Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Taking a break from everything

One of the main advantages of taking an intellectual holiday is that it can remove you completely from the concerns and worries of the mundane world that you normally occupy. And, more importantly, it can disperse some of the prejudices that cloud up your thinking and trap you into negative patterns of behaviour.

When you return, you will not have a sun tan, but the influx of fresh ideas may have changed your whole perspective on life.

Many things are likely to seem different - less burdensome or intrusive, more interesting, perhaps more enchanting. Some of the changes might be quite subtle, especially those involving the values you attach to things. Of course, these psychological benefits are intimately connected with the knowledge that you gain while away - but it is probably best not to aim for them directly.

What if you want to take a break from everything?

To do this, you need to be in the company of some of the most radical philosophers who ever lived: the Madhyamika Buddhists. For these thinkers challenged the very basis of all that we are inclined to believe about the nature of the mind and the existence of things in our everyday world

In my previous intellectual holiday package suggestion, the mind travel arrangements were very ad hoc. You were invited to spend as much or as little time with Greek philosophers as you want, and to do so whenever you feel like it.

If you really want to take time out from everything with the Madhyamikas, then you need to be a bit more disciplined. Some constraints are necessary. I recommend shacking up alone for a couple of days or so with some primary texts, and, if at all possible, no outside interference (TV, telephone, e-mail, etc). It's a good idea to get away from your usual surroundings (this helps with the habitual distractions). A cabin deep in the heart of a natural wilderness would be ideal.

Just kidding! That would be nice. But actually, the venue doesn't matter too much - anything that provides Coleridge's "Solitude which suits abstruser musings". A room in the cheapest motel will do. If you do not already have something of a Madhyamika outlook on it, nature itself can be a distraction.

Spend as much of your time as you can reading and ruminating on these texts - they will include commentary to help guide your reflections. But, you need to absorb them slowly, to really chew them over. Speed reading is off the menu. Then, after this first intensive session, you can take a more relaxed approach, spending time with the texts, and following up on others, whenever you get the chance.

What texts? There are many excellent translations available, but the two that I would start with are:

The Fundamental Wisdom of The Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulmamadhyamakakarika


Ocean of Reasoning: A Great Commentary on Nagarjuna's Mulmamahyamakakarika

These introduce you to Nagarjuna, the founder of Madhyamika philosophy, and Je Tsongkhapa, the monumental Tibetan commentator and thinker. Both texts are available on Amazon. They are translated by Jay Garfield (the second with the help of Geshe Ngawang).

At the heart of the Madhyamika outlook, is the notion of 'emptiness'. This has often been wrongly interpreted in terms of 'the void' or 'nothingness', as if it is entirely nihilistic.

To see why this is mistaken, take a simple example. The wooden table in front of you, is that empty on this outlook? Yes. But empty of what? Well, not existence as such - it is not that it does not exist (the nihilistic interpretation).

It is empty of a certain kind of existence; namely, independent existence, existence in its own right or, as the Tibetans like to put it, existence from its own side. All existence is contextual - things cannot exist in isolation. This includes you! When you try to throw a lasso around your self and rope it in to defend it against the big bad world outside, you are wasting your time. You don't actually exist in a manner that will make that project feasible.

If you have been reading other posts here, you will see how this links up with Pragmatism, with its scepticism about metaphysical notions of an independent reality. The Madhyamika take on things is thoroughly holistic.

Further reading

Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy: Tsongkhapa's
Quest for the Middle Way, Thupten Jinpa
Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, Jay Garfield and William Edelgass (eds)
Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural
Interpretation, Jay Garfield
The Emptiness of Emptiness, C.W.Huntington, Jr.
'Frost at Midnight', The Collected Poems, Samuel Taylor Coleridge


  1. Marcos Carvalho LopesJune 13, 2009 at 10:07 AM

    Dear Prof. Malachowski, I need your email for make an invitation. My email is marcosclopes@gmail.com

  2. Hi Marcos,
    Good to hear from you. My e-mail is