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Nagarjuna

Category: Philosopher

Nāgārjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE) was a Buddhist teacher, and philosopher often considered one of the most important Buddhist philosophers.

Even though legendary accounts abound, very little can be said precisely about Nāgārjuna’s life. That Nāgārjuna was a Buddhist monk who lived some time between 150 and 250 AD, probably mainly in southern India is rarely disputed, beyond this little can be said. 

He was however also a poet and healer

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 19  - Nāgārjuna - Thomas William Rhys Davids

Chinese tradition ascribes to him special knowledge of herbs, of astrology, of alchemy and of medicine. Two medical treatises, one on prescriptions in general, the other on the treatment of eye-disease, are said, by Chinese writers, to be by him. Several poems of a didactic character are also ascribed to him.

The Madhyamika [Middle Way] school of Mahāyāna Buddhism

Along with his disciple Āryadeva, Nāgārjuna was the founder of the Madhyamika [Middle Way] school of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

The reason Nāgārjuna is looked on with a great deal of respect is that he appears to have wanted to be a faithful commentator on the Buddha's doctrine as recorded in the āgamas. In the eyes of Nāgārjuna, the Buddha was not merely a forerunner, but the very founder of the Madhyamaka system. 

Lankavatara Sutra – Sagathakam verses 165, 166

In Vedali, in the southern part, a Bhikshu most illustrious and distinguished will be born; his name is Nagahvaya, he is the destroyer of the one-sided views based on being and non-being.  He will declare my Vehicle, the unsurpassed Mahayana, to the world; attaining the stage of Joy he will go to the Land of Bliss

In effect, Nāgārjuna was a champion of the middle-way and a reviver of the original philosophical ideals of the Buddha.

There exist a number of influential and extant texts attributed to Nāgārjuna.  The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is Nāgārjuna's best-known work.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philiosophy

Often referred to as "the second Buddha" by Tibetan and East Asian Mahayana (Great Vehicle) traditions of Buddhism, Nagarjuna offered sharp criticisms of Brahminical and Buddhist substantialist philosophy, theory of knowledge, and approaches to practice.

Nagarjuna's philosophy represents something of a watershed not only in the history of Indian philosophy but in the history of philosophy as a whole, as it calls into questions certain philosophical assumptions so easily resorted to in our attempt to understand the world. 

Among these assumptions are

  •  the existence of stable substances,
  • the linear and one-directional movement of causation,
  •  the atomic individuality of persons,
  • the belief in a fixed identity or selfhood, and
  •  the strict separations between good and bad conduct and the blessed and fettered life. 

 

All these will be explored in the observations, which use this text.

Works

Given the immense time that has elapsed between these works being written and our study of them now, no one is able to definitively say that any works attributed to Nāgārjuna are his.  According to one view, however, that of Christian Lindtner, the works written by Nāgārjuna are:

  •   Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way), available in three Sanskrit manuscripts and numerous translations.  It is
     "not only a grand commentary on the Buddha's discourse to Kaccayana, the only discourse cited by name, but also a detailed and careful analysis of most of the important discourses included in the Nikayas and the agamas, especially those of the Atthakavagga of the Sutta-nipata.”
  •  Śūnyatāsaptati (Seventy Verses on Emptiness), accompanied by a prose commentary ascribed to Nagarjuna himself.
  • Vigrahavyāvartanī (The End of Disputes)
  • Vaidalyaprakaraṇa (Pulverizing the Categories), a prose work critiquing the categories used by Indian Nyaya philosophy.
  •  Vyavahārasiddhi (Proof of Convention)
  • Yuktiṣāṣṭika (Sixty Verses on Reasoning)
  •  Catuḥstava (Four Hymns): Lokātīta-stava (Hymn to transcendence), Niraupamya-stava (to the Peerless), Acintya-stava (to the Inconceivable), and Paramārtha-stava (to Ultimate Truth).
  • Ratnāvalī (Precious Garland), subtitled (rajaparikatha), a discourse addressed to an Indian king

The Precious Garland, 283

Even three times a day to offer
Three hundred cooking pots of food
Does not match a portion of the merit
In one instant of love.

  • Pratītyasamutpādahṝdayakārika (Verses on the heart of Dependent Arising), along with a short commentary (Vyākhyāna).
  • Sūtrasamuccaya, an anthology of various sutra passages.
  • Bodhicittavivaraṇa (Exposition of the awakening mind)
  •  Suhṛllekha (Letter to a Good Friend)
  • Bodhisaṃbhāraśāstra (Requisites of awakening), a work on the path of the Bodhisattva and paramitas, it is quoted by Candrakirti in his commentary on Aryadeva's four hundred. Now only extant in Chinese translation (Taisho 1660).

The Tibetan historian Buston considers the first six to be the main treatises of Nāgārjuna (this is called the "yukti corpus", rigs chogs), while according to Tāranātha only the first five are the works of Nāgārjuna. TRV Murti considers Ratnaavali, Pratitya Samutpaada Hridaya and Sutra Samuccaya to be works of Nāgārjuna as the first two are quoted profusely by Chandrakirti and the third by Shantideva.

In addition to works mentioned above, several others are attributed to Nāgārjuna. There is an ongoing, lively controversy over which of those works are authentic.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philisophy – Nāgārjuna [First published Wed Feb 10, 2010; substantive revision Fri Jun 8, 2018]

There is unanimous agreement that Nāgārjuna (ca 150–250 AD) is the most important Buddhist philosopher after the historical Buddha himself and one of the most original and influential thinkers in the history of Indian philosophy. His philosophy of the “middle way” (madhyamaka) based around the central notion of “emptiness” (śūnyatā) influenced the Indian philosophical debate for a thousand years after his death; with the spread of Buddhism to Tibet, China, Japan and other Asian countries the writings of Nāgārjuna became an indispensable point of reference for their own philosophical inquiries. A specific reading of Nāgārjuna’s thought, called Prāsaṅgika-Madhyamaka, became the official philosophical position of Tibetan Buddhism which regards it as the pinnacle of philosophical sophistication up to the present day.

Prajñāpāramitā sutras

Nāgārjuna is also credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras.  Prajñāpāramitā means "the Perfection of (Transcendent) Wisdom" in Mahāyāna Buddhism.   The word Prajñāpāramitā combines the Sanskrit words prajñā "wisdom" with pāramitā "perfection".

According to Edward Conze, a translator of the sutras, the Prajñāpāramitā Sutras are "a collection of about forty texts ... composed somewhere around Indian subcontinent between approximately 100 BC and AD 600." Some Prajnāpāramitā sūtras are thought to be among the earliest Mahāyāna sūtras.

Lindtner, however,  considers that the Mahāprajñāpāramitāupadeśa (Ta-chih-tu-lun, Taisho 1509, "Commentary on the great prajñaparamita") which has been influential in Chinese Buddhism, is not a genuine work of Nāgārjuna. This work is also only attested in a Chinese translation by Kumārajīva and is unknown in the Tibetan and Indian traditions.

Wikipedia

There is much discussion as to whether this is a work of Nāgārjuna, or someone else. Étienne Lamotte, who translated one third of the work into French, felt that it was the work of a North Indian bhikṣu of the Sarvāstivāda school who later became a convert to the Mahayana.

The Chinese scholar-monk Yin Shun felt that it was the work of a South Indian and that Nāgārjuna was quite possibly the author. These two views are not necessarily in opposition and a South Indian Nāgārjuna could well have studied the northern Sarvāstivāda. Neither of the two felt that it was composed by Kumārajīva, which others have suggested.

Ultimately therefore we might come to the conclusion that although all the other texts may have merit, the only text which can safely be regarded as Nāgārjuna’s is the Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā and so it is from this that we have quoted.

"Everything exists": That is one extreme. "Everything doesn't exist": That is a second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle.

 

References

  • The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist sects – Alexandra David-Neel and Lama Yongden.  This very simple and down-to-earth explanation of Mahayana Buddhism provides a lucid account of the Madhyamika School of Buddhism, the method of meditation and enlightenment worked out sometime between 150 and 250AD by Nagarjuna.
  • Central Philosophy of Buddhism – T R V Murti is a detailed and more scholarly study of this same method
  • Prajnaparamita translated by Edward Conze [published by the Buddhist Society of London]
  • Mūlamadhyamakakārikā - Nagarjuna [translated and with commentary by Kenneth K. Inada] – The translation we have used for observations first appeared in the 1970s and the translator was then a Professor of Philosophy and a pupil of amongst others D T Suzuki.  Professor Inada’s translation covers all 27 chapters and is presented in sequence with the Romanised version of the Sanskrit for ease of reference.  The translation was based on a 1903 version derived from the Prasannapada of Candrakirti.  Being a commentary work, the Prasannapada contains the original Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nagarjuna.  According to Professor Inada “for the advanced student of the Mahayana, nothing could be better than to compare the Prasannapada with the Chinese work Chung-lun [Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo XXX No 1564].” 
    Professor Inada also warns “ the verses are, to be sure,very concise and for this reason cryptic and perhaps confounding.  But it should be noted that it is not the written language that should be looked at askance since Sanskrit is a very precise language and a remarkably advanced one at that for the presentation and propagation of thought.”

 

The paintings are by Nicholas Roerich - also on the site

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