The Tao That Can Be Spoken: Shantarakshita & The Ten-Thousand Things

What role does language play in finding the "middle way"?.

“The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

Thus spoke Taoism’s founding father, Laozi -- echoing the essential teaching of countless other nondual sages: what is most deeply true, most profoundly valuable, and most sublimely satisfying, is this mysterious no-thing which is wholly nonconceptual, and hence always and already and eternally beyond the bounds of thought and language.

And yet -- as I’m sure you’ve noticed -- thinking and speaking is happening, pretty much all the time: claims are being made, about what is or is not true, and what is or is not real. We wouldn’t be communicating, here and now, via this website, were it not for this capacity and endlessly seductive proclivity for conceptual engagement. Even if we accept fully that “The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth,” it’s equally true (according to Laozi) that “The named is the mother of myriad things.”

However illusory (every-shifting, ephemeral, impermanent, ungraspable) these “myriad things” -- the appearances of the phenomenal word -- might be, still they are an aspect of our experience of being-human. So ... what to do? Within the realm of phenomena, of appearances, what are the criteria -- if any -- that should be applied, in order to skillfully evaluate various truth-claims?

And of course, and not surprisingly, hundreds or thousands if not millions or gazillions of answers have been offered to this question. As we move through our days, we’re involved more-or-less continuously in (seemingly intentional as well as more subconscious) processes of evaluating truth-claims: of employing various criteria for deciding what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is untrue, what is real and what is unreal.

On one end of this vast spectrum lies (what is often claimed to be) the most radically nondual approach to the issue: a kind of radical relativism which basically says that all appearances are equally true and equally untrue. Hence, any attempt to apply logical criteria, in order to establish relative, contextual truth, is a step in the wrong direction: of fortifying a deluded, dualistic perception of “things” which can be accorded relative “values” based upon their assumed “actual existence.”

This is a view that I personally do not find to be particularly useful or satisfying -- for reasons which, for the moment, I will leave unarticulated.

In the remainder of this essay I’m going to present the approach to this issue that I currently find most useful, which is based upon the work of the Buddhist sage Shantarakshita, as presented in his Madhyamakalankara (Adornment Of The Middle Way). Though this is an approach rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, it’s one that I find directly relevant to the conundrum articulated by Laozi in that oft-quoted first verse of the Daode Jing, and which I’ve introduced already, in part, in a discussion of valid cognition and seeing nakedly.

Shantakakshita’s Madhyamakalankara: A Synthesis Of Nagarjuna & Asanga

The intellectual milieu in which Shantarakshita was moving was defined in large part by the work of two other great practitioner-scholars: (1) Nagarjuna, associated with the Madhyamaka (Middle-Way) tradition; and (2) Asanga, associated with the Chittamatra (Mind-Only) tradition. Shantarakshita’s work represented a synthesis of these two heretofore antagonistic traditions. In particular, what he proposed was that a Madhyamaka view was the best one to apply, in order to access the realm of Ultimate Truth; but that for relating to Relative Truth, a Chittamatra approach -- which incorporated also tenets of Buddhist logic and epistemology (associated with the scholars Dignaga and Dharmakirti) -- was most skillful.

So, what does all this mean, in relation to verse one of the Daode Jing?

What it means is that Shantarakshita would agree that “the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao” -- but would not take this to imply that we should avoid skillful and compassionate use of various conceptual devices, in order to support a more gradualist approach to practice (for those most suited to such a path) and/or to establish criteria for relative truth, in specific phenomenal contexts.

The Ultimate Truth -- Shantarakshita, Nagarjuna and Asanga all agree here with Laozi -- lies forever beyond conceptualization. The best we can do, in terms of our application of linguistic/conceptual tools (e.g. words, thoughts, philosophical systems) is to use them to progressively challenge and unwind the various conceptual binds that are preventing us from resting naturally within -- intuitively apperceiving and intimately appreciating -- the wholly nonconceptual Ultimate Truth.

Where Shantarakshita parted ways with Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka view was in relation to their approach to Relative Truth. The Madhyamaka approach to philosophical debate was to use logic simply to point out the absurd consequences of the opponents’ various positions (hence the view is often called a “consequentialist” one) but never to positively affirm a conceptual position of their own. The Madhyamaka approach to the beliefs and truth-claims of conventional society was simply to take them at face value, without argument or affirmation: a view quite similar in many respects to the relativist position I outlined above.

Absolute v. Approximate Ultimate As A Pedagogical Device

Shantarakshita found both of these ways of relating to Relative Truth to be inferior to the Chittamatra approach, which offered a more compassionate and logically robust way of interacting with the appearances of the phenomenal world. In particular, and most importantly, the Chittamatra view proposes a conceptual distinction -- as a heuristic/pedagogical device -- between the “absolute” and the “approximate” ultimate:

* Absolute Ultimate pointing to the nonconceptual realm which lies forever beyond thought and language, i.e. “cannot be spoken”; and

* Approximate Ultimate referring to a conceptual object -- namely, the idea of emptiness -- that is used to engage conceptually with people deeply embroiled in materialistic views. The Approximate Ultimate, in other words, is a conceptual bridge utilized provisionally -- in the manner of a "base-camp" or “halfway house” -- for those not able to leap directly into an experiential encounter with the Absolute Ultimate. As such, its use represents a gesture of compassion, a willingness to meet people where they are, and use language in ways that are familiar enough to their ears, in order to facilitate a gradual movement in the direction of a direct apperception of the Absolute Ultimate.

What this means, then, is that Shantarakshita is quite willing, provisionally (as a skillful means), to affirm a philosophical stance advocating emptiness, when relating to people whose minds would be unresponsive to a purely via negativa Madhyamaka approach.

In terms of relating to the various beliefs and truth-claims of conventional society, Shantarakshita once again leans heavily upon a Chittamatra (Mind-Only) view, with one important exception, which is to leave aside the Chittamatra claim in an actually-existent “Pure Awareness” (i.e. “Mind”) as the source/essence of all phenomenal appearances. Shantarakshita agrees that phenomenal appearances are “constructions of Mind” -- but holds also that Mind (in the sense of “Pure Awareness”) itself is empty, not inherently-existent.

In addition, Shantarakshita embraces the use of the tenets of valid cognition (i.e. of Buddhist logic and epistemology) to evaluate conventional truth-claims. In other words, he is fully supportive of establishing “truth” and “falsity” in relation to particular relative-world contexts; and sees this as being entirely compatible with using Madyamaka reasonings to enter into direct communion with Ultimate Truth.