I hope the following passage I’ve written on Nagarjuna will be of use for this discussion on the nature of self. The passage is from a manuscript I’ve just completed on silence and postmodernism.
Nagarjuna’s thinking is deeply conversant with silence and with the use of paradox as well. For him, contradictory things are never “either/or,” but are always “both/and.” Refusing to choose between opposing metaphysical problems, he would recommend responding through silence instead. For an example of his reductive reasoning process, consider the following: Whatever is dependently co-arisen That is explained to be emptiness. That, being a dependent designation, Is itself the middle way. Something that is not dependently arisen Such a thing does not exist. Therefore a nonempty thing Does not exist. Nagarjuna is criticizing the common paradoxical occurrence that when we attribute abstract concepts (“something that does not dependently exist”) like emptiness to the status of “reality” (like we do with the Platonic forms), then they seem to be applicable to everything, while on the other hand when we emphasize instead the individual uniqueness and particularity of any one thing (“whatever is dependently co-arisen”), this emphasis makes it impossible to categorize its likeness with other things. Nagarjuna’s point is that the abstract concept of emptiness and the concrete nature of any particular empty thing are in fact codependent. He calls this codependency “Conditioned Arising.” His “middle way” resolves the paradox by viewing neither the abstract idea nor the concrete thing as having a separate reality — both instead are characterized as “‘thought constructions’ founded on experience.’ As such, they are not absolutely real or absolutely unreal. …This middle path could thus be adopted in understanding all forms of experience, whether they be linguistic, social, political, moral, or religious.” Another way of approaching an understanding of the middle way has to do with recognizing it as constituting a resolution of the identity/difference problem. According to standard Buddhist doctrine the most dangerous false view possible is the belief in a permanent, independent self (also commonly referred to as the concept of identity). This notion of self is symptomatic of our deepest fears, concerning things like death and the possibility of our personal nonexistence. The concept of difference, which is the other side of the problem, is the belief that nothing is real; it also asserts the absence of all identities. This position would lead to the most mundane things becoming unintelligible. Nagarjuna’s solution to this problem is his assertion that neither identity nor difference is real. Both notions, when seen properly, are “empty” of self-essence. They can exist only together and not separately. Nagarjuna’s way of resolving this problem, by pointing to the interdependency of identity and difference, is remarkably similar to the one proposed by Merleau-Ponty many years later. Steve Bindeman
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