he is supposed to be rejecting causality.”
“He is rejecting and not rejecting, that’s what is confusing. Here is Chan’s comment: 'We see here the Four Points of Argumentation at work. The various theories on cause and effect are reduced to four: theories of ens [Greek for "being"], of non-ens, of both ens and non-ens, and neither ens nor non-ens. This pattern of thought is prominent not only in the Three Treatise School but in other Buddhist schools as well. Some Buddhist scholars maintain that, generally speaking, Western thought has not gone beyond the third stage, that of “both-and,” whereas the fourth stage of “neither-nor” has been reached in Emptiness which defies all descriptions.' But does not the Absolute in Western [Hegel] thought include all, the negative as well as the positive?”
“So we have to describe the world somehow, Fred. I guess ‘causality’ is supposed to be a hoi polloi way of doing so.”
“Jizang has another section, (3), ‘The Four subsidiary causes’ in which he discusses so-called causal effects of the four ‘subsidiary’ causes.”
“There are, if I remember Chan, the Active Cause (e.g., fire causes smoke, the Immediate Condition (e.g., smoke following on striking a match), the Objective Condition (e.g., the wood of the match), and the Upheaving Condition(e.g., the motion of the hand in striking the match).”
“You remember correctly Karl. Jizang says about these that ‘If the Four Causes exist of themselves and are not produced by something else, then the myriad things, too, must not be produced by the Four Causes, and should fall into the condition of having no cause at all. Therefore if things are produced by something else, the process would be unlimited, and if there is a limit, there is no cause. From these two points, one may not believe in the existence of causes or effects.’”
“He is attacking an Indian view of Buddhism-- the Hinayana’s Abhidharma School which developed well before the Mahayana version of Buddhism subscribed to by Jizang. This other school held to the reality of dharma and to the reality of causation.”
“Here, Karl, is a comment about that by Chan: 'The problem of causality is one of the most important in Buddhist schools. It is central in the Three Treatise School, because its basic concept of Emptiness is untenable unless causality is rejected. The four causes here remind one of Aristotle and Scholasticism. They also underlie the fact that all Buddhist schools think of plurality of causes and effects instead of the one-to-one relationship between cause and effect. They, of course, all reject the First Cause. It is also interesting to note that the argument against the First Cause here is practically the same as that advanced by the Daoists. As the Shadow in the Zhuangzi asks, ‘Do I depend on something else to be this way? Does this something on which I depend also depend on something else?’"
“Hmmmm. Sort of like Aristotle I think. Aristotle’s causes are a little different. His ‘final cause’ —the for what end— is lacking here.
Also I would hardly call the reference to the Shadow an ‘argument.’ If anything it is the prelude to the reason the notion of a ‘first cause’ was developed. If we treat the arguments against causality so seriously that Emptiness would be rejected without them are we not taking the ladder too seriously? Doesn’t the whole concept of conditioned arising involve causality of a sort?”
“Its all very mind boggling Karl.”
“Well, I think Oliver Leaman’s summary in Key Concepts in Eastern Philosophy explains what is going on quite nicely.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“As follows-- his comments on Nagarjuna’s views on causation: ‘Nagarjuna rejects all theories of causality that do not acknowledge the way in which everything that we take to be reality is interlinked. Causation as understood by most of the theories he attacked distinguishes between causes and effects in the sense that one side of the relation, the cause, is more real than the effect, since the latter emerges out of the former and might be regarded as part of it. Dependent origination implies that nothing has any stability or priority, and so leads to the notion of emptiness.’”
“That backs up what you said. What does Leaman say about ‘emptiness’?”
“I hope this helps. Leaman says the following: ‘Nagarjuna accepts that in absolute terms all arguments are empty, but on the relative level it is acceptable to use them to show that one cannot stay at that level if one is going to make progress.... The doctrine of emptiness should be used to cure ourselves of belief in the absolute reality of what we experience, and then it also should be expunged from our conceptual system, in just the same way that the Buddha after enlightenment was reluctant to speak and teach anymore. The paradoxical strategy of claiming that everything is empty is nonetheless impossible to state, since it is self-refuting. But its supporters have a point in arguing that although the argument cannot be proposed, it could still be valid, although not once stated. In any case, one could always hold the emptiness doctrine as applying to the nature of reality, but not as describing our experience of the material world.’”
“What good is a philosophy that doesn’t explain our experience of the world?”
“This is not a philosophy, Fred. It violates the Prime Directive of philosophy which is to base your views on the outcome of reason and logic. I have no idea what Leaman means when he says an “argument’ that cannot be stated can still be ‘valid.’ Validity is a property of argument forms and an ‘argument’ that cannot be stated has no form. We are in the world of religion and mysticism here and philosophy must make way for faith. This type of argument is itself empty and I would say meaningless.”
“That is harsh Karl! But now we can better understand Chan’s selection number four from Jisang—i.e., ‘Existence, Nonexistence, and Emptiness.’”
“I’ve had my say. Let’s get back to the text.”
“OK. Jizang is replying to objections to Nargarjuna’s version of Buddhism. He is trying to explain the dialectic by which everything seems to be denied-- no causes or non-causes, no existence nor non-existence, etc. ‘The idea of nonexistence is presented primarily to handle the disease of the concept of [absolute] existence. If that disease disappears, the useless medicine is also discarded. Thus we know that the Way of the sage has never held to either existence or nonexistence.... Once perverseness [holding one sided views] has been stopped, correctness will no longer remain. Therefore the mind is attached to nothing.’ Jisang then quotes a verse from the Madhyamika shastra:
The Great Sage preached the Law of Emptiness
In order to free men from all (personal) views.
If one still holds the view that Emptiness exists,
Such a person the Buddhas will not transform.
"Finally Jisang says, ‘If the mind is attached to something, it is bound to it and cannot be emancipated from birth and old age, sickness and death, sorrow and grief, and suffering and distress. Therefore the Lotus Scripture says, “I (the Buddha) have used an infinite number of convenient means to lead sentient beings and to enable them to be free from various attachments."
“This last sentence shows the primarily religious rather than philosophical inspiration of this treatise.”
“Finally we come to the last selection, number five, ‘Substance and Function.’ Here is a true dialectic I think. We get some insight and refrain from dogmatism-- both philosophy and religion can benefit from this attitude. ‘[T]he true nature [lakshana -Skr] of all dharma is entirely inexplicable in speech and unrealizable in thought [Kant!]. As it has never been either absolute or worldly, it is therefore called substance..... Although it is neither existent nor nonexistent, we are forced to speak of it as absolute and worldly. Therefore we call it function. It is regarded as correct because this being both absolute and worldly is not one-sided or perverse. Therefore we call it correctness in function.... Things are produced by causes and therefore have dependent existence. That is regarded as worldly. But dependent existence should not be said to be definitely existent, nor should it be said to be definitely nonexistent. This type of dependent existence is far from the two extremes and therefore is called correctness. Worldly existence being what it is and absolute nonexistence also being what it is, dependent nonexistence should not be said to be either definitely nonexistent or definitely existent. It is far from the two extremes, and is therefore regarded as correct....’”
“Well, I think we have a good idea of what this school is trying to teach. Madhyamika is, however, only one of the two major schools that the Chinese elite supported from the Fifth to the Seventh centuries A.D.”
“Let’s discuss this other school. the Yogacara, and its greatest Chinese representative Xuanzang.”
“OK Fred, maybe between both schools we will get a better understanding of Buddhism.”
“Non hoi polloi Buddhism, Xuanzang and Yogacara.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.
To read the Confucius Dialogue click here.
To read the Mencius Dialogue click here.
To read the Xunzi Dialogue click here.
To read the Mozi Dialogue click here.
To read the Laozi Dialogue click here.
To read the Zhuangzi Dialogue click here.
To read the Gongsun Dialogue click here.
To read the Great Learning Dialogue click here.
To read the Doctrine of The Mean Dialogue click here.
To read the Book of Changes Dialogue click here.
To read the Dong Zhongshu Dialogue click here.
To read the Wang Chong Dialogue click here.
To read the Philosophy of Liezi Dialogue click here.
To read the Guo Xiang and Neo-Daoism Dialogue click here.