Thinking the Unthinkable, Saying the Ineffable

I am about t sketch You a picture of what goes on around here sometimes. tho I don’t understand too well myself what’s really happening. – Bob Dylan

Last week’s installment of the Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland included this quote by the German existentialist philosopher, Karl Jaspers[1. Karl Jaspers, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Plotinus, Lao-Tzu, Nagarjuna: From the Great Philosophers The Original Thinkers (Harcourt Brace, 1974).]:

Nagarjuna strives to think the unthinkable and to say the ineffable. He knows this and tries to unsay what he has said.”

Some folks might wonder, if it is unthinkable or inexpressible then how can it be thought or spoken, and why does Nagarjuna contradict himself?

First, it is helpful to remind ourselves what we are dealing with. One writer, F.C. Happold[2. F.C. Happold, Mysticism A Study and an Anthology (Penguin, 1971), 159.], has said,

One of the difficulties for the Westerner in his effort to understand Buddhism is the particular language in which so many Buddhist writings are couched. It is often a language of paradox and non-duality. One is called upon to penetrate through this paradoxical, non-dualistic language to get at the inner meaning.”

Statue of Nagarjuna at Samye Ling Monastery

This is especially true of Nagarjuna, the master of paradox with his arguments on logical contradiction. And with Nagarjuna, we have an additional element in that he had a problem with language. He found it inadequate, incapable of accurately describing reality. At best, it provides us signs, semblances of reality. These signs, however, are false, for as language shapes our view of the world, it obscures the truth.

Jaspers says,

All designations are meaningless: When I speak, I suppose that the signs (nimitta) I employ ‘signify’ things. If for example I wish to speak of becoming and perishing, I must devise different signs. But designation and differentiation lead us into error. Designation and thing designated cannot be one, nor can they be different . . .

To live by signs is to live in illusion . . . But every man lives by signs when he lives in the realm of appearance – whether he assumes that “appearance is a sign,” or that “appearance is empty,” when he lives in the assumption ‘I live’ or ‘I am conscious’ . . .”

Language must have its subject and object, its designation and differentiation, its duality, which produces a tendency to seize objects and cling to them. And it is this tendency that is said to be the root of suffering. Non-differentiation and non-conceptual thinking is offered as an antidote.

Although Nagarjuna makes a distinction between the ultimate truth and the relative or conventional truth, in the end the ultimate truth is no truth: “No definite statement is possible.”

Conventionally speaking, we can say that things exist and they have the nature of interdependency. From the ultimate truth, we say that things do not have intrinsic existence. They are empty. But even this ultimate standpoint is, in the final analysis, only a conventional view.


All things that arise interdependently,
I declare as emptiness.
This is a conventional designation;
it is the Middle Way.

Here Nagarjuna is making it clear that even emptiness is a relative truth. All truth is relative, in this sense, because truth is always expressed conventionally. Jay Garfield, in The Fundamental Wisdom of The Middle Way[3. Jay Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of The Middle Way (Oxford University Press, 1995), 280.], explains,

Nagarjuna has been urging all along that ultimately all things are empty. It would be very easy to interpret him to mean that from the ultimate standpoint, we can say of phenomena that they are empty. But here he quite deliberately undermines that interpretation, claiming instead that nothing can be literally said of things from such a standpoint. For ultimately there is no entity of which emptiness or nonemptiness that can be predicated. Nor can we say that things are neither empty nor nonempty. For that would contradict the fact that from the standpoint of one using conventional language and cognition, it is correct to characterize phenomena as empty.

I don’t know about you, but this tends to make my head spin.

Forging ahead anyway, the bottom line, as far as my understanding goes, is that “it” is unthinkable and ineffable not because it is some transcendent, sacred reality, but because reality itself, whether in the relative or ultimate aspect, can never be fully known through conceptual thinking, nor can it ever be expressed adequately using conventional language.

Emptiness is not the ultimate reality. As Nagarjuna indicated above, it is merely a conventional designation. However, it is a pathway to enlightenment. Perhaps it is the most expedient means in which to realize awakening, for it demolishes all concepts, and like a vajra-sword it cuts through all delusions. Nagarjuna often compares emptiness-knowledge with Prajna-paramita or Transcendent Wisdom.

I don’t feel we should always assume that words like “transcendent” are used to imply a mystical reality or experience. Enlightenment is just seeing things as they truly are, empty of intrinsic self-being. Frederick Streng notes, “Emptiness is an answer to the quest for enlightenment when it promotes a practical solution to the problem of sorrow.”[4. Frederick J. Streng, Emptiness A Study in Religious Meaning (The University of Chicago Press, 1967), 163.] Through cultivating awareness of the absence of self-being in things, we transcend the limits of language and the conceptual thinking that tends to reinforce our sense of self, another root of suffering.

Mahayana teaches that Samsara is Nirvana. Where is the ultimate reality? You’re in it right now. I feel that Nagarjuna would like to tell us not to be so concerned with ultimate realities and truths. The conventional, the mundane is more important, because that’s where we are, and it’s much more of a challenge overall to develop a profound awareness of things in the everyday world, than it is to “think the unthinkable and to say the ineffable.” Besides, it’s already been done.



2 thoughts on “Thinking the Unthinkable, Saying the Ineffable

  1. David,

    I think this is an insightful and practical commentary. Nagarjuna makes a lot of sense when you do what he says to do, rather than trying to think what he says to think. You have to live it and breath it. Trying to figure it out will only make a person dizzy.

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