Evolutionary Learning

Through the readings on emptiness, our discussions in class, in particular a comment made by a student in class today (4/4/15), and reading the other blog posts it seems that the ultimate and final criticism of Nagarjuna’s theory is that to evaluate the ultimate truth, one must look at it through the lens of the conventional truth. Personally however, I found this critique of Nagarjuna’s logic to actually do the opposite, to clarify his idea rather than detract from it through the Buddhist tradition of evolutionary learning.

To define emptiness as empty as Nagarjuna does in Nagarjuna’s Mulamadkai, he is cementing his declaration that there is no substratum of reality (27). This acceptance of emptiness as yet another form of conceptual unreality is his greatest final declaration. He states that emptiness is subject, like everything else, to interconnectedness, and thereby confirms that there is in actuality no ultimate truth. Nagarjuna turns around and attacks the very belief he tries to relay throughout his entire argument. It is this final attack, on his very own argument that in essence proves the truth of emptiness. Only he, this great Buddhist monk who has claimed to possess these higher skills of interpretation of the Buddha’s words, can form a theory of reality that in and of itself is not real, and that that non-reality be truth. He leaves us to contemplate both the concept of two truths while also accepting that one of the truths; the ultimate truth does not really exist.

This evolutionary process of thought really reminded me of the science class example the professor gave in class. Hoping to explain some of the evolutionary teachings of the Buddha, she said that he gave his teachings in doses. He felt that there needed to be a process of learning for his followers, to begin with simpler concepts that eventually evolved into more complex ways of thinking. Many times however, the later concept would seem to contradict the earlier and to explain this the professor gave the example of science class.

She explained that just as in the Buddhist teachings, western education is built off of these evolutionary stages of learning. That in 8th grade science class we may learn that atoms are the most indivisible matter of life, but then in 9th grade we will be told that in actuality atoms are made up of even tinier things called electrons, protons and neutrons. While it may seem that what we learned in 8th grade is being contradicted by what we’ve then been told in the 9th, they are both true at the time we are learning them. Even more significantly they are true for the level of intelligence and comprehension we are expected to have at that time. While there are no large temporal separations in Nagarjuna’s explanations, I still think that he is clearly applying this same evolutionary logic to his teachings on emptiness. Therefore while others may feel that they contradict one another, they are in actuality building off of one another.

Works Cited:

Garfield, J. L. (2009). Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way) Chapter 24: Examination of the Four Noble Truths. Buddhist Philosophy: Essential readings (pp. 26). Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press.

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