A plea for (conventional) "realism"

Over several threads on this forum over the last year or so I have prosecuted several interrelated theses that in hindsight appear to me much more interrelated and particular than I was able to recognise at the time.

To put it bluntly I have realised that my position with regard to the secular academic question of the situation with regard to the earliest discernable argument put forth that appears distinctly “buddhist” is broadly a mahayana orthodox and therevada heterodox position.

This has come as a shock to me as apart from early ramblings with D T Suzuki and Christmas Humphries and an inability to ever get past the first paragraph of either my Conze or my Vimalikirti, I really knew almost nothing about mahayana and all my really deep and thorough reading had been with Walshe and Nanamoli and Bodhi (and access to insight, and thanissaro and @sujato etc.

that contemporary therevada is a “late antique” school of thought preserving a canon of literature that is ancient turns out not to really provide the school with any evidence in support of their putative metaphysics developed commentarially.

conversely the correct assessment of the strata of these texts overwhelmingly supports the notion that the philosophical argument in the ebt canon is precisely the philosophy of the undeclarable and not the philosophy of, for want of a better term (as this is not what the term means in the ebt), “anatta”.

This personal discovery, on my part, of nagarjunas reading of the ebt canon, is um, well, sort of destabilising my understanding of myself in a positive way I guess :slight_smile:

But it also alienates me from the professed views of some of the people I respect and value most here on the forum.

I earnestly hope that we can robustly and constructively discuss the implications of my position without animosity of hurt.

So to recap my coming out:

I now hold the view that the threevada school lost the original teachings of the buddha in that they failed to correctly interpret the abyakata and the mahayana movement, at least that part of it that “nagarjuna as mmk” is the locus of, has more or less the right idea with regards to the interpretation of the ebt canonical abayakata.

all of sunyata anatta etc is at best a special case or class of cases of the abyakata and not an explination of it nor the underwriter of it’s philosophical power.

it is also based on demonstrably later material (of course IMHO).

My plea for conventional realism is therefore twofold, first, that the buddha revealed a path to the resolution of all (in the sense of any) concepts, and second that nagarjuna better represents the historical argument of the Buddha than the therevada canon-with commentary does.

that there is a realistic historical picture by which this may be the case is my first appeal to conventional realism, i.e, that it is not totally unrealistic to be of the mind; "yes the threvada preserves a fairly conservative canon, nevertheless on the balance it appears that their interpretation of that canon is an early example of a narrowing and scholasticising of the teaching in a way that does not necessarily do it full justice. Nagarjuna is the emblem of this being pointed out, to the proto therevada by the proto mahayana.

it may not be true but its not impossible, thats what I am saying, its a “realistic” picture of a possible history of the flow of ideas.

The second pleas for conventional realism is more or less to speak against the anxiety that “by that logic anything is true” or “by that logic space and time aren’t real and nothing matters” etc.

That is not as I see it either the ebt position or nagarjuna on the abayakata; no particular positive thesis is made about concepts/objects/etc other than that they cannot fundamentally be eternal, non existent, all or none of the universe, etc etc, otherwise it would not be possible to point to relations of the sort, “without the action the consequence could not be” which we do in fact observe.

so an absolutist “logic” is rejected while a “modest” logic (of dependant types IMHO) is shown to be able to explain all that is necessary for liberation, without appeal to anything undeclared or undeclarable.

This then is my second realist claim, that it is not unrealistic to impute to the historical buddha and amazingly sophisticated and elegant and sublime metaphysical stance (or non-stance) that practically no one in secular western scholarship will accept as being even possible until Nagarjuna at the beginning of the common era.

If this picture is right then it really is the case that the Buddha invented Mahayana Buddhism and Nagarjuna merely pointed it out.

I am going to call the person who invented Therevada Buddhism Sariputta, not to indicate the chief disciple but more to gesture at what I take to be his lineage.

more to come.

While I don’t know exactly who you’re referring to and their views, I think mostly you’re veering towards a rejection of the Theravāda Abhidhamma… which is probably the mainline view of the “Early Buddhists” on this forum :blush:

As I wrote about previously, I read the MMK (and much of the early Prajnaparamita literature) as being a parody of the scholastic excesses of the Abhidhammikas

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You’re probably right @Khemarato.bhikkhu !! I am prone to hyperbole and not really sure about the exact contents of my thesis sans my straw man nagarjuna and my straw man sariputta, and I certainly do not consider myself qualified to comment on either the abbhidhamma or the commentarial position except by infrence from hearsay, I would affirm that even in the sutta portion of the pali there is evidence, especcially in SN, of a pattern of losing jhana kamma abayakata and replacing it with aggregates anatta sati type buddhism and this is abundantly confirmed by cross examination with teh chinese where many “anatta” points are given as “neither the same nor different nor otherwise”.

I think the argument that it is the chinese portion of this common core that got it wrong is not born out by the evidence.

taking as ones “common core” those texts which are

  1. spoken by the Buddha
  2. before a specific public audience
  3. occurring in the same canonical collection in both chinese and pali

Then anatta … sati practically disappears outside of S.
and abayakata …jhana appears uniformly across D M S and E.
while the converse is only true of S.

This lines up neatly with an interpretation of the abayakata that is more like parmenedies and zeno and less like isaac and abraham (or plato and aristotle).

Nagarjunas exposition, as well as independantly the exposition in the common core minus S, gives the same philosophical account and disposes of “selves” or “agents” or “beings” in the exact same way as “others” and “actions” and “death”.

In truth apart from an oft qouted but daft Buddhaghossa claim about an action but no actor found, some late antique poetic frills about fictions, and a contested on the page argument about channas anxiety about sabbe dhamma anatta, all in S, there is just nothing in the coomon core of DMSE and certainly nothing in the original common core of the core, that is DME, that supports the radical reading of S as defending a metaphysics of real and unreal causes of distress etc.

MMK therefore reads DME correctly whereas the (IMO proto sectarian) position of S as read by the abbhidhamma/commentarial/popular? tradition missreads, via thier over-reliance on a radical take on S, the meaning of DME as being “about” S (i.e aggregates, anatta, sati, etc.)

Really S is the proto-abbhidhamma project, the matika project or whatever, and the abbhidhammas are all well and truly post sectarian. But S captures fascinating things about the short term evolution of doctrine as it diverges north south.

Where S is salvageable is basically everywhere, especially if the chinese is allowed to act as a corrective to the scholastic tendencies of the pali and the pali as a corrective to the discrepancies in the chinese.

but the evidence is that abayakata buddhism, eloquently summarised in MMK, is the earliest buddhism that we can reach philosophically.

and the ebt should therefore be read DMSE in order of “significance”, just as warder has argued was the mainline pan sectarian position throughout the golden age of buddhism.

Thats obviously still a lot but if one needs a convenient summary of the basic argument, nagarjuna is a good place to start, and wherever he leaves you scratching your head there are a few handy suttas that collectively completely explain and support and expand and clarify his arguments in a range of settings in the ebt. links to follow.

Theravāda did do that. It was called the Abhayagiri Vihāra. Ven. Nāgārjuna’s disciple, Ven. Āryadeva, was from Sri Lanka and so was possibly from this school.

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It also looks like a rejection of those EBT folk who think the aggregates or other things are real. Besides you can still accept the Abhidhamma if you accept the MMK. You just use it conventionally. I read somewhere that Ven. Chandrakirti made this point.

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Mahāyāna is much more than the MMK. It’s also to do with Bodhisattva’s and other ideas. You can accept Ven. Nāgārjuna’s arguments without being a Mahāyānist. I believe the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra even says it’s for both Bodhisattvas and Śrāvakas.


The original teachings of the Buddha are essentially found in the major collection of the “Samyutta/Samyukta-discourses” (saṃyukta-kathā 相應教), according to Ven. YinShun.

I should note here that there are various interpretations of Nagarjuna within Mahayana philosophy.

First, in India, Bhavaviveka and Candrakirti had somewhat different views on things. Candrakirti had a much more anti-realist way of seeing Nagarjuna, Bhavaviveka had a more “conventionalist realism” kind of view.

Today, Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is generally also divided like this. The Gelug school (of the Dalai Lama) are generally conventionalist realists (things are empty but they have causal efficacy and ‘exist’ in a relative sense), but the other schools are much more anti-realist - the world is a complete illusion for them, equivalent to a dream, nothing is real (even nirvana).

Furthermore, there were interpretations of Nagarjuna which favored an idealist reading. This is because some passages in Nagarjuna point to this. This was found in India among thinkers like Ratnākaraśānti (plugging a wiki page I made recently :stuck_out_tongue: ), a great gate scholar at Vikramashila. Similar idealistic leaning interpretations might be found in East Asian Buddhist readings of Madhyamaka, by people like Fazang.

Anyways, this just goes to show there are many ways of reading Nagarjuna.

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Of course there are many schools of interpretation of nagarjuna, and I am woefully ignorant of most of them. However if any of those schools make of nagarjuna in mmk a positive philosopher in the sense of interpreting him as telling us what thenworld is “really” like i think overstates the argument and makes of nagarjuna precicely what nagarjuna wanted to argue against.

Saying that behind phenomena there are ideals, or fictions, or whatever is exactly what nagarjuna and the buddha say one is not warrented in asserting.

However, leaving aside what is behind the curtain, we can observe that relations of the form:

Where there are Xs there must by Ys
Xs depend on Ys
Without Ys there cannot be Xs

This completely avoids the need to say of either xs or ys that they are real, fictional, eternal, momentary etc.

That is the brilliance of it, it permits conceptual resolution without recorse to metaphysics that makes claims about what is “behind” or “underneath” the appearances.