Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Upaya: Praxis makes perfect

Following on from the brief notes on Buddhist wisdom I made the other day, here is a useful article - http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/ew103934.htm - to remind me, and anyone reading, of the spirit of upaya in which the Buddha taught, and the spirit in which I want my blog to progress. I've worked through a lot of the abstractions now and want to get to some specifics at some point. Anyway, here is the conclusion from Schroeder's essay, an essay in which he has criticised Buddhologists who are prone to metaphysical abstraction and analysis:

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: The dialectic, then, as the Sunyata of drstis, is the negation of standpoints, which are the initial negation of the real that is essentially indeterminate. Correctly understood, Sunyata is not annihilation, but the negation of negation; it is the conscious correction of an initial unconscious falsification of the real. (Murti 1955, p. 271) 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: Recognition of the strictly contextual or pragmatic significance of the thoughts and objects that populate our mental and material world renders meaningless any search for a transcendental ground behind these phenomena . . . .What is immediately given in everyday experience is indeed all that there is, for the inherently interdependent nature of the components of this experience is the truth of the highest meaning: both the means to the goal (marga; upaya) and the goal itself (nirvana). (Huntington 1989, p. 40)

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: Reification is the root of grasping and craving and hence of all suffering. And it is perfectly natural, despite its incoherence. Nagarjuna intends one to break this habit and extirpate the root of suffering. . . Only with the simultaneous realization of the emptiness, but conventional reality, of phenomena and of the emptiness of emptiness, argues Nagarjuna, can suffering be wholly uprooted. (Garfield 1995, p. 314) 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 up, 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."

(John Schroeder, Nagarjuna and the doctrine of "skillful means", 2000)

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