Thanks for the comments, gently and insightfuly put as always!
May I first say that, so far as I have studied them, I don’t really have a problem with either Nagarjuna or Vasubandhu, at least as expressed in their main theses, which are all that I have read. I find them to be challenging and interesting philosophers, whose take on Dhamma makes me go back and reconsider what I thought I knew. And that is a good thing.
My own perspective on them was shaped by my reading of David Kalupahana, who argued that they, together with a number of other texts and teachers in later Buddhism, were best considered as philosophers intent on drawing out the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings, rather than as exponents of a school. That is to say, the tenets of the developed school to which they are usually attached are often read into their works, or evolved from them, rather than being their own ideas.
It has been some time since I read Kalupahana and these works, so I cannot be too specific here. But to give just one example of this. You refer to Cittamātra. I don’t know what your take is on this, but it is usually understood to mean “mind only”. This is, for a start, dubious on linguistic grounds, for mātra in such contexts usually means “mere” not “only”; the root of the term is to measure or limit. Moreover, the decisive term in Vasubandhu’s treatise is vijñaptimātra, not cittamātra.
Now, vijñapti is a causative form, equivalent to viññatti in Pali. So the meaning of this term is not “mind-only” but “mere makings of consciousness”. In other words, it is not that mind is the only thing that exists in the world, but that mind is the primary force that shapes experience. And this in turn, is coming very close in meaning to manomayā, “mind-made”, the famous phrase from the Dhammapada that you quoted.
Close, but not identical. The difference here is that the Dhammapada verse is ethical, not ontological. It is saying that our choices have effects. This is the difference between mano, which usually deals with the intentional aspect of mind, and viññāṇa, which deals with awareness. But it seems to me that, seen in this way, this difference is not an irreconcilable philosophical opposition, but a shift in emphasis.
In any case, I really don’t have enough understanding of the various schools and so on to deal with this in depth. But it does seem to me that Kalupahana’s approach allows for a more nuanced and compassionate reading of Buddhist history. Instead of seeing everyone as exponents of a school, we can see that at least some—and often this is the most exceptional—while they may be influenced by their social or philosophical context, are not bound by the orthodoxy of a school, but are insightful and provocative commentators on the Dhamma, and hence on our shared experience of suffering.
To come back to the basic issue. As far as my own philosophical perspective goes, and how I see the suttas, I would argue that the suttas reject both “naive realism” and “idealism”. That is to say, they do not accept that the world really exists objectively, independent of the observer, which is the position usually attributed to both Theravada and, in a different way, modern materialism; the difference being, of course, that for materialists this objective existence is purely material, whereas for Theravada the mind also exists objectively. But they also reject the idealist view that there is no outside world, but all there is is the projection of the mind.
Like, I think, Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu, the suttas often occupy a dialectical space. But whereas those philosophers are in a discussion with other contemporary Buddhists, the suttas depict the Buddha in discussion with non-Buddhists, who themselves might lean to the naive realist side (Jains, etc.) or the idealist side (Upanishadic brahmanism).
Nagarjuna famously said that emptiness was nothing more than dependent origination. In this, he was quoting directly from a Sarvastivādin Agama sutra, from the Samyuktāgama. Thus the point of his dialectic was not to deny the reality of the world, but to clear away misconceptions that obscured the Dhamma.
And I think this points to a fundamentally important aspect of the Buddha’s teachings. By rejecting naive realism and idealism, the Buddha is not rejecting knowledge or reality. Rather, he pointed to a more powerful, meaningful, accurate, and ultimately liberating view of reality: dependent origination. Rather than seeing the world as essentially objective or essentially objective, it is a relation.
This is based, not on philosophical reasoning, but on experience. Experience is a relation: “dependent on the eye and forms arises eye consciousness, the coming together of the three is contact …” The primary experience is the relation, the mess of complexity, of things dependent on each other. Notions such as “subject” and “object” are later abstractions. they are attempts to make sense of this, to draw out different aspects of this experience so we can gain some clarity and understanding.
Hopefully this helps explain my general approach to these matters. But as to the specifics you raise:
As far as rūpa goes, the problem here is that matter is read in the west as absolutely objective. But this sense is clearly not intended by the Indic term. Regardless of one’s position in the philosophical issues, it is obviously the case that Indic philosophies generally, and Buddhism in particular, have more of a subjective emphasis than western materialism. So the point here is not to take a position on the specific philosophy, but to accurately represent an important term in its context.
As I noted above, I don’t have any problem with either of these, to the limited extent that I understand their work. I’m a little puzzled why you would think I had critiqued Nagarjuna, as I can’t recall doing so. Perhaps there is a misunderstanding here?
Could you explain some what you’re referring to here? I’m not really sure.
Such laws in Buddhism are best seen as upādāya paññatti, a “derived description” or “inferred expression”.
Things behave in a certain way. Life goes on. People die. Things we love disappear.
Things are like this now. They were like this in the past. And they will be like this in the future.
From this, we can derive a general principle that describes this situation. And that’s an upādāya paññatti. But it does not refer to anything that somehow “exists” in some ill-defined metaphysical space. Rather, it is simply a description of things that remains true no matter when and where it is uttered.
(For what it’s worth, I believe that the scientific laws, causality, time, and mathematics, etc. are other examples of upādāya paññatti.)
Indeed. Nagarjuna’s quote refers to the bhāvāḥ, which is clearly a reference to the Abhidhammic svabhāva, and I agree completely.