The Madhyamaka Speaks to the West: A philosophical analysis of śūnyatā as a universal truth

Abstract

Through a philosophical analysis of realist interpretations of Madhyamaka Buddhism, I will argue that the Madhyamaka is not well represented when it is represented as nihilism, absolutism or as some non-metaphysical alternative. Indeed, I will argue that the Madhyamaka is misrepresented when it is represented as anything; its radical context sensitivity entails that it cannot be autonomously volunteered. The Madhyamaka analysis disrupts the ontic and epistemic presuppositions that consider inherent existence and absolute truth to be possible and necessary, and so the ultimate truth, śūnyatā, is not an absolute truth or ultimate reality. However, I will argue that śūnyatā does qualify as a universal truth and should be understood as a context-insensitive, non-propositional truth in a non-dual dependent relationship with the multitudinous context-sensitive, propositional truths. This analysis will prove helpful in an investigation of those tensions, discernible within Buddhist modernism and the discourse of scientific Buddhism, that arise when Buddhist apologists claim a timeless modernity and a non-hostility with respect to contemporary worldviews. I will argue that apologists can resolve these tensions and satisfy their intuitions of timelessness, but only if they are willing to foreground the crucial distinction between their Buddhist worldview (their context-sensitive propositional truths) and their Madhyamaka attitude towards that worldview (the context-insensitive truth of śūnyatā). I will go on to generalise this result, showing that this Madhyamaka analysis opens up the possibility for frictionless co-operation between any and all worldviews, and that we therefore have a philosophical basis for a workable and sensitive theory of worldview pluralism. I will find it necessary to defend this position by demonstrating that, despite its context-insensitivity, the ultimate truth’s non-dual relationship with conventional truth mitigates against moral and epistemic relativism. I will further substantiate my claim as to the universal truth of śūnyatā by showing that, in Karan Barad’s ‘agential realism’, we find a revealing example of śūnyatā being articulated from within a non-Buddhist context. Thus, I hope to demonstrate some of the good effects of the Madhyamaka message, and show that this message can only be communicated clearly when it is distinguished from the discourses of Buddhism. In this manner, not by giving it a voice but through finding its voiceless authority, I hope to enable the Madhyamaka speak to the West.

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