Excerpt: Buddhism Between Religion and Philosophy, by Rafal Stepien

Read a brief of Buddhism Between Religion and Philosophy: Nāgārjuna and the Ethics of Emptiness by Rafal K. Stepien, and an exclusive excerpt courtesy of its publisher, Oxford University Press.

By Rafal K. Stepien

Constance Kassor’s review from the Summer 2024 Buddhadharma:

Many readers still understand Nagarjuna as a philosopher who offers arguments that can be considered independently, isolated from a broader religious context. Rafal Stepien considers this in his book, Buddhism Between Religion and Philosophy: Nāgārjuna and the Ethics of Emptiness (Oxford). Stepien argues that contemporary interpreters have placed too much emphasis on ensuring that Nagarjuna is palatable to Western analytic philosophers. As a result, much attention has been placed on the author’s so-called “philosophical” works that are concerned with metaphysics and epistemology, while ignoring his more “religious” concerns with ethics and liberation. This book is an attempt to correct that Eurocentric approach. It reconsiders  contemporary philosophical views on Nagarjuna’s writings from a more holistic standpoint, and attempts to avoid imposing western philosophical ideals on topics such as the tetralemma, emptiness, and ethics. While this book ought to be required reading for those whose understanding of Nagarjuna is primarily informed by Western analytic lenses, it is also clear enough to be useful to those who are attempting to understand Nagarjuna’s thought without such prior baggage.

[Please note that the text from which this excerpt derives makes use of footnotes and diacriticals; these are not represented in this excerpt.]

The Excerpt:


Emptiness Between the Lines:
Reading Buddhist Philosophy of/and/as Religion

0.0. The Dream Is Over

Fettered by the fetter of beliefs, the ignorant ordinary person is not freed from birth, ageing, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair; he is not freed from suffering, I say.

—The Buddha, Sabbāsava Sutta (All the Taints)

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re wrong. Speaking for myself, I can call to mind all-too-many instances of being wrong, occasions when some ‘truth’ I believed in turned out not to be true at all. Surely you have been there too, so presumably it shouldn’t be too hard for us to reconstruct what it means for belief to morph into disbelief. Usually (at least for those of us not biased beyond redress or living in a ‘post-truth’ world), we take this transformation to be a good thing: in being shown that a given belief is false, we exchange it for another, which we now take to be true. That’s called learning, and without it we would be lost, right? But what if being in the wrong is a question not of any particular beliefs, but of belief as such? What if believing is itself the problem, and the solution is to break free from its bonds? This book is an extended meditation on this idea, with the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (c. 150–250 ce) as our guide.

Before we get to Nagarjuna, though, let’s pause for a moment to consider the nature of ‘the problem’ itself. The First Noble Truth uttered in the very first discourse delivered by the Buddha upon his enlightenment is the truth of suffering, duhkha.

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering. (Bodhi 2000: 1844, slightly altered)

By the ‘five aggregates’ (skandhas), the Buddha is referring to body/form (rupa), feeling (vedana), perception/cognition (samjna), mental formations (samskara), and discerning consciousness (vijnana). It is a foundational tenet of Buddhist philosophy that these five comprise the totality of the person, who is thus absent of substantial selfhood. This is the gist of the anatman doctrine. The long and short of this first and founding truth of Buddhism, then, is that suffering is an unavoidable feature of life. Its sheer ubiquity is underlined by the fact that, for Buddhists, duhkha

encapsulates many subtleties of meaning, but its application spans pain, suffering, disappointment, frustration, things going badly, hassle, unease, anxiety, stress, disease, unsatisfactoriness, non-reliability of people and things, limitation, imperfection. It sums up the problematic aspects of life: its mental and physical pains, obvious or subtle, and also the painful, stressful, unsatisfactory aspects of life that engender these. (Harvey 2013a: 26)

Fortunately, the Buddha does not stop there, but goes on, in the remaining three Noble Truths, to describe the cause of suffering (its samudaya; i.e., trsna / or thirst/craving), the cessation of suffering (its nirodha; i.e., nirvana), and the way to attain such liberation (its marga; i.e., aryastangamarga / or the Noble Eightfold Path).

Importantly for our purposes, this eightfold path—the very heart of Buddhist ethics—begins with ‘right view’ (samyag-dristi). To hold right view is to see reality aright, and reality, according to the Buddha, is characterized by the operation of causality: “the central feature of Buddhist ontology” (P. Williams 2000: 64). Causality (idampratyayata) states that “When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases to be” (e.g., Bodhi 2000: 579). This in fact underpins the impermanence (anitya) and selflessness (anatman) which, along with duhkha, comprise the three marks (trilaksana) of samsaric existence in the Buddhist worldview. For the fact of things being causally dependent entails the phenomenal working of causally conditioned origination and cessation (hence impermanence), the absence of a causally (or otherwise) in-dependent selfbeing (svabhava) (hence no-self), and the unavoidability of dissatisfaction so long as one continues to grasp for what are thus seen to be evanescent and essenceless phenomena (hence suffering). The causal conditioning characterizing samsaric existence leads sentient beings such as us to cycle again and again around the wheel of dependent co-origination (pratitya-samutpada). Crucially for the entire Buddhist endeavor, causality not only engendered this mêlée but allows a way out of it, for causality occasions cessation just as it does origination. This is evident already in the formulation of the Second, Third, and Fourth Noble Truths, which, as we have seen, identify the cause of the problem, its causally brought about cessation, and the manner of causally bringing about that cessation.

To see causality at work is therefore the first step toward seeing reality aright, attaining ‘right view’. Ignorance (avidya) is the opposite of this vi- sion, the first link in the wheel of blind enchainment. Since it is principally by means of ignorance that samsaric suffering arises, it makes perfect sense that the attainment of right view should prove the prime factor in leading one toward the ultimate liberation from suffering known as nirvana. It is the extirpation of ignorance that drives the soteries and the soteriology of Buddhism. Ignorance itself naturally admits of many sorts and shades. Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka school accepts that what we hold to be mundane conventional truths may be right or wrong, or admit degrees of rightness and wrongness. At this level (the level of conventional truth: samvrti-satya or vyavahara-satya), to be shown wrong is to be shown ignorant of what are merely contingent facts. Having our conventional beliefs shown up as wrong may shake our self-assurance, but immediately we reassert ourselves: I may have been wrong before, but now I’m right. The deeper ignorance, ignorance at the level of ultimate truth (paramartha-satya), is not touched by such superficial rightings. For to eradicate ignorance—and with it suffering— completely, one must attain to the Buddha’s insight, and thus to an altogether other “order of seeing, completely different from the attitude of holding to any view, wrong or right” (Fuller 2005: 1).

This book will attempt to unpack just what such abandonment of all views could possibly mean (spoiler: it means you stop searching for what it—or anything else—could possibly mean . . .). As a first step, recall that arising, abiding, and ceasing as a whole denote the very reach of samsara the realm of causally conditioned existence characterized as sufferful by the Buddha in the formulation of the very foundations of Buddhist philosophy, the Four Noble Truths.

Now look at what Nāgārjuna says:

Like an illusion, like a dream

Like a castle in the sky

So has arising, so has

abiding So has ceasing been


How can he say this? Doesn’t this dreamy dismissal directly contradict the Buddha? Well, in the title to this section I referred to the song “God,” in which John Lennon (that much later guru and pandit), having identified God as “a concept / By which we measure our pain,” sings:

And so, dear friends

You’ll just have to carry on

The dream is over

In the context of universal suffering caused by desireful grasping borne of ignorant belief-holding, the only way to really carry on, for Nagarjuna, is by letting go of all ideals and authorities as illusory: ‘killing the Buddha’, as a much later Buddhist thinker would put it. Believing being tantamount to dreaming, it turns out that we only awaken in nirvana when all our dreaming is over, and we are finally freed from the fetter of beliefs.

0.1. Nagarjuna and the Ethics of Emptiness

Following the Buddha himself, Nagarjuna is the most important and influen- tial of all Buddhist philosophers. The Madhyamaka or Middle Way school of Buddhist philosophy he founded became central to the history of Mahayana Buddhist thought in India, Tibet, China, Japan, and other Asian countries over some two millennia. Given the sheer foundational importance of Nagarjuna to the myriad trajectories of Mahayana Buddhist intellectual history in subsequent centuries throughout South, North, and East Asia, it is completely understandable that his thought should have been the subject of intense interest in recent years among scholars seeking to bring Buddhist texts and ideas to the forefront of attention in cross-cultural philosophy.

Unfortunately, however, much of this work has been beset by two interrelated problems. First, pronounced emphasis has been placed on rendering Nagarjuna (along with his Buddhist philosophical heirs and brethren) as palatable as possible to contemporary, and particularly analytic, philosophers.

From Buddhism Between Religion and Philosophy: Nāgārjuna and the Ethicsof Emptiness by Rafal K. Stepien. Copyright © 2024 by Rafal K. Stepien and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. We thank Oxford University Press for providing this excerpt, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

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Rafal K. Stepien

Rafal K. Stepien is Research Associate and European Research Council Principal Investigator within the Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. He also serves as Associate Editor of the Journal of Buddhist Philosophy, and his publications include Buddhist Literature as Philosophy, Buddhist Philosophy as Literature. He has held the inaugural Berggruen Research Fellowship in Indian Philosophy at Oxford, the inaugural Cihui Foundation Faculty Fellowship in Chinese Buddhism at Columbia, an Exchange Scholarship in the Study of Religion at Harvard, and a Humboldt Research Fellowship in Buddhist Studies at Heidelberg University.