Madhyamaka & Methodology
A Symposium on Buddhist Theory and Method
April 23–25, 2010
This three-day symposium at Smith College extended a conversation that was begun in 2008 in two articles in the Journal of Indian Philosophy—one (PDF) by C. W. Huntington of Hartwick College, and the other (PDF) by Jay Garfield of Smith College—on the question of how to read and interpret Buddhist Madhyamaka texts. The crux of the issue is how to make sense of the argumentation that we find in these texts, while also taking seriously the Madhyamaka critique of all views, theses and propositions. According to Madhyamaka proponents, all phenomena are empty of "self nature" or "essence," meaning that they have no intrinsic, independent reality apart from the causes and conditions from which they arise.
Arguing for a literary reading of Nāgārjuna (the founder of the Madhyamaka school in the second century CE), Huntington asserts that philosophers who seek to understand Madhyamaka through modern symbolic logic end up missing the point of Nāgārjuna's enterprise, for in treating Madhyamaka texts as a form of denatured discourse, they fail to engage with the metaphorical and affective dimensions of his language. Responding to this charge, Garfield holds that not only is Nāgārjuna's logic very interesting, but it's also in no way antithetical to his rejection of views, theses and positions. Garfield thus defends the use of symbolic logic as well as the general approach of reading Nāgārjuna's arguments in terms of rational categories familiar to students of Anglo-American analytic philosophy.
The symposium featured more than 20 scholars (PDF) from across America and Europe, each of whom had the opportunity to respond to these two papers and to present their own ideas on the topic. There were philosophers and historians, textualists and ethnographers, specialists in logic, literature and tantra as well as India, Tibet and East Asia. These scholars espoused a range of viewpoints, with many complementary yet opposing perspectives and areas of expertise, hence the proceedings functioned as a high level and heated conversation. Presenters spoke pointedly for 15 minutes, addressing pre-circulated questions about Madhyamaka and methodology (PDF) as well as the original papers by Huntington and Garfield. What ensued was a conceptually focused dialogue in which people had the opportunity to distill their thinking about method, highlight their interests and concerns and respond to others doing the same.
We hope that this symposium will be of interest to a wide variety of scholars, whether in Buddhist studies (across discipline and region) or in religion or philosophy. The study of Madhyamaka has long been central to the study of Buddhism, guiding the methodological orientation for the field of Buddhist studies as well its understanding of the relationship between text and practice. The question of how best to make sense of premodern texts with modern theory is surely one that confronts many scholars, and we were fortunate to have some of the best scholars in Buddhist studies addressing this problem through a series of brilliant texts that thwart any easy answer.
We also hope that this symposium will lend prominence to the Buddhist Studies Program at Smith College and the other member institutions of the Five College Buddhist Studies Program: Amherst College, Mount Holyoke College, Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Smith College, for its part, is renowned for the quality of its events as well as the scholarship of its faculty. For example, Smith College hosted a four-day conference, Women Practicing Buddhism: American Experiences, in 2005. This resulted in a book by the same name, edited by Peter Gregory (Smith College) and Susanne Mrozik (Mount Holyoke College), and published by Wisdom Publications in 2008. Smith College also hosted a three-day conference, Buddhism in Mongolia: Rebirth and Transformation, in 2009. More than 20 specialists in history, religion, anthropology and art from Mongolia, North America and Europe shared their research on the history of Buddhism in Mongolia and its current resurgence. Additionally, the college has hosted His Holiness the Dalai Lama twice, in 1988 and 2007. The Buddhist studies faculty at Smith College has likewise continued to gain prominence. In 2008, Stanford University launched an annual series called "Buddhist Studies @," which brings faculty from an "important center of Buddhist studies" to give lectures each spring. The first featured institution was Tokyo University. Smith College was the second. An article in NewsSmith, "Smith Prominence in Buddhist Studies Continues to Rise," provides more details.
Watch the Symposium
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This symposium is also available on iTunes U, which allows you to watch the entire proceedings for free through iTunes.
Friday, April 23: Browsing Room, Neilson Library
Saturday, April 24: Mary Maples Dunn Room, Pierce Hall
Response to Huntington and Garfield
Response to McClintock
General Discussion, part 1
Panel 2—chair: Maria Heim (Amherst College)
Dan Arnold (University of Chicago)
Jan Westerhoff (University of Durham)
Georges Dreyfus (Williams College)
General Discussion, part 2
General Discussion, part 3
Panel 3—chair: Susanne Mrozik (Mount Holyoke College)
Mario D'Amato (Rollins College)
General Discussion, part 4
General Discussion, part 5
Panel 4—chair: Susan Darlington (Hampshire College)
Tom Tillemans (University of Lausanne)
Tillemans' flight was unfortunately cancelled.
Tom Tillemans (University of Lausanne)
Kevin Vose (College of William and Mary)
Connie Kassor (Emory University)
General Discussion, part 6
Panel 5—chair: Jamie Hubbard (Smith College)
David Higgins (University of Victoria, BC)
Higgins' flight was unfortunately cancelled.
Karen Lang (University of Virginia)
General Discussion, part 7
Sunday, April 25: Mary Maples Dunn Room, Pierce Hall
Panel 6—chair: Peter Gregory (Smith College)
General Discussion, part 8
General Discussion, part 9
Support for the Symposium
Support for the symposium came from Smith College's Ada Howe Kent Fund, Alumnae Office, Lecture Committee, Philosophy Department, and Religion Department; Amherst College's Religion Department; Hampshire College's HACU; Mount Holyoke College's Religion Department; the Five College Tibetan Studies in India Program; the Five College Religion Faculty Seminar; Five Colleges Inc.; the Buddhist Studies Program at the University of Lausanne; the Buddhist Studies Program at Emory University; the Hershey Family Foundation; and Wisdom Publications.
Special thanks to Donna Gunn and Laura Stanford for helping to organize the event, and to Kate Geis (video producer & camera) and Shannon Brown (sound & editing) for documenting it.
If you have any question or comments about the symposium or this Web site, please contact Andy Rotman.
Tom Tillemans, Professor of Buddhist Studies, University of Lausanne, presented a talk entitled “Madhyamaka Buddhist Ethics” at the Neilson Library Browsing Room on November 11, 2010. The talk was a continuation of “Madhyamaka & Methodology: A Symposium on Buddhist Theory and Method” and also part of the Five College Buddhist Studies Faculty Seminar. A question-and-answer session followed the talk.