Often viewed as the greatest or most important philosopher of the Buddhists, 1 Nāgārjuna plays a central role in the transmission of Buddhist thought. H.P. Blavatsky views him as “one of the founders of the esoteric Mahayâna systems”; 2 he is traditionally known as the founder of the Mādhyamika school; and also as the 14th patriarch of Zen (Chan) Buddhism, among other titles. Some have gone so far as to call him the “second Buddha”. All specific claims aside, his unique and central role in Buddhism as a whole is undeniable.
While biographical sources are limited, vague and often mythic, the importance of Nāgārjuna is well illustrated by a verse from the Lankavatara wherein a prophetic statement attributed to Buddha, and believed by many to be in reference to Nāgārjuna, reads:
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. 3
Western scholars typically place Nāgārjuna in the second century CE, though H.P. Blavatsky placed his date of birth as 223 BCE 1. Nāgārjuna’s birth has also been given as “400 years after the death of Buddha”, which would place him in the second century BCE, 4 and elsewhere as 700 years after the death of Buddha. However, as with many Buddhist personages, the true history of Nāgārjua is steeped in mystery and myth. Very little is known about his life with any certainty, including when he lived, which treatises he is responsible for, and his true role in the founding of various schools of Buddhism. 5
It is generally agreed, however, that Nāgārjuna was an Indian born into a Brahman family, and that he was originally educated in Indian thought. Myths abound as to the details of his early life and his conversion to Buddhism, but it is said that Kapimala (the thirteenth patriarch) was directly responsible for both his conversion and early learning. 6 Of central interest in the history of Nāgārjuna is his association with the Nagas, the ‘serpents’ or great kings (a term associated with wise men or initiates). Various biographies have him instructed by the Nagas, while others have him teaching or even healing Nagas, but the underlying idea is one in which Nāgārjuna is associated with the wise or with wisdom. 7
Nāgārjuna is often looked upon as a reformer – Buddhist thought and practice having degraded since the time of Gautama Buddha, he is said to have set about restoring the discipline to its original purity. In some traditions, this is said to have been done first as Abbot of Nalanda University, a Buddhist School in eastern India (though the dates here may become problematic), and afterwards through the development of the philosophy of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras and through the spreading of Mahayāna thought, chiefly by presenting “a system of reasoning which, because it steers a flawless course between the two extremes of existence and non-existence, became known as the ‘philosophy of the middle way’, or ‘Madhyamaka’.” 8 Due to the veiled nature of his history, it is thus to the teachings of Nāgārjuna that we must look for a better sense of who this great teacher was and what were his views.
The central text unanimously attributed to Nāgārjuna is the Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way), and it is in this text that the core of Nāgārjuna’s teachings are contained. We must be careful at the outset, however, not to view Nāgārjuna’s work as the presentation of a new philosophy, but rather as a refinement of the old, or a countering of the errors that had crept into Buddhist thought. Nāgārjuna seems to have been primarily interested in encouraging students to forgo the grasping of any particular idea or ideas. As one author says:
“Nagarjuna was trying to release people from this grasping of viewpoints by pointing out that all things are, without exception, empty and this includes causality, the Four Noble Truths, the Dharma, and Buddhism itself. This is Nagarjuna’s good medicine to overcome the sickness of attachments and erroneous views.” 9
“Essentially, this attitude could be called a ‘non-fixation’ or ‘non-clinging’ attitude. Abiding by the Middle Way means not clinging to any extreme, … that is to say, to any of the rigid and biassed ethical or metaphysical standpoints which we more or less consciously tend to adopt…” 10
Many attempts have been made to explain what the Mādhyamika philosophy is, what it stands for and what it teaches, but as the same author rightly observes “the notion of ‘Mādhyamika standpoint’ is self-contradictory” and that “the Mādhyamika has no thesis of his own, or, more generally speaking, no philosophical position”, 10 this being due to the very “non-grasping” nature of Nāgārjuna’s teachings. He did not teach a new philosophy that itself could be grasped as containing the truth, but rather pointed out the essential problem with regarding any philosophical assertion as containing the truth. This is exemplified in the concept of “emptiness” prevalent in the Mādhyamika, though emptiness does not equate to nothingness. Emptiness (or śūnyatā) becomes a profound teaching tool for the student, allowing one to maintain the equilibrium of the middle-way by removing the belief that one’s concepts contain the absolute truth and therefore opening one to greater wisdom.
We see this tool used in distinguishing between Paramārtha and Samvṛti (“absolute and conditional, one and many, noumena and phenomena, universal and particular” 11). As D.T. Suzuki observes:
“The advocate of the [Mādhyamika] sect declares that the discrimination between the Paramārtha and Samvṛti, or in other words, between what appears to us, and what is in itself, is not absolute; that they have only relative Value because it is the condition by which our imperfect understanding conceives existence. Noumena and phenomena have no objective reality as some suppose; for if they have, the truth becomes dualistic and therefore conditional, and that which is conditional cannot be the truth. Nor are they subjective forms inherent in our mind as others affirm; for if so, our reason becomes incapable of grasping the truth which must be absolute, transcending all modes of relativity.” 11
We come then, to the emptiness of the ideas, which can only ever point towards the truth, but can never be it. Nāgārjuna takes the teaching of Emptiness to its ultimate profundity when he says that even “Emptiness itself is empty. Those who cling to it as if it were something existent are really incurable”. 10 Thus again, non-grasping is shown in its central role.
This hint at the profound philosophic subtlety of his teachings reveal Nāgārjuna to have rightly been called the greatest Buddhist philosopher. We can glimpse at the way Nāgārjuna went about his reform of Buddhist thought and practice in the method of discrimination utilized in his chief work, and thus can see that his mark on Buddhist thought, whether one look to the Zen tradition, to the Mādhyamika school, or to the Mahayāna in general, was and is immense.
For more, see here: Nāgārjuna.
^3. The Lankavatara Sutra: A Mahayana Text, translated from the original Sanskrit by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. See also Life of Nagarjuna, from Ocean of Nectar by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and “The problem of the historical Nagarjuna revisited“, Ian Mabbett for two different translations of this verse. See also Life of Nāgārjuna from Tibetan and Chinese Sources, by M. Walleser for an examination of this verse in its historical context.
^4. See Life of Nagarjuna, from Ocean of Nectar by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. See also Theosophical Glossary, Mahayâna (books of the Mahayāna written in second century BCE) and Nâgârjuna (founder of esoteric Mahayāna school).
^5. See “The problem of the historical Nagarjuna revisited,” Ian Mabbett, The Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol.118 No.3, 1998. See also “The Zen Teachings of Nagarjuna,” by Vladimir K., June 2004.
^6. See Nagarjuna, the Fourteenth Patriarch, from The Record of Transmitting the Light: Zen Master Keizan’s Denkoroku, translated by Francis Dojun Cook. See also Theosophical Glossary, Nâgârjuna.
^7. “The allegory that regarded Nâgârjuna’s “Paramârtha” as a gift from the Nâgas (Serpents) shows that he received his teachings from the secret school of adepts, and that the real tenets are therefore kept secret.” — Theosophical Glossary, Nâgârjuna.