Thinking in Buddhism:
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Inspired by this episode, Nagarjuna entered a Buddhist monastery. In a mere ninety days he studied and mastered the whole of the Pali canon, the early writings of Buddhism. He left the monastery in search of more advanced teachings of the Buddha that he felt sure must exist. One day he was expounding upon the doctrine of the Buddha to a group of listeners and noticed that, following the lecture, two members of the audience disappeared into the ground. He followed them to what proved to be their home, the kingdom of the Nagas, a land inhabited by beneficent, half-divine, serpent- like beings. Here the Nagas presented Nagarjuna with occult teachings and with several volumes of sutras, canonical scriptures. These writings were the Prajnaparamitas, the "Perfection of Wisdom" sutras. The Buddha had delivered these sacred teachings centuries before but had decided that they were too profound for his contemporaries. He arranged to have them hidden for safekeeping in the nether world until humankind had acquired the necessary sophistication and spiritual development to allow them to appreciate these teachings of "perfect wisdom." Now that the world was ready, Nagarjuna was permitted to spread the Buddha''s final teachings.
His influence was so great that he was regarded as more than merely an important philosopher. The teachings of the Buddha were seen as the "first ``turning of the wheel,''" the setting in motion of the dispensation of universal law, Dharma. The teachings of Nagarjuna came to be regarded by the majority of Buddhism as the "second turning of the wheel," i.e. the renewal of and expansion of the Buddha's original doctrine. Throughout northern India he is still spoken of as a veritable manifestation of the Buddha, and his teachings are revered equally with "the sutras from the Buddha's own mouth."
Nagarjuna's alleged "authorship" and elucidation of the Prajnaparamita writings seems to have provided the Mahayana with a claim to unique mystical insight which allowed this school to divorce itself from what it considered to be the "lesser" teachings of the Theravada.Some of Nagarjuna's contemporaries found his thought to be so unique and worthy that they regarded him as the founder of an entirely new school of wisdom, the Madhyamika. New "Madhyamika" texts sprung up, many of which aimed to be nothing more than interpretations of Nagarjuna's writings. This new school was so compelling and vibrant that it, too, witnessed schisms into sub-schools.
Some scholars have interpreted the philosophy of Nagarjuna as an innovation, a revolution in Buddhism. Others see Nagarjuna's philosophy as being little more than a clarification and restatement of the Buddha's doctrines. To investigate the thought of Nagarjuna and to address these claims, a brief summary of Buddhist intellectual history from the time of the Buddha to the time of Candrakirti, Nagarjuna's most famous commentator, is apposite. When Nagarjuna completed his study of the original Pali canon and went in search of more teachings of the Buddha, it appears that he was confronted with a multitude of contending schools of philosophy.
The debates which both preceded and were contemporary with Nagarjuna surely influenced his thought and a summary of them will help in achieving an understanding of the Madhyamika school.
The simple fact of the Buddha's historical life becoming a more and more distant memory is only part of the story. It appears that the very methods of the Buddha's teaching began to lose their efficacy, for the early writings contain accounts of large numbers of people, sometimes thousands at a time, achieving sudden enlightenment merely by hearing the Law.
Gradually fewer and fewer cases of conversion were reported, until the conviction spread that the time of sainthood was over. One sutra conveys this sentiment clearly by describing the death of the last saint at the hands of one of the scholars.
The teachings of the Buddha were born in northern India and from there rapidly spread east and west, eventually becoming diffused across the whole of southern and eastern Asia. Following the death of its founder, such broad decentralization of the message and the concomitant divergence of interpretations was inevitable. A second factor which precipitated change was the fact of applying the Law to daily life and all of its concerns. No matter how complete the Buddha's teachings, inevitably some question would arise which he had not addressed. These were usually precise disagreements over proper comportment of the monk, such as when to eat food and whether to accept money as a gift.
A third and perhaps principal source of contention and change was the somewhat agnostic stance of the Law itself. The Buddha did not leave the community with a single source of authority following his death, telling the monks to seek and follow the Law for themselves. This likely left the monks with a sense of freedom to interpret the Law as they wished.
He also had consistently refused to give conclusive answers to many types of metaphysical questions, as the parable of the arrow shows. However, as the Buddha fully knew, the human tendency to enquire into such intangibilities is practically ineradicable. People were wont to philosophize on even those very subjects about which the Buddha forbade speculation. This inevitably led to differing opinions about the nature of reality. Even some modern scholars have been misled by the Buddha's apparent agnosticism, calling it a "vagueness" in the Buddha's teachings, a vagueness which caused "a great divergence of views" to arise.
Asoka invited a respected monk, Moggaliputtatissa, to convene a synod of monks to discuss and settle disagreements. Moggaliputtatissa compiled the proceedings of this council in a text that, despite being written two and a half centuries after the Buddha, was so influential that it quickly was accorded canonical status.
Although two hundred and eighteen specific topics of monastic discipline and philosophy were debated, the key philosophical issues boil down to three: "Personalism," "Realism," and "Transcendentalism."
Although Moggaliputtatissa and all other Buddhist schools rejected this "Personalist" argument, the notion proved to be tenacious and long-lived. As late as the seventh century C.E. a full one-quarter of Indian monks claimed adherence to the Personalist school,
and Nagarjuna as well as numerous later writers, both Madhyamika and otherwise, felt compelled to address this misbelief.
The "heresy" of Personalism presumably arose because some Buddhists were unwilling to abandon completely the belief in the soul, and so claimed that the aggregate of elements did not fully preclude the possibility of a self. The controversy of "Realism" also arose from the doctrine of the aggregates, but for an exactly opposite reason. The Realists asserted that, if there is no metaphysical soul behind the aggregates, then the aggregates themselves must be real. If the soul is not an ultimate entity, then the individual atomistic elements (dharmas) of which the world is composed must be ultimately real. These elements are reified, they taught, and each has its unique and individual atomic "self-nature," svabhava. Only thus could the Buddha's teaching that all aggregates are in perpetual flux be reconciled with the fact that objects are observed to have individual and continuous identities.
Furthermore, these atomistic elements are themselves eternal and unchanging; while their form and the objects of which they are a part may change, their self- nature, svabhava, remains real and constant. Hence the label "Realism." The Realists were quite vocal against the concept of Personalism and insisted that the Buddha's doctrine of anatman allowed no room for any type of belief in self-hood. However, their assertion that the atoms comprising the world have individual self-natures was seen by other Buddhists as being an unjustified realism or as just another form of Personalism. Criticism of their concept of self-nature became one of the key issues of the Madhyamikas.The third false doctrine which Moggaliputtatissa reports being discussed was Transcendentalism. The Buddha had left the community of his followers with no single source of authority following his death, telling them instead to "be lamps unto [them]selves." "The truths and rules of the order which I have set forth and laid down for you all, let them, after I am gone, be the Teacher to you."
Despite these words which the Buddha delivered from his deathbed, many disciples came to believe that the Buddha had totally transcended the world, not just ceased to exist. Mahayana Buddhists came to believe that, although the physical Buddha was dead, his intelligence and his teachings remained in a form called the "Dharma Body."
Although it was claimed that this transcendent form did not really exist (for that would contradict the Buddha's doctrines), still the Dharma Body is an expression of the ultimate reality, the true nature of things.
The Dharma Body came to be known by diverse terms, such as "Buddha- nature," "Thusness," or "Suchness of Existents," and its nature has been interpreted in many ways. Moggaliputtatissa refuted this belief in a transcendent nature of the Buddha by demonstrating that it is incompatible with the Buddha's historicity.
Nagarjuna dealt little with the theories of Transcendentalism, but it became an important topic for later Madhyamikas.
The purpose for compiling the Abhidharma was to distill the essentials of the Buddha's teachings on philosophy and psychology from the discourses and attempt to avoid the inexactitudes and ambiguities occasionally found in these scriptures. This codification was achieved by stating everything in exact language and thereby providing a detailed enumeration of the elements of reality (dharmas), the basic causal processes observed to operate between the elements (pratyayas), the exact constituents of the human personality and consciousness (skandhas and ayatanas) and, finally, to draw out the relations and correspondences between all of these factors.
might seem to be of little interest to all but the most devout Buddhist.There are, however, two reasons why the Abhidharma directly relate to the study of later Buddhist philosophy: the Abhidharma provided an exhaustive analysis of the base constituents of reality, and it uncovered much of the implications of dependent arising, the process by which these elements come into being and are perceived. What the Abhidharma achieved was also twofold:
Notwithstanding, the Realist school managed to find in the Abhidharma classifications support for their view that the elements do have a self-nature, svabhava, a view which had definite repercussions on the doctrine of dependent arising.
The Abhidharma literature was avowedly part of the "Older School," Theravada. Its sole purpose was to systematize the teachings found in the Pali scriptures, and it made no use of the innovative interpretations and doctrines that were becoming an important aspect of the "Greater School," Mahayana. The Abhidharma was, however, being written during approximately the same time as the Prajnaparamita writings. These "Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita)" writings mark the inception of and the core teachings of the Mahayana,
a school which defined itself in large part as being the "new" Buddhism no longer bound by the limitations of the old. The Abhidharma provided the starting point for the Perfection of Wisdom school, both as historical influencer and by being the focal point of criticism. Further, the Abhidharma thinkers did their job so well that subsequent thinkers, such as those of the Prajnaparamita, had no choice but to adopt a different tack in interpretating and expounding the Buddha's teachings. That is, the general approach of the Abhidharma thinkers was to take the agenda of analysis and systematization to its furthest extreme. "Rarely in the history of human thought has analysis been pushed so far," said the scholar of Buddhism Etienne Lamotte.
The result of this is that the Perfection of Wisdom writings, representing a reaction to this influence, are quite unlike those of the Abhidharmas in style, thought, and intent.
The writers of the Prajnaparamitas regarded the Abhidharma of the Older School of Buddhism, with its dry emphasis on the proper path towards and means of achieving enlightenment, the rules of the Order, and the niggling debates over fine points of ethics, as being on the wrong track.
This approach stifled the essence of the Buddha's teaching, which essence is that all doctrines are empty of reality and are but mental creations. According to the Prajnaparamitas, true wisdom consists, not in cataloguing doctrines, but in intuitively understanding that the true nature of the universe is this emptiness, sunyata.The Perfection of Wisdom writings were in many ways a reaction to certain trends found in Abhidharma thought, particularly that of Realism. The Realist school, though refuted by Moggaliputtatissa, remained a potent force in philosophical discussion for some time. A primary Prajnaparamita criticism of this realist trend was that it did not go far enough in understanding the Buddha's doctrine of anatman.
The Realists accepted that there is no substantial soul abiding in the person, but just a series of fluctuating elements whose agglomeration gives the appearance of a self- identity. However, as explained above, the Realists took this analysis of elements too far. To explain reality without invoking atman, the Realists defined the elements as being point entities having absolutely small spatial and temporal extension. To reconcile this infinitesimal atomism with the fact that the individual elements still interrelate and that continuity is experienced, the Realists had to posit a form of self-nature.
The Prajnaparamitas saw this explanation as falling short of the mark.The predominant themes of the Perfection of Wisdom teachings do not differ either from the teachings of the Buddha as recorded in the discourses or from the explanations of reality given in the Abhidharma. That is, the essence of reality does not allow for real change or decay, origination or extinction, identity or differentiation, unity or plurality, existence or non-existence. All of the above are imagined only by the ignorant. The criticism lies in the fact that some Buddhist schools were not satisfied with this description of reality and felt the need to add the notion of svabhava, self-nature. This is not necessary, the Prajnaparamitas taught, for the Buddha's theory of dependent arising is alone sufficient to explain all perceptions of the world and its elements as well as fully explain the ways in which these elements exist and interrelate.
The authors of these texts most likely had no intention of producing innovative theories and saw themselves as just explaining the teachings of the Buddha in a deeper and more profound way, relying more on insight than on intellect. Nonetheless, the Perfection of Wisdom writings are often defined as marking a clear transition from old to new, Theravada to Mahayana. The emphasis on emptiness as a characteristic of reality "revolutionized" Buddhism "in all aspects," writes modern commentator T.R.V. Murti.
While the intention of these writings was not to produce innovations in philosophy but just to teach with a different emphasis, their method of philosophizing was decidedly original. The Prajnaparamita adopted a dialectic that was only implied in the original discourses, that of seeking the middle between all extremes, and utilized this dialectic to a much fuller extent. This rejection of extremes led to the assertion that all dualities are empty of reality. Notions whose basis is one half of a duality, such as existence and nonexistence or atman and anatman, can be used to speak of common, everyday truths, but their applicability fails when referring to ultimate truths. The ultimate reality is devoid of all dualities and thus is wholly impervious to conceptual thinking. It can only be accessed in non-dual intuition, prajna.
There are thus two levels of truth : the everyday, relative truth and the higher, absolute truth. One should not be confused, the Prajnaparamita taught, by the Buddha's use of words like "person" or verbs like "exist," for he used these words only pragmatically, as a necessity for discussing commonly perceived things. He in no way intended for such relative concepts to be reified or applied to the absolute sphere.
This collection of works was also found quite compelling by Nagarjuna and the subsequent Madhyamika school.
devoted himself. Although it is almost certain that Nagarjuna did not write or discover them, as legend claimed, he may have been influential in the formation of some of them, and he certainly is to be credited with systematizing them and offering the most coherent and authoritative interpretations of them.
Furthermore, many scholars, both ancient and modern, regard Nagarjuna's Madhyamika as the proper systematization of the voluminous and often unorganized Prajnaparamita writings. His philosophy, though, is not to be seen as a mere commentary on these sutras. He offers slightly revised interpretations of their key concepts, i.e. dependent arising, emptiness, and self-nature, and he draws out more fully the implications of the two truths. His basic philosophical method is to take the Buddha's exhortation to follow the "middle way" and apply this "middle-ism" to all sets of dualities. Hence the appellation for this school: "madhyama" simply means "middlemost."
The Madhyamika method does not deal with dualities by attempting to arrive at a compromise between the two sides or by formulating a position that lies between the two. Rather, it attempts to supersede the sphere of conceptual thinking and its attendant dualistic modes.As Nagarjuna's philosophy is the primary subject of this investigation, no more than the briefest summary of his school will be presented here. Conceptual thinking operates using dualities, especially that of subject versus object, perceiver versus the external world. However, Nagarjuna taught, it is this very process of intellection and our grasping onto its products, i.e. concepts, which prevents us from realizing enlightenment. One must "appease" the tendency to conceptualize, and it is this appeasement which will allow one to see through the illusions of dualities and grasp the " true nature" of things, the tathata.
Despite encountering various historical vicissitudes, it remains the foundation for Tibetan Buddhism even today.
It must be admitted that this latter point is uncertain. Herbert Guenther
writes that "Reports coming from Tibet are uncertain… With the annexation
of Tibet by China, a chapter in the history of Buddhism… came to a close.
(Encyclopedia of Religion, 1987 ed., s.v. "Buddhism: Tibetan Schools.")
Notwithstanding the uncertainty of the situation in Tibet, though,
the exiled Buddhist community outside of Tibet is definitely keeping
the Madhyamika tradition alive.
Aryadeva was the chief disciple and successor of Nagarjuna, and it is to him that the Madhyamika system owes much of its popularity and stability. Nagarjuna directed his dialectic primarily against the Abhidharma philosophy, but, by the time of aryadeva, there was need to consolidate the Madhyamika system against non-Buddhist systems as well.
Cf. C.W. Huntington, Jr., The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamika (Honolulu: The University of Hawaii Press, 1989), 9
Aryadeva can be credited, along with Nagarjuna, with founding and systematizing the school of Madhyamika.
The main difference between the two schools was that they disagreed on the proper way to interpret Nagarjuna's karika. As such, it may seem that the dispute is trifling. This may be true — -it may be the case that the only real difference between the two is the character of the arguments which they employed in order to convince their opponents of the truth of the Madhyamika, a philosophy which they mutually shared. However, the significance of their different approaches may go deeper than that. The issue which divides the two schools may be the result of their very interpretations of reality and the degree to which they accepted Nagarjuna's wholesale denial of self-nature.
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