The Deconstruction of Buddhism
by David R. Loy

Coward & Foshay ed., Derrida and Negative Theology
(Suny Press, 1992)
pp. 227-253



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What is interesting about Buddhism, from a deconstructive point of view,is that it is both onto-theological (therefore what-needs-to-be-deconstructed) and deconstructive (providing a different example of how-to-deconstruct). What is interesting about Derrida's type of deconstruction, from a Buddhist point of view, is that it is logocentric.

    What Derrida says about philosophy, that it "always re-appropriates for itself the discourse that delimits it", is equally true of Buddhism. Like all religions, Buddhism includes a strong onto-theological element, yet it also contains the resources that have repeatedly deconstructed this tendency. Thanks to sensitivities that Derrida's texts have helped to develop, it is possible to understand the Buddhist tradition as a history of this struggle between deconstructive delimitation and metaphysical re-appropriation, between a message that undermines all security by undermining the sense-of-self that seeks security, and a countervailing tendency to dogmatize and institutionalize that challenge. According to this version of deconstruction, however, Derrida's approach is still logocentric, for what needs to be decon-



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structed is not just language but the world we live in and the way we live in it, trapped within a cage of our own making -- "bound by our own rope," to use the Zen phrase. [1]

    The consequence of this struggle has been a self-consciousness about those aporias of negative theology that Derrida points out in "Denegations": hyperessentiality; the secret society's secret that there is no secret; "the homology of hierarchy which leads to that which situates itself beyond all position"; the promise, the order and the waiting. All these aspects are to be found in Buddhism, but, rather than being tendencies that need to be exposed, the history of Buddhist thought is the history of making these problems central and deconstructing them by revealing the logocentricity that motivates them. As we shall see, Buddhist philosophy has been preoccupied with refuting any tendency to postulate a transcendental-signified, including any "hyperessentialism." The Buddha himself emphasized that he had no secret, although that did not stop later generations from attributing one to him; insofar as the solution to Zen koans might be considered a secret, Zen teachers emphasize that that answer is always quite obvious; in fact, our inability to see the obvious is precisely the point. The sangha (community of monks and nuns) that the Buddha established has been called the world's first democracy; in contrast to the Hindu caste system, hierarchy was determined solely by when one joined. There is no "order" from any transcendental being that requires one to practice Buddhism; in contrast to Mosaic law, the Buddhist precepts (to avoid killing, stealing, etc.) are vows one makes to oneself to try to live in a certain way. The "promise" of Buddhism is quite pragmatic; in his talk to the Kalamas (praised as the first "charter of free inquiry") the Buddha emphasized that they should not accept any religious doctrine until they had tried it out for themselves and seen how it changed their lives. Finally, "waiting" (more generally, any expectations) has been repeatedly identified as the most problematic tendency in meditative practice. [2]

    Buddhism begins with the Buddha (literally,"the Awake"), c. 563-483 B.C. The usual problem of legendary origins is further complicated by the fact that the Buddha, like Socrates and Christ, wrote nothing; I don't know why, since as far as I know he had no objections against writing. (Given the



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difficulties of translation, the Buddha's attitude is noteworthy: When two disciples sought permission to translate his vernacular teachings into classical Sanskrit verse, he refused, saying that in each region the teachings should be presented in the local language.) Unlike the brief career of Christ, the Buddha lived for 45 years after his enlightenment, leaving behind extensive oral teachings later recorded in the Pali Canon, which is approximately eleven times the length of the Bible. One of the most striking things about this voluminous material is that it says so much about the path to nirvana and so little about nirvana itself. The Buddha's attitude seems to have been that it's not helpful to talk about it very much; so that If you want to know what nirvana is, you must experience it yourself. Except for some terms of praise, the few descriptions are negative: they say what nirvana is not.

    The Pali Canon contains several different accounts of exactly what the Buddha realized in his paradigmatic enlightenment under the Bo tree. Perhaps most significant from a deconstructive approach is that none of these earliest accounts invokes an inexpressible "self-presence." According to the most common story, the Buddha realized the Three Knowledges: he was able to remember his past lifetimes as far back as he wanted, to see the karmic connections between those lifetimes, and to understand the Four Truths: how life is duhkha (the usual translation "suffering" is too limited; better is something like "dissatisfaction/frustration"), that the cause of duhkha is desire and ignorance, that there is an end to duhkha -- nirvana -- and an eightfold path leading to that end, which he himself had reached. "Ignorance was dispelled, knowledge arose." According to another account, the Buddha realized the truth of pratitya-samutpada, "dependent origination," which was to become the most important doctrine of Buddhism; according to a third, he realized that there is no persisting self, and that the impersonal physical and mental processes whose interaction creates the illusion of self are impermanent and cause suffering. [3]

    In contrast to the other main Indian tradition, the Upanishadic, which emphasizes the identity of self, substance, and transcendental Absolute, the Buddha emphasized that there is no self, that everything without exception arises and passes away according to conditions, and hence there is



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no personal or impersonal Absolute. The Buddha's mostly impromptu talks were in response to questions, but there were some questions he would not answer, because they "are not conducive to enlightenment." These included whether or not the world had an origin or will have an end, whether or not it is finite, whether or not a Buddha exists after death, and whether or not the life-principle (jiva) is identical with the body. Buddhism postulates no "golden age" of plenitude before a fall into the suffering of history and self- consciousness, and therefore harbors no dream of returning to any such pure origin. There is no attempt to explain (and without a God there is no need to explain) suffering as a result of original sin; nor is there any Last Judgment.

    The Buddha emphasized that he who understands pratitya-samutpada understands the dharma [his teaching], and vice-versa."Dependent-origination" explains our experience by locating all phenomena within a set of twelve factors, each conditioned by and conditioning all the others. The twelve links of this chain (which integrates shorter chains that the Buddha elaborated on different occasions) are traditionally explained as follows:

    The presupposition of the whole process is (1) ignorance. Our basic problem is ignore-ance, because something about experience is overlooked in the rush to gratify desires. Due to this ignorance, (2) volitional tendencies from a person's previous lifetime survive physical death and tend to cause a new birth. The original Sanskrit term samskarah is especially difficult to translate; literally something like "preparation, get up," it refers to acts of will associated with particular states of mind. The continuation of these volitional tendencies explains how rebirth is possible without a permanent soul or persisting self: they survive physical death to affect the new (3) consciousness that arises when they influence a fertilized egg to cause conception. But there is no substance here: both volitional tendencies and the resulting rebirth-consciousness are impermanent, conditioned by earlier factors and conditioning later ones, in an apparently ceaseless cycle.

    Conception causes (4) mind-body,the fetus, to grow, which develops (5) the six sense-organs, including the mental organ of mind understood as that which perceives mental objects.



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The sense-organs allow (6) contact between each organ and its respective sense-object, giving rise to (7) sensation which leads to (8) craving for that sensation. Craving causes (9) grasping or attachment to life in general. Such clinging is traditionally classified into four types: clinging to pleasure, to views, to morality and external observances, and to belief in a soul or self. This classification is striking because it denies any difference in kind between physical sense grasping and mental attachment; it is the same problematic tendency that manifests in all four. Grasping leads to (10) becoming, the tendency after physical death to be reborn, causing (11) another birth and therefore (12) old age and death and the suffering associated with them. And so the cycle continues.

    These twelve links are usually understood to describe three lifetimes: the first two factors give causes from the past that have led to our present existence; the next five are their effects in the present; the following three are causes in the present life that will lead to another birth; the last two are their effects in a future life. However, these three "lifetimes" have also been taken metaphorically, as referring to the various factors conditioning every moment of our existence. In neither case is ignorance a "first cause" that began the whole process in some distant past. Although ignorance is presented as if it were a precondition, the important point is that there is no first-cause. All the twelve factors are interdependent, each conditioning all the others, and there is no reference in Buddhism to some past time before this cycle was operating. In response to the problem of how rebirth can occur without a permanent soul or self that is reborn, rebirth is explained as a series of impersonal processes, which occur without any self that is doing or experiencing them. In one Pali sutra, a monk asks the Buddha to whom belong, and for whom occur, the phenomena described in pratitya- samutpada. The Buddha rejects that question as misguided; from each factor as its preconditions arises another factor; that is all. Duhkha occurs without there being anyone who causes or experiences the duhkha.

    When the Buddha died he did not appoint a successor: "let the dharma be your guide." Predictably, and "according to a law that can be formalized," that dharma was soon canonized from a guide (a raft that can be used to cross the



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river of suffering, but not afterwards to be carried around on our backs, to use the Buddha's own analogy) into an onto-theology. Within a few generations, the Buddha's clearly non-metaphysical approach yielded to the desire to abstract an abhidharma or "higher dharma" from his extensive and repetitious talks. Since the sense-of-self is due to interaction among the various factors constituting pratitya-samutpada, the abhidharmikas concluded that reality is plural: what exists are these various elements, which they enumerated and classified. This process of extricating a core-teaching transformed the Buddhist path of liberation into an atomism nonetheless onto-theological: in place of the one substance of Vedanta, Buddhism was now understood to assert that there are in effect innumerable substances. [4]

    The reaction to this philosophical development and other tendencies was the development of Mahayana, a revolution as important to Buddhism as the Protestant Reformation for Christianity, although curiously split into apparently incompatible directions: in popular religious terms, the paradigmatic but very human Buddha (when asked whether he was a man or a god, he answered: "I am a man who has awakened.") was elevated into a metaphysical principle, in fact the ground of the universe, and granted a pantheon of bodhisattvas who help others attain salvation. Philosophically, however, there was a thorough-going self-deconstruction of the Buddhist teachings that has continued to reverberate through all subsequent Buddhist thought, so radical and influential it has never been completely re-appropriated. The locus classicus of this Madhyamika school is in the Mulamadhyamikakarika (hereafter "MMK") of Nagarjuna, who is believed to have lived in the first century A.D. The MMK offers a systematic analysis of all the important philosophical issues of its time, not to solve these problems but to demonstrate that any possible philosophical solution is self-contradictory or otherwise unjustifiable. This is not done to prepare the ground for Nagarjuna's own solution: "If I were to advance any thesis whatsoever, that in itself would be a fault; but I advance no thesis and so cannot be faulted." [Vigrahavyavartani, verse 29] The best way to bring out the similarities and differences between Nagarjuna and Derrida is to consider separately what the MMK says about sunyata, nirvana and the two-truths doctrine.



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The spiritual conquerors have proclaimed sunyata to be the exhaustion of all theories and views; those for whom sunyata is itself a theory they declared to be incurable.
    The feeble-minded are destroyed by the misunderstood doctrine of sunyata, as by a snake ineptly seized or some secret knowledge wrongly applied.
    We interpret pratitya-samutpada as sunyata. Sunyata is a guiding, not a cognitive, notion, presupposing the everyday. [MMK, XII:8, XXIV:11,18] [5]

    The first verse of the MMK proclaims its thoroughgoing critique of being: "No things whatsoever exist, at any time or place, having risen by themselves, from another, from both or without cause." Paralleling the post-structuralist radicalization of structuralist claims about language, Nagarjuna's argument merely brings out more fully the implications of pratitya-samutpada, showing that dependent-origination should rather be understood as "non-dependent non-origination." Pratitya-samutpada does not teach a causal relation between entities, because the fact that these twelve factors are mutually dependent means that they are not really entities; none could occur without the conditioning of all the other factors. In other words, none of the twelve phenomena -- which are said to encompass everything -- self-exists because each is infected with the traces of all the others: none is "self-present" for they are all sunya. Or, better: that none is self- present is the meaning of sunya. Again, the important terms sunya and its substantive sunyata are very difficult to translate. They derive from the root su which means "to be swollen," both like a hollow balloon and like a pregnant woman; therefore the usual English translation "empty" and "emptiness" must be supplemented with the notion of "pregnant with possibilities." (Sprung's translation uses the cumbersome "absence of being in things.") Rather than sunyata being solely a negative concept, however, Nagarjuna emphasizes that it is only because everything is sunya that any change, including spiritual transformation, is possible.



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    The point of sunyata is to deconstruct the self-existence/self- presence of things. Nagarjuna was concerned not only about the supposedly self-sufficient atomic elements of the Abhidharma analysis, but also about the repressed,unconscious metaphysics of "commonsense," according to which the world is a collection of existing things (including us) that originate and eventually disappear. The corresponding danger was that sunyata would itself become re-appropriated into a metaphysics, so Nagarjuna was careful to warn that sunyata was a heuristic, not a cognitive notion. Although the concept of sunyata is so central to Madhyamika analysis that the school became known as sunyavada ("the way of sunya"), there is no such "thing" as sunyata. Here the obvious parallel with Derrida's differance runs deep. Sunyata, like differance, is permanently "under erasure," deployed for tactical reasons but denied any semantic or conceptual stability. It "presupposes the everyday" because it is parasitic on the notion of things, which it refutes. "If there were something not sunya there would be something sunya; but there is nothing not sunya, so how can anything be sunya?" (MMK XII:7) Likewise, to make the application of sunyata into a method would miss the point of Nagarjuna's deconstruction as much as Derrida's. Derrida is concerned that we not replace the specific, detailed activity of deconstructive reading with some generalized idea about that activity that presumes to comprehend all its different types of application. For Nagarjuna, however, sunyata aims at "the exhaustion of all theories and views" because he has another ambition, as we shall see; the purpose of sunyata is to help us "let-go" of our concepts, in which case we must let-go of the concept of sunyata as well.

    For both, differance/sunyata is a "non-site" or "non-philosophical site" from which to question philosophy itself. But, as Derrida emphasizes, the history of philosophy is the metaphysical re- incorporation of such non-sites. Nagarjuna warned, as strongly as he could, that sunyata was a snake which, if grasped at the wrong end, could be fatal; yet that is precisely what happened -- repeatedly -- in later Buddhism. If "those for whom sunyata is itself a theory" are "incurable", the question why so many people seem to be incurable must be addressed. The other important philosophical school of Mahayana Buddhism was Yogacara, which became known as the "Mind-only" (Vijnanavada) school. I shall not review the



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controversies about whether or not Yogacara is an idealism (therefore a reversion to logocentrism) and how compatible it is with Madhyamika, except to emphasize that its methodology was different: rather than offering a logical analysis of philosophical categories, it attempted to work out the implications of certain meditative experiences. But later Chinese permutations of Yogacara did effect such a philosophical "transcendentalization" of "Mind" and "Buddhanature", which had occurred even earlier on the popular level. Thus what happened in Buddhism parallels what occurred in other traditions such as Yoga and Vedanta in India, Taoism in China: contrary to what we might expect, in each case the theistic and devotional tendency evolved relatively late, for the most part after the philosophical developments that are of greater intellectual interest. Perhaps this is a warning to those such as Kant who believe in philosophical progress. Is eternal vigilance the price of freedom from onto-theology, as Derrida implies?

    Saussure taught that meaning in a linguistic system is a function not of any straightforward relationship between signifier and signified, but of a complex set of differences. Barthes pointed out that the text is a tissue of quotations, not a line of words releasing the single "theological" meaning of an author-god but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings blend and/or clash. Derrida shows that the meaning of such a line of words can never be completely fulfilled, hence the text never attains self-presence; the continual circulation of signifiers signifies that meaning has no firm foundation or epistemological ground. What would we end up with if we extrapolated these claims about textuality to the whole universe? Nagarjuna's logical and epistemological analysis did not appeal to the Chinese, who preferred a more metaphysical (and therefore onto-theological) way to express the interconditionality of all phenomena: the metaphor of Indra's net described in the Avatamsaka Sutra and developed in the Hua-yen school of Mahayana.

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net that has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the



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extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each "eye" of the net, and since the net itself in infinite in all dimensions, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.... [I]t symbolizes a cosmos in which there is an infinitely repeated interrelationship among all the members of the cosmos. This relationship is said to be one of simultaneous mutual identity and mutual inter-causality. [6]

Every "individual" is at the same time the effect of the whole and the cause of the whole, and the totality is a vast, infinite body of members each sustaining and defining all the others. "The cosmos is, in short, a self- creating, self-maintaining, and self-defining organism." This world is non-teleological: "There is no theory of a beginning time, no concept of a creator, no question of the purpose of it all. The universe is taken as a given". Such a universe has no hierarchy: "There is no center, or, perhaps if there is one, it is everywhere." [7]

    If "even today the notion of a center lacking any structure represents the unthinkable itself" [8] (Writing and Difference, 279), is Indra's Net an "unthinkable structure"? Nagarjuna would not accept such an onto- theological trope, for obvious reasons, but the metaphor is not without value. Of Grammatology criticizes the system of s'entendre-parler [hearing/understanding-oneself speak] which has "produced the idea of the world, the idea of world-origin, arising from the difference between the worldly and the non-worldly, the outside and the inside, ideality and non-ideality, universal and non-universal,transcendental and empirical, etc." [8] In Indra's Net those categories and binary oppositions do not apply. That this "textuality" extends beyond language means that right now you are reading more than the insights of Nagarjuna and Derrida, and more than the effects of Professor Coward's



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invitation to contribute this paper: for in this page is the entire universe. The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh makes the point better than I can:

    If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow, and without trees we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either...
    If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, nothing can grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger's father and mother are in it too...
    You cannot point out one thing that is not here -- time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper... As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it. [9]

    To emphasize Nagarjuna's point, the metaphor of Indra's Net does not actually refer to our interdependence, for that would presuppose the existence of separate things which are related together. Rather, just as every sign is a sign of a sign, so everywhere there are only traces and those traces are traces of traces.

    If such is the case here and now, there is nothing that needs to be attained or could be lost; in that sense it is a past that has always been present. Then what is our problem? Why do we suffer? Buddhism provides no "first cause"



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to explain duhkha, but accounts for our dissatisfaction by referring it back to the delusive sense-of-self which is a manifestation of this web yet feels separate from it. The difficulty is that to the extent I feel separate I am insecure, for the ineluctable trace of nothingness in my fictitious (because not self-existing/self-present) sense- of-self is experienced as a sense-of-lack; in reaction, the sense- of-self becomes preoccupied with trying to become self-existing/ self-present, in one or another symbolic fashion. The tragic irony is that the ways we attempt to do this cannot succeed, for the delusive sense-of- self can never expel the trace of lack that constitutes it; while in the most important sense we are already self-existing, insofar as the infinite set of differential traces that constitutes each of us is the whole Net. "The self-existence of a Buddha is the self-existence of this very cosmos. The Buddha is without a self- existent nature; the cosmos too is without a self-existent nature." (MMK XXII:16) I think this touches on the enduring attraction of logocentrism and onto-theology, not just in the West but everywhere: Being means security, the grounding of the self, whether it is experiencing God immediately or intellectually sublimated into a metaphysical arche. We want to meet God face-to-face, or see our essential Buddha- nature, but trace/sunyata means we never catch it. The sense-of-self wants to gain nirvana/enlightenment, but trace/sunyata means it can never attain it. The problem, again, is our desire for self-presence, and emphasis here is as much on the self- as on the -presence. Then the solution somehow has to do with not-catching, with no longer needing to bring these fleeting traces to self-presence. It is the difference between a bad-infinity and a good-infinity: a shift in perspective that changes everything.

Subhuti: How is perfect wisdom [prajnaparamita] marked?
The Lord: It has non-attachment for its mark....To the extent that beings take hold of things and settle down in them, to that extent there is defilement. But no one is thereby defiled. And to the extent that one does not take hold of things and does not settle down in them, to that extent can one conceive of the absence of I-making and mine-making. In that sense



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can one form the concept of the purification of beings, i.e., to the extent that they do not take hold of things and do not settle down in them, to that extent there is purification. But no one is therein purified. When a Bodhisattva courses thus, he courses in perfect wisdom. [10]

    The most famous line in the Diamond Sutra encapsulates this as an injunction:"Let the mind come forth without fixing it anywhere." Nagarjuna sees the consequences of all this:"When there is clinging perception (upadane), the perceiver generates being. When there is no clinging perception, he will be freed and there will be no being." (MMK XXVI:7) As long as I am motivated by lack, I will seek to real-ize myself by fixating on ("settling down in") something that dissolves in my grasp, for everything is an elusive trace of traces. Lack is "the hunger for/of self" which seeks fulfillment in "the absolute phantasm" of "absolute self-having." [11]

    What might a Buddhist teacher, concerned to help his students realize this freedom, say about Derrida's deconstruction? That Derrida's freedom is too much a textual freedom, that it is overly preoccupied with language because it seeks liberation through and in language -- in other words, that it is logocentric. The danger is not only that we will try to find a "fully meaningful" symbol to settle down with, but that we will live too much symbolically, inscribed within an endless recirculation of concepts even if we do not grasp at the ones that are supposed to bring Being into our grasp. This becomes a source of duhkha because we still retain a ground: in language as a whole. It is the difference between a restricted and a general economy.


The two truths

    The teaching of the Buddhas is wholly based on there being two truths: that of a personal everyday world and a higher truth which surpasses it.
    Those who do not clearly know the true distinction between the two truths cannot clearly know the hidden depths of the Buddha's teaching.



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    Unless the transactional realm is accepted as a base, the surpassing sense cannot be pointed out; if the surpassing sense is not comprehended nirvana cannot be attained. [MMK XXIV:8-10].

    At the end of "The Ends of Man," Derrida declares the importance of a double strategy: on the one hand, to "attempt an exit and a deconstruction without changing terrain," which uses the instruments of language against language; at the risk of ceaselessly consolidating at a deeper level that which one allegedly deconstructs. On the other hand, to "decide to change terrain, in a discontinuous and irruptive fashion, by brutally placing oneself outside, and by affirming an absolute break and difference"; at the risk, again, of inhabiting more naively than before that which one claims to have deserted, for "language ceaselessly reinstates the new terrain on the oldest ground." [12] Derrida speaks repeatedly about "the necessity of lodging oneself within traditional conceptuality in order to destroy it," for "we cannot give up this metaphysical complicity without also giving up the critique we are directing against this complicity." [13] The resources to make one's critique of metaphysics must be borrowed from that which one wants to undo. Notice, however, that both strategies are threatened by the same fate: the metaphysical dilemma is between reinscribing the new on the old terrain or having one's new terrain be reinscribed on the old, a negligible difference. The danger is being trapped somewhere within language; the possibility is "the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and of the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, and without origin which is offered to an active interpretation" [14] -- a Nietzsche-like but only textual liberation from Being. The difference is between being stuck somewhere within language and being free within language.

    Lyotard defines postmodernism as suspicion of all meta-narratives, yet it is when we think we are escaping meta-narratives that we are most susceptible to them. This is the basic problem not only with "discontinuous and irruptive" works such as Anti-Oedipus but also with such "non-metaphysical" theories such as empiricism, pragmatism and, even more fundamentally, the unconscious metaphysics that passes as "commonsense." [15] Nagarjuna's analyses address the



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main philosophical theories of his day, but his real target is that automatized, sedimented metaphysics disguised as the world we live in. If philosophy were merely the sport of philosophers, one could ignore it, but we have no choice in the matter. "It was a Greek who said, 'If one has to philosophize, one has to philosophize; if one does not have to philosophize, one still has to philosophize (to say it and think it). One always has to philosophize.'" The fundamental categories of "everydayness" are self-existing/self-present things -- including us -- that are born, change, and eventually pass away; in order to explain the relations among these things, space, time and causality are also necessary. And the vehicle of this commonsense metaphysics, creating and sustaining it, is language, which presents us with a set of nouns (self-subsistent things) that have temporal and causal predicates (arise, change and disappear). But, given that we find ourselves inscribed within language -- that "language has started without us, in us and before us" ("Denegations") -- how shall we proceed? Thus the double strategy of Buddhism, the "two truths." On the one hand, language must be used to expose the traps of language: in addition to Nagarjuna's deconstruction of self-existent things, there are, for example, all the binary dualisms (purity vs. impurity, life vs. death, being vs. nothingness, success vs. failure, men vs. women, self vs. other) whereby we "tie ourselves without a rope" as we vainly try to valorize one half and reject the other. The danger with this strategy is that, as long as my sense-of-lack motivates me to seek Being in some sublimated form, I shall escape from one trap merely to fall into another. So the other strategy is a more disruptive one: a "higher" or "surpassing truth" which points beyond language and therefore beyond truth, raising the question of "the truth of truth" and the very possibility of truth in philosophy.

    In "Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy" Derrida analyzes Kant's critique of certain "self-styled mystagogues" and questions Kant's attempt to distinguish what they do from what he does. If such mystagogery is due to a deterioration in the true essence of philosophy, then the problem is that philosophy lost its first signification very early, since Kant must distinguish between Plato the "good" Academician and Plato the presumed author of the letters, "the father of the delirium, of all exaltation in philosophy."



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[39]. It is another instance where a pure origin turns out to be already infected with the supplement that supposedly corrupts it.

    But Derrida is more interested in the truce Kant proposes between the two parties: a concordat acknowledging that the difference between them is their different manner of presenting the same moral law. Philosophy didactically leads the moral law in us back to distinct concepts according to logic, whereas the other procedure is to personify this moral law in an esthetic manner. Derrida wonders whether this really exorcises the "apocalyptic tone" that Kant found objectionable in the "mystagogues," or rather reveals it within Kant's own discourse:

Can't we say then that all the receiving parties of such a concordat are the subjects of eschatological discourses?... if Kant denounces those who proclaim that philosophy is at an end for two thousand years, he has himself, in marking a limit, indeed the end of a certain type of metaphysics, freed another wave of eschatological discourses in philosophy. His progressivism, his belief in the future of a certain philosophy, indeed of another metaphysics, is not contradictory to this proclamation of ends and of the end. And I shall now start again from this fact: from then on ... the West has been dominated by a powerful program that was also an untransgressible contract among discourses of the end. The theme of history's end and of philosophy's death represent only the most comprehensive, massive, and assembled forms of this. [47-48]

Derrida acknowledges the differences between Hegelian, Marxist and Nietzschean eschatology:

But aren't these differences measured as gaps or deviations in relation to the fundamental tonality of this Stimmung audible across so many thematic variations? Haven't all the differences taken the form of a going-one-better in eschatological eloquence, each newcomer, more lucid than the other, more vigilant and more prodigal too than the other, coming to add more to it: I tell you



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this in truth; this is not only the end of this here but also and first of that there, the end of history, the end of the class struggle, the end of philosophy... And whoever would come to refine, to tell the extreme of the extreme, namely the end of the end, the end of ends, that the end has always already begun, that we must still distinguish between closure and end, that person would, whether wanting to or not, participate in the concert. For that is also the end of the metalanguage concerning eschatological language. And so we can ask ourselves if eschatology is a tone, or even the voice itself. Isn't the voice always that of the last man? [16]

    We do not need to ask where Derrida himself fits into all this. The tone Derrida identifies within all Western philosophical discourse is even more audible from outside, especially from the Indian (including Buddhist) tradition which, in contrast, consists of a set of more-or-less distinct schools that developed side-by-side, as commentators added their notes to sub-commentaries to commentaries on sacred texts. From the Western perspective, the Asian respect for tradition (e.g., Confucian gerontocracy) may look and often is stultifying, but from the other side the Western need to revolutionize tradition is the tradition. Despite recent critiques of Oedipus and patriarchy, there is still the same tendency to kill the father; and, as Derrida implies, to kill the myth of Oedipus is to re-enact the myth. I think Derrida's phrase puts a finger on it: whence this need to be "the last man"? The one who stands on everyone else's shoulders, on whose shoulders no one stands, with whom history stops, through whom signifiers do not recirculate because his/hers grasp the Truth? Why is it that philosophers can accept their own physical death more readily than the refutation of their ideas? The issue, as we are beginning to understand, is that there are many ways to seek Being.

Whoever takes on the apocalpytic tone comes to signify, if not tell, you something. What? The truth, of course, and to signify to you that it reveals the truth to you; the tone is the revelator of some unveiling in process... Truth itself is the end, the destination,



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and that truth unveils itself is the advent of the end. Truth is the end and the instance of the Last Judgment. And that is why there would not be any truth of the apocalypse that is not the truth of truth. (53)

    Nietzsche and Heidegger point out that nihilism is the essence of metaphysics because metaphysics seeks to ground itself in being and therefore is preoccupied with nonbeing; the truth, for them, is that there is no such ground. The problem with this realization is that even such apparently modest truth claims are just as much an attempt to ground oneself in Being, and therefore are disrupted by the inability of language to attain any self-presence in the sublimated form of self-contained meaning. Even as "the secret is that there is no secret," so for Buddhism the "higher truth" (and now we shall make it the lower truth) is that there is no truth (and now we can appreciate why it is necessary to accept the "transactional realm" in order to point to the surpassing truth: that is, why Nagarjuna insists there are two truths). There is no problem with "your lunch is in the refrigerator," but there is a problem insofar as philosophy is our attempt to grasp the concepts that grasp Being. If the truth is that conceptual place where we may rest, the search for truth is also the search for that which will fill up our lack, and philosophy is the conceptual attempt to find God in the net of our concepts. Then philosophy can never escape its apocalyptic tone insofar as its destiny is to seek truth. If it were possible for our sense-of-lack to be resolved, for our bad-infinity to be transformed into a good- infinity, then truth too would be transformed: from nothing (our lack allows us no rest) into everything. According to a famous Zen story, the Buddha sat before a large audience who expected him to speak, but he said nothing, twirling a flower between his fingers. No one "understood" except Mahakasyapa, who "cracked a smile" -- whereupon the Buddha acknowledged his realization.

    "Shall we continue, in the best apocalyptic tradition, to denounce the false apocalypses? " [59]. The fact -- the truth -- is that all philosophy, including Derrida's and including mine, cannot escape this apocalyptic "tone" insofar as it is motivated by sublimated lack. And not just philosophy. Derrida wonders if the apocalyptic tone is "a transcendental condition of all discourse, of all experience itself, of every



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mark or of every trace." And not only a tone: insofar as we hope to overcome our lack, we are thrust into the future, toward that awaited moment when self-presence will be gained; as Derrida implies, belief in progress, in the future itself, is a version of it.

    There is another way to make this point about truth, which has implications for the future of the conversation between Western philosophy and Buddhism. According to the established myth, Western philosophy begins with the Greek discovery of reason, with the emancipation of thought from myth and religion, in an awakening that (according to Plato and Aristotle) observes the world with wonder and curiosity. In India, however, philosophy is said to begin with duhkha: the fact of our suffering motivates the search for a way to end it. But this is also the origin of religion, which is why there is no sharp distinction between the two in India; the path to liberation encompasses both. From the Indian perspective, then, the originary Greek distinction between philosophy and religion is suspect; and if there is something unnatural about their bifurcation, we should expect to detect "traces" of each in the other. If their common ground is the need to end duhkha and overcome lack, we shouldn't be surprised by a religious tone, an apocalyptic urgency at the very heart of philosophy itself. No wonder, then, that a secularized rationalism will have to keep revolutionizing itself, killing its fathers: only in that way can it avoid the fact that philosophy cannot grant what is sought.

    Furthermore: what does this tone infecting its innermost core imply about reason? I am wondering about this: Was the discovery of reason more a matter of creating a place of self-grounding as thinking? [17] Cogito ergo sum. Or rather trying to make thinking into such a "space" of self-grounding, given Derrida's and Buddhism's point about the impossibility of self-presence? If the larger meaning of deconstruction is that language/reason is deconstructing itself as our place of self-grounding, the full consequences of deconstruction remain to be seen. This puts us on delicate ground, since we don't want to "lose our reason" in the way that, for example, Nietzsche did. But Buddhism offers other ways to do so.

    Derrida concludes by announcing "an apocalypse without apocalypse, an apocalypse without vision, without truth, without revelation, of dispatches (for the 'come' is plural



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in itself, in oneself), of addresses without message and without destination, without sender or decidable addressee, without last judgement, without any other eschatology than the tone of the 'Come' itself, its very difference, an apocalypse beyond good and evil." A Buddhist apocalypse, congenial to any jewel in Indra's Net that isn't trying to fixate itself. "Here the catastrophe would perhaps be of the apocalypse itself, its pli and its end, a closure without end, an end without end." The sense-of-self can never fill up its sense-of-lack, but it can realize that what it seeks it has never lacked. "And what if this outside of the apocalypse was within the apocalypse? What if it was the apocalypse itself, what precisely breaks-in in the 'Come'?" [67] Perhaps this is what we have always sought: not to become real but to realize that we don't need to become real. In the end, is there any difference between them?



There is no specifiable difference whatsoever between nirvana and the everyday world; there is no specifiable difference whatever between the everyday world and nirvana.
    The ontic range of nirvana is the ontic range of the everyday world. There is not even the subtlest difference between the two.
    That which, taken as causal or dependent, is the process of being born and passing on, is, taken non-causally and beyond all dependence, declared to be nirvana.
    Ultimate serenity is the coming to rest of all ways of taking things, the repose of named things; no truth has been taught by a Buddha for anyone, anywhere. [MMK, XXV:19, 20, 9, 24]

    The climactic chapter of the MMK addresses the nature of nirvana in order to prove that there is no transcendental-signified: since nothing is self-existent, nirvana too is sunya. The everyday world, which is the process of things being born, changing, and passing away, is for that reason a world of suffering, samsara. Yet there is no specifi-



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able difference between this world and nirvana. There is, however, a difference of perspective, or rather a difference in the way they are "taken", which has not yet been brought out fully in our discussions of pratitya-samutpada and Indra's Net. The irony of Nagarjuna's approach to pratitya-samutpada is that its use of causation refutes causation: having deconstructed the self-existence or being of things (including us) into their conditions and interdependence, causality itself then disappears, because without anything to cause/be effected, the world will not be experienced in terms of cause and effect. Once causality has been used to refute the apparent self-existence of objective things, the lack of things to relate-together refutes causality. If things originate (change, cease to exist, etc.), there are no self-existing things; but if there are no things, then there is nothing to originate and therefore no origination.

    It is because we see the world as a collection of discrete things that we superimpose causal relationships, to "glue" these things together. Therefore the victory of causality is Pyrrhic, for if there is only causality, there is no causality. This self-refutation has religious consequences: Cause-and-effect is essential to our project of attempting to secure ourselves "within" the world; its evaporation leaves behind it not chance (its dualistic opposite) but a sense of mystery, of being part of something that we can never grasp, since we are a manifestation of it. When there is no need to defend a fragile sense-of-self, such mystery is not threatening and rather than attempt to banish it one is able to yield to it.

    In Derridean terms, the important thing about causality is that it is the equivalent of textual differance in the world of things. If differance is the ineluctability of textual causal relationships, causality is the differance of the "objective" world. Nagarjuna's use of interdependence to refute the self-existence of things is equivalent to what Derrida does for textual meaning, as we have seen. But Nagarjuna's second and reverse move is one that Derrida doesn't make: the absence of any self-existing objects refutes causality/differance. The aporias of causality are well known; Nagarjuna's version points to the contradiction neces-



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sary for a cause-and-effect relationship: the effect can be neither the same as the cause nor different from it. If the effect is the same as the cause, nothing has been caused; if it is different, then any cause should be able to cause any effect. [18]

    Therefore pratitya-samutpada is not a doctrine of "dependent origination" but an account of "non- dependent non-origination." It describes, not the interaction of realities, but the sequence and juxtaposition of "appearances" -- or what could be called appearances if there were some non-appearance to be contrasted with. Origination, duration and cessation are "like an illusion, a dream, or an imaginary city in the sky." (MMK VII:34) What is perhaps the most famous of all Mahayana scriptures, the Diamond Sutra, concludes with the statement that "all phenomena are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble and a shadow, like dew and lightning." As soon as we abolish the "real" world, "appearance" becomes the only reality, and we discover

a world scattered in pieces, covered with explosions; a world freed from the ties of gravity (i.e., from relationship with a foundation); a world made of moving and light surfaces where the incessant shifting of masks is named laughter, dance, game. [19]

For both Nietzsche and Buddhism, our way of trying to solve a problem turns out to be what maintains the problem. We try to "peel away" the apparent world to get at the real one, but that dualism between them is our problematic delusion, which leaves, as the only remaining candidate for real world, the apparent one -- a world whose actual nature has not been noticed because we have been so concerned to transcend it. This allows us to see more clearly how "everydayness" and "commonsense" are not alternatives to metaphysical speculation but a disguised -- because automatized and unconscious -- version of it. As Berkeley pointed out, no one has ever experienced matter; from the other side, it is "commonsense" that is idealistic in postulating minds-inside-bodies; as Nagarjuna would emphasize, the refutation of either does not imply the truth of the other.

    One such "appearance" -- no more or less so than anything else -- is what is called "a Buddha." Derrida points to the "hyperessentiality," the being (or nonbeing -- an



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hypostatized sunyata can work as well) beyond Being whose trace lingers in most negative theologies, infecting them with a more subtle transcendental-signified. Nagarjuna is also sensitive to this issue. Like other negative theologies, Nagarjuna begins by dedicating the MMK to the Buddha, but then he devotes the most important chapter to proving that there can be no such thing as a Buddha, just as there is no other self-present transcendental-signified. The serenity (or "beatitude": sivah) we seek is the coming-to-rest of all ways of taking things, the repose of named things (sarvopalambhopasamaprapanc- opasamah). His commentator Candrakirti (7th C.) glosses this verse: "the very coming to rest, the non-functioning, of perceptions as signs of all named things, is itself nirvana... When verbal assertions cease, named things are in repose; and the ceasing to function of discursive thought is ultimate serenity." [20] Contrast this to Derrida's problematization of the difference between signifier and signified: "from the moment that one questions the possibility of such a transcendental signified, and that one realizes that every signified is in the position of a signifier, the distinction between signified and signifier becomes problematical at its root." [21] For Derrida, what is problematic is the relationship between name and concept; so it is not surprising that he concludes with an endless recirculation of concepts. But notice what is signifier and what is signified, for Candrakirti: the non-functioning of perceptions as signs for named things is nirvana. The problem is not merely that language acts as a filter, obscuring the nature of things. Rather, names are used to objectify perceptions into the "self-existing" things we perceive as books, tables, trees, you and me. In other words, the "objective" world of material things, which interact causally "in" space and time, is metaphysical through-and-through. It is this metaphysics that most needs to be deconstructed, according to Buddhism, because this is the metaphysics, disguising itself as commonsense reality, which makes me suffer -- especially insofar as I understand myself to be such a self-existing being "in" time that will nonetheless die. [Our fundamental duhkha may be expressed as this contradiction: on the one hand, we feel that we are or should be self-existent, a self-sufficient self-consciousness,on the other hand, we know that we were born, are growing old, and will die.] The impor-



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tant thing in Buddhism is that the coming-to-rest of our using names to take perceptions as self-existing objects actually deconstructs the "objective" everyday world. Since that world is as differential, as full of traces, as the textual discourse Derrida works on, the Buddhist response is to use those differences/deferrals to deconstruct that objectified world, including ourselves, since we sub-jects are the first to be ob-jectified. If there are only traces of traces, what happens if we stop trying to arrest those elusive traces into a self-presence? If we do not take perceptions as signs of named things, the most fundamental and problematic dualism of all -- that between my fragile sense of being and the nothingness that threatens it -- is conflated; if we do not need to fixate ourselves, we unfind ourselves "in" the dream-like world that the Diamond Sutra describes, and plunge into the horizontality of moving and light surfaces where there are no objects, only an incessant shifting of masks; where there is no security and also no need for security, because everything that can be lost has been, including oneself.

    In order for this to occur, however, another strategy is necessary: a discontinuous, irruptive one that does not constitute a discontinuous, irruptive one that does not constitute a different philosophical approach but a non-philosophical one because it lets-go of thoughts. I refer, of course, to the various meditative practices that are so important in Buddhism. Are such practices the "other" of philosophy, feared and ridiculed because they challenge the only ground philosophy knows? When we are not so quick to grasp at thoughts (truth as grasping the concepts that grasp Being), there is the possibility of another praxis besides conceptualization, a more unmediated way of approaching that issue. I do not see how, within language, it can be proven or disproven that we remain inscribed within the circulations of its signifiers. Derrida shows only that language cannot grant access to any self-present meaning; his methodology cannot settle the question whether our relationship to language and the so-called objective world is susceptible to a radical transformation. The other possibility is that what all philosophy seeks, insofar as it cannot escape its apocalyptic tone, may be accessible in a different fashion. The fact that other, non-conceptual forms of mental discipline and concentration have been so important, not only in Buddhism but in many other non-Western and Western traditions, suggests that we need to find out what they may contribute to these issues. [22]



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1. Derrida, like Heidegger, has been careful to confine to the Western tradition his conclusions about the continual attraction of onto-theology, but the case of Buddhism suggests how they can and perhaps must be generalized. Buddhism is a religious/philosophical tradition not originating in or overtaken by Greek presence (e.g., Plato's eidos), yet Sanskrit and Pali are also Indo-European languages whose categories (in contrast with Chinese and Japanese) tend towards a strong transcendental-phenomenal distinction. Then one of the most striking things about Buddhism in its Indian context is how it both reflects and resists this bifurcation.

2. As an example of the last problematic, here is a famous story about Ma-tsu (709-788), one of the most important Chinese Ch'an (Zen) masters: Abbot Huai-jang visited the young Ma-tsu in his cell and asked: "In practicing sitting-meditation, what do you aspire to attain? " "To attain Buddhahood," was the answer. Huai-jang took up a piece of brick and began to grind it against a rock. After some moments Ma-tsu became curious and asked: "What are you grinding that for?" "I want to grind it into a mirror." Amused, Ma-tsu said, "How can you hope to grind a piece of brick into a mirror?" Huai-jang replied, "Since a piece of brick cannot be ground into a mirror, how can you sit yourself into a Buddha?" "What must I do then?" Ma-tsu asked. "Take the case of an ox-cart," said Huai-jang. "If the cart does not move, do you whip the cart or the ox? " Ma-tsu remained silent. "In learning sitting-meditation, do you aspire to learn the sitting-Ch'an, or do you aspire to imitate the seated Buddha? If the former, Ch'an does not consist in sitting or in lying down. If the latter, the Buddha has no fixed postures. The Buddha-way goes on forever, and never abides in anything. You must not therefore be attached to nor abandon any particular phase of it. To sit yourself into a Buddha is to kill the Buddha. To be attached to the sitting posture is to fail to comprehend the essential principle." When Ma-tsu heard these instructions, he felt as though he were drinking the most exquisite nectar... (from John C. H. Wu, The Golden Age of Zen [Taipei: United Publishing Center, 1975], 92.)

3. According to the most common Mahayana account, however, the Buddha attained enlightenment when he looked up from his meditations and saw the morning star, whereupon he exclaimed: "Now I realize that all beings have the Buddhanature."

4. A similar and equally predictable formalization occurred with the rules that monks and nuns followed. In order to create the best



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environment for meditative practice, numerous regulations evolved in this fashion: some problem in daily life arose, which made the disciples ask the Buddha, what should be done in such a case? His answers were along the lines of "let's do it like this." Shortly before his death the Buddha said that the sangha might, if it wished, abolish the minor disciplinary rules (which constituted the vast majority); instead, these several hundred rules-of-thumb became canonized into the vinaya, the complicated "discipline" that came to constitute the main (for some monks and nuns, the only) form of spiritual practice. (Digha Nikaya 16.6.3)

5. The tranlation used in this paper is Mervyn Sprung's in his edition of Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way (Boulder, CO: Prajna Press, 1979), Candrakirti's classic commentary on the MMK.

6. Francis H. Cook, Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977), p. 2.

7. Cook, ibid.

8. Derrida,Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass [Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 279.

9. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding [Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press, 1988), pp. 3-5.

10. The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and its Verse Summary, trans. Edward Conze (Bolinas, Calif.: Four Seasons Foundation, 1973), pp. 237-8. A key Mahayana term is apratisthita-nirvana, usually understood as "not dwelling in nirvana": that is, the bodhisattva's compassion causes him/her to reject entry into final nirvana in order to help all suffering sentient beings. But it may also mean "non-dwelling nirvana" or "non-abiding cessation."

11. In"An Apocalyptic Tone" Derrida quotes his own Glas: "The apocalyptic, in other words, capital unveiling, in truth lays bare the hunger for/of self." "The absolute phantasm as absolute self-having in its most mournful glory." (pp. 90, 91) For more on the sense-of-lack as "shadow" of the sense-of-self, see "The Nonduality of Life and Death: A Buddhist View of Repression", Philosophy East And West 40 no. 2, April 1990, pp. 151-174.

12.Derrida, The Margins of Philosophy, trans. A. Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 135.

13. Writing and Difference, pp. 111, 281.

14. Writing and Difference, p. 292.

15. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, trans. H. R. Lane, Robert Hurley, and Mark Seem (New York: Viking Press, 1977).

16. Derrida, Writing and Difference, 152. Traditionally attributed to the Protrepticus of Aristotle,but now disputed. See Anton Hermann Chroust, Aristotle: Protrepticus, A Reconstruction (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press,1964) pp. 48-49.

17. "Reason, n., an imaginary process onto which the responsibility for thinking is off-loaded." (Rene Daumal, A Night of Serious Drinking, trans. David Coward and E. A. Lovatt [Boston: Shambhala, 1979], 51)

18. MMK X:19, 22. Cf. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, no. 112: "Cause and effect: such a duality probably never exists; in truth we are confronted by a continuum out of which we isolate a couple of pieces, just as we perceive motion only as isolated points and then infer it without ever actually seeing it... An intellect that could see cause and effect as a continuum and a flux and not, as we do, in terms of an arbitrary division and dismemberment, would repudiate the concept of cause and effect and deny all conditionality." For more on this issue, see Nonduality (Yale University Press, 1988), chapter six.

19. Michel Haar, "Nietzsche and Metaphysical Language," in David B. Allison, ed., The New Nietzsche: Contemporary Styles of Interpretation (New York: Delta, 1977), 7.

20. In Sprung's Lucid Exposition, p. 262.

21. Derrida, Positions, trand. A. Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 20.

22. The relation between Nagarjuna's Madhyamika and Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism is a fascinating one. From one perspective, Ch'an may be said to put into practice the approach of Nagarjuna. From another, Ch'an practice is a deconstruction of Madhyamika theory, whose anti-metaphysics is still philosophical. If the dualism between inside and outside is a construct, the result of an "invagination" of the outside (which is therefore not an outside), it raises the possibility of a "de-vagination." The Japanese Zen master Dogen (1200-1253) described his experience thus: "I came to realize clearly that my mind is nothing other than rivers and mountains and trees, the sun and the moon and the stars."