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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Quoted in Droit 1995, 105.
As Luis O. Gómez points out, one can draw a distinction between the claim that the goal—or the experience of the goal—of the Buddhist path is beyond the grasp of words, and the claim that words are an obstacle on the path. In Gómez’ view, most Buddhists affirm the first claim, but there is great variety with regard to the second claim, and how the two claims relate to each other (Gómez 1976, 138).
This remarkable claim appears in a number of Mahāyāna texts. See D’Amato 2009.
D’Amato’s distinction between apophasis and ineffability is informed by the work of Charles Sanders Peirce. D’Amato argues that “a doctrine of ineffability should be understood to primarily address the relation between sign and object: an ineffability claim is a claim that some object x is unable to be expressed, a claim that the sign cannot properly refer to the object.” He defines a particular kind of apophasis, in contrast to doctrines of ineffability, marked as “apophasis(B)”: “An apophatic(B) doctrine…should be understood to primarily address the relation between sign and interpretant: an apophatic(B) doctrine indicates that the proper understanding of the doctrine—the interpretant or meaning of the doctrine, the doctrine’s ‘proper significate outcome’—entails a realization that the doctrine must ultimately ‘unspeak’ itself, that the doctrine does not function as a description of the ‘way things really are,’ but rather is only an instrument or means to some further end: the end of ‘discarding all notions and determinations’” (D’Amato 2008, 28).
At the very end of the Fundamental Verses, Nāgārjuna writes: “I salute Gautama, who, based on compassion, taught the true Dharma for the abandonment of all views” (Siderits and Katsura 2013, XXVII.30). And he begins his Refutation of Objections (Vigrahavyāvartanī) by having his opponent voice the not unreasonable critique that if everything lacks inherent existence, then Nāgārjuna’s very claim must also lack inherent existence, and therefore not have the power to refute the inherent nature of phenomena. In response, in verse 29, he insists, “I have no thesis”; thus, his position is not susceptible to the opponent’s critique (Westerhoff 2009).
Doctrines of luminous mind already appear in Early Buddhism and are found, for example, in the Aṅguttara Nikāya and the Abdhidhamma. However, they were employed in more ontologically positive accounts of ultimate reality in later Mahāyāna traditions.
In addition, there are very different views about the resources and dangers of inferential reasoning, and the role and function of conceptuality in Buddhist practice. And many Mahāyāna philosophers stepped back from what appears to be Nāgārjuna’s radical apophasis. “Indeed,” Robert Gimello writes, “much of the subsequent history of Mahāyāna thought may be read as a cumulative qualification of the Śūnyavāda that one finds in the Perfection of Insight literature and in Nāgārjuna” (Gimello 1976, 117). According to Gimello, what unites the many challenges to the early Madhyamaka “is a profound dissatisfaction with the seemingly relentless apophasis of Nāgārjuna and, to a lesser extent, of his sources. All are able to acknowledge Nāgārjuna’s caution—that uncritical use of the constructive language of philosophical views is a species of intellectual bondage—but they acknowledge it only as a caution, a corrective to false views. They insist, however, that the way of denial and negation, the unremitting distrust of positive language, is necessary but not sufficient unto enlightenment.” Gimello argues that for many Mahayanists this view undermined the significance of compassion and the moral life. These later figures, he writes, “took it upon themselves to reassert the salvific value of kataphasis, the spiritual utility of positive and affirmative language. They chose, in short, eloquence over silence” (Gimello 1976, 119). For an account of the positive ethical role that apophatic discourse can play, see Edelglass 2007.
These terms are taken from Chinul’s list of characterizations of “true mind” in “Straight Talk on the True Mind” (Buswell 1983, 163–164).
Some of the most oft-commented on examples of silence in Buddhist traditions are in the Pāli Nikāyas, when the Buddha famously remains silent in response to a recurring list of ten—or sometimes fourteen—so-called “unanswered questions.” T.R.V. Murti interprets the Buddha’s silence as an apophatic move, suggesting that refraining from answering the questions points to the beyond of language (Murti 1960, 36–54). But the Buddha’s silence has also been interpreted according to an empiricist framework: David Kalupahana argues that the Buddha refrains from responding because he lacks the direct, empirical experience necessary for any knowledge claim (Kalupahana 1976, 155–160). Richard Hayes argues that the Buddha maintains silence because “all possible answers to these questions presuppose the existence of an enduring self” (Hayes 1994, 361). For a more recent interpretation of the unanswered questions as a schematization that ought to be understood in the context of formal debate and that is really about navigating a middle way between eternalism and annihilationism, see Nicholson 2012.
Abé, R. (2005). Word. In D. S. Lopez (Ed.), Critical terms in Buddhist studies (pp. 291–310). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bodhi, B. (2000). The connected discourses of the Buddha: A translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Boesel, C., & Keller, C. (2010). Apophatic bodies: Negative theology, incarnation, and relationality. New York: Fordham University Press.
Buswell, R. E., Jr. (1983). The Korean approach to Zen: the collected works of Chinul. Edited and translated with an introduction. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
Cabezón, J. I. (1994). Buddhism and language: A study of Indo-Tibetan scholasticism. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Cabezón, J. I. (2009). Language and the ultimate: Do Mādhyamikas make philosophical claims? A selection from Khedrupjey’s Stong thun chen mo (great digest). In W. Edelglass & J. L. Garfield (Eds.), Buddhist philosophy: Essential readings (pp. 126–137). New York: Oxford University Press.
Carpenter, A. (2012). “Faith without God.” https://projectintegrity.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/thomistadcpaper3formatted2.pdf. Accessed 14 Dec 2018.
D’Amato, M. (2008). Buddhism, apophasis, truth. Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory, 9(2), 17–29.
D’Amato, M. (2009). Why the Buddha never uttered a word. In M. D’Amato, J. L. Garfield, & T. J. F. Tillemans (Eds.), Pointing at the moon: Buddhism, logic, analytic philosophy (pp. 41–55). New York: Oxford University Press.
Droit, R.-P. (1995). Like children after larks. Diogenes, 43(1), 97–108.
Dunne, J. (1996). Thoughtless Buddha, passionate Buddha. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 64(3), 525–556.
Edelglass, W. (2007). Ethics and the subversion of conceptual reification in Levinas and Śāntideva. In Y. Wang (Ed.), Deconstruction and the ethical in Asian thought (pp. 151–161). New York: Routledge.
Edelglass, W. (2019). “Aspiration, conviction, and serene joy: Faith and reason in Indian Buddhist literature on the path.” In: Edited by Sikka, S. & Peetush A. (Eds.) Forthcoming in Beyond Faith Versus Reason: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on the Philosophy of Religion.
Franke, W. (2007). On what cannot be said: Apophatic discourses in philosophy, religion, literature, and the arts. Volume 1. Classic formulations. Edited with theoretical and critical essays. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Garfield, J. L. (2008). Turning a Madhyamaka trick: Reply to Huntington. Journal of Indian Philosophy, 36, 507–527.
Garfield, J. L. (2015). Engaging Buddhism: Why it matters to philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gimello, R. M. (1976). Apophatic and kataphatic discourse in Mahāyāna: a Chinese view. Philosophy East and West, 26(2), 117–136.
Gómez, L. O. (1976). Proto-Mādhyamika in the Pāli canon. Philosophy East and West, 26(2), 137–165.
Gómez, L. O. (1987). Language: Buddhist views of language. In M. Eliade (Ed.), The encyclopedia of religion (Second ed., pp. 5308–5313). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
Harvey, P. (2009). Knowledge and truth in the Theravāda record. In W. Edelglass & J. L. Garfield (Eds.), Buddhist philosophy: Essential readings (pp. 175–185). New York: Oxford University Press.
Hayes, R. (1994). Nāgārjuna’s appeal. Journal of Indian Philosophy, 22, 299–378.
Huntington, C. W. (1995). A way of reading. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 18(2), 279–308.
Huntington, C. W. (2007). The nature of the Mādhyamika trick. Journal of Indian Philosophy, 35, 103–131.
Kalupahana, D. (1976). Buddhist philosophy: A historical analysis. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.
Kapstein, M. (2011). Buddhist thought in Tibet: An historical introduction. In J. L. Garfield & W. Edelglass (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of world philosophy (pp. 245–264). New York: Oxford University Press.
Komarovski, Y. (2008). Encountering ineffability—counting ineffability: on divergent verbalizations of the ineffable in 15th century Tibet. Acta Tibetica et Buddhica, 1, 1–15.
Komarovski, Y. (2011). Buddhist contributions to the question of (un)meditated mystical experience. Sophia: International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Metaphysical Theology and Ethics, 51(1), 87–115.
Lamotte, E. (1949). Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra. Translation and annotation. Louvain: Publications d l’Institute Orientaliste de Louvain, vol. 1.
McRae, J. (2000). The Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch. Translated from the Chinese of Zongbao. (Taishō Volume 48, Number 2008). Moraga: BDK America, Inc..
McRae, J. (2004). The Vimalakīrti Sūtra. Translated from the Chinese. (Taishō volume 14, number 475). Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.
Mitreski, D. (2015). “Nāgārjuna: Four Hymns,” translation. In D. S. Lopez (Ed.), The Norton anthology of world religions: Buddhism (pp. 375–385). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Murti, T. R. V. (1960). The central philosophy of Buddhism. London: Geroge Allen and Unwin.
Ñāṇamoli, B., & Bodhi, B. (1995). The middle length discourses of the Buddha: A new translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Nicholson, H. (2012). The unanswered questions and the limits of knowledge. Journal of Indian Philosophy, 40, 533–552.
Sells, M. A. (1994). Mystical languages of unsaying. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Siderits, M., & Katsura, S. (2013). Nāgārjuna’s middle way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Turner, D. (1995). The darkness of god: Negativity in Christian mysticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Westerhoff, J. (2009). The no-thesis view: making sense of verse 29 of Nāgārjuna’s Vigrahavyāvartanī. In M. D’Amato, J. L. Garfield, & T. J. F. Tillemans (Eds.), Pointing at the Moon: Buddhism, Logic, Analytic Philosophy (pp. 25–39). New York: Oxford University Press.
Wright, D. (1992). Rethinking transcendence: the role of language in Zen experience. Philosophy East and West, 42(1), 113–138.
Wright, D. (1993). The discourse of awakening: rhetorical practice in classical Ch’an Buddhism. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 61(1), 23–40.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Edelglass, W. “That Is Why The Buddha Laughs”: Apophasis, Buddhist Practice, and the Paradox of Language. DHARM 1, 201–214 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42240-019-00028-z
- Buddhist philosophy