The Way of Negation?

Buddhism has many contradictions and cryptic passages.  Now, there are many ways of explaining these, but there’s one that I find very interesting that I’d like to discuss here.



We start by speculating about what Buddhism originally taught.  This requires going back to the religious mileu from which it arose.  Since Buddhism and Hinduism arose from the same environment, looking at Buddhism through Hinduism might be instructive.  This is especially true because the overview of their typical positions are identical: Life sucks, so seek the self to find Nirvana. Maybe this overview is indicative of deeper similarities?

Now some could object that Buddhism is atheistic and denies the self, while Hinduism is pantheistic and asserts a self identical with God.  However, this difference is illusory.  First, a pantheistic God is identical with reality and atheists believe in reality, so this is a semantic quibble.  Second, the problem with a self is its boundaries, which is where conflicts arise that cause pain. This is resolved by erasing the self boundaries by either erasing the self (no self implies no boundary) or by expanding the self to include everything.  In short, the positions seem identical in every significant way.

In fact, just how illusory the differences are can be seen by examining Apophatic Theology, which also can explain a lot of Buddhism’s (apparent) problems.  Apophatic techniques try to grasp things by rejecting the concepts associated with them, since concepts distort and obscure.  This makes apophatic techniques seem like a denial, which is the opposite of what they are.

Here’s an apophatic technique in Hinduism called Neti Neti:

In Hinduism, and in particular Jnana Yoga and Advaita Vedanta, neti neti is a Sanskrit expression which means “not this, not this”, or “neither this, nor that” (neti is sandhi from na iti “not so”). It is found in the Upanishads and the Avadhuta Gita and constitutes an analytical meditation helping a person to understand the nature of Brahman by first understanding what is not Brahman. It corresponds to the western via negativa, a mystical approach that forms a part of the tradition of apophatic theology. One of the key elements of Jnana Yoga practice is often a “neti neti search.” The purpose of the exercise is to negate rationalizations and other distractions from the non-conceptual meditative awareness of reality.

Now look at what Buddhism says about the Skhandas:

…[T]he instructed noble disciple … does not regard form [or other aggregates] as self, or self as possessing form, or form as in self, or self as in form. That form of his changes and alters. Despite the change and alteration of form, his consciousness does not become preoccupied with the change of form…. [T]hrough non-clinging he does not become agitated.” (Trans. by Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 865-866.)

Also telling is what the above does not say.  It does not say the Self doesn’t exist.  It simply says what the self is not.  Lest you think I’m reaching, here is an even more explicit section from the Thicket of Views.  Notice the explicit rejection of the no-self position that Buddhism supposedly endorses:

And with such unwise considerations, he adopts one or other of the six views, and it becomes his conviction and firm belief: ‘I have a Self’, or: ‘I have no Self’, or: ‘With the Self I perceive the Self’, or: ‘With that which is no Self, I perceive the Self’; or: ‘With the Self I perceive that which is no Self’. Or, he adopts the following view: ‘This my Self, which can think and feel, and which, now here, now there, experiences the fruit of good and evil deeds: this my Self is permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change, and will thus eternally remain the same’.

Not only only does it reject everything, but it seems to completely flaunt logic.  Heck, it takes logic out the back and shoots it!  However, this makes sense if one sees it as an apophatic strategy that tries to transcend all concepts.  More on this below.

With this apophatic lens, the Buddha’s silence about various speculative issues are completely consistent with any “denials” of the same, as both would be an attempt to transcend conceptualizations associated with those things.

For that matter, it also makes the teachings about clinging to views more understandable.  I was always uncomfortable with those teachings.  Yes some views are tailor made for pain, but others (like speculation about an eternal universe) seem relatively benign.  Why would they cause pain? Well, if the attack is on the habit of conceptualization in general (as part of the broader apophatic strategy), then this makes more sense.

So maybe Buddhism wasn’t a new religion or philosophy, but a specific method within the religion of his time?  If so, any apparent split with that religion can be seen as an apophatic method, taken to extremes.

Let’s say I seek X, so I try to approach it apophatically.  Well, once I strip out every concept applied to X, I’m still left with X as a concept, and it may still carry subtle associations.  So I need to get beyond X itself.  Yet if X is the goal of my search (enshrined by the religious framework I’m in), then this can be tough to do.  So one solution for a hardcore apophatic school within that framework is to split from that religion just to be free of any concepts that would be “inherited” by association with that religion.

Whether The Buddha could have avoided all concepts is questionable.  People need a motivation, and to simply say “drop concepts” without a payoff (like Nirvana) may have been asking for too much.

What about the passages in Buddhism that explicitly assert negative positions, rather than apophatic denials?  Well maybe they were the result of misunderstanding the apophatic methods?  This is actually very easy to do because the human mind can easily misunderstand the negation of something as the assertion of its opposite.

This may be way we see curious, apparently illogical positions in Neti, Neti like “neither this, nor that”, and in the Thicket of Views that deny both positions of  ‘I have a Self’, or: ‘I have no Self’. These make sense if taken as attempts to counter the tendency to see “neither this” as implying “that”.  Therefore, both the position, its negation, and every “middle ground” is rejected, to leave people with NO concepts to hide behind.

If someone missed this distinction, then it’s very possible the apophatic methods regarding X were misinterpreted as dogma asserting NOT X.

For that matter, this explains why the Buddha was concerned that his teaching was so subtle and that people would misunderstand.  Typical presentations of Buddhism are not subtle enough (IMO) to warrant this concern, but apophatic methods definitely are.

This even provides another interpretation of The Middle Way as a way among views, of the careful navigation through assertion, negation, neither assertion nor negation, etc.., a navigation that can use those views when needed without clinging to them.

So was Buddhism a religious strategy rather than a new religion/philosophy?  Would Buddhism be better called: The Way of Negation?


If one engages in an apophatic technique to find X, what are the possibilities?  There are two main ones: Removing concepts reveals X, or X never existed (was another concept).  If X never existed, then its use could be as an “anchor” for concept removal, much like the breath is an “anchor” for mindfulness meditation.  If concepts are the cause of pain, then both methods accomplish the purpose.  What’s more, speculating about what the resulting thing we experience is, is another concept, the thing we’ve been trying to remove.  Maybe we just need to take the apophatic lesson to heart, and drop all concepts, including the concepts about our “success”, and let things be.


10 thoughts on “The Way of Negation?

  1. I don’t think it’s possible to prove the existence or non-existence of anything. The existence or non-existence would be a concept. Why would I choose to believe in the truth of a concept I can’t know?

    1. Nicely put.

      Does it even make sense to say something doesn’t exist? Isn’t it just a word game? And if something is nonsensical in that fashion (by its sheer “un-existence”) does asserting the converse (existence) make any sense? Perhaps this is why so much ink has been spilled on debates on what existence means. If the whole thing is incoherent to begin with…

  2. Actually Steve it is possible to prove that nothing really exists. Nagarjuna famously does it in the second century. But the word ‘really’ would be important. He negates all extreme views to leave just his own, which makes his view as much an affirmation as a negation. If it were exclusively one or the other it would be an extreme view. I do not see Buddhism as ‘the way of negation’ since it affirms a doctrine. Not everything is negated, and apophasis is precisely avoidance of negation.

  3. Thanks for that. I just read his Wiki entry and I think I understand your point. The concept of existence, and it’s negation, imply independence. This is impossible because everything is a connected whole. Yes?

    1. Yes, I think so, although it is not quite how I’d come at it. The idea, I believe it is correct to say, would be that psycho-physical phenomenon would be emergent from a phenomenon that is unmanifest and thus existent or non-existent depending on how we think of it. This original phenomenon would be real, the only phenomenon that is truly real, but it would not be correct to say that it does or does not exist since either claim on its own would misrepresent the facts. Thus a middle way between existence and non-existence has to be adopted, requiring a careful examination of what we mean by these words. (As bloggingisaresponsibility asks above, do we even know?) Nagarjuna is thus able to show that nothing truly exists while not endorsing nihilism. It would not be just that psycho-physical phenomena lack independent existence, but that for the middle way view we would have to re-conceptualise what we mean by existence. He shows that nothing really exists, but does not show that nothing exists. This subtlety leads many to read him as a nihilist preaching a global doctrine of negation. In fact he rejects all such extreme views for a middle way where negation and affirmation are two responses to a truth that cannot be put into words unless those words appear to be paradoxical. (‘True words seem paradoxical’ – Lao Tsu) Both negative and positive positions are rejected for a neutral metaphysical position. This would not require that we abandon logic, N’s argument is a model application of dialectic logic, but only that we use it more carefully that we do in ordinary life. I hope you don’t mind all these words. I liked your thoughtful essay but just wanted to say that there is an answer to the questions it raises.

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