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Nāgārjuna

Nāgārjuna (c.150–250). The founder of the Mādhyamaka school of Buddhism and author of the Mūla-Mādhyamaka-Kārikā and other important works. As a philosopher he has few equals in the history of Buddhism, yet the details of his life are obscure and surrounded by mythological accretions.

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.

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Nagarjuna

Nagarjuna: see Madhyamika.

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