The Essence of the Middle Way: Day 1

Nagarjuna and Kant in Parallel

Video Version

None today or the rest of this week - I am still figuring out how to narrate Nagarjuna and Kant in parallel; should have a better idea after a week’s immersion in the project.


Today is the first day of reading Nagarjuna/Tsong-khapa and Kant in parallel. You'll note that the title of this essay has changed to the EOM (Essence of the Middle Way) from the earlier Kant-only label.

It's an interesting challenge to read texts from traditions separated from each other by time, space and style among other things. The standard scholarly approach is to continue to write in the modern academic style even when commenting on a Sanskrit text, so that the form of the text is modern even if the content is classical. I find that restrictive - even as it expands the scope of our inquiry, it misses a chance to expand our cognitive faculties. The modern academic style is just one cognitive style among many, and when presented with two cognitive styles, we should take our comparative task to be one of creating a literary middle way as much as a philosophical middle way.

We will see the rewards of that right away if we take the manner in which Nagarjuna and Tsong-khapa start their treatises seriously. But before I get there, here's the template for future updates in this parallel reading:

  1. Preamble - what you’re reading right now - sets the stage for that day’s comments.

  2. Nagarjuna reading

  3. Kant reading

  4. Synthesis (optional)

  5. Parting remarks.


How do we start a text? The usual thing these days is to start with acknowledgments, thanking one's peers, assistants and teachers. The translators of the Ocean of Reasoning start their journey so:

Samten is a monk so he starts with his teachers. Garfield starts with acknowledgment of his colleague and co-translator. Meanwhile, here's how Tsong-khapa himself starts his treatise:

He doesn't thank; he prostrates himself and then he takes refuge in the Buddha, the victor, the lord of the treasure of wisdom. He's no 'commentator': he's one being in a long lineage of beings, blood of their blood, flesh of their flesh. We can no longer conceive of such devotion, but we can learn from their veneration, for there's something deep and profound about listening to the words of the wise. It's romantic and moving at once. We should all start our days with such gratitude.

'Listening with veneration' of being thankful that we are in a position to hear the stream of wisdom wise course through one's mind. 'Hear' is important - it can't be a silent reading; the multi-sensorial experience of the text is an important aspect of our study.


I am cheating - I said I would read one page a day, but today's update is based on three pages and with that I am done with Preface A of Kant's CPR. Kant declares his main goal once again:

What can we cognize in the absence of any experience, i.e., in the absence of any inputs from the world?

He is confident that he's given a precise and comprehensive answer to this question. The world is intelligible and our experience evidences its intelligibility every waking moment, but what must reason supply on its own side for any experience to be intelligible? Which is to say that our experiences presuppose structure that's supplied by pure reason. But then there's a follow up question: what's presupposed by reason itself? Clearly, it presupposes the capacity to think. Why is thinking possible at all? Kant says he has an answer to that question too, but it's not as comprehensive as the answer to the first one, so he wants to persuade us of the necessity of the first even if we disagree about his answer to the second.

The amazing thing about mapping the geography of pure reason is that it's possible to carry out a complete and thorough investigation, leaving out nothing of value, for according to Kant, reason is transparent to itself. And therefore, not only can we chart the kingdom of reason, our map has the force of necessity - it's map could only be this way and no other. It's absolute rather than contingent, as one might desire from metaphysical foundations.

Here's a question though: is the widespread belief that foundations should be more solid than the structure that stands on it an unshakable belief? Why can't foundations be less solid, less certain? A steel ship can sail on the ocean can't it?

Kant says that faced with the forest of the world, he has cleared a little patch in its center from which he will survey the rest of the woods. Unlike the map of metaphysics of reason which he believes he has settled once and for all, the metaphysics of nature is an ongoing project where he expects collaborators to help him expand the principles into detailed descriptions of the domain at hand.

Parting Remarks

We have a promissory note from Kant: he's going to illuminate the a priori structures of pure reason in one long leap. We are also entering the stream of Nagarjuna's wisdom as further illuminated by Tsong-khapa.

It’s going to be quite the challenge rowing our boat between these two banks. One way to do so is by maximal fidelity to both texts and traditions. I might have gone that way in another life. But I am not a classicist, and instead, I prefer the method of Zen, which it’s founder Bodhidharma called ‘a special transmission outside the scriptures.’

Which I will interpret as a simultaneous transmission of these two traditions that feels compelling as living truth rather than archival material. It’s a reading of the texts in the bazaar, not the bungalow. Not that we shouldn’t be serious about the bazaari reading. As the great master says:

Like him, we can also say our investigation isn't for those who want a superficial understanding of the Middle Way, that grasping its principles across cultures will take enormous patience and conceptual creativity. Our special transmission beyond the scriptures will also need the blessings of gurus past, East and West.

May they offer us refuge!