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China Media Research, 3(4), 2007, Wimal Dissanayake, Nagarjuna and Modern Communication Theory

Nagarjuna and Modern Communication Theory*


Wimal Dissanayake

University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, USA

Abstract: Nagarjuna (150-250 A.D.), who sought to illuminate the human meaning of Buddhism from a
Mahayana point of view, is held in the highest esteem by Buddhist scholars both in India and outside. His magnum
opus, the Mulamadhyamakakarika, is an interpretive work that displays his understanding of the essence of Buddhist
thought and epistemology. This text contains many intersecting concepts such as emptiness or devoidness, relativity,
dubious linkages between cause and effect, and misperceptions of the idea of time that can prove to be of
inestimable value in advancing modern communication theory. The fact that Western communication theorists have
ignored, or paid scant attention to, Nagarjuna makes the attempt to understand his writings in the light of
communication theory much more important and compelling. This article focuses on some of the ideas enunciated
by Nagarjuna in the Mulamadhyamakakarika and discusses their implications for theorizing human communication.
[China Media Research. 2007; 3(4): 34-41]

Keywords: Action, agency, causality, dependent co-origination, Derrida, language, Nagarjuna, relativity, time

Nagarjuna and the Mulamadhyamakakarika work that displays Nagarjuna’s understanding of the
One of the productive strategies adopted by essence of Buddhist thought and epistemology. He has
communication scholars who are interested in sought to illuminate the human meaning of Buddhism
uncovering Asian theories of communication has been from a Mahayana point of view. This is a demanding
to focus on classical Asian concepts as inscribed in text in that it is written in verse and is highly
traditional and canonized texts. The works of Chen compressed, and deals with the most abstract of thought.
(2001), Miike (2003), and Dissanayake (1982) to cite In his desire for terseness, he eschewed the rhetorical
just three names, bears ample testimony to this fact. In opulence that characterized some of the writings of the
this article, I wish to pursue this broad line of inquiry time. The idea of emptiness or devoidness is central to
further by focusing on the work of one of the greatest the philosophical explications inscribed in the
Indian religious thinkers—Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna (150- Mulamadhyamakkarika. The term emptiness or
250 A.D.) is held in the highest esteem by Buddhist devoidness is exceedingly complex and admits of a
scholars both in India and outside. He has exercised a plurality of contending and contradictory concepts.
profound influence on the thought and imagination of Nagarjuna was not championing a form of nihilism, as
scholars devoted to Buddhist studies. His formulations some commentators were mistakenly led to believe, but
have had a profound impact on the thinking of scholars was only challenging the concept of a fixed, mutable
in India, China, Japan, Korea, Tibet as well as the West. essence that the articulators of the Abhidharma
Nagarjuna was regarded with such fervent reverence (Buddhist metaphysics) were formulating. Nagarjuna’s
that some in the aforementioned countries regarded him attitude to Abhidharma, it seems to me, was marked by
as a Bodhisatva, a potential Buddha. a certain ambivalence. On the one hand, he was critical
The Mulamadhyamakakarika is Nagarjuna’s of the promotion of a mutable essence that they
magnum opus, and it reflects his critical acumen, powers advocated; on the other hand, he also realized the
of argument as well as hermeneutic skills. This text importance of certain tenets that they advocated. The
contains many intersecting concepts such as emptiness or emergence of Nagarjuna takes place some six centuries
devoidness (sunyata), relativity, dubious linkages after the passing away of the historical Buddha, and this
between cause and effect, misperceptions of the idea of intervening period saw the rise of a significant body of
time that have great implications for the understanding of Buddhist hermeneutical writings. Nagarjuna drew on
human communication, and, most importantly, for them, challenged them, and subverted them at the same
comprehending the conditions of possibility of time. It is important to bear in mind the fact that this
communication. In this article, I wish to focus on a few was a period which witnessed the emergence of
such concepts enunciated by Nagarjuna like the ideas of eighteen rival schools of Abhidharmika system.
relativity, causality, linguistic productivity, and agency. It
seems to me that these concepts contain, within Nagarjuna on Time and Relativity
themselves, some very significant insights related to I stated earlier that the idea of emptiness or
communication in human societies. devoidness is central to the expository effort of
The Mulamadhyamakakarika is an interpretive Nagarjuna. This concept gains in greater depth and

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China Media Research, 3(4), 2007, Wimal Dissanayake, Nagarjuna and Modern Communication Theory

definition when we juxtapose it with the idea of misleading because it advances the notion that the past,
dependent co-origination (pratityasamutpada), which is present, and future coexist, which is not the case. As a
the animating concept of the Mulamadhamakakarika. result, Nagarjuna is of the opinion that we cannot come
Nagarjuna interprets all the important ideas of up with a cohesive notion of time as an entity. What we
devoidness, relativity, causality, and agency in terms of see here is Nagarjuna’s characteristic way of looking at
this central and guiding notion of dependent co- the world and its phenomena. Nagarjuna’s attitude to
origination. This has great implications for time has great ramifications for human communication.
communication theory as I have demonstrated Communication takes place in a temporal framework,
elsewhere (see Dissanayake, 1983). To understand the and to understand time in the way that he does is to
significance of Nagarjuna’s formulations is to enter emphasize the processual nature of communication and
more deeply into the thought-world generated by the the need to de-reify it as a mode of action.
Buddhist concept of dependent co-origination. The relationship between time, space, and selfhood
In order to demonstrate the characteristic mode of is complex and multi-faceted. The normal approach to
exposition of Nagarjuna as well as his primary thematic time is to regard it as a continuous flow through which
interests, I wish to translate a chapter from the phenomena and events move. Expressions found in
Mulamadhyamakakarika that deals with the question of common speech such as “time flies,” “time has slipped
time. This is a brief chapter that addresses the issue of time away,” and “river of time” bear testimony to the fact
and existence. He makes the point that both from a that time is usually perceived as a continuous flow. The
temporal and existential perspective, the concept of time is river is the dominant trope of time. Nagarjuna is making
extremely problematic and defies facile categorizations. the point that we often tend to literalize this trope and
1. If the present and the future are indeed regard time as an incessant flow. However, when we
contingently connected to the past, they should all seek to examine the implications of this trope more
inhabit the past. deeply, in the way that Nagarjuna does, it is clear that
2. If the present and the future do not inhabit the the tropological nature of time returns with a vengeance.
past, how could the present and the future be In his analysis of time, what Nagarjuna is
contingently connected? underlining is the fact that while it is common to divide
3. It is not feasible for the present and the future up time into past, present, and future, the relationship
to assert themselves without being dependent on a past. among these admits of paradox, and that these three
Hence, one cannot justify the existence of a present and terms make sense only in relation to the other two.
a future. However, the referents of three terms past, present, and
4. According to the same method, the remainder future do not operate coevally. Consequently, it is patent
of the two time frames can be similarly understood, and that the words past, present, and future do not signify an
concepts like above, below, middle, identity, and so on objective reality that lies outside language. One of the
can be likewise understood. assumptions of the Abhidharmik thinkers was that the
5. A time that is not non-static cannot be terms past, present, and future indexed a non-linguistic
understood. Nothing one can grasp as static time exists. reality. Nagarjuna vigorously challenged this view. His
If time cannot be grasped, how can it be understood? considered view was that past, present and future have
6. If time exists on account of its relational no extra-linguistic reality; they do not signify a reality
structure of being, where can it inhabit without that prior to language. To put it differently, past, present,
structure? As there is no structure of being, where can and future are relational concepts that have their origin
time exist? in language. This line of thinking has great and far-
Nagarjuna’s observations on time are interesting for reaching consequences for communication theory.
a variety of reasons. His main point is that time cannot According to Nagarjuna, one has to understand all
be comprehended as a static entity, and that it has to be conceptualities within a relativistic framework;
understood in relation to temporal phenomenality; the conceptual statements are not absolute, but relative.
most profitable way in which time can be understood as Nagarjuna’s understanding of conceptualities is vitally
a web of relations among temporal phenomena. His connected with his view of language. As I stated earlier,
method of procedure is to divide up time into past, it is Nagarjuna’s contention that verbal language does
present, and future, as is indeed the normal practice, and not index a non-linguistic or pre-linguistic reality.
to suggest that none of them subsists inherently. Nagarjuna also subscribes to the notion that in making
According to Nagarjuna, there is a crucial problematic philosophical and conceptual distinctions, one cannot
related to the ontology of time. If time is to be get away from the facticity that one has to recognize
considered an entity, it must be either static or in ingredients on either side of the distinction. In other
motion. If we say that time is in motion, we need to words, the essential binarity of distinction-making has
imagine a “meta-time” in which that motion can be to be appreciated. In the view of Nagarjuna, one cannot
gauged. If we say that time is static, it is equally privilege one side of a distinction as opposed to the

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China Media Research, 3(4), 2007, Wimal Dissanayake, Nagarjuna and Modern Communication Theory

other without being guilty of contradicting oneself. effect are not at all identical is equally untenable. If
cause and effect are totally different, it is impossible to
Nagarjuna on Language and Causality postulate a continuity between them. Prior to the effect
As scholars of communication, it is of the utmost coming into being, there was only the cause. However,
importance that we pay close attention to Nagarjuna’s the cause cannot be regarded as the originating force of
views on language. It is evident that he repudiates the some entity that is non-existent. Moreover, after the
atomistic view of language endorsed by many Western cause appears, what legitimacy is there for it to be
philosophers as well as Eastern thinkers. What is meant regarded as having being brought about by the supposed
by the atomistic view of language is the belief that there cause, if they are, as argued, totally different from one
exists a one-to-one correspondence between individual another. Third, the notion that cause and effect are both
words and pieces of reality. According to Nagarjuna, identical and non-identical is not persuasive either. If
words rely on other similar words, and conceptualities cause and effect are regarded as distinct entities, it is
on other such conceptualities. Here one can see a certain misleading to say cause equals effect or vice versa. If
affinities of interest between Nagarjuna’s thinking and cause and effect are regarded as composite entities in
Ferdinand de Saussure’s formulations, late Wittgenstein’s which parts of which are identical and parts are not, it is
insights, and Jacque Derrida’s formulations. However, difficult to establish a sense of causality. According to
we should not rush to conclude or assert that all of them Nagarjuna, this third way is contradictory and is a return
are saying the same thing; clearly, they are not. Is to one of the positions stated earlier. The fourth
Nagarjuna saying, then, that language serves no approach states that cause and effect are neither
function in human communities? Certainly not. That identical nor not identical. What this position implies is
would be a total and unfortunate misreading of that to characterize cause and effect in these terms is a
Nagarjuna. What he is saying is that, pragmatically, defective deployment of language. Hence, according to
language serves a function in human interaction if one is Nagarjuna, all four positions are untenable. He
alert to its inherent limitations. What he is denying is explicates his criticisms of these positions in extremely
that language is an infallible guide in the quest for truth, terse, and at times cryptic, manner. Hence Nagarjuna’s
philosophical clarification, or formulation of concepts. critiques are not totally free of ambiguity. However, in
essence, what he is seeking to enforce is that the ideas
Cause and Effect Are Paradoxical of cause and effect are paradoxical.
Why is Nagarguna stressing the inadequacy of What Nagarjuna says about the concept of
human language as a means of understanding or causality, the relationship between cause and effect, in
enunciating truth? For him, truth depends, among other the Mulamadhyamakakarika has great implications for
things, on paradox. This makes it extremely difficult to modern communication theory. In communication
formulate and articulate truths that are eternal and studies, we lay great stress on causality as I evidenced
immutable, because the paradoxes of language get in the by the vast body of research in effect studies. However,
way. One can understand this point better if we examine if we are not too circumspect, this focus on causality
the way he presents his understanding of causality in the can very easily pave the way for the emergence of
Mulamadhyamakakarika. He points out that the much simplistic, linear, and one-way models of
vaunted concept of causality endorsed by Indian communication. In fact, when we examine the kind of
thinkers is not only relative but also paradoxical. The communication models that were advocated in the1950s
idea of causality figures very prominently in Indian and 1960s, what we see are exactly models of this type.
philosophical thinking. According to some Indian It is only by the 1970s that communication scholars
logicians, the relationship between cause and effect can began to complexify these models and get away from
be understood in four ways. The first is that cause and linearities and one-way modes of communication. The
effect are identical. The second is that cause and effect importance of Nagarjuna’s writings lies in the fact that
are not at all identical. The third is that cause and effect he interrogates the conventional wisdom about causality
are both identical and not identical. The fourth is that and underlines the need to deconstruct it. Consequently,
they are neither identical nor not identical. Nagarjuna’s what emerges from his writings, mainly in the
considered view is that all four are misleading and Mulamadhyamakakarika, is the importance of
erroneous. Nagarjuna dismisses each of the approaches understanding the multi-faceted and multi-situational
in the following manner. nature of causality. This move opens up very productive
First, if cause and effect are identical, there is pathways for reconceptualizing communication. There
nothing new or different that has been brought about. is a refreshingly modern ring to Nagarjuna’s view of
One can understand causality only in terms of some causality and its implications for communication theory.
transformation, a newness being brought into existence.
If there is a transformation, one cannot argue that cause Nagarjuna and Derrida Compared
and effect are identical. Second, to say that cause and As I stated in the earlier sentence, although

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Nagarjuna lived nearly twenty centuries ago, his He says that, Nagarjuna sought to deconstruct the view
formulations and conceptualities have a deep relevance espoused by the Abhidharma that it is possible to
for those of us in the broad field of communication achieve absolute knowledge about reality. In reacting
studies. In this regard, his insights and approaches have against the atman view advocated by Hindus,
an uncanny resemblance to the writings of Jacques Abhidharma Buddhists moved to the other extreme of
Derrida, the originator of deconstruction. Derrida championing a dharma view. Coward says that Derrida
brought about a far-reaching revolution in philosophy, would agree with Nagarjuna’s desire to deconstruct both
literature, and related fields by challenging the extreme and antagonistic views. He also points out that
conventional wisdom on questions of truth, textuality, for diverging reasons, Derrida and Nagarjuna rigorously
language, meaning, and so on. His works such as Of deconstruct all philosophy, theology, and everyday
Grammatology (1967), Disseminations (1972), and language that seek to objectify our experiences and
Writing and Difference (1967) exercised a profound phenomena we encounter into ersatz gods and unreal
influence on twentieth-century thinking. Derrida, like presences. For both of them, it is the misleading
Nagarjuna, was a demystifier and relentless critic of objectification of language that impedes our acting in
accepted wisdoms. Both were deeply engaged with the conformity with reality. Coward, of course, points out
problematics of writing and textual production. Derrida ways in which Nagarjuna and Derrida differ as well. He
sought to dismantle conceptual oppositions and says that Nagarjuna perceives language as being empty
hierarchical systems of thought that subtended of reality and hence needs to be transcended in order for
signification. Indeed, this was a primary objective, as the understanding of reality. As opposed to this, it is
we saw earlier, of Nagarjuna as well. Derrida focused Derrida’s contention that language is rooted in reality.
on self-contradictions and blind spots that were at the Hence, it is through language, perpetually
heart of verbal communication, and Nagarjuna did the deconstructed, that reality can be understood.
same. Derrida challenged the notion that meaning could Some scholars have argued that Nagarjuna’s
be comprehended through self-identical concepts—a formulations are better than Derrda’s in that the former
preoccupation that marked Nagarjuna’s writings as well. avoids some of the pitfalls of the latter. For example,
In an interview, Derrida (1984) once remarked that “I David Loy (1987) says that Derrida’s critique of the
have attempted more and more systematically to find a philosophical tradition of the West is not totally
non-site, or a non-philosophical site, from which to convincing because it is not comprehensive enough, and
question philosophy. But the search for a non- that the needed cloture is to be identified in the
philosophical site does not bespeak an anti-philosophical enunciations of Nagarjuna. According to him, while
attitude. My central question is: how can philosophy as Derrida only goes half the distance, because he is caught
such appear to itself as other than itself, so that it can up in the every proliferating pure textuality, while
interrogate and reflect upon itself in an original manner?” Nagrjuna’s view paves the way for a transformed modality
(p. 83). Although Nagarjuna did not articulate his of experiencing the world. It is Loy’s judgment that
ambitions in these terms, the effect has been the same. Nagarjuna appears to be more thorough in his
Clearly, there are obvious similarities between interrogations of all metaphysical views than Derrida.
Nagarjuna’s and Derrida’s approach to language, Nagarjuna, according to Loy, ventures to deconstruct
meaning, textuality, paradoxicality, and so on. For identity as well as difference, while Derrida confines
example, Robert Magliola (1984) says that “We shall himself to deconstructing identity because of his
see that Nagarjuna takes as his specific task the valorizations of difference. Similarly, Magliola (1984)
deconstruction of the principle of identity; and that to states that “Nagarjuna’s middle path, the way of the
accomplish this, he employs the same logical strategy, between, tracks the Derridean trace, and goes beyond
and often the very same arguments as Derrida” (p. 120). Derrida in the sense that it frequents the unheard-of-
He goes on to say that “Nagarjuna’s sunyata thought” (p. 123). What Magliola is suggesting is that
(devoidness) is Derrda’s difference” (p. 121). Magliola Nagarjuna’s writings furnish us with the solution that
(1984), in his comparative philosophical study of Derrida was questing after. Not all agree with these
Nagarjuna and Derrida, makes a number of very privileging of Nagarjuna over Derrida. However, the
insightful and penetrating comments. However, at important point for us is the second century Indian scholar
times, he tends to re-understand Buddhist thought in seems to have raised many of the troublesome issues that
terms of Derridean categories, as for example when he agitated the mind of Jacques Derrida, arguably one of the
refers to Buddhist schools of thought as logocentric and most innovative thinkers of the twentieth-century.
differential, and the result are less than satisfactory.
Harold Coward (1990), in his book Derrida and Nagarjuna on Agency and Action
Indian Philosophy, comes up with several important As I stated earlier, one of the analytical objectives
suggestive thoughts regarding the similarities of of Nagarjuna is to point out the problematic nature of
philosophical outlooks between Nagarjuna and Derrida. the concept of identity. In his writings, he was moved to

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China Media Research, 3(4), 2007, Wimal Dissanayake, Nagarjuna and Modern Communication Theory

demystify it, to demonstrate the contradictory 7. A complete and incomplete agent does not bring
interdictions it contains. Nagarjuna, in intention and about a complete and incomplete action. How can the
effect, has been a deconstructor par excellence. This has warring completed and uncompleted states exist together?
significant implications for the understanding of human 8. An actual agent cannot give rise to a non-actual
communication and the construction of communication action. Nor can a non-actual agent create an actual
theory. Communication scholars in the West, for the action. Misconceptions follow from this.
most part, and in the East as well, posited the identities 9. As we have shown earlier, an actual agent does
of the communicator and the receiver as if they were not produce an action that is unreal or both real and unreal.
transparent, self-present, and unproblematic. These 10. As we have shown earlier, a non-actual agent
entities are relatively under-theorized in the domain of does not produce an action that is both real and unreal.
communication studies. What Nagarjuna urges us to do 11. As we have shown earlier, an actual and non-
is to re-think and re-imagine the identities of entities actual agent does not produce an action that is unreal or
such as the communicator and the receiver. For him, both real and unreal.
identities are not fixed and immutable but are volatile, 12. Action is contingent on the agent. The agent is
multi-faceted, and admit of pluralities of subject- contingent on action. It is not possible to advance any
positions. The attempt by many communication scholars other cause for their establishment.
to deal with communicators and receivers as if they 13. By the refutation of agent and action, we should
were self-contained, well-marked, and self-present clarify the idea of clinging. Through action and agent, we
entities is misleading. As Nagarjuna cogently points out, should be able to comprehend other phenomena.
identities are relational; they encourage lateral I have translated the entire chapter on the theme of
constructions and re-constructions. They are also a agency and action because it enables us to understand
product of language. They come into being through the Nagarjuna’s approach to this topic. He is seeking to
power of language. Identity admits the interplay of ever explore the complex relationships between agency and
expanding and ever enlarging possibilities and action from different perspectives. Ultimately, what he
recognizes its location in ceaselessly changing terrains. is pointing to is the untenability of all the possible
Hence, in re-thinking communication theory, we need to conditions that he has glossed. Nagarjuna is interested
open up the whole question of identity, and the in taking a position that eliminates both extremes of
illumination provided by Nagarjuna in this regard inherent existence and total non-existence. The agent
through his writings is immense and encouraging. and action cannot be regarded as inherently existing
The idea of agency, as enunciated by Nagarjuna in entities, and they cannot be regarded as totally non-
the Mulamadhyamkakarika, is also interesting from the existing entities. It is the complexity of this situation
point of view of communication studies. The notion of and the paradoxes that they can generate that Nagarjuna
agency, which is many-sided and diversely interpretable, is interested in explicating. According to Nagarjuna, if
is central to the process of human communication. Let me the agent is an inherently existing entity, it would not
first translate the verses in the chapter titled “Examination admit of change. However, action has to be construed as
of the Agent and the Action.” something always subject to the process of change. This
1. An agent in a completed state cannot give rise leads to a paradox in that there cannot be action
to an action in a completed state. And an agent in an emanating from a non-changing agent; in other words,
uncompleted state cannot give rise to an action in an the action could have no agent. Throughout the chapter,
uncompleted state. Nagarjuna is teasing out the paradoxes inherent in the
2. When an agent is in a completed state, there different positions that have been advanced to explain
will be no action, and also an action will be without an agency and action. The essence of his explications is of
agent. Similarly, when an action is in a completed state, immense relevance to the understanding of
there will be no action, and also the agent will be communication. What is the relationship between the
without action. communicator and the communicative action? Can we
3. If an agent in an incomplete state creates an understand this relationship better in the light of
action in an incomplete state, then in reality the action Nagarjuna’s discussion? What is the ontology of a
will minus a cause, and the agent will have no cause. communicative event, and how does the formulation of
4. Minus a cause, there can be no effect or a cause. Nagarjuna regarding the agent and action enable us to
Minus these, activity, agent, and action are not feasible. get a better grasp of the complexities of the
5. If activities are not feasible, entities and non- communicative event?
entities are not feasible. If there exist neither entities nor
non-entities, effects cannot rise from them. Implications for Theorizing Communication
6. If there are no effects, emancipation and On the basis of Nagarjuna’s discussions in the
pathways to heaven will be unavailable. Hence, all Mulamadhyamakakarika, I wish to make seven points
activities would be purposeless. which I think are of very great importance in terms of

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modern communication theory. First, as Nagarjuna From a communication viewpoint, this concept of
emphatically pointed out, there is no reality that is prior dependent co-origination is extremely valuable in that it
to language. Reality is a linguistic construct. The points to the plurality of intersecting causes that can
implications of this for communication are profound and determine a communicative event. Sometimes these are
far-reaching. When we talk of verbal communication, the designated as co-factors. It is misleading to think of
normal tendency is to regard language as a mere vehicle communicative events as being mono-causal. On the
that facilitates communication. According to this line of contrary, they have a multiplicity of causes. This
thinking, what language does is to transport from the concept illuminates the conditions of possibility of a
communicator to the receiver a body of pre-formed communicative event. Moreover, this concept serves to
thoughts and ideas. Nagarjuna challenges this approach to highlight the fact that the relationship that subsists
verbal communication, pointing out that these thoughts between cause and effect should be regarded as one of
and ideas are formed, take shape, only within language. mutual reliance. Consequently, to refer to them as cause
In other words, while rejecting a transportational model and effect is to mischaracterize them; such a nomination
of communication, he is underlining the need for a is based on the premise of the prior existence of causes.
constitutive model of communication in which language It is interesting in this regard to observe the fact that the
constitutes meaning. Nagarjuna is keen to focus on the Buddha pointed out the fact that the psycho-physical
materiality of the signifier, the textuality of ideas, and the individual and consciousness exist in a state of mutual
self-productivity of language. It is only during the last dependence; that is to say, the psycho-physical
two decades or so that communication scholars have individual is reliant on the consciousness, and the
shown an interest in this line of reasoning. Hence, it is consciousness is reliant on the psycho-physical
important to point out that Nagarjuna, some twenty individual. The concept of dependent co-origination, as
centuries earlier, adumbrated this approach to verbal glossed by Nagarjuna, can be extremely productive in
communication. building models of communication and constructing
Second, Nagarjuna’s approach to the concept of theories of communication.
causality, as I discussed earlier, is of great importance to Third, Nagarjuna’s discussions of themes such as
communication scholars. His approach to causality language, agency, selfhood, aggregates, compounded
arises from his interpretation of the Buddhist concept of phenomena, time, actions, and their consequences serve
dependent co-origination. It can be said that the concept to focus on another theme that is of importance to
of dependent co-origination represents the essence of students of communication, namely, the
the Buddhist theory of causality. It gives pointed interconnectivity of communicative entities. If we pause
definition to the fact that every point instant of reality to examine some of the most influential models of
emerges in dependence; it arises in functional communication in the field, ranging from Aristotle to
dependence on an entirety of causes and conditions that twentieth-century scholars such as Harold Lasswell,
are its immediate antecedents. Consequently, the Shannon and Weaver, Roman Jakobson, Wilbur
concept of dependent co-origination indexes the nature Schramm, Riley and Riley, George Gerbner, what we
of existence that is basically and inescapably dynamic see is the general tendency to regard entities such as the
and processual in nature, and that it comprises a chain communicator, receiver, medium, context, code as
of interdependent and intersecting point-instances. discreet, with each claiming to its own independent
When we think along these lines, we are led to the existence. There was a heavy focus on the self-
conclusion that it cannot meaningfully be said that cause containedness of these entities leading to a linear,
gives rise to some phenomenon or event. All what we segmented, and one-way mode of communication. The
can legitimately assert is that a phenomenon or event insights of Nagarjuna go long way in challenging this
emerges in functional dependence on such and such a approach, pointing out the need to regard these entities
thing. What is referred to as the dependence of the as mutually constitutive. The communicator and the
effect on a cause and what is referred to as the operation receiver have no independent and solitary existence;
of a cause bringing about its effect, as enunciated by the they come into being and gain agency through the
concept of dependent co-origination, we will have to process of communication. Many of the dominant
maintain that we call dependence of the effect on the models of communication that have guided conceptual
cause the fact that it is invariably associated with the thinking and empirical research are defective in this
presence of that cause; we will call the operation of that regard. Nagarjuna’s approach enables us to re-think
cause the fact that the cause is invariable anterior to its entities associated with a communicative event as being
effect. Nagarjuna makes use of this concept of mutually implicated; each comes into being because of
dependent co-origination in an interesting and the other. This way of thinking, which clearly
comprehensive way, relating it to a plurality of Nagarjuna encourages, holds great promise for
privileged topics. communication theory. It is, of course, consistent with

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China Media Research, 3(4), 2007, Wimal Dissanayake, Nagarjuna and Modern Communication Theory

some of the newer approaches advanced by by social and cultural formations, language, and
contemporary thinkers. political and institutional discourses, and does not
Fourth, if we make a general survey of Western suggest the sense of autonomy, sovereignty, and
philosophies of communication, we see that one of the initiating power that the term individual carries with it.
primary problems that these philosophers like Rene Closely related to the subject is the idea of subject-
Descartes were seeking to solve was how human beings position. A subject is always subject to some discourse,
can rise above their inherent solitude and solitariness to and there are an enormous number of them; they are, in
forge common links and commonalities of interest that their shape and nature, different, changing, and at times
are vital to the fulfillment of the desiderata of even antipathetic to each other. Hence, there can be a
communication. After all, the term communication is plurality of subject-positions, depending on the various
derived from the Latin word communicare meaning to discourses the subject is subject to. The agent, as I use
share. The twentieth-century French philosopher, Paul the term, denotes the locus from which an action can be
Ricoeur (1976) articulated this predicament well when initiated, whether it be one of reconfirmation or
he said that “for an existential investigation resistance, mainly from the interstices between various
communication is an enigma, even a wonder. Why? subject-positions. And I use the term person to denote
Because. . . [it] appears as a way of transcending or one who has agency, and the terms agent and person are
overcoming the fundamental solitude of each human used synonymously. This interpretation is based on
being” (p. 15). For many Western philosophers of current Western cultural theory. The way Nagarjuna
communication, then, the central question was rising glosses the concept of agency is very different, and the
above this fundamental solitude, which was endemic to mutually reinforcing interaction between action and agency
human beings. Many Asian theorists of communication, is pivotal to his understanding of the term. As I discussed
on the other hand, never recognized this as a problem earlier, Nagarjuna’s elucidation of the concept of agency
because in the intellectual traditions in which they were opens up interesting avenues of inquiry into human
brought up either the individual was seen as a part of a communication and the communication environment.
collectivity or, as in the case of Buddhism, the Sixth, Nagarjuna focuses, in a very interesting and
individual self was highly problematic. The whole idea thought-provoking way, on the idea of the
of non-self militates against such a view. In the case of communication code. Western communication theory,
Nagarjuna, such a worry about the solitude of the self is from its inception to the expositor writings in the
wholly unwarranted because his notion of self is very twentieth-century, is based on the centrality of a
different. As he points out in Chapter XVIII of the commonly shared code that makes human
Mulamadhyamakakarika, the notion of the inherent communication possible. The notion of intersubjectivity,
solitude of human beings, as posited by Western which has been put into wide circulation by
philosophers, is misplaced and unjustified. phenomenologists and avidly taken up by contemporary
Fifth, the question of agency merits careful communication theorists, is based on the centrality of
consideration from a communication perspective. This the code. The defining feature of the code, as
concept has become a site, in modern cultural theory, understood in Western communication theory, is its
for interminable debate. As I have pointed out commonality and shareability. Nagarjuna questions this
elsewhere, this is indeed a key concept in modern assumption by pointing out the code that is taken as
cultural analysis that admits of a plurality of unproblematic and promoting easy mutuality is, in point
interpretations. The word agency like the words of fact, marked by tensions and contradictory
selfhood, individuality, subjectivity, personhood, with imperatives and impulses. In other words, he urges us to
which it is imbricated, does not admit of simple and re-think the ontology of the communication code, which
clear definitions. All these words inhabit overlapping is generally regarded by modern communication
positions in a semantic field and conceptual cartography theorists as unproblematic.
that are increasingly attracting the scholarly attention of Seventh, Nagarjuna’s approach to the broad issue
both humanists and social scientists alike. I then go on of communication compels us to re-think the models,
to make the following observation. I wish to use the paradigms, and templates that we have been using, and
term self to denote the imaginary register consisting of are currently deploying, in our work. These models and
identifications, narratives, formulations, and images that paradigms are based on the notion that communication
serve the notion of the individual. The imaginary is orderly, unambiguous, and unproblematic. There are,
singularity is largely a product of self-reflection. The to be sure, various interferences that impede smooth
term individual, as its etymology suggests, refers to the communication, and they are referred to as noises, as for
undivided source of consciousness, meaning, and example in the Shannon and Weaver model. Nagarjuna,
action; it is an illusory whole that gives the appearance on the other hand, argues that ambivalence, disorder,
of a free and self-determining being. The subject, on the and confusion are endemic to communication; they are
other hand, is a disciplinary construct; it is constituted at the hear of communication, and not in the periphery

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China Media Research, 3(4), 2007, Wimal Dissanayake, Nagarjuna and Modern Communication Theory

as the technical term “noises” employed by modern References


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* I am deeply grateful to Dr. Yoshitaka Miike for Magliola, R. R. (1984). Derrida on the mend. West
encouraging me to work on this article. The translations Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.
from the Mulamadhyamakakarika are mine. Miike, Y. (2003). Japanese enryo-sasshi
communication and the psychology of amae:
Correspondence to: Reconsideration and reconceptualization. Keio
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Academy for Creative Media Ricoeur, P. (1976). Interpretation theory:
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2550 Campus Road, Crawford 210 Texas Christian University Press.
Honolulu, HI 96822, USA
Email: ddissa@yahoo.com

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