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Theses Doctoral

Being and Believing in Buddhism and Islam

Stepien, Rafal

The overall thesis of this dissertation may be summed up as the position that Mawlāna Rūmī and Nāgārjuna both eschew any and all epistemological positions (beliefs) so as to abandon any and all ontological positionality (being). To this end, my argument is arranged into two chapters dealing respectively with these two authors.
In the chapter on Rūmī, following a review of the relevant Western and Persian literature (§2.2.), and prior to diving in to Mawlānā’s disavowal of any and all self-positionedness, I firstly focus on nationalist positions through an examination of some of the ways in which various exclusivist nationalist interests have competed, and continue to compete, to appropriate Mawlānā for ends quite anathematic to his own ecumenical/multivalent approach (§2.3.1.). I thus attempt to demonstrate that, far from giving voice to any specifically Persian or Iranian nationalist identity, Rūmī and his poetry have been appropriated by not only Iranian but also Afghan and Turkish nationalist discourses as means to assert their own ideological agendas. I then take a closer look at Mawlānā’s own conceptualization of identity (§2.3.2.). Drawing on selected passages from the Masnavī, I attempt to demonstrate that Jalāl al-Dīn’s notion of identity, particularly of the nationally-constituted kind, remains steadfastly untied to sectarian affiliations, and thereby undermines the appropriative nationalist efforts adumbrated theretofore.
In succeeding sections, I develop the bulk of my argument by examining the means whereby Mawlānā Rūmī develops his own mode of discursive instability so as to reject positionality of any kind. Following a survey (§2.4.1.) and critique (§2.4.2.) of existing theoretical elaborations of apophasis as inadequate to Rūmī’s case , I specifically study the multiple authorial identities enacted by Rūmī in his eponymous Masnavī to negate his own affirmations, and thence even those negations, in multifolded dynamism, and thereby convey the paradoxical truth of self-subsistence in self-annihilation (baqāʾ andar fanāʾ) by which to disavow any self’s, and any belief’s, bids at self-assertion through self-definition. Rather than speaking through kataphatic avowal, logical demonstration, or doctrinal proclamation, Mawlānā adopts apophatic discursive strategies – whereby he speaks through negation (§2.5.1.) , negation of negation (§2.5.2.) and, ultimately, the negation of all binary affirmations and negations in multifolded dynamism (§2.5.3.) – so as to deny the ego the definitive affirmation it seeks. By thus elaborating a fully fleshed-out investigation of the dynamic interplay of personified presence and authorial absence at work in the Masnavī, I develop an original understanding of this mystic’s highly charged and profoundly ambiguous relationship to his own subjectivity, and thereby to any subjectively affirmed doxastic position. We will thus see that Mawlānā eschews even his own belief system as, ultimately, inadequate in the face of what I call the constitutively polylectic nature of reality (§2.6.). In so doing, I provide a Sufi perspective on the issue of identity that both challenges prevailing intellectual presuppositions and opens the way for a further appreciation of Rūmī’s unique contribution to Persian literature. As such, it is my hope that the ultimate conclusions of this chapter provide an alternative approach to the scholarly study of mystic poetics, while shedding light upon the various masks of identity itself.
My concern in the chapter on Nāgārjuna is with his efforts to express ultimate truth (paramārtha-satya) in the conventional garb of language (vyavahāra-satya or saṃvṛti-satya). I focus on Nāgārjuna’s use of the catuṣkoṭi or tetralemma in his major work, the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā) to make a number of inter-related propositions. Put briefly, I interpret the Nāgārjunian catuṣkoṭi to constitute an exhaustive and tetrāletheic āssertion aimed at “the abandonment of all views” (sarvadṛṣṭiprahāṇāya) I understand to be the distinctively Nāgārjunian means of attaining nirvāṇa, and thus the over-arching aim of Nāgārjuna’s philosophical enterprise as a whole.
Following a methodologically oriented introductory section (§3.1.), I describe the tetralemma as neutrally as possible (§3.2.1.), and thence go on to delineate three prevailing means whereby (predominantly Western) scholars have sought to ‘rescue’ Nagarjuna from the evident illogicality that the tetralemma entails (§3.2.2). Apart from contextualizing my position within the existing body of scholarship on Nāgārjuna’s thought, my subsequent criticisms (§3.2.3.) of these logicalist attempts at interpreting the catuṣkoṭi adequately clear the ground for my own reading. In avowing the irreducibly soteriological ends of Nāgārjuna’s thought as a whole, this, my own reading, is more closely aligned to some interpretations proposed by Chinese-language exegetes. I thus go on to provide a summary of these latter (§3.3). Following this, I detail my reading proper, according to which, firstly, the tetralemma is to be taken in tetraletheic (as opposed to dialetheic) terms (§3.4.). In the final sections of this chapter, I introduce this tetraletheic reading of the tetralemma in support of my main point regarding the abandonment of all views or ‘view of no view’. The fact that Nāgārjuna begins and ends his major work with calls for the cessation and abandonment of all views, coupled with the fact that time and again throughout the MK he uses the catuṣkoṭi to survey and reject all possible positions on a given topic, leads me to conclude that this wholescale cessation or abandonment must in fact be Nāgārjuna’s aim as the author of the MK. I argue for this interpretation on the basis of a close reading of Nāgārjuna’s text, in support of which I survey the MK and Nāgārjuna’s other philosophical works for evidence bolstering my reading (§3.5.). Cherry picking a few verses here and there in support of my interpretation while ignoring the formal structure of the literary text of the MK as a whole, however, would be all too facile a method. As such, I then argue (§3.6.) that the text as a structured whole is oriented towards just such abandonment of all conceptuality, and the concomitant transcendence of all notions of selfhood. In the course of my exposition, I have occasion to engage with several debates very much alive in contemporary scholarship on Nāgārjuna, and as such to make what I hope is something of an original contribution to them by proposing a reading that is both textually justified and philosophically interesting.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Yu, Chun-fang
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 12, 2015