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Madhyamaka in Tibet: Thinking Through the Ultimate Truth

Douglas Duckworth 1

1Temple University

Candidate

ABSTRACT

This paper is a philosophical reconstruction of dominant interpretative strands of Madhyamaka thought in Tibet. I distinguish features of Tibetan interpretations of Madhyamaka from what Mark Siderits has characterized as the view of Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka, and in particular, his claim that for Nāgārjuna, an ultimate truth is an incoherent notion. In doing so, I make a case for an interpretation of Madhyamaka that is compatible with Yogācāra, with particular attention to an interpretation offered by Mipam (1846-1912). Mipam’s presentation bridges Madhyamaka and Yogācāra by articulating an inconceivable unity of the two truths. I will argue that an inconceivable ultimate is compatible with Yogācāra and Madhyamaka by drawing attention to Madhyamaka as a system of interpretation that acknowledges all truths as framework-dependent. That is, since all truths are relative to a particular framework in Madhyamaka, framework-dependent truths are always only conventional, or relative truths; there are no framework-independent truths. Yet the structure of the framework itself is “unframeable” (beyond the scope of thought and expression) because discrete truths are necessarily conceived within a particular framework. What transcends the boundaries of the framework (and cannot be completely enframed within it) is the ultimate truth. Whereas emptiness is the principal metaphor for ultimate truth in Madhyamaka, the inexpressible (unenframed) ultimate is expressed in different ways in Yogācāra: in terms such as the “dependent nature” (paratantra) and the “basic consciousness” (ālayavijñāna). An inconceivable ultimate is certainly consistent with Yogācāra, but need not conflict with a Madhayamaka interpretation. This is because, while the ground of things is empty, it is also dependently arisen (and dependence is dependent, too, just as emptiness is empty).

Citation status

* References for papers published after 2022 are currently being built.