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  • Mādhyamikas on the Moral Benefits of a Self: Buddhist Ethics and Personhood
  • Leah McGarrity (bio)


Given the centrality of the Buddhist doctrine of ‘no-self’ (anātman), those instances in which the Buddha does indeed seem to advocate a self (ātman) have always provided significant sites of hermeneutic inquiry within the Buddhist tradition. They have necessitated a range of sophisticated exegetical tools such as the division of the Buddha’s pronouncements into those of provisional meaning and those of ultimate meaning (neyārtha and nītartha, respectively); the centrality of discerning the Buddha’s real, as opposed to apparent, intention (abhiprāya); and of course the notion of the Buddha’s utilization of his skillful means (upāyakauśalya) specifically to hone his teaching to cater to the different capacities of his various audiences.

This article examines how certain Mādhyamikas — namely Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva, Buddhapālita, Bhāviveka, and, especially, Candrakīrti — participate in this tradition, not just in terms of how they undertake a retrospective act of ‘hermeneutic retrieval,’ that is, making sense of the Buddha’s words when he seems to advocate a self and recovering his intended meaning, but also in terms of how they provide a prospective theorization of the positive function of a self. This, it will be suggested, may itself be of philosophical and ethical interest in its own right. Or, rather, the positive function of a self provides an instance in which philosophical and ethical speculation cannot be divorced from the hermeneutic and pedagogical context within which it is embedded. Nevertheless, I will attempt here to take seriously the philosophical implications, in their own right, of how Mādhyamikas consider this positive self, redressing a predominant tendency simply to dismiss Madhyamaka teachings that advocate a self as merely strategic devices typifying the expediency of skillful means to the exclusion of any further consideration — although there have been some notable exceptions to this trend (Arnold 2005, pp. 167 ff.; Arnold 2012, pp. 225–239; Ganeri 2007, pp. 107–115, 196–203; Duerlinger 2013, pp. 32–54).

This is not at all to suggest that the doctrine of ‘skillful means’ does not indeed provide an overall framework for understanding the conventional deployment of a self from a ‘Buddha’s eye-view,’ or the way that a self may be ‘worn’ by bodhisattvas in the mode of “ironic engagement” in their dealings with the world (Siderits 2003, pp. 99–111). Rather, this article is instead more concerned with the function that this self is meant to fulfill from within the perspective of the beginning practitioners and the lived ethical frameworks in which they find and orient themselves. We cannot, I suggest, even take the pedagogical strategy of advocating a self seriously if we only [End Page 1082] ever consider it as just a strategy, lest the stance of “ironic engagement” adopted by the bodhisattva be confused with the ‘ironic disengagement’ of the skeptic or cynical nihilist.

In this article, I wish to pursue this issue along three interrelated lines of inquiry. First, I will examine the sort of self Mādhyamikas feel it is necessary to advocate and under what circumstances, taking into account what function it serves and the ethical assumptions underpinning its usage. Second, I will briefly examine the metaphysical backdrop that provides the underlying theoretical framework, or the ‘mechanics’ that they presuppose for doing so, especially as developed by Candrakīrti. And, third, I will suggest ways in which a deeper consideration of this conception of a self as being, to some degree, morally beneficial might allow us to rethink attempts to locate Buddhist conceptions of ethics and selfhood in terms of Western paradigms. Although we may of course also regard this self as the ‘conventional’ or ‘provisional’ sense of self, I will also argue for its fulfilling the role and function of the ‘person,’ at least as the term ‘person’ has come to be used in philosophical parlance to denote that which enables the most basic and rudimentary conceptualization of a narrative sense of first-person being.1

Who Needs to Be Taught a Self, and Why?

The locus classicus in early Madhyamaka for the benefits of a...


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