By Enkei Joseph Mendyka
Since this question was posed to me by a soryo at gyo with an inspiringly devotional approach to practice this past summer, I’ve been sitting with it. It is such a simple question and one that I never would have considered asking. Madhyamaka—a method of logical inquiry developed by the 3rd century CE Indian Mahāyāna adept, Nāgārjuna, based on the śūnyatā teachings of the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras—is a form of intellectual mysticism. When I was first introduced to the tetralemma, or fourfold negation, I was captivated by its simplicity and power. The four negations, contemplated together, leave an individual in transformative space of vulnerability and expansiveness. These negations logically undermine the assertions that any experienced phenomenon could arise from itself, from another, from both itself and another nor that it could arise from something besides itself or another.
In Tibetan Buddhism, these four negations are sometimes referred to as the “vajra slivers.” I have found this to be a poignant metaphor for what this logical approach can accomplish. The vajra is the tool by which the enlightened dharma protectors extinguish delusion. Similarly, these logical negations destroy the illusion of boundaries created in our mind by the concepts that we naively believe to be real. Our critical minds—always analyzing, deconstructing and, in the end, asserting judgment in every moment—base their constant examination of the world around them on some underlying assumption of the way the world should be. Casting aspersion on certain things, a person acts through body, speech and mind with aggression at that which offends his hidden assumptions of the world. Lavishing praise on others, he acts from a place of desire for a world that should be and is, yet, always just out of his grasp.
In this way, as the Buddha Śākyamuni taught, our root ignorance gives rise to the passions that increase our suffering. Careful examination of those passions through study and meditation is, of course, necessary to untangle the knot of delusion. However, we must also dispel the invalid concepts—seemingly neutral and without any moral value—that serve as the cause for these passions. Not only the belief in self, but the belief in the real existence of the senses, motion, time, cause-and-effect and impermanence must all be dispelled in order for us to encounter freedom. Even these, though, are not enough for enlightenment. Belief in enlightenment itself along with belief in dependent origination or the Buddha must all go!
But what does it mean to stop believing in the Buddha? Doesn’t that undermine the very refuge vows that initiate our start down the path? It would, if we believed in the real, substantial existence of the vows or the path. However, the vajra slivers destroy the possibility for such a view. Some may posit that the relinquishment of any commitment to our vows would necessarily lead to a hedonistic indulgence of our passions. However, without any foundation for belief in the satisfaction of that indulgence, on what basis is there to violate the vows? Instead, all that remains is boundless freedom.
Put another way, we stop taking everything so seriously. The world is a joke, but not the kind of sarcastic, ill-intentioned gallows humor that hides from pain through laughter. Instead, it’s pure joy at seeing the silliness of the way things truly are compared to our narrow minded view of them. When we encounter this kind of vibrancy, we can’t help but share it—mostly because the distinction between “mine” and “yours” becomes ridiculous. This is a perfect, transcendent irony. We use words and refer to concepts that we know do not really exist. We live with a joy that recognizes its own non-existence and we strive to eliminate a suffering that we see as illusory from the very beginning. The path ceases to be an epic journey filled with perils and threats and becomes a game so ludicrous there aren’t even winners or losers. In this game, we give with a generosity that requires no effort because we see that what we previously knew as our possession was always already no-thing.
This state—the compassion of the bodhisattva—can only come about, though, if we are relentless in our application of the tetralemma to all views. It would be too easy to use Madhyamaka to negate only those ideologies which did not comport with our own hidden assumptions about the world in order to defend our arrogance. Following the renunciation of the Tathagata, the Thus Gone One, demands that we abandon first those things which we most cherish. By examining the special-ness of our preferred spiritual practices, our firm beliefs about right and wrong and our certainty of the way the world works through the lens of the tetralemma, we begin to destroy our capacity for self-centeredness.
Once these concepts have been eliminated, we then have the freedom to play with them with the open-heartedness of a bodhisattva. We can practice and live without the shackles of “should.” We can share the buddha-dharma openly with creativity and skill. This freedom, a freedom without reference to any boundaries, is the answer to the question, “why Madhyamaka?”