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The Middle Way of Nagarjuna

February 2, 2009

mulamadhyaTitle: The Fundamental Wisdom of The Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika
Author:Nagarjuna. Transl. by Jay L. Garfield
Publisher:Oxford University Press (1995)

Lately I am doing my best to understand Mulamadhyamakakarika as posed by Nagarjuna.

I’ve been intrigued by his works for a couple of years, but could never bring myself to read any of his books. My first interest was ignited as my teacher laughed when I talked enthusiastically about Existentialism, and said instead “Go and read Nagarjuna! He is much better than Sartre, Heidegger etc.”😎

Later on I happened to read a sentence written on board by my professor of Sanskrit for the Indian Philosophy class, something like “according to Nagarjuna, every philosophy in the end will contradict itself (contradictio in terminis).” I was so curious but my classmate could not give any satisfactory answer, since hey, it’s only an introduction class about Indian Philosophy. And the professor himself? As soon as he came in he wanted us to work on Sanskrit translation😦

First I tried the translation by Prof T.R.V. Murti. But I found his exquisite expositions somehow too difficult for me to understand. Maybe it is simply that the time was not ripe yet to understand the Middle Way… anyway, I brought the book back to the library. Some times later I give it another try, the translation and commentary by Prof. Jay L. Garfield. He uses a lot of western philosophical terminology, such as Hume, Sextus and Wittgenstein.

Nagarjuna is the greatest among the philosophers whose works I’ve read in the past. Since this is the first translation and commentary of Mulamadhyamakakarika that I read, I cannot make any comparison with the earlier translations (Streng, 1967; Inada, 1970; Sprung, 1979; Kalupahana, 1986).

Being the most influental Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna’s ideas about emptiness (sunyata) are very much alive today, preserved in the Mahayana Buddhism. Though Nagarjuna never claims himself as a Mahayin, but simply as a Buddhist monk, later development of different schools of thoughts places his works in the framework of Mahayana tradition.

In the past I still got confused sometimes whether Buddha really does not teach about nihilism with the concept of selflessness (anatta). Thanks to Nagarjuna, today I can say affirmatively that The Enlightened One does not speak of nihilism. A far cry from it! Neither does he speak of reification. The Victorious One speaks of the Middle Way (aha), the way between two extremes – reification vs. nihilism.

Since both reificationists and nihilists are basically essentialists, they differ only in which truth they negate, paramarthasatya (ultimate, absolute truth) or samvrtisatya (conventional, worldly truth). Nagarjuna eloquently shows that by choosing any side, the reasoning becomes incoherent, and in the end you contradict yourself and negate your own philosophy.

What is emptiness then? In my own short formulation, the lack of essence of things seen from the ultimate truth point of view (the reificationists argue that things should have essence in order to exist); yet, it does not mean that things automatically do not exist in reality (the nihilists negate any essence at all).

Conventionally, you, the table, motion, etc exist, yet they all are empty of inherent existence (in other words, everything depends on other things to exist, so they are bound to arise and pass away). Only then, walking on the spiritual path can give fruit (nibbanic peace).

While human naturally has the tendency to reify, to acknowledge essence to everything – since you are afraid without essence life has no meaning and is utterly bleak and hopeless -, Nagarjuna shows that it is actually a paradox.

When something has inherent existence (has essence), it is uncreated and unceased (in contrast to emptiness, which ‘obligates’ things to arise and pass away). The worst case scenario, if samsara (also A thing) exists inherently, then the struggle to come out of it will be futile. Since everything that is not arisen, will never cease either. It is not possible to bring any change to the state of samsara, it is not possible to attain nibbana, or just give it a pragmatic short-term fruit, it is not possible to have a more peaceful life. Poor you…😥

Here are my favorite (optimistic) stanzas of the Mulamadhyamakakarika.

Chapter XXIV: Examination of the Four Noble Truths (it is actually about the nature of emptiness and the relation between emptiness and conventional reality), verses 20-40.

If all this were nonempty, as in your view,
There would be no arising and ceasing.
Then the Four Noble Truths
Would become nonexistent.

If it is not dependently arisen,
How could suffering come to be?
Suffering has been taught to be impermanent,
And so cannot come from its own essence.

If something comes from its own essence,
How could it ever be arisen?
It follows that if one denies emptiness
There can be no arising (of suffering).

If suffering has an essence,
Its cessation would not exist.
So if an essence is posited,
One denies cessation.

If the path has an essence,
Cultivation would not be appropriate.
If this path is indeed cultivated,
It cannot have an essence.

If suffering, arising, and
Ceasing are nonexistent,
By what path could one seek
To obtain the cessation of suffering?

If nonunderstanding comes to be
Through its essence,
How will understanding arise?
Isn’t essence stable?

In the same way, the activities of
Relinquishing, realizing, and meditating
And the four fruits
Would not be possible.

For an essentialist,
Since the fruits through their essence
Are already unrealized,
In what way could one attain them?

Without the fruits, there are no attainers of the fruits,
Or enterers. From this it follows that
The eight kinds of persons do not exist.
If these don’t exist, there is no spiritual community.

From the nonexistence of the Noble Truths
Would follow the nonexistence of the true doctrine.
If there is no doctrine and no spiritual community,
How could a Buddha arise?

For you, it would follow that a Buddha
Arises independent of enlightenment.
And for you, enlightenment would arise
Independent of a Buddha.

For you, one who through his essence
Was unenlightened,
Even by practicing the path to enlightenment
Could not achieve enlightenment.

Moreover, one could never perform
Right or wrong actions.
If this were all nonempty what could one do?
That with an essence cannot be produced.

For you, from neither right nor wrong actions
Would the fruit arise.
If the fruit arose from right or wrong actions,
According to you, it wouldn’t exist.

If, for you, a fruit arose,
From right or wrong actions,
Then, having arisen from right or wrong actions,
How could that fruit be nonempty?

If dependent arising is denied,
Emptiness itself is rejected.
This would contradict
All the worldly conventions.

If emptiness itself is rejected,
No action will be appropriate.
There would be action which did not begin,
And there would be agent without action.

If there is essence, the whole world
Will be unarising, unceasing,
And static. The entire phenomenal world
Would be immutable

If it (the world) were not empty,
Then action would be without profit.
The act of ending suffering and
Abandoning misery and defilement would not exist.

Whoever sees dependent arising
Also sees suffering
And its arising
And its cessation as well as the path.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2009 10:36

    Ada satu kutipan ajaran Sosro Kartono (kakak dari RA Kartini)…, “Ojo wani menang yen durung tahu kalah, ojo wani seneng yen durung tahu susah….”


  2. March 2, 2009 11:12

    I’m still failing to comprehend or accept the paradox of living, or existence. What does “neither this, nor that” actually mean? Is it “either this or that”?


  3. March 2, 2009 12:18

    @ Mahendra
    weh tempo hari saya cari-cari ga nemu, ternyata ini dia pengikut Kejawen ala Sosro Kartono. Tabik🙂

    @ ahgentole
    It’s neither this nor that, neither reification nor nihilism. Since if you say either this or that – it can not be both, you have to choose side – you will end up negate your very choice.

    The neither-this-nor-that explanation is the most appropriate according to Nagarjuna, because it gives meaning to your life. Otherwise action is not useful, then the next question will be: why bother to do good at all?

    Baca aja sendiri, ntar kan seneng, banyak pake terminologi filsuf paska-Renaisans, jadi bisa dimengerti sama yang mulai kenal filsafat dari barat😎

  4. March 2, 2009 13:05

    I have been trying to read this post since the first time I saw it. I need the right mood to read this kind of writing. That’s the problem.

    • March 2, 2009 15:07

      I agree with you, this kind of reading is no light stuff to chew on. You should keep in mind though, that Nagarjuna speaks from a Buddhist perspectives, i.e. cyclical existence instead of linear one.

      Gautama teaching is about how to liberate yourself from suffering. It’s not so much about heaven-hell in afterlife but more about being a better person, having a peaceful life now. Everyone needs to work on their own liberation. There is no place for Buddha or other supreme Being that can grant you heaven or make you live happily ever after.

      I find it more comprehensive in explaining human nature and problems. Among others, our questions concerning existence and the meaning of life itself.

  5. Bajwema permalink
    March 15, 2009 21:21

    Hmm…and so?

  6. July 6, 2010 21:16

    When you realize that nothing in the real world is 100% good or 100% bad, then you can recognize that “Reality is Between the Dualities”.
    This is the key to understanding the Middle Way.

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