Embarrassingly enough for a religion major who studied ancient Greek once upon a time and who should perhaps have known or been able to parse it already, I have learned a new word in the course of our readings: soteriological, meaning related to salvation, as in: “the three-nature theory in the MSA/Bh should not be interpreted as an ontological model simpliciter, but as a soteriologico-ontological model, identifying three progressive stages of ontological realization, culminating in the perfected, non-conceptually-constructing awareness of thusness” (D’Amato, 185). (Obviously, replacing “salvation” with “enlightenment” is a somewhat ham-fisted move, but for the purposes of D’Amato, Garfield et al., it seems logical.)
Yogacara is, after all, a yoga and by its nature rooted in praxis. It examines the nature of truth, including through the three-nature theory, not merely for its own sake but as part of a guiding project towards enlightenment. Madhyamaka, on the other hand, has built into it a fundamental gap between comprehending and fully comprehending emptiness; I’m thinking here of Professor Kassor’s example about being able to describe versus knowing experientially how to ride a bicycle. At least in my understanding, to attain enlightenment is to attain the experience, not just the theoretical knowledge, of all phenomena as essence-less—to learn how to ride the bike.
If we wish to push the metaphor further, we can say that the way to learn to ride a bike is to practice. Yet madhyamaka texts such as the Mulamadhyamakakarika seem to offer more descriptions of the phenomenology of bike-riding than training wheels, let alone advice on how to practice. What does it mean for a theory to be “soteriologico-ontological”—not just a description of the nature of being, but a description of the nature of being for the purpose of attaining enlightenment? Does it mean that compared to the philosophy of emptiness, coming to a fuller understanding of the three natures helps you to grasp specific aspects of riding the bike?
I want to comprehend that phenomena are without essence. No matter what troubles I have detaching from essentialism, I want to root them out. Madhyamaka is beautiful to me, elegant in the way that it makes no compromises—absolutely nothing that exists exists independently, not even the mind. (I don’t believe this makes me a nihilist, but I wouldn’t be too torn up if it did; there are worse things to be.) But where does madhyamaka give me a place to start?
Yogacara’s theory of three natures—the imagined, the dependent, and the perfected—breaks down madhyamaka’s sweeping declaration of interdependence and complicates it. This nuance serves as training wheels rather than demanding that I get on and start riding immediately, already knowing instinctively how not to fall over. The only problem is that keeping the mind intact as essential might mean render the goal of enlightenment completely different. Is yogacara training for some mode of transport that isn’t a bike at all?