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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). Its most distinctive feature was a reanalysis of all the earlier doctrinal models designed to show that they all implicitly involved the notion of śūnyatā (emptiness). For Buddhists, both the Prajññā-Pāramitā. literature as well as the notion of emptiness came to be associated with Nāgārjuna, in fact, they became synonymous with his teachings. 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. For Mahāyānists, Nāgārjuna is considered second only to Buddha in importance and depth of insight.

Preliminary remarks on Nāgārjuna's method

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 pratītya-samutpāda (conditioned co-arising), 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 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. Thus, for instance, for Pure Land Buddhists, Nāgārjuna was a patriarch of Pure Land practice; for certain Mahāyānists, he was the ultimate Mahāyānist whose attacks were aimed at Hīnayāna Buddhism; 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 heirarchy of Buddhist teachings; and so on. Tantric Buddhists even developed elaborate legendary narratives depicting Nāgārjuna as a great Tantric adept, possessing great magical skills. 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.

Yogacara critique

Only the Yogacarins, the other Indian Mahāyāna school, confronted Mādhyamika teachings directly. 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 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. Moreover, consciousness is real — not as a substantial, svabhāvic entity or ground, but as the facticity of cognition within which all experience, including all affirmations and negations, occur. In other words, while svabhāvic components theoretically imputed as either revealed by or constitutive of consciousness were indeed unreal and nonexistent, the fact that one cognizes 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. If it did cling to the fourth lemma, Madhyamaka would be just another type of extremism, one dangerously close to nihilism. To follow a 'middle way' (which is what madhyamaka means) requires acknowledging, analyzing, and correcting 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.

Legends of Nāgārjuna

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. Reflecting these sorts of stories, several Tantric and magical texts, such as the Ratnamāla, have been ascribed to him.

In the Ancient Hindu scripture, Ṛg 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'). Everything was trapped in Nonexistence until the Vedic hero Indra slayed her, splitting open her belly and releasing all the repressed waters and beings which then flowed out into Existence (sat). Buddhists refashioned this psychological cosmogonic story of the actualization of potentialities by discarding the violence and making Nāgārjuna the hero. In the Buddhist version, Nāgārjuna travels deep into the ocean depths to the home of the Nāgā King. Nāgās are dragonlike beings usually extremely hostile to humans. 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. Nāgārjuna is thus credited with literally bringing this "hidden" literature to light. 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). Prajñā-Pāramitā texts continued to be written for many centuries after Nāgārjuna, and many of these were pseudepigraphically attributed to him. 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.


The most important—and most misunderstood—term used by Nāgārjuna is "emptiness" (śūnyatā). It does not mean a cosmic void, nonexistence, a substratum nihilum, or a denial of the world(s) of common experience. Nor does it signify a mystical via negativa. Rather it signifies the absence of something very precise: svabhāva, or self-essence. "Self-essence" is a technical Indian philosophical term denoting anything that creates itself (sui generis), is independent, immutable, possessing an invariant essence, self-defining, etc. Usually Hindus envision self-essential things as eternal also. The two most important self-essential things in Hindu thought are God and the Self (or soul).

According to standard Buddhist doctrine the subtlest, deepest, and most dangerous false view held by humans is the belief in a permanent, independent self. Our sense of "self" derives from "misreading" the causes and conditions of experience. 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).

Buddha had spoken often of a "middle way" between extreme views. The two extremes he discussed most often were "eternalism" and "annihilationalism," or put in other terms, "continuity" and "discontinuity." Things (e.g., the world, persons, etc.) were neither continuous nor discontinuous. Neither the world nor the things in it endure unchanging and endlessly; nor is the world a random, discontinuous, fragmented happenstance. Things are neither reducible entirely to their specific causative conditions, nor are they ever something other than their conditions: this is the middle way.

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. Nāgārjuna recognized that at bottom dṛṣṭi hinged on the notions of "identity" and "difference." Identity was simply another name for self-essence (svabhāva): a continuous, invariant, self-identical essence. 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. In his major work, the Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā, he constructed a methodology for ferreting out dṛṣṭi such that the middle way between identity and difference might be realized. "Empty" signifies what occurs through causes and conditions and is therefore devoid of self-essence. Everything, when seen properly, is devoid of self-essence, and thus "empty." It is the self-essence which is unreal, not the flux of conditions (though Nāgārjuna also warns against hypostatizing "conditions").


The Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā, in 27 chapters of varying lengths, takes up virtually all fundamental religious, philosophical and doctrinal issues. The school that founded itself on his teachings, the Madhyamaka (the Middle Way-ers), took its name from the title of this text. Written in a precise couplet verse form (and in a style of great poetic beauty), it is at the same time one of the most logically rigorous treatises ever written.

Nāgārjuna employs a strategy designed to force either definitions or relations into at least one of three unsatisfactory consequences: 1.Tautology, 2.mutually exclusive contradiction, and/or 3.infinite regress. He implements this strategy by exploiting a fundamental incoherence in the notions of 'identity' and 'difference,' notions without which thinking cannot think. 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. The notion of "identity in difference," for instance, is incoherent since identity and difference are mutually exclusive; one cannot reify identity while admitting difference. 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 latter, they are incommensurate with conditioning and cannot be used to define it. 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? If arising cannot give rise to itself, how can it account for the arising of anything else? And so on. The more one tries to respond to Nāgārjuna's objections, the more one finds oneself proposing hypostatic explanations. 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).

For Nāgārjuna language is self-referential, tautological. 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. This seeming independence is merely a linguistic illusion. For example, one can say "John walks." 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.). 'John' and 'walks' are inseparable, but by separating the two words, one begins to imagine that something called 'John' exists independent of walking and that 'walking' exists independent of John. In fact, grammatically we are compelled to separate nouns from verbs, adjectives from nouns, adverbs from verbs, etc.

But these linguistic distinctions conceal the actual inseparability of the factors being carved up by distinct words. The danger of this separation is that these separate 'entities' are then given invariant identities, and ultimately assigned to universal classes (class of humans, class of walkers, etc.). So John (noun), even when not walking, is taken to still be John, and thus his essential identity remains unchanged and unaffected by the various activities (verbs) he engages in. But that is untrue. 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. Noun-verb phrases are tautologies, not relations between separate classes. Metaphysics grow out of linguistic fictions.

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.'

Nāgārjuna's "claims"

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. To 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. If things really were the frozen, immutable, fixed-essnce entities philosophers claimed, nothing could change, move or occur. 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. Nāgārjuna concludes that not the slightest iota of difference can be drawn between saṃsāra (the conditioned cycle of birth and death) and Nirvāṇa (the unconditioned). (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.) Further the "notion" of Nirvāṇa and the path to its attainment is incoherent. If Nirvāṇa is unconditioned, then there can be no conditions that produce it. 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.

Nāgārjuna also introduces an important distinction between two types of ways of looking at things: 1. saṃvṛti - conventional, and 2. paramārtha - ultimate. He writes: "On the basis of the conventional, the ultimate is taught. On the basis of the ultimate, Nirvāṇa is attained." Subsequently, these two were refined by Buddhists over many centuries.

A passage that has attracted much attention is: "conditioned co-arising is itself emptiness. These are heuristic designations for the middle way." This passage was subjected to an extensive analysis by Zhiyi 智顗 who made it one of the cornerstones of his Tiantai philosophy.

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. Throughout his writings, Nāgārjuna assures us that conscientious application of the middle way will "silence" or "put to rest" prapañca (prapañcopaśama). For him that is the equivalent of enlightenment.

Summary of Major Ideas


There are several complete English translations of the Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā :

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.

Bhattacarya, Kamakeswar. The Dialectical Method of Nāgārjuna: Vigraha vyavārtanī. An excellent translation, includes the Sanskrit text in devanagari and roman scripts.

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).

Walleser, M. The Life of Nāgārjuna from Tibetan and Chinese Sources. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1990 rpt.

Dan Lusthaus
Last modified: Tue Apr 27 09:54:38 JST 2010