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Last week I attended an interesting talk by Harvard PhD candidate (and fellow Canuck) Rory Lindsay, through the graduate Workshop in Cross-Cultural Philosophy – a workshop I’m proud to have played a part in founding (and I’m happy to say that its current leaders have made it exponentially more successful than it ever was under my stewardship). Lindsay was exploring the skepticism of the Indian Buddhist thinker Candrakīrti; he compared Candrakīrti to the Hellenistic capital-S Skeptic Sextus Empiricus, who held similar views, and examined the arguments made against Sextus by Myles Burnyeat. I want to discuss Lindsay’s talk by first giving some background to it, then recounting it, and finally offering a few of my reflections that came out of it.

Lindsay’s talk – I hope I will be interpreting it correctly – delved far enough into the technical details of Buddhist theoretical debates that some introductory remarks are in order. Those familiar with these debates should feel free to skip down a couple of paragraphs. Buddhist teaching deliberately and thoughtfully attacks certain aspects of common sense and common linguistic usage, and yet nevertheless needs to make some use of that linguistic usage. This point is most universally applicable to the existence of the self, which most Buddhists deny – and yet, from the historical Buddha onward, nevertheless refer to (“I tell you there is no self.”) So Buddhists nearly always accept some idea of “two truths”: an ultimate (saṃvṛti or paramārtha) truth, according to which there is no self, and a conventional (vyavahārika) truth according to which there is a self. The conventional truth is not truth in the strictest sense; it is a teaching device employed for pragmatic purposes, because nobody would get to the ultimate truth if not through the conventional. (I have not yet discussed this distinction in a blog post, but it has come up a number of times in comment discussions, most notably on this post.)

Where Buddhists have their greatest disagreements is on the nature of the ultimate truth. The earliest Buddhist philosophers, the composers of the Abhidhamma, took it merely as atomism and reductionism: at the conventional level we can speak of a self, but ultimately the self is nothing more than its mental and physical component parts. Those parts, however, are real and can all be spoken of in language without serious difficulty. It was this latter view that was challenged by Nāgārjuna and the Madhyamaka school: here, even the atoms and components are unreal, and the ultimate reality is at some level ineffable, inexpressible. (I had some comparative thoughts on the transition from Abhidhamma to Madhyamaka here.)

The Tibetans divided the Madhyamaka school further than this. How radical, they asked, was Nāgārjuna’s skepticism? They distinguished a moderate skepticism associated with Bhāvaviveka (a thinker who goes by several names) and the Svātantrika school, and a more radical skepticism associated with Candrakīrti and his Prāsaṅgika school. (The “Svātantrika” and “Prāsaṅgika” names were a later, retroactive invention of Tibetan commentators, who also identified Śāntideva as a Prāsaṅgika; they remain the object of some dispute among Western scholars today.) Bhāvaviveka argued that there were at least two kinds of ultimate truth (and therefore, effectively, at least three truths): a transcendent (lokottara) truth free of concepts, and a “pure but worldly” (suddhalaukika) truth that could be expressed in concepts but was nevertheless true. Candrakīrti denied the existence of this “pure but worldly” truth – the real truth, the truth that was not merely a pragmatic means of teaching, could not be expressed in words. (On this he quotes Nāgārjuna: “If I had any position, then I would have a flaw [in my argument]. But I have no position; therefore I have no flaw at all.”)

To return to Lindsay’s talk: his tentative conclusion, as I understand it, was that Burnyeat’s criticisms of Sextus Empiricus apply to Candrakīrti and the Prāsaṅgikas, but perhaps not to Bhāvaviveka and the Svātantrikas. Sextus (according to Burnyeat) had argued that to achieve mental tranquility (ataraxia), one must banish all beliefs from one’s mind – a claim with remarkable parallels to Śāntideva’s in Bodhicaryāvatāra IX.34: “When neither an entity nor a nonentity remain before thought, then thought, with no object, is pacified because it has no other destination.” (Tibetan hagiographies held this verse in very high esteem – they said that as Śāntideva recited it, he floated up into the air and disappeared, so that the rest of the text was read by a disembodied voice.)

In his chapter “Can the sceptic live his scepticism?”, Burnyeat argues that in order for the Skeptic to genuinely attain the peace of mind he seeks, he must actually hold such a belief, and be satisfied with it – which is contrary to the view that all beliefs must be banished. Lindsay was largely persuaded by Burnyeat’s critique, but thought that Bhāvaviveka – unlike Candrakīrti – might be able to get around it because he owns up to the view that some beliefs are necessary and theses should be advanced.

My own thoughts after this talk moved away from Burnyeat; I was trying to think about how a Prāsaṅgika view might itself be lived. It seems to me that a Prāsaṅgika view would claim that, rather than being a view strictly speaking, it would be what is left over once all views are gone. But why would we expect that someone in such a situation would become liberated, get the Buddhist equivalent of ataraxia? Here I think it may be important to consider the common Buddhist claim that the teachings are like a snake which can be wrongly grasped – and the fact that Candrakīrti, Śāntideva, Bhāvaviveka, Nāgārjuna and the historical Buddha were all monks, who had devoted their lives to cultivating good Buddhist practice. In Śāntideva I get the sense that once they are liberated and fully understand ultimate truth, buddhas continue doing good out of habit; without beliefs there is no longer anything that can deter them from doing so. Buddhist texts never suggest, as far as I know, that one can learn this ultimate truth without already being extremely virtuous. But suppose, hypothetically, that one could – it might then turn out to be a bad thing. If somehow I (or most of my readers), living a life that involves making money and having sex and seeking out delicious foods, were to reach the ultimate truth and a state without belief, it would make things worse, because I’d be stuck in that state instead of in bodhisattvahood.