Student: “Is enlightenment attainable?”
Teacher: “Yes and no…”
Student: “Well, which one is it?”
Teacher: “And neither”
A few years ago a few of us had the opportunity to study Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika, or Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, with Professor Lara Braitstein. Nagarjuna’s MMK, a we affectionately call it, is a key text of the Madhyamaka, Middle Way, school.
According to Madhyamaka all phenomena are empty of “substance” or “essence” because they are dependently co-arisen. Likewise it is because they are dependently co-arisen that they have no intrinsic, independent reality of their own.
Lawrence and I recently attended teachings on the Heart Sutra with Khenpo Migmar Tseten, a Sakya lama. Khenpo Migmar recommended a text written by Gorampa Sonam Senge, a Sakya scholar. The book is entitled, “Freedom from Extremes: Gorampa’s “Distinguishing the Views” and the Polemics of Emptiness – by Jose Ignacio Cabezon and Geshe Lobsang Dargyay.
Here is review of the book by Lawrence:
As the translator explained in the introduction, this is a polemic work against Tsongkhapa’s view of (Prasangika) Madhyamaka. So, Gorampa spent a lot of time explaining the differences (e.g. using 1 corner of Catuskoti vs all 4 corners, a direct negation on “emptiness” would not work). I would say this book provides a much clearer explanation of (Prasangika) Madhyamaka than any other book that I’ve ever read since most of the other books/articles keep on providing their own view without “distinguishing” them with other (Buddhist) views.
I guess this is what Nagarjuna (and to a certain extent, the Buddhist debating tradition) was trying to do in Mulamadhyamakakarika (MMK). However, I don’t know which school a certain stanza in MMK was trying to rebuff. Maybe those schools are disappeared. So, we lost of “the context” in which Nagarjuna’s arguments in MMK was based-on (Well, some reference was saying that Nagarjuna was against Sarvastivada school. However, I would say we under-appreciate Nagarjuna’s scope in MMK if he was only against Sarvastivada school). In this book, “Freedom from Extremes”, we are really clear that the target is “The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment” by Tsongkhapa. So, we can easily access the arguments from both side and make our judgement.
From Wikipedia: Catuskoti
A typical piece of Buddhist dialectical apparatus is the …(catuskoti). It consists of four members in a relation of exclusive disjunction (“one of, but not more than one of, ‘a,’ ‘b,’ ‘c,’ ‘d,’ is true”). Buddhist dialecticians, from Gautama onward, have negated each of the alternatives, and thus have negated the entire proposition. As these alternatives were supposedly exhaustive, their exhaustive negation has been termed “pure negation” and has been taken as evidence for the claim that Madhyamika is negativism
“Whatever is dependent arising
We declared that to be emptiness.
That is dependent designation,
And is itself the middle way.”
– Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamakakarika