Comparisons and Contrasts


Don Mak

The outstanding feature between these major thinkers from diverse spiritual traditions is how they both employ the negative-way to drive-home their Weltanschauung. Nāgārjuna downplayed conventionalities in their reliance upon other dependent structures thereby betraying their lack-of-self-substantiating truth rendering them void and essenceless.  The nada as found in John of the Cross also bespeaks the limits of human faculties (Intellect, Memory, Will) that, in the face of the Unborn and Absolute, are just true defections devoid of that Self-same substantiation.

Thus, Nāgārjuna and John of the Cross speak of the limits of human cognitiveabilities and linguistic apparatus. Nāgārjuna would speak of the saṁvṛti distinctions and the essencelessness of the things to affirm their real nature. John of the Cross would speak of inadequacy of human faculties and their inability to know God as he is. Though both the thinkers speak of different things and operate in different levels of thought, there is a striking similarity in their take on the limits of saṁvṛti (the conventional) and the limits of human faculties. (C.D. Sebastian, ibid, pg. 110)

In conjunction with our previous blog, they both employ silence as the dominant and concluding feature of the negative-way. Sebastian demarcates them respectfully as an ontic-silence and mystic silence. Again, he makes reference to Panikkar:

Silence of the Buddha was ontic silence, says Panikkar. His silence ‘is not for any subjective reason – neither his own, nor that of his hearer, nor that of human nature – but in virtue of an exigency of reality itself. His is not a methodological or a pedagogical silence, but an ontic silence. His silence not only clothes the reply, it invades the question. He is not only silent, he reduces to silence’. (ibid, pg. 117)

The silence in John of the Cross “is indisputably a mystic silence.”

The silence is a transformation where the ‘appetites of sensible affection were changed from the sensory life to the spiritual life, which implies dryness and cessation of all appetites we are speaking of’ (DN I, 11, 1: 383). In this silence, the soul has ‘arid night solitude for God’ (DN I, 13, 13: 392); there is ‘dryness and nakedness’ (DN I, 13, 13: 392) for the soul. That is why it is said: ‘my house being now all stilled’ (DN I, 13, 15: 392). It is in this silence, ‘the soul walks in darkness and emptiness in its natural operations, it walks securely’ (DN II, 16, 3: 431). (ibid, pg. 118)

There is a mistaken popular belief that John’s emphasis on this mystic-silence was also meant for the masses, not exclusively for contemplative anchorites. Well, John of the Cross issued a caveat at the end of his preface for the Ascent of Mount Carmel stating that he was not generally addressing the general populace, but only those members of the Primitive Order of Mount Carmel who were already detached from the general thrust of the world’s activities:

My principal object, however, is not to address myself to all, but only to certain persons of our holy religion of Mount Carmel, who by the grace of God are on the pathway of this mount. It is at their request I have undertaken my task. They, indeed, already detached from the things of this life, will the better understand this doctrine of detachment of spirit.

This is not to say that others can’t also strive for this eremitical contemplative enterprise, but that a fervent spirit of silence needs to be a prerequisite. And silence is best served through [suitable locations]. For the Discalced Carmelites, it was their secluded monastery. For others it is strongly suggested that they provide themselves with periodical silent retreats in appropriate locales—whether in some form of retreat-house, nature reserves or some marked-off area that prevents the incessant distractions of samsara from creeping in. For myself, my new hermitage has proven itself to be indispensable for mental quietude and the contemplative-resolve. Detachment from the things of this life was indeed a prerequisite for John of the Cross and not some watered-down version of his spirituality. Unfortunately, his Dark Night of the Soul has become an over-familiar catch-phrase in our secular world. It becomes a psychophysical meter for every ailment under the sun, from depression to outright morbid celebration of one’s angst. Rather, its primary factor was that of a resilient ascesis, empowering one to undertake a deafening-silence and solitude in order to properly confect infused-contemplation.

While the negative-way of Nāgārjuna and John of the Cross may be similar in approach, it is also quite different in terms of goals:

Nāgārjuna is a Buddhist and his entire philosophical cum religious enterprise is centred on Buddhist thought and conviction. He takes recourse to the Buddhavacana, the word of the Buddha, and interprets the Buddhist thought to his fellow Buddhists to eradicate, as he understands, what is not in conformity with the Buddha’s genuine teaching…The goal of the negative way in Nāgārjuna is for the cessation of all views ( sarvadṛṣṭiprahāṇ̄aya – MK 27, 30: 258–259; and śūnyatāsarvadṛṣṭīnām – MK 13, 8: 108–109), and thereby, one can attain the right view. This is nothing but śūnyatā where there is a realisation that things lack an intrinsic nature ( niḥsvabhāva ) due to their dependent origination ( pratītyasamutpāda –MK 24, 18: 219–220). Nāgārjuna does not speak of a mystical union with an ultimate reality as the goal of the negative way he proposed. The cessation of all false views is liberation for him. Thus, śūnyatā is liberating.

John of the Cross, on the other hand, is a Christian and mystic. His is nothing but a religious thought, a theistic conviction. His search is for God, and he is in search of the path for a mystical union with that Supreme Being, that is, the Trinitarian God for him; His primary concern was the spiritual life of his fellow Carmelites and also his own mystical and deep contemplative experience which get reflected in his writings. (ibid, pgs. 122-124)

Also in further retrospect, Nāgārjuna abhorred the path of via-positiva. His emphasis focused on the negative, yea, even negating the via-negativa itself. Whereas in John of the Cross, his via-negativa ended in a positive affirmation—direct union with the Godhead.

Nāgārjuna’s philosophical epiphany brings home an enlightened-indifference, whereas the theological epiphany in John of the Cross ushers in a union of the soul with God which is a spiritual marriage and experience where heart and the faculties of intellect, will and memory meet. The content of these two end results are different, and the objectives too are dissimilar. (ibid, pg. 129)

Yet, it also needs to be noted that within Nāgārjuna’s formulation of emptiness of non-existence and of existence itself (abhāvasvabhāvaśūnyatā), a positive chord can be struck by the aspiring adept in that one is empowered to transcend both joy and sadness:

But if this yogin discovers the emptiness of arising (utpādaśūnyatā), he destroys the mind of joy (saumanasyacitta), and if he discovers the emptiness of cessation (nirodhaśūnyatā), he destroys the mind of sadness (daurmanasyacitta). Why? [Because he sees that, on the one hand], arising is not a gain (lābha) and on the other hand, cessation (nirodha) is not a loss (alābha). As he thus eliminates these mundane (laukika) thoughts of joy and sadness, there is ‘emptiness of non-existence and of existence itself’. (From the TREATISE ON THE GREAT VIRTUE OF WISDOM OF NĀGĀRJUNA (MAHĀPRAJÑĀPĀRAMITĀŚĀSTRA), ÉTIENNE LAMOTTE, volume IV. Pg. 1766)

In conclusion of this series, it is evident that Nāgārjuna’s śūnyatā and John’s nada are both employed to represent Nothingness in philosophical and mystical categories. The following poem from Dietrich Bonhoeffer reveals how this Dark Night is never spent, but rather issues forth positive release into unknown modes of being:

But the night is strong and wise,
Stronger than the day and wiser than me.
What no earthly power can do,
Where thinking and feeling, defiance and tears must fail,
The night showers its full riches upon me. (ibid, pg. 165)

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