Madhyamaka and the Problem of Approach

The doctrine of the two truths is a principle tenet of the Madhyamaka path, serving not only to show the non-contradictory coherence of the Buddha’s different teachings but also serving as a support for the practice of achieving liberating knowing. The doctrine distinguishes between the conventional truth of phenomena as interdependently originated and the ultimate truth of the emptiness of their own nature, that they lack independent existence. The same doctrine also emphasizes the interdependence of the two truths, an interdependence without which each side has no meaning of its own, which reiterates the ultimate truth of the emptiness of things taken on their own. Finally, this doctrine itself is designated a conventional truth with no inherent independent existence of its own because of its dependently originated derivation from the primary soteriological process.

The encounter of Buddhist Madhyamaka with the West is one of world-historical significance. The manner with which this encounter is approached is of key importance, for it will condition the way in which the two change and re-encounter one another. Due to the significance with which the two-truths doctrine is to Buddha-dharma, where the interpretation of the theory’s relevance to practice determines the path, it is key to take into account how the two-truths are interpreted by Western philosophers in their attempts to make sense of and gain from this encounter with the other. We can evaluate the interpretations by making a distinction between approaches which take the two-truths to be truths about reality, and the approach which take the two truths to be truthful ways of approaching reality.

The “about” approach is determined by an attitude which divorces the onto-epistemological framework from the soteriological-emancipatory context and process, and takes that as the primary basis from which to build a world-view. This is to be expected from forms of thinking conditioned by Western philosophical traditions, due to the greater ease with which they are able to separate philosophy from religion. This approach would be determined in the last instance not by any real encounter with the real but an image of it—a trace of its work. So we can say it is idealist, in the critical use of the term as designating modes of thought which are fixated on a fetishistic grasping of the real by way of its representation in thought, and which are mutually conditioned and supported by the systems which perpetuate said fetishistic grasping of the real at a societal level (commodity fetishism).

This “about” approach assumes that reality will be given in a certain way prior to, or in advance of, any engagement. It assumes that reality is ready to receive determination within the terms of a received system of determination. This temporal dynamic is the exact reverse of what should be the case, for it determines the new and unfamiliar in terms of the past and familiar, whilst pretending to have fully realized that new. That new was never allowed to fully express itself, for if it could be determined in terms of the past it couldn’t be said to have been truly and really new. Here lies the root of the contradictory nature of the “about” approach.

So if the “about” approach is at its root contradictory, then any system of thought derived from that approach will also be contradictory. This is incredibly important, I think, because in spite of all the seemingly mutually exclusive interpretations of the two-truths, each which seem to be a respectful position to hold with respect to each other, we can categorize them all under this unifying approach. We can have Wood’s nihilism, Murti’s ineffablism, Siderits’ conventionalism, all unified under this umbrella, as all attempts to make a metaphysical theoria out of a soteriological therapeia—merely reflecting on a thing rather than putting it to use, valorizing it independently of context.

This “about” approach, to restate, involves a fetishistic grasping of its contents (in this case the two-truths), which means that they are endowed meaning independently of their context (in this case the soteriological-emancipatory project). Not only is this approach deluded by taking the contents to have value in-themselves as abstract concepts and thus seeing them as possessing svabhava (inherent existence), it does not see the value the contents really have because for them to be fully appreciated in their value they must be appreciated in their respective contexts. Do not take this to imply that we should, as the reverse, have a svabhavic orientation to the context instead. Rather, the contents and context are in dynamic intra-action with each other. It is this dynamic and living, open-ended intra-action between the contents (the onto-epistemological framework) and the context (the soteriological-emancipatory project), that this fetishistic vision obscures by its fixation on fixed states and conclusions.

I hope to have given a sense of how the other approach, what I will call the “approach” approach, is the better approach, by showing how the “about” approach is not the adequate approach with respect to itself due to the internally contradictory character of that approach.

In the case that this negative approach to referring to the “approach” approach does not satisfy, then at the risk of being charged as misdirected by those who think that the proper Mādhyamika has no views at all, allow me to offer a positive provisional view of the “approach” approach, the ideal approach.

The ideal approach would be one that is qualitatively different from the non-ideal approach. This would not be one among the other approaches, which only takes into consideration one aspect (either the onto-epistemological framework or the soteriological-emancipatory process; either theory or practice) at the expense of the other. This different approach, by more adequately taking into account the dialogical and process-relational nature between each aspect, would necessarily transform the way in which the encounter is realized, which would realize the development of hybrid institutions of living and learning that support in the realization of the two truths as interdependent with and ancillary to a greater soteriological-emancipatory mission of unbounded scope.

By supporting the development of these hybrid institutions in which beings can nurture, sustain and learn from each other, we bring into living experience the true meaning of these truths. Only then can we truly, fully understand their significance. But the thing about this approach is that it can be said to be, within a certain frame of reference, always the same approach which is always different from itself at every instance. That is, the same approach will always be succeeded no matter when it is tried, if it is truly initiated. At the same time, each time the approach is taken a greater apprehension of reality would be realized. Through this approach, the true nature of the other would be realizing, and the encounter between Buddhist Madhyamaka and the West can serve as the condition for the establishment of a new mode of production no longer founded on ignorance and exploitation.

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