Nāgārjuna by Dan Lusthaus
- Nāgārjuna, one of India's greatest philosophers, lived ca. the 1st-2nd century CE, a time of great diversity and change for Indian Buddhism. Roughly five hundred years after Buddha's death Buddhist schools were proliferating, debating the whole range of Buddhist doctrines and practices.
They were also engaged in serious arguments with non-Buddhist schools. The most innovative of these new schools, an incipient form of Mahāyāna, produced a new literature that it claimed went back esoterically to Buddha himself: this new literature was called Prajñā-Pāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom).
Nāgārjuna is the first individual associated by tradition with Mahāyāna Buddhism, the form of Buddhism that developed from the Prajñā-Pāramitā literature, today dominant in Tibet, East and Central Asia, and Vietnam.
At the core of Nāgārjuna's key writings — — the Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā (MMK) (Verses on the Fundamental Middle Way) and Vigraha-vyavārtanī (VV) (Refutation of Objections) — lay a devastating methodological attack on the coherency of some of the most cherished and ingrained Indian beliefs, views, presuppositions, and theories.
Nāgārjuna's critique challenged Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. While he extols the Buddha and the doctrine of conditioned co-arising pratītya-samutpāda, his assault on the underlying assumptions entailed in notions of selfhood and causality deliberately undermined the conventional as well as the more sophisticated ideas held by Buddhists concerning Buddha and pratītya-samutpāda.
He deployed a tetralemmic logic already adopted by Buddha in the early Pāli texts (such as in the Brahmajāla-sutta, Dīgha-Nikāya I). In the Pāli tradition, the use of the Tetralemma is initially attributed to Sañjaya, a skeptical teacher whose students challenged Buddha early in Buddha's teaching career. Two of Sañjaya's students, Upatissa and Kolita, were won over, and went on to become two of Buddha's most important disciples, better known in the Buddhist tradition by the names Sariputta and Moggallana. It is possible that it was they who introduced the [[Wikipedia:tetralemma|tetralemmic]method to Buddhism.
Just as Buddha described his Middle Way as a renunciation of extremes, such as eternalism and annihilationalism, or pleasure and pain, etc. (see below), employing the Tetralemma to expose the fallacies of such extremisms, Nāgārjuna also deployed the Tetralemma along with other logical and rhetorical strategies in order to expose and negate all manner of extremist thinking, down to the most presuppositional level. His critique was so devastating that few in the history of Indian thought ever confronted it head on.
Non-Buddhists, such as the Nyāya (Hindu logic school), avoided the thrust of his arguments by branding him a nihilist (nāstika), and thus dismissing him; thereby allowing themselves to comfortably ignore him. The nihilist label, though a gross mischaracterization and misunderstanding of Nāgārjuna's philosophy, has persisted and even recurs from time to time in modern scholarship on Madhyamaka.
Buddhists, many of whose fundamental assumptions were also targets for Nāgārjuna, insulated themselves with different strategies, the most common one being to cast Nāgārjuna as a supporter of their agenda while insisting that the targets of his attacks were the views of other Buddhists.
for Tibetan Buddhists, the primary target of his attack was Abhidharma Buddhism, especially as espoused by Sarvāstivāda, since Sarvāstivāda was the bottom rung form of Buddhism in the Tibetan hierarchy of Buddhist teachings; and so on.
A further strategy used by Buddhists was to attribute works to him that were often at odds with the philosophical orientation of his key works, thereby associating the ideas in those other works with his name.
Exploiting an inconsistency in Madhyamakan rhetoric, namely that while the fourth lemma of the Tetralemma, "neither x nor not x", was considered to be as invalid a position as any of the other three [[Wikipedia:
Lemma (logic)lemmas, nonetheless Nāgārjuna and his followers frequently, and at critical points, employed this lemma approvingly, Yogacarins replied that while the false notions of essential nature and selfhood (svabhāva) that Madhyamaka attacks are indeed unreal and nonexistent (see below), emptiness itself is not.
For Yogacaras, then, Madhyamika was an important therapeutic remedy to the deep-seated problem of ātma-dṛṣṭa (self-view)(see below), but it was no longer true to its own convictions if it denied the reality of cognition.
The Madhyamakan method does that indirectly, by flushing out dṛṣṭis, while Yogacara tackles this directly by paying attention to all forms of cognition, from perception and emotional colorings, to philosophical acuity, to meditative insight.
Although those writings that we can confidently attribute to Nāgārjuna display a quick, sober, logical and deeply insightful mind, his reputation became so great that soon many fanciful legends were attached to his name.
Aside from knowing that Nāgārjuna was born in Southern India and that he came north to achieve some degree of prominence at Nālandā (the central seat of Buddhist learning until the thirteenth century) all the details we have of his life are deeply embedded in legends.
He is reputed to have been a magician and a playboy, who, when caught taking his pleasure with some of the royal ladies by a local king, had a moment of profound remorse, became a monk, and thereafter devoted himself wholeheartedly to Buddhist teachings.
In the Ancient Hindu scripture, Ṛig Veda, numerous myths about Vṛtra the Dragon describe how, in primordial times, she lived in the depths of the sea holding back all beings in the undifferentiated waters of her belly (asat, 'nonexistence').
Nāgārjuna discourses on Dharma (Buddhist teachings) with the Nāgā King, who is so delighted with what Nāgārjuna says that he allows him to return to the surface and gives him the complete corpus of the Prajñā-Pāramitā literature as a parting gift, telling Nāgārjuna that these are the authentic words of the Buddha which he has kept safely locked away in the depths of his ocean lair since Buddha's passing, awaiting a sage wise enough to disseminate them to humans.
According to Candrakīrti (8th century), the most important commentator on Nāgārjuna's works, the myth signifies Nāgārjuna scouring the depths of human ignorance in order to bring the liberating Wisdom of the Buddha to the surface, from the depths of darkness (tamas) to enlightenment (pradīpa).
In China, the most important of these is the Dazhidu lun 大智度論, (Great Liberating Wisdom Treatise), which, despite presenting ideas that are often at odds with those in Nāgārjuna's main texts, quickly became a foundational source for East Asian interpretations of Nāgārjuna.
Nor does it signify a mystical via negativa.
Afraid of death and the possibility of our personal nonexistence, we desperately impute and cling to permanence where there is none, imagining that something permanent subtends the flux of experiential conditions.
Rather than recognize causes and conditions for what they are, we hypostatize their obvious effects, often deeming these hypostatized "entities" to be more real than what we encounter in actual experience.
Thus the notion of "self" is symptomatic of our deepest desires and fears. Overcoming that view by seeing that all that comes into existence does so dependent on perpetually changing causes and conditions (pratītya-samutpāda) is to "see things as they truly become" (yathā-bhūtam).
Things (e.g., the world, persons, etc.) were neither continuous nor discontinuous.
Nāgārjuna understood the basic message of Buddha to be the elimination of all hypostatic theoretizations, i.e., abstractions which had been concretized to the point of seeming more real than the conditions from which they had been abstracted. Such views he called dṛṣṭi.
For Nāgārjuna, however, the problem of hypostatization was not confined to the notion of self in its limited sense of an individual's self-essence, but was apparent everywhere, since all seemingly rational explanations of the way things are—including the Buddhist explanations of his day—were grounded in conceptual entities that were ultimately unreal (e.g., self, God, nirvana, etc.).
All our fundamental notions, including time, actions (karma) and the agents of action, the characteristics with which things are defined and classified, relations, and so on, all were infiltrated by dṛṣṭi.
Difference presupposed the very notion of identity that it attempted to negate, since to claim 'X is different from Y' presupposes that X and Y have determinate identities; and if taken seriously such that difference marks the complete absence of all identities, difference would entail such radical discontinuity, disjunction, and lack of intelligibility that even the most mundane things would become incoherent and inexplicable.
2.mutually exclusive contradiction, and/or
Since anything that might be taken under consideration must either be taken by itself (and thus understood in terms of its definition) or in relation to other things, Nāgārjuna's strategy is comprehensive.
Nāgārjuna repeatedly demonstrates in the course of his arguments that things can neither be adequately explained in terms of themselves in isolation (X=X, i.e., a tautology) nor in terms of their relations with other things (X=Y, X implicates Y, X causes Y, X defines [-X], etc.).
Moreover, relations are as prone to hypostatization as things.
As he says: "Whatever arises dependent on something other, is neither identical to nor [utterly] different from that other; thus, things neither perish completely nor are they everlasting" (18.10).
And yet to speak of X as related to Y requires that they somehow be either the same or different.
"Conditional co-arising" (pratītya-samutpāda), which all Buddhists take to be the fundamental insight of Buddha's enlightenment, for Nāgārjuna is neither a thing nor a relation since it does not involve either identity or difference.
Since those two options (X as 'self' and X as 'related to others') prove to be untenable, attempts to combine the two ("both self and others" or "both X and non-X") produce only further untenable complications.
Nonetheless, since both experience and logic depend on and are inseparable from conceiving everything in terms of self and other, this or that, X or non-X, etc. (thinking and perceiving are always contrastive), things and relations cannot be simply ignored or rejected out of hand.
Thus the position "neither X nor non-X" proves just as unsatisfactory and untenable as the previous three options.
These four options (X; non-X; Both X and non-X; Neither X nor non-X) exhaust all the possibilities for thinking about or describing anything.
Since there is no other way to state anything except through one of these four alternatives, all linguistic formulations are invariably problematic. Are words the same or different from their referents?
For instance chapter seven examines the notion of "conditioned things" which Buddhists define as "all things characterized by arising, abiding, and ceasing." Nāgārjuna notes these three characteristics must themselves be either conditioned or unconditioned.
If the former, they too should be subject to the three characteristics, which entails that arising must arise, abide, and cease. But then the arising of arising must also be conditioned, and thus has the three characteristics (arising, abiding, ceasing), and so into infinite regress. What actually initiates arising? Does arising produce itself? Wouldn't it have to already be present to produce itself, in which case further production would be redundant?
Nāgārjuna's method is precisely the ferreting out of those hidden presuppositions that reveal themselves through our compulsion to propose these explanations.
By revealing them, and recognizing them to be incoherent and insupportable, one ceases clinging to them and they cease to act as hidden compulsions and proclivities (anuśaya), so that the suffering and anxiety they engender are brought to rest (prapañcopaśama).
The danger of tautologies —and Nāgārjuna consistently exploits this danger—is that though two different terms are being used to describe an event that is an event precisely because its causal conditions are not radically separated, nonetheless because the terms are different they can be separated and treated as independent entities.
For Nāgārjuna this is a tautological statement, since without 'John' this particular 'walking' could not occur, and conversely, without 'walks' we would have a different 'John' (a cooking John, or sitting John, or talking John, etc.).
In fact, grammatically we are compelled to separate nouns from verbs, adjectives from nouns, adverbs from verbs, etc.
Our activities (karma) are perpetually changing us. Once John has been given the status of "unchanging John" (i.e., his identity remains constant through time and differing actions) by this simple trick of language, it is a short step to positing an unchanging, invariant identity that is John, that is his 'essence' or self (ātman), an essence that remains invariant and constant from life to life and even beyond.
Because John and walking are not different, it does not follow that they are the same.
John is not the only thing that can walk (though "John walks" can only signify the John who walks).
To argue they are either the same or different is to fall into one or the other extreme, i.e., to lose the 'middle way.'
Another text unquestionably authored by Nāgārjuna is the Vigraha-vyavārtanī (Refutation of Objections) consisting of 70 verses with auto-commentary that refute objections raised against his key methodological insight, śūnyatā (emptiness), and especially the charge that his dialectic is nihilistic or self-disqualifying.
the charge that if all words are "empty" then his arguments too are empty and thus cannot refute anything, Nāgārjuna responds that emptiness does not mean nonexistence, and on the contrary, emptiness is not a denial of the world as such, but rather the reason why the world happens at all.
He explains that his arguments take over the assumptions and assertions of his opponents, and then explore their cogency. He makes no counterclaims, and thus cannot be refuted.
Several notable "conclusions" are reached in the course of his arguments nonetheless.
(This conclusion is incessantly misquoted as "saṃsāra is Nirvāṇa" — but for Nāgārjuna a negation of difference should not automatically entail an affirmation of identity; leaping to the 'other extreme' is not the middle way.)
Hence if Buddhists claim that such and such a practice or meditation, etc. "produces" Nirvāṇa, then they are stating conditions which produce it, in which case it is not unconditioned. If it is conditioned, it is not Nirvāṇa.
Finally, Nāgārjuna took seriously the notion of prapañca, the cognitive-linguistic proliferation of misconceptions upon which we ground our misunderstandings of the world and the theories (dṛṣṭi) we cling to to legitimate those misunderstandings.
All things, ideas, events, etc., are 'empty,' meaning they don't cause or define themselves, but arise and cease due to conditions.
Under close scrutiny even the most rationally constructed positions and systems— including Buddhism— are demonstrably incoherent and irrational.
The four alternatives— X is, X is not, X both is and isn't, X neither is nor isn't— underwrite all theories, propositions, beliefs, etc.; given any X, all four alternatives can be demonstrated to be invalid and inadequate.
No entity arises from itself, from another, from both itself and another, or from neither itself nor another.
All thinking presupposes the categories 'identity' and 'difference,' but these categories are incoherent and have no referent.
Language does not refer to things, but is self-referential.
There are two levels of discourse, the conventional and the ultimate; one learns the latter through the former, and realizes Nirvāṇa on the basis of the latter.
Our deepest emotional and existential problems stem from clinging to cognitive positions and presuppositions (dṛṣṭi).
The deep-seated, driving propensity to create the illusion of conceptual order through self-justifying rationalizations (prapañca) can be overcome and eliminated.
Streng, Fredrick J. Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning.. Nashville and New York: Abingdon Press, 1967. The translations in the appendix of Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā and Vigraha vyavārtanī are useful if occasionally unclear and inaccurate. The body of the book evaluates Nāgārjuna from a Wittgensteinian perspective.
Inada, Kenneth. Nāgārjuna: A Translation of his Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā with an Introductory Essay. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1970. Inada's translation is influenced by East Asian translations and interpretations. Includes the Sanskrit text in roman script.
Kalupahana, David J. Nāgārjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. Albany: SUNY Press, 1986. Includes romanized Sanskrit text (with frequent errors) and a controversial running commentary that plays up Nāgārjuna's proximity to the earlier Buddhist tradition while narrowing the focus of his intended targets.
Garfield, Jay. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Although translated from the Tibetan rather than Sanskrit, the best, most philosophically accurate modern commentary.
Harris, Ian Charles. The Continuity of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra in Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism. Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1991. Fine discussion. Possibly best treatment of Bhāviveka so far available in English.
Sprung, Mervyn. Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way: The Essential Chapters from the Prasannapadā of Candrakīrti. Boulder: Prajñā Press, 1979. Abridged translation of the most important Indian commentary on the Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā.
Lindtner, Christian. Nagarjuniana: Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Nāgārjuna. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987. An important discussion of which of Nāgārjuna's works are genuine and which are spurious. Includes Sanskrit and Tibetan versions of some texts, and some English translations.
Ramanan, K. Venkata. Nāgārjuna's Philosophy as Presented in the Mahā-Prajñāpāramitā-śāstra. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1966. A detailed discussion of the version of "Nāgārjuna" found in the Da zhi du lun.
Scherrer-Schalb, Cristina Anna. Yuktiṣaṣṭikāvṛtti. Brussels: Institut Belge des Hautes 'Etudes Chinoises, 1991. A French translation of Candrakīrti's commentary on Nāgārjuna's Sixty Verses (Yuktiṣaṣṭikā).