NĀGĀRJUNA , best known as the first Mahāyāna philosopher in India, is a highly complex figure whose philosophical works, iconic image, and esoteric meditations are studied, honored, and practiced in many Mahāyāna traditions to this day. He developed his systematic philosophy of "emptiness" (śūnyatā) some time during the second century ce. According to most hagiographic traditions, however, he attained the alchemical ability to extend his life, and the esoteric texts that some traditions attribute to him were apparently composed several generations after his philosophical works. In Tibet, where his philosophical texts were widely studied, these esoteric writings also became revered and widespread. Whatever the historical reality of Nāgārjuna's life and authorship may be, the great span of his life and the great breadth of his alleged corpus stand as metaphors for his prominence within Mahāyāna Buddhism.
Many of Nāgārjuna's hagiographies, all of which come from China and Tibet, recount an episode that illustrates Nāgārjuna's importance for the Mahāyāna. Probably the earliest texts of the Mahāyāna were in a style that came to be known as Perfection of Wisdom (prajñāpāramitā). These texts teach a challenging theory: addressing much of what early Buddhists held to be ultimately true and real, Perfection of Wisdom claims that such things actually are not ultimately true or real at all. According to Mahāyāna accounts, these texts were taught by the Buddha himself, but they were so challenging that they were kept secret for several centuries after the Buddha's passing; otherwise, their radical doctrines might have led some disciples astray. For their safekeeping, the Perfection of Wisdom texts were conveyed to the land of the nāga s, usually depicted as serpent-spirits, who secretly guarded the texts until the world was ready to receive the Perfection of Wisdom. Eventually, Nāgārjuna's fame became known to the nāga king, and he invited Nāgārjuna to come teach his philosophy to his subjects. Having traveled magically to the nāga kingdom, Nāgārjuna taught the king and his subjects the philosophy of emptiness, and his hosts were so delighted that they conferred on him the long hidden texts. With Nāgārjuna on hand to explain the text's meaning, it was clear that the world was ready to receive these difficult teachings.
While Nāgārjuna's journey to the nāga world may be difficult to confirm, there is no doubt that he did indeed champion the Perfection of Wisdom by explaining and defending the notion of emptiness (śūnyatā), the central theme of those texts. His philosophy of emptiness is one of Nāgārjuna's main contributions to the Mahāyāna, and to understand that philosophy, one must see how it is rooted in the previous Buddhist theories that emptiness challenges.
Philosophy of Emptiness (ŚŪnyatĀ )
From its earliest period, Buddhist thought rested on the notion that humans seek above all to eliminate suffering, and that the only way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate its causes. According to the strand of Buddhist thought that most concerns Nāgārjuna, suffering is caused by "ignorance" (avidyā), a way of seeing the world that distorts all of one's cognitions. Centered on an erroneous view of one's personal identity as fixed and absolute, ignorance is said to afflict all of the mental states of all ordinary persons. And since one's actions are therefore guided by erroneous and distorted mental states, they cannot fully succeed; hence, all attempts to eliminate suffering end in frustration.
To resolve this problem, one must eliminate ignorance, that is, the pervasive error about one's personal identity that distorts one's experiences. In conceptual terms, this error is the belief that, in some fashion or another, one has an essentially real and immutable identity, a personal "self" or ātman. One way to eliminate that belief is to demonstrate convincingly that its object, the alleged self, does not truly exist. And to negate the self, early Buddhist thinkers used a type of reductive analysis: one exhaustively categorizes all of the constituents of mind and body so as to leave no item unexamined, and one then carefully examines those constituents or "elements" (dharma s) in order to determine whether any—singly or in combination—could be the self. Using various contemplative techniques, one's thorough search demonstrates that no such self is to be found anywhere in body and mind, and knowing that nothing other than the constituents of mind and body could be a self, one is convinced that no such self exists. One proceeds to deepen this realization of "no-self" (anātman ) in meditation, and eventually, ignorance is completely overcome. One thus attains nirvāṇa, utter freedom from suffering.
Nāgārjuna accepts this model, and he is also familiar with the early Buddhist style of reductive analysis. To put it simply, one analyzes an entity by attempting to break it into its component parts, and if it cannot be broken down further, the entity is ultimately real. The traditional example, a water-jug, is not ultimately real because it can be broken down into more fundamental parts existing at discrete moments of time. Eventually, the analytical process reaches its conclusion: one discovers the irreducible elements that are the stuff of the mental and physical universe. Only these elements are ultimately or truly real.
It is important to note that, while a reductive analysis of this kind leads to the conclusion that entities such as water-jugs are not ultimately real, it does not totally deny the reality of such entities. That is, in ultimate terms a water-jug is actually just irreducible bits of matter; only those irreducible elements are ultimately real (paramārthasat ); the water-jug is not. Nevertheless, in practical and linguistic terms, one can still use the term water-jug successfully. Hence, a water-jug is conventionally real (saṃvṛtisat ).
This notion of the two realities—the ultimate and the conventional—is crucial for Nāgārjuna's thought, and he readily accepts it as well. He is not satisfied, however, with simple reduction as a way to discover what is ultimately real. His main critique focuses on the notion of "essence" (svabhāva ) that the aforementioned reductive analysis assumes. Essence is implicated in the reductive analysis because, in order to truly know that there is no self in mind and body, one must be able to say what mind and body truly are. Since mind and body are just a bundle of elements, this comes down to knowing what the elements truly are. And in order to know what each element truly is, one must know what kind of thing it is—that is, one must recognize its true nature or essence (svabhāva ).
Nāgārjuna responds to this emphasis on essence by redefining the notion of ultimate reality. He appears to draw on an intuition about parts and wholes in the reductive approach. In order for that analysis to succeed, one must call into question the relation between, for example, the water-jug as a whole and the irreducible particles of matter that are its parts. The analysis concludes that such a whole-part relation cannot be rationally defended; hence, since wholes clearly cannot exist without parts, they must be unreal. The intuition here is that, rather than directly critiquing the notion of a whole such as a water-jug, the analysis attacks the reality of the relation that allegedly ties the whole to its parts. Whether or not this intuition directly inspires Nāgārjuna, it is clear that he supplants the reductive approach with a relational analysis that, moving beyond just the whole-part relation, critiques all forms of relationality and ends in the denial of all essences.
Nāgārjuna's relational analysis begins by admitting that, if an entity were ultimately real, it would indeed need to have an essence or svabhāva, but he argues that for an entity to have an essence, it is not sufficient that it be irreducible. Instead, when one says that an entity has an essence, one actually means that the entity's identity is utterly devoid of any dependence on other entities. Thus, to have an essence, the entity must have an utterly independent or nonrelational identity. Since only an entity with such an essence can be ultimately real, to know whether an entity ultimately exists, one need only determine whether its identity is in any way dependent; in other words, can one know what this thing truly is without referring to something other than that thing? If one can know that entity's identity without referring to other entities, then that entity is indeed utterly independent and, hence, ultimately real. But if the entity's identity is inextricably linked to other entities, then that entity is dependent, and as such, the entity has no essence. Hence, that entity is not ultimately real; it can only be conventionally real, at best.
Nāgārjuna applies this relational analysis especially to all those allegedly elemental things that are the mental and physical stuff of the universe according to most early Buddhist thinkers. And he finds that all those things, even the most cherished elements of the Buddhist path, are utterly lacking in essence because none exist independently. Even nirvāṇa itself lacks any essential, nonrelational identity, for it depends upon its opposition to saṃsāra, the world of suffering. And since nirvāṇa, as with all things, lacks essence, it is not ultimately true or real.
For Nāgārjuna, the realization that all things lack essence is the cure for ignorance, which he construes as any "grasping" (grāha ) to essential, fixed identities, whether of persons or things. The realization that counteracts ignorance comes in the meditation on "emptiness," the metaphor that he uses to evoke this utter lack of essence. His detailed arguments for emptiness examine many forms of relationality. His best known text, for example, begins with an analysis of causality which demonstrates that any entity produced by causes cannot be ultimately real because its existence depends on its causes. These arguments, however, are not themselves sufficient to eliminate ignorance because, as a deeply ingrained cognitive state, ignorance requires more than just argumentation for its elimination. Instead, the conclusion of the arguments—namely, that all entities are utterly empty of any essence—must be cultivated in a contemplative experience through which one becomes fully absorbed in that emptiness.
Nāgārjuna never clearly specifies the way in which one must meditate on emptiness; this and other thorny details are left to later Mahāyāna thinkers. One issue, however, is clear: whether in meditation or in argument, emptiness itself must not be essentialized, for in that case, one would fall into an incurable nihilism. In other words, emptiness is the conclusion to the question, "What is this entity really or truly?" It is the discovery that there is no ultimately real or true identity to be discovered. But if that discovery (i.e., the emptiness of essence) is itself thought to be ultimately or essentially real, then one will have interpreted it as a kind of absolute nothingness at the core of all things. To do so would be to contradict Nāgārjuna; he specifies that no entity has any essence, but if emptiness is interpreted as an absolute nothingness, then one has made emptiness into every entity's essence, albeit in an utterly nihilistic way. Nāgārjuna sees the danger of such an interpretation, and he therefore speaks of emptiness itself as not really being emptiness. In other words, just as a person, being empty of any essence, is not really or ultimately a person, so too emptiness, lacking any essence, is not truly or ultimately emptiness. In this way, Nāgārjuna avoids the nihilism that would ensue from construing emptiness as an absolute nothingness that is the essence of all things.
Using his relational analysis, Nāgārjuna argues that all entities are empty of essence and, thus, that no entity (not even emptiness) is ultimately real. Following, however, the paradigm of the two realities mentioned above, Nāgārjuna does accept that we can speak intelligibly of many things as conventionally real. Thus, even though the stuff of the universe does not ultimately exist, it most certainly does exist conventionally in terms of our practical actions and our use of language. A key issue for Nāgārjuna is seeing that the way in which entities exist conventionally is deeply linked to his notion of emptiness. In short, emptiness describes things' ultimate mode of existence: they are not ultimately real because they are empty of any fixed, nonrelational identity. Things' conventional mode of existence must be the inverse: they are conventionally real because they are filled with fluid, relational identities. Speaking of this fluid relationality that characterizes conventional reality, Nāgārjuna calls it "interdependence" or pratītya-samutpāda.
The relationship between emptiness and interdependence is central to Nāgārjuna's thought, as is exemplified by an exchange in Nāgārjuna's best known text, the Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (Fundamental wisdom of the Middle Way). Raising an objection to the philosophy of emptiness, an opponent asks, if everything is empty of essence, then how is reality possible? That is, if no entity is ultimately real because every entity is empty of essence, then how can a seed produce a sprout? Or, more significantly, how can the practice of the Buddhist path lead to nirvāṇa ? According to Nāgārjuna, seeds are not truly real, but how then could they produce anything? And if the Buddhist path is also not truly real, how could it lead one to spiritual freedom?
Nāgārjuna's response is to turn the question on its head: if everything were not empty of essence, then how could reality be possible? If a cause had an essence, then being ultimately real, it would have an utterly nonrelational identity: what it is in and of itself could in no way be dependent on anything else. But an entity is a cause only in relation to an effect; if the effect were irrelevant to the cause's identity, then clearly anything would be a cause for anything. In short, identities such as "seed" or "path" are clearly relational, and as such, they cannot be ultimate. If they were ultimate, then they would be nonrelational, and a nonrelational world is an utterly inert, unchanging world. Seeds would never produce sprouts, and the path would never lead to nirvāṇa.
NirvĀṆa and Compassion
Nāgārjuna's philosophy of emptiness correlates with a significant change in the conception of nirvāṇa as it becomes articulated in Mahāyāna Buddhism. In early Buddhism, nirvāṇa stands in strict opposition to saṃsāra, the world of suffering. As Mahāyāna develops, however, this duality is called into question, such that Perfection of Wisdom texts include episodes in which saṃsāra itself is transformed into nirvāṇa. Thus, as Nāgārjuna puts it, in ultimate terms there is no distinction between saṃsāra and nirvāṇa.
Two prerequisites for this shift in the alterity of nirvāṇa are found in Nāgārjuna's work. The first is the combination of emptiness and interdependence discussed above. If saṃsāra itself is to be the locus of nirvāṇa, then saṃsāra cannot be composed of irreducible elements that are immutable in their fixed and ultimate essences. They must instead be capable of radical transformation, and this possibility is expressed in philosophical terms through Nāgārjuna's notions of emptiness and interdependence: being empty, things are not fixed in any particular essence, and being interdependent, they can assume new identities in accord with the new, interdependent context in which they are located. The second prerequisite is that there must be some means to achieve that transformation, or to put it more accurately, there must be some principle that guides the transformative process such that it ends in nirvāṇa. For Nāgārjuna, that principle is great compassion (mahākaruṇā ).
Nāgārjuna does not treat compassion as a philosophical concept for which one must argue; instead, it is an indispensable ethical principle that, on his view, distinguishes Mahāyāna Buddhism. Although he never provides a precise definition, later commentators specify that great compassion is an overwhelming need to eliminate the suffering of all beings. Nāgārjuna maintains that, for the Mahāyāna path to be effective, it must combine the philosophy of emptiness with that type of powerful motivation, in part because without such an intense driving force, one could not attain the final goal of the Mahāyāna, namely, the state of buddhahood itself.
In stressing the cultivation of compassion, Nāgārjuna carefully links it with early Buddhist ethical practices, such as adherence to monastic discipline. In this way, Nāgārjuna's radical denial of the ultimate reality of Buddhist notions is accompanied by a consistent, even vigorous defense of Buddhist ethical norms. If one were to examine only Nāgārjuna's best known philosophical texts, one might not get this impression, and it is therefore important to recall that, even if one examines only the works of Nāgārjuna the philosopher (and not the esoteric adept), one still encounters a wide range of writings.
Literary Contributions and Esoteric Writings
Putting aside the question of Nāgārjuna's Tantric esoterica, the philosopher Nāgārjuna, who was active during the second century ce, wrote a large number of texts, some philosophical, some ethical and prescriptive, and others poetic. These texts are all composed in Sanskrit, and this itself is unusual. Prior to Nāgārjuna, Buddhist thinkers wrote in languages such as Pāli that were most likely rooted in earlier, regional dialects. Nāgārjuna may have been the first Buddhist thinker to compose a philosophical text in Sanskrit, and all Mahāyāna thinkers follow his example.
Stylistically, Nāgārjuna's works were also original, in that he composed nearly all of his works in verse and chapter. Buddhists prior to Nāgārjuna certainly employed verse to compose philosophical texts, but Nāgārjuna generally divided his texts into chapters, each of which generally contains a sustained argument in verse. This style, which Nāgārjuna may have borrowed from non-Buddhist authors, also becomes the norm for later Mahāyāna philosophers.
Although neither ornate nor metrically sophisticated, Nāgārjuna's poems are also influential for later thinkers. Cast as "praises" (stotra ) to the Buddha, his poetical works convey his philosophy in a manner that is not possible through systematic argument. Using various tropes, such as antithesis and paradox, Nāgārjuna's praises become a model for Mahāyāna philosophers, many of whom follow his lead in writing both systematic philosophy and poetical praises.
In later Indian Buddhism and especially in Tibet, the image of Nāgārjuna as poet-philosopher expands to include Nāgārjuna the Tantric adept. From an historical standpoint, it is difficult to accept that the author of Nāgārjuna's philosophical texts is also the author of the much later Tantric texts. Nevertheless, the Tibetan Buddhist traditions do see the authors as identical, and as a result, Nāgārjuna becomes an awesome figure whose philosophical prowess is easily matched by his magical powers. The esoteric texts in question are especially important for the forms of Tibetan Tantra that developed after the eleventh century ce. In detailed but highly abstruse language, Nāgārjuna the adept recounts the means to reproduce the death process so as to enter into the subtlest state of mind, namely, the form of mind that transfers from one life to the next. While in that subtle state, one is to realize the emptiness of even this most basic form of consciousness, thus greatly accelerating the process of eliminating ignorance. In this way, the image of Nāgārjuna combines for Tibetans the most advanced meditative practices with the most sublime form of Buddhist thought.
Burton, David F. Emptiness Appraised: A Critical Study of Nāgārjuna's Philosophy. Richmond, U.K., 1999. A useful critique of Nāgārjuna.
Dreyfus, Georges, and Sara L. McClintock, eds. The Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika Distinction: What Difference Does a Difference Make? Boston, 2002. Focuses on later interpretations of Nāgārjuna's thought.
Galloway, Brian. "Some Logical Issues in Madhyamaka Thought." Journal of Indian Philosophy 17 (1989): 1–35. A difficult but very useful analysis of Nāgārjuna's style of reasoning.
Garfield, Jay L., trans. and commentator. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nāgārjuna's Mūlamad-hyamakakārikā. Oxford, 1995. A complete translation of Nāgārjuna's main text, along with a philosophical commentary.
Hayes, Richard P. "Nāgārjuna's Appeal." Journal of Indian Philosophy 22 (1994): 299–378. A somewhat hyperbolic but insightful critique of modern scholarship on Nāgārjuna.
Siderits, Mark. "Nāgārjuna as Anti-realist." Journal of Indian Philosophy 16 (1988): 311–325. Interprets Nāgārjuna's thought in relation to contemporary philosophy.
Williams, Paul, and Anthony Tribe. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. London, 2000. An accessible presentation of Mahāyāna thought that helps to locate Nāgārjuna within a wider context.
John D. Dunne (2005)
The Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna (ca. second century c.e.) is probably the single most important Buddhist philosopher. Nothing reliable is known about his life; modern scholars do not accept the traditional account whereby Nāgārjuna lived for some six hundred years and became a Tantric wonderworker (siddha), although it is believed that Nāgārjuna was the teacher of Āryadeva (ca. 170–270 c.e.). There is moreover a debate over which works can be attributed to this Nāgārjuna, with some agreement on:
Madhyamakakārikā (Verses on Madhyamaka), Nāgārjuna's main work, still extant in Sanskrit;
Vigrahavyāvartanī (Countering Hostile Objections), verses extant in Sanskrit together with an auto-commentary, a reply by Nāgārjuna to his critics.
Save for a few fragments, the following works survive only in Tibetan and, in some cases, Chinese translation:
Yuktiśaśṭikā (Sixty Verses on Reasoning);
Śūnyatāsaptati (Seventy Verses on Emptiness);
Vaidalyaprakaraṇa (The Treatise That Grinds into Little Pieces), an attack on the categories of the Hindu epistemologists;
Ratnāvaī (The Jewel Garland), a long epistle apparently to a king (a shorter royal epistle attributed to Nāgārjuna is the Suhṛllekha [Letter to a Friend]);
Catuḥstava (four hymns).
Nāgārjuna saw his philosophy as itself part of the spiritual project of enlightenment, of "seeing things the way they really are" (yathābhātadarśana). His arguments should be placed in the context of Buddhist philosophy (preceding Abhidharma thought), which he both presupposed and the ontology of which he trenchantly criticized. It was Nāgārjuna who first explained philosophically the concept of ŚŪnyatĀ (emptiness). According to Nāgārjuna, emptiness is a property (a -ness) possessed by each thing without exception. It is the property of lacking intrinsic existence (niḥsvabhavata) as a result of being one way or another, the result of causal processes. Existing is nothing more than an intersecting point of causal factors. Nāgārjuna sought to demonstrate this by asserting that if something—say, a table—were more than just an intersecting point of causal factors, it would prove resistant to analytical deconstruction. Absolutely nothing can resist the process of analytical deconstruction, investigating its coherence through reasoning. Thus Nāgārjuna's works embody arguments in the style of a skeptic, debunking concepts like existence and nonexistence, causation, perception, time, motion, and even religious concepts like the Buddha, or enlightenment itself. Nāgārjuna also offers methodological reflections on what he is doing, why he is not a nihilist or even really a skeptic, and how his practice fits into the overall Buddhist project. For Nāgārjuna this project is a deep "letting-go," which nevertheless also facilitates compassionate reengagement.
Nāgārjuna was enormously influential in India. The Madhyamaka school of philosophy, which he probably founded, was the earliest of the two great Indian schools of MahĀyĀna thought. In Tibet, Madhyamaka is said to represent the highest philosophical standpoint, the final truth. In East Asian Buddhism, the influence of emptiness can be seen in Chinese and Japanese art, in poetry, in the martial arts, and even, ostensibly, in Japanese business practice.
In the West, attempts have been made to compare Nagarjuna's thought with Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, or Francis Herbert Bradley, and more recently with Jacques Derrida (deconstruction, particularly of egocentricity) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (liberation of others from philosophical predicaments that result from fundamentally confused preconceptions; return to the everyday world of praxis). Emptiness has also been portrayed as a philosophy of relativity, or ecological cosubsistence.
Bhattacharya, Kamaleswar, ed. and trans. The Dialectical Method of Nāgārjuna (Vigrahavyāvartanī), critically ed. E. H. Johnston and Arnold Kunst. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1978.
Hayes, Richard. "Nāgārjuna's Appeal." Journal of Indian Philosophy 22 (1994): 299–378.
Inada, Kenneth K. Nāgārjuna: A Translation of His Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, with an Introductory Essay. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1970.
Lindtner, Christian. Nāgārjuniana: Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Nāgārjuna. Copenhagen, Denmark: Akademisk Forlag, 1982.
Potter, Karl H., ed. Buddhist Philosophy from 100 to 350a.d., Vol. 8: Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1999.
Ruegg, David S. The Literature of the Madhyamaka School of Philosophy in India. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1981.
Tola, Fernando, and Dragonetti, Carmen. On Voidness: A Study on Buddhist Nihilism. Delhi: Banarsidass, 1995.
Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.
Williams, Paul, with Tribe, Anthony. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
He is regarded by many Buddhists of the Mahāyāna tradition as a ‘Second Buddha’, and his philosophy of emptiness (śūnyatā) was of enduring significance for later Buddhist thought.
Nāgārjuna reached this position through a dialectic of oppositions. The initiating recognition of anātman (no Self in the human appearance) still left an awareness that the human appearance sustains activities with characteristic natures (dharma natures). Nāgārjuna argued that these too are empty of self (dharmanairātmya), and are not independent constituents of appearance: they depend on each other and have no more reality than their interdependence. All dharmas are māyā (dreamlike appearance).
However, appearances have at least that much existence—they appear to be. Thus Nāgārjuna charts the Middle Way between substance and solipsism. The ‘thusness’ (tathatā) of what is cannot be described but only realized, as undifferentiated in nature. Therefore even nirvāna and saṃsāra have the same nature (‘there is not the slightest difference between the two’)—they are not other than each other, since all is empty of self. In that sense, all oppositions between nirvāna and saṃsāra, heaven and earth, icon and index, disappear.
The purpose of a wise life, therefore, is not to strive to attain some goal or target (heaven, enlightenment), but to uncover and discover what one already is, and has been all the time: the buddha-nature which is the same nature of oneself and all appearance (see BUDDHATĀ; BUSSHO; TATHĀGATA.