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John AbramsonJohn Abramson is retired and lives in the Lake District in Cumbria, England. He obtained an MSc in Transpersonal Psychology and Consciousness Studies in 2011 when Les Lancaster and Mike Daniels ran this course at Liverpool John Moores University. He is currently studying for a distance learning Buddhist Studies MA at the University of South Wales. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Towards a greater understanding of the Mâdhyamaka 'Absolute'

Through an investigation into its misunderstanding
in the field of Transpersonal Psychology

John Abramson


This dissertation identifies a substantial opposition among many Buddhist scholars to the authenticity of an Absolute interpretation of reality in Mâdhyamaka. Its thesis is that this opposition is profoundly mistaken, but not in the sense that an Absolute interpretation of reality is correct and a non-Absolute interpretation is incorrect. An account of reality in Mâdhyamaka is articulated that argues not only are both interpretations correct but, despite their apparent contradiction, they can be presented as mutually compatible. The methodology for presenting this account is centred on a robust comparison of well-known exemplars of Absolutist and non-Absolutist accounts of reality in Mâdhyamaka. Firstly this is implemented by an emic Mâdhyamaka comparison of Jay Garfield's non-Absolutist and T.R.V. Murti's Absolutist accounts of reality. For Garfield, this comparison draws on a selection of his work that is intended to be a proxy for the tide of scholarly opinion that often cites Murti's work as a paradigm of its anti-Absolutist views of reality in Mâdhyamaka. Secondly, I turn to, arguably, the two most prominent figures in the field of Transpersonal Psychology to provide a similarly stimulating but etic comparison from that discipline's perspective of reality in Mâdhyamaka. Thus I compare Jorge Ferrer's non-Absolutist and Ken Wilber's Absolutist account of reality in Mâdhyamaka. I conclude that reality in Mâdhyamaka is perennialist and panentheistic and thereby embraces both Absolutist and non-Absolutist versions of reality; and tie this in with Buddha's famous story of the elephant and the blind men. Finally I suggest the properties of infinity can provide additional explanatory power to this conclusion.

An extract from the above
16,000 word dissertation follows ……

Absolutist and non-Absolutist interpretations of Mâdhyamaka

As stated ad nauseam, a central proposition of this dissertation is that both an Absolutist and a non-Absolutist interpretation of Mâdhyamaka Buddhism are valid.

As stated ad nauseam, a central proposition of this dissertation is that both an Absolutist and a non-Absolutist interpretation of Mâdhyamaka Buddhism are valid. By contrast, most scholars of Mâdhyamaka tend to construe this interpretation either one way or the other. T.R.V. Murti's work, for example, is widely cited in terms of an absolutist interpretation of Mâdhyamaka and Jay Garfield's work is generally regarded as an exemplar of a non-Absolute explanation of Mâdhyamaka.

Any attempt to provide an insight into an Absolute interpretation of ultimate reality in Mâdhyamaka, has to contend with an apparently impossible difficulty i.e. that 'Absolute' is asserted to be beyond or transcendent to language and reason e.g.

  • “In the Mâdhyamaka, … the Absolute is non-conceptual and non-empirical; it is realised in a transcendent non-dual experience” (Murti, 1960, p.236);
  • “The Absolute in itself is indeterminate …; no category of thought applies to it” (ibid p.238)
  • “The Real (tattva) is invariably defined, in the Madhyamika treatises, as transcendent to thought, as non-relative, non-determinate, quiescent, non-discursive, non-dual”. (ibid, p.228).

Such negations expressed by Murti, concerning the Absolute, are echoed by many other Buddhist scholars e.g.  “In Indian Mahayana Buddhism … the supreme truth/reality is often said to be beyond the reach of words.” (Ho, 2012, p.1). Both Absolute and non-Absolute interpretations of reality in Mâdhyamaka Buddhism are primarily founded on an analysis of Nâgârjuna's writings e.g. Műlamadhyamakakârikâ XV111, 9:

Not dependent on another, peaceful and
Not fabricated by mental fabrication,
Not thought, without distinctions,
That is the character of reality (that-ness).

(Translation by Garfield, 1995, p.251)

It is instructive to review Garfield's commentary on the above since I argue that this can support either an Absolutist (following Murti, 1955), or a non-Absolutist version of reality whereas Garfield appears to reject an Absolute interpretation:

Murti's interpretation [of MK 18:9 is] … carried too far, with the consequence that Nâgârjuna is seen as a thoroughgoing Kantian absolutist regarding the ultimate truth (Garfield, 1995, p.252, n.97)

In the context of two other stanza's, MK 24: 18 & 19, Garfield quotes Murti saying “Tattva, or the Real, is something in itself, self-evident, and self-existent. … Only the Absolute as the unconditioned is real … (Murti, 1955, p.16)”. Garfield's comment on this confirms his non-Absolutist view of how reality should be interpreted according to Nâgârjuna:

This represents as clear a statement as one would like of the position that the conventional/ultimate distinction is a version of an appearance/reality or phenomenon/noumenon distinction, a position I read Nâgârjuna as at pains to refute. (Garfield, 1995, p.306, n.119)

Murti is apparently consistent throughout his writing in representing only an absolutist version of Mâdhyamaka: “I have interpreted Śūnyatā and the doctrine of Two Truths as a kind of Absolutism …” (Murti, 1983, p.194). Yet if this is the case, as it surely is, then why does Murti (1960) point out that emptiness is itself empty which is a central non-Absolutist doctrine of, for example, Tsongkhapa's teachings and the Gelugpa tradition?

Importance attaches to the fourth [of the twenty] mode of Śūnyatā of Śūnyatā. The criticism that everything is relative, unreal (Śūnya) may be thought to stand out as a reality; when all things are rejected, the rejection itself could not be rejected. This would, however, be a misconception. The rejection itself is as much relative, unreal, as the rejected; because, it is unintelligible without the latter. (Murti, 1983, p.353).

I argue that this endorsement by Murti of the emptiness of emptiness is from a conventional (see the reference below to “like the extracting of a thorn by another thorn”) but not an ultimate perspective:

But the rejection of the dialectical criticism (Śūnyatā) does not mean the reinstatement of the reality of the phenomenal world; it merely means that in rejecting the unreal we have to resort to means that are themselves of the same order, like the extracting of a thorn by another thorn. (ibid).

Thus from a conventional perspective, Murti would agree that emptiness is itself empty. But from an ultimate perspective he interprets emptiness as Absolute; although it is important to note that he recognises that Absolute can only be expressed indirectly as an ascription mark:

The Absolute does not possess any attribute of its own; but its presence can be indicated even by an ascribed mark … It is asked: How can the anaksara (literally, the Inexpressible) be understood and taught (declared)? The Absolute is known as the reality of the appearances, what they falsely stand for. By discovering, removing, the superimposed character of phenomena, the true nature of the absolute is revealed. … There is no other means of expressing the inexpressible. (Murti, 1960, p.232).

Thus although Murti is often depicted as an out and out Absolutist in his interpretation of Reality in Mâdhyamaka (as suggested by the quotes in the Introduction), his actual position on this is more subtle as indicated above.

By contrast with Murti, as indicated in earlier sections, Jay Garfield has consistently over many years in his many works explained that emptiness is itself empty from both a conventional and an ultimate perspective. He therefore reflects a non-Absolutist account of reality according to Mâdhyamaka. The next section considers one of Garfield's most recent writings on this subject.

Garfield's Recent Account of Ultimate Truth

Consider therefore an account of ultimate truth by Garfield earlier this year (2015, p.240):

  1. The ultimate truth is, from a Buddhist perspective, emptiness.
  2. Emptiness in Madhyamaka thought is the emptiness of inherent existence, not of existence simpliciter.
  3. To be empty of inherent existence is to exist only conventionally, only as the object of conventional truth.
  4. The ultimate truth about any phenomenon, on the analysis of this doctrine I have been defending, is hence that it is merely a conventional truth.
  5. Ontologically, therefore, the two truths are absolutely identical.

Commentary on the above five points:

  1. Both 'Absolutists' and 'non-Absolutists' would agree that ultimate truth is emptiness in Buddhism.
  2. This is counter to the content of Garfield's foreword to Thakchoe (2007) in which he implies acceptance of one of Thakchoe's central propositions. That is, Tsongkhapa's and Gorampa's respective propositions of the way Mâdhyamaka should be interpreted i.e.
    1. non-Absolutist (which follows from emptiness 'is the emptiness of inherent existence') and
    2. Absolutist (which follows from emptiness 'is the emptiness of existence simpliciter', because the referent of 'emptiness simpliciter' is emptiness itself rather than the inherent existence of emptiness) are both scripturally soundly based. Thus Garfield, in his foreword to Thakchoe (2007), appears to accept there are valid grounds for emptiness in Mâdhyamaka thought to be either the emptiness of inherent existence or the emptiness of existence simpliciter.
  3. Both 'Absolutists' and 'non-Absolutists' would agree with this provided it relates to phenomena other than emptiness; albeit they would disagree on the referent of conventional truth and reality e.g. as conventionally 'real' by the non-Absolutist Gelugpas and just 'empty' in Murti's Absolutist interpretation. If on the other hand it were to be related to emptiness (as for example Garfield and the Gelugpa tradition would say it does) then as indicated in the previous section my understanding of the position of an Absolutist such as Murti is:
    1. From a conventional perspective, emptiness is empty of inherent existence and from this conventional perspective emptiness can only be the object of conventional truth. Thus, somewhat surprisingly, there appears to be implicit agreement here between a non-Absolutist such as Garfield and an Absolutist such as Murti.
    2. From an ultimate perspective Murti would insist emptiness itself is 'Absolute' (while stressing there is no conventional referent for 'Absolute' as explained in the above section). Thus it appears the difference between absolutists and non-absolutists is at an ultimate but not a conventional perspective. From a soteriological point of view this is very significant since prior to realizing emptiness everyone is necessarily restricted to a first person conventional view. This point is considered in more depth in a later section.
  4. Leaving aside whether Garfield is strictly correct on the basis of the doctrine he expounds, I argue that a general proposition that “the ultimate truth about any phenomenon … is merely a conventional truth” is incorrect. Firstly this is because Garfield implies, wrongly in my opinion, that ultimate truth is singular i.e. He says 'The ultimate truth', and 'it [ultimate truth] is merely a conventional truth'; thus excluding the possibility that ultimate truth could additionally be something other than conventional truth. Insofar as Garfield does attribute singularity to ultimate truth this is, according to what Garfield has said elsewhere, incorrect: “nothing can be literally said of thing from such a standpoint [i.e. the standpoint of ultimate truth] (Garfield, 1995, p.280). Secondly, where Garfield says that 'ultimate truth … is merely a conventional truth' this can be taken to mean there is no ultimate. In this connection, Gold (2015, p.236) comments “as many Mâdhyamakas take it, there is no ultimate”. But if there are other equally valid Mâdhyamaka interpretations of ultimate reality – and I argue that an 'Absolute' interpretation (e.g. Murti, 1955) is one such – then any argument that Mâdhyamakas assert that there is no ultimate is problematic. I argue below that a 'no ultimate' argument is correct only from a conventional perspective but not from an ultimate point of view.
  5. It follows that I disagree with Garfield when he interprets Nâgârjuna's texts to say, 'Ontologically, therefore, the two truths are absolutely identical' (emphasis added). Rather, Garfield can only reach this conclusion if his interpretation of Nâgârjuna's account of ultimate truth is the only way ultimate truth can be described. But as argued above, that singular approach to providing an account of ultimate truth cannot be justified. That is not to say, however, that Garfield has not provided a coherent account of ultimate reality; he has. But what is problematic is that he apparently precludes other (possibly conflicting) coherent accounts. Indeed, as Garfield says, “[Nâgârjuna] does not shy away from paradox or apparent contradiction … The commentarial traditions grounded in his texts present a plethora of interpretations of his view“(Garfield and Priest 2002, p.86). Thus Garfield has not shown that the two truths are absolutely identical. It would be a different matter had Garfield pointed out that it is, for example, a doctrinarian assertion by the Gelugpa tradition that the two truths are absolutely identical. But this is not how Garfield presents it, rather my reading of Garfield's 'the two truths are absolutely identical' is that it implies it is the only result of ultimate analysis.

It is instructive to consider one of the above points Garfield appears to be making in greater detail i.e. that Mâdhyamakas argue there is no ultimate. Gold (2015, p.237) argues that since the ultimate is beyond description, such an argument cannot refer to any 'real' ultimate and tentatively concludes, similar to the conclusion in '4.' above, that it is only valid to say there is no ultimate from a conventional perspective. His reservation is that this seems to involve acceptance that one can conceptually grasp something about the 'real' ultimate, which would be incoherent. However, I suggest 'ultimate' in 'it is only valid to say there is no ultimate from a conventional perspective' must, in order to be coherent, mean a conventional dictionary description of ultimate.

The Central Philosophy of Buddhism

To conclude this section, I have argued that Garfield's (2015) account of ultimate reality, or at least as it is reflected in the five points above, is only valid from a conventional perspective. To understand this in relation to Garfield's arguments it is useful to note that Garfield appears to be saying something similar e.g. a) 'To be empty of inherent existence is to exist only conventionally' and b) 'the ultimate truth about any phenomenon, on the analysis of this doctrine I have been defending, is hence that it is merely a conventional truth'. However, a crucial difference between my argument and these similar sounding arguments from Garfield is that Garfield, in examples a) and b) above, precludes an absolute interpretation of emptiness which I have implied is as viable an outcome of ultimate analysis as a non-Absolute interpretation. Provided however, Garfield's account is only a reflection of an ordinary persons perspective e.g. not the perspective of an Ârya or a Buddha, then the objections I have raised above do not apply and I therefore concur with Garfield's account on this restricted basis. This restricted agreement leaves the issue of an Absolutist interpretation of ultimate reality open, as opposed to Garfield's account which denies such a possibility.


Garfield, J.L. (1995). The fundamental wisdom of the middle way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Garfield, Jay. (2015) Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Garfield and Priest (2002) Nagarjuna and the Limits to Thought in Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross Cultural Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gold, Jonathan (2015) Without Karma and Nirvaa, Buddhism is Nihilism: The Yogacara Contribution to the Doctrine of Emptiness. In Madhyamaka and Yogacara: Allies or Rivals? Ed. Garfield, Jay; Westerhoff, Jan. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ho, Chien-hsing. (2012) The Nonduality of Speech and Silence: A Comparative Analysis of Jizang’s Thought on Language and Beyond. Dao, March 2012, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 1-19

Murti, T.R.V. (1955) The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Murti, T.R.V. (1960) 2nd Ed. The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Murti, T.R.V. (1983) Samvrti and Paramartha in Madhyamika and Advaita Vedanta. In Studies in Indian Thought: The Collected Papers of Professor T.R.V. Murti. Ed. Coward, Harold. 1983.

Thakchoe, Sonam (2007) The Two Truths Debate: Tsongkhapa and Gorampa on the Middle Way. Massachusetts: Wisdom Publicatios Inc.

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