Nagarjuna and the Doctrine of "Skillful Means"
St. Mary's College of Maryland
Philosophy East & West, 00318221, Oct2000, Vol. 50, Issue 4
© University of Hawaii Press
The role of "skillful means" is examined in relation to the important Mahayana philosopher Nagarjuna, and it is argued that the doctrine of "emptiness" is best understood as a critical reflection on the nature of Buddhist praxis. Whereas traditional Western scholarship sees Nagarjuna as struggling with certain metaphysical problems, a "skillful means" reading situates his philosophy within a debate about the nature and efficacy of Buddhist practice. Thus, a "skillful means" reading of Nagarjuna does not ask what it means for causality, the self, or consciousness to be "empty" in a very general sense, but how "emptiness" relates to the soteriological practices of Buddhism and what it means for these practices to be "empty" of inherent nature. It is argued that this situates Nagarjuna's philosophy within a highly critical, self-reflective movement in the Buddhist tradition.
Although a number of Buddhist scholars have examined the doctrine of "skill-in-means" (upaya-kausalya) in Mahayana Buddhist literature, it is surprising that no one has yet developed this important concept in relation to Nagarjuna. Given that upaya is a central doctrine in the early Mahayana texts, and given that Nagarjuna is a central philosopher of this tradition, it is unfortunate that scholars pay little attention to how upaya influenced Nagarjuna's thought. Michael Pye's Skilful Means is the only significant study of upaya to date, and it notes how scholars consistently overlook its importance:
This lack of attention to upaya certainly applies to Nagarjuna, who is usually depicted in the West as someone engaged in a metaphysical dispute. According to most Western scholars, Nagarjuna not only does metaphysics but actually believes that liberation depends on it. Whether he is depicted as a conventionalist, an absolutist, a nihilist, or a deconstructionist, and whether or not his dialectic of "emptiness" (sunyata) undermines all positive philosophical positions, it is commonly assumed that Nagarjuna is dealing with important metaphysical problems and that he thinks Buddhist praxis is somehow incomplete without it.
If we read Nagarjuna as primarily concerned with upaya, however, then this way of framing his project is mistaken. What is interesting about upaya is that it has little in common with traditional Western metaphysics: it is not concerned with the nature of space and time, causality, personal identity, or consciousness, and it resists the tendency to conceptualize liberation apart from Buddhist praxis. To think otherwise is to assume that the Dharma can be abstracted from its soteriological and rhetorical context and that Buddhism can be preached without any particular audience in mind. Most contemporary Western Nagarjuna scholars adopt this unskillful position by privileging metaphysics over praxis and by telling us that liberation requires a correct understanding of certain metaphysical problems. Given the Buddhist insistence on the indispensable nature of practice, however, and given Nagarjuna's own position within the Mahayana tradition, it is highly unlikely that he is raising traditional metaphysical questions, and even more unlikely that he thinks that Buddhist soteriology depends on it.
The purpose of this article, then, is to offer a different account of Nagarjuna from the one that is found in contemporary Western scholarship. While most scholars relate Nagarjuna to metaphysics and wonder how "emptiness" undermines all traditional philosophical views and doctrines, a "skillful means" reading will relate Nagarjuna's philosophy solely to issues of Buddhist practice. It will not ask what it means for causality, truth, the self, or consciousness to be "empty" in a very general sense, but how "emptiness" relates to the soteriological practices of Buddhism and what it means for those practices to be "empty" of inherent nature.
Contrary to what one may think, this does not turn Nagarjuna into a non-philosopher. "Skill-in-means" is philosophy, albeit in a different sense from the way it is traditionally conceived. Western philosophy traditionally favors theoretical reflection over praxis and devotes most of its intellectual effort to solving metaphysical problems, often with the assumption that these problems need to be solved in order to live a meaningful life. What distinguishes the doctrine of upaya (and perhaps the entire Buddhist tradition) from this approach is that it shuns any attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its practices. Taking its cue from the Buddha's refusal to speculate on non-soteriological problems, upaya rejects the idea that metaphysics precedes praxis or that liberation requires theoretical speculation. It is therefore profoundly philosophical and represents a critical, self-reflective movement in the Buddhist tradition.
Nagarjuna and Skillful Means
Given that we know very little about Nagarjuna's life, and given that it is doubtful that he wrote all the texts often attributed to him, we must be wary of making any definitive connection between his thought and the doctrine of upaya. Chr. Lindtner is one of the few Western scholars to draw an explicit parallel between Nagarjuna and upaya:
While it is not obvious that Nagarjuna wrote all these texts, it is understandable why Lindtner would connect Nagarjuna's philosophy to "skill-in-means." As a Buddhist, Nagarjuna is trying to communicate with a variety of audiences, and he therefore adopts different writing styles. These styles range from personal devotional hymns, such as found in the Catuhstava, to the philosophically dense, such as found in the Karikas, and they address a wide range of audiences including Buddhist monks, politicians, orthodox Hindus, and laypeople. Such rhetorical diversity is what leads Lindtner to suggest that we view not only Nagarjuna's "minor" works, directed toward a specific audience, but even his philosophically rigorous texts such as the Madhyamakakarika and Vigrahavyavartani.
It becomes more plausible that Nagarjuna wrote with upaya in mind when we examine his references to it. In the Bodhisambhara(ka), for example, he says:
And in the Bodhicittavivarana, he refers to the medicinal quality of the Buddha's teachings that are directed to the particular karmic levels of sentient beings:
Nagarjuna is simply rehearsing passages from the Lotus Sutra, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, and the Vimalakirtinirdesa, all of which refer to upaya on a continual basis. On its own, this assertion means little unless it can be shown that Nagarjuna's philosophy is guided by upaya. One reason why this may sound odd is that most scholars see Nagarjuna as dealing with traditional Western metaphysical issues and as speaking the same philosophical language as Kant, Hume, Wittgenstein, James, and Derrida. It will thus sound odd to hear that he was not participating in this discussion at all. Nevertheless, it is just this point that the rest of this study will develop.
The Significance of Upaya in Mahayana Buddhism
In "Philosophy as Metapraxis," Thomas Kasulis describes a form of philosophical reflection that is devoted exclusively to problems surrounding the nature and efficacy of religious praxis (Kasulis 1992). Kasulis calls this form of reflection "metapraxis," and argues that we need to distinguish it from other types of philosophical reflection--such as metaphysics--that problematize what stands behind or above religious praxis. Whereas metaphysical 'reflection is geared toward very general issues surrounding the nature of being, language, consciousness, and truth, metapractical reflection is geared toward the efficacy of religious praxis: how beneficial it is, how it works, and whether it is doing its job:
Kasulis' discussion of metapraxis can help us understand the significance of upaya and how it relates to Nagarjuna. The doctrine of upaya was developed by Mahayana Buddhists to oppose the creation of an orthopraxy and to resist the tendency to confine the practices into an absolute soteriological path (marga). Early Mahayana texts such as the Prajnaparamita, Lotus Sutra, and Vimalakirtinirdesa say that Buddhism offers an infinite number of "cures," "remedies," and "medicinal aids" to help others, and argue that it is a mistake to think there is only one medicinal practice for all sentient beings. The Buddha is an exemplary "physician" in these early texts because he knows the different types of illnesses of sentient beings, and he knows how to administer the appropriate "medicine." He knows what to say, when to remain silent, and when to prescribe the best "cure." To preach Buddhism without such sensitivity, we are told, is "bad medicine."
An obvious example of "skillful means" in the pre-Mahayana Pali canon is found in the Majjhima-nikaya. In a famous section of this text, the Buddha describes his teachings as "rafts" that are used to ferry sentient beings across the turbulent waters of samsara, and says that one should refrain from seeing his teachings as more than helpful devices: "If you cling to it, if you fondle it, if you treasure it, if you are attached to it," says the Buddha, "then you do not understand that the teaching is similar to a raft, which is for crossing over, and not for getting hold of" (Conze 1954, p. 87). The Mahayana tradition extends the "raft" metaphor into the doctrine of "skill-in-means" (upaya-kausalya) and places it alongside wisdom (prajna). When "skill-in-means" is united with wisdom, the Buddhas and bodhisattvas are at the peak of their salvific potential and use any means necessary to liberate sentient beings, even if this means breaking monastic vows or going against established doctrine. The most significant feature of upaya, however, is that the ability to respond compassionately or achieve liberation does not depend on a metaphysical analysis of the world.
In the Lotus Sutra, for example, a rich man lures his children from a burning house by promising them imaginary gifts (Kern 1989, p. 94). Traditionally, the house represents the realm of delusion and ignorance, the imaginary gifts are the Buddha's teaching styles, and the "bare ground" outside the house is the realm of enlightenment. The implication, of course, is that metaphysics is not necessary for enlightenment since the children are liberated though a skillful "device."
The Vimalakirtinirdesa expresses a similar view by arguing against those who preach Buddhist doctrine as applicable to all sentient beings. This is considered "bad medicine" because it assumes that everyone suffers from the same problem and that everyone can be cured with the same "medicine." But the Dharma, says Vimalakirti, "is not a secure refuge" (Thurman 1986, p. 51), meaning that it is not a fixed analysis of reality, and "without examining the spiritual faculties of living beings one can wound those who are without wounds" (Thurman 1986, p. 28). When the Buddha asks the disciple Purna to go visit Vimalakirti and inquire about his illness, for exam-pie, he responds with the following story:
Understandably, in later chapters the disciples and bodhisattvas are reluctant to visit Vimalakirti again on account of his harsh tone with those who simply preach Buddhist doctrine without integrating the practice of "skillful means."
The problem for the early Mahayanists is that if Buddhism is restricted to a set path then it fails to take into account the various types of illness and suffering of sentient beings, which in turn hinders compassionate activity. The Buddha is exemplary because he refuses to speculate on issues disconnected from the karmic levels of sentient beings. Instead, he responds to the concrete needs and dispositions of those who suffer. His unwillingness to answer certain questions--for example, such as whether the world is eternal or not eternal, infinite or not infinite, and so forth--is a skillful "device" in that any answer to such questions would not relate to the soteriological practice of this particular person. From a "skillful means" perspective, the issue in the Buddha's silence is how it relates to the needs and dispositions of a particular audience, and this is why we are reminded not to abstract the Buddha's teachings from their rhetorical and pedagogical context.
While the doctrine of upaya distinguishes the Mahayana from the early Abhidharma tradition, it would be wrong to think that these two traditions are fighting over different metaphysical positions. "Skill-in-means" is not a metaphysical critique. It is not asking us to reflect on the nature of causality, the structure of consciousness, or the self, but is asking us to reflect on Buddhist practice and the best way to help others. As such, it is more akin to what Kasulis calls "metapraxis" than metaphysics, and is what distinguishes every schism and sectarian debate in Buddhist history. As Paul Williams notes:
As a Mahayana Buddhist engaged in a debate with the Abhidharma Buddhists, Nagarjuna is surely concerned with issues of praxis as well. But what is it that divides him from the Abhidharma Buddhists, and what is it about the Dharma that he thinks they have misunderstood? A false conception of reality? A fallacious metaphysics? Most Western scholars see the Abhidharma Buddhists as concerned with traditional metaphysical issues, and see Nagarjuna as attacking them on these grounds. According to Chris Gudmunsen, for example, the Abhidharmists are Russellian philosophers concerned with isolating sense data and wondering how words refer to logical bits of experience (Gudmunsen 1977); for Mark Siderits they are "epistemological realists" forging a correspondence theory of truth (Siderits 1988); for Nathan Katz they are "denotation theorists" (Katz 1981); for Jay Garfield they are "essentialists" unwilling to accept the conventional nature of phenomena (Garfield 1995); and for thinkers like David Loy and Harold Coward the Abhidharmists are proposing a metaphysical view of language (Loy 1987 and Coward 1990).
It is clear that when we frame Nagarjuna's audience as concerned with these types of issues then it follows that Nagarjuna is dealing with them as well. That is, if the Abhidharmists are similar to the Logical Atomists, the epistemological realists, the metaphysicians, or the philosophers of language, then, since Nagarjuna is attacking their views, he must be participating in this discussion as well. But to see why this is mistaken we need to reflect on what the Abhidharma tradition is really doing.
A careful reading of the Abhidharma texts reveals that, as with every major Buddhist tradition, the central issue is one of praxis. The detailed lists or "matrices," the analysis of experience into dharmas, the examination of causal conditioning, and the emphasis on "discerning" and "watching" the flow of impermanent phenomena are a reflection on the nature of meditative practice and how it relates to liberation. The body of literature called the Abhidharma-pitaka was developed for meditative praxis, and the different "sects" or schools that arose from this literature are different reflections on such practices. The debates between the different schools are less metaphysical or doctrinal as they are about the proper ways to meditate. How many dharmas does one need to "discern" in meditative practice? How should one view the flow of phenomena within the stream of consciousness? The issue in these questions is soteriological and practical and arises out of a concern about the efficacy of the practices presented in the Abhidharma literature.
Central to all the major Abhidharma traditions is a classification of dharmas into "lists" or "matrices" (matrka) for the purpose of meditation. While the traditions differed over the number of matrka and the number of dharmas one needs to meditate on, a common system was to divide the dharmas into three major categories: the five aggregates, the twelve bases of cognition, and the eighteen elements. This system allowed for quick recognition of the major categories of experience, which could then be subdivided for closer analysis. The aggregate "form" (rupa), for instance, which includes the five sense organs and five sense objects, is divided into the different types of sensual experience, such as colors, sounds, tastes, smells, and so on, each of which is further subdivided into the types of colors, sounds, tastes, and smells that one experiences. Through such an analysis, the Abhidharma schools hoped to classify different aspects of meditative experience and to facilitate a focused sense of mindfulness.
While the Abhidharma traditions differed over the exact stages one needed to go through to attain the elimination of the "defilements" (klesas), they generally accepted a progression of stages in which one ascends from a mere meditative analysis of dharmas to a higher wisdom (prajna) based on the "cessation" of dharmas.
In the Sarvastivadin tradition, for example, the stages of the "path" are divided into three levels. First, there are the "preliminary practices," which deal with physical and mental purification; second, the "seven stages of the wise," which consist primarily of meditations on the Four Noble Truths; and third, the "seven degrees of the sage" in which the practitioner "cuts off the defilements" and realizes their "cessation" and then, through deep meditation, becomes a fully liberated arhat.
In the Theravada tradition, the levels of practice are divided into seven stages of "purification." One moves progressively through the purification of morals, mind, views, doubts, knowledge of the correct path, knowledge of the correct method, and, finally, the "three gates" of liberation. The fifth and sixth stages establish the entire soteriological edifice on which the path rests after one discerns the "nine knowledges" of origination and cessation, dissolution, dispassion, appearances, and so forth, and with this one knows both the correct path and the correct methodological means for following it.
As with most Abhidharma traditions, the basis of this "correct path" is the dharmic analysis of experience, which, as Vasubandhu said, must be "investigated" in order to "pacify the passions." Because the dharmas are "defiled" by desire, lust, anger, greed, ignorance, and so forth, they must be purified and eliminated. Thus, as the practitioner progresses through the different stages of meditation, he cultivates the insight (vipasyana) that eliminates the "defilements" and, once this is completed, attains complete emancipation.
The type of reflection we find in the Abhidharma tradition is what Kasulis calls "metapractical." It is specifically concerned with how a meditation on dharmas will lead to liberation. "What happens after attaining the level of 'cessation' in which dharmas no longer arise? "How is the stream of mental events brought to a halt through meditative practice? "What is relation between the 'pacification' of dharmas and liberation?" These questions are quite different from the types of metaphysical issues that we find in traditional Western philosophy and should make us skeptical about the claim that the Abhidharma tradition is doing metaphysics or that it is offering a theory of linguistic reference, logical atomism, or realism. It should make us even more skeptical about the claim that Nagarjuna is attacking the Abhidharma Buddhists on metaphysical grounds as well.
What does make the Abhidharma problematic, however--and this is why the Mahayana tradition developed the doctrine of upaya in the first place--is their view that liberation entails following a set meditative practice. Without meditating on how dharmas arise and cease, how they condition other things, and how they are related through subtle relays of causes and effects, one cannot attain liberation. Vasubhandu reflects this opinion when he says the following:
The "close investigation" that Vasubandhu refers to has to do with a strict meditation on the nature of dharmas, a meditation that is mindful of their impermanent, causal, and selfless status. Vasubandhu also implies that without meditating in a particular way (i.e., without "reviewing" the Sarvastivadin analysis of dharmas) then it is impossible to attain liberation. In saying this, Vasubandhu is establishing the necessary conditions for practice and, along with many of the Abhidharma Buddhists, is creating an orthopraxis for all Buddhists to follow.
Nagarjuna's Critique of Causality
In the Madhyamakakarikas, Nagarjuna attacks this attempt to absolutize Buddhist praxis by utilizing a system of logic that offers negative responses to four possible alternatives. Called the catuskoti, it is often depicted in the following form:
Nagarjuna uses this fourfold logic against a whole series of arguments ranging from causality, the self, the aggregates, production, destruction, permanence, impermanence, space, time, motion, and so forth. Against a particular view of causation, for example, Nagarjuna applies the catuskoti and concludes that dharmas (x) are not produced (empty set), not non-produced, not both, and not neither. Or, against a particular view of motion, he applies the dialectic and concludes that motion (x) is not moving (empty set), not non-moving, not both, and not neither.
We can see Nagarjuna utilizing this form against a certain conception of causality in the following remark from the beginning section of his Karikas:
This is the beginning of Nagarjuna's attack on causality. Things are either caused from themselves, from something else, from both, or from no cause whatsoever. Nagarjuna denies all four alternatives, thus supposedly showing that the entire conception of causality is mistaken.
He does this by saying that any understanding of cause-and-effect relations can be reduced to either asserting or denying their identity. In other words, a cause is either identical to its effect, different from its effect, both, or neither. Saying that they are identical is absurd, as it destroys the language of cause and effect that presupposes that something has changed or has become different from what it once was. But if cause and effect are identical, there is no change in status from the cause to the effect. Therefore, Nagarjuna says that nothing can arise from itself.
Does this mean that cause and effect is a relation between two different entities (arising from another)? Nagarjuna denies this alternative, saying that it is logically impossible for two separate entities to be causally related, since their status as two different entities excludes the necessary continuity that must adhere between conditioned phenomena. Just as a theory of causal identity denies the necessary relationship between cause and effect, so an insistence upon difference leads to a complete rupture between two things that are supposed to be related. This thesis, according to Nagarjuna, must be denied, as it undercuts the meaning of causal language. "Perfect otherness (or difference)," says Candrakirti, "amounts to no cause at all" (Sprung 1979, p. 42).
This leaves the last two alternatives, which are also denied by Nagarjuna--the first for being contradictory and the second for not making logical sense. Saying that cause and effect are both identical and nonidentical is a basic contradiction: "(x = empty set)" and "not (x = empty set)." And saying that a cause arises from nowhere is not only logically impossible (how can a noncause bring something into existence?) but implies that things can arise from any source whatsoever. As Buddhapalita says:
The conclusion that we are suppose to derive from Nagarjuna's dialectic is that causality is "empty": it has no essence, no fixed or substantial nature, no underlying substratum. But what does it mean to say that causality is "empty," and why is Nagarjuna so concerned with attacking theories of causation in the way he does?
Most contemporary Western accounts say that Nagarjuna is attacking a metaphysical view of causation. For example, Thomas Wood sees Nagarjuna's critique of causation as an outright denial of existence altogether (Wood 1994); T.R.V. Murti and David Loy see it as an attempt to affirm a transcendental experience beyond language and conceptualization (Murti 1955 and Loy 1987); Siderits sees it as an attack on "realism" (Siderits 1988); David Kalupahana sees it as similar to the Logical Positivists' rejection of metaphysics (Kalupahana 1986); and Garfield sees it as arguing for the "conventional" nature of causation (Garfield 1995). These scholars also assume that no matter how we live our lives or whatever spiritual practices we engage in, we will never attain complete emancipation until we fully deconstruct our metaphysical attachments. Garfield makes this clear when he writes:
Garfield 's generalization about all Mahayana Buddhist philosophers is puzzling, especially since, at least from the Mahayana perspective, the problem with the Abhidharma Buddhists is not their supposed metaphysical views but their attempt to justify one set of soteriological practice above all others. That all Mahayana philosophers are concerned with metaphysics is certainly not obvious; nor it is obvious that all human suffering is caused by taking things as "substantial." Such sweeping generalizations present a biased account of Buddhist philosophy and assume that human suffering can be explained in a totalizing way. If Nagarjuna is saying what Garfield thinks he does, then he is guilty of offering the type of "poisonous remedies" that are rejected by "skillful means."
If we read Nagarjuna as a "skill-in-means" thinker, however, then we will not arrive at this conclusion. To do so, we need to remember that Nagarjuna is attacking a rigid view of practice. For most Abhidharma traditions, liberation depends on a "correct" meditation of dharmas, on how they arise and cease, how they are conditioned, and how they cause suffering. Nagarjuna attacks this view of praxis by showing how the idea of dharmas contradicts the Buddhist view of causation.
In the Sarvastivadin tradition, for example, it is said that underlying the "moments" of meditation there exists an unchanging substance, a svabhava, that continues throughout the entire process. This underlying substance is called a dharma's "self nature" and is vital to meditative practice. To meditate on a dharma's "self nature" as opposed to its mere "moments" means that one is no longer to be held captive by that which is "turbulent" and full of unrest, one is no longer attached to the fleeting appearances of causal awareness--but instead secure in the essence of what is "calm" and "peaceful"--that is, nirvana. The ability to discern the substance of dharmas is therefore tantamount to liberation.
Nagarjuna's problem with this view of praxis is that it contradicts the view that one must meditate on causality in order to attain liberation. If dharmas stay the same then they are not caused at all because they never change; and if they are "self-caused" then they are identical to themselves, and this denies the doctrine of "dependent arising." Thus, for Nagarjuna, the Sarvastivadin view of dharmas is absurd within the context of a Buddhist meditation, since dharmas and dependent arising contradict each other.
The Sautrantikas also rejected the Sarvastivadin position but proposed instead the idea that meditation is composed of continuous "flashings" of eruptions of "moments" into consciousness: dharmas arise and cease each moment; they come from nowhere, "flash" for an instant, and then vanish. To see this process--to "review" it--is the goal of meditative practice that supposedly ends in liberation.
For Nagarjuna, however, this view of praxis suffers from inconsistencies similar to the Sarvastivadin view. If we are supposed to meditate on dharmas as point-instants that have no continuity between one moment and the next, then what happens to the causal process that is supposed to be vital to Buddhist praxis? If dharmas are nothing more than distinct "moments" in meditative equilibrium, then what is the connection between one dharma and the next? Since there seems to be no connection whatsoever, then how can we make sense of "dependent arising"? The point Nagarjuna is making is that, like the Sarvastivadins, the Sautrantikas are proposing inconsistent views of praxis: they say that one must meditate on causality in order to be liberated, but then deny causality by saying that one must meditate on certain moments (dharmas) that are noncausal.
Nagarjuna's reason for presenting these inconsistencies has to do with the way that these Buddhists are explaining meditative praxis. The Sarvastivadins claim that they meditate on the substantial nature of dharmas while the Sautrantikas claim that they meditate on dharmic "moments," and both think that only their brand of practice is the right way (marga). The issue of whether their explanations are really "real" or metaphysically correct seems to miss the point and assumes that the conflict between these two traditions arises because they have different metaphysical views. However, according to Buddhism, it is not "views" (drstis) themselves that cause conflicts, but our attachments to "views." In themselves, "views" are relatively innocuous: it is what lies behind them in the form of "blind grasping" that interests most Buddhists. The Buddha himself initially refused to "Turn the Wheel" because people were so "cloaked" in "habitual tendencies," and he attacked the "sixty-two" prevailing philosophical systems in India not because they were metaphysically incorrect but because the people who espoused them were "caught in the net" of attachments.
It is nevertheless common to mistake Nagarjuna's metapractical critique--dealing with attachment to Buddhist praxis--with metaphysics because it appears that the Abhidharma philosophers are giving a metaphysical justification for their views. As I tried to argue in the preceding section, however, it is doubtful that the conflict between the Abhidharma traditions can be framed in this way since their "views" are inseparably linked to praxis: they are not offering "views" of causality in the abstract but "views" of meditative practice. Thus, while it is true that they are giving "views" of causality, and that these "views" ate the justifications for their practices, they are not the type of views that can be disassociated from the specific meditative practices of the Abhidharma traditions. The Abhidharma traditions ate asking how to attain liberation, how to meditate, and how to think of Buddhist praxis.
The divisions between the two Madhyamika schools that followed Nagarjuna--the Prasanghika and Svatantrika--are separated by similar issues of praxis, and therefore immersed in a "skillful means" debate. The issue that separates them is what is the best way to communicate "emptiness" to other Buddhist and non-Buddhist schools in India. The Svatantrika philosopher Bhavaviveka, for example, thought that the best way to express "emptiness" is to use arguments that conform to accepted modes of argumentation. By relying on an independent syllogism (svatantra-anumana), he felt that the Madhyamikan philosopher would be more effective in inducing an understanding of "emptiness" because he would then use inferential norms accepted by both parties. According to Chandrakirti, however, the Madhyamika system begins only with views and assertions of the other person and does not rely on an independent inference. It admits only provisionally the argument of the opponent and then shows, through reductio ad absurdum (prasanga-vakya) the untenability of the position being advanced. As Peter Della Santina notes, the issue for the Prasanghikas is not whether an argument is true inferentially but whether it will work soteriologically:
From a metapractical perspective, the debate between the two Madhyamika schools is a debate about the nature and efficacy of the Buddhist system and has little to do with strictly metaphysical or logical issues. Nagarjuna's debate with the Abhidharma philosophers should be seen in a similar light: he is not asking how causation is possible at all, or which philosophical theory is most feasible, but why the Abhidharma thinkers are putting forth this particular view of praxis, and why they think it represents the highest soteriological wisdom of the Buddha.
Nagarjuna's Critique of the Dharma
In chapter XXIV of the Karikas, Nagarjuna continues his attack on the Abhidharma philosophers by analyzing the Four Noble Truths, and argues that--like causality, impermanence, suffering, and bondage--they, too, are "empty." The problem of this chapter needs to be seen against the background of the preceding section. If the Abhidharma views of causality are "empty," as Nagarjuna says they are, and if causality is a central feature of Buddhist praxis, then Nagarjuna seems to undermine everything that is vital to Buddhism. He begins chapter XXIV by expressing the Abhidharma position in the following way:
In the passages above, the Abhidharma opponent is saying that if Nagarjuna is right about "emptiness," then the very practices that make Buddhism soteriologically efficacious will be destroyed. That is, if it is true that the Four Noble Truths are "empty," then there is no such thing as the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, no such thing as impermanence, "non-self," and nirvana, and the practices that supposedly lead to liberation will be destroyed. Nagarjuna responds to the opponent by saying that he has misunderstood "emptiness":
Because the opponent has taken "emptiness" to signify the nonexistence of the Four Noble Truths, he is "harmed by it"--in other words, he sees "emptiness" as destructive. But his reason for thinking of "emptiness" in this way is that he thinks that a "correct" meditation on causality, the aggregates, and the Four Noble Truths is necessary for liberation.
Nagarjuna responds to this assumption by reversing the tables and saying, in effect, that it is not "emptiness" that destroys practice, but the very idea that such things as causality, the aggregates, and the Four Noble Truths are "inherent," essential, or necessary:
Nagarjuna goes on to say that the reason essences militate against causal conditions, arising, ceasing, agency, and so forth is that the idea of essence entails independence, and if things are by nature independent then it is impossible for them to interact causally. If this is true then there is no "dependent arising," and without "dependent arising" it is impossible to make sense of the ability to cultivate a virtuous life. In other words, without the process of change the whole idea of cultivating the "fruits" of a Buddhist life is rendered nonsensical. Nagarjuna responds by saying that Buddhist praxis must be "empty" if we are to make any sense of the Four Noble Truths:
Nagarjuna has thus shifted the debate. Whereas the Abhidharma thinker begins with the assumption that a "correct" meditation on the Dharma is a necessary prerequisite for liberation, Nagarjuna undercuts this by saying that if one takes the Dharma as essential, that is, as necessary, then the very essence of Buddhism is undermined. Like the first chapter on causation, Nagarjuna is reminding the Abhidharma philosophers here about nonattachment. The Four Noble Truths are supposed to be medicinal "rafts" that help specific sentient beings overcome their attachments, but if one becomes attached to the practices of nonattachment then one has missed the entire point of Buddhism. Thus, Nagarjuna says that the Dharma--which includes causation, impermanence, suffering, bondage, and liberation--is "empty."
To understand what Nagarjuna means when he criticizes traditional Buddhist doctrine, it might be helpful to examine another "skill-in-means" text, the Lin-chi Lu. What is interesting about this Chinese Ch'an text is that, like many of Nagarjuna's texts, it is speaking to people who have become attached to Buddhism, and who therefore think there is an absolute path to liberation. While this is not the place to offer an in-depth analysis of the Lin-chi Lu, a brief survey of its main points will help us see how it relates to Nagarjuna.
Lin-chi's Pedagogy as Upaya
The Lin-chi Lu is a small volume of "collected sayings" or "discourses" of the ninth-century Chinese Ch'an master Lin-chi I-hsuan. The text relates a number of stories that personify key aspects of Buddhist pedagogy that, interestingly enough, are not offered through any philosophical treatises on the nature of "emptiness," enlightenment, dependent arising, of causal conditioning, but ate rather shown through the intimate encounters between a Ch'an master and his students.
A few important themes related to Lin-chi's style of teaching deserve special attention. First, Lin-chi openly rejects the importance of studying Buddhist doctrine by telling his students that nothing can be gained by reflecting on the Buddha, the nature of enlightenment, or anything else having to do with Buddhist instruction. In fact, Lin-chi tells his students that, quite simply, Buddhist doctrine is a "sham":
Followers of the Way, there is no Buddha to be gained, and the Three Vehicles, the five natures, the teachings of the perfect and immediate enlightenment ate all simply medicines to cure diseases of the moment. None have any true reality. Even if they had, they would still all be mete shams, placards proclaiming superficial matters, so many words lined up, pronouncements of such kind. (Watson 1993, p. 76)
Lin-chi repeats these sentiments to his students throughout the text, telling them that the teachings of the Buddha and the Patriarchs "have no special meaning," that "there are no great number of principles to be grasped," that the teachings contained in the sutras are merely "expositions of surface matters," and that even if one could discover some "special meaning" in all the Buddhist teachings put together, "it would all be names, words, phrases, medicine to apply to the ills of little children to placate them, words dealing with mere surface matters" (Watson 1993, p. 72). Although it may appear that Lin-chi is discarding traditional Buddhist doctrine to establish his own philosophical position, this is not the case, for he tells us that he does not have "a particle of Dharma to give to anyone" (Watson 1993, p. 53).
To take these comments seriously means that we should be cautious about interpreting Lin-chi's project metaphysically: that is, he literally has no Dharma, no philosophical doctrine, and no metaphysical teachings to offer his students. "Everything I am saying to you," he tells them, "is for the moment only, medicine to cure the disease" (Watson 1993, p. 34).
Given that Lin-chi is a respected Ch'an master, however, then what, specifically, does he teach? In trying to answer this question we find ourselves embroiled in a controversy in Ch'an scholarship that will not be settled here. But a few things need to be said. Lin-chi tells his students that his teachings ate not doctrinal because what he has to teach has nothing to do with "words and phrases" and is performed "outside the scriptures." For many scholars this is because Lin-chi's teachings are esoteric, nondiscursive, and beyond the ken of logic. That is, Lin-chi does not teach in "words and phrases" because he recognizes the inherent limitations of linguistic and conceptual use, and his job as a teacher is to shock his students out of their "dualistic" thinking by using nonconceptual, irrational, and paradoxical means. While this is one popular interpretation of the text, it also leads us away from the direct form of pedagogy that Lin-chi embodies. To understand this point it might be helpful to imagine the example of a philosophy professor who walks into class one day without any intention of saying a word about the history of philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, or logic, and tells his students to put away their notebooks because he is not going to say anything about "philosophy." Thus, there will be no discussion on Kant, Plato, Hume, propositional logic, or the nature of consciousness because, he says, their educational development has nothing to do with such topics. Obviously confused, the students ask "Then what are we going to do?"
Now, while the typical philosophy teacher, including myself, would become highly anxious in this situation, it is exactly this type of environment that Lin-chi thrives in and that makes his pedagogy so exciting. He is not going to teach any "doctrine" because spiritual transformation takes place through a direct confrontation between master and disciple. "Doctrine," and what somebody else proclaims, are merely "coatings," "placards," and "so many words lined up" that mediate the direct form of pedagogy that Lin-chi sees as vital to transformation.
Lin-chi's students are obviously different from the average college student, and so what arises in his context without "words and phrases" is probably not an issue in a philosophy class. Unlike most college students, Lin-chi's disciples are living within a monastic community and striving for spiritual enlightenment. Lin-chi's manner of addressing their concerns is to respond to their concrete situation, to who they are as individuals, and to their upbringing and environment. "When someone comes to me," says Lin-chi, "I can tell exactly what he is like. Whatever circumstances he may have come from."
I sit calmly in my seat, and when followers of the Way come for an interview, I see through them all. How do I do this? Because my way of looking at them is different. I don't worry whether on the outside they ate common mortals or sages, or get bogged down in the kind of basic nature they have inside. I just see all the way through them and never make an error. (Watson 1993, p. 30)
As Lin-chi notes, his ability to perceive the various dispositions of his students does not rely on anything special; he is not perceiving anything metaphysical and is not concerned with their inner nature. He simply examines who they are, what they say, and how they question him, and he then responds in the most appropriate way:
What Lin-chi teaches, therefore, depends on what he thinks his students suffer from. It is their "disease" that directs his response. His pedagogical style changes in relation to the student, and he is therefore free to teach a variety of philosophical and religious standpoints or, as Lin-chi puts it, a variety of "robes": "There is a clean pure robe, there is a no-birth robe, a bodhi robe, a nirvana robe, a patriarch robe, a Buddha robe." But all of these, he says, are merely "sounds, names, words, phrases ... nothing but changes of robe" (Watson 1993, p. 60). Rather than teach formal doctrines that have little to do with his students' concrete experiences, Lin-chi molds his pedagogical style into a powerful soteriological tool by confronting his students directly.
There is, of course, one particular "disease" that Lin-chi is trying to cure in his students, and this is why he emphasizes that there is no such thing as the Dharma, the Buddha, enlightenment, nirvana, practice, and so forth. This "disease" has to do with his students taking the sayings and doctrines of previous Ch'an masters as signifying more than provisional devices. That is, they have become attached to the Dharma as having some special "dark meaning" and, hence, suffer because they cannot discover what it means. They thus ask the traditional questions such as "What is the meaning of Buddhism? "Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?" and "What is the nature of wisdom?" and think that liberation depends on getting an answer to these questions.
To cure this disease, Lin-chi resorts to all those "extreme" measures that are characteristic of the Lin-chi/Rinzai tradition: he gives them slaps, kicks, punches, "irrational" screams, and paradoxical responses. In the Lin-chi Lu such harsh measures have positive results because the student often "gets it" and no longer searches for mysterious solutions to Buddhist doctrine. Lin-chi's ability to provoke an "awareness" in his students does not depend on a metaphysical description of the world, however. He simply responds to his "environment" in an immediate way.
As we can see from Lin-chi's style of teaching, his use of "skillful means" is a reflection on the nature of Buddhist praxis. He is primarily concerned with problems of religious methodology and attachment, and asks about the most efficient way to help sentient beings. As readers of the Lin-chi Lu we are not asked to reflect on the nature of causality, bondage, human nature, or nirvana--but on how attachment to Buddhism gets in the way of liberation.
Nagarjuna and Lin-chi
A few key similarities between Lin-chi and Nagarjuna deserve special attention. First, Lin-chi's remarks that there is "no Buddha, no Dharma, no Nirvana, and no Enlightenment" are foreshadowed in XXV:24 of Nagarjuna's Madhyamakakarika when he says:
The similarities between Lin-chi and Nagarjuna become more apparent when we remember that the Madhyamakakarika is an attack on traditional Buddhism. In the Karikas, Nagarjuna painstakingly covers every major topic in Buddhist philosophy, beginning with causality and then moving through the aggregates, the nature of conditioned existence, agency and suffering, space and time, becoming and destruction, the Twelve Links, the Four Noble Truths, and the Tathagata, and concludes that all of them are "empty," like "dreams" and "illusions, like a city of Gandharvas." One who grasps the view that the Tathagata exists, he says, "Having seized the Buddha, constructs conceptual fabrications." Such comments are remarkably similar to Lin-chi's views, as when he says:
Second, Lin-chi's assertion that even he does not have "a particle of Dharma to give anyone" is analogous to Nagarjuna's famous phrase in section 29 of the Vigrahavyavartani in which he states that he has no philosophical proposition whatsoever. Arguing mainly against the Nyaya claim that if Nagarjuna is asserting that all things are "empty" then this must apply to his own assertion as well, he says: "If I had a proposition (pratijna), this defect would attach to me. But I have no proposition. Therefore I am not at fault." While the meaning of this passage is disputed among Madhyamika scholars, let it suffice for the moment to say that, like Lin-chi, Nagarjuna is not advancing any metaphysical view of theory.
Third, even though Lin-chi says that he does not have "a particle of Dharma to give anyone," he does make numerous remarks that might be construed metaphysically, such as when he refers to the "Person" with a pure, luminescent mind who "pierces the ten directions" (Watson 1993, p. 34), and "enters fire without being burned, enters water without drowning" (Watson 1993, p. 50). While such comments obviously sound metaphysical, and are often interpreted in this way, Lin-chi admonishes his disciples not to misconstrue what he says since "Everything I am saying to you is for the moment only, medicine to cure the disease." Thus we are warned against searching for any metaphysical significance to his assertions--which, of course, is one of the prime diseases that he is out to cure. As Lin-chi says, "Followers of the Way, there is no Buddha to be gained, and the Three Vehicles, the five natures, the teachings of the perfect and immediate enlightenment are all simply medicines to cure diseases of the moment. Even if they had, they would still all be mere shams, placards, proclaiming superficial matters, so many words lined up, pronouncements of such kind." Or, as Nagarjuna would say, the Buddhist teachings are "empty," and even that "emptiness" is "empty" of any substance or independent validity apart from its use within a soteriological context.
Nagarjuna warns against interpreting the doctrine of "emptiness" in a metaphysical manner in XXII: 11 of his Madhyamakakarika:
In other words, Nagarjuna is warning us against reifying the term "emptiness" into a metaphysic. There is a reason for saying that things are "empty," just as there is a reason for saying that there is no-self, of that all phenomena are dependently arisen, and it has nothing to do with a metaphysical description of existence. As he says, the reason for saying such things is "only for the purpose of communication," and the communication he has in mind is the type that lends itself to soteriological ends. Apart from this, "emptiness" is a meaningless term. Kalupahana expresses this point by saying that these terms "are used only for the sake of communicating or expressing an experience which, being dependent (pratityasamutpanna), has no static self-nature (svabhava), and as such cannot be demarcated and reified" (Kalupahana 1986, p. 308).
Like Lin-chi, then, Nagarjuna warns against a metaphysical hermeneutic of "emptiness" by saying that it is nothing but a medicine to cure a specific disease:
While the use of "Ultimate truth" may mislead us into thinking that "emptiness" is describing the nature of reality, Nagarjuna says in Madhyamakakarika XXIV: 18 that emptiness, which is described by the Buddha as an "ultimate" truth, is, in fact, a "dependent designation":
Saying that "emptiness" depends on convention means that it is a heuristic device used to cure a specific disease. To read it metaphysically misses why the doctrine of "emptiness" was ever taught. Many Western scholars say that Nagarjuna's view of "ultimate truth" signifies his antimetaphysical position that, ultimately, things are without essence and non-substantial. While this is partially true, it needs to be remembered that "emptiness"--which Nagarjuna says is the "ultimate truth"--is declared in numerous early Mahayana texts as nothing more than a "skill-in-means" devised by the Buddha. Moreover, the distinction between "ultimate" and "conventional" truth in early Buddhism refers not necessarily to epistemological or metaphysical categories but, as some scholars note, to different ways of expressing and communicating the Dharma (Jayatilleke 1963). Thus, while it is true that Nagarjuna sees "emptiness" as the "ultimate truth," and while it is also true that he sees this "truth" as the "unsurpassed medicine" to cure the disease of svabhava, it is not obvious that he or, for that matter, any of the Abhidharma traditions are thinking of svabhava in a metaphysical way.
And fourth, just as Lin-chi's pedagogical method depends on "contradictory" teachings, so Nagarjuna often uses what seem like paradoxical statements. In his Madhyamakakarika (18:6 and 18:8), for example, he says the following:
Such "contradictory" teachings are not unlike Lin-chi's style, which, depending on the student, will either snatch away the "person," the "environment," both, or neither, and which freely utilizes a variety of philosophical and religious "robes." Unlike Nagarjuna, of course, Lin-chi often resorts to more "extreme" measures:
Now it should be recalled that Lin-chi has a reason for revealing this aspect of this pedagogical "robe." That is, when he is making these comments he is doing something quite different from slapping someone in the face. His comments are more reflective than performative because he is telling his disciples about his method of teaching. But his reason for doing this is because his students have taken the method for something deeper, something more mysterious and metaphysically real than it actually is. Thus he seems to be telling them outright in these passages that Buddhist methodology is just this: that it is no more mysterious than the slapping of a face or the teaching of "contradictory" views. And his reason for practicing such "harsh" measures, he tells them, is to "snatch" something away from them, to radically confront their "environment" and, like a thief, steal it away from them.
Nagarjuna's complaint with the Abhidharma traditions should be seen in a similar light. Like Lin-chi's "thief," Nagarjuna is trying to "steal" something from the Abhidharma philosophers. In their desire for liberation they have become attached to the teachings and have therefore missed the most significant teaching in Buddhism: nonattachment. To confront this "illness," Nagarjuna resorts to "skill-in-means" and uses their own way of speaking and their own views against them. While it is clear that Lin-chi and Nagarjuna are separated by wide cultural, religious, and philosophical differences, they are both attacking a similar issue of attachment and highlighting a long-standing problem in Buddhist history: the problem of becoming attached to the practices of nonattachment. To counter this problem, Nagarjuna--along with the entire Mahayana tradition--says that "emptiness is the unsurpassed medicine" of Buddhism (Lindtner 1986, p. 29), and that even this very "emptiness" is "empty." That we should understand this as a metaphysical issue seems to miss the point.
The prejudice of those I have criticized in this article has to do with judging the value of Buddhism apart from its upayic role. Neglecting the actual practices of a Buddhist life, they view the doctrines of "emptiness," "non-self," and "dependent arising" apart from Buddhist praxis. Nagarjuna's "emptiness of emptiness," for example, is generally seen as a metaphysical maneuver: it deconstructs epistemological realism, essentialism, metaphysics, causality, and a referential view of language. It tells us something about how the mind posits "hidden" essences and "secret powers," how language carves the world into subject/object dualities, or how consciousness constructs an illusory world of "things" interacting "in" space and time. But it is precisely this metaphysical move that "skillful means" rejects because it forces us to think of Buddhist praxis in an abstract way, as something we can discuss apart from its rhetorical and pedagogical contexts.
Even more problematic is that many of the scholars I criticize see their interpretations of Nagarjuna as upayic. The majority of Madhyamika scholars I have discussed tell us that not only is Nagarjuna's critique of svabhava geared toward metaphysics but that liberation depends on understanding how it works. According to Murti, for example:
Murti not only sees Nagarjuna as diagnosing a fundamental problem in human existence, but also thinks that his dialectical method will "cure" us. The problem is basically metaphysical in nature, and consists of "covering" the Real with a conceptual thought--which, according to Murti, amounts to an unconscious negation of "Truth." Thus, if we could reverse this process (negate the negation), then we would experience liberation. What is interesting about Murti's analysis is that it supposedly offers an upaya: "emptiness" is the "means" for correcting a "falsification of the real."
Frederick Streng also reads Nagarjuna in an upayic way. "Emptiness," he says, is the "means for quelling the pain found in existential 'becoming' which results from longing after an eternal undisturbed entity" (Streng 1967, p. 149). While Murti tells us that Nagarjuna is deconstructing a "conflict in reason," Streng tells us that Nagarjuna is attacking a referential view of language. By understanding what he calls a "relational norm of meaning," that is, that words are meaningful only in relation to other words, we will be "cured" of the longing for an "eternal undisturbed entity." C. W. Huntington, Jr., expresses a similar view:
For Garfield, the upayic nature of Nagarjuna's philosophy lies in showing us the nature of what he calls "reification," or the tendency to take what is conventional for something essential:
According to Garfield, Nagarjuna's dialectic uproots this tendency to "reify" the world by showing not only that all phenomena are "empty" but that this very "emptiness" is itself "empty," or, as Garfield says, that it, too, is merely a conventional designation.
Given that all the thinkers above do see Nagarjuna's dialectic in an upayic way, how can I claim that their approach to Buddhism is, in fact, non-upayic? The main reason for this has to do with how they frame the problem. According to their accounts, Nagarjuna already knows in advance what everyone's problem is, and how to solve it. Whether the problem is "falsifying the real," a "referential view of language," "essentialism," or "reification," Nagarjuna is depicted as speaking universally; he not only diagnoses an innate "sickness" in human nature, but cures it by prescribing a set remedy: namely, "emptiness." However, both the problem and the cure on these accounts are abstract and essentialistic. Asserted independently of any rhetorical context and apart from the karmic dispositions of individuals, they are expressed with the assumption that there is a single cause to all human suffering and a single cure. If it is true that Nagarjuna is speaking in this way, and that his doctrine of "emptiness" is supposed to cure all "ills" no matter what the time, place, or cultural context, then it is debatable just how upayic his philosophy really is. Given that upaya rejects sweeping generalizations about human beings and their suffering, he would then suffer from the exact "illness" that "skillful means" is trying to cure.
However, I have tried to argue against this view of Nagarjuna by showing how "emptiness" is a "skillful means" used against the Abhidharma Buddhists, and how it is making a claim about Buddhist practice. In this sense, sunyata is not a panacea at all, but an attack on the very tendency to think in this way.
After having attacked so many others for turning Buddhism into "bad medicine," however, and after having devoted this article to explaining how it is impossible to make sense of "skillful means" apart from the concrete needs and karmic dispositions of an audience, the position of my own argument is obviously problematic. Is this study an upaya? Is it grounded in the lives of others, a practical guide or a "raft" toward liberation? If it is true that "skillful means" is a practical guide, and that by thinking of it apart from praxis we lose sight of what Buddhism is all about, then have I not committed a grave error by offering an abstract account of upaya?
These questions expose my argument at its weakest point. This article is not a "raft" or a path toward liberation. It is not grounded in the Buddhist life of practice, nor is it a meditation device. Therefore it, too, is guilty of speaking about Buddhism apart from practice, and suffers from the problem of explaining its central ideas (e.g., upaya) apart from how they function in the lives of Buddhist practitioners. In effect, this article is afflicted with the very "illness" that the Buddha, Vimalakirti, Lin-chi, and Nagarjuna are fighting against.
On the other hand, what distinguishes my argument from those I criticize is that I am not offering a path to liberation. I have not determined in advance what any path is or said what one should do in order to attain liberation. On the contrary, I have tried to remain faithful to the doctrine of an upaya that undercuts our ability to say in advance--and previous to knowing who one's audience is--how liberation should be achieved. I believe that this is where my argument differs most from those I criticize. For most Western scholars, Nagarjuna's "emptiness" is a panacea, a medicine that will cure everyone regardless of the disease, and their interpretations are usually devoted to telling us what our problem is and how to cure it. And all of this, oddly enough, without even knowing who we are. I have simply tried to show why this approach "tends not to edification."
I would like to thank Thomas Kasulis and the other participants of the 1997 NEH Summer Seminar on Zen Buddhism for pressing me to think hard about the doctrine of upaya. I am also grateful to Don Levi from the University of Oregon and Henry Rosemont, Jr., from St. Mary's College of Maryland for their helpful comments and suggestions.
Cheng, Hsueh-li. 1982. Twelve Gate Treatise. Boston: D. Reidel.