Journal of Dharma Studies 1 (2):201-214 (2019)

William Edelglass
Marlboro College
This essay arose from a collaborative project exploring the meaning of apophatic discourse in different religious traditions. I focus on the paradox of language as both liberating and ensnaring that resonates across the great diversity and heterogeneity of Buddhist traditions. Apophatic discourse is a widespread response to this paradox, as it is motivated by a recognition of the limits of words and concepts even as it seeks to point to that which is beyond these limits. The questions of whether there is a nonconceptual reality beyond the limits of words and concepts, and if so, what it might be, and why, precisely, language and reason are incapable of articulating nonconceptual reality, and what the role of language might be in leading beyond itself, are all sources of considerable debate among Buddhist thinkers. What is shared by figures with different responses to these questions is an understanding of apophasis as a form of Buddhist practice. The aim of Buddhist apophatic practice is to disrupt our natural linguistic attitude, in which we are beguiled by language, presupposing that our words and concepts somehow correspond with the ultimate nature of reality. How is apophatic discourse—enacting an awareness of the limits of language—meaningful if it cannot actually describe that which it is about? Buddhist apophatic discourses, such as ontological doctrines of ineffability, negations, and silence, are not simply pointing to ultimate reality, but are meaningful as transformative practices in the context of an interpretive community with shared soteriological goals and doctrines. Thus, even as apophatic discourse is ever transcending positive claims, it depends on kataphatic discourse to have any specific meaning.
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DOI 10.1007/s42240-019-00028-z
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