Nagarjuna (A. D. 200-300) was an Indian Buddhist philosopher who founded the Madhyamika School of Mahayana Buddhism. He studied both the secular and religious branches of Hindu knowledge before turning to Buddhism and spent most of his life in the great Mahayana centers of learning in south-east India. Two of the compositions credited to Nagarjuna are verses of counsel to a king, which recommends that he achieved some distinction during his lifetime. Other sources specify that he also served as abbot of a monastery and that he was the instructor of Aryadeva, the author of important Madhyamika texts.
Nagarjuna —The Most Sophisticated Buddhist Philosopher
Two texts most clearly present Nagarjuna’s views: The Mulamadhyamikakarika (Stanzas of the Middle Way) and the Vigrahavyavartani (Treatise on Averting Arguments). The former is read and studied by philosophers of all major Buddhist schools of Tibet, China, Japan and Korea and is one of the most influential works in the history of Indian philosophy.
Nagarjuna’s stature in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions is enormous and the Tibetan tradition even identifies him as a magician-alchemist. The Madhyamika School is characterized by its logical refutation and negation of all philosophical systems, —Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike—while claiming no unique philosophy of its own. Nagarjuna’s philosophical method is referred to as negative dialectics.
Nagarjuna is the Most Famous Thinker in the History of Buddhism After the Buddha Himself
Nagarjuna especially attacked the Adhidharmas, claiming that the real agenda of dharma theory, atomism, was not really momentarism, time or causality but a new form of anatta (substantialism.) It is an unfolding argument culminating in the triumphant assertion of the reality of only emptiness. Despite lacking any essence, he argues, phenomena exist conventionally, and conventional existence and ultimate emptiness are in fact the same thing. This represents the radical understanding of the Buddhist doctrine of the two truths, or two levels of reality.
Nagarjuna tried to re-establish Buddha’s middle path, affirming neither existence nor non-existence, permanence nor impermanence, identity difference, but showing the relativity of all conceptions. Even the basic elements of dharma, existence, are taken to be void of ultimate reality. The structure of ultimate transformation used by Nagarjuna requires an understanding that ideas, even ‘emptiness’, have no indispensable content. Non-attachment to mental images aids in the transformation of awareness, allowing one to perceive the arising and overindulgence of the world without interfering with it. The mind of inner cognition complete with its assertions and denials, is free from all attachment.
Nagarjuna’s Process of Ultimate Transformation
For Nagarjuna a general term simply distinguished a particular class of items from another class of items. The central organizing element in this structural process is the potency of a posture or vigilance that pervades all perceptions, sense of identity, feelings, concepts, or demeanor.
Nagarjuna, along with other Buddhists, pointed out how many people, though unaware, were being pushed by the very language and assumptions of language that they thought were helping them understand their existence. Such an interpretation utilizes a different norm for identifying authenticity than the one found in this structural process.
Similarly, the focus on a future fulfilment of a spiritual goal in one process may be inappropriate in another, for the release from evil and suffering in a context where there is a clear separation of time and eternity will be different from one where release is available only in a moment of existence by means of a shift in consciousness. The absolute is not within the sphere of mind.
The ignorance which is eliminated by insight is something more than just the lack of information or an inaccurate description of something. The realization of nirvana is not attaining a self-existent opposite to some sorrow—as was the highest reality conceived in some other forms of Indian spiritual life. Nirvana is the enlightened world, a way of being where concepts like good and evil are empty, without substance, where there is no birth and death, and where everything is totally interdependent and without abiding form.
The deepest illusions are thereby dissipated through the highest insight; these illusions are not simply faulty identification of subsisting entities, but affirming to the notion that identification of entities can insure absolute truth. The ideal authenticity, then, is not something other than what is right now; it is innate in the individual field of experiences that is indeed in fluctuation, and which can be cultivated and adroitly sensitized to other possibilities.
Nagarjuna’s Philosophy in the Buddhist Tradition
Meditation is a practice that has been used throughout the Buddhist tradition to de-automate habitual patterns of experience. While Nagarjuna did not advocate meditation directly in his Fundamentals of the Middle Way, there are texts that are credited to him, such as his “Letter to a Friend” which suggest that he accepted meditation as a critical part of the Buddhist path. The external world is gathered into the form of the deity. Nagarjuna states,
- Know that there are three things that block the gate to the city of freedom, and that you must cast aside: sole reliance on rites and penance, perverted views and doubt. None of the joys of this life are desired.
- Freedom depends upon you alone, for no one else can help you: strive in the four noble truths, with study and virtue and meditation. Their limitless qualities are a precious treasury. Similarly, within the nature there are also no path, meditation, and so forth.
- Ever train yourself in higher virtue, higher wisdom, higher meditation, for within these three are gathered more than a hundred and fifty trainings. The subject is extinguished with the object. The wisdom of the path of meditation is called the wisdom of full attainment.
This liberation is expressed philosophically in the Buddhist tradition as the middle path between the extremes of essentialism and nihilism; it is articulated by Nagarjuna in a negative dialectic and the assertion that all phrenic, physical and emotional objects of vigilance.