Nagarjuna

Nāgārjuna (నాగార్జునా in Telugu, 龍樹 in Chinese) (c. 150 — 250 CE) was an Indian philosopher, the founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Path) school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and arguably the most influential Indian Buddhist thinker after the Gautama Buddha himself.

His writings were the basis for the formation of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school, which was transmitted to China under the name of the Three Treatise (Sanlun) School. He is credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajnaparamita sutras, and was closely associated with the Buddhist university of Nalanda.

Contents

History

Very few details on the life of Nāgārjuna are known, although many legends exist. He may have been born in South India, probably near the town of Nagarjunakonda in present day Andhra Pradesh. According to traditional biographers and historians such as Kumarajiva(鳩摩羅什), he was born into a Brahmin family, but later converted to Buddhism. This may be the reason he was one of the earliest significant Buddhist thinkers to write in Sanskrit rather than Pāli or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.

From studying his writings, it is clear that Nāgārjuna was conversant with the Nikaya school philosophies and with the emerging Mahāyāna tradition. If the most commonly accepted attribution of texts (that of Christian Lindtner) holds, then he was clearly a Māhayānist, but his philosophy holds assiduously to the canon, and while he does make explicit references to Mahāyāna texts, he is always careful to stay within the parameters set out by the canon.

Writings

There exist a number of influential texts attributed to Nāgārjuna, although most were probably written by later authors. The only work that all scholars agree is Nagarjuna’s is the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way), which contains the essentials of his thought in twenty-seven short chapters. According to Lindtner the works definitely written by Nagarjuna are:

  • Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way)
  • śūnyatāsaptati (Seventy Verses on Emptiness)
  • Vigrahavyāvartanī (The End of Disputes)
  • Vaidalyaprakaraṇa (Pulverizing the Categories)
  • Vyavahārasiddhi (Proof of Convention)
  • Yuktiṣāṣṭika (Sixty Verses on Reasoning)
  • Catuḥstava (Hymn to the Absolute Reality)
  • Ratnāvalī (Precious Garland)
  • Pratītyasamutpādahṝdayakārika (Constituents of Dependent Arising)
  • Sātrasamuccaya
  • Bodhicittavivaraṇa (Exposition of the Enlightened Mind)
  • Suhṝllekha (To a Good Friend)
  • Bodhisaṃbhāra (Requisites of Enlightenment)

There are other works attributed to Nāgārjuna, some of which may be genuine and some not. In particular, several important works of esoteric Buddhism (most notably the Pañcakrama or «Five Stages») are attributed to Nāgārjuna and his disciples. Contemporary research suggests that these works are datable to a significantly later period in Buddhist history (late eighth or early ninth century), but the tradition of which they are a part maintains that they are the work of the Madhyamaka Nāgārjuna and his school. Traditional historians (for example, the 17th century Tibetan Tāranātha), aware of the chronological difficulties involved, account for the anachronism via a variety of theories, such as the propagation of later writings via mystical revelation. A useful summary of this tradition, its literature, and historiography may be found in Wedemeyer 2006.

Lindtner considers that the Māhaprajñāparamitopadeśa, a huge commentary on the Large Prajñāparamita not to be a genuine work of Nāgārjuna. This is only extant in a Chinese translation by Kumarajiva. There is much discussion as to whether this is a work of Nāgārjuna, with some original comments by Kumarajiva, or an original work by Kumarajiva based on the philosophy of Nāgārjuna.

Philosophy

Nāgārjuna’s primary contribution to Buddhist philosophy is in the development of the concept of śūnyatā, or «emptiness,» which brings together other key Buddhist doctrines, particularly anatta and pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination). For Nāgārjuna, it is not merely humans that are empty of ātman; all things are without any svabhāva, literally «own-nature» or «self-nature», and thus without any underlying essence; they are empty of being. This is so because they are arisen dependently: not by their own power, but by depending on conditions leading to their coming into existence, as opposed to being. Nāgārjuna was also instrumental in the development of the two-truths doctrine, which claims that there are two levels of truth in Buddhist teaching, one which is directly true, and one which is only conventionally or instrumentally true, commonly called upāya in later Mahāyāna writings. Nāgārjuna drew on an early version of this doctrine found in the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta, which distinguishes nītārtha (clear) and neyārtha (obscure) terms —

By and large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by a polarity, that of existence and non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘non-existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one.

Nāgārjuna differentiates between saṃvṛti (conventional) and paramārtha (ultimately true) teachings, but he seldom declares any to fall in this latter category; for him, even śūnyatā is śūnya—even emptiness is empty. For him, ultimately,

nivṛttamabhidhātavyaṃ nivṛtte cittagocare|
anutpannāniruddhā hi nirvāṇamiva dharmatā||7
The designable is ceased when the range of thought is ceased,
For phenomenality is like nirvana, unarisen and unstopped.

For more on Nāgārjuna’s philosophy, see Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.

English translations

Mulamadhyamakakarika

Main article: Mulamadhyamakakarika

Other works

Author Title Publisher Notes
Lindtner, C Nagarjuniana Motilal, 1987 Contains Sanskrit or Tibetan texts and translations of the

Shunyatasaptati, Vaidalyaprakarana, Vyavaharasiddhi (fragment),Yuktisastika, Catuhstava and Bodhicittavivarana. A translation onlyof the Bodhisambharaka. The Sanskrit and Tibetan texts are givenfor the Vigrahavyavartani. In addition a table of source sutras is given for the Sutrasamuccaya.

Komito, D R Nagarjuna’s «Seventy Stanzas» Snow Lion, 1987 Translation of the Shunyatasaptati with Tibetan commentary
Bhattacharya, Johnston and Kunst The Dialectical Method of Nagarjuna Motilal, 1978 A superb translation of the Vigrahavyavartani
Kawamura, L Golden Zephyr Dharma, 1975 Translation of the Suhrlekkha with a Tibetan commentary
Jamieson, R.C. Nagarjuna’s Verses on the Great Vehicle and the Heart of Dependent Origination D.K., 2001 Translation and edited Tibetan of the Mahayanavimsika and the Pratityasamutpadahrdayakarika, including work on texts from the cave temple at Dunhuang, Gansu, China

References

  • Campbell, W. L. Ed. and trans. 1919. The Tree of Wisdom: Being the Tibetan text with English translation of Nāgārjuna’s gnomic verse treatise called the Prajñādanda. Calcutta University. Reprint: Sonam T. Kazi, Gangtok. 1975.
  • McCagney, Nancy, 1941. Nāgārjuna and the philosophy of openness. Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield, c 1997.
  • Kalupahana, David J. The Philosophy of the Middle Way. SUNY, 1986
  • Murty, K. Satchidananda. 1971. Nagarjuna. National Book Trust, New Delhi. 2nd edition: 1978.
  • Ramanan, K. Venkata. 1966. Nāgārjuna’s Philosophy. Charles E. Tuttle, Vermont and Tokyo. Reprint: Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. 1978. (This book gives and excellent and detailed examination of the range and subtelties of Nagarjuna’s philosophy.)
  • Samdhong Rinpoche, ed. 1977. Madhyamika Dialectic and the Philosophy of Nagarjuna. Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, India.
  • Sastri, H. Chatterjee, ed. 1977. The Philosophy of Nāgārjuna as contained in the Ratnāvalī. Part I . Saraswat Library, Calcutta.
  • Streng, Frederick J. Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967.
  • Walser, Joseph. Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
  • Wedemeyer, Christian K. 2006. Āryadeva’s Lamp that Integrates the Practices: The Gradual Path of Vajrayāna Buddhism according to the Esoteric Community Noble Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Zangpo, Ngorchen Kunga. 1975. The Discipline of The Novice Monk. Including Ācārya Nāgārjuna’s The (Discipline) of the Novice Monk of the Āryamūlasaryāstivādīn in Verse, and Vajradhara Ngorchen Kunga Zenpo’s Word Explanation of the Abridged Ten Vows, The Concise Novice monks’ Training. Translated by Lobsang Dapa et al. Sakya College, Mussoorie, India

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