Nothingness in Nāgārjuna and John of the Cross

Our offering for this autumn season is a series based on the Negative-Way as found in the notion of Nothingness. Two proponents of this Way are Nāgārjuna and John of the Cross. From the Mādhyamika thrust of Nāgārjuna it is considered as śūnyatā, and from the mystic-pen of the Discalced Carmelite John of the Cross it is coined as nada. Thus we have emptiness clearly exhibited in two diverse spiritual traditions yet containing a kernel of comparability, although singularly expounded in each. Our main resource for this series is a marvelous text written by C.D. Sebastian entitled, The Cloud of Nothingness: The Negative Way in Nāgārjuna and John of the Cross. Professor Sebastian initiates his study with two prominent quotes:

Everything is right when śūnyatā is possible;
Nothing is right when śūnyatā is impossible

(Nāgārjuna, MK 24, 14).

This knowledge in unknowing
is so overwhelming

(John of the Cross, SCE 6)

The via negativa is highlighted by both Nāgārjuna and John of the Cross, although for Nāgārjuna it is an exclusively negative affair wherein nothing can be stated affirmatively; he’s only interested in deconstructing all constructs, both affirmative and negative, yea even the via negativa is discarded. For John of the Cross the via negativa contains elements of the via positiva as well, since the perfect Union with the Godhead is a positive affair, even though it is realized in his negative fashion of nada, nada, nada—no-thing matters but the Absolute Itself with everything else being annulled beneath a cloud of unknowing and self-forgetfulness. All in all, a spiritual engagement between Nāgārjuna and John of the Cross can be highlighted through the shared-veil of apophaticism. Professor Sebastian includes a profound reference on this bearing from one of the most prominent spiritual minds of the last century, Raimon Panikkar (1918-2010):

According to Panikkar we have epistemological apophaticism, gnoseological apophaticism and ontic apophaticism. Panikkar writes: ‘The term ‘‘apophatic’’ is usually used in reference to an epistemological apophaticism, positing merely that the ultimate reality is ineffable – that human intelligence is incapable of grasping, of embracing it – although this ultimate reality itself may be presented as intelligible , even supremely intelligible, in se . A gnoseological apophaticism, then, comports an ineffability on the part of the ultimate reality only quoad nos . Buddhist apophaticism, on the other hand, seeks to transport this ineffability to the heart of ultimate reality itself, declaring that this reality – inasmuch as its logos (its expression and communication) no longer pertains to the order of ultimate reality but precisely to the manifestation of that order – is ineffable not merely in our regard, but as such, quoad se . Thus Buddhist apophaticism is an ontic apophaticism.

Ultimate reality is so supremely ineffable and transcendent that, strictly speaking, Buddhism will be constrained to deny it the very character of being. Being, after all, is what is; but what is, by the very fact of being, is in some manner thinkable and communicable. It belongs to the order of manifestation, of being. And it cannot be considered to be ultimate reality itself’ (ibid, pg. 2-3)

I had the unique privilege of actually meeting Fr. Panikkar at a spiritual conference in seminary back in the fall of 1982. His very presence exuberated a Holy sense of the Noumenal. Our next blog will provide a further breakdown of this important element of apophaticism that transcends all sectarian boundaries.

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One Response to Nothingness in Nāgārjuna and John of the Cross

  1. n. yeti says:

    “A gnoseological apophaticism, then, comports an ineffability on the part of the ultimate reality only quoad nos.”

    I couldn’t have said it better myself, old timer. It’s good to see you at it again. This looks like a most interesting series!

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