How Are We Free?
Venkata Ramanan in Nagarjuna's Philosophy. This commentary, the Maha- prajnaparamita-sastra, was lost in its original Sanskrit and survives only in Chinese and Tibetan translation. Nagarjuna, who is regarded as the greatest Buddhist philosopher ever, founded Madhyamika philosophy, the philosophy of the Middle Way.
At the heart of the Middle Way is the concept of sunyata, perhaps Nagarjuna's single most important contribution to Buddhist thought.
The whole philosophy, in fact, can be viewed as different aspects of sunyata. As Ramanan says of his book, "the whole of the present work may be said to be an attempt to lay bare the different meanings of the central, the most basic concept, sunyata. For the purpose of clarity I have divided the following exposition into three parts: Ignorance Motivated by compassion, the wise teach sunyata as a remedy for suffering.
According to Madhyamika, the root of all suffering lies in the ignorance of clinging, the error of mistaking the relative for the absolute, the conditioned for the unconditioned. We take imagined separation as real, supposed division as given. By virtue of self- consciousness, we have an awareness of the unconditioned reflected in our conditioned nature, a sense of the real.
But under ignorance we do not discriminate between the unconditioned and conditioned, causing us to confuse them and take the relative as absolute. The most important instance of this error of misplaced absoluteness is with regard to our own selves: In this way there arises the false sense of "I" and the belief in an eternal soul as a particular entity.
This error "makes the individual unrelated to the organic, dynamic course of personal life and deprives the latter of all significance. The individual is then forever divided from and in conflict with the world.
Since this separation is taken as absolute, their relation is inconceivable and there is no hope for reconciliation: Following the pattern of this error which gives rise to the false sense of "I," the intellect then posits substantiality upon every object it finds.
It distinguishes objects and invents distinct names for them, then takes the apparent difference it has created as a real given. The parts, conceived as independent entities, are isolated from each other and the organic unity that relates them in harmony is lost. To complete the fall, the intellect mistakes its own relative views and conceptual systems as unlimited and absolute, putting it at war with itself.
For the dogmatic assertion of a single point of view necessarily excludes other views: Furthermore, every view, taken as exclusively true, ultimately ends in self-contradiction. Clinging to extremes, one is necessarily led to contradictions and dead ends.
Then we either swing from extreme to extreme or reject the whole enterprise of thought altogether, subjecting ourselves to self-exile in a philosophical wasteland.
But in both cases we are lead to our suffering by the same root-error. The error of misplaced absoluteness which is the root of all ignorance and suffering takes two general forms: The error with regard to the mundane truth is, as we have been discussing, to take the conditioned as unconditioned, to cling to the fragmentary as complete.
This error results in among other things dogmatic views and the false sense of self. Sunyata, as a remedy for this error with respect to the mundane, teaches the relativity of all things, the dependent arising of determinate entities. As mundane truth, sunyata means that all things are empty of inherent existence.
But if one were to take this understanding of the emptiness of things as itself absolute, this again would be clinging: This mistake is the error not with regard to the mundane nature of things but with regard to their ultimate nature.
It is to take the conditionedness of the conditioned as itself unconditioned. But "this would mean an absolute division between the conditioned and the unconditioned, the divided and the undivided, the permanent and the impermanent, and in this case the undivided would not be the truly undivided, as it would be divided from the divided.
Ultimately, even the division between the conditioned and the unconditioned is not absolute. Therefore we are not forever bound to our conditionedness because we, as conditioned entities, already are in our ultimate nature the unconditioned reality.
In short, there is an end to ignorance and suffering. Criticism Madhyamika philosophy is conceived in compassion, for its fundamental purpose is to liberate individuals from ignorance and suffering.
Through criticism one discriminates between the real and the unreal, cancels the confusion of the relative with the absolute, and ends ignorance and suffering through recognition of sunyata as truth.
The sense of the real is the basis for this cancellation. Just as the sense of the real leads to ignorance when misapplied, the sense of the real leads to knowledge when guided by criticism in light of sunyata. Without the sense of the real liberation would not be possible--but then neither would ignorance.
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