The Hermeneutical Problem Of Truth Claims and Scriptural Plurality in the Mādhyamika Buddhism …

The Hermeneutical Problem Of Truth Claims and Scriptural Plurality in the Mādhyamika Buddhism and its Implication for Religious Pluralism*


Ⅰ. The Problem of conflicting Truth Claims

Ⅱ. Scriptural Words and Contextual Truth

Ⅲ. The Mādhyamika Interpretation on Scriptural Plurality

Ⅳ. Critique of Ontological Inclusivism and Unitive Pluralism

Ⅴ. Non-Acquisition of the Middle Way as Openendlessness

Ⅰ. The Problem of Conflicting Truth Claims

The present paper is concerned with the hermeneutical issues of truth and scriptural plurality in Mādhyamika Buddhism, and its implication for the contemporary discourses on religious pluralism.

Can the Mādhyamika hermeneutics solve the problem of the conflict of truth based on scriptural plurality in Buddhism? Have they succeeded in establishing that all the scriptures point toward one yāna? With these questions, we encounter the problem of scriptural plurality and various interpretations within Buddhist traditions. In fact, the great Tripitakas show that Buddhism is not a simple religion. Historically and philosophically, all Buddhist traditions can not be said to be the same. On the other hand, there is a view that each Buddhist tradition and set of scriptures are different responses to the enlightenment of the same person, namely, the Tathāgata.

The Prajñā-Mādhyamika hermeneutics of the middle way in the scriptural word has a good point for solving the problem of scriptural plurality and associated conflicts. As seen in the She-ling notion of the scriptural word, all teachings of the Tathāgata are tactical devices. In the mādhyamika interpretation, the scriptural word consisted in the twofold structure, i.e., conventional and ultimate, which does not present the ultimate truth itself. Also the two truths are not two fixed sets of reality, but are conducive teachings only. In this respect, the words of the Buddha are said to be practically true. The two truths serve as a hermeneutical tool which make the apparently conflicting words of the Buddha intelligible. However, it does not mean that the words of the Buddha are ultimately true. They are true only in their contexts.

In the mādhyamika Buddhist context, there is no absolute teaching (nītārtha) in Buddhist scriptures. However, the history of Buddhism shows that scholars have claimed the superiority of their own scriptures and doctrines over others. This is especially the case in the far Eastern Mahāyāna traditions, where hierarchical classification of doctrine has become a popular way of explaining scriptural discrepancies. The expedient teachings of the Buddha cannot be explained from one point of view, for they are taught in various ways to be suitable for the differing needs of people. An awareness of the Buddha’s intention is an important factor.

There is no one criterion to determine the truth claims that the various schools appropriate to their scriptural texts. Kogen Mizuno points out:“From the standpoint of science of formal logic, both of which are given to single-perspective judgments based on a single criterion, this multidimensional view could be regarded as an extremely complicated system of non-order or non-logic. yet such a multidimensional view is necessary in order to fully comprehended a mental state as something dynamic and mutable.” The scriptural texts have to be understood in the context in which they were taught. Contextual understanding is required to be aware of both the Buddha’s intention and listener’s situations. And the teachings of the Buddha cannot be differentiated between the shallow and the profound as they are designed to meet the needs of people’s varying capacities.

Ⅱ. Scriptural Words and Contextual Truth

According to Korean Monk Chegwan(?-971, C.E.) in the late tenth century, the Buddha’s expedient teachings can be classified into the fourfold methods of conversion, namely, the Sudden, the Gradual, the Secret, and the Variable.

He also suggests the fourfold doctrine of conversion, namely, the Tripitaka, the Shared, the Distinctive, and the Complete. These are called the eight teachings which are correlated with the five periods, namely, the Avamtasaka, the Deer park, the Expanded, the Prajñā, the Lotus, and the Nirvāṇa, Chegwan points out that the fourfold teachings beginning with the sudden are the methods of conversion, which are like medical prescriptions in the world. The four Teachings beginning with the Tripitaka are the doctrine of conversion, which are like the flavors of various medicines. These ideas are scattered through a wide range of the scriptures.

Chegwan identifies the sudden method with the Avatamsaka-sūtra, and the three periods of Deer Park, Expanded (vaipulya) teaching, and prajñā are all identified as the gradual method. This interpretation represents the T’ien-t’ai hermeneutical stance. The Mādhyamika will not agree with chegwan, for chegwan considers the Lotus sūtra and Nirvāṇa sūtras as the complete teaching as the complete teaching as nītārtha, while the Prajñā-sūtras are merely preliminary (neyārtha).

The secret method refers to that within the previous four periods, the Tathāgata’s activities(bodily, verbal, and mental) were beyond ordinary people’s comprehension. For the sake of some he expounded the sudden method, and for the sake of others he expounded gradual method. However, there was no mutual awareness between the two groups, the sudden and gradual, that the others were enabled to receive benefits.

The variable method can be considered as an important character of the Tathāgata’s teaching, especially for the Mādhyamika Buddhists. Chegwan reflects this essential point of the scripture.

The variable method means that within the previous four flavors, although the Buddha expounded the Dharma with a single voice, yet every sentient being gained comprehension each in his own way. This means the Tathāgata while expounding the gradual method with his incomprehensible power could cause sentient beings to obtain the benefits of the sudden method and while expounding the sudden method could have them obtain the benefits of the gradual method. Because the benefits which are obtained in this way differ.

It is said the Buddha proclaims Dharma by a single voice (eka’sabda). But hearers comprehend the voice according to their capacity. This idea of a single voice of the Buddha leads to the one vehicle. The Tathāgata teaches one Dharma, but listeners understand it from their perspective. Certain teachings in the scriptures are delivered from many perspectives intended for different levels of understanding, yet the Tathāgata teaches the Dharma in a consistent way in sequential order.

The Mahāsamghikas, the mother school of the Mādhyamika, also asserts that the Buddha speaks the Dharma with a single voice. The Mādhyamika may follows this view, for no language has priority over any other. This one voice signifies that the Tathāgata simply speaks to people in their everyday languages. The Vimalakīrti-nideśa- sūtra says, everyone says that the Buddha’s language is identical to his own language. This is a special characteristic of the Tathāgata’s power. The Tathāgata will not empower hegemony to any linguistic group. However, this one voice can be translated into any public languages.

The Mahāvastu states:“Though the Buddha’s voice speaks in one language, this utterance becomes current everywhere, even in the barbaric assemblies of the scythians, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Ramathas, the Persians, and the Dorodas.” In this context the Mahasmghikas asserts that the Buddha’s teachings are all nītārtha, meaning the Buddha spoke only the definitive truth. But we have interpreted it differently, i.e., all teachings of the Buddha are neyārtha, There are difference within Buddhism, but they all are contextual. The Māhasamghika’s assertion, i.e., all of the Buddha’s teachings are ultimately true, is interpreted by the Mādhyamika as provisionally true.

Ⅲ. The Mādhyamika Interpretation on Scriptural Plurality

The Mādhyamika interprets that the Buddha teaches nothing, not speaking is the Buddha’s speaking(avācanam Buddhavacanam), for there is no Dharma to speak. Che- gwan’s position regarding the various method gets to the point, for he reflects precisely the nature of a single voie of the Buddha and its different transformation as it is. The single voice of the Buddha signifies that the Buddha did not teach many yanās. Each doctrine the Buddha taught is meaningful. He teaches only the ekayāna, Thus, for the Mādhyamika tradition, only ekayāna is meaningful. The three vehicles are merely upāya. We cannot say that a single scripture represents the nītārtha, i.e., perfect doctrine or complete teaching. For this reason the She-ling masters are opposed to the doctrinal classification (p’an-chiao), and argue that the ekayāna is the saddharma, However, Chi- tsang has tried to make scriptural classification, as other doctrinal schools have done. Each school promotes its scripture to be the status of nītārtha in order to claim its own testimony to be the final word of Tathāgata. However, it is questionable whether Chi-tsang as a She-ling Mādhyamika needs to establish such a system, for hierarchical placing of scriptures is not called for in Mādhyamika Buddhism. In this respect, we see Chi-tsang’s digestion from the fundamental point of the Mādhyamika.

Chi-tsang examines the scriptures from broad perspectives, and classifies them into the two Pitakas and the three Dharmacakras. The two Pitakas are:(a) Śrāvaka, repre- senting Hīnayāna scriptures; (b) Bodhisattva, representing Mahāyāna scriptures. The three Dharmacakras(Wheel of Dharma) are:(a) the root, (b) the branches, and (c) the truck. The root wheel of Dharma refers to the Avatamsaka- sūtra which is delivered soon after the enlightenment of the Buddha for only superior Bodhisattvas. This teaching is regarded as nītārtha, the complete teaching. The branches wheel of Dharma consists of all the Āgamas and Mahāyāna scriptures, including the vimalakirti-nirde’sa-sūtra and the Prajñāpāramitā-sūtras which deal with preparatory teachings for the highest teaching. The branches wheel of Dharma consists of all the Āgamas and Mahāyāna scriptures, including the Vimalakirti-nideśa-sūtra and the Prajñāpāramitā- sūtras which deal with preparatory teachings for the highest teaching. The trunk wheel of Dharma refers to the Lotus-sūtra which is delivered for those who already have understood teachings of the branches wheel of Dharma.

This teaching leads the branches to the root wheel. By the trunk wheel of Dhrama, the three yanās, i.e., the Śrāvaka- yāna pratyekabuddhayāna, and Bodhisattvayāna are all led to the ekayāna of the middle way.

In this presentation of the three wheels of Dharma, Chi-tsang seems to be confused, for he misunderstood the Mādhyamika stance of the scriptures. Seungrang may not agree with such exercise of scriptural classification. The above classification by Chi-tsang represents the Lotus scholar’s position. In fact, he was influenced by the Lotus sūtra and the Nirvāna-sūtra. Chi-tsang also failed to find out a chronological explanation of the teachings of Buddha.

No modern scholarship will agree that the Avatamsaka- sūtra was delivered soon after the Buddha’s attainment of enlightement. Also we cannot agree with Chi-tsang’s claim that the Avatamsaka-sūtra is nītārtha identified with the Buddha’s ultimate enlightenment.

However, Chi-tsang has a point when he says that there are no fundamental differences in the Mahāyāna sūtras:

The purpose of the Mahāyāna sūtras is to show the path. The path is not two at all. The various scriptural teachings are required for there are various Dharma gates to enter.

This statement corresponds to the following Ta-chih-tu- lun’s assertion:“In the teaching of the Tathāgata, the paths that lead to the ultimate liberation are all equally one pointed. There are no divergent paths.” Chi-tsang might not intend to insist on a ranking view of the Mahāyāna scriptures, for if so it is contradictory to his basic assertion. Instead, he wants to show that the various scriptural texts are embraced within the ekayāna of the middle way, the enlightenment of the Buddha.

Hence, we suggest that the two Pitakas and the three Dharmacakras theories cannot represent the She-ling’s official P’an-chiao system as Fatsang indicated it. For the She-ling Mādhyamika tradition, the classification of the sūtras is not important. All scriptures are merely expedient teachings. As it is said that “in entering the path of non-duality, there are several gates.” The value of each sūtra will lie in its functional efficacy for people.

For the She-ling Mādhyamika, the middle way is a synonym for the ekayāna, the underlying argument being that there is a fundamental non-duality between the yanās. The Ta-ch’eng-hsüan-lun explains the reason why the theme of non-duality is identical with the ekayāna:“Because the principle of non-duality is the root of the all vehicles. Comprehension of the non-duality gives rise to the insight into non-duality, and one reaches the non-dual ekayāna.” From this insight, the She-ling school asserts that all doctrines contained in the scriptures are essentially upāya, therefore, ultimately have to be abandoned. If one attaches to a specific doctrine, it becomes lower truth. The truth has to be without self essence, and non-clining is the nature of higher truth. Thus, the middle way of the scriptures means emptiness of the two truths. They have no fixed nature, but they are śūnya and only effective means for enlightenment.

The extension of śūnyatā to scripture is of special interest to the Madhyamikas. It promotes openness on scriptural grounds. In this regard. The Ta-chih-tu-lun quotes from the Arthavargiya-sūtrā following stanzas:

Everyone takes his stand on his own view and by his own constructions gives rise to disputes:“To know this to know the truth”, he holds, “and not to know this to be condemned.” Truly one who does not accept the view of another is devoid of wisdom. He that clings to his own construction is devoid of wisdom. To stand on one’s own view of truth and give rise to false constructions, if this is pure wisdom, then there is none who does not have it.

The śāstra comments that common people take their stand on their points of view, on their own doctrines and on their own thoughts. Thus, there arise all the contentions and refutations. Such conceptual fixations are the root of all dogmatic claims and counter claims. for these reasons, ultimately the Madhyamika wants to abandon all sorts of exclusivity in the name of doctrines. This position is called positionless position. Nagarjuna suggests:

From clinging to things there arise disputes; but if there is no cling what dispute will there be? He who understands that all dṛṣṭịs, cling or non-cling, are in truth of the same nature, has already become free from all these. ……In the Dharma of the Buddha one abandons all passion, all wrong views, all pride of self;one puts an end to all these and does not cling at any- thing.

In the Mādhyamika thought, the exclusive truth claim that one particular scripture and school only teach the authentic truth is considered as an egological fantasy. All passion, wrong views, and pride of superiority are the basis of exclusivism. With the egocentric attachment to doctrines, the goal of Buddhism cannot be reached. This egological malady will end when one does not cling to the exclusivism of ideology or religion. The doctrine of śūnyatā is taught precisely to remove such a malady. The absolute truth claims cannot stand in a Buddhist way of thinking. As noted, Seungrang’s middle way of the scriptural word shows that even the Buddha’s highest doctrines are denied if one is attached to them as something absolute.

The scriptural plurality and doctrinal diversity in Mādhyamika Buddhism are understood as there are many paths to enlightenment. As long as they do not claim that their position is not absolute, the Mādhyamika will accept their position provisionally. However, various schools in Buddhism, (it is said that there are eighteen schools in Hinayāna and eight schools in Mahāyāna), depend on specific scriptures for their doctrinal basis. Such scriptural plurality in Buddhism represents philosophical evolution of doctrine for historical and cultural reasons.

The Theravāda view of scripture cannot explain the plurality of truth claims in Buddhism. They take the scriptures literally. They cannot overcome the belief that there was a historical Buddha who spoke truly and spoke once and for all. They insist that Pāli scriptures represent the oldest recording of the Buddha’s words. Therefore, they claim that they are the authentic word of the Buddha. On the other hand, the Mādhyamika school along with the Prajñāpāramitā scriptures finds that it is necessary to deconstruct the Theravāda notion of Buddha, Dharma, and scripture. For the Mādhyamika, the various scriptures do not mean there are many truths, but simply many paths. The Buddha does not teach different Dharmas according to different yanās, he teaches the same Dharma differently. The turning vehicle(yanā) controversy in Buddhism is not a serious problem, for it is very close to a methodological device as a pedagogic means.

The one vehicle signifies that all discrepancies with regard to the yanās and scriptures pertain to the forms of speech. beneath them all is a unity of message, the ekayāna, that can be realized only on the highest stage of prajñā. That is why the Buddha says, “Only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fathom the highest Dharma as things as they are, that is to say, all dharmas have such a form, such a nature, such an embodiment, such a potency, such a function, such a primary cause, such a secondary cause, such an effect, such a recompense, and such a complete foundational whole.”

The scriptural plurality in Buddhism is a natural result of the primacy of contexts. The doctrine of expedient means (upāya) allows such a pluralistic development of scripture. According to the context in which each scriptural word is taught, the truth of the word has to understood. In this respect, the Mādhyamika does not say that there is inferior or superior in Buddhist scriptures. Buddhist truths are contextual, and they all are contextual to the same degree.

Ⅳ. Critique of Ontological Inclusivism and Unitive Pluralism

The Mādhyamika attitude toward the world religions might not be basically different from is attitudes toward other Buddhist schools. All scriptures, along with the associated claims, are relative and contextual. There are different paths to salvation. The Mādhyamika stands for inclusivity. But its inclusivity is not metaphysical or theological; it does not elevate the uniqueness of a truth or its contexts to universal proportions. There are those who say that the great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of, and correspondingly different responses to, the Real or the Ultimate, and that within each of them independently the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to reality-centeredness is taking place. This view pre- supposes that there is one ultimate reality behind the world religions. It asserts that one ultimate reality, whether it is divine reality or not, manifests itself in various forms.

There is a fundamental difference between such inclusivism and the Mādhyamika view on religious pluralism. The Mādhyamika will not accept a fundamental unity of the world religions as well as Buddhist religion. In fact, as we have explored throughout the present study, such an absolute reality is metaphysical and must be deconstructed. The inclusivist theologian John Hick says:“One then sees the great world religions as different human responses to the one divine reality, embodying different perceptions which have been formed in different historical and cultural circumstances.” John Hick’s view does not cover all religions, especially Buddhism where there is no such notion of the divine reality or the absolute reality.

Raimundo Panikkar also says: “The reality has many names, each name is a new aspect, a new manifestation and revelation of it. Yet each name teaches or expresses, as it were, the undivided Mystery.” He further points out that the mystery as the ultimate religious fact does not liein the realm of doctrine or even of individual self-consciousness. It is present everywhere and in every religion. Raimundo Panikkar’s point is different from Hick’s, emphasizing the mystical religious experience. But both presuppose that there is a common reality in the world religions, and that the reality is of a metaphysical sort.

The Mādhyamika rejects such views of the one absolute reality in religions. Because the scriptural plurality in Buddhism does not mean that there is only one ultimate reality or Dharma, religious plurality may be understood as many paths to salvation, not one common reality. In this respect, the Mādhyamika view is a sort of relativism. As each religion has a different cultural-historical origin and background, they cannot be compared with a single principle. Instead, the Mādhyamika will accept the situation of religious pluralism as it is. They exist differently as religious truths are relative.

Modern religious thinkers observe the relative nature of religious truth:

Whereas our Western notion of truth was largely absolute, static, and monologic or exclusive up to the past century, it has since become deabsolutized, dynamic and dialogic……in a word, ‘relational(Already two millennia and more ago some Hindu and Buddhist thinkers held a nonabsolutisic epistemology, but that fact had no significant impact on the West.)’……All statements about reality, especially about the meaning of things, are to be understood as historical, intentional, perspectival, partial interpretive and dialogic.

For Buddhists, however, this view is not something new. As we have discussed, all scriptural statements about Dharma and dharmas are relative and interpretive (neyartha). There is no absolute statement concerning truth in Buddhism. Since the scriptural truths are merely methodological (mārga), no truth is ultimately true. No truth is true by itself, but only in a specific context in which it is perceived, heard or understood.

From the Mādhyamika perspective, it can be said that there are two kinds of relativity, namely, doctrinal relativity and functional relativity. The doctrinal relativity accepts the relativity of truth in the conventional world, but it still looks for new truth, new ultimate truth. The Western view of relative truth, such as the notion of deabsolutizing of truth, seems to be in this category. On the other hand, the functional relativity of truth does not commit to any concept of truth. Truth is just functional by nature, a pedagogical device as it were.

The Mādhyamika thinkers advise people to give up any closed perspective or view of truth or Dharma. Seungrang and his followers emphasize that all absolute views of the truth have to be abandoned for no truth is ultimately true. For the Mādhyamika Buddhist, non-attachment to any concept of truth is a basic attitude toward truth. Even the Tathāgata’s statements on the Dharma are not considered as the absolute truth, but they are functional in character and eventually have no absolute meanings to hold.

In the situation of religious pluralism, the Mādhyamika view on the truth is unique. Notions such as the relativity of truth, scriptures as expedient means, and non-attachment to truth, are of enormous significance in today’s world. It opens the boundless horizon for the dialogical discourse. In this respect, Abe Masao proposes the Buddhist concept of truth-body(Dharma-kāya) as formless and boundless reality of śunyata is the ultimate ground for Buddhism and other religions.’ For Abe “boundless openness” embraces various forms of gods and Lords as their ultimate grounds.

Concerning Abe’s assertion, Thomas Dean comments that “given the assumption of a ‘positionless position’ that relativizes the absolute truth claims of all other positions”, but he “does not consider its own doctrine of ‘absolute Nothingness’ as a ‘position’ in its own right (for Abe it is viewed rather as a Zen ‘deconstruction’ of all other temptations to absolute claims of truth, including Buddhist ones as well-here he refers to the example of Nāgārjuna).” In fact, the term “absolute nothingness” seems to be far from the Mādhyamika stance. The Mādhyamikas will reject the understanding of ‘śūnyatā’ as the ultimate reality as absolute nothingness. That smells of metaphysics and theology. However, Abe has a point when he says ‘śūnyatā’ is boundless openness. Abe has a point when he says ‘śūnyatā’ is boundless openness. ‘śūnyatā’ is not a metaphysical concept. As Dean indicates, Abe has a position of absolute nothingness. But the Mādhyamika will not hold any position in this sense. ‘śūnyatā’ is not a metaphysical view; it does not signify an ultimate reality. Rather, śūnyatā is the process of deconstructing the concept of ultimate reality either as being or non-being.

Ⅴ. Non-Acquisition of the Middle Way as Open-endlessness

Then, what is the ultimate in the Mādhyamika school? We have said that the Mādhyamika negates the ultimate perpetually. The ultimate is said to be that which is not a knowable entity, or cognitive referent. It is beyond all conceptual realms, far away and separated from all entative singes and signifiers. Nāgārjuna expresses it this way:All is real (tathyām), not real, both real not real, and neither real nor not real. This is called the Buddha-Dharma. Sen-jui demonstrates the same point in terms of ten negations; “not within and not without, not men and not dharmas, not object and not subject, not ral and not false, and not gained and not lost,” The ultimate is said to be non-acquisition.

In sum, the Mādhyamika notion of non-attachment of truth and scripture as an expedient means leads to the middle way of the scripture. It makes the apparently conflicting scriptures intelligible. In the discourse of the Tathāgata, worldly truths function as provisional statues. The so-called ultimate truth is the same as the conventional discourse. They are both neither ultimate nor conventional in the sense that they are only provisional by nature. However, it affirms their provisional functions, then establishes the interdependency (pratitya-samutpāda) of the middle and provisional.

The middle way becomes the foundation of the scriptural discourse in the Mādhyamika school. Whatever is dependent origination is śūnyatā; it is a provisional designation, and is the middle way. In the Mādhyamika system, thus, the dependent origination, emptiness and the middle way have interchangeable meaning. The Ta-ch’eng-hsüan-lun says:

Whatever arises by dependent origination is the worldly truth; it is śūnyatā. So it is the ultimate meaning; it is also the middle way, which is the foundation of the two truths.

One may say if the middle way is the essence of the scriptural discourse, it is against the doctrine of śūnyatā. Even the She-ling school uses the term “essential middle” of non-duality, its nature cannot be ontological by definition. Our concern here is to point out the meaning of the functional middle in which the self-essence of the middle is negated endlessly. All scriptural discourses function from beginning to end as merely conducive teachings. Thus, the Mādhyamika establishes the inseparability of the scriptures and the middle way. The equation of the middle with the ekayāna offers a solution to the problems of conflicting truth claims and scriptural plurality. It also opens the boundless horizon for the dialogical discourse in religious pluralism.