Tilt and Geoff,
In reading his book, I was often a little puzzled at some of his language and some parts of the book seemed contradictory. For instance, I recall one of his criticisms of Western Buddhist scholars involved the tendency of these philosophers to superimpose Western philosophical conventions on Buddhist thought. He specifically mentions the label 'monism' which some of these scholars supposedly assigned to Buddhism. However, in his chapter on 'Doctrines Common to All Mahayanists' he claims that Mahayana shares 'immanentist' points-of-view with Christian mysticism, Sufism, and Vedanta. I can't help but wonder if he included these types of comparisons to keep his descriptions in line with one of the stated purposes of his book: expressing Buddhist thought in the terminologies and bases of Western philosophical tradition.
However, I still feel as if the passages I quoted are relevant to this topic and clearly demonstrate what is wrong with Bhikkhu Bodhi's essay on Mahayana/Madhyamaka thought. These passages certainly helped me clarify some concepts. I think that if we were to replace the word 'Absolute' with 'the experience of enlightenment' or 'Nibbana,' some of the monistic overtones disappear and we are left with a very clear understanding of what is meant by Madhyamika nonduality and the identification of samsara with Nibbana. I think [perhaps erroneously] that this identification of samsara with Nirvana is an attempt to talk about how enlightened beings experience Nibbana and how enlightened beings experience a world which is samsara for the unenlightened, as opposed to an absolute identification of the two as Bhikkhu Bodhi and many non-Mahayanists claim. Conze seems to be saying that the Mahayana/Madhyamaka believes that enlightened beings don't experience, define or 'think of' Nibbana as a duality between the experiences of samsara and enlightenment. I also found an aspect of this idea in a later part of his book, in which he claims that the tradition of Mahayana Buddhist Logic defined words as characterizations of conventional experience based on the exclusion of all that is not that word. Words are based on papanca. Nibbana is not experienced as everything that is not Nibbana, and it is certainly not experienced through the obscurations of papanca. Rather, it is experienced as it is, without reference to the conventional experience of samsara which could act as an oppositional concept. We can't say that the enlightened experience samsara, because that contradicts the truth of their enlightenment. Nor can we say that the enlightened even 'experience' Nibbana, because Nibbana is not an object which can be 'had' or 'experienced' by a falsely reified self.
This is my interpretation of Conze's views and of Madhyamaka. I don't know if this is correct or not. Personally, as a highly unenlightened being, I am content to let the enlightened be enlightened without trying to describe an experience I have never 'had' with words I get from others.
I do not want my house to be walled in on sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.- Gandhi
With persistence aroused for the highest goal's attainment, with mind unsmeared, not lazy in action, firm in effort, with steadfastness & strength arisen, wander alone like a rhinoceros.
Not neglecting seclusion, absorption, constantly living the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma, comprehending the danger in states of becoming, wander alone like a rhinoceros.- Snp. 1.3