Outlines of a Pedagogical Interpretation of Nāgārjuna’s Two Truths Doctrine

Journal of Indian Philosophy 41 (5):563-590 (2013)
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This paper proposes an interpretation of Nāgārjuna’s doctrine of the two truths that considers saṃvṛti and paramārtha-satya two visions of reality on which the Buddhas, for soteriological and pedagogical reasons, build teachings of two types: respectively in agreement with (for example, the teaching of the Four Noble Truths) or in contrast to (for example, the teaching of emptiness) the category of svabhāva. The early sections of the article show to what extent the various current interpretations of the Nāgārjunian doctrine of the dve satye—despite their sometimes even macroscopic differences—have a common tendency to consider the notion of śūnyatā as a teaching not based on, but equivalent to supreme truth. This equivalence—philologically questionable—leads to interpretative paths that prove inevitably aporetic: indeed, according to whether the interpretation of śūnyatā is ‘metaphysical’ or ‘anti-metaphysical’, it gives rise to readings of Nāgārjuna’s thought incompatible, respectively, with anti-metaphysical and realistic types of verses traceable in the works of the author of the Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā (MMK). On the contrary, by giving more emphasis to the expression samupāśritya (“based on”), which recurs in MMK.24.8, and therefore, by epistemologically separating the notion of śūnyatā from the notion of paramārtha-satya (and of some of its conceptual equivalents such as nirvāṇa, tattva and dharmatā), we may obtain an interpretation—at once realistic and anti-metaphysical—of the theory of the two truths compatible with the vast majority (or even totality) of Nāgārjuna’s verses



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Giuseppe Ferraro
Federal University of Minas Gerais