Dialectics in Mādhyamaka Buddhism and What It Can Train Worldwide Relations

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This text is a part of the Buddhism and Worldwide Relations article collection, edited by Raghav Dua. The collection goals to ignite a real curiosity in how Buddhist philosophy and practices can and do intersect with, and affect, varied aspects of worldwide relations.

There’s a wealthy custom of dialectics throughout the many faculties of Buddhist philosophy. While it’s unattainable to cowl the richness of all these types of evaluation and debate, the Mādhyamaka college (or the ‘Center-Manner’) resonates strongly with the pursuits of IR due to its distinctive account of relations that stem, largely, from its use of dialectical evaluation. Detrimental dialectics stays the hallmark of the Center-Manner as conceived by Nāgārjuna across the 2nd Century, and even as we speak the 14th Dalai Lama is kind of open in his favour towards dialectical pondering (Central Tibetan Administration, 2010).  The Gelugpa College in Tibet continues its centuries-old dialectical apply as a technique to combine analytical reasoning alongside sutra, tantra, and yogic practices with dialectics as one of many 5 fundamental curriculum matters in Geluk monastic establishments (Duckworth, 2022). Despite the fact that this typically tends to scholasticism, the objective, then as now, is for pondering to not fall into both facet of substantialism/eternalism (the view of an unchanging self and everlasting/causeless creator – or the assumption in Being) or nihilism (that there’s nothing and no continuity – or the assumption in Non-Being) (see Institute Of Buddhist Dialectics, 2013).

In an earlier article on this collection, Lengthy (2023) has proven how the Buddhist ontology of a radically interdependent and impermanent world provides a really totally different mind-set by ourselves and IR. On this brief article, I’ll complement this method, aiming to indicate how dialectics in Mādhyamaka pushes our pondering to transcend the ‘common-sensical’ look of the article/topic as separate, impartial, static, and to interchange this with situations and relations as inherent to all issues. Particularly, I’ll concentrate on Nāgārjuna’s dialectical methodology, its scepticism, its emphasis on negation, and the way it in the end deepened the Buddhist conceptualization of Śūnyatā (‘Vacancy’) and Pratītyasamutpāda (‘Dependent Origination’ or what I favor to name ‘Interdependent Co-arising’ as this higher captures its relational content material) resulting in a profound notion of relations inside our phenomenal world – for an in depth dialogue see Brincat (2020). I conclude by displaying that this cosmology of deep relationalism has profound implications for the way we will consider the ‘We’ – the ‘cosmopolis’ and the ‘earth’– in IR as we speak.

Dialectics in Mādhyamaka

Nāgārjuna (conventionally positioned between 150–250 CE) is extensively seen because the founding father of the Mādhyamaka custom and one of many best of all Japanese philosophers (see Westhoff, 2009). Within the milieu of Indian society throughout this time, intense metaphysical debate revolved across the nature of actuality. The Buddhist custom refuted the substantialist/eternalist viewpoint and dualism or non-dualism, as an alternative positing Śūnyatā (Vacancy) as co-terminous with Pratītyasamutpāda (Interdependent Co-arising). There are various variations of this concept of asmin sati idaṁ bhavati, maybe probably the most clear being: “That is, as a result of that’s. This isn’t, as a result of that’s not. This involves be, as a result of that involves be. This ceases to be, as a result of that ceases to be” (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1999, 221-222). This central instructing of Gautama Buddha was contemplated by Nāgārjuna within the MūlaMādhyamakakārikā (The Basic Verses of the Center Manner) (Nāgārjuna, 1996). He posited that phenomena don’t come up, stay, or stop as intrinsically existent however that every one dharmas (or ‘phenomena’) dependently originate upon all different dharmas. Emphasis is on using the phrase intrinsic right here – the Sanskrit time period svabhāva for one thing that’s deemed to be ‘self-becoming’ or have its ‘own-nature’ (i.e. disconnected and mono-causal). Gangadean defines svabhāva expansively as “the idea of atomicity” and “static consciousness” and he notes how a number of formal ideas are related to it together with “atomicity, independence, substance, being, existence, entity” (1979, 42).

In accordance with Nāgārjuna the exceptional world is in the end empty (Śūnyatā) of any such issues, whether or not an inherent self or essence or id – these exist solely in a standard sense as dependently on different phenomena (Pratītyasamutpāda) and our perceptions thereof. That is linked to the doctrine of the Two Truths in Mādhyamaka (to not be confused with dualism), that holds there are the final and the standard truths. The latter, is the world of empirical look, commonsense, and language; the previous, of enlightenment and analytical understanding. With out understanding the standard, the last word can’t be understood; and with out understanding the importance of the last word, liberation from samsāra (the cyclical world of rebirth) can’t be achieved (Nāgārjuna, 1996, 24: 8–10). This mind-set by ontology, cosmology, and being, is one through which relations and situations are in view, not nominalism and causation. Powering Nāgārjuna’s refutation of substantialist/eternalist standpoints is an underlying detrimental dialectical evaluation of the idea of Vacancy that he pursued by way of the query of what there’s not, slightly than what there’s. (Murti 1955, 7-9). I’ll strive to attract out components of Nāgārjuna’s dialectical methodology extra clearly as it might seem obscure for these in IR.

The sceptical perspective and ‘suspension of judgement’

Mādhyamaka maintains a sceptical perspective to information claims however an open disposition to studying as a dialogical course of with the real pursuit of fact as its goal. The dialectical methodology will not be about successful an argument however main to higher fact claims about issues that can not be demonstrated. It has been proven that there was contact and philosophical affect between Greek Pyrrhonian scepticism (outlined by its suspension of judgement) and early Buddhism with similarities of their dialectical system and modes of argumentation well-documented (McEvilley, 1982). Each dialectical approaches concentrate on the phrases and tenets utilized by the interlocutor, so debate is restricted to logical argument by the opponent – that is encapsulated in Nāgārjuna’s notoriously well-known however quixotic assertion: ‘I shouldn’t have any thesis’ [or judgement] (see Neale, 2014, 40). Nāgārjuna claims all through Vigrahavyāvartani (2005, XVIII) that he doesn’t negate something (within the sense of cancelling or annulling), for there’s nothing to be negated. That’s, as all issues are empty, there’s neither a factor to be negated nor a negation (2005: LXIII).

While some see Nāgārjuna as being smug or purely nihilistic right here, McEvilley (1982, 17) surmises that the true “objective and impact” of Nāgārjuna’s dialectic is for the suppression of perception in actual (intrinsic or svabhāva) entities or their absence and thus the pacification of conceptual proliferation that causes struggling. It’s believed that after we now not grasp at notions of actual or unreal entities – that’s, entities that possess svabhāva (‘own-being’ or ‘own-becoming’ or one thing ‘non-dependent’) – it could actually assist us obtain nirvana/liberation because it stills the thoughts from in search of final causes and immutable essences, or what Buddha referred to as issues past purpose (atakkāvacara) and ‘imponderable’ (avyākṛta) (Nāgārjuna, 2020,1.42). Now leaving apart the soteriological curiosity of Mādhyamaka in nirvana, what we will soak up IR is tips on how to suppose by the exceptional world that’s revealed by Mādhyamaka as filled with entities (topics and objects) that Interdependently co-arise by their relations. These should not separate, mounted, or atomised as they first seem to us (a view held uncritically by most mainstream IR theories).

Detrimental Dialectics – however by no means complete negation

So how does Nāgārjuna arrive at this relational ontology of the Center-Manner?  Right here it must be famous there’s appreciable debate on whether or not this must be learn as ontological or as rejecting ontology, and others who recommend the tactic offers with epistemology – far too massive a subject for this paper (see Jones, 2020). Nonetheless, given this gives perception into questions of the cosmos and what’s in it and out of it, I imagine the time period ontology is broadly relevant. The secret is the detrimental dialectical methodology, or the ‘double refutation’, which some have mentioned is the ‘Center Path’ in a methodological sense as a result of Nāgārjuna’s arguments all the time comprise the ‘double refutation’ – one denying the presence, one the absence of the probandum [the thing needing to be proved]. This process be certain that the 2 attainable solutions to a query, the assertion and the denial, are all the time lined (Liebenthal, 1948, 30).  Nāgārjuna’s method is to show the contradictions that come up when statements are made to id and intrinsic being, particularly pronounced in doctrines of substantialism/eternalism.

What Nāgārjuna does is to push such claims/tenets to their logical excessive to indicate their final absurdity – to negate them. For these causes, regressus advert infinitum is commonly invoked in Nāgārjuna’s detrimental dialectical course of (1996, I: 1, VII: 3; VV 32). This “damaging dialectics” is clearly Nāgārjuna’s favoured type, even a “monotonous methodology” in line with Robinson (1957, 292), that he always deploys to show these transgressions. One in every of Nāgārjuna’s most well-known traces of questioning is an exemplar of this course of, he requested: “How may Nirvana be each existent and non-existent? These can’t be in the identical place” (1996, 25.14). Just like Aristotelian dialectics, the hypothetical syllogism is Nāgārjuna’s principal type of inference however as a result of he “values brevity above formal completeness” he leaves out propositions of the inference if the reader can provide them from the context (Robinson, 1957, 297).

Nāgārjuna’s model of detrimental dialectics nonetheless resonates with the fashionable understanding of the time period. However whereas the fashionable referent is to a stressed type of pondering that doesn’t proceed or count on some transcendent floor or to search out fixity/stability in ideas (i.e. Adorno’s Detrimental Dialectics in which there’s all the time a the rest or the ‘non-identical’), Nāgārjuna examines the “extensional relations between phrases, between ideas and properties ascribed to them by definition” (Robinson, 1957, 293). Extra essential is the shared connection between Nāgārjuna’s detrimental dialectics and the fashionable variation in overcoming what we now name reification. Puhakka explains that is what Nāgārjuna means by needing us to awaken from the ‘spell’ of actuality (2003, 134-145) – which is a play on the long-recognised drawback in Buddhism of human sentience and its tendency to let our thoughts’s designation of topics/objects stand in for the true.

To paraphrase Puhakka, we aren’t usually conscious of ourselves after we take one thing ‘A’ as ‘actual’. Somewhat, the assumed actuality of ‘A’, “takes us” – it has us in its spell as quickly as we declare to concentrate on its id and repair upon this. Nonetheless, it’s unattainable to take ‘A’ to be actual with out, not less than momentarily, ignoring or denying that which it’s not (‘not-A’). So, this act – the act of our pondering after we conceptualise and maintain to the id of ‘A’ – essentially entails some extent of unconsciousness or lack of information. That’s, we ‘reify’. That is how the ‘spell works’ – it “takes us unawares” (Puhakka, 2003, 134-145). And we do it to ourselves. We do it after we summary an object/topic from its relations and situations and assume it has some intrinsic substance of its personal. Nāgārjuna argues that due to our reified, standard pondering many people naively understand issues as substantial or intrinsic. It’s this predisposition to delusion that lies on the foundation of all struggling. It must be famous that this ‘spell’ of reification over our thought is the exact same villain of ‘Verstand’ in Hegel’s Logic which his model of dialectics makes an attempt to beat too (Jameson, 2009, 82).

Nāgārjuna is targeted on exposing the limitation of purpose that transgresses this boundary and sneaks in claims that don’t maintain to scrutiny. McEvilley has proven there’s all the time a particular emphasis on the denial of partial id or the sameness-difference dichotomy right here in Nāgārjuna dialectics (McEvilley, 1982, 6). The Vigrahavyāvartani (2005) illustrates Nāgārjuna’s detrimental dialectical methodology virtually excessively and does so in a ‘question-answer’ format through which he replies to a collection of particular objections in opposition to his personal principle of Vacancy (Westerhoff, 2010). All the objections are uncovered as fallacies i.e. ‘statements that variously miss the goal’ and thus Nāgārjuna demonstrates the self-contradictory character of any such views (Murti, 1955, xvii).

The ‘four-cornered negation’

Going just a little deeper into this analytic, Nāgārjuna makes use of the well-known ‘four-cornered negation’ (the ‘Catuṣkoṭi’) as a part of his dialectical arsenal. The Catuṣkoṭi was a part of earlier Buddhist thought however Nāgārjuna additional developed it as an investigative software to assist perceive Vacancy. Nāgārjuna makes use of it to remove any attainable logical affirmation of both impartial causation or an impartial factor in-itself (i.e. one thing intrinsic, svabhāva). The method negates every of the 4 predicates: that A is neither B (being), nor not-B (non-being), nor each B and not-B (as each), nor neither B nor not-B (as neither). Any of the 4 theses, when pushed to their excessive by way of the method of ‘The Center-Path of Eightfold Negation’ (which is the Optimistic and Detrimental configurations of the Catuṣkoṭi thus making it ‘Eightfold’), is sublated. So, only for instance, if we strip away the layers from ‘Being’ just like the outer shells of a Babushka-doll, eradicating the relations and situations that embody it and compose it, we finally arrive at a degree of no intrinsic substance.

Reworked by way of this methodology, we will see how the last word declare of the MūlaMādhyamakakārikā (Nāgārjuna, 1996, 21.14) is the articulation of this contradiction that “He who posits an entity [svabhāva] turns into entangled in eternalism and nihilism, since that entity must be both everlasting or impermanent” (Robinson, 1957, 297). That is the conclusion that we will additionally learn into Verse 18 of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā concerning aggregates of the self (1996, I: V18): Nāgārjuna’s negation exposes how any such arguments in the end turn out to be self-contradictory: that if one assumes entities exist by themselves (as ‘self-becoming’ or that which develops ‘inside outwardly’), then they should be unconditioned and uncaused. As Robinson concludes, Nāgārjuna’s logic reveals that “Svabhāva is by definition the topic of contradictory ascriptions. If it exists, it should belong to an existent entity, which implies that it should be conditioned, depending on different entities, and possessed of causes. However a svabhāva is by definition unconditioned, not depending on different entities, and never brought on. Thus the existence of a svabhāva is unattainable” (1957, 300).

Extra essential than revealing this logical contradiction, nonetheless, is that the method of ‘Eightfold negation’ reveals Vacancy (Śūnyatā) because the ‘Ninth’ proposition or configuration of the Catuṣkoṭi. That is past conceptual thought to know – it’s what Dignāga would later name ‘apoha’, that’s, one thing that’s identified solely by exclusion. How we categorise a specific idea a couple of topic/object will not be a property inherent to that topic/object however the capability of that specific idea to have such an have an effect on on us or how we conventionally perceive that topic/object. That is the place the hazard of reification is available in as mentioned earlier. This additionally highlights the relativity behind Nāgārjuna’s method, a precept he ‘extols’ (Robinson, 1957, 292). Within the phrases of Nāgārjuna (1996, Verses 24.18 and 24.19):

We state that conditioned origination [Dependent Origination] is vacancy. It’s mere designation relying on one thing, and it’s the center path. Since nothing has arisen with out relying on one thing, there’s nothing that’s not empty.

Vacancy is in all and thus the exceptional world (Samsāra – the cyclical world) is Śūnyatā too. However Vacancy is neither transcendental, nor nihilistic, for there isn’t any distinction between absolutely the (because the inherent nature of every thing) and the exceptional (the standard, relative method, because it seems to us) (see Stcherbatsky, 1965, 45).

This does appear complicated, virtually round reasoning. And there’s the argument that that is in the end a self-defeating methodology, that Nāgārjuna’s arguments should even be in-themselves empty, and that his detrimental dialectics is solely damaging or worse sophistic. Associated to those criticisms is the view that Nāgārjuna’s ‘dialectical extremism’ is simply one other type of craving and attachment (see Kalupahana, 1969, 101-102). Such views are likely to the concept his dialectics is “uroboric” (it ‘eats itself’) resulting in nothingness/nihilism by first wiping out conceptual proliferation after which itself (see McElvey, 1982, 13). However this oversteps Nāgārjuna’s mark. For Nāgārjuna is intending to indicate that no conceptual system can maintain completely to the particular query of causation and substantialism/eternalism – that’s, any idea in regards to the ‘Is’ that refers solely to what exists by svabhāva (with its ‘own-nature’ or id as “everlasting, mounted, unproduced, unstopped, and unchanging”) should not sustainable (jones, 1978, 488-489). It doesn’t imply to refute all philosophical positions (see Robinson, 1972), nor end in a dogmatic scepticism or negation of all issues. As acknowledged by Garfield (1994), though this will likely appear unusual to Westerners (particularly these in IR), Nāgārjuna seeks to beat the “reified view of causality” – that is the pragmatic finish of his detrimental dialectic (Garfield, 1994, 238).

Considered on this mild, Nāgārjuna’s detrimental dialectics performs the operate of highlighting the reification of purpose that takes place when such mounted determinations of svabhāva are alleged or assumed. As Murti qualifies, “Negation will not be complete annulment however comprehension with out abstraction” (1955, 128). And as he continues in a while, what abstraction it exposes and removes is how: “By its faulty process dogmatic metaphysics [including substantialism/eternalism] wrongly understands the transcendent by way of the empirical modes; [and how it] it illegitimately extends, to the unconditioned, the classes of thought which are true inside phenomena alone” (Murti, 1955, 332). As such, the detrimental dialectical process essentially results in the suspension of judgment about non-evident beliefs as a result of it reveals their contradictory foundation – this contains issues things like dogma, reification, and absolutes in our pondering, but additionally issues like magic, miracles, and the supernatural in our metaphysical or perception techniques.

What does this imply for us? Vacancy as Relations

In Nāgārjuna we discover a extra full working by of a dialectical methodology that removes the topic/object distinction and thus abolishes any notion of an impartial, self-arising, particular person entity (Gullette, 1975). As expressed by Gangadean, with the popularity that ‘I’m not an independently current particular person, and that there aren’t any atomic particular person entities,’ then attachment to such entities ceases – or ought to do logically (Gangadean, 1979, 45). So, for Gangadean, Mādhyamaka provides a ‘transformational dialectic’ (1979, 22) which purports to maneuver consciousness past any of those false determinations of svabhāva to Śūnyatā, a view that every one the classes of existence are in some way metaphorically constructed. This of itself could be an enormous win for IR, serving to us to maneuver past any ontological theories constructed round nominalism – so every thing from Liberalism to Hobbes could be in query. However extra essential are the ontological commitments of the method to the standard world, i.e. the exceptional world, that’s revealed as one through which “to be an other-existent entity relies upon self-existent, and vice versa” (Gangadean, 1979, 43). This can be a radical place. Nāgārjuna claims that: “Any existence which is relational is certainly neither similar to nor totally different from the associated object” (1996, 18.10). On the one hand, this implies a relational ‘entity’ will not be an actual (svabhāva) entity, for if it had been, the classes of id and distinction would apply (however this isn’t to say it’s nothing, solely that it’s not intrinsic to itself). However, which means all phenomenal issues are proven to be relational: we’re neither similar to nor totally different from these issues to which we’re associated. The implications of such a philosophical and ontological place are enormous for it recasts as relations between ourselves and nature, in all area and time, as one.

The demystification or ‘dispelling’ that Nāgārjuna gives of svabhāva primes thought to go additional into how relations and dependence kind the situations of the exceptional world with none have to defer to fleeting moments of causation or metaphysical assumptions of id. Crucially, understanding relations and dependence as a course of is mentioned to be the ‘Center-Manner’ – the core of its doctrine by main Buddhist students like Garfield (2002, 84). By way of it, thought strikes from a static conception of causation (which is in the end illusory) to causal exercise inside and between relations of all issues. From this situation of inherent relationalism and dependency, springs the concept all issues are co-originary with one another, in the end impermanent, and in a means of steady change (flux).  Right here, saṅkhāra (the concept of formation by situations) turns into the lively time period for this concept of a conditioned, relational improvement as, ‘Interdependent Co-arising’. Our cosmos is revealed because the relations of ‘the-between’.


Relations have just lately turn out to be central to IR within the so-called ‘intersubjective flip’ as we start to have interaction with the questions of the ontological standing of actuality (Kessler, 2012, 253). Certainly, there have been makes an attempt to have interaction this query of substantialism and relationalism (Jackson & Heo, 2022) – albeit with out partaking with Mādhyamaka or dialectics. So let me conclude by drawing two slightly sharp implications from all this dense philosophy (there are a lot of others, however I’ll restrict myself right here).

Firstly, it undercuts all theories with a nominalist, atomised ontological basis. And there are a lot of of those in IR. For instance, when Liberalism or the Hobbesian mindset begins with nominalism as substance, underneath which people are devoid of relations inside neighborhood and/or nature, all of the political horrors that stem from that view – that we will exploit others and the ecosystem for revenue, that life with out authoritarian authorities could be ‘brutish and brief’ – are lastly seen to be rooted within the ‘spell’ of reification. Enchanted by their very own cognitive missteps by which they misunderstand actuality, their ideas and practices are caught. Dialectical pondering may also help get thought shifting once more.

Secondly, the dialectical method of Mādhyamaka gives insights into our international social life and its infinite relations. It’s extra than simply including reflexivity. It’s about the necessity to place relations as the elemental ontological class. On the one hand, this will result in enriching our conception of our cosmopolitan neighborhood as a result of relations are proven to be actually international in remit and in addition traditionally located. Right here its linkages to Dialectical Essential Realism are myriad (see Patomäki, 2002). On the opposite, it locations as central our relationships with nature (the cosmos) as a part of ourselves, and thus resonates with lots of the newly rising approaches in IR resembling social-ecology and the multispecies view (Fishel, 2023). 


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