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  • A Reply to Garfield and Westerhoff on "Acquiring Emptiness"
  • Douglas L. Berger

I am most grateful to Professors Garfield and Westerhoff for their comments on my article "Acquiring Emptiness: Interpreting Nāgārjuna's MMK 24 : 18" in the January 2010 issue of Philosophy East and West. Their responses to my essay and the critiques they offer, grounded in their considerable expertise in Buddhist philosophical schools, are well argued and rooted in thorough commentarial analysis. In what follows, I attempt to respond to their critiques and concerns.

There can be no doubt that the occurrence of the phrase sā prajñāptir upādāya in MMK 24 : 18 has been understood by the bulk of the commentarial literature on the treatise as a compound technical term meaning something like "dependent designation." The prevailing interpretations of these renderings point to the implication that the words pratītyasamutpāda and śūnyatā, which the verse declares to be synonymous, are in turn both "empty," in that they don't refer to anything about the way the world really is; rather, they are merely constructed, conventional, and convenient labels that, somehow, facilitate practice. My essay was conceived neither in the motivation to persuade readers to entirely disregard this interpretation, nor in the wish to gratuitously place my own reading above the readings of traditional commentators, as Garfield and Westerhoff suggest in their concluding remark to the effect that this is a case of Berger versus all the sages. Instead, I was prompted to write the essay by several implications of translating the phrase sā prajñāptir upādāya in the familiar parlance that I find genuinely and persistently puzzling, both exegetically and philosophically. My puzzlement began with the claim, found so often in the English secondary literature and interpretations of Nāgārjuna, that the terms "conditioned co-arising" and "emptiness" should be considered merely conceptually constructed ideas, and that this claim is the core, the single most important teaching of the second-century master of Madhyamaka. What puzzled me about this reading were the following sets of questions.

1. If the supposed technical term prajñāptir upādāya is such a central teaching of Nāgārjuna, if it is the linchpin for understanding his entire thought, why does it occur only once in the entire MMK, and then without any explication? Even in short, foundational texts such as the Yogasūtra or Nyāyasūtra, would we expect to find terms comparably central to those philosophical schools, such as samādhi or pramāṇa, only once and with no accompanying definition or clarification? It is in light of that question that the other question becomes relevant and not merely a "non sequitur," namely why, in other verses in the MMK where the term prajñāpti is employed in one form or another, does Nāgārjuna use it only in the very non-technical sense of an "idea" or "notion" or "label" and never in the technical sense that it is seen to so crucially possess in 24 : 18? If a supposed "three-way relation," as Garfield calls it, obtains between pratītyasamutpāda, śūnyatā, and upādāyaprajñāpti in their association [End Page 368] with the "middle path" (madhyamāpratipad), then why is this same relation explicitly not invoked in Vigrahavyāvartani 70, which only connects conditioned coarising, emptiness, and the middle path, making no mention of upādāyaprajñāpti, especially when the latter text is primarily about the connection of language and reference? Why, in traditionally identified autocommentaries like the Lokatitastava and Acintyastava, in corresponding verses equating the terms "conditioned co-arising" and "emptiness," is no term like upādāyaprajñāpti even hinted at?

2. Though most commentators freely acknowledge that the construal we find of upādāyaprajñāpti in Candrakīrti, so redolent of Abhidharma technical vocabulary, is nowhere explicitly espoused in texts reliably attributed to Nāgārjuna, why are so many so perfectly certain that Nāgārjuna meant it that way? Because that is the prevalent reading of commentators who postdate the root texts by at least three hundred years onward, we are told. That's surely a reasonable reply...