When the notions of real and unreal
Are absent from before the mind,
There is no other possibility,
But to rest in total peace, beyond concepts.
~ Bodhicaryāvatāra, IX, 34
(Chapter 9, verse 34 of Shantideva’s Way Of The Bodhisattva)
Recently came across an interesting essay — Mysticism East and East: Comparing Sankara and Nagarjuna on Absolute Reality – which, as promised by the title, offers a comparison of Sankara’s Advaita and the Mahayana Buddhist views of Nagarjuna, in relation to Absolute Truth/Reality and phenomenal appearances. The essay was uploaded by Chris Lewis — a scholar affiliated with the University of Kent. One presumes this chap to also be the author, though this wasn’t made entirely clear.
My sense is that Mr. Lewis’s grasp of Sankara is more complete than is his understanding of Nagarjuna. Nevertheless, his intentions are noble, and the essay is – imo – well worth a read. As a preamble, however, I’d suggest assuming Patrul Rinpoche’s Clarifying the Two Truths to be a more precise and authoritative presentation of Nagarjuna’s views on Absolute Reality.
Nagarjuna & Sankara
So then, who are the main players in this hypothetical conversation? Nagarjuna was an Indian Mahayana Buddhist philosopher-sage who lived in the 2nd century BCE, and is known primarily for his Madhyamaka (middle-way) teachings, and for developing the Prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) Sutras. His name refers to the “nagas” (Sanskrit: serpent) — half-human, half-serpentine semi-divine water creatures from whom (as the story goes) he received the Prajnaparamita teachings.
Sankara was an Indian Advaita Vedanta philosopher-sage who lived in the 8th and 9th centuries CE – i.e. nearly a thousand years after Nagarjuna. Sankara was a bit of a “boy wonder” – entering into and winning philosophical debates, and teaching widely, from a very young age. (He died at the age of 32.) Sankara has also been accused (then and now) of being a clandestine Buddhist: of incorporating large swaths of Buddha-dharma into his own philosophical system, all the while maintaining his outward identity as a staunch proponent of Advaita Vedanta. Who knows?
Paradoxes & Sticking-Points
In upcoming posts, we’ll explore in a bit more depth three specific issues posed by Mr. Lewis in his essay:
1. The relationship between maya (the world arising as illusion) as used within Advaita; and pratityasamutpada (dependent origination) as used within Mahayana Buddhism.
2. The issue of whether or not illusion/ignorance is real, or itself an illusion:
Sankara is burdened with the problem of whether one’s nescience of the phenomenal world is itself an illusion: ‘If this avidya is a real entity, then monism ends. On the other hand, to say that it is an imaginary entity is to destroy the very doctrine of avidya. As Descartes could not doubt that he doubted, so the Kevaladvaitins could not find illusion itself to be an illusion.’ In other words if the unenlightened person’s nescience about the phenomenal world is not itself an illusion, then reality is no longer non-dual since it contains nescience within it; however if it is an illusion, theoretically the world must be real since what was at first thought to be nescience is an illusion.
3. The relationship between the atman of Advaita, and the anatta (no-self) of Buddhism:
Nagarjuna’s view is that any conception of an existing essence commits the fallacy of eternalism, and this of course includes the concept of atman. If one is to achieve nirvana, then inherent impressions of “I” or “mine” must cease to be attached to. However, a denial of atman is illogical to Sankara since the one denying the existence of it is atman itself: ‘Does the one who would deny the Self exist or not? If he exists, he is himself the Self; if he does not exist then the denial is not possible.
To be continued ….