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Thinking in Buddhism:
Nagarjuna's Middle Way

by Jonah Winters

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Chapter 4

Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika

Structure of the Karika

A study of Nagarjuna's philosophy encounters many initial obstacles. Not only can his thought itself seemingly be impenetrable, but also the mythical stature he has acquired obscures much understanding of him. One modern scholar of Nagarjuna has admitted that the veneration of Nagarjuna "at times reached such ridiculous heights that his name was sanctified and stamped everywhere with reckless abandon."
Note: Kenneth Inada, quoted in Kalupahana 1986, 3

One result of this is that often it cannot be determined precisely which works attributed to him are authentically his. Of the more than one hundred texts bearing Nagarjuna's name, only thirteen are almost certainly his.

Note: Lindtner, 9-11

There are two reasons that it is difficult to determine which of these many works are his: One, his influence was extensive and his name venerated. It was not uncommon in Indian tradition for an adherent of a school to attribute a work to the school's original founder, as a means of paying respect. This certainly happened within Madhyamika. Two, there was likely more than one author actually named Nagarjuna, and there may have even been many.

Note: A. K. Warder, Indian Buddhism (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1980), 375

Of these thirteen works that were authentically written by the Nagarjuna in question, one stands out as being his chief work: the Mulamadhyamakakarika, "Verses on the Fundamentals of the Middle [Way]."

Note: Nagao writes that the name of this work was likely given to it by the Sino-Japanese tradition. This tradition found one verse of the treatise, XXIV.18, to be paramount; this verse concluded with the term madhyama pratipat, "Middle Path," and the treatise was named after it. (Nagao 1991, 190)

This work stands supreme primarily because of its inherent merit, both in terms of philosophical acuity and innovativeness. It is also one of the few works that are indubitably his. The treatise also deserves to be regarded as unique because it was historically pivotal; it inspired a number of subsequent commentaries by other acclaimed thinkers and galvanized Buddhism into developing a wholly new school of thought based on this work, the Madhyamika, the "Middle Way" school. Finally, the Indian, Chinese, and Tibetan traditions are all unanimous in considering the karika as Nagarjuna's magnum opus.

Note: Lindtner, 10

The karika consists of 450 sententious verses.

Note: (448 verses plus 2 in the dedication)

These verses have been preserved in the form of twenty- seven short chapters, each dealing with one topic. (For sake of clarity, it was necessary to differentiate between Nagarjuna's chapters and the chapters of this thesis. To solve this, Nagarjuna's chapters will henceforth be referred to as " sections ," and the word "chapter" shall be taken to refer to chapters of this thesis.) The entire karika, minus commentary, would only run to thirty or forty pages. The chapter (section) structure in which the text is preserved is possibly a later formalization, most likely by Candrakirti. This is evidenced by the fact that the section titles provided by Candrakirti are often misleading as to the actual contents of the section, and also because copies of the karika preserved in Chinese and Tibetan occasionally contain very different section headings.

Note: Sprung, xv

The verses are written in a precise metered form which was the staple of classical Sanskrit composition.

Note: Coulson, 250

Each verse consists of two lines of exactly sixteen syllables each which, while not rhyming, are very poetic and rhythmic when read aloud or chanted. Part of the reason for this writing style was to facilitate memorization. Books were often preserved in writing by this period in time, but the chief means of transmission was still oral. However, this is not the only import of the karika's poetic structure. Nagarjuna was not merely a reflective philosopher. He was a monk, and the purpose of monasticism was to facilitate meditation and traveling the path to enlightenment. This work, like his hymns, was surely intended to be an aid in meditation. One could memorize the karika and meditate on it by contemplating one verse at a time. The verses were not intended to be prosaic explanations of a philosophical position, but rather were meant to illuminate, in a terse and often aphoristic manner, certain precise aspects of the Buddha's teachings about the nature of reality and the proper path. Although the meaning of the verses is usually clear, there are many that defy interpretation. Like the famous Zen koans, some verses seemingly make no attempt to explain a philosophical theory but instead aim to provoke an immediate transcendence of conceptual limitations.


Methodology of this Examination of the Karika

There is no easy and obvious way to approach the karika. Most modern interpreters have opted to approach it by analyzing in isolation the broader topics with which it deals, such as anatman or dependent arising, and pulling quotes and examples from all sections of this work and from other works to explain each topic. Other scholars have chosen to select merely one subject of Madhyamika to address, such as emptiness, or one methodological consideration, such as the use of dialectic. Such approaches seem unsatisfactory for the present examination of Madhyamika because only the karika and its themes are the focus here, not the spectrum of Madhyamika as a whole. Attempts have also been made to categorize the sections of the karika into larger groupings of several chapters each and indicate the broad themes which Nagarjuna supposedly had in mind with each section.
Note: cf. Kalupahana 1986, 27-31

This approach, too, can be misleading and has no definitive validity; ultimately it may reveal little more than the interpretive bias of the interpreter. The most fruitful approach in the present context will be first to present in summary form the scope and thought of the karika itself and only afterwards to discuss its broader philosophical meaning and possible intent.

There are two admitted drawbacks of this approach, i.e. examining the karika and the karika alone. One, it will not be possible to present "the thought of Nagarjuna" as a whole. Other of his works show different sides to his thought and character and provide fruit for differing interpretations of his place in the broad spectrum of Buddhist thought. For example, the karika makes almost no mention of any of the themes which came to be emblematic of the "Greater School" of Mahayana,

Note: The only exception is one mention of the Bodhisattva-career in XXIV.32.

However, even this mention does not demonstrate Nagarjuna to be an advocate of Mahayana. and so it could be objected that an examination of the karika only would attribute too much "Older School"-ness to him. A second drawback is that presentations of his concepts could often be made clearer by recourse to other of his or his follower's works. It will be responded that these two drawbacks are not debilitating, and may not even be handicaps. An exposition of solely the karika can be defended because this work is truly the cornerstone of the entire subsequent Madhyamika school in all of its variety. The karika is the vitalizing influence of Madhyamika and all the main themes of the school are to be found in it. As mentioned above, the Buddhist tradition is unanimous in considering it to be the keystone of Madhyamika and perhaps even the single most influential work in all of Buddhism after the original sutras.

What would perhaps be most desirable would be to skip a section-by-section analysis of the karika and jump straight to a discussion of its broader themes and significances. An attempt to do this was the initial intent of this thesis. What quickly became apparent, though, was how great the amount of background knowledge necessary to make sense of this work and how little of this knowledge could be presupposed on the part of the reader. Take, for example, this wonderfully cryptic verse: "The arising of arising is exclusively the arising of primary arising. Again, the primary arising produces the arising of arising."

Note: karika VII.4.

(All quotations from the karika, unless otherwise noted, are from the translation of David J. Kalupahana in Kalupahana, 1986.) Lest the reader be kept in suspense, this verse is explained in context below, page 57. The obscurity of such a statement is not the fault of the translation; the above is perhaps the clearest translation of this verse available. It is not to be assumed that the meaning of a verse like this automatically becomes pellucid if one has a background in Buddhist philosophy, but it does illustrate the difficulties one faces in attempting to comprehend and communicate Nagarjuna's thought. It was thus deemed necessary to summarize the basic themes of each of the twenty-seven sections, one by one, and briefly introduce the reader to the concepts contained therein. Only after this has been done can broader observations be made and the philosophical significances extracted. Certain translations of Madhyamika thought have presented only selections from the original works, sometimes calling them the essential selections.

Note: e.g. Sprung 1979

The implication of this pointed out by David Kalupahana, translator of and commentator on the Mulamadhyamakakarika, is that the remaining sections are inessential.

Note: Kalupahana 1986, 27

This thesis will not adopt that approach. While the following exposition of the karika may appear lengthy, the reader must be assured that prolixity has been scrupulously avoided and only the few most essential themes of each section have been mentioned.

Nagarjuna was both a Buddhist monk and an apologist for Buddhism. It is the Buddha's philosophy, and this philosophy only, that engaged his thought and veneration, as evidenced by frequent references to "the Buddha(s)" and "the fully enlightened one." One thought informs the whole karika: the Buddha taught that there is no substantial essence underlying and supporting the manifest world.

Note: The reader's attention is called to the etymology of the word "substantial:" the Latin roots are sub = "under" + stare = "to stand."

A "substance" is that which stands under something and provides the ground of being for it. The abiding soul and/or an absolute God posited by some schools of thought is, by definition, not dependent upon any element of the world for its existence, and the Buddha's philosophy holds that anything that is not dependent cannot be real. It would either transcend or precede existence, and thus could not exist. Notwithstanding, the mass of humanity perceives and believes in the real existence of the world, all the elements contained therein, and the characteristics of and relations between these elements. Nagarjuna devotes the majority of his sections to an analysis of these aspects of the putative world, such as cause-and-effect, the senses, action, and time. Following this, he examines the Buddha's teachings themselves, focusing on the nature of the enlightened being, the Noble Path, enlightenment itself, and dependent arising.


A Presentation of the Treatise

Section one — Causation, and some Initial Problems

Nagarjuna devotes his first section, "Examination of Conditions (pratyayas)," to the subject of causation. A discussion of causation had to precede his examination of the elements of reality (dharmas), for it is a thing's origin that determines its ontological status. Discussion of causal theories held a paramount place in Indian philosophy, because it was felt that a system's theory of causality reveals the method of the entire system.

Note: Murti 1960, 166

The Buddha's explanation of the causal process is dependent arising: "if this arises, that arises. If this ceases, that ceases."
It is unlike any of the non-Buddhist theories of causation which fall in one of four categories :

    • self- causation,
    • other-causation,
    • a combination of the two,
    • or no causation.
  • The first, self- causation, is exemplified by the Vedic tradition of asserting the reality of the immutable Universal Soul, atman. Briefly, this declares all effects to be inherent in their cause, which cause is in every case some form of the eternal atman.
      Note: cf. David J. Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (Honolulu: The University of Hawaii Press, 1975), 6-15
     
    A problem with self- causation is that the effect must be inherent in the cause. If so, then nothing new has occurred or come to be.
  • Other- or external- causation declares all change to be produced by some form of a deus ex machina, such as God, fate, or a deterministic self- nature.
      Note: ibid., 5

    A problem with other-causation is that if cause and effect are different then the relation is lost, and, for example, fire could be produced from water.
  • A third type of causal theory advocated by some schools is basically a combination of the self- and other-causation. The problem with this is that both of the above two problems are compounded.
  • The final option is that neither self- nor other-causation operates, which position is in effect an indeterminism that denies all causation. If anything were to emerge ever, anywhere, then everything could emerge at all times, everywhere.
The philosophy of Nagarjuna almost defies interpretation. By the second verse of the first section, one is already hard-pressed to explain exactly what Nagarjuna is saying. Following an introductory dedication to the Buddha,

Note: discussed below, pages 115-118 he opens the karika with, in the first verse , what would appear to be an unqualified rejection of all the possible theories of causation.

    "No existents whatsoever are evident anywhere that are arisen from themselves, from another, from both, or from a non-cause," he declares.
Note: karika I.1 This can be, and has been, interpreted to be a pure denial of causation. In the next verse , though, he lists the four conditions (pratyayas) that function causally:
    "There are only four conditions ( pratyayas), namely,
    • primary condition,
    • objectively supporting condition,
    • immediately contiguous condition,
    • and dominant condition." 
      Note: karika, I.2

    The word he uses here for "condition," pratyaya, was often found in the early Buddhist texts as a synonym of " cause."
    Note: Kalupahana 1975, 54
    A condition, in this context, is a foundation on the basis of which a thing can come to be: "[There] are conditions (pratyayas), because, depending on them, [things] arise," defines Nagarjuna.
      Note: karika I.7

    A condition (pratyaya) seems to be a cause which is necessary but not sufficient. It is that which cooperates in causing a thing to arise, but is not the sole cause of its arising. The difficulty of interpreting Nagarjuna's statements lies in the fact that, even if a condition is only a part of the cause, it is still a cause. He has thus, in the first two verses, denied the tenability of the four non-Buddhist theories of causation, only to follow it with an assertion that conditioned causal relations do exist.
    Note: A comprehensive discussion of the four conditions (pratyayas) Nagarjuna mentions in verse two is beyond the scope of this examination.
There are a few very different ways to interpret Nagarjuna's stance on causation.
    Of the hundreds of commentaries on and studies of Nagarjuna's philosophy since his death, the main hermeneutical approaches boil down to only a very few, and these few come into play even at this early point in the karika. A brief summary of the various hermeneutical approaches is necessary here, at the outset, partly because they offer differing ways to reconcile verse one (denial of causality) and verse two (affirmation of causality), but also because they will be seen to surface again and again in various guises throughout this presentation of the karika.
    • 1) One way to interpret the disparity between the two verses is that Nagarjuna is being selective about what type of causation he admits. A "cause" in the sense of an active and determinate force that effects change is rejected. What is admitted is only that, if certain conditions (pratyayas) are present, a thing can arise dependent on them.
    • 2) A second possible interpretation is that Nagarjuna in verse one is only denying that a causally-arisen existent is evident; the causal process could perhaps be claimed to be either hidden or transcendent, and thus not accessible to human perception.
    • 3) A third interpretation also rests on the word "evident:" Nagarjuna could be claiming that, while causal relations are perceived by an unenlightened person, they are seen as illusory and unreal by the one who has realized nirvana.
    • 4) Fourth, the crux of the argument could be the concept of real existence. Verse one declares that no existents are evident that have come to be through the workings of causation. Perhaps things do arise from causes, but these things do not really exist. Whereas the previous interpretation holds that the causal processes are illusory, this position would state that it is the ontic status of the elements themselves that is under attack.
    • 5) A final exegesis is that mentioned earlier: Nagarjuna can perhaps be seen as rejecting causation in all its forms and manifestations.

Note:  Kalupahana solves this apparent contradiction between the first two verses simply by stating that Nagarjuna was denying causation but was neither denying nor confirming conditionality. This interpretation is questionable and, even if it is valid, the problem is not wholly resolved.

    It may seem hasty to present so many interpretations so soon. However, as mentioned, an immediate discussion of them is warranted, for, while here the various positions relate only to Nagarjuna's treatment of causation, they can and have been applied to almost all of the topics he examines. The five interpretations as they relate to this context and their broader implications can be summarized as follows:
    • 1) Nagarjuna accepts causation, but selectively. He isolates exactly which theory of causation he supports, clarifies this theory, and rejects the rest.
    • 2) Nagarjuna rejects the human ability to understand the process, in this case the workings of cause-and-effect. The mysterious mechanics of the universe are either too transcendent or too esoteric for human investigation to access.
    • 3) The whole process as well as its products are illusory. The individual mired in the sphere of relativities may believe that the world has certain qualities, but these specious beliefs evaporate when one attains enlightenment and sees the true nature of things.
    • 4) The issue arises due to a mistaken understanding of existence. There are conditions (pratyayas) dependent upon which things come to be, and one can speak of cause and effect relative to these things, but they do not enjoy the status of having substantial existence. Having no measure of independence, they cannot be said to be real.
    • 5) Nagarjuna is rejecting everything for the sake of nonsense. He denies causation only to follow it with an assertion of causation. The point of this is to force his readers to abandon concepts altogether and achieve an unmediated awareness of the absolute, and nonconceptual, nature of the world.
    These five opinions are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It will be seen that most or all are accurate in certain situations and that there may not be any one single exegesis that will be accurate in all situations.
 
The following summary of the karika will first present Nagarjuna's basic arguments on each topic and reserve commentary until all elements have been examined. The above five interpretations can be kept in mind to help understand his themes and what to make of them. It is hoped that this will not prove too confusing at times; the reader is to be reassured that generalized elucidation is forthcoming.
 
 
The majority of this first section seems to be an examination of what type of relation holds between the effect and the conditions pratyayas) which gave rise to it.
  • The self-nature of the effect is not evident in the conditions (pratyayas), he says in verse three , so the relation between cause and effect is not one of identity. The effect is not inherent and preexisting in the cause. If it were, then the self-nature of the effect would have to exist before the effect itself came into manifestation. Yet this implies eternalism and leads to a philosophical impasse like that the atman school faced when forced to explain how change could occur if self- nature is eternal and immutable.
  • Neither, however, is the effect a new creation that is wholly different from the cause. If the effect were not preexistent in the condition, then effects would not depend on causes. This would allow for utter randomness — -anything could arise at any time.
    Note: karika I.12
  • It is thus not appropriate to see the effect as arising either from conditions (pratyayas), which implies eternalism,
  • or from non-conditions (pratyayas), which implies anarchy.
Nagarjuna also demonstrates that one cannot view either conditions (pratyayas) or the effects arising from them as existent.
    The two options are that an effect either existed or did not exist at the time it was brought into being, but neither position withstands scrutiny. The reason is that neither of the two elements of the equation, the "effect" and its "cause," can exist independently. They come into being only in dialectical relation to each other, and neither can be isolated and examined separate from its dialectical component.
    • If the effect is said already to exist at the time of its rising, then what is the use of saying it had a cause? If it already existed, then the concept of a cause becomes superfluous.
    • However, neither can one say that the effect did not yet exist at the time of its arising. If so, then what would be the function of a cause? "Of what use is a [cause] of the existing [effect]?" asks Nagarjuna. Note: karika I.6. (pratyaya translated by me as "cause." cf. Monier-Williams 673)
    • Neither can one attempt to resolve the dilemma by positing some agency that is either a combination of existence and nonexistence or is a rejection of both.
    • There is thus no way to attribute any form of existence to an effect and still speak of its cause. " Since a thing that is existent or non-existent or both existent and non-existent is not produced, how pertinent in that context would a producing cause be? " Nagarjuna summarizes.
Note: karika I.7
Nagarjuna's clear presentation of the implications of cause-and-effect demonstrates that the entire problem stems from an over-analysis of the categories. There is only a problem if one attempts to separate cause and effect and speak of each in isolation. While the argument is clear and seemingly incontrovertible as he presents it, the consequences of his conclusion are far- reaching. If cause and effect arise only in mutual dependence, as the Buddha taught, then all talk of real existence must be abandoned, a radical conclusion indeed.

Note: It may seem that an inherent contradiction in Nagarjuna's philosophy is exposed by his language: in the very act of denying the reality of either existence or non-existence the verb "to be" is used. For example, verse XXV.10 reads "nirvana is neither existence nor non- existence" (italics mine). This problem stems from translation only. Unlike English, Sanskrit does not rely on the verb "to be" to express relations. In this example, the original is "na bhavo nabhavo nirvanam," which literally reads "Neither existence nor non- existence nirvana." (Curiously, though Sprung pointed out this problem, he neglected to answer it. Cf. Sprung 12)


Section two — The Relationship between Nominal and Verbal Subjects

Section one does not exhaust Nagarjuna's explanations of causality, for he discusses it throughout the entire work and examines it in greater depth especially in sections four and twenty. His intent in opening the karika with a brief examination of causality probably was to preclude any initial misunderstandings and to refute the theories of causality which were both the dominant theories in the non-Buddhist world and which also had become prevalent within Buddhist philosophy.

His next subject, "Examination of the Moved and the Not-Moved," is an investigation of the process , rather than the elements, of dependent arising. The Buddha's doctrine of dependent arising shifted the ontological emphasis from one of static "being" to one of dynamic "becoming." It is the use of verbs rather than nouns that can express reality and its intrinsic fluctuant nature.

Nagarjuna discusses the notions of change by examining one concrete example: motion and rest.

    He breaks down the verb into its three components of
    1. the verb in the abstract,
    2. its subject,
    3. and its sphere of activity, in this case motion, the mover, and the space within which motion occurs.
The concept of "movement" is dissected and scrutinized to demonstrate that the three categories of the verb, its subject, and its sphere are all untenable.
    There is indisputably a perception of action, but this perception cannot be explained in a way that withstands logical inspection.
    First, a span of time is necessary for activity to take place. Activity, of any kind, requires a process of changing physical position or changing attributes. This change requires a temporal extension, for an instantaneous change would be tantamount to the complete disappearance of one thing and the appearance in its place of a wholly new thing. Nagarjuna first points out that to speak of motion in the present requires isolating the present moment. Movement in the past or in the future obviously does not constitute present moving; neither the "has moved" nor the "will move" is presently moving.
    When, though, did the motion of the presently-moving object commence? Prior to its commencement it was the "will move," but a "will move" is not moving. "How could there be a movement in the not [yet] moved?" he asks.
    Note: karika II.13
    Likewise, movement is not initiated in the "has moved," for the "has moved," by definition, is not partaking of present movement. Further, movement does not commence in the "presently moving," for this is already moving — -an action cannot begin anew in a place where it is already present. The exact commencement of motion can never be perceived, for, no matter how infinitesimally small the atomistic division of time, there will always be one point at which the object is not yet moving. "When the commencement of movement is not being perceived in any way, what is it that is discriminated as the moved, the present moving, or the not [yet] moved?"
Note: karika II.14
Thus movement can only be perceived in the present moment, and the activity's necessary time span is lost. With the loss of temporal extension, the verbal activity becomes unfathomable, and hence unreal.

Even assuming that one could still speak of motion even when confined to a single present moment only, one now has the problem of what moves. By definition, only a mover can partake of movement. Likewise, separated from a mover, there can be no such thing as movement in the abstract. The relation between these two, the moverand the fact of its movement, is logically meaningless. To say that a mover moves is redundant and superfluous. To say that a non-mover moves is to state a contradiction. But these are the only two options, for, "other than a mover and a non-mover, what third party moves?"

Note: karika II.8

It may sound reasonable to say that it is a mover who partakes of movement. But it is not appropriate to speak of a mover without movement for, if it does not move, then by what is it a mover? Either option creates a disjunction between the subject and its action that is unacceptable.

The subject of motion is only half the story. One must further examine the lack of motion, or rest. The problems encountered by the issue of rest are identical as those faced by motion: a mover is not stationary, for this is a contradiction, a non-mover is not stationary, for this is a needless tautology, and there is no third party that is stationary. Further, a mover cannot come to rest, for it would then cease to be a mover. If a mover were to become a "rester," then its identity would change and it would no longer be the same subject; there would be the dissolution of the moving object and the instant creation of the stationary object.

The obvious objection to the above arguments is to say that they assume an untenable identity of a mover and its movement. This identity should be replaced with a concept of difference, the opposition could declare: the mover is not the same as its movement, but merely possesses movement. If this were so, though, then movement would exist in the abstract and be independent of the mover. There would be motion but nothing moving. Another problem of isolating the subject from its movement is that this subject is not perceived in any way. This subject devoid of attributes, what Western philosophy calls the "bare particular," would be a metaphysical creation produced purely by the imagination, for it could never be experienced. Nagarjuna closes this section with the summary statement that neither motion, nor the mover, nor the space moved in is evident.

Note: karika II.25

He has up to this point not offered an explicit discussion of the spatial dimension , but he states that the reality of space is to be negated in the same way that motion and rest were.

The reader is at this point likely to be left with the thought that Nagarjuna was a rampaging nihilist. All concepts are being summarily denied for some obscure and perverse purpose. Admittedly, this is a conclusion that has occasionally been drawn by admirers and detractors alike, both ancient and modern. However, while it is not yet clear what Nagarjuna's intent is, it is likely not one so simple. He appears to be negating, not the reality of subject and object and their attributes, but rather just some way of thinking about them. Regarding the topic of this section, he wrote "The view that movement is identical with the mover is not proper. The view that the mover is different from motionis also not proper."

Note: karika II.18

It remains to be seen, though, what view is proper.


Sections three through six — Factors of Personal Existence: Elements and Passions

Nagarjuna moves from these foundational examinations to an analysis of each of the specific categories delineated by the Abhidharma:
    • the spheres of sense (ayatanas),
    • the factors comprising the individual (skandhas),
    • and the physical elements dharmas).
He begins with an examination of the sense faculty of the eye, its function, and its object. He uses seeing as a paradigm for all of the senses, because an examination of one sense faculty is sufficient to explain the function of all of the senses.

Note: More than this, the faculty of vision was paramount in Indian philosophy. Truths were seen as being self- evident, so much so that the term for a system of thought was darsana, "sight." The Buddha also emphasized the unique significance of sight by telling his followers, not to "believe" him, but to "come and see [for yourself]." Cf. Rahula, 8-9

The theory of perception explained in section three of the karika, ``Examination of the Faculty of the Eye,'' is nothing more than a restatement of the Buddha's teaching of dependent arising. On the one side are the six sense faculties, and on the other are their six objective spheres. When these two come together, sensory perception arises. (The mind is considered the sixth organ of sense. It is not to be confused with consciousness, which infuses all six faculties, not just the mental.) There was little controversy about the senses themselves,

Note: Kalupahana 1992, 164

so what likely inspired this section was a debate regarding the specific functioning of the faculties. Hindu philosophy posited two distinct elements necessary for seeing: the seeing of the object, and the abstract noun "seeing."

Note: ibid., 164

This is analogous to the above-mentioned debate over motion, in which there was a tendency to isolate and make abstract the process of "movement" as separate from the actual instance of moving. There was also a disagreement regarding the functioning of the senses within Buddhism. The older Theravada tradition held that the sensory objects exist outside of and independent of the act of perception. This may not necessarily violate dependent arising, for the sensory object consists only of infinitesimal and momentary atoms and the functioning of the faculty of perception is required to impose order on the atoms and create a perception.

Note: Hiriyanna, 204

While this theory may not be wrong per se, Nagarjuna was still uncomfortable with the substantialism it implied. To clarify exactly what dependent arising says about the function of perception, he used an illustration: perceptions depend on their physical objective sphere "just as the birth of a son is said to be dependent upon the mother and the father."

Note: karika III.7

That is, perception is wholly dependent upon the object perceived for its functioning. Perception as an independent process or entity cannot exist in the abstract, separate from the object perceived.

The other aspect of perception that he felt compelled to examine, after perception and the perceived, was the subject perceiver. Again, the immediately obvious alternative to the Buddha's teaching was the Hindu. The Upanisads asserted an unchanging and eternal agent perceiver, and declared that this eternal soul is the ultimate object of all perceptions. The truest and most primal perception is that of the atman, the soul, being aware of itself. This concept is surely what Nagarjuna had in mind in the second verse of this section when he says that "seeing does not perceive itself, its own form." There must be two separate elements for seeing to arise: the seer and the seen. Yet on the other hand, seeing must in some way perceive itself, for "how can that which does not see itself see others?"

Note: karika III.2

A further confusion lies in the seer's relation to his or her seeing. Like the mover and movement, "a seer does not exist either separated or not separated from seeing."

Note: karika III.6

If the seer exists separate from the action of seeing, then there will be some point at which the seer is not presently seeing, and thus is not yet a "seer." If they are not separated, then there is no one engaging in the activity of seeing, but rather one whose nature it is always to see. This theory can perhaps be asserted metaphysically, but it is never experienced in fact. The way to disentangle the paradox is by not positing either a strict bifurcation between seer and seen, which would preclude their possibility of interacting, or an identity between the two, which would obviate perception as a faculty. The proper description of the relation between the two, i.e. dependent arising, is yet to be explained.
 
 
Section four, ``Examination of the Aggregates,'' discusses the Buddha's insight into the transitoriness of all phenomena. He saw that impermanency requires that there be no permanent entities. Conversely, if there are permanent entities, then these can never be phenomenal, and thus are pure abstractions that are too metaphysical to have any relevance. The apparent permanence of the noumenal individual was explained as a mere contiguity of phenomenal elements. The Buddha analyzed these units of phenomena into two categories: the aggregates of factors that constitute the apparent personality, the skandhas, and the physical elements comprising these aggregates, the dhatus. These two categories, along with the spheres of sense, comprised the base constituents of reality as analyzed and classified by the Abhidharma. Having discussed the senses, Nagarjuna now devotes two sections to an examination of the remaining two categories.

Reacting to the schools that asserted a transcendent and immanent soul, the Buddha analyzed the psychophysical personality into five aggregates to show that there was no permanent soul in the individual and then to explain what does comprise the individual. On the opposite end of the spectrum, he reacted to the materialist theory that it is only matter which is eternal by analyzing the physical elements themselves and exposing their transience. There was no debate within Buddhism about the validity of these theories; the skandhas and the dhatus were accepted by all. However, it appears that there was a tendency to read more into these theories than the Buddha intended.

  • The "Realists" posited some form of a self-nature that resided in the elements,
  • and the "Personalists" asserted that there was some form of a self-hood that transcended but was neither identical with nor different from its component aggregates.
Nagarjuna chose to approach these heretical theories in this section by demonstrating first that it is not possible to think of the aggregates as real. The aggregates into which the Buddha analyzed the individual were material form (the body), sense-contacts, perceptions, psychological tendencies (the characteristics that most evidently distinguish one personality from another), and consciousness. These could be reified by positing a base foundation for each. For example, the foundation for material form would be the elements of earth, air, fire, water, and space, and the foundation of sense-contact, or feeling, would be pleasure, pain, gladness, sadness, or indifference.
Note: Kalupahana 1992, 146

Such a reification, Nagarjuna argued, requires an untenable division between the foundations of an aggregate and the aggregate itself. Any attempt to relate an aggregate and its foundation dissolves into nonsense in exactly the same way that a mover and its movement cannot be related. Consider, for example, feeling and one of its constituents, pleasure. Are they two different things? If so, then they will exist independently, and will lose their dialectic identity. The various perceptions and sensations will not be a foundational constituent for the human category of feeling if feeling is not contingent upon them, and vice versa. Then are they identical? If so, the division between an aggregate and its foundation would become meaningless, for they would then be one and the same. Feeling would be both pleasure and pain always and at the same time. The only relation they could have is one of complete dependence, which is exactly what the Buddha taught. Neither the aggregates nor that which comprises them have any existence on their own: in this example, pleasure does not exist until it is felt, and feeling has no function until there is pleasure.

Note: It may be noted that the paradigm offered by the Buddha is wholly antithetical to that of Platonism: the Platonic ``theory of Forms'' represents an epitome of the worldview Nagarjuna was rejecting. It seems that Nagarjuna's only grievance about the theory of the aggregates was the tendency to seek a substantial reality underlying each aggregate. While the systematization of the categories produced by the Abhidharma was not necessarily wrong, Nagarjuna wanted to ensure that no excessive metaphysical theorizing resulted from it.

 
 
Section five, "Examination of the Physical Elements," is along similar lines. The Buddha spoke of the elements as each having a specific characteristic, e.g. the nature of earth is hardness and the nature of water is fluidity. However, cautions Nagarjuna, this distinction between an element and its characteristic cannot be pressed too far. If the characterized, e.g. earth, exists separately from its characteristic, e.g. hardness, then one is left with two independent and meaningless abstractions: a piece of earth that is not yet associated with hardness, and a piece of hardness that exists only in the potential. "An existent that is without characteristics is nowhere evident," he said. Furthermore, "in the absence of the [existent], there is no occurrence of the characteristic."

Note: karika V.2 and V.4, respectively

The relation of elements and their qualities, if scrutinized closely enough in this manner, produces a rather startling conclusion: "There is neither an existent nor a non- existent, neither the characterized nor the characteristic," nor even any of the elements comprising physical existence!

Note: karika V.7

A statement such as this obviously is subject to many and diverse interpretations, such as the five summarized above.

Note: The reader is reminded that the word ``is'' in ``there is neither an existent nor a non-existent'' is problematic in English translation only. The original reads na bhavo nabhavo, literally ``neither existent nor non-existent.''

 
 
Nagarjuna devotes section six to an ``Examination of Lust and the Lustful One.'' The word used here for ``lust,'' raga, can mean any general feeling of passion or strong interest.

Note: Monier-Williams, 872

(To express their broad meanings, lust and its opposite, hate, will often be translated here as ``passionate attraction and aversion.'')

His purpose here is to show that, like movement and the one who moves, lust and the one who is lustful are interdependent and cannot be ontologically distinguished. There is no such thing as a subject who is a tabula rasa, who is not presently lustful but who either was or will be, for then in what abstract realm could the unmanifest lust possibly exist? Further, neither can lust and the lustful one be one and the same, for then there would be no such thing as the noun "lust" — -there would only be one entity, the lustful one, and speaking of two different things would be a superfluity.

There are two possible significances of this section. The one favored by translator David Kalupahana is that Nagarjuna was here addressing one of the issues that the Buddha said was chiefly to blame in committing the individual to bondage. Greed, hatred, and lust are all instances of the thirst tanha) that binds the individual to the cycle of unpleasant birth-and- death, especially the misguided greed and lust for continued existence.

Note: Rahula, 29

Freedom, nirvana, was defined as the absence of lust, and therefore, Kalupahana seems to say, Nagarjuna demonstrated the independent unreality of lust to facilitate escaping from it and realizing nirvana.

Note: Kalupahana 1986, 40-41 and 153-4

A slightly different significance is hinted at by the placement of this section. It immediately follows an examination of the components of reality and the individual, i.e. the physical elements (dhatus) and the constituent aggregates of the psychophysical individual (skandhas). Nagarjuna has already examined two of the five aggregates, perception in section three and material form in section four. The fourth constituent aggregate of the individual is samskara, mental formations and dispositions. These dispositions include any volitional activity or habitual tendency, good and bad, that creates karma and thus binds one to the cycle of birth-and-death. Dispositions include confidence and conceit, wisdom and ignorance, lust and hatred.

Note: Rahula, 22

Since Nagarjuna examines one of these dispositions, lust, shortly after a discussion of the aggregates as a whole, it is likely that he is using lust as a paradigmatic example of all the dispositions. His intention then would be to demonstrate in yet another way that there is to be found no transcendent Self separate from its psychophysical constituents. That Nagarjuna intended this section to be more comprehensive than an examination of lust only is indicated by this section's concluding verse: "Thus, with or without the lustful one, there is no establishment of lust. Like lust, there is no establishment of anything with or without [accompaniments]."

Note: karika VI.10
(italics mine)

That is, all dispositional constituents of the individual are ultimately dependent. Any real existence of them is illusory, whether the individual exists or not.


Section seven — Cohesion of Disparate Elements (Samskrta)

The basic elements necessary for the manifestation of the physical world, i.e. causal conditions (pratyayas), verbs, the factors of the perceiving individual, and the physical elements have now been briefly examined. It is now possible to examine the way the elements combine to make phenomena. Nagarjuna proceeds to do this in section seven, "The Examination of Composite Things."
Note: The word used here, samskrta, is usually translated as " conditioned." To avoid confusion with "conditions (pratyayas)," pratyaya, it will be clearer to translate samskrta as " composite." (cf. Monier-Williams, 1120)

The Buddha described all composite elements, i.e. all phenomena, as partaking of three characteristics: arising, enduring, and ceasing. Things come to be, remain for a time, and then go away. Nagarjuna accepts these three processes of existence, but cautions against hypostatizing any of them. If a thing were defined by either real arising, real enduring, or real ceasing, then there would be the oddity of the origination of a thing which has no duration or cessation, of something that endures but has no origination or decay, or of a thing that dies but which was never born.

Note: Murti 1960, 192

The obvious way out of the dilemma is to say that a thing merely can be described in terms of one of the three processes, rather than partaking of the nature of one of the three. This response may, at first, seem to be the proper one. For example, a phenomenon can be said to arise, but that does not mean that it partakes of a separate and real thing called "arising." If arising, enduring, and ceasing were real, then they would be discrete entities and thus "not adequate to function as characteristics of the composite [thing]."

Note: karika VII.2

The reason for this is that if they were real and discrete entities, then a phenomenon could obviously not partake of all three at the same time, which would mean that it would be arising at the same time that it was ceasing. Neither could it partake of one after the other, for this would imply that at the time of arising a thing was permanent, i.e. non-arisen, and then becomes temporary between the moments of arising and ceasing, and then suddenly shifts from a state of enduring to the process of decaying. One could never find the precise moment when, for example, endurance gives way to cessation. Infinite regress becomes unavoidable. Each of the three processes would itself have to arise, endure, even if only but for an instant, and then cease. "If arising were to produce this present arising, which arising would again produce that arising of that arising?" Nagarjuna wryly asks.

Note: karika VII.18.

(This is the context of the "wonderfully cryptic" verse quoted on page 40, i.e. "The arising of arising is exclusively the arising of primary arising…" A further elucidation of this, though, would not be proper here. Cf. karika VII.4)

The ineluctable conclusion of a close examination of the three processes is that not one of them exists as real, and so the above response, though seemingly acceptable, also breaks down. "As an illusion, a dream, a [mythical city], so have arising, endurance, and destruction been exemplified." And, further, "with the non-establishment of arising, duration, and destruction, the composite [thing] does not exist."

Note: karika VII.33-34

That is, if the three phases of the process are negated, then the processed thing itself must be illusory. Therefore, even the notion that a thing can be described in terms of one of the three processes must fail, even if the processes themselves are not reified.


Sections eight through eleven — The Ontological Status of the Individual

Having discussed the elements both singly and in combination, Nagarjuna briefly looks at the agent which appears to underlie or precede these phenomena. He does this with the next four sections , in which he first examines
  • the nature of the agent and its action,
  • then the preexistent self,
  • then the relation between the self's existence and its temporal states,
  • and finally the prior and posterior extremes of the self's existence.
There are two primary ways that philosophers have tended to approach the subject of the self:
    • one empirical,
    • the other speculative.
  • The empirical approach is famously expressed by the Cartesian dictum "I think, therefore I am." Nagarjuna analyzes this approach with the example of "I act, therefore I am" in section eight, ``Examination of Action and Actor.'' It could be said that the agent actor must exist, for it is apparent that activity exists. In section two Nagarjuna removed the substantial basis for activity and change, but it is not denied that both are still perceived by the ignorant and the enlightened alike. The crux is what is the proper way to regard, or believe in, this activity and change. It is not possible to say that there is a really existent agent who performs a really existent action. Real existence implies immutability, for if the entity's essence changed then it would no longer be the same entity. However, this immutability would require an impassable dichotomy between the ground of being and the sphere of activity. Neither is it possible to say that the agent who acts is in some abstract way "non-existent." If this were so, then change and activity would be effected without having been existentially caused. Despite the above problems, Nagarjuna does not deny the occurrence of activity. A flat denial of activity would undercut the entire foundation of the Buddha's teachings on morality and, by extension, the Noble Path leading to enlightenment would be lost.
  • Note: karika VIII.5

    The proper relation between agent and action is once again nothing more than dependent arising, for neither of the two can have either a real or an unreal status. "We do not perceive any other way of establishing [them]," he concludes.

    Note: karika VIII.12
     
     

  • The speculative approach to establishing the reality of the agent is logical induction. Nagarjuna examines and refutes this approach in the next section, "Examination of the Prior [Entity]." If there is the fact of perception, then there is the entity of a perceiver, this approach would hold. "Therefore, it is determined that, prior to [perceptions], such an existent is," asserts the opponent.
  • Note: karika IX.1-2

    This could be expressed by slightly rephrasing the Cartesian dictum to "How could I think were there not a thinker?" The immediate problem with this is that such a "prior subject" could be nothing more than a speculative abstraction. If the subject is said to exist prior to perception, then "by what means is it made known?"

    Note: karika IX.3

    There is no way to be aware of or even to posit the existence of a subject prior to and thus intrinsically devoid of its characteristic functioning. Further, if such a prior entity were posited, then perceptions would exist independent of the perceiver, which is absurd. The analysis of perception undertaken above in section three of the karika focused on the impossibility of independence specifically of perceiver and perceiving. This section, though, is slightly different in scope — -it analyzes the impossibility of the subject's existence independent of any of its experiences by virtue of existing prior to them. The consequence of this is broad. "Someone prior to, simultaneous with, or posterior to [perception] is not evident," and therefore neither are the experiences themselves evident. The upshot is that "thoughts of existence and non-existence are also renounced."

    Note: karika IX.11-12

     
     
    Section ten is, prima facie, an examination of one dualism: fire and the fuel which it burns. Actually, though, Nagarjuna was using this example to discuss from yet another angle the issue of the essence and temporal manifestation of the self. One school of Personalism asserted that there is a person who is neither identical with nor different from its constituent aggregates, skandhas. Adherents of this school used the metaphor of fire and fuel to explain their position. Fire is not identical to its fuel, for then that which is burned would be the same as the process of burning. Nor is fire different from fuel, for then they could not be explained in the same terms; for example, that which is burning would not be hot.

    Note: Lamotte, 608

    Notwithstanding the fact that the individual cannot be explained ontologically, the Personalists held, it was still necessary to assert its reality, for otherwise karma could not appertain and rebirth would not occur.

    Note: Kohn, 243

    It was this doctrine which Nagarjuna criticized through his analysis of fire and fuel.

    Nagarjuna agrees that fire and fuel cannot be identical, for then there would be only one entity, and he agrees that they cannot be separate, for then there could be heat and flame but nothing burning. While the Personalists were maintaining that fire and fuel were neither identical nor different, they were still admitting the reality of both. Their agenda would then have been to deconstruct the ontological independence of the two for the sake of arriving at a higher synthesis midway between the two halves of the dualism.

    Note: Kalupahana 1986, 197

    It is difficult to explain what Nagarjuna's position is in this section, for he seems to say two different things. One verse especially makes it unclear what exactly Nagarjuna's stance on the identity/difference was. "If fire is different from fuel it would reach the fuel, just as a woman would reach for a man and a man for a woman," he says.

    Note: karika X.6

    He follows this with a statement that fire and fuel could reach for each other in the same way as do the man and the woman "only if fire and fuel were to exist mutually separated."

    Note: karika X.7

    On the one hand, he denied difference in the first verse of this section by pointing out that if they are different then each would exist on its own, an absurd conclusion. On the other, the fact that woman and man interact is empirically validated and indisputable. One interpretation of this disparity is based on the fact that there are numerous instances in the Mulamadhyamakakarika in which Nagarjuna quotes an opponent's position and refutes it in the next verse. Some commentators have interpreted the first verse of these two as the opponent's wrong view, followed by Nagarjuna's assertion of the correct view.

    Note: Cf. the translation of the karika verses X.8-9 in Frederick Streng, Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967). (It has been claimed that this translation is not by Streng, as claimed, but by J. A. B. van Buitenen. Cf. Kees W. Bolle, review of A History of Buddhist Philosophy, by David J. Kalupahana, in Journal of Oriental Studies (1994, page number unknown). However, since it is Streng's name only listed in Emptiness and cross-references are to Streng, this translation will be referred to here as his.)

    This interpretation would have Nagarjuna say that, while fire and fuel are not the same, they are not really different, either. Man and woman, though, are non-dependent and hence different.

    Another interpretation does not disagree with the above, but lends it a slightly different character. One could interpret both verses as Nagarjuna's, from which it would follow that he is recognizing there to be different types of complementary relationships. While on the one hand fire and fuel are mutually dependent for their very definition, on the other the human genders are observed to be complementary but separate. This would declare there to exist dualisms the individual elements of which are dependently arisen, not contingent on the other half of the pair, but merely contingent upon internal factors. The perception and conceptual differentiation of each half of the duality would of course be dependent on the other half — -one could not define "woman" without defining "man" — -but the ontic status of the entity would not be dependent on the other half. While it is not certain which of the above two interpretations is the better, an example Nagarjuna used in section six, i.e. that of lust and the lustful one, may provide a clue. There, he made it clear that, though lust and the lustful one are differentiable, neither can exist without the other. Not only are their identities mutually contingent, but further they cannot be found in separate temporal or spatial locations. Likewise, fire and fuel are ultimately inseparable. Man and woman, though, are obviously separate. If nothing else, the two genders can be seen to exist when in separate spatial locations, when not "reaching for" each other. Nagarjuna is thus demonstrating that complementary relationships can take different forms, which relationships allow varying degrees of independence of each half of the pair.
     
     
    Section eleven, "Examination of the Prior and Posterior Extremities," is devoted to an address of one last element of the belief in the soul, namely the eternalism it implies. The Buddha spurned discussions of etiology and teleology both because the only important things to worry about are those in the present, and also because ultimate beginnings and ends can only be speculative. Nagarjuna here examines the meaning and relevance of the latter, the ultimate prior and posterior ends. The Buddha clearly stated that the ultimate ends of the universe are not evident and hence inconceivable.

    Note: Kalupahana 1986, 206

    Furthermore, it is not even appropriate to speak of the ultimate ends of an individual life-span, for they cannot be "real." If birth were real, then three undesirable options would arise. If birth preceded the entity of death, then there would be a birth without old age and death, and all arisen things would be immortal. If death is inherent in birth, then something will be dying at the same moment it is being born. Finally, if it is flatly stated that birth and death are separate, then no born things will die and the things that die will never have been born. The only correct way to view birth-and-death is that, if something is born, then it will die. This is not merely a slightly different way to phrase the relationship between the two, but rather a whole different way of viewing the nature of birth and death: they do not exist on their own, and therefore one can in no way speak of origins or ends. Of effect and cause, characterized and characteristic, "of the entire life process as well as of all existents, the prior [and posterior] ends [are] not evident."

    Note: karika XI.7-8.

    (The addendum "[and posterior]" is mine. It was left out of the sentence most likely only to preserve the meter, so its inclusion is justified.)


    Sections twelve and thirteen — Suffering and its Cause

    Nagarjuna has now analyzed almost all of the elements into which the Abhidharma subdivided reality. Only one percept has not yet been mentioned. This is duhkha, the all-encompassing universal suffering. The Buddha spoke of "three marks of existence": impermanence, soullessness, and suffering. Impermanence and soullessness are descriptions of the ontological status of phenomena, and suffering is the consequence of these for the individual. The next two sections of the karika discuss, first, the nature and origin of suffering itself and second, the dispositions which cause all phenomena to be experienced as suffering.

    Buddhism does not see duhkha as just a regrettable fact of life that must be accepted. This would be simple pessimism. Since Buddhism is preeminently a soteriology, the fact of suffering is exploited to spur the unhappy individual on to the proper goal of nirvana.

    Note: Santina, 31-33

    The Buddha was very clear that one must have a proper understanding of suffering and its origin if one is to utilize this understanding and ultimately escape from suffering. Nagarjuna examined all the possibilities of the cause of suffering, namely self-causation, other-causation, both, or neither, and found that none were tenable. The result of considering suffering to be self-caused would be that one person acts in a way that causes suffering, and then this same person experiences the suffering. This would mean that the same person existed in at least two separate moments, which would lead to the belief in eternalism. If suffering is considered to be caused by another, then there would not be a firm connection between an act and its consequences. This could lead to a denial of moral responsibility. A further objection to both of the above is that any distinction between the agent and the suffering caused by the agent's act would allow for there to be a person existing separate from suffering. Who is this person who can exist unsullied by duhkha? asks Nagarjuna.

    Note: karika XII.4,6

    Finally, if caused by both, then the above difficulties are just compounded, and if caused by neither, then it would be deterministic and nirvana forever unattainable. When a disciple asked the Buddha if suffering is self-caused or is caused by another, the Buddha did not answer "yes" or "no" to either question. He merely remarked, in answer to each, "one should not put it that way."

    Note: Kalupahana 1986, 45

    To preclude the false and harmful beliefs mentioned above, the fact of suffering was neither explained nor explained away. The only important thing is its eradication, which is indirectly the subject of the next section.

    Nagarjuna examined briefly in section six the nature of passions like lust and hatred, or passionate attraction and aversion, and demonstrated that they are dependent upon the one who grasps. This proves that the constraining passions are ultimately illusory and can have no real claim on the one who understands them. An understanding of this dependence paves the way for the possibility of freeing oneself from the passions and discovering nirvana. He examines the nature of dispositions once again in section thirteen, "Examination of Dispositions," but with a different emphasis. Whereas in the earlier section he focused on the dependence of the dispositions on the subject, here he explains in greater detail why the dispositions can have no independent reality.

    Note: The importance of this section is hinted at by the difficulty the Buddhist tradition has had in naming it. Most interpreters have entitled it "Samskara-pariksa," the analysis of "Dispositions" (Kalupahana) or "Conditioned Elements" (Streng), even though the term samskara appears in the chapter only once. The Tibetan texts gave it the title "Tattva-pariksa," analysis of "Truth," though the term tattva does not appear in the chapter once. Sprung's title of "The Absence of Being in Things" may be the most accurate, for the terms "sunya" or "sunyata" appear in half the verses. However, since this debate is too involved for the context at hand, Kalupahana's translation is accepted here.

    This section, at eight verses in length, is one of the shortest in the karika. However, it is one of the most important examinations of the entire treatise. The dispositions have a unique place in the Buddha's ontology, for they hold a very influential place in his two formulations of reality, i.e. dependent arising and the aggregates of personal existence skandhas). As the second link in the chain of dependent arising, dispositions are that which, conditioned by ignorance, bring the world into existence. In the five categories comprising the individual, dispositions both shape the personality and condition rebirth.

    In placing this discussion immediately after the one of suffering, Nagarjuna apparently had in mind the Buddha's "three marks of existence," impermanence, suffering, and soullessness. The Buddha's exact wording here is important. He did not indiscriminately ascribe these marks to all aspects of existence. Specifically, he said "All conditioned things are impermanent. All conditioned things are suffering. All phenomena are soulless."

    Note: Kalupahana 1986, 218

    An implication of this is, not that conditioned things are not soulless, but that not all phenomena are suffering.

    Note: Neither may this be interpreted to mean that phenomenal things are permanent. Admittedly, this is confusing. Likely the Buddha just used the formulation that "all phenomena are soulless" to be more comprehensive — - had he said "all conditioned things are soulless," one would not be prevented from erroneously seeking a soul residing outside of the conditioned things. cf. Rahula, 57-58.

    If the Buddha were to have said that all phenomena are suffering, he would have been promoting an unreserved pessimism, for there is no escaping phenomena while alive. By saying that all conditioned things are suffering, he was showing a way to escape from suffering while in this life. A person may be a part of the phenomenal world but not regard it in a way that creates suffering, i.e. not seek reality in conditioned things. One needs only an understanding of this unreal nature of things, which will allow one to give up the grasping thirst for existence and the passions inspired by experience. This, in turn, will pacify the dispositions, and most suffering will be avoided.

    Note: Etymology provides an intriguing coincidence: the root of the English word "passion" is the Latin pati, "to suffer."

    The cause of all of this self-entrapment is a lack of proper understanding. "The dispositions depend on ignorance," the Buddha said, and "the entire mass of suffering thus comes into existence."

    Note: Ramana, 111

    The key that Nagarjuna holds to all of this is that he can clarify the nature of the passions and dispositions, which will help to dispel the ignorance which causes duhkha.

    The aggregate of dispositions is of crucial importance, for it is this aggregate which, more than any of the other four, flavors the character of the whole bundle. In terms of the human individual, dispositions are most directly responsible for giving shape and uniqueness to the personality. The importance of this aggregate and the frequency of  Nagarjuna's reference to it warrants further elucidation of its nature. The first three aggregates provide for the material world, sensations of it, and the resultant cognizing of sensation called perception. For example, the first aggregate may be an object, the second aggregate senses the light reflecting from the object and reports the frequency of the light, and the third aggregate identifies that frequency as "blue." The fourth aggregate is a mix of attitudes, habits, emotions, passions, and thoughts which cause the person to react to this perception, e.g. ``I like blue.''

    This is also the place where, if one is not careful, such preferences and attitudes can lead to grasping. These dispositions are what turn an otherwise passive receiver of perceptions into a conceptualizing and acting individual. These four all provide first an awareness of the external world and then reactions to it. The fifth and final aggregate, consciousness, is not a sort of higher result arising from the first four, for the internal mental life is found in the fourth aggregate. Rather, consciousness is a term for the all-pervading awareness which makes possible sensations, perceptions, and dispositions.

    A quote from the philosopher William James, while written in reference to a different tradition, is nonetheless one of the clearest and most cogent expressions of the function and importance of the dispositions this author has yet found.

      "Conceive yourself, if possible, suddenly stripped of all the emotion with which your world now inspires you, and try to imagine it as it exists, purely by itself, without your favorable or unfavorable, hopeful or apprehensive comment. It will be almost impossible for you to realize such a condition of negativity and deadness. No one portion of the universe would then have any importance beyond another; and the whole collection of its things and series of its events would be without significance, character, expression, or perspective."
    Note: William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: The Modern Library, 1929), 147 (italics in original)
     The dispositions are thus vital if the person is to act in and react to the world, and action and reaction are themselves vital if one is to follow the Eightfold Path. On the other hand, the dispositions can also be the chief cause of grasping and will bind one to the cycle of suffering if one is not careful. It is dispositions which constitute preferences, but it is these preferences which can easily become passionate attractions and aversions. As Kalupahana puts it, "we are, therefore, in a double-bind." We need the dispositions in order to live, but they can also contribute most to our suffering.
    Note: Kalupahana 1986, 48

    The key is to use dispositional preferences without being used by them. Nagarjuna's section here offers explanations and guidance about how one is to do this.

    To help to pacify, or break free from the clutch of the dispositions, Nagarjuna introduces here his famous concept of emptiness, sunyata.

    Note: Emptiness was first mentioned at the end of his fourth section. In that context, however, it was mentioned for a different reason and may have even had a different meaning. Cf. pp. 148f.

    First, he repeats his negation of the possibility of real change. "Neither change of something in itself nor of something different is proper. The youth does not age nor does an aged person age."

    Note: karika XIII.5

    An entity cannot both have a real identity and experience a change. If, in the example, the person were youthful, then he or she would partake of no agedness and thus could not remain a youth and still age. If the person were aged, then it would be ludicrous to say that he or she ages. This would be tantamount to saying, for example, that a red thing turns red: real change would not have occurred. The solution is to say that all existent things have no self-nature, svabhava. Substances do not have attributes — -they are "empty." Nagarjuna seems to feel that removing the possibility of holding false beliefs is the best way to preclude dispositional grasping and the suffering concomitant with it. If one understands that all things are empty, then ignorance will be removed, the dispositions will lose their foundation, and "the entire mass of suffering" will go out of existence.


    Sections fourteen and fifteen — Identity/Difference: Self-nature vs. Association of Distinct Elements

    Nagarjuna has devoted the majority of the first thirteen sections to examinations of each of the elements into which the Abhidharma classified reality and some of the causal and dependence relations between these elements. The problems he has with most of these elements boil down to the fact that they cannot be considered in isolation. When any element is seen as being in some way independent, logical paradoxes result. In section fifteen he addresses the root cause of these problematic theories, which problem is the assertion of self-nature, svabhava. Before tackling this pivotal issue, though, there was one last point he wanted to clarify.

    Nagarjuna has amply demonstrated that one cannot conceive of things in isolation, because the identity which makes each a separate and distinguishable "thing" depends wholly on its relation to other things. What he has not addressed as fully as he would like is the relation itself. This he does in section fourteen, "Examination of Association." If one asserts that phenomena consist of separate yet interacting elements, then one is left with the problem of how these elements combine, or associate, to produce the phenomena. There is no way for atomistic and fully independent things to associate, for a truly independent thing is non-contingent, incapable of being influenced, and thus not subject to association. Further, if things are distinguishable, then their identity can be defined in isolation. Yet the concept of difference requires dependence. "Different things are dependent upon different things," Nagarjuna says.

    Note: karika XIV.5

    To say that things are different is to say that they are separate. But, "without a second different thing, one different thing can not exist as a different thing."

    Note: karika XIV.7, trans. Streng (italics mine)

    Since any attempt to differentiate elements or phenomena reduces to absurdity, there can be no such thing as association of these elements. "Neither the associating nor the associated nor even the agent of association is evident."

    Note: karika XIV.8

    The English language affords an analogy here. The etymology of both ``distinguish'' and ``distinction'' is the Latin distinguere, ``to separate.'' As reality is ultimately whole, by whatever definition, separations have only phenomenal validity. The consequence of this is that there can be no way to declare a phenomenon to be composed of separate but combined elements.

    One of the aspects of the Buddha's teachings about which the Buddha was most adamant is also one that proved to be the most unpalatable both to subsequent Buddhists and to non-Buddhists alike. This is the assertion that there is no real soul to be found in the universe. The Buddha was very explicit regarding the doctrine of soullessness :

      "Whether Buddhas arise, O priests, or whether Buddhas do not arise, it remains a fact and the fixed and necessary constitution of being, that all its elements are lacking in an ego (atman).
    Note: Following Freud, there is a tendency to differentiate between the "ego" and the "soul," the ego being the personality and the soul being the animating principle. Relating these varying shades of meaning to the Buddha's skandha-theory would be fascinating, but beyond the scope of this paper. The terms "ego," "self," "soul," and "atman" will be used interchangeably here.
    (Whether ``self-nature'' is also a synonym is precisely the point Nagarjuna discusses.) This fact a Buddha discovers and masters… and announces, teaches, publishes, proclaims, discloses, minutely explains and makes clear, that all the elements of being are lacking in an ego."
    Note: Anguttara-nikaya- sutta, quoted in Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles H. Moore, eds., A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 274

    Notwithstanding, the tendency to believe in the soul seems to have been almost ineradicable, for it arose again and again in a variety of forms. The Theravada, for example, saw every element as being a real entity with a self-nature, svabhava.

    Note: Lamotte, 602

    While not exactly a form of atman, self-nature was nonetheless not so very different. Even more radical, certain of the Abhidharma commentaries explicitly defined an element in terms of its self-nature, declaring that it is precisely this permanent factor which gives an element its distinguishing identity.

    Note: Warder, 323

    Self-nature was the great bugaboo of metaphysical speculation, Nagarjuna felt, for it was the assertion of self- nature that made incomprehensible the relations between substance and attribute, subject and object, identity and difference. Thus, the "Examination of Self-nature," though short, is of supreme importance. While svabhava and atman are not exactly the same thing, as theories they faced the same problems. Self-nature, for Nagarjuna, had to be seen as a permanent and substantial identity for, if it were only temporarily the identity of a thing, then it would not truly be that thing's identity. However, this self-nature would have to be uncreated, neither caused nor dependent upon causal conditions (pratyayas). "How could there be a self- nature that is made?" he asks.

    Note: karika XV.2

    That is, if it were not uncreated then it would be artificial, and an artificial substance is inconsistent with the very definition of substance.

    Note: Kalupahana 1992, 165

    If there is no self- nature, then neither can there be its dialectical component, other-nature (parabhava), Nagarjuna continues, and thus conceptions based on difference and relation would be nullified.

    Another significant corollary of svabhava is that it negates the very possibility of existence itself. This can be illuminated by etymology. Sva - bhava literally means "self - existence," and para - bhava literally means "other - existence." Without sva - bhava and para - bhava, Nagarjuna says, whence can there be existence itself, bhava? The reason for this is that existence, bhava, "is established only when there is svabhava or parabhava."

    Note: karika XV.4

    Further, "when the existent is not established, the non-existent is also not established," for the non-existent is nothing more than the change of the existent.

    Note: karika XV. 5

    The issue that Nagarjuna is addressing so doggedly is not simply metaphysical eristics. The consequences for Buddhism are profound, for "those who perceive self-nature as well as other- nature, existence as well as non-existence, they do not perceive the truth embodied in the Buddha's message."

    Note: karika XV.6

    The Buddha explicitly denied both extremes because, as a belief system, each was injurious for the individual seeking a release from suffering. To say that something exists or has self-nature "implies grasping after eternalism." To say that something does not exist now but once did, or exists now but will not always exist, "implies the philosophy of annihilationism." Therefore, "a discerning person should not rely upon either existence or non-existence."

    Note: karika XV.10-11

    These two extremes are each deleterious to the moral life: annihilationism because it undercuts responsibility, and eternalism because a firm belief in the self leads to a preoccupation with pleasure.

    Note: Lamotte, 50


    Sections sixteen and seventeen — Bondage and its Cause

    The overarching purpose of Indian philosophy is the attainment of freedom.
    "Salvation" in Western thought tends to mean "the acquisition of holiness" which is provided by God.
    Note: Cf. Ninian Smart, The Philosophy of Religion (New York: Random House, 1970), 104

    Salvation is the deliverance from evil and the bestowal of eternal life. "Freedom" for the Indian mind, however, is a little different. It is a release from delusion and suffering which, while perhaps assisted through God's guidance, is nonetheless wholly self-attained.

    Note: T.R.V. Murti, "The Individual in Indian Religious Thought," in Charles A. Moore, ed., The Indian Mind (Honolulu: The University of Hawaii Press, 1967), 328

    That which caused the individual to be bound to the phenomenal world is, ultimately, ignorance. The lack of spiritual understanding (jnana) leads to volitional action, or karma, and the "fruits" of such action. These two elements, the action and its result, constitute the law of universal cause-and-effect. In order to attain liberation from the unpleasant cycle of birth-and-death, the Buddha taught, one must disassociate oneself from volitional action. This is done, not by refraining from volitional action, which would not be possible, but by refraining from believing that there is a real self which does real acts. The insight that there is no self is the antidote for ignorance. This understanding allows one to abandon the dispositions, graspings, and passions which caused one to be bound to the karmic cycle of birth- and-death in the first place. Nagarjuna now examines these two interrelated concepts, bondage and its cause, karma.

    All of the major Indian religious systems — - Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism — -accepted the reality of karma and its corollary, rebirth.

    Note: Charles A. Moore, "The Comprehensive Indian Mind," in ibid., 13

    All acts were necessarily followed by their fruits. If the fruit of an act had not as yet become manifest by the time of the individual's death, then that individual would be forced to return to existence in another life, again and again, until the fruits of all actions had materialized.

    Note: One must not be left with the impression that the systems were in agreement on the nature and function of karmic volition.

    There have been, quite literally, as many interpretations of karma as there were schools of Indian philosophy. This is technically referred to as transmigration. The obvious difficulty that the Buddhist faced was in reconciling the fact of bondage and its conjunct, transmigration, with the Buddha's teaching that there is no self. This is the problem that is Nagarjuna's major concern in section sixteen, ``Examination of Bondage and Release.'' "It may be assumed that a person transmigrates," he agrees. Yet, he has demonstrated in the previous sections that there is no person-hood, no self, to be found in any of the elements of existence. "Who then will transmigrate?"

    Note: karika XVI.2

    The dilemma is, once again, found to be caused by a "Personalist" misunderstanding of the theory of the aggregates (skandhas). The dispositions, as the primary embodiment of the forces of grasping and greedy passions, are also the chief forces causing rebirth. The erroneous tendency was to posit a substantial self-nature in these dispositions. The popular belief, Nagarjuna explains, was that only a real entity with real soul can be bound to phenomenal existence and transmigrate. This, however, is not possible; as explained above, there can be no self- nature in the dispositions. If there were an entity with a permanent nature, then it could not transmigrate. Transmigration, Kalupahana points out, "implies moving from one position to another, disappearing in one place and appearing in another."

    Note: Kalupahana 1986, 54

    The notion of permanence holds that an entity is always present, and so there is no question of its ceasing and arising. Neither can an entity without an enduring self-nature transmigrate, for, if the entity is truly temporary, then it will completely cease, and no discussion of its continuance, either from one moment to the next or from one life to the next, is appropriate. This method of analysis, Nagarjuna says, applies not just to one factor of the individual, but to the sentient being as a whole. It cannot transmigrate whether it has or does not have a self-nature, and therefore it can experience neither bondage nor release from bondage. If one thinks in terms of self- nature, then the inevitable conclusion is that "a sentient being, like [dispositions], is neither bound nor released. "

    Note: karika XVI.5

    Nagarjuna does not explicitly state in this section what is the proper way to view the individual, its state of bondage, and the nature of release. It is to be understood, though, and it will become clearer later, that the way out of the impasse is to forego thoughts of substantialism. The Buddha's theory of the aggregates, as explained above, manages to explain both what constitutes the belief in an individual and how that belief could come to be without ever saying that there actually is a real individual. Bondage and freedom are to be understood in the same way: the factors that constitute the individual arise interdependently and continuity consists, not in direct causation, but in causal influence. This chain of arising is not broken by the event of a physical death. Death is little more than the change of one of the aggregates, material form; the chain of the other aggregates, and hence the appearance of self-hood, continues unaffected as long as ignorant belief in the self remains.

    A reading of section seventeen, "Examination of the Fruit of Action," indicates that the tendency of substantialist thinking extended to karma in the same way that it did to the transmigrating self. If the self transmigrates, the above argument held, then it must have a perduring essence. Likewise, if the fruits of an act necessarily follow the act, then the act must itself, in some way, also perdure. Even to say that the act disappears and only its influence remains is still to say that there is something remaining, asserted the opponent. Such a reification of karma ultimately contradicts anatman, the Buddha's declaration that nothing has a substantial existence. Yet it was of paramount importance to Buddhism to affirm that there is karma and that its effects are inescapable, for a denial of this would destroy the justification for morality. The Buddha's own morality stemmed from his insight into anatman, soullessness, which by definition results in selflessness. This selflessness awakened him to the plight of the suffering world, leading him to teach "for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world."

    Note: Rahula, 46

    One who does not have this insight into soullessness may need an incentive to act compassionately, an incentive which the doctrine of karma provides. There was thus a need to affirm, in some way, the reality of karma.

    The Buddha stressed the inescapability of karma by saying that its results "do not perish even after hundreds of millions of aeons. Reaching the harmony of conditions pratyayas) and the appropriate time, they produce consequences for human beings."

    Note: Kalupahana 1986, 250

    Nagarjuna explained this with an analogy that is cryptic at best. "Like an imperishable promissory note," he said, "so is debt as well as action. It is fourfold in terms of realms and indeterminate in terms of primal nature."

    Note: karika XVII.14

    The meaning of this seems to be that karma does not have a substantial nature, just as borrowed money is not real. Karma does effect change, and borrowed money can be used to buy things. However, borrowed money is not really one's own, and at a certain time it and/or whatever was purchased with it must be returned. Similarly, the fruits of an action must materialize, following which both the act and its fruit disappear. Although the process of karma is evident, the fact that an effect and its cause arise only in mutual dependence means that neither is truly real. They are "indeterminate in terms of primal nature." That karma is "fourfold in terms of realms" means that all spheres of existence are ruled by its effects: "there is no place on earth where a person can be released from his evil actions," said the Buddha.

    Note: Dhammapada, quoted in Kalupahana 1986, 54 (paraphrased)

    Nagarjuna concludes the section by stressing once again that neither the agent nor his or her act is real. An action cannot be created either from conditions (pratyayas) or from non-conditions for the reasons discussed in section one: if created from causes, then it would depend on those causes and ultimately not be separate from them. If created by non-conditions (pratyayas), then it would have appeared indeterminately and the universe would be characterized by caprice. Since the action is thereby produced neither by a causal agent nor by no agent, then the agent who would otherwise be defined in terms of that action does not exist. And, "if both action and agent are non-existent, where could there be the fruit born of action? When there is no fruit, where can there be an experiencer?"

    Note: karika XVII.30

    It is necessary to uphold the moral path by affirming the process of karma, but declaring there to be a permanent nature residing therein is equally undesirable. Such a theory, Nagarjuna demonstrated, is logically indefensible. Nagarjuna reconciles these difficulties by closing this section with an analogy. Imagine that a person, through the use of magical powers, creates a golem, an artificial human, and that this creature in turn creates its own golem. "In the same way, an agent is like a created form and his action is like his creation. It is like the created form created by another who is created."

    Note: karika XVII.31-32

    Dependent on each other, and within the sphere of relative existence, agents and their action are equally real and must be treated accordingly. From the once-removed standpoint of the enlightened being, neither is real. Bondage and karma are self-perpetuating, and the way to become free is to relinquish the belief in the permanent soul and thereby uproot both.


    Section eighteen — Self-hood and its Consequences

    Nagarjuna apparently felt that he had not yet explained fully the way in which belief in a permanent individual leads to bondage. (The reader may feel the same.) He therefore addresses this issue more directly in section eighteen, "Examination of Self." This section, though short and though ostensibly an examination of this one particular topic, is actually one of the densest and weightiest in the entire work. Nagarjuna here mentions in passing certain issues of such far-reaching import that they elucidate the entire scope and purpose of this thought. Specifically, after discussing the connection between self-theories and bondage, he mentions the manner in which the sphere of thought and its conceptualizing activity evoke the entirety of reality, then he alludes to the nature of this reality (tathata) and the characteristics of final truth. The significance of these issues as relevant to the immediate topic of the section will be explained, but a fuller discussion of their broad import will have to wait.

    The untenability of the concept of a permanent soul, atman, has already been addressed, but Nagarjuna now sums up once again and in a slightly different way the reasons for rejecting this belief. The self is neither identical with nor different from its constituent aggregates. If it were identical, then it would, like they, partake of arising and ceasing and thus not be permanent. If it were different from the aggregates, then it could not have the same characteristics of them; e.g. it could not have the potential for perception or the quality of consciousness. A consequence of the insubstantiality of the self Nagarjuna has not previously mentioned is the impossibility of it having possessions. "In the absence of the self, how can there be something that belongs to the self?" Since the self can have neither characteristics nor possessions, "one abstains from creating the notions of "mine" and "I."

    Note: karika XVIII.2

    The import of this is that it is "grasping" based on this possessiveness which binds one to repeated existence. Contact with the perceived world, if it is believed to have a real existence, leads to a desire for pleasant sensations and an aversion from unpleasant ones. Both are forms of grasping. If, on the other hand, the world is believed to be founded on nonexistence, then, the Buddha taught, yet another form of grasping results: one fears the supposed nihility of nonexistence and clings even more strongly to the cycle of repeated births. All of these forms of greedy clinging are rooted in the belief that there is a permanent soul which can possess things: possession leads to obsession. The teaching of soullessness counteracts these self-created fetters, for, by definition, the theory of no-self negates self-ish-ness. "When views pertaining to 'mine' and 'I'… have waned, then grasping comes to cease. With the waning of that [grasping], there is waning of birth."

    Note: karika XVIII.4

    A variety of unwholesome actions and conceptions result from a firm belief in the self, including grasping and repulsion, passionate attractions and aversions, selfishness and pride, hedonism and excessive asceticism. These are all referred to as defilements, and it is these which occasion rebirth. When soullessness is realized, explains Nagarjuna, the defilements wane and freedom is attained.

    Having demonstrated the soteriological importance of abandoning belief in the soul, Nagarjuna now rushes to forestall the antipodal error, namely an emphasis on the lack of soul. To interpret the Buddha as teaching the non- existence of the self is as bad as the tendency to reify self-ish-ness in the first place, for nihilism and pessimism would result. Thus, while "the Buddhas have made known the conception of self and taught the doctrine of no-self," Nagarjuna says, "they have not spoken of something as the self or as the non-self."

    Note: karika XVIII.6

    That is, Buddhism denies both atman and anatman, but it does not say that there is some "thing" which can be described as either having or lacking atman. The remaining verses of this section seem to be cautionary statements the intent of which is to prevent one from clinging to anatman as a theory. The teaching of soullessness is a dialectical device used to counteract the tendency to believe in the soul, nothing more. If one were to assert that the identity of the universe is anatman, then the Buddha would have to counteract this by saying that that, too, is erroneous. The theory of no-soul is not a real characteristic of existent things. It is no more than a way to obviate the reifying theories, dispositions, and graspings which cause suffering and lead to rebirth.

    Nagarjuna follows this examination with four verses which deal with the nature of truth, essentially declaring it to be undefinable.

    Note: (karika XVIII.8-11)

    These verses do not immediately seem to have any relevance to the issue at hand, namely the nature of the self. Kalupahana interprets them in a questionable way. "Up to this point [Nagarjuna] was discussing an embodied self, a self associated with a psychophysical personality," says Kalupahana. The verses that follow, therefore, "are intended to explain the Buddha's view regarding the nature of a person when he attains [liberation]."

    Note: Kalupahana 1986, 57

    This interpretation is problematic. The word "self" is not used even once in the entire second half of the section, and the only hint that Nagarjuna could possibly be referring to the posthumous reality is that in one verse he uses the word tathya, "such" or "thus." This is a word with many significations. One of the uses of tathya is to refer to the nature of the individual who has achieved nirvana, the Tathagata. He or she does not have the illusion of partaking of any existential qualities and thus can only be referred to as "thus." This is apparently what Kalupahana had in mind: it is the use of tathya in this verse that leads him to interpret the entire second half of the section as a discussion of posthumous reality.

    Note: ibid., 58

    These verses describe truth, of whatever kind, as encompassing four possibilities: something is such (tathya), is not such, is both such and not such, and is neither such and not such. "Such is the Buddha's admonition."

    Note: karika XVIII.8

    Nagarjuna follows this verse with two verses that describe truth as having neither a single meaning or a variety of meanings, and a repeated admonition that dependently-arisen things are neither identical nor different, neither annihilated nor eternal.

    Note: karika XVIII.9-11

    An alternate and perhaps more defensible interpretation of the remainder of this section is that Nagarjuna is emphasizing his initial point. The self is neither real nor non-real and the Buddha's purpose in teaching anatman was wholly and simply pragmatic. The doctrine of soullessness is not to be understood as an independent and real truth, Nagarjuna is saying here, for "everything is such, not such, both such and not such, and neither such and not such."

    Note: karika XVIII.8


    Sections nineteen through twenty-one — Associative Composition of and Occurrence of Phenomena in Time

    Nagarjuna next offers a brief look at three qualities of the apparent world. These three are time, the harmony existing between the elements constituting a phenomenon, and the occurrence and dissolution of such composite phenomena. His primary intention here is to demonstrate that, since the composite factors are, as proven above, devoid of self-nature, so must the things composed of them be devoid of real existence. Reductionism and atomism cannot account for the real production of a real world, he says. A brief aside is necessary to introduce and explain the background of this particular debate.

    The Buddha, as explained above, said that the world can be seen in one way as being composed of elements (dharmas), spheres of sense and sense objects (ayatanas), and the psychophysical aggregates (skandhas). The Abhidharma refined these analyses by enumerating, classifying, and relating these various constituent factors, all in the hope of achieving a world-description that managed to be comprehensive without recourse to soul theories. All physical and psychological phenomena were explained as being composed of discrete and separate elements, the mutual arising and continuity of which gives the illusion that there exist lasting identities, such as personhood. A felicitous analogy is that of the motion picture. A film is composed of static and separate photographs which individually have no capability of conveying motion or change. However, when these photographs flash, one by one, in contiguous succession, an illusion appears. The viewer sees a lasting and unbroken continuity. A film thereby creates an illusion of an uninterrupted process, the appearance of a real identity that is nowhere to be found in the individual elements comprising the apparent process. Such, held the Abhidharma theories, is the nature of reality. All things, events, and processes consist of nothing more than discrete, irreducible atomistic elements. These are referred to as "moments" ksana). The Buddha did not disagree with such reductionism, for he taught it. However, he in no way said that these moments are themselves real. Nagarjuna demonstrates in the next section, "Examination of Time," that it is in such reification of atomism that problems arise. Time must, to be perceived, be divided into past, present, and future. If there were not this division, then one would have no referents by which to perceive time. However, one cannot say that these three divisions exist as such. For example, the present and the future depend on the past for their determination. Yet, if they exist contingent upon the past, "then the present and the future would be in the past time."

    Note: karika XIX.1

    If the thing called "present" and the thing called "future" did not exist at the same time as the thing called "past," then they could not relate to it. For example, the future could only come after some thing, it cannot just be "after" in an abstract sense. If the past no longer exists, though, then where is the thing the future is coming "after?" The things would have to exist contemporaneously to relate, for there can be no relation between two things if one of them does not yet exist or no longer exists. It is obvious, however, that the present and the future do not exist in the past, for this would oppose their very definitions. But, Nagarjuna continues, "if the present and the future were not to exist [in the past], how could the present and the future be contingent upon it?"

    Note: karika XIX.2

    Combining these two statements, one is left with the following argument: 1) The present and the future must exist in the past for their relation and, thus, their reality to be upheld. 2) The present and the future do not exist in the past. 3) Therefore, the present and the future do not exist. 4) Consequently, all of the divisions of temporality are illusory.

    One may object that there is another way to view temporality that does not depend on such irreducible momentariness. Time could be said to exist as a concomitant of processes, not discrete events.

    Note: Murti 1960, 201

    This would obviate such an extreme slicing of temporality into separate moments. However, time is not evident either as a static moment or as a dynamic process. "A non-static time is not observed. A static time is not observed."

    Note: karika XIX.5

    Ultimately, processes are no more real than their component parts, but this is not what Nagarjuna chooses to emphasize here.

    Note: It has been stated that Buddhism shifted the emphasis from Being to Becoming, from the static moment to the dynamic process. (cf. pp. 47 and 83)

    This is true from a philosophical (samvrti) standpoint. From the standpoint of ultimate truth (paramartha), though, both are concepts that have no final validity. What he calls attention to here is that neither static nor dynamic time is observed. Nagarjuna does not explain why neither is possible, but there is one probable explanation. The act of perception is not instantaneous — -it, too, is dependent upon temporality. The awareness of an object or event is always separated, even if by the most infinitesimal amount, from the perception of the thing, which perception is in turn separated from the thing itself. This is so because, the Buddha taught, the perceiver and that which he or she perceives do not form a unified gestalt. The Buddha's theory of the five aggregates which comprise the person describes the process by which awareness of the world takes place. There is a physical (or sensory or conceptual) object, this object is sensed, this sensation is then classified and made cognizable through the separate process of perception, this perception is colored by dispositions, and finally consciousness forms a thought of the object. The thing of which the perceiver is aware is thus always in the immediate past. (If nothing else, it takes a span of time for light to travel from the visible object to the eye.) Hence, time cannot be observed, but only extrapolated.

    The nature of temporality is the primary focus of this section, but Nagarjuna mentions, in passing, the applicability of the logical method used here to all concepts of relation. "Following the same method, …related concepts such as the highest, the lowest, and the middle, and also identity, etc. should be characterized."

    Note: karika XIX.4

    (The wording of "identity, etc." is necessary for preservation of meter in the verse. What is meant is the distinguishing of identity, difference, both, or neither.) The meaning here is that in all relations of quality involving distinct elements, one cannot attribute the quality to any element individually. For example, a person's "tallness" cannot be part of his or her identity. He or she is only tall in relation to one who is shorter.

    The tendency to distinguish the elements that constitute reality and to define them in isolation led to another difficulty, namely the necessity to posit another type of thing called "harmony." This Nagarjuna addresses in section twenty, ``Examination of Harmony.'' The word translated here as "harmony," samagri, also carries the meaning of totality, especially as in the complete collection or assemblage of materials used together to make an object.

    Note: cf. Monier- Williams, 1204

    An example is the visual perception of an object. In such a perception, the physical object, the sensation and perception of it, and the eye all come together to produce an awareness of visible form. The Buddha taught that an event like this is based on the dependent arising of all the elements which arise together and thereby produce visual perception. "Harmony" is here a description for their mutual dependence. The Abhidharma reification of the elements, however, required that one describe the coming together of such discrete elements as a separate thing, a unique whole not found in the parts. This view made harmony an attribute, not just a description; the metaphysical description of elements as discrete requires that the harmony between them become a separate entity itself.

    Note: Kalupahana 1986, 61

    The problem of causality then arises anew.

    The four theories of causation are summarized again, this time in terms of the atomistic "moments" described above. The theory that one moment produces another moment which is subsequent and directly contiguous is a form of self-causation. The theory that one moment produces another moment which is subsequent but not directly contiguous is other-causation. The theory that a moment is produced by neither a preceding contiguous nor non-contiguous moment is neither-causation, or chaos. The three of these were discussed and rejected in Nagarjuna's first section. The fourth theory is that a moment is produced by a combination of self- and other- causation. In terms of the present discussion, that combination is the "harmony" between causes and causal conditions pratyayas). Nagarjuna, using the same methodological approach he used in the previous discussion of causality, declares that the effect is not to be found in this harmony any more than in the individual causes and conditions (pratyayas) producing the harmony. If one asserts that effects arise from such "harmonious" combinations of causes and conditions (pratyayas), then the notion of harmony is just being substituted for the effect-ive cause, which was refuted. The conclusion, too, is then identical: "the effect is not made by the harmony, nor is it not made by a [sic] harmony."

    Note: karika XX.24

    The description of events as comprised of momentary units and things as comprised of atomistic elements leads to a discrepancy with the Buddha's theory of becoming, bhava, which Nagarjuna addresses in this next section, "Examination of Occurrence and Dissolution."

    Note: Bhava, "becoming," is not to be confused with bhava, "existence." Cf. Monier-Williams, 748f. and 754.

    If the elements are discrete, then, Nagarjuna shows, it is not possible to explain how they can arise and cease in mutual dependence.

    To review, the Buddha's original concept of dependent arising describes reality as consisting of the same elements later classified by the Abhidharma, but makes it clear that these elements do not exist independently; they come into being only through a process of mutual contingence. This mutual interdependence of phenomena shifted the emphasis from being to becoming. That is, whereas the Hindu philosophies found the essence of the universe in a substantial ("standing under") ground of "true being," the Buddha recognized no substantial essence of the universe — -he saw all in terms of process, flux. The characteristic of reality is neither Being nor non-Being, but only Becoming. Change is evident, but there is not some thing that changes. The process itself is the only thing that can be seen as having any degree of certainty or reality.

    Note: Hiriyanna, 142

    This process of dependently arising phenomena is beginningless. If it had a beginning, then there would be one thing which came first, which thing would then be the originating cause of the entire subsequent chain. It is not that the beginning is hidden in immemorial time, nor that it is inaccessible due to having been set in motion by a transcendent power. Rather, a beginning is simply inconceivable. Likewise, neither can there be said to be an end to the process.

    The tendency to find substantial identities in the elements led to a slightly different interpretation of the Buddha's theory of dependent arising. Whereas the Buddha had spoken of a "stream of becoming," i.e. a seamless flow, the Realists now spoke of a "series of becoming," i.e. a relation of independent serial entities.

    Note: Kalupahana 1986, 62

    Phenomena were seen as being comprised of these serial elements and so, as described above, theories of association, or "harmony," had to be formulated to account for apparent identities. Nagarjuna refutes these notions of serial becoming first by focusing on the impossibility of such associative harmonies to arise and cease. There can be no way to relate the "occurrence," or arising, of a phenomenon with its "dissolution," or cessation. "Dissolution does not exist either with or without occurrence. Occurrence does not exist either with or without dissolution."

    Note: karika XXI.1

    If occurrence and dissolution existed together, then a thing would be disappearing at the same time that it was appearing. If occurrence existed without dissolution, then things would partake of a one-directional eternity — -they would arise, but never cease. If dissolution existed without occurrence, then there would be the death of a thing which was never born. Neither can one attempt to avoid the dilemma by saying that dissolution is "potential" in a thing which is arising, but is not yet "actual." This would ascribe to a thing two contrary natures, that of occurrence and that of dissolution. No hypothetical proportion of "potentiality" versus "actuality" of these two natures in a thing, would, ultimately, disguise this internal disjunction. Another possibility Nagarjuna mentions is the attempt to circumvent the distinctions of occurrence and dissolution by describing gradual change. That is, instead of saying that an existent thing suddenly disappears, one can say that it just fades out of existence. But this will not work, either, for there still must be one discrete moment before which a thing was still fading and after which it is completely gone. "Dissolution of that which is waning does not exist, nor is there dissolution of the not waning."

    Note: karika XXI.7

    A final objection Nagarjuna addresses is the empirical one. "It may occur to you that both occurrence and dissolution are seen," he says. That is, arguments regarding the logical tenability of arising and ceasing are immaterial, for both are unanimously observed to exist. "However," he declares, "both occurrence and dissolution are seen only through confusion."

    Note: karika XXI.11

    The ignorant one may make such a claim, but the enlightened one knows better.

    Nagarjuna concludes this section with a paradox. He has just demonstrated that arising and ceasing do not have real existence, and, therefore, "the stream of becoming is not proper in the context of the three periods of time." Nor can there be some other way of explaining the existential flux, for "how can there be a stream of becoming that does not exist during the three periods of time?"

    Note: karika XXI.21

    It seems that he is not accepting any theory of becoming. However, as a devout Buddhist apologist, Nagarjuna certainly would not have denied a single aspect of the Buddha's teachings. The only solution to this dilemma is that he was not offering a blanket refutation of the stream of becoming, but only a refutation of the stream as viewed in a certain way. He does not explicitly state exactly which theory he is denying and which he will accept, but the most likely explanation is that he is rejecting the substantialist agenda. It is an error to posit an independent nature in the discrete elements which comprise the serial flow. As dependently-arisen, no things are really spatially or temporally distinct. If no substantial identity is posited in the elements, then the issue of which produces which and when exactly each is produced and dissolved ceases to be problematic.

    All of the sections of the Mulamadhyamakakarika up to this point have examined the specific elements, processes, and relations comprising reality. These are all side issues, so to speak. The Path of Buddhism is little concerned with what exact ontological status to grant to fire and fuel, for example. However, misunderstandings about the nature of these factors of reality can lead to problems of a more serious nature, and so all of the factors had to be examined individually before larger issues could be addressed. The remainder of the karika deals with precisely these larger issues. Nagarjuna first discusses the nature of the one who has become enlightened and realized nirvana, and then looks at the confusions and afflictions which hinder the attainment of enlightenment. The Noble Eightfold Path is examined next. The Path is the paramount teaching of the Buddha, for it is this Path, and this path only, which can lead to an escape from duhkha. A proper following of the Eightfold Path will lead to nirvana, the subject of the next section. Nagarjuna then examines what is the most affirmative teaching of Buddhism: the chain of dependent arising. This theory describes, clearly and positively, the ontological origin and nature of reality as well as the philosophical basis on which enlightenment can be achieved. In the final section, in a last preventative effort, Nagarjuna describes the specific errors leading to bondage and misunderstanding for the purpose of forestalling these errors.


    Section twenty-two — The Meaning and Ontological Status of the Enlightened One

    Siddhartha Gautama used a variety of epithets to refer to himself, including Sakyamuni, "Sage of the Sakya Clan," Buddha, "The Awakened One," and Tathagata, "The Thus-Gone One." The latter of these led to a host of misunderstandings, for the term seemed to imply that there is an agent, the "One," who "Goes" somewhere. That is, the enlightened person often was believed to be reborn in a transcendent realm. One later Chinese school of Buddhism went so far as to describe a "Pure Land," a concrete heavenly paradise where beings of high spiritual attainment sojourn before taking the final step towards complete nirvana.
    Note: Kohn, 174.

    To be fair, all attempts were made to explain that such spiritual abodes were not really existent. Whether popular belief understood this, though, is questionable. The original meaning of "Tathagata" is no longer known for certain,

    Note: For example, it is not wholly clear whether it is a compound of tatha + gata, "Thus Gone," or tatha + agata, "Thus Come." Cf. Conze 1975, 36, and Nagao 1991, 205.

    but that to which the Buddha was referring in using the term was clearly explained. Nagarjuna clarifies it in section twenty-two, "Examination of the Tathagata." Tathagata is merely a designation for that being who has released graspings and dispositions, is thereby freed from karma and, following the next death, will completely disappear and never experience another birth. The defiling dispositions which created the illusion of person-hood out of the aggregates have been "appeased," or released. The aggregates still exist by dint of the inertia of previous karma, and so the enlightened being still appears to exist. Since there are no longer graspings at work, though, the apparent being will disappear when the last inertial karma has been spent.

    The Buddha made quite clear the fact that the Tathagata has not "gone somewhere." In answer to his disciple Vaccha's persistent questions regarding the nature of the Tathagata after death, the Buddha offered an analogy:

    "What think you, Vaccha? Suppose a fire were to burn in front of you, would you be aware that the fire was burning in front of you?"

     "[Yes.]"

     "…Vaccha, if the fire burning in front of you were to become extinct, would you be aware that the fire in front of you had become extinct?"

    "[Yes.]"

    "But, Vaccha, if someone were to ask you, 'In what direction has that fire gone, — -east, or west, or north, or south?' what would you say?"

    "The question would not fit the case, Gautama."

    Note: Majjhima- nikaya, quoted in Radhakrishnan and Moore, 290

    The point is that a fire depends on certain elements for its existence, such as wood, heat, and oxygen. When these elements are no longer present, the fire does not leave, as such — -it just ceases to exist. Similarly, a person is dependent on the aggregates, ignorance, and grasping. When ignorance and grasping cease to be operative, and when the inertia of the last of the aggregates, i.e. the body, is spent, then the person ceases to exist. The person is "thus-gone," but there is no transcendent realm in which he or she is reborn. That is, the person has "gone," but he or she has not gone some where.

    This teaching, while clear, was not easy to comprehend. The Buddha warned his disciples numerous times that his message was "recondite, subtle, and profound." It is therefore easy to see why Nagarjuna devoted a section to this concept. Not only had it always been a difficult one to understand, but, further, the recent Realist and Substantialist trends had precipitated even more confusions. One tendency was to hold that the Tathagata was composed of some substance not found in ordinary unenlightened humans. This propensity to believe that the person's nature underwent some essential transformation upon the achievement of enlightenment was evidenced even in the Buddha's time. The theory was that the soul which is unenlightened partakes of the quality of bondage, and, when this soul becomes free, then its essence shifts to now partake of the quality of freedom.

    Note: This notion was likely a product of the influence of Jainism, which believed that the defiling karma is an actual substance that adheres to the soul (jiva)

    . Nagarjuna explains clearly that the nature of the Buddha is identical to that of any other person, and it has neither the "quality" of bondage nor the "quality" of freedom. There is no self to be found in either the bound or the freed person; both are composed of nothing but the soulless aggregates, and there is no real self which can be thus qualified. "The Tathagata is neither the aggregates nor different from them. The aggregates are not in him; nor is he in the aggregates. He is not possessed of the aggregates." This definition of the Tathagata is no different than that of any and all persons. Thus, "in such a context, who is a Tathagata?"

    Note: karika XXII.1

    The existence of a self in the Buddha is denied for the same reasons that it is denied in any person. If the Buddha is independent of the aggregates, then he will not evidence their characteristics, e.g. he will not have a body, sensations, or consciousness. If the Buddha depends on the aggregates, then "he does not exist in terms of self-nature." Further, if his essence were to change upon enlightenment, then he would now have a different, or "other- nature." But, if he does not exist in terms of self-nature, then "how can he exist in terms of other-nature?"

    Note: karika XXII.2

    As all that exists is ruled by the process of dependent arising, one cannot say that the Tathagata has an independent and transcendent existential status. Even though the Buddha has ceased to grasp on to the aggregates, "he should still depend upon them in the present. As such he will be dependent… There exists no Tathagata independent of the aggregates."

    Note: karika XXII.5-6

    This is not to say that the Buddha has a self which exists even in the present. Having abandoned grasping and soul-theorizing, it is only the external appearance of him which exists. It is grasping which causes the aggregates to continue coming together in life after life, grasping for self-assertion, for sense-fulfillments, and for continued existence. Since the Buddha has become enlightened by virtue of having released his tendency to grasp, he no longer believes that there is a self comprising him in the present, and so he knows that he will not exist after death, either. It is only, Nagarjuna says, the misguided drive to attribute reality to the objects of grasping, the grasping itself, and the one who grasps that embroils the ignorant person in the tangle of existence-theorizing. It is only this misguided person, "firmly insisting that a Tathagata 'exists' or 'does not exist,'" who ascribes a present or posthumous existence to the Buddha.

    Note: karika XXII.13

    That is, even though the Buddha no longer falsely believes that he exists, it is still possible for those who do imagine reality to attribute an existence to him. Nagarjuna explains that these people are seeing nothing more than a figment of their imaginations. "Those who generate obsessions with great regard to the Buddha…, all of them, impaired by obsessions, do not perceive the Tathagata."

    Note: karika XXII.15


    Sections twenty-three and twenty-four — Error and Truth: the Perversions and the Four Noble Truths

    Nagarjuna has thus far examined all of the elements of existence and negated substantialist understandings of all, and has discussed the nature of the enlightened one who sees the true nature of things. Before presenting the positive teachings of the Buddha's doctrine, Nagarjuna found it necessary to devote section twenty-three, ``Examination of Perversions,'' to an explanation of the origins of confusions and misunderstandings. The subject of this section, viparyasa, is best translated as "perversion." The meaning of "perversion" here is not so much the common one of moral or sexual debasement, but rather the etymological meaning of "turning through" (per + vertere) and hence "error" or "delusion."

    Note: cf. Monier-Williams, 974, in which the first meanings of viparyasa given are "overturning" and "transposition."

    The Buddha said that all conditioned things are characterized by three "marks:" impermanence, soullessness, and suffering. These are not absolute definitions of reality, but rather descriptions of the nature of reality as perceived by the enlightened person. The epistemic ignorance of the unenlightened person lies in his or her falsely knowing the world as permanent, containing a soul, or non-suffering. Besides these three corruptions of the three marks, the Buddha mentioned one other type of perversion, which perversion is a value judgment independent of the three marks. This is the human propensity to characterize things as wholesome or unwholesome, pleasant or unpleasant. Since Nagarjuna has already examined the three marks in previous sections, here he first takes up the latter perversion, the subjective value judgments. The defilements such as passionate attraction and aversion (lust and hatred), Nagarjuna says, "have thought as their source," and it is on the basis of these defilements that value judgments such as pleasant and unpleasant come to be.

    Note: karika XXIII.1

    All persons, whether Buddhas or unenlightened persons, continue to perceive and have sensations, both pleasant and unpleasant. The difference is that the sensations of the Buddhas are not filtered through defilements, and so they do not believe that there is a real objective ground supporting the subjective experiences of pleasant and unpleasant.

    Nagarjuna spends the first half of this section demonstrating the unreality of the foundations of perversions, thereby showing that it is possible to overcome them. He first offers a rationale for abandoning belief in one of the foundations of perversion, namely the defiling tendencies of passions and grasping. Discriminatory judgments such as pleasant and unpleasant are based on the defilements for, were there no passionate attraction and aversion, there would be no need for one to judge things as pleasant or unpleasant. All sensations would be accepted with equanimity and detached acceptance. "The existence or non-existence of the self is not established in any way," Nagarjuna reminds the reader, and "without that, how can the existence or the non-existence of the defilements be established?"

    Note: karikaXXIII.3

    One may object that the defilements must exist, for they are experienced. Nagarjuna counters this argument by explaining that the defilements exist in the same way that the person does: both the defilements and the one defiled may be experienced in ignorance, but neither is substantive — - neither is to be found anywhere in the agglomeration of aggregates which comprise the apparent person. Thus, as demonstrated in the examination of the self in section eighteen, there is no reality in either the defilements or the one defiled. Conversely, the defilements could be said to be dependent on the perversions, for, were there no discrimination of pleasant or unpleasant, there could be no reason for aversion or attraction. Yet this will not work either, for "the perversions regarding the pleasant and the unpleasant are not evident from the standpoint of self-nature." This being so, on what could the defilements of passionate aversion and attraction be based?

    Note: karika XXIII.6

    Finally, one could cling to the belief in pleasant and unpleasant based on the reality of the sensations giving rise to these categories. Nagarjuna here delivers the coup de grace to the belief in the reality of such discriminations. Visual form, sound, taste, touch, smell, and concepts (i.e. mental sensations) are the "sixfold foundations" of defilements and discriminatory judgments. But, as demonstrated above,

    Note: cf. sections IV, "Examination of Aggregates" and XVIII, "Examination of Self."

    all six sensory foundations "are comparable to [a mythical city] and resemble mirages and dreams. How can the pleasant and the unpleasant come to be in people who are fabrications of illusion or who are comparable to mirror images?"

    Note: karika XXIII.8-9

    That is, the pleasant, the unpleasant, and the one who discriminates between them are all unreal. As such, Nagarjuna asks, whence the justification for passionate feelings? In the same way that discriminating sensation into pleasant and unpleasant gives rise to adverse graspings, so does it hinder enlightenment to pervert the other marks of existence, i.e. confusing the impermanent for the permanent, the soulless as having an ego, and the suffering as non-suffering.

    A Buddhist would have an obvious motivation in aggressively denying the reality of the senses, the discrimination of sensations into pleasant and unpleasant, and the passionate attractions and aversions which arise on the basis of such discriminations. It is only when these tendencies and perversions are understood as being groundless that they can be appeased and the detachment of nirvana attained. If these unpropitious aspects of existence were real, if they had self- nature, then they could never be appeased, Nagarjuna says. Likewise, an emphasis on the unreality of the one who discriminates facilitates release from perversions. "Perversions do not occur to one who is already subject to perversion," nor do they "occur to one who is not subjected to perversions," nor do they "occur to one who is being subjected to perversions." The untenability of relating a subject and its attribute in any of the three phases of time was explained in section two in the examination of the moverand the moved. This being so, Nagarjuna delivers the exhortation to "reflect on your own! To whom will the perversions occur?"

    Note: karika XXIII.17-18

    The above tack aside, Nagarjuna had an additional reason for explaining perversions and confusions here: his next three sections deal with "right views," i.e. the Buddha's teachings of the Noble Truths, the nature of nirvana, and the process of dependent arising. A person will be able to comprehend these only if he or she first understands the false knowledge and perversions which hinder such comprehension.

    The Buddha expressed the core of his teaching in the four Noble Truths. These are 1) suffering exists, 2) suffering has a cause, namely craving and grasping, 3) suffering, having been caused, can be ended, and 4) the Eightfold Path is the way to end it. These are all truths, but they do not represent an objective and absolute Truth. Truths for the Buddha were pragmatic. An Absolutist philosophy, such as Plato's theory of the Forms, defines a concept's truth in terms of how well that concept corresponds to the transcendent and independent standard, the Absolute Truth. A pragmatic philosophy, on the other hand, does not recognize such an independent standard by which relative truths can be measured. Pragmatism holds that knowledge exists only as a tool to be used, and the test of a concept's truthfulness is its practical consequences.

    Note: Frank Thilly, A History of Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1951), 602

    That the Buddha's attitude towards truth is one of pragmatismcan be seen in the fact that, were all four Noble Truths absolute, they would contradict. For example, the first announces the fact of suffering, but the third declares that suffering can be eradicated.

    Note: Kalupahana 1992, 168

    This is perhaps why the Buddha referred to them as "noble" (arya) truths: their importance is in their value and worthiness, not in their absolute validity. The implication of this is that they have a use and a purpose. This schemata of truth is the subject of section twenty-four, "Examination of the Noble Truths."

    It is certain that Nagarjuna upheld the validity of the Buddha's Noble Truths, for he stressed the value of the Buddha's teachings at every turn. However, it would be easy, after reading the Mulamadhyamakakarika thus far, to get the impression that Nagarjuna was denying all and asserting nothing. Specifically, he has thus far declared all existent things, grasping, the grasper, and even the Buddha himself to be devoid of self-nature and "empty," sunya.

    Note: karika XIII.3, XXII.10,14

    respectively Such comprehensive negations would, it would seem, deny the validity of all teachings, including the Buddha's, and sabotage the Eightfold Path leading to nirvana. Nagarjuna presents this counter argument in the first six verses this section. If all is empty, the opponent could charge, all causation would be invalidated. This would lead to a denial of the Noble Truths. There are four attainments, or fruits, corresponding to the four truths, namely understanding the nature of suffering (duhkha), relinquishing the passions which cause suffering, realizing the goal of nirvana, and cultivating the proper Path towards the goal. But, the opponent continues, if the Noble Truths are empty then likewise there could not be these attainments, there would be none who achieve enlightenment and break free from the cycle of birth-and- death, and finally, there would not even be a Buddha. "Speaking in this manner about emptiness," the opponent concludes, "you contradict the three jewels [of the Buddha, his teachings, and the community of Buddhists], as well as the reality of the fruits, both good and bad, and all such worldly conventions."

    Note: karika XXIV.1-6

    Nagarjuna's answer to this cogent objection is simple: "we say that you do not comprehend the purpose of emptiness. As such, you are tormented by emptiness and the meaning of emptiness."

    Note: karika XXIV.7

    The opponent's objections would hold true if Nagarjuna was saying that all the elements of reality are empty of reality and validity. However, what he has actually said is slightly different — -he said that the teaching of emptiness, sunyata, has a purpose. It is not an absolute statement, but a pragmatic one. To explain this, he introduces here the notion of two levels of truth. "The teaching of the doctrine by the Buddhas is based upon two truths: truth relating to worldly convention and truth in terms of ultimate fruit."

    Note: karika XXIV.8

    The conventional truth, samvrti, is that which is used in the everyday world. Even though all is a realm of mere appearance, one must still use concepts to communicate with others and to function in the world. For example, even though the enlightened one understands that there is no "mover"who "moves," he or she still utilizes the conceptions of movement to discuss going to the store. Likewise, even though the Buddha stressed the unreality of the person and the complete lack of egoity in the world, he still, when communicating, used terms like "myself" and "you." The other form of truth is paramartha, which can be translated as "supreme truth" or "ultimate fruit." As the term artha, "fruit" or "goal" implies, this level still does not represent an ultimate, absolute Truth. It is a truth that does not rely on relative meanings, but rather is provisional. Goal-oriented, the supreme truth is conducive to attaining the fruits.

    The four Noble Truths, i.e. the fact of suffering, its cause, its cure, and the Eightfold Path leading to its removal are all expressed in terms of conventional truth. Nirvana is the higher truth, the "greatest fruit," paramartha. These two levels of truth often contradict. For example, the first limb of the Eightfold Path is "right views." One must subscribe to the proper conceptual worldview to follow the Buddhist path. However, the higher truth of paramartha denies that there is an ultimate "right view." In the state of nirvana, all is seen to be empty, and nothing is right or wrong, better or worse. What is crucial to point out is that samvrti and paramartha are both called "truths." There is no line drawn here between truth and falsehood, for that would give rise to absolutism — -something can only be false if there is one single, independent standard against which to measure it. Thus, instead of the true/false dichotomy integral to Absolutisms, the Buddha spoke in terms of truth versus "confusion," i.e. using knowledge pragmatically and beneficially versus being bound by it.

    Note: Kalupahana 1986, 46

    The use of conventional language and relative truths is necessary for teaching. "Without relying upon convention, the ultimate fruit is not taught. Without understanding the ultimate fruit, freedom is not attained."

    Note: karika XXIV.10

    The truths expressed by samvrti are necessary to point the way to the ultimate goal. Language and concepts must be utilized. Once the goal is in sight, these relative truths must be abandoned. It is at this stage that one perceives all things to be devoid of soul and empty of reality, and one realizes that the ultimate truth is itself not really a "truth." What is vital is always to keep in mind which level of truth one is working with. If one mistakenly applies the conception of emptiness to the relative realm, for example, then one could see things as meaningless. This would cause one to be left in a state of distress and lose faith in the Buddha and his teaching. "A wrongly perceived emptiness ruins a person of meager intelligence," warns Nagarjuna. "It is like a snake that is wrongly grasped."

    Note: karika XXIV.11

    If anyone "generates any obsessions or confusions with regard to emptiness, the accompanying error is not ours," he disclaims. Such a confusion is akin to that of a person who, mounting his horse, promptly forgets where his horse is!

    Note: karika XXIV.13,15

    It is just such a mistaken attribution of ultimate truths to the relative realm that led the hypothetical opponent above to conclude that Nagarjuna was denying the validity of the Buddha's message. The opponent had simply assumed that Nagarjuna's notion that all things are empty invalidates all teachings, as well. Nagarjuna now turns the table on the opponent. On the contrary, he says, it is the denial of emptiness and the assertion of self- nature that negates the Noble Truths. He spends the remaining two-thirds of the section demonstrating that theories of self-nature and individual identity contradict all the Buddha's teachings and preclude the very possibility of enlightenment. If existent things are not devoid of a self-nature, then, for the reasons explained above, they must be eternal and unchanging. If so, then they are both uncaused and incapable of cessation. This will nullify the notions of an agent and his or her acts, which will then render him or her incapable of appeasing the defiling dispositions and escaping from the cycle of suffering. The Eightfold Path will then be purposeless and its goal unattainable. Thus, Nagarjuna concludes, notions of self- nature and a denial of emptiness will make the entirety of the Buddha's teachings completely pointless.

    A key to understanding the two truths is dependent arising. It is the insight that all existent things have come to be only through a process of mutual interaction and causation that provides the understanding of emptiness. "We state that whatever is dependent arising, that is emptiness," says Nagarjuna.

    Note: karika XXIV.18

    All things that have come to be dependent on others are, by definition, relative. That is, they only have identity in relation to other things, as "tallness" has identity only in relation to "shortness." Since they are arisen things they are not unreal. On the other hand, since they are relative things they are not absolutely real. Neither are they both real and unreal, for that would constitute an internal contradiction. However, neither can they be said to be neither real nor unreal: as arisen, they are real, but as dependent, they are unreal. The only remaining way to speak of arisen things is by saying that they are in the middle between the extremes. All discourse and conceptualization about dependently-arisen things is thus said to be the "middle path." This is the key to the whole issue of truth and reality covered in this section. "Whoever perceives dependent arising also perceives suffering, its arising, its ceasing, and the path," says Nagarjuna in closing.

    Note: karika XXIV.40

    That is, whoever perceives dependent arising understands the ontology of existent things and perceives the Buddha's four Noble Truths.


    Section twenty-five — The Ultimate Goal: Enlightenment

    Having explained the Madhyamika stance on the reality of the Noble Truths, Nagarjuna now can examine the goal of them and of the entire Buddhist path, nirvana. There may be no single concept in Buddhism which has elicited more confusion and debate than nirvana. Nirvana is often translated as "freedom," but it actually means "extinction." A literal translation of "nir - vana" is "blown out," as in the extinguishing of a fire. Nirvana is not a state of transcendent eternal bliss, like that of some forms of Yoga or of the Hindu Advaita Vedanta, nor sanctified salvation, like that of the Christianity, nor final posthumous nonexistence, like that of some Materialist philosophies. It is, simply, the cessation of those factors which cause bondage, namely cravings, dispositions, and karma.

    An example of the extinction of nirvana is afforded by the Buddha's analogy of the fire given above. When the fire is extinguished, it does not go anywhere, east, west, north, or south. It simply ceases to be. Similarly, the one who has appeased, or eliminated, the snares binding one to the cycle of birth-and-death can be said to have attained freedom, for he or she is now free of the binding influences. But, this does not mean that the freed one goes on to heavenly realm or a state of sanctified bliss. This person does not disappear only to reappear elsewhere. The freed one simply is no longer. It is not that the enlightened person ceases to exist, for he or she never existed in the first place. It was only an illusion of real existence that caused the one now free to have been bound to existence in the first place, and it is an equally ignorant illusion of those viewing the freed one to think that he or she exists now. That is, nothing goes out of existence; it never existed in the first place.

    Note: It has been mentioned repeatedly that a principal cause of bondage is the process through which a person ignorantly perceives reality in unreal things, feels passionate attractions or aversions to those perceived things, and then grasps onto them. If it is unclear how it can be that strong emotions can be aroused by a mere illusion, an analogy from mythology may be illuminating: Ovid recounted the story of a young Greek sculptor named Pygmalion and Galatea who, fearing and hating women, vowed to pour all of his creative energy into his art alone. He carved one statue of a woman, which he named Galatea, which proved to be so perfect and beautiful that he fell in love with it. Venus took pity on his frustrated desires and brought Galatea to life, and the two were married. This story suggests that human passions do not discriminate between real and unreal objects.

    In section twenty-five, "Examination of Nirvana," Nagarjuna eliminates various misconceptions about this state of freedom. It is not a form of existence, nor is it non-existence. It is not a "thing" which, like all things, is dependent on all other things for its manifestation. Nor is it an independent thing. The fact that nirvana is spoken of being "realized," "attained," or "achieved" is not to be understood as implying that freedom is a thing which can be known or possessed. These verbs are just convenient ways samvrti) of speaking about an inexpressible concept. Nagarjuna's concern, as a Buddhist, was both to defend the Buddha's philosophy and to help his fellow Buddhists escape the cycle of suffering. This exposition of nirvana, then, is to be taken neither as a contribution to a philosophical debate nor as a theory to be defended. It is a pragmatic concept which can be used as a tool for escaping from suffering. To be useful as such, it must be understood in the proper way. Hence this section, whose purpose is a clarification of the concept and the improper understandings of it.

    He opens the section with the opponent's objection that, if all is really empty, then there is no arising of things and so there is nothing to be extinguished (nir - vana). Nagarjuna replies, as before, that "if all this is non- empty, there exists neither arising nor ceasing." If there is svabhava, a self-nature in things, then it is that which will prevent freedom.

    Note: karika XXV.2

    Having rejected self- nature by saying that all is empty, he is now faced with a problem. If there are no things, then what is freedom, and how can one speak of it or strive for it? The Buddha offered various definitions of  nirvana, one of which Nagarjuna now makes use of. "Unrelinquished, not reached, unannihilated, non-eternal, non-ceased and non-arisen — -this is called freedom."

    Note: karika XXV.3

    One substantialist notion of freedom was that the bound person partakes of the quality of bondage. Freedom, then, would be the relinquishing of this nature and the adoption of a new and wholly disparate mode of existence — -the freed state. This does not apply. There is not a person who partakes of qualities, and freedom is not a concrete goal that can be striven for. An eternalist soteriology would hold that the state of freedom transcends temporality, and the one who achieves freedom also becomes eternal. Nirvana is not such, for it is non- eternal. Neither, however, is it a temporal state of salvation, for it is "unannihilated." It cannot have any relation to temporality, which is measured by arising and ceasing, for it is "non-ceased and non-arisen." Freedom is thus not obtainable, not a transcendent reality, and not, like the Vedanta atman, a preexisting immanent substratum.

    Further, nirvana has absolutely no relation to the concepts of either existence or non-existence. If it were a form of existence, then, like all existent things, it would partake of birth and death, arising and ceasing. It would be relative and thus conditioned, for there are no existent things that are unconditioned. If conditioned, it could not be independent. These would necessitate that nirvana, like all conditioned and dependent things, be characterized by impermanence and suffering, which would make for a poor enlightenment, indeed. Neither can freedom be said to be non-existence, for, "wherein there is no existence, therein non-existence is not evident."

    Note: karika XXV.7

    The two are relative concepts. Moreover, if freedom were said to be non-existence, it would, as one half of a dual conception, still not be independent. Nagarjuna echoed the Buddha's clear assertion that nirvana is neither transcendent existence nor posthumous annihilation. In discussing the nature of the enlightened one in an earlier section, he clearly stated that "the thought that the Buddha exists or does not exist after death is not appropriate."

    Note: karika XXII.14

    Notwithstanding such difficulties, nirvana must be seen as non-contingent and independent. If it were not, then it would not be free from the contingency and dependence of the suffering world. The solution, the Buddha said, is to relinquish the notions of becoming and being in all forms. Therefore, "it is proper to assume that freedom is neither existence nor non-existence."

    Note: karika XXV.10

    (na bhavo nabhavo nirvanam) That is, if one completely ceases to think in terms of being, then neither arising nor ceasing, origination nor annihilation will be posited. There is another possible interpretation of the Buddha's exhortation to relinquish notions of being. One could say that, instead of seeing freedom as neither existence nor non-existence, one could see it as both, as a transcendence of the two categories or, in Hegelian terms, a synthesis of thesis and antithesis. This would declare freedom to be some sort of mystical consciousness which is both existence and non-existence by virtue of being a transcendence of the dualities. This will not work, either, Nagarjuna now shows, for nirvana can contain no aspect of either half of the duality. If it were both existence and non- existence, then, rather than being independent, it would be dependent on both and thus doubly contingent. Further, since existence and non-existence are mutually exclusive opposites, "their simultaneous existence in one place is not possible, as in the case of light and darkness."

    Note: karika XXV.14

    That which precipitated the debate was the Buddha's teaching that freedom is attainable, and the following speculations of his followers about what sort of existence the Buddha enjoyed after death, i.e. after his full attainment of nirvana.

    Note: There are two forms of nirvana: the one achieved during life is a state of freedom but, since the freed one still has a karmically-bound body, it is not complete nirvana.

    Complete freedom, "total extinction" (parinirvana), only occurs at death when the body, too, is extinguished. As Nagarjuna has just shown, no theories of the Buddha's existential status seem to be possible. Thus, "it is not assumed that the Blessed One [i.e. the Buddha] exists after death. Neither is it assumed that he does not exist, or both, or neither."

    Note: karika XXV.17

    An immediate question following this statement is "then what happened to him? He obviously existed at one point, and now he doesn't, so where did he go?" Nagarjuna's answer is startling: "It is not assumed that even a living Blessed One exists. Neither is it assumed that he does not exist, or both, or neither."

    Note: karika XXV.18

    The answer, then, is that nothing happened to the Buddha. His existential status did not change when he attained nirvana, for he could not even be said to have existed before it.

    If the Buddha's nature before his nirvana was the same as his nature after enlightenment, then the only thing that changed was his subjective understanding. His actual nature did not change. An even more startling conclusion follows from this: if his nature did not change, then the world of suffering, samsara, must not be different from the world experienced by the freed person. This is exactly what Nagarjuna concludes. "The life-process has no thing that distinguishes it from freedom. Freedom has no thing that distinguishes it from the life- process."

    Note: karika XXV.19

    There is no transcendent reality, no unique state of freedom experienced by the enlightened one. The worlds experienced by the one bound by suffering and the one freed from suffering are not different worlds. Nirvana is nothing more than a shift in understanding the world and a new way of reacting to it. However, Nagarjuna is quick to say, this does not mean that the cycle of life-and- death and freedom are the same. "Whatever is of the extremity of freedom and the extremity of the life-process, between them not even a subtle something is evident."

    Note: karika XXV.20

    If they were simply declared to be identical, then there would be neither the experience of suffering nor the experience of release from it. Although the cycle of birth-and-death and nirvana are not different, then, they are nonetheless experienced differently and are not simply one and the same.

    The cause of this whole sphere of confusions and misunderstandings about the nature of freedom is the human tendency to speculate and theorize. Were there not this tendency, then one would never perceive transitory phenomena as enduring in the first place, which would prevent one from developing passionate attractions and aversions regarding phenomena. Without such passions, the dispositions, graspings and cravings would not develop, and thus suffering would not come to be. Without these passions, one would not create the concepts of eternal life, identity or difference, or infinity of the universe, concepts which the Buddha repeatedly refused to discuss. The notion of emptiness is an antidote to this chain which has its birth in confused understanding and its result in suffering. For, "when all things are empty, why [speculate on] the finite, the infinite, both the finite and the infinite and neither the finite nor the infinite? Why speculate on the identical, the different, the eternal, the non-eternal, both, or neither?"

    Note: karika XXV.22-23

    When one completely and utterly ceases to grasp onto theories and perceptions, speculation comes to an end, and dispositions are "blown out." This is nirvana.


    Section twenty-six — Dependent arising, the Buddha's Positive Ontology

    Section twenty-six, "Examination of the Twelve Causal Factors," is the penultimate examination of the karika. It is a highly anomalous section. First, there is hardly a single original statement in it, the entire section being no more than a presentation of the twelve links of the chain of dependent arising as taught by the Buddha. Second, there are none of the cryptic and negatory statements so characteristic of the previous four hundred verses. This has led some commentators to assume that it and the last section, "Examination of Views," are merely summations of Theravada, "Older School," doctrine. This opinion holds that the first twenty-five sections were the exposition of Madhyamika thought, and these last two Nagarjuna added as an appendix of sorts. Another hypothesis proposed is that these last two sections are actually spurious.
    Note: Kalupahana 1986, 77

    Nagarjuna completed his treatise with the examination of nirvana, this hypothesis holds, and the last sections were added by someone who wished to make Nagarjuna appear to be a Theravadin.

    There does not seem to be any justification for either of these views. Regarding the last two sections as non-Madhyamika may help one uphold certain theories about the nature of Madhyamika. The Prasangika school, for example, asserts that Nagarjuna was denying all concepts and advancing none of his own. Since section twenty-six decidedly presents a positive theory, it would be convenient for the Prasangika orientation to regard it as spurious. There is, however, no apparent reason to interpret this section in that manner. If it is rejected because it is positive and thus seems anomalous, then the dedicatory verses, as well, could be rejected, and then so could any verse which was difficult to interpret. These last sections will therefore be accepted as Nagarjuna's legitimate and intended conclusion to his treatise.

    Nagarjuna presents the Buddha's twelve links in the chain of dependent arising in the same order and manner in which the Buddha presented them. The only innovation is that he inserts two verses from another sutra to clarify one point and concludes the section with three verses which summarize the way to reverse the cycle. The Buddha's chain of dependent arising was already discussed in chapter two, and will be explained fully in chapter five. This section is short, though, and the subject very important, so it will not hurt to follow Nagarjuna's verses and present it again.

    The causal chain begins with ignorance. The true nature of reality is impermanence, soullessness, and suffering. One who does not perceive this fact will believe that things are real, that there are enduring identities and egos, and that it is possible to find satisfaction in these things. One forms dispositions, such as attraction and aversion, on the basis of such misbeliefs. One then initiates volitional action, e.g. approaching that which one desires and avoiding that which is undesirable. Based on such dispositions, consciousness infuses the new life-form. That is, consciousness does not create the attractions and aversions, but rather they are primal and give rise to consciousness. It may seem odd to say that consciousness does not arise until this point, for most religious systems regard consciousness as eternal, all-pervasive, and ultimate. Buddhism, however, holds it to be dependently-arisen. Consciousness is but one of the five aggregates constituting a person. Until there is an awareness of subject/object duality, there can be nothing of which to be conscious. Therefore, consciousness neither can arise nor is needed until there is an awareness of a subject interacting with a separate world. The dispositionally- conditioned attractions and aversions provide the earliest basis of and need for interaction. Following this infusion of consciousness, "name and form," i.e. the psychophysical personality, come to be. This is where the new life can be said to be a "person" proper. The awareness of name-and-form both creates the individual identity and also causes the awareness of the objective world. Before the rise of name-and-form, it would be possible to see attractions and aversions as occurring and acting as simple natural forces. Now, however, name-and-form cause awareness both of internal subject and external object, both of "me" and "it." This awareness conditions the six spheres of sense-faculty, i.e. the five physical sense- faculties plus mental sensations, which are called thoughts. These sense-faculties are not actual feelings, but just the potential means by which feeling can occur. The duality of subject and object plus the potential for sensation afforded by the sense-faculties gives rise to contact itself and the actual feeling which ensues.

    Nagarjuna here inserts a few lines from one of the early canonical texts to help explain the nature of contact. Using the example of vision, he says that contact proceeds from "the harmonious occurrence of the three factors: material form, consciousness, and eye. Feeling proceeds from such contact."

    Note: karika XXVI.5

    Dependent upon feeling is craving. When one has sensation, then one develops likings for certain feelings and aversions for others. This leads to grasping, which takes the two forms of passionate desire to partake of pleasant sensations and avoid unpleasant ones. With the development of grasping, the one who grasps now becomes bound to the cycle of birth-and-death. Nagarjuna here points out a converse progression. "If [the grasper] were to be a non-grasper, he would be released, and there would be no further becoming."

    Note: karika XXVI.7

    This, Nagarjuna points out, is a weak link in the chain. This is where the cycle of suffering can be broken and freedom won. One may not have control over the earlier links of the chain, such as primal ignorance or past karma, but one assuredly has the ability, here and now, to refrain from grasping. With detached equanimity, bondage would be broken. If one does grasp, then the five aggregates constituting the psychophysical personality will be bound by dispositionally-conditioned karma and will continue to arise again and again. This will lead to unending rebirths, which in turn will lead to unending deaths. This is the final link of the chain. "Such is the occurrence of this entire mass of suffering."

    Note: karika XXVI.9

    In summary, Nagarjuna reminds the reader that "the ignorant [person] forms dispositions that constitute the source of the life process," and hence all suffering. The key is to remove ignorance, which can be done by cultivating knowledge and wisdom. The wise person will not initiate the cycle of suffering, "because of his perception of truth."

    Note: karika XXVI.10

    The truth in question is dependent arising and its concomitant, emptiness. When all things are seen as being empty, one can form no dispositions about them and will cause neither passionate attractions nor aversions to come into play. This will prevent grasping. There is thus a certain circularity in the chain of dependent arising and the way to break free from the chain. Nagarjuna said above, in verse seven of this section, that the weak link is grasping. If one ceases to grasp, then dispositions will wane and endless rebirths will cease. In another way, however, breaking free from grasping is the result of the appeasement of dispositions. That is, one must refrain from grasping to release the dispositions, and one must release the dispositions to refrain from grasping. There is also a sort of catch-22 evident in the first two links of the chain: "When ignorance has ceased, there is no occurrence of dispositions." However, the cessation of that ignorance takes place only as a result of the release of dispositions.

    Note: karika XXVI.11

    The two halves of each of these equations, grasping + dispositions and ignorance + dispositions, arise together. They must also be released together. This may seem paradoxical, but the Buddhist declares that it is possible to do. The Eightfold Path is the way to do this. When one structures one's life on the principle of moderation through right actions, right thoughts, and right discipline, then ignorance will be undercut. "In this way, this entire mass of suffering ceases completely."

    Note: karika XXVI.12

    The chain of dependent arising is not a linear one, but a circular one. The above catch-22 and the seeming paradox of releasing graspings through wisdom yet gaining wisdom through releasing grasping is thus clarified. Ignorance is, it is true, presented as being the first link. This does not mean, though, that ignorance is in any way a cause of the succeeding eleven links. The chain can be seen as a series of conditions (pratyayas) influencing one another in succession, but this is just a way of explaining it. All links of the chain arise dependently. When there is the first link, ignorance, then the twelfth link, suffering and death, necessarily will follow. When there is the twelfth link, death will lead to rebirth, and the first link will follow. Both the origin and the means of escape from the entire chain are to be found in this mutually-conditioned and interdependent arising.


    Section twenty-seven — Conclusion: Right and Wrong Views

    Nagarjuna has now completed his examination of the Buddha's philosophy. He has discussed all manner of improper theories and has concluded with a short but comprehensive recapitulation of the Buddha's central guiding teaching: the nature of the cycle of arising and suffering and the way to eliminate this cycle of binding influence through a cultivation of wisdom. He now closes the treatise with one last warning against unnecessary theorizing.

    Section twenty-seven, "Examination of Views," can be elucidated by a brief excursus of one element of the Buddha's doctrine. The first two limbs of the Eightfold Path are Right Thought and Right Understanding. There are definite and specific ways of thinking which must be cultivated if one is to escape suffering, and these are the Buddha's teachings. However, the Buddha also stressed that certain types of speculation are deleterious, as exemplified by the metaphor of the man shot with an arrow. These are the metaphysical questions regarding the ultimate natures of things, which questions he would offer no comment on. They are referred to as the Avyakrta, the "Unanswerables ," or the "questions which tend not to edification." An episode from an early sutra will best explain these "Unanswerables" and the Buddha's attitude towards them. The following episode is summarized and paraphrased.

      A certain monk approached the Buddha and spoke as follows:
       
      "Sir, it just occurred to me, as I was in meditation, that you have left unelucidated, and set aside, and rejected certain theories — - that the world is eternal, that the world is not eternal, that the world is finite, that the world is infinite, that the soul and the body are identical, that the soul is one thing and the body another, that the saint exists after death, that the saint does not exist after death, or both, or neither. If you know the answersto these questions, then tell me. If not, then admit that you do not know. If you do not give me an answer, then I will cease to be a Buddhist."
       
      "O monk, did I ever say to you, 'Come, lead the religious life under me, and I will answer these questions?'"
       
      "No."
       
      "In the same way as the man shot with the arrow, O monk, the man who refuses to live the religious life until I have answered these questions, that man would die before I have answered them.
      The religious life does not depend on the dogma that the world is eternal… not eternal…
      The religious life does not depend on the dogma that the world is finite… infinite.
      The religious life does not depend on the dogma that the soul and the body are identical… are different.
      The religious life does not depend on the dogma that the saint exists after death… does not… both… neither.
      Bear in mind always what it is that I have elucidated, and what it is that I have not elucidated. I have only taught those things which have to do with the fundamentals of religion, facilitate quiescence and cessation of passions, and lead to nirvana."
    Note: The complete episode can be found in Warren, 117-122
    These "unanswerables," which are found in many places in the early texts, treat the four basic questions of the temporal duration of the universe, the spatial extension of it, the future life of the Tathagata, and the relation between the body and the soul. The questions represent the most basic and deepest insecurities held by unenlightened persons, and all stem ultimately from a belief in the self and a fear of its dissolution. They are enumerated variously as ten or fourteen,
    Note: Murti is apparently incorrect in saying that "they are invariably enumerated as fourteen." Cf. Murti 1960, 36 and Warren, 117-122

    but this variance is due to no more than how many "either," "or," "both," or "neither" alternatives are given for each of the four. Besides the Buddha's refusal to provide specific solutions to these problems, as recounted above, there were also times when, after having been asked such questions, he would simply not speak.

    Discussion of the unanswerablesand the famous "silence of the Buddha" has been a popular topic in modern scholarship, and four main theories have been proposed to explain his refusal to provide answers. These must be presented briefly now, for Nagarjuna's treatment of the unanswerables does not seem to fit neatly any of the four.

    • First, it has been said that the Buddha was silent because he was interested only in practical matters. The speculative metaphysics were, simply, less important than living the proper life, and thus were set aside.
    • A second interpretation is that the Buddha frankly did not know the answers, and was preeminently an agnostic. This was the initial suspicion of the monk in the above parable.
    • Third, an opposite interpretation of agnosticism is that the Buddha did know the answers, but was incapable of explaining them. This interpretation is partially supported by the number of times the Buddha emphasized the subtlety and abstruseness of the doctrine. Following his enlightenment he seriously considered not even attempting to teach his new- found truths, only because he despaired of anyone understanding.
    Note: ``[The enlightenment] won by me is deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand,'' the Buddha thought on the night of his awakening. ``…For human beings this would be a matter difficult to see… If I were to teach [it] and others were not to understand me, that would be a weariness to me, that would be a vexation to me.'' (quoted in Kalupahana 1986, 336)
    However, to say that the difficulty of teaching motivated the Buddha's reticence to speak is not to do him justice. Surely such an enlightened being would be able to wield language to make it do his bidding. Further, it is stated clearly in the discourses that the Buddha did have the ability to tailor his use of language to fit his audiences.
    • A fourth approach is to say that the problem lies in the mental processes which give rise to such questions. What is important is, not an answer or the lack of an answer to these questions, but rather completely removing oneself from such a sphere of ratiocination by the appeasement of reifying thoughts.
    Note: For a more complete discussion of this, see Gadjin M. Nagao, "The Silence of the Buddha and its Madhyamic Interpretation," in Nagao 1991, 35-50
    These four might or might not be correct, and they might not even be incompatible, but neither are they Nagarjuna's direct approach. Nagarjuna, simply, says that the answers to these questions are wrong. There may be theoretical reasons for rejecting the unanswerable questions, and there certainly are pragmatic reasons for not becoming entangled in such speculation. However, Nagarjuna's primary reason for rejecting them in his final section is none of these. He simply rejects them because they do not hold up to logical scrutiny.

    Nagarjuna opens with a discussion of views about eternalism. All views of the survival of the self are based on the belief that the self existed in the past and/or that the self will exist in the future. However, it would not be appropriate to say that the self existed in the past, for this would require that the self who existed in the past is identical with the self who exists now, in the present. This has already been refuted in section eleven. However, the Buddha also said that it is incorrect to say that the self is not eternal. If the Buddha had denied continuity of existence, then, as discussed above, morality would be undercut, for "the fruit of action performed by one will be experienced by another."
    Note: karika XXVII.11

    This was discussed in section seventeen. Further, a self that existed in the present but not in the past would be uncaused, which would be an erroneous conclusion. Since neither of the above alternatives is appropriate, it would certainly not be appropriate to combine them and say that one both existed and did not exist in the past. Further, since there are no other alternatives besides existence or not existence, and since a middle ground between the two would be unintelligible, it is not appropriate to say that one neither existed nor did not exist in the past. V iews regarding a future existence are to be treated in the same way. That which leads to the asking of the above unanswerable questions is the tendency to seek for some "thing," some real entity which can be characterized in terms of existence or non- existence. But, "if it is thought that there is nothing eternal, what is it that will be non-eternal, both eternal and non-eternal, and also what is separated from these two [i.e. 'neither']?"

    Note: karika XXVII.20

    Nagarjuna next addresses the issue of the relation between the soul and the body by focusing on grasping, for it is grasping which causes the belief in self-hood. There is certainly an appearance of continuous selfhood. This illusion arises from the agglomeration of the aggregates, but it is only dispositions and grasping that cause one to see a self in the aggregates. "When it is assumed that there is no self separated from grasping, grasping itself would be the self. Yet, this is tantamount to saying that there is no self."

    Note: karika XXVII.5

    But, he cautions, this does not mean that there is a self different from grasping. The self, then, "is neither different from grasping nor identical with it."

    Note: karika XXVII.8

    What has been refuted here is any natural existential status of the self, not the self as it has come to be in those who grasp. "A self does not exist. Yet, it is not the case that a person who does not grasp does not exist. This much is certain."

    Note: karika XXVII.8

    That is, when there is grasping, there is a belief in selfhood, and a self comes to be. Nagarjuna's point is that this self is not ultimately real.

    One may object that perhaps there are forms of "subtle existence" which do not face the above problems. The Buddha did allow for the possibility of higher realms of existence, such as realms of Gods or spirits. This was a natural corollary of the doctrine of rebirth, for one living the Eightfold Path may improve his or her station but not achieve the final enlightenment which would obviate further existences. This person would then have to be reborn, but would be reborn in a better world. However, these divine spheres of reality, while better, were still not eternal and ultimately no more satisfactory than the human sphere. Nagarjuna devotes three verses to clarifying the fact that divine existences share the same limitations as human existence.

    The thoughts of the soul's eternity or lack thereof were negated above, and now Nagarjuna negates thoughts of the universe's temporal eternity or lack thereof and its spatial infinity or lack thereof. The popular metaphor of candle flames is here used to illustrate the nature of the universe's existence. If the flame of one candle is used to ignite the wick of another candle, and then that newly-ignited candle is used to ignite a third one, then there is the appearance of a flame passing from one candle on to the next. It cannot be said that there is one identical flame passing on, for it is burning on different wicks, using different fuel sources, and in different times. Yet neither can there said to be three different flames, for there is an obvious continuity from one to the next. In the same way are the elements of which the universe is composed. The universe cannot be said to end, because continuity is observed in the series of dependently-arising elements. Nor can it be said to endure, because each entity in each moment is composed of different elements. Finally, the spatial extension of the universe cannot be theorized about in any way. "It is not possible to assert either the finite or the infinite," Nagarjuna concludes.

    Note: karika XXVII.28

    Nagarjuna has thus far dealt with three of the four unanswerable subjects: the duration of the self, the relation of the self and the body, and the temporal duration and spatial extension of the universe. What was left out of this section was a discussion of the fourth unanswerable, the posthumous existence or nonexistence of the Tathagata. It may be noted that each of the above topics was dealt with in earlier sections. It is not entirely clear why he brought them up again in the final section, but two options come to mind. First, while the first three topics appear repeatedly in the previous twenty-six sections, they were usually mentioned in passing. There was as yet not a unified treatment of each one on its own. This would also explain why a discussion of the fourth unanswerable was left out of this section: Nagarjuna did devote an entire section to the nature of the Tathagata, and it did not need to be treated again. Second, it is likely that Nagarjuna felt that the tendency to speculate on these matters was so deeply ingrained in most people and the speculations so misguided that it was worthwhile to refute them in summary one last time. This view is supported by the statement with which Nagarjuna closes the Mulamadhyamakakarika: "I reverently bow to Gautama [the Buddha] who, out of compassion, has taught the true doctrine in order to relinquish all views."

    Note: karika XXVII.30

    According to Nagarjuna, then, the Buddha's teachings were wholly for the sake of precluding metaphysical speculations and providing guidelines as to what types of views are appropriate.

    Thus ends Nagarjuna's major and most influential work. One may perhaps wish that it ended on a clearer note: the final two sections and, especially, the final verse seem to raise far more confusion than they settle. Perhaps, though, this is not a bad thing. The obscurity of the karika provides for good thesis topics for those students needing them.


    The Philosophy of Madhyamika

    In the previous chapter an attempt was made to present and explain the main themes of each section of Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika. It is hoped that this was accomplished with clarity, and that the reader now has a cursory grasp of the karika, its themes, and its method of argumentation.

    The reasons for and implications of focusing solely on the karika to present Madhyamika thought should be repeated here. This work represents the core of the entire school. Though Nagarjuna wrote somewhere between thirteen and one hundred other texts, and though his commentators were numerous and disparate, and though the possible interpretations of the meaning and intent of Madhyamika thought are quite varied, nonetheless one can point to this work as being both the sole cornerstone of the school's philosophy and the vital influence which literally provided the school with its very life-breath. Choosing this work alone may present a limited understanding of the mind and intent of Nagarjuna (e.g. it will shed no light on the question of whether Nagarjuna was a Theravadin or a Mahayanist) and it certainly will not illuminate the subsequent developments of Madhyamika thought in all its variety. What a focus on this work alone will provide is the purest and cleanest possible presentation of the fundamentals of the school.

    Note: The Buddhist tradition agrees that this is the place of this treatise, for the work became known as ``The Fundamentals of the Middle [Way].''

    A disclaimer must be forwarded in advance: it must be cautioned that any exposition of Nagarjuna's thought ultimately must be somewhat tentative. The terse form of the treatise's verses, their often cryptic quality, and the subtlety of the thought of both the Buddha and Nagarjuna all conspire to prevent any final certainties about what exactly Nagarjuna's philosophy was. Moreover, it is not always clear which of Nagarjuna's verses were meant to be an opponent's position which he then refuted, and which represented Nagarjuna's own position. Translators and interpreters of the karika, ancient and modern, frequently disagree on whether any specific verse is meant to be the right view being defended or the wrong view being negated. The above difficulties have not prevented books from being written which claim to offer definitive interpretations of Nagarjuna and Madhyamika — -on the contrary, it seems that most commentaries and studies have claimed to be conclusive. Such allegations of certainty must be suspected even if only because the studies in question often have arrived at quite diverse interpretations. This necessary caveat aside, a discussion of the main elements and significances of Madhyamika thought as expressed in the karika will now be offered.

    The primary themes of Madhyamika thought as detailed in the karika are three :

      1. the refutation of self-nature (svabhava),
      2. the examination of dependent arising pratitya samutpada),
      3. and the teaching of emptiness sunyata).
    These three are implicitly examined throughout the entire treatise, but were never isolated and scrutinized on their own. There was, it is true, a separate section devoted to each of self-nature and dependent arising, but these sections scarcely exhausted the topics nor even attempted to explain their full significance. The reason these three were not made explicit in Nagarjuna's treatise is that they were not simply three subjects among many which he wanted to investigate. Rather, they are the very substrata on which Madhyamika is based.
    • Self-nature runs throughout the karika as the insidious nemesis of Buddhist philosophy. A refutation of it was the initial inspiration for this treatise, for all false philosophical positions are based on its often subtle influence.
    • Dependent arising is the chief causal principle and is as well the shaping factor of the severe use of dialectics for which Madhyamika is so famous. It was a unique interpretation of dependent arising by Nagarjuna that provided the means by which to refute self-nature.
    • Interpreting causation in such a way as to preclude self- nature led Nagarjuna to emphasize emptiness , the concept for which he is most famous. If no entities, events, or personalities have self-nature, then they are "empty." Emptiness is the closest that the otherwise apophatic Madhyamika comes to advancing a doctrinal tenet. It is the only possible description of the ontological status of the world, and it is as well the sword which the Madhyamika uses to slash through all false views and counter all opposition. (Dependent arising is not a cataphatic assertion: it is a description, an abstract theory.) Now that a broad outline of the karika and its surface themes has been presented, these three all-pervading and heretofore largely tacit topics may be examined. Their significance will be shown to be profound and subtle and their ramifications vast.
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