February 19, 2009

Practical Metaphysics: verses from Nagarjuna

I have been turning four lines over and over in my head for the past week or more:

There are four conditions: efficient condition;
Percept-object condition; immediate condition;
Dominant condition, just so.
There is no fifth condition.

The lines are from the second verse of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika, translated by Jay Garfield as Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way. Nagarjuna was a second century Buddhist philosopher of India. His work has been a fascination for many years both for its ingeniously cryptic nature that hints at a broader veiled world and because he is a pivotal figure behind much of Mahayana Buddhist thought. Especially the doctrines of emptiness, so many of us have been enthralled by. However, I started reading Nagarjuna again not for a trip into the metaphysical but because it crossed my mind that someone who had devoted himself tirelessly to investigating the processes and motives of the mind could very well have some insight into the immediate themes of right action, livelihood, thought, speech, etc.

The Karika is not exclusively a moral and ethical treatise and I may be projecting when I say these four lines directly address personal activity in thought and action. Central to the above passage is the word pratyaya, which Garfield translates as “condition.” The word in a Buddhist context means, “the concurrent occasion of an event as distinguished from its approximate cause.” Nagarjuna argued against a causal reality.

Neither from itself nor from another,
Nor from both,
Nor without a cause,
Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.

Garfield writes, “The argument against causation is tightly intertwined with the positive account of dependent arising and of the nature of the relation between conditions and the conditioned” (pg. 105). In other words Nagarjuna suggested, rather than simple cause and effect, reality is bound together by a collection of interdependent conditions.

The question remains, how to translate the absence of cause and effect into day-to-day, worldly living. A basic premise of non-violent communication as expressed by Marshall Rosenberg (paraphrasing) is that every person is responsible for how they speak and act, no one ‘causes’ our actions. To a society highly comfortable with blaming others for any misfortune this is a radical notion and one most of us are quite uncomfortable with. If you have any doubts that we commonly accept language relinquishing all responsibility for personal emotion check out a reality TV show sometime.

A world full of interdependent conditions yet lacking cause and effect means we cannot lay responsibility anywhere but at our own doorstep. No neighbor, friend, or angry god is responsible for the paths we follow, the words we speak, the decisions we make. Simultaneously, a world of conditions means that an infinite train of actions has led us each to the present moment and when judging the decisions of others we should weigh their life experience. In all respects it is imperative to choose compassion and act accordingly.

All quotations and translated passages taken from: Garfield, J. 1995. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. New York: Oxford University Press.

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