Words and Conventional Truths— The Question of Language in Buddhism 5 May 2015

background - dýha čtverec světláLanguage is unequivocally important in everyday life – you wouldn’t be reading this without it. But the importance of language has been questioned in the history of philosophy and religion—not least amongst the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist thought. Can language truly represent a barrier to Buddhist enlightenment?

Before considering the thought behind such a philosophical position, it is worth reviewing how such a philosophy could gain credence. For most, the notion of existence without language is hard to accept, whilst the idea that dialect could prove a hindrance to spiritual progression, is preposterous. After all, words shape our construction of the physical world. The debate over the expediency of language is surely answered before it has begun. But what occurs when the natural thought construction attached to language is removed? At the simplest level words are mere lines on a page. The production of a letter is made up of a series of strokes arranged in an unambiguous formation. It is only through context and understanding that these lines attain meaning to become sentences, paragraphs and in this case, an article.

Nagarjuna and the Madhyamaka School of Thought

Nagarjuna (c.150 – c.250 CE) is widely held as the one of the most prominent Buddhist philosophers, second only to the most important Buddhist figure of all, Gautama Buddha (c.566 BCE or c.486 BCE). Understood to have founded the Buddhist school of Madhyamaka thought, Nagarjuna’s philosophy was anchored around the concept of śūnyatā (emptiness). The emptiness of which this concept speaks, refers to the belief that all sentient beings lack independent existence. All things are hence subject to dependent origination and thus arise as a product of numerous causes and conditions. According to Nagarjuna, language is no different. Language and all other things lacking independent existence make up the realm of samsara and are conventional, effectively superficial, truths, whereas nirvana is seen as the ultimate truth, a realm where attachment and suffering cease to exist.

Nagarjuna’s central text, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, or Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way, explains the realm of samsara. It says of all empty, samsaric things, “Whatever is dependently co-arisen, that is explained to be emptiness”. Language is subject to such conditions and is thus considered to be nothing more than a conventional truth and a hindrance to attaining the spiritual goal of nirvana. But does this mean that a dedicated Buddhist should revoke language altogether?

Judging from further comments in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, it would seem that language must be abandoned before enlightenment can be achieved, “For him whom emptiness [śūnyatā] is clear, everything becomes clear”. Such a belief affirms the place of words as conventional and not ultimate truths, yet this does not mean that language serves no purpose in Buddhism.

The Parable of the Raft

A famous Buddhist parable speaks of a raft crossing a river. The raft is said to signify the dhamma, or Buddha’s teachings, while the shore from which the raft departed is representative of the conditioned world of samsara. The opposite shore is symbolic of the ultimate truth—nirvana, or enlightenment.

The parable exemplifies that language and wisdom can serve to carry one across the realm of conventional truth into the summum bonum of nirvana. It does not however, detail that language is an ultimate truth, but that one must detach themselves from the dhamma before they can transfer from the raft to the shore—from samsara to nirvana.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Questions over the use and significance of language have existed outside Buddhist philosophy, with a significant argument presented by the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). Wittgenstein identifies language as the source of philosophical complications, likening it to a game. The denotation of a word is reliant on “the rules which one learns to play this game”. Consequently, when words are spoken in dissimilar contexts they can be understood differently, or lose meaning entirely. Thus, we witness parallels between Wittgenstein’s language concerns and the Madhyamaka depiction of language as a conventional truth, reliant on other conditions to come into being. If language can be understood differently in an altered context, then this enhances the claim that words themselves lack independent existence.

Implications for Society and Buddhism

The implications from the downplaying of the inherent existence of language might suggest to some that Buddhists seeking spiritual progress should not speak. This would be an untrue claim, although some monastics in certain Buddhist traditions do practice a vow of silence. On a practical level, the use of silence has been incorporated into Buddhist practice during some forms of meditation, chiefly in Mahayana Buddhism.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, Zazen meditation is the primary form of religious practice. This meditation can involve chanting, but ordinarily is practised in silence. With Zen Buddhism gravitated towards unearthing one’s inner Buddha nature, this primary act of religiosity shows just how important silence and non-attachment are perceived in the quest to extinguish the three poisons of greed, hatred and ignorance.

The Madhyamaka view of language raises questions that link to other aspects of Buddhism in modern society. In the wake of an increasing interest in spirituality, Buddhism has grown increasingly popular in the West, yet has often been reconvened into a personal comfort, fashion or style choice, as opposed to a religion. The inherent emptiness of language is not dissimilar to the emptiness of the Buddhist artefacts becoming increasingly present in popular culture. While Buddhist statues and thangka paintings have been popularised, they have served to increase attachment and, in-turn, polarise the true goal of Buddhism. The Buddha has been upheld as an idol, a detail that goes against his original teachings.

Buddhists can certainly learn much from Madhyamaka philosophy. A complete abandonment of language may seem a step too far, though consideration for the concept of śūnyatā and language helps contemplate the true dependent nature of all samsaric things. Perhaps, for one to reach nirvana, they must ultimately let the raft, and all the attachment associated with it, drift away.

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About Samuel Jones

Samuel graduated from the University of Manchester with a BA Hons degree in the Study of Religion and Theology.  Since then he has been working predominantly as a Sports writer but also exploring his interest in religion.

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