Reading and interpreting Buddhist Madhyamaka texts: an overview of useful resources from the Smith College in Northampton, MA, as written by Andy Rotman, of the Religion Department Smith College.

I wanted to let you know that the videotaped proceedings of “Madhyamaka & Methodology: A Symposium on Buddhist Theory and Method,” which took place at Smith College in Northampton, MA in April 2010, are now available online. You can watch them on the site, and you can also download them for free and watch them on iTunes.

Here’s the link:

The three-day symposium extended a conversation that was begun in 2008 in two articles in the Journal of Indian Philosophy — one by C. W. Huntington of Hartwick College, and the other by Jay Garfield of Smith College — on the question of how to read and interpret Buddhist Madhyamaka texts. The crux of the issue is how to make sense of the argumentation that we find in these texts, while also taking seriously the Madhyamaka critique of all views, theses and propositions. According to Madhyamaka proponents, all phenomena are empty of “self nature” or “essence,” meaning that they have no intrinsic, independent reality apart from the causes and conditions from which they arise.

Arguing for a literary reading of Nāgārjuna (the founder of the Madhyamaka school in the second century CE), Huntington asserts that philosophers who seek to understand Madhyamaka through modern symbolic logic end up missing the point of Nāgārjuna’s enterprise, for in treating Madhyamaka texts as a form of denatured discourse, they fail to engage with the metaphorical and affective dimensions of his language. Responding to this charge, Garfield holds that not only is Nāgārjuna’s logic very interesting, but it’s also in no way antithetical to his rejection of views, theses and positions. Garfield thus defends the use of symbolic logic as well as the general approach of reading Nāgārjuna’s arguments in terms of rational categories familiar to students of Anglo-American analytic philosophy.

The symposium featured more than twenty scholars from across America and Europe, each of whom had the opportunity to respond to these two papers and to present their own ideas on the topic. There were philosophers and historians, textualists and ethnographers, specialists in logic, literature and tantra as well as India, Tibet and East Asia. These scholars espoused a range of viewpoints, with many complementary yet opposing perspectives and areas of expertise, hence the proceedings functioned as a high level and heated conversation. Presenters spoke pointedly for fifteen minutes, addressing pre-circulated questions about Madhyamaka and Methodology as well as the original papers by Huntington and Garfield. What ensued was a conceptually focused dialogue in which people had the opportunity to distill their thinking about method, highlight their interests and concerns and respond to others doing the same.

We hope that this symposium will be of interest to a wide variety of scholars, whether in Buddhist studies (across discipline and region) or in religion or philosophy. The study of Madhyamaka has long been central to the study of Buddhism, guiding the methodological orientation for the field of Buddhist studies as well its understanding of the relationship between text and practice. The question of how best to make sense of premodern texts with modern theory is surely one that confronts many scholars, and we were fortunate to have some of the best scholars in Buddhist studies addressing this problem through a series of brilliant texts that thwart any easy answer.

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