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Biographical Sketch by Universal Theosophy

NagarjunaOften viewed as the greatest or most important philosopher of the Buddhists 1, Nāgārjuna plays a central role in the transmission of Buddhist thought. H.P. Blavatsky views him as “one of the founders of the esoteric Mahayâna systems” 2; he is traditionally known as the founder of the Mādhyamika school; and also as the 14th patriarch of Zen (Chan) Buddhism, among other titles. Some have gone so far as to call him the “second Buddha”. All specific claims aside, his unique and central role in Buddhism as a whole is undeniable.

While biographical sources are limited, vague and often mythic, the importance of Nāgārjuna is well illustrated by a verse from the Lankavatara wherein a prophetic statement attributed to Buddha, and believed by many to be in reference to Nāgārjuna, reads:

In Vedali, in the southern part, a Bhikshu most illustrious and distinguished [will be born]; his name is Nagahvaya, he is the destroyer of the one-sided views based on being and non-being. He will declare my Vehicle, the unsurpassed Mahayana, to the world; attaining the stage of Joy he will go to the Land of Bliss. 3

Western scholars typically place Nāgārjuna in the second century CE, though H.P. Blavatsky placed his date of birth as 223 BCE 1. Nāgārjuna’s birth has also been given as “400 years after the death of Buddha”, which would place him in the second century BCE, 4 and elsewhere as 700 years after the death of Buddha. However, as with many Buddhist personages, the true history of Nāgārjua is steeped in mystery and myth. Very little is known about his life with any certainty, including when he lived, which treatises he is responsible for, and his true role in the founding of various schools of Buddhism. 5

It is generally agreed, however, that Nāgārjuna was an Indian born into a Brahman family, and that he was originally educated in Indian thought. Myths abound as to the details of his early life and his conversion to Buddhism, but it is said that Kapimala (the thirteenth patriarch) was directly responsible for both his conversion and early learning. 6 Of central interest in the history of Nāgārjuna is his association with the Nagas, the ‘serpents’ or great kings (a term associated with wise men or initiates). Various biographies have him instructed by the Nagas, while others have him teaching or even healing Nagas, but the underlying idea is one in which Nāgārjuna is associated with the wise or with wisdom. 7

Nāgārjuna is often looked upon as a reformer – Buddhist thought and practice having degraded since the time of Gautama Buddha, he is said to have set about restoring the discipline to its original purity. In some traditions, this is said to have been done first as Abbot of Nalanda University, a Buddhist School in eastern India (though the dates here may become problematic), and afterwards through the development of the philosophy of the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras and through the spreading of Mahayāna thought, chiefly by presenting “a system of reasoning which, because it steers a flawless course between the two extremes of existence and non-existence, became known as the ‘philosophy of the middle way’, or ‘Madhyamaka’.” 8 Due to the veiled nature of his history, it is thus to the teachings of Nāgārjuna that we must look for a better sense of who this great teacher was and what were his views.

The central text unanimously attributed to Nāgārjuna is the Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way), and it is in this text that the core of Nāgārjuna’s teachings are contained. We must be careful at the outset, however, not to view Nāgārjuna’s work as the presentation of a new philosophy, but rather as a refinement of the old, or a countering of the errors that had crept into Buddhist thought. Nāgārjuna seems to have been primarily interested in encouraging students to forgo the grasping of any particular idea or ideas. As one author says:

“Nagarjuna was trying to release people from this grasping of viewpoints by pointing out that all things are, without exception, empty and this includes causality, the Four Noble Truths, the Dharma, and Buddhism itself. This is Nagarjuna’s good medicine to overcome the sickness of attachments and erroneous views.” 9

Another states:

“Essentially, this attitude could be called a ‘non-fixation’ or ‘non-clinging’ attitude. Abiding by the Middle Way means not clinging to any extreme, … that is to say, to any of the rigid and biassed ethical or metaphysical standpoints which we more or less consciously tend to adopt…” 10

Many attempts have been made to explain what the Mādhyamika philosophy is, what it stands for and what it teaches, but as the same author rightly observes “the notion of ‘Mādhyamika standpoint’ is self-contradictory” and that “the Mādhyamika has no thesis of his own, or, more generally speaking, no philosophical position”, 10 this being due to the very “non-grasping” nature of Nāgārjuna’s teachings. He did not teach a new philosophy that itself could be grasped as containing the truth, but rather pointed out the essential problem with regarding any philosophical assertion as containing the truth. This is exemplified in the concept of “emptiness” prevalent in the Mādhyamika, though emptiness does not equate to nothingness. Emptiness (or śūnyatā) becomes a profound teaching tool for the student, allowing one to maintain the equilibrium of the middle-way by removing the belief that one’s concepts contain the absolute truth and therefore opening one to greater wisdom.

We see this tool used in distinguishing between Paramārtha and Samvṛti (“absolute and conditional, one and many, noumena and phenomena, universal and particular” 11). As D.T. Suzuki observes:

“The advocate of the [Mādhyamika] sect declares that the discrimination between the Paramārtha and Samvṛti, or in other words, between what appears to us, and what is in itself, is not absolute; that they have only relative Value because it is the condition by which our imperfect understanding conceives existence. Noumena and phenomena have no objective reality as some suppose; for if they have, the truth becomes dualistic and therefore conditional, and that which is conditional cannot be the truth. Nor are they subjective forms inherent in our mind as others affirm; for if so, our reason becomes incapable of grasping the truth which must be absolute, transcending all modes of relativity.” 11

We come then, to the emptiness of the ideas, which can only ever point towards the truth, but can never be it. Nāgārjuna takes the teaching of Emptiness to its ultimate profundity when he says that even “Emptiness itself is empty. Those who cling to it as if it were something existent are really incurable”. 10 Thus again, non-grasping is shown in its central role.

This hint at the profound philosophic subtlety of his teachings reveal Nāgārjuna to have rightly been called the greatest Buddhist philosopher. We can glimpse at the way Nāgārjuna went about his reform of Buddhist thought and practice in the method of discrimination utilized in his chief work, and thus can see that his mark on Buddhist thought, whether one look to the Zen tradition, to the Mādhyamika school, or to the Mahayāna in general, was and is immense.

^^1. Theosophical Glossary, see Nâgârjuna. See also The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Jay Garfield, and other biographical sources.

^2. Theosophical Glossary, see Mâdhyamikas.

^3. The Lankavatara Sutra: A Mahayana Text, translated from the original Sanskrit by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. See also Life of Nagarjuna, from Ocean of Nectar by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and “The problem of the historical Nagarjuna revisited“, Ian Mabbett for two different translations of this verse. See also Life of Nāgārjuna from Tibetan and Chinese Sources, by M. Walleser for an examination of this verse in its historical context.

^4. See Life of Nagarjuna, from Ocean of Nectar by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. See also Theosophical Glossary, Mahayâna (books of the Mahayāna written in second century BCE) and Nâgârjuna (founder of esoteric Mahayāna school).

^5. See “The problem of the historical Nagarjuna revisited“, Ian Mabbett, The Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol.118 No.3, 1998. See also “The Zen Teachings of Nagarjuna“, by Vladimir K., June 2004.

^6. See Nagarjuna, the Fourteenth Patriarch, from The Record of Transmitting the Light: Zen Master Keizan’s Denkoroku, translated by Francis Dojun Cook. See also Theosophical Glossary, Nâgârjuna.

^7. “The allegory that regarded Nâgârjuna’s “Paramârtha” as a gift from the Nâgas (Serpents) shows that he received his teachings from the secret school of adepts, and that the real tenets are therefore kept secret.” — Theosophical Glossary, Nâgârjuna.

^8. Life of Nagarjuna, from Ocean of Nectar by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.

^9. “The Zen Teachings of Nagarjuna“, by Vladimir K., June 2004.

^^10. On Madhyamika Philosophy, by Jacques May (see below)

^11. The Madhyamika School in China, by D. T. Suzuki (see below)

Biographical Snippets from the Theosophical Sources

Nâgârjuna (Sk.). An Arhat, a hermit (a native of Western India) converted to Buddhism by Kapimala and the fourteenth Patriarch, and now regarded as a Bodhisattva-Nirmanakaya. He was famous for his dialectical subtlety in metaphysical arguments; and was the first teacher of the Amitâbha doctrine and a representative of the Mahâyâna School. Viewed as the greatest philosopher of the Buddhists, he was referred to as “one of the four suns which illumine the world”. He was born 223 b.c., and going to China after his conversion converted in his turn the whole country to Buddhism.

Mahayâna (Pal.). A school; lit., “the great vehicle”. A mystical system founded by Nâgârjuna. Its books were written in the second century b.c.

Mâdhyamikas (Sk.). A sect mentioned in the Vishnu Purâna. Agreeably to the Orientalists, a “Buddhist sect, which is an anachronism. It was probably at first a sect of Hindu atheists. A later school of that name, teaching a system of sophistic nihilism, that reduces every proposition into a thesis and its antithesis, and then denies both, has been started in Tibet and China. It adopts a few principles of Nâgârjuna, who was one of the founders of the esoteric Mahayâna systems, not their exoteric travesties. The allegory that regarded Nâgârjuna’s “Paramârtha” as a gift from the Nâgas (Serpents) shows that he received his teachings from the secret school of adepts, and that the real tenets are therefore kept secret.

Prasanga Madhyamika (Sk.). A Buddhist school of philosophy in Tibet. it follows, like the Yogâchârya system, the Mahâyâna or “Great Vehicle” of precepts; but, having been founded far later than the Yogâchârya, it is not half so rigid and severe. It is a semi-exoteric and very popular system among the literati and laymen.

Ekasloka Shastra (Sk.). A work on the Shastras (Scriptures) by Nagarjuna; a mystic work translated into Chinese.

Lang-Shu (Chin.). The title of the translation of Nagarjuna’s work, the Ekasloka-Shastra.

Theosophical Glossary

Nâgârjuna the founder of the Madhyamika School was called the “Dragon Tree,” Dragon standing as a symbol of Wisdom and Knowledge. — Voice of the Silence


Traditional Biographical Sources

Abridged Biography of Nagarjuna by Vasilief, tr. E. Lyall

Nâgârjuṇa was born in Southern India. He was descended from a Brahmanical family; he was naturally endowed with eminent qualities; and whilst yet a child he taught the four Vedas, each of which contained 40,000 gâthas (each of which is composed of 42 letters or syllables). He travelled into various kingdoms, and learned all the secular sciences, such as astronomy, geography, secret and magical powers; then he entered into friendship with three very distinguished men, and, having obtained power to render himself invisible, he glided with them into royal palaces, where he began to disgrace the women. Their presence was discovered by the print of their feet; the three companions of Nâgârjuṇa were hewn to pieces, and he himself was saved only by first making a vow to adopt the spiritual state (Buddhist). Accordingly, having arrived on the monntains, at the stûpa of Buddha, he uttered his vows, and in ninety days he learned the three Piṭakas, the deepest meaning of which he penetrated. Then he began to search for the other Sûtras, but he found them nowhere; it was only on the summit of the Snowy Mountains that a very old Bhikshu gave him The Sûtra of Mahâyâna, the depth of the meaning of which he comprehended, without being able to discover the detailed explanations of it. All the opinions of the Tirthikas and Śramaṇas seemed to him worthless; in his pride he supposed himself a founder of a new religion, and invented new vows and a new costume for his disciples. Then Nâgarâja (King of the Dragons) concentrated himself in him, took him with him to his palace at the bottom of the sea, and showed him there seven deposits of precious objects, with the Vaipulya books and other Sûtras of a deep and mystical meaning; Nâgârjuṇa read them for ninety consecutive days, and then returned to the earth with a casket. There was at this time in Southern India a king who knew very little of the true doctrine; Nâgârjuṇa, wishing to attract all his attention, appeared before him for seven years with a red flag, and when the king, in course of a prolonged conversation with him, asked him, as a proof of his universal knowledge, to tell him what was going on in heaven, Nâgârjuṇa declared that there was war between the Asuras and the Devas, and to confirm his words there fell from heaven an arm and some mutilated limbs of the Asuras. Then the king was convinced, and ten thousand Brâhmaṇs gave up wearing their hair in knots (that is to say, they were shaved), and made the vows of perfection (that is, of the spiritual calling). Then Nâgârjuṇa spread Buddhism widely in Southern India: he humbled the Tîrthikas, and to explain the doctrines of the Mahâyâna he composed the Upadeśa, of 100,000 gâthas; besides that, he composed Chyuane iane fo lao lune, ‘The Sublime Path of Buddha,’ consisting of 5,000 gâthas; Da tzzi fane biane lune, ‘The Art of Pity,’ consisting of 50 gâthas (5,000 ?). It was by means of these that the doctrine of the Mahâyâna spread on all sides in Southem India. Besides these he composed U veï lune, ‘Meditations on Intrepidity,’ in 100,000 gâthas. 1 A Brâhmaṇ who had entered into discussion with him produced a magic pond in the middle of which was a water-lily with a thousand leaves, but Nâgârjuṇa produced a magic elephant which overturned the pond. At length, upon a chief of the Hinayâna showing a desire that Nâgârjuṇa should die, he shut himself up in his solitary chamber and disappeared. For a hundred years temples were raised in his honour in all the kingdoms of India, and people began to worship him as they did Buddha. As his mother had borne him under an Arjuṇa tree, he received the name of Arjuṇa, and as after that a Nâga (dragon) had taken part in his conversion, the name Nâga was added, whence has resulted the name Nâgârjuṇa (in Chinese Lune-chu, dragon-tree; the Thibetans translate it ‘converted by a dragon’). He was the thirteenth patriarch, and administered religion more than three hundred years. 2

Note: This biography (along with others) was translated into Chinese under the dynasty of Yao-tzine (Yao Xing), A.D. 384-417, by Kumâraśya (Kumarajiva). From this M. Vassilief derives the above abridged life. (see source)


1. We do not now find all these works of Nâgârjuṇa either in Chinese or Thibetan, though there are others that go under his name.

2. This note is found in the Chinese biography.


Zen Master Keizan's Denkoroku

Nagarjuna, the Fourteenth Patriarch


The Record of Transmitting the Light

Zen Master Keizan’s Denkoroku

Translated by Francis Dojun Cook

Full Text Online (Google Books)


Modern Biographies

Life of Nāgārjuna from Tibetan and Chinese Sources, by M. Walleser

The Problem of the Historical Nāgārjuna by Ian Mabbett

The Zen Teachings of Nagarjuna

Life of Nagarjuna, from Ocean of Nectar by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso


Traditional Accounts of Works

…it is not easy to come up with a precise list of texts Nāgārjuna composed. This is partly due to the fact that different authors bearing the name “Nāgārjuna” might have lived during different periods of the development of Buddhist thought in India, and partly due to the tendency of attributing newly composed works to the great authorities of the past. For the present purposes, however, we can divide Nāgārjuna’s works into three main groups (further discussion can be found in Ruegg 1981). In the list I give here the ascription of the works mentioned to Nāgārjuna is largely uncontested.

  1. The argumentative works
    1. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (MMK) (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā). This is the most important of Nāgārjuna’s works. In its 450 stanzas it expounds the entire compass of his thought and constitutes the central text of the “philosophy of the Middle Way”. It has been commented upon by a large number of later authors.
    2. The Sixty Stanzas on Reasoning (Yuktiṣaṣṭikā). A shorter treatise, discussing the notions of emptiness and dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda).
    3. The Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness (Śūnyatāsaptati). Another short treatise, dealing in addition with questions of agency and the two truths.
    4. The Dispeller of Disputes (Vigrahavyāvartanī). In this work of seventy verses with an autocommentary in prose Nāgārjuna responds to a set of specific objections raised against his system. These objections come both from Buddhist and non-Buddhist opponents and initiate discussions of topics which do not get much coverage in Nāgārjuna’s other works (in particular epistemology and the philosophy of language).
    5. The Treatise on Pulverization (Vaidalyaprakaraṇa). A very interesting and difficult work in which Nāgārjuna sets out to refute the logical categories of the non-Buddhist Nyāya school. Like d. this text has never attracted the attention of classical commentators.
    6. The Precious Garland (Ratnāvalī). A long text addressed to a king containing a comprehensive discussion of ethical questions. Because discussion of the theory of emptiness plays a comparatively minor role in this text it is sometimes subsumed under the epistolary works (see below).
  2. The hymns (Catuḥstava). There is some discussion which of the various hymns ascribed to Nāgārjuna actually make up the quartet of ‘four hymns’ often referred to in the commentarial literature. They differ in interesting respects from the works mentioned in the preceding section. Common to many of them is a positive conception of ultimate truth which ascribes specific qualities to it and gets close to the theory of Buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha) that became very important in the later development of Buddhist thought.
  3. The epistolary works. The Friendly Letter (Suhṛllekha), like the Precious Garland (Ratnāvalī), which is sometimes assigned to this group is a work addressed to a king. This fact may explain why the text is primarily concerned with ethical matters. It devotes relatively little space to the kind of philosophical discussion which is Nāgārjuna’s most characteristic contribution to Buddhist thought.


The works of Nagarjuna, according to Christian Lindtner are:

  • Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way)
  • Śūnyatāsaptati (Seventy Verses on Emptiness)
  • Vigrahavyāvartanī (The End of Disputes)
  • Vaidalyaprakaraṇa (Pulverizing the Categories)
  • Vyavahārasiddhi (Proof of Convention)
  • Yuktiṣāṣṭika (Sixty Verses on Reasoning)
  • Catuḥstava (Hymn to the Absolute Reality)
  • Ratnāvalī (Precious Garland)
  • Pratītyasamutpādahṝdayakārika (Constituents of Dependent Arising)
  • Sūtrasamuccaya
  • Bodhicittavivaraṇa (Exposition of the Enlightened Mind)
  • Suhṛllekha (Letter to a Good Friend)
  • Bodhisaṃbhāra (Requisites of Enlightenment)

(source: Nagarjuniana: Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Nagarjuna, Chr. Lidtner)

A table of all the works traditionally accredited to Nagarjuna would need to include a very large number of texts extant in Tibetan and Chinese, as well as those in Sanskrit, but many of these are not taken seriously and need not concern us. There is no space here for a review of the case for including or excluding particular works in a bibliography of Nagarjuna; we can only note that the attributions of modern scholars all differ, as can be seen from a comparison of the conclusions of a number of writers: Winternitz,(14) Robinson,(15) T. R.V. Murti,(16) D. Seyfort Ruegg,(17) C. Lindtner,(18) and P. L. Vaidya.(19)

There is perhaps only a small core of the philosophical texts that clearly belong with the Mulamadhyamakakarikas as the work of one author. Of the works credited to Nagarjuna in the Tibetan tradition, six (the Mulamadhyamakakarikah, Sunyatasaptati, Vigrahavyavartani, Vaidalyaprakarana, Vyavaharasiddhi and Yuktisastika) are listed together as works of Nagarjuna by Buston (thirteenth to fourteenth centuries); these are specifically philosophical works. Elsewhere, as has sometimes been overlooked, he mentions others – the Ratnavali, Sutrasamuccaya, Bodhisambhara[ka], Suhrllekha, and the Svapnacintamaniparikatha.(20) The credentials of the Sunyatasaptati, the Vigrahavydvartani and the Yuktisastika are rarely disputed. It is difficult to study the Vigrahavyavartani, for example, without recognizing the essential identity of thought behind it and the Karikas. The Catuhstava, also commonly attributed to Nagarjuna I, is a special case which will be noticed further below; it is a set of four devotional hymns, thus quite different in genre from the others mentioned, and there is doubt about which particular four hymns constitute it. Also significant is the attribution of the Sutrasamuccaya to Nagarjuna by Santideva in his Bodhicaryavatara,(21) which constitutes a relatively early attribution of one core text.

Some of the works traditionally attributed to Nagarjuna (and accepted as his works by C. Lindtner(22)), such as the Bodhicittavivarana and the Vaidalyaprakarana, have had their authenticity seriously questioned.(23) The attribution to Nagarjuna of the Suhrllekha, a manual largely of ethical teachings in the form of a letter to a friend, a king, has been contested.(24) As for the Ratnavali, T. Vetter’s analysis of its metrical characteristics and word frequency casts doubt upon it too.(25)

Among the miscellaneous works of chemistry and medicine traditionally ascribed to Nagarjuna, it should be noted that the Yogasataka, a medical text, has been accepted by Filliozat,(26) but the attribution is arguably implausible.(27)

The Mahaprajnaparamitopadesa has long been treated as an authentic work of Nagarjuna, but in fact is unlikely to be by him despite the weight of tradition; Lamotte originally accepted the tradition but changed his mind before he edited the third volume of his study and translation.(28)

The only conclusion that can be advanced here is that relatively few works can be treated with any confidence as authentic creations of the master.

The Problem of the Historical Nāgārjuna by Ian Mabbett


Verses from the Centre

Sanskrit: Mula madhyamaka karika.

Tibetan: dBu ma rtsa ba’i tshig le’ur byas pa shes rab ces bya ba.

by Nagarjuna

Romanization and Literal English Translation of the Tibetan Text

by Stephen Batchelor, Sharpham College, April 2000

Full Text Online (PDF)

The Madhyamika School

Entries from Theosophical Glossaries

Mâdhyamikas (Sk.). A sect mentioned in the Vishnu Purâna. Agreeably to the Orientalists, a “Buddhist sect, which is an anachronism. It was probably at first a sect of Hindu atheists. A later school of that name, teaching a system of sophistic nihilism, that reduces every proposition into a thesis and its antithesis, and then denies both, has been started in Tibet and China. It adopts a few principles of Nâgârjuna, who was one of the founders of the esoteric Mahayâna systems, not their exoteric travesties. The allegory that regarded Nâgârjuna’s “Paramârtha” as a gift from the Nâgas (Serpents) shows that he received his teachings from the secret school of adepts, and that the real tenets are therefore kept secret.

Prasanga Madhyamika (Sk.). A Buddhist school of philosophy in Tibet. it follows, like the Yogâchârya system, the Mahâyâna or “Great Vehicle” of precepts; but, having been founded far later than the Yogâchârya, it is not half so rigid and severe. It is a semi-exoteric and very popular system among the literati and laymen.

— Theosophical Glossary

Bumapa (Tibetan) [possibly dbu ma pa (u-ma-pa) translation of Sanskrit madhyamaka or madhyamika the school of Buddhist philosophy which follows Nagarjuna] “A school of men, usually a college of mystic students” (TG 69).

Madhyamikas (Sanskrit) Mādhyamika-s Belonging to the middle way; a sect mentioned in the Vishnu-Purana, probably at first a sect of Hindu atheists. A school of the same name was founded later in Tibet and China, and as it adopted some of the esoteric principles taught by Nagarjuna, one of the great founders of the esoteric Mahayana system, it had certain elements of esoteric truth. But because of its tendency by means of thesis and antithesis to reduce everything into contrary categories, and then to deny both, it may be called a school of Nihilists for whom everything is an illusion and an error in the world of thought, in the subjective as well as in the objective universe. This school is a good example of the danger of wandering too far in mere intellectual disquisition from the fundamental bases of the esoteric philosophy, for such merely brain-mind activity will infallibly lead to a philosophy of barren negation.

— Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary


Traditional Perspectives

Notes on the Madhyamika Philosophy, by D. T. Suzuki

Notes on the Mādhyamika Philosophy.


Mr. T. Suzuki.

The Mādhyamika School is known in China as the “Three Çāstra Sect” which was first introduced by Kumāra-jīva in A.D. 401. With many other Çāstras and Sūtras, he translated into Chinese Nagārjuna’s “Dvādaçanikāya-Çāstra,” “Mādhyamika Çāstra,” and Kaṇa-deva’s (the most eminent disciple of Nāgarjuna) “Çata-Çāstra.” These three works constitute the canonical books of the Three Çāstra sect. Though the sect flourished only about three hundred years after the first introduction into Chinese soil, the three Çāstras are still studied by Buddhists in Japan and probably in China where Buddhism is at present in a comatose state. The best commentary on the Mādhyamika Çāstra is that of Ka-jo Vaishi (A D. 538-623) one of the most influential and able leaders of the sect.

Kumāra-jīva’s Chinese translation of the Mādhyamika Çāstra with the commentary of Piṇgala-netra who was otherwise call d. Kaṇadeva or Candra Kīrtti (though Chinese and Japanese authorities do not confirm it) appeared in 409 A.D. The further commentaries or rather the expositions of the Mādhyamika philosophy by Asaṇga and Sthitamati still exist in Chinese translation.

As to the literature of the Sarvāsti-Vāda School which was also called the Vaibhāṣīka or Vibhajavādin, there are a great number of materials still preserved in China and Japan. The first of all we have the collection of Abhidharmas which are supposed to have been compiled by 500 Arhats in the third convocation in Kashmtira. We are also in possession of the seven Abhidharmas whose authorship is ascribed to some of Buddha’s immediate disciples (see Tāranātha, of Wassiljew, Kern, etc.). The works by Dharmatrāta, Ghoṣaka, Vasumitra, Saṇghabhadra, Dharmaçrī, Vasubandhu also found their Chinese translators and are all studied by Japanese Buddhist scholars. Rockhill in his “Life of Buddha” makes a very insufficient reference taken from Tibetan sources to different views held by the four most noted Vaibhāṣika teachers as regards the reality of existence.

The Mādhyamika School is spoken to be a Nāstivāda in contradistinction to Sarvāstivādas and some times to Yogācāra’s realistic views. I do not think there was any Chinese Buddhist sect particularly called Nāstivāda.

In China and Japan many Buddhist sects are comprised under the general name Mahayana. The Mādhyamika is by no means identical with it. Most important Mahāyāna sects in Japan and China are:—

(a). The Avataṁsaka sect, which is established according to the doctrine expounded in the Avataṁsaka sūttra which is supposed by Chinese Mahāyānists to have been delivered by Buddha while deeply absorbed in Sāgara-mudrā-samādhi after the attaintment of perfect knowledge. Its philosophy is characterised by its peculiar way of treating the relation of One and Many. substance and phenomena. Buddhist scholars unanimously declare it to be the most profound of all doctrines which were preached by Buddha, so that none but a gifted genius will be able to fathom its bottomless depth. As far as I am informed, the Western scholars of Chinese Buddhism invariably fail to understand it. Though the sūttra is thickly covered with mysterious veils, it is not after all very difficult to penetrate into its case, only if one had a keen insight and were thoroughly versed in Chinese language. I wish I had time enough to analyze and explain the Avataṁsaka philosophy and to draw a parallelism between it and various systems of German philosophy.

(b). The Dharma-lakṣaṇa sect, or Vidyāmātra sect, or Yogācāra sect, or Vijnānavādin according to Kern (B. Vol. II, p. 498). The philosophy of this sect is somehow known among European scholars, but om account of their not being able to go over all available Chinese materials which are so ample, it is but meagrely elucidated by them. The most important works of this sect are those by Asaṇga and his brother Vasubandhu. Hieun Tsang who introduced it into China translated all of them and his disciples finished the compilation of important commentaries on them. Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakoça is much known by name though its fragmentary original is said to have been recovered while his principal work Vidyāmātrasiddhiçastrakārikā is almost entirely ignored even by those who are considered to be the best authority of Chinese Buddhism.

(c). The Mantra sect. It is the esoteric system of the Mahāyāna introduced into China by Vajrabodhi in 720 A.D. Though we, by careful study can find in it those characteristic points of the Mahāyāna School, it is full of tāntric terminology which will at first entirely puzzle us.

(d). The Dhyāna sect, first introduced by Bodhidharma in 520 A.D. This sect may be called a mysticism in some sense, which however I have no sufficient space here to elucidate.

There are some other important Mahāyāna schools, such as the Sukhāvatī sect, the Vinaya sect, the Nirvāṇa sect, which grew out in Chinese land and made their full development in Japan. I am sorry I cannot give any account of them in a limited space.

5. In China or in Japan there is no Hīnayāna sect, though its texts such as Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakoçaçāstra, Harīvarman’s Satyasiddhiçāstra, or Vaibhāṣika’s canonical books have been constantly studied.

6. No Buddhist sect named Çrāvakayāna, or Pratyekayāna existed in China. According to Mahāyānists there are three classes of people, religiously and intellectually considered. Çrāvaka, Pratyekabuddha (otherwise Nidānabuddha) and Bodhisattva. If a man is endowed with deep religious instinct and keen mental calibre so that he can aspire to universal salvation and to Anuttarasamyaksambodhi, he is said to be a Bodhisattva. But if he either desires his own emancipation without caring for others, or endeavours to attain to Nirvāṇa by leading a retired life which he devotes to contemplation on the truth, is said to belong either to Çrāvakayāna or to Pratyekabuddhayāna. This distinction is clearly defined in the Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra (Kern’s English translation, p. 80).

8. Among Japanese and Chinese collections of Tripiṭaka, there is “Life of Nāgārjuna,” translated from Sanskrit by Kumāra-jiva. But it is very short and does not furnish us any important informations about the great Indian philosopher. Wassiljew’s translation of it appears in his German “Buddhismus,” p. 232 sq.

As for the date, no records which we can gather from various Chinese sources ever agree and there are about eight or so different opinions varying from two hundred to nine hundred years after the Parinirvāṇa.

9. Little is known about the life of Candrakīrti. But some identify him who is otherwise called Nīlanetra or Piṇgalanetra, with the author of the Çataçāstra, viz. Āryadeva or.. Kaṇadeva. If so, we have a short biography of Devā in the Chinese Tripiṭaka. See Wassiljew’s German translation, p. 234 et sq.

10. According to Chinese Buddhist tradition, the Prajñāpāramitāsūtra is supposed to have been taught by Buddha himself after about 20 or 30 years after the enlightenment, and Nāgārjuna’s çāstra of the same name which was translated into Chinese by Kumāra-jiva in one hundred volumes A.D. 405, is the explanatory treatise of the same doctrine. A sūtra belonging to Prajñāpāramitā class (747 volumes) was rendered into Chinese so early as A.D. 173 by an Indian Missionary.

In short Chinese Buddhism must if possible be studied in original, not merely through translation works, many of which are very misleading. As the oriental mode of thinking and expression is so different from that of European people, it seems to be very difficult for the latter to understand and appreciate it as it should be. For example, note Wassiljew’s conception of the Avataṁsakasūtra, Eitel’s or Beal’s knowledge of Ālayavijñāna.

The Madhyamika School in China, by D. T. Suzuki

The Mādhyamika School in China.

By Dr. T. Suzuki


The introduction of the Mādhyamika philosophy into China, according to an opinion prevalent among Japanese and Chinese Buddhists, was effected by Kumārajiva (A.D. 339-382-413) and Divākara who came to China A.D. 676. The so called “second introduction” by Divākara however is no introduction at all in the proper sense of the word. He neither translated nor wrote any work on the Mādhyamika. What he did was simply the impartation to Fa-tsang, a famous leader of the Avatamsaka sect, of some informations about the school, while he himself was most probably an advocate of the Vijñānavāda. The so-called “second introduction” therefore need not be considered.

Kumārajiva had four most eminent Chinese disciples who all helped him in his translation work as well as in the elucidation of the Mādhyamika philosophy. From Tao-shêng (died A.D. 434), one of the four, issues out the line of succeeding leaders of the Three Çāstra sect, which is the name given to the Chinese Mādhyamika school. In China, unlike in Tibet, the school suffered no doctrinal dissension whatever. But geographically one branch of the school was propagated in the South of the Yang-tzū-kiang and the other in the North. It is the southern school which is the true representative of Nāgarjunean philosophy and which attained to its full development in the works of Chi-tsang, generally known as Chia-hsiang Tai-shih; that is properly called the Three Çāstra sect, for the northern school which scarcely made any growth, added the Prajñāparamitāçāstra to the three canonical books.

One hundred and thirty-six years after Kumārajiva or one hundred and fifteen years after Tao-shêng, Chia-hsiang Tai-shih was born in Chin Ling, and his active life continued up to the sixth year before Hsüan-tsang made his pilgrimage to India. Besides his excellent commentaries on the three çāstras well as some sūtras, he wrote the Tai chang hsüan lun (Treatise on the Deepness of the Mahāyāna), the San lun hsüan i (Deep Significance of the Three Çāstras), and some other treatises, elucidating the principal doctrines of the Mādhyamika system, with occasional interpolations of his own original views. I have chiefly followed him in the succeeding brief exposition of the Chinese Çānyatā philosophy.

The Three Çāstra sect did not flourish very long in China. Gradually declining after the death of Chia-hsiang, it was completely excluded from the religious arena towards the end of the T’ang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). The reason why it could not enjoy a further prosperity in China is due mainly to the peculiarity of the Chinese mind which refuses to dwell on anything abstruse, and partly to the sweeping influence of the rival school, Dharmahtkṣa. sect (Yogācāra or Vijñānavāda philosophy established by Asanga), introduced and promulgated by Hsüan-tsan. We cannot indeed expect such an abstract and highly-speculative philosophy as propounded by Nāgārjnna to find any lasting support among the people who are the avowed advocate of Confucianism, a crystallization of practicality and conservatism. The work of Chia-hsiang Tai-shih may be said accordingly to be the practical start as well as the terminus of the Mādhyamika movement in China.

Outlines of the Doctrine.

The Mādhyamika philosophy has always emphasized its negative side both in India and China, and this has called forth the prejudiced and unfavorable comments of the critics of the West. But its position could be held only through the clear understanding of the negativistic view m question. One of the propositions stated by the Chinese Mādhyamika followers as the very kernel of the philosophy is the “Middle Path in the Eight negations or No’s” (Pa pu chung tao), that constitutes the first aphorism of the Mādhyamika-çāstra. In the following pages I will try to explain the statement in connection with other essential theses according to the view held by Chia-hsiang Tai-shih.

(1) Two Forms of Truth.

The discrimination of two forms of truth Paramārtha and Samvrtisatya, has been prevalent among all Mahāyāna schools. Even the Yogācāra, the rival of the Mādhyamika, adopted the conception to some extent, but treating it in its own fashion. It seems that the antagonism between the two systems just mentioned reached its climax in India some three hundred years after Nāgārjuna. Bhāvavivveka, a powerful adherent of the Cūnyatā-philosophy, wrote the Mahāyānatālaratnaçāstra against the Yogacārin Dharmapāla’s commentary on the Vijñānamātraçāstra; the former insisting on the çūnya-ness of existence, while the latter, the validness of the Parinispanna-lakṣaṇa which corresponds to the Paraamārtha of Nāgārjuna.

Accordmg to the Erh ti i chang (Views on the Two Satyas) compiled by a royal prince of the Liang dynasty (A.D. 502-555), there were already twenty-three different views in China concerning the two forms of truth. It will be noticed that the problem how to deal with the Paramārtha and Samvṛti, absolute and conditional, one and many, noumena and phenomena, universal and particular, was of a vital importance to all sects of the Mahāyāna, as was to the philosophers of the West. How did then the Three Çāstra sect solve the problem?

The advocate of the sect declares that the discrimination between the Paramārtha and Samvṛti, or in other words, between what appears to us, and what is in itself, is not absolute; that they have only relative Value because it is the condition by which our imperfect understanding conceives existence. Noumena and phenomena have no objective reality as some suppose; for if they have, the truth becomes dualistic and therefore conditional, and that which is conditional cannot be the truth. Nor are they subjective forms inherent in our mind as others affirm; for if so, our reason becomes incapable of grasping the truth which must be absolute, transcending all modes of relativity.

The Paramārtha and Samvṛti are no more than the tools or passages which are necessary for us to reach the truth. Buddha distinguished them simply to dispel our intellectual prejudices which oscillate from one extreme to another, never keeping its equilibrium or Middle Path. When it is said that things are what they appear, that they are real as characterized with individuality, ignorant minds cling to the view and entirely forget the other side of the shield, namely that they are not what they appear to us, that they are çūnya, conditional, relative, phenomenal. But when the çūnya-ness of existence is thus emphasized, they again cling to this view, utterly ignoring the truth contained in the naive realism. Clinging or one-sidedness is therefore the prejudice of our intellect, preventing us from obtaining an insight into the truth.

The truth transcends every form of separation and individuation, and therefore the attainment of the truth consists in shaking off all conceptions smutted with dualism. The distinction of the Paramārtha and Samvṛti holds good as long as they serve us as instruments for removing our mental biases; but as soon as we cling to either of them as the ultimate truth, we are doomed. “They are like the finger pointing out the moon, they are like the basket carrying the fish.” As soon as the fish is caught in the hand and the moon is noticed, there is no need of bothering ourselves with the basket and the finger. Those who cling to the absolute validity of the two truths, forgetting what purpose they serve, are like an idiot who takes the basket for the fish and the finger for the moon.

Chia-hsiang Tai-shih in this way refutes the views held by Indian as well as Chinese heretics (Taoists and Confucianists), by Hīnayānists, by the followers of the Satyasiddhiçāstra and of the Vaipulya-Mahāyānism.

From the religions point of view the Paramārtha corresponds to Prajñā, and the Samvṛti to Upāya. When Buddha proclaims that all beings in the universe have been saved by him, that they are eternally abiding in Nirvāṇa, that no one needs emancipation, he takes his standpoint on Prajñā, viewing things by the light of their Paramārtha-ness. But this being only one side of the truth, Buddha does not cling to it. He comes down from the eminence and mingles himself among the masses in order to lead them through every possible means to the final mokṣa. This is his Upāya, or to put it philosophically, the Saṁvṛti-side of things. Thus Buddha never deviates from the Middle Path.

(2) Middle Path.


Chia-hsiang Tai-shih distinguishes in the San lun hsüan i (Deep Significance of the Three Çāstras) four aspects of Middle Path, which clearly show on what basis the Chinese Mādhyamika schoul stands.

They are: (l) Middle Path in contradistinction to one-sidedness; (2) Middle Path as the abnegation of one-sidedness ; (3) Middle Path in the sense of absolute Truth; (4) Middle Path as unity in plurality.

The philosophy of Being held by Hīnayānists and the philosophy of Non-bemg held by some Mahāyānists, both are one-sided and there-fore imperfect, because the one cannot exist independently of the other. The philosophy which repudiates and avoids both extremes is to be called the doctrine of Middle Path.

A Middle Path therefore reveals itself when the two extremes are completely out of sight; in other words, the harmonization or unification of them leads to the perfect solution of existence. Neither the Āstika nor the Nāstika should be adhered to. They condition each other, and anything conditional means imperfection. So the transcending of one-sidedness constitutes the second aspect of the Middle Path.

But when we forget that the doctrine of Middle Path is intended for the removal of the intellectual prejudices and cling to or assert the view that there is something called Middle Path beyond or between the two extremes of Bemg and Non-being, we commit the fault of One-sidedness over again, by creating a third statement in opposition to the two. As long as the truth is absolute and discards all limitation clinging even to the Middle Path is against it. Thus we must avoid not only the two extremes but also the middle and it should not be forgotten that the phrase “Middle path” has from the deficiency of our language been provisionally adopted to express the human conception of the highest truth.

The final aspect of the Middle Path is that it does not lie beyond the plurality of existence, but that it is in it underlying all. The antithesis of the Āstika and the Nāstika is made possible only through the conception of the Middle Path which is the unifying principle of the universe. Remove this principle; the universe will fall into pieces and particulars Will cease to be as such. The Chinese Mādhyamika school does not deny the existence of the universe as it appears to us; it condemns on the contrary the doctrine which unconditionally clings to the conception of çūnyatā. What the school most emphatically maintains is that the universe must be conceived in its totality in its oneness, that is, from the standpoint of Middle Path.

(3) The Eight No’s.

The Eight Nos refers to the first aphorism of the Mādhyamika-çāstra which according to the Three Çāstra sect sums up the essentials of Buddhism. The aphorism is:

“I bow before the Bhagavat whose teaching crushes all sophism and stands foremost among all doctrines, declaring that there is neither creation nor destruction, neither persistence nor discontinuance, neither unity nor plurality, neither appearance, (lit. coming) nor disappearance (lit. going), that all things are conditional.”

Creation and destruction, persistence and discontinuance, unity and plurality, appearance and disappearance—these eight conceptions are the fundamental faults of ignorant minds; from which all possible prejudices and wrong judgments do emanate. People think that the law of causation (coming and going) actually operates in the objective, as well as the subjective world, that there is such a thing in reality as the persistence or discontinuance of existence, that things are in a state of transformation (creation and destruction), that substances are really capable of being counted as one or many; while they are wholly unconscious of the fact that all those ideas are limited, relative, conditional, and therefore not the truth but merely the production of our imperfect subjective state. There nestles in those ideas the principle of misery, and as the people cling to them, their life is the everlasting prey for the pendulous feeling of exultation and mortification.

Where conditionality is, there is no truth; truth and conditionality are incompatible. Therefore to attain to the truth, conditionality must be completely cast aside. The eight mistaken notions must be annulled and we must come to the conclusion that there is no real transformation, no real causation, no real persistence or discontinuance, no unity nor plurality. When our subjective mind is thus purified from the smirch of ignorance the serene moonlight of Suchness or transcendental reality (Bhūtatathatā) will illuminate our whole life.

As ignorant minds are full of limited and illusive ideas, Chia-hsiang says, we have to emphasize the negative side of the doctrine by thus refuting every misconception they would cherish; but in the face of all this, we must not forget that the clinging of some Mahāyānists to the idea of absolute nothingness (çūnyatā) which is the other extreme, is equally wrong. It is like the case of a patient who having taken a medicine for the remedy, has thereby acquired a new disease. If every medicine produces a fresh suffering, what is the use of medicine at all? The philosophy of Non-being is therefore no better than the philosophy of Being, unless they are harmonized or unified through the truth of Middle Path.

(4) How the Chinese Mādhyamika School Interpreted the Teachings of Buddha.

When various schools of Buddhism arose, each claiming to be the genuine and orthodox teaching of Buddha it was more advisable for them to try some means of reconciliation, than to denounce each other downright as false and heretical; so they tried to explain, each from its own dogmatical standpoint, why Buddha taught so many different doctrines, some of which standing in a direct antagonism to others. This tendency was conspicuous especially among the Mahāyāna Buddhists.

The first attempt known to us for a chronological explanation of the teachings of Buddha was made by Çilabhadra and Jñānaprabha in India towards the end of the sixth century of the Christian era. Jñānaprabha was an adherert of the Mādhyamika school, while Çilabhadra defended the philosophy of the Yogācāra. Both of them distinguished three stages of development in the teaching of Buddha, but each insisted that the doctrine he advocated was consummate and breathed the true spirit of Buddhism.

Since the transplantation of Buddhism into the Chinese soil, every Mahāyāna school attempted a chronological explanation concordant with its own doctrinal standpoint for the many-sided religious system of Çākyamuni. Chia-hsiang Tai-shih representing the Chinese Mādhyamika philosophy had of course had his own explanation.

The object of this kind of interpretation given by the various Mahāyāna schools excluding the Three Çāstra sect was the exaltation of their own doctrines at the expense of those of others. Each therefore endeavoured to degrade the other as “imperfect,” “provisional” or “deficient.” But the Three Çāstra sect viewed the matter in quite a different light. It acknowledged that the teachings of Buddha were many-sided and broad enough to permit diverse explanations; but it did not make any further assertion; and it did not proclaim like others that one explanation was superior to or more perfect than the other. Chia-hsiang says, Buddha knew that there was a variety of intellectual calibres, and that particular doctrines of his would more properly suit to certain classes of people than to the rest. For instance, th Hīnayānist teaching perfectly met the needs of the Çrāvaka, but the spiritual thirst of the Bodhisattva could not be appeased by it, and he aspired to a different system of doctrine. On that account we must not however consider the latter as being superior to the former, because the Mahāyāna was as unsatisfactory and imperfect to tile Çrāvaka as the Hīnayāna was to the Bodhisattva.

Chia-h iang Tai-shi.h was not disposed to make any judgment of preference in the teachings of Buddha. Nevertheless he could not help noticing a logical development in them. He classified the Dharma into three Dharmacakras, (1) Fundamental; (2) Peripheral; (3) Reductive.

The Fundamental Dharmacakra is the Avataṁsakasūtra which was delivered by Buddha soon after his attainment of the Bodhi and in which his fundamental thought was most elaborately and to the full extent disclosed. But the audience to whom this most important sūtra was first revealed were not as strong in their mental capacity as Buddha himself and therefore were in a complete bewilderment to find out the real import of Buddha’s preaching. When he realized the fact, he thought he should have first prepared their minds to be in such a condition as would be capable to comprehend the highest truth. The Āgama, Viçeṣacintā, Çrīmālā, Vimalakīrttinirdeça, and many other sūtras all deal with this preparation stage. They are not fundamental; they do not represent the kernel of Buddhism; they belong to the periphery as it were. We must not linger long about the superficiality, if we wish to dive deeply into the bottom of truth. Thereupon Buddha preached the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka as the teaching reductive leading to the Fundamental Dharmacakra. By this sūtra the Çrāvakayāna, Pratyekabuddhayāna and Bodhisattvayāna are all reduced or led to be one Yāna of Middle Path.


Commentaries On The Chung Lung (Mādhyamikaçāstra).

There are four commentaries on the Mādhyamikaçāstra by Indian authors still existent in Chinese translations. They are:—

(1) The Mādhyamikaçāstra, by Piṇgala. Tr. by Kumārajiva, A.D. 409. Four fasciculi. Twenty-seven chapters.

(2) The Mādhyāntānugamaçāstra by Asanga. Tr. by Prajñāruci, A.D. 543. Two fasciculi. 13,727 Chinese characters.

(3) The Prajñādīpaçāstravyākhyā, by Fēn pieh ming (distinction-brightness or The Madhyamika School in China_1, Tr. by Prabhāmitra, A.D. 630. Fifteen fasciculi. Twenty-seven chapters.

(4) The Mahāyānamadhyamakaçāstravyākhya, by Sthitamati. Tr. by Weitsang, circa A.D. 980. Eight fasciculi. Seventeen chapters.

* * * * *

The Dvādaçanikāyaçāstra.

The book is ascribed to Nāgārjuna, and translated into Chinese by Kumārajiva, A.D. 408. It consists of twelve nikāyas, each one of which proving the çānyatā or conditionality of existence from several points of view. Its principal statements are:—

All things are conditional. They have no noumena. or “things in themselves.”

There is no such thing as creation.

All thingS exist through the interrelation of the four conditions (as enumerated in the first chapter of the Mādhyamikaçāstra), but when they are taken by themselves have nothing to do with the existence.

We think things appear, persist, and disappear, but these conceptions are illusive.

Things are known by their attributes, but attributes themselves are çūnya.

Being is made possible by Non-bemg, and vice versa, but we cannot think of the co-existence of the two.

We observe transformation everywhere, since things are not self-existing.

The conception of causation has no absolute value.

There is no doer, no doing, no deed.

Anteriority, posteriority, simultaneity are unthinkable.

The Çataçāstra.

By Deva commented by Vasubandhu, the Chinese translation is by Kumārajiva A.D. 404. A disciple of the translator states in his preface to the book that the original text consisted of one hundred gāthās, the latter of which however not being considered to be useful to the Chinese reader, was left untranslated. The present work consists of two fasciculi and ten chapters. It is chiefly a refutation of Indian philosophical systems outside of Buddhism. The main points are:—

Merit and demerit are relative. We have to transcend all modes of limitation. There is no creator. The law of identity as well as the law of non-identity are untenable. The existence of the subject and of the object is not thinkable. To affirm that a combination of conditions produces a new substance is illogical. It is also not logical to affirm the contrary. It is wrong to assert the permanence or fixity of things, while the unconditional maintenance of the çūnyatā doctrine is equally faulty.

(Sd.)          T. Suzuki.

          La Salle,

               Ill, U.S.A.

On Madhyamika Philosophy, by Jacques May

On Mādhyamika Philosophy

By Jacques May

About twenty years ago, I translated some chapters of Candrakīti’s Prasannapadā into French. I have done little more since. However, recently I have had the opportunity of explaining some passages of Āryadeva’s Catuhśataka at the University of Kyōto, and I have prepared, for the next issue of Hōbōgirin, two articles connected with Mādhyamika. One is Chūdō , which Dr. Mimaki Katsumi and I jointly wrote some time ago. The other is Chūgan ,which I am now in the process of writing. This has enabled me to brush up my ideas on Mādhyamika.

Mādhyamika is by no means an easy philosophy and I fmd it difficult to express these ideas even in French, my own language. I hope my English will not be too inadequate or too obscure.

Why is the school called Madhyamaka or Mādhyamika? This name refers to the adjective madhyama, ‘middle’, and more particularly to madhyamā pratipad (pratipad being here understood), the Middle Way.

Now, the Middle Way constitutes the fundamental principle of Buddhism as a whole. So it could be conceived that all Buddhists should be called Madhyamaka or Mādhyamika. But the very title which Nāgārjuna gave to his main work, the Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā, and the name of the school which drew its inspiration from it, well enough indicate that from the very start the master and his followers intended to go to the end of the not only ethical, but metaphysical or even better existential attitude which is implied in abiding by the Middle Way.

Essentially, this attitude could be called a ‘non-fixation’ or ‘non-clinging’ attitude. Abiding by the Middle Way means not clinging to any extreme (anta, hen ),that is to say, to any of the rigid and biassed ethical or metaphysical standpoints which we more or less consciously tend to adopt under the pressure of the karmic factors (saṃskāra) we are made of. These extremes can be summarized in two antinomies: from the ethical point of view, the antinomy between rigorism and laxism; from the metaphysical point of view, the antinomy between substantialism and nihilism. The former was denounced by the Buddha himself from the very start of his preaching. The latter was the fruit of later philosophical reflection; it is most formally expressed in the Kātyāyana-avavāda-sūtra. On this sūtra, information will be found collected in the article Chūdō of Hōbōgirin. I will only quote Nāgārjuna’s kārikā XIII.7 which mentions the text:

XIII.7. Kātyāyanāvavāde cāstīti nāstīti cobhayam |
pratiṣiddhaṃ Bhagavatā bhāvābhāva-vibhāvinā ||.

I do not intend to approach the question of Mādhyamika ethics. Not that it is non-existent or uninteresting; but it has been studied so far comparatively very little, and would ask for an inquiry which I am not in a position to undertake. I just wish to point out that a Swiss colleague of mine, a Roman Catholic priest, Father Pierre Python of Fribourg (Switzerland), has written a short but very inspiring account on this question in the introduction of his French translation of Upāli-paripṛcchā.

As for the Mādhyamika philosophical standpoint, there have been many attempts at defining it. It is actually a difficult thing to do, for the notion of ‘Mādhyamika standpoint’ is self-contradictory, as could already be gathered from the ‘non-clinging attitude’ evoked above, and as we shall see it stated formally by Nāgārjuna. From the point of view of saṃvṛti-satya, however, theses can always be stated, provided it is remembered that they are only provisional. In the introduction to his translation of Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa-sūtra, Professor Lamotte defines, with numerous references, six major Mādhyamika theses. They run as follows: (1) All dharmas are without self-being (niḥsvabhāva), empty of self-being (svabhāva-śūnya). (2) All dharmas are non-produced (anutpanna) and non-destroyed (aniruddha). (3) All dharmas are originally quiet (ādi-śānta) and by nature in complete nirvāṇa (prakṛti-parinirvṛta). (4) The dharmas are without a character (alakṣaṇa) and consequently unutterable (anirvacanīya, anabhilāpya) and inconceivable [acintya]. (5) All dharmas are equal (sama) and non-dual (advaya). (6) Emptiness (śūnyatā) is not an entity [bhūva, dharma, padārtha].

In his book Nāgārjuna’s Philosophy as presented in the Mahā-Prajñāpāramitā-Sāstra, Professor Venkata Ramanan also tried to bring out the essentials of the Mādhyamika as they appear in the Daichidoron. When I wrote a review of the book in T’oung Pao, they appeared to me also to be six, which I listed as follows: (1) The Mādhyamika discloses a thirst for what is real in man; it is called gu  in the treatise, for which Ramanan restitutes the Sanskrit eṣaṇā. (2) The Mādhyamika identifies what may be called an ‘error of misplaced absoluteness’. (3) Hence he also points out the necessity to understand things as they are (yathābhūta-jñāna). (4) He enunciates the principle of double truth. (5) He points out Non-duality (munihō , funihō ). And he talks (6) about Non-obtaining (fukatoku  mushotoku , sk. anupalambha) or non-clinging (fuchaku  fushu , sk. anabhiniveśa). All this, if we follow the main trend of Daichidoron, refers to a Mādhyamika more ethical and practical than philosophical.

I shall now refer to Nāgārjuna himself. When preparing Chūdō and Chūgan for the Hōbōgirin, I was brought to isolate, as far as possible, Nāgārjuna’s doctrine from subsequent developments and commentaries. If I have not published much on Mādhyamika, I have thought quite a lot about it. My reflections have more and more convinced me that the core of Mādhyamika thought was contained in kārikā XXIV.18, to which I am now inclined to add Vigraha-vyāvartanī 29.

Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā XXIV.18:
yaḥ pratītya-samutpādaḥ śūnyatāṃ taṃ pracakṣmahe |
sā prajñaptir upādāya pratipat saiva madhyamā ||.

The two essential categories of Mādhyamika are: 1° the Middle Way, madhyamā pratipad, which gives the school its main name, and which I have dealt with above; 2° Emptiness (śūnyatā, kū ),from which is drawn another name for the school (śūnyavāda) and its adherents (śūnyavādin). Of course, the idea and the category of ’empty’ and ’emptiness’ are also present in the early schools of Buddhism and in the whole of Mahāyāna. But they hold a unique importance in the Mādhyamika. They have been interpreted ad infinitum. I shall now try to add my own interpretation to so many others.

The central idea seems to be as follows: Emptiness is the true ontological status of the universe and its constituents, with the restriction that such a status is not really to be caught anywhere, and is just a projection from the mundane truth toward the real truth. According to Vigraha-vyāvartanī 22, Emptiness is synonymous with asvabhāvatva, absence of self-being. The most accurate approximation is perhaps, as the Russian scholar, Stcherbatsky, had seen, the idea of a universal relativity. But, taking the real truth into consideration, Stcherbatsky wants somehow to merge this universal relativity into some kind of ‘monistic’ reality. I would not subscribe to this view: Emptiness, in my opinion, is a relativity in which the aspect of ontological unsubstantiality is stressed extremely strongly, so strongly that the Mādhyamikas have constantly to deny being nihilists. Things exist only in mutual relation (pratītya-samutpāda, parasparāpekṣikī siddhi); but what has struck the Prajñā-pāramitā texts, and after them the Mādhyamika, in the fact that they exist only in mutual relation, is the lack of independent existence, of a ‘self-being’ or ‘own-being’ (svabhāva) which would be the only full and true form of existence.

The Mādhyamika is a relativism which tends to nihilism under the pressure of an urge to absolute existence which appears never to be realized in the world. Emptiness, lack of substantial existence, of the only form of existence which can really be called ‘existence’, almost amounts to nothingness. The things of the world are empty; they are so frail, so unsteady, that they almost amount to no-things, and thus the world almost to nothing. They are not really produced; they never come to a real and full existence; but, were it only in order to be negated, they do exist somehow. The whole of Mahāyāna literature describes the true condition of empirical existence by a series of well-known similes, some of which Nāgārjuna takes over in kārikā XVII.33:

XVII.33. Kleśāḥ karmāṇi dehāś ca kartāraś ca phalāni ca |
gandharva-nagarākārā marīci-svapna-saṃnibhāḥ ||.

A dream, a mirage, have a very tenuous existence; but they exist somehow; they are there somehow; they are not nothing. Emptiness is not nothingness. The Mādhyamika is a ‘quasi-nihilism’, but not a nihilism.

Here I want to insist on an opinion which I have held from the very beginning of my study of Mādhyamika: to wit, that the Mādhyamika thought primarily refers to metaphysics or ontology, and only secondarily to epistemology. I am far from saying that it is a metaphysics or an ontology: it nowhere states a positive doctrine of being; if it did, it would be in contradiction with itself, with the ‘non-clinging’ attitude, and, even worse, with the true nature of things, which never reach to full being. But its criticism of empirical reality is governed by criteria of a metaphysical order. It refers to being as such, to being in its plenitude. The Mādhyamika shows that everything is empty, that nothing in the empirical reality reaches full being.

The notion of emptiness is best brought out by the analysis of causality. Pratītya-samutpāda has been an item of major importance ever since the beginning of Buddhism, and scholastics progressively led it to the status of a universal law of empirical existence. Now, Nāgārjuna, in the very first of his Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā, denounces what can be called the antinomies of causality. It is the illustrious statement:

I. lab. na svato nāpi parato na dvābhyāṃ nāpy ahetutaḥ |:

“neither from itself, nor from another, nor from both, nor without cause”; and in the third kārikā of the same chapter I,

1.3 na hi svabhāvo bhāvānāṃ pratyayādṣu vidyate |
avidyamāne svabhāve parabhāvo na vidyate || (=Pr. 78.1-2),

Nāgārjuna adds that neither self-being, nor being from another can be found in causes. He says no more: the following interpretation is inspired from the Mādhyamika commentaries and the Buddhist literature.

A thing cannot be produced from itself, because, as it would then already be defined in its essence (that is to say: in that by which it is itself and not anything else), this production would be purposeless (niṣprayojana); therefore it must be excluded, by virtue of a ‘law of parsimony’ universally applied in Indian thought. — A thing cannot be produced from another, because, by virtue of the very definition of essence as given above, it cannot get its essence from anything other than itself. — The third thesis, in the view of the Mādhyamika, only brings the difficulties of the first two to a climax. There might be more to say about this interesting thesis, which is that of the Jaina as is well known, but it would be outside the scope of the present talk. — As for the fourth thesis, its drawbacks are of another kind. First, the lack of causality is contrary to experience; and experience, although it is null and void in the last resort, is nonetheless of the utmost importance and has even, in some respect, the dignity of a truth, as we shall see later. Second, the lack of causality would destroy any possibility of liberation, because all disciplines and techniques conducive to liberation are based upon the idea that definite causes produce definite effects. Finally this second point is just the application of the first to ethics; and more generally, the lack of causality would ruin any kind of ethics. — In conclusion, the law of causality is both necessary and impossible at the same time. It remains admissible only as a limit: ontologically unsubstantial causes are linked to ontologically unsubstantial effects by ontologically unsubstantial relations. In simple words, pratītya-samutpāda, the whole empirical world seen from the point of view of the law of causality, is empty; its nature is Emptiness. Only this Emptiness can account for empirical reality, can prevent it from getting torn apart into discrete entities helplessly isolated, or from sinking down into chaos. As Nāgārjuna says in kārikā XXIV. 14ab:

XXIV. 14ab. sarvaṃ ca yujyate tasya śūnyatā yasya yujyate |
“Now, everything fits for him, for whom Emptiness fits.”

This Emptiness or universal unsubstantiality involves at the level of philosophical expression a particularly striking and singular consequence: namely, that the Mādhyamika has no thesis of his own, or, more generally speaking, no philosophical position. Taking any philosophical position involves what I call an ‘ontological crystallization’, insofar as a philosophical position necessarily gives to some components the privileged position of being the real as against all the rest; therefore a philosophy that takes a position goes against the true condition of the real, and does not express this condition adequately. It remains to be known, as we shall see later, whether this condition can be expressed at all.

So, realizing Emptiness is the best antidote against any philosophical position and any distortion of reality, provided Emptiness is not privileged as a position in its turn. As Nāgārjuna says in kārikā XIII.8:

XIII.8. śūnyatā sarva-dṛṣṭīnāṃ proktā niḥsaraṇaṃ Jinaiḥ |
yeṣāṃ tu śūnyatā-dṛṣṭis tān asādhyān babhāṣire ||

Emptiness is as relative and as relational, as the things which it defines; it is upādāya prajñapti just as they are, as we shall see later. Emptiness itself is empty. Those who cling to it as if it were something existent are really incurable (asādhya). For śūnyatā is the means of realizing the true nature of things, their insubstantiality; if this insubstantiality itself is clung to as if it were existent, how can the true nature of things ever be realized?

Nāgārjuna explicitly states the absence of any thesis for the Mādhyamika in Vigraha-vyāvartanī 29c:

nāsti ca mama pratijñā.

A result of this is that the Mādhyamika is just irrefutable, since he does not state any thesis: Nāgārjuna adds, Vigraha-vyāvartanī 29d:

tasmān naivāsti me doṣaḥ.

The Mādhyamika is beyond anyone’s grip, since he from the very start admits the non-finality of his own words. Indeed, the Mādhyamika thought is one of the most elusive and ironical thoughts that the human mind has ever produced. Moreover, it is only by misunderstanding that one can speak of such a thing as a ‘Mādhyamika system’, although this expression may be used for the convenience of discourse; if anything, the Mādhyamika would rather be an ‘anti-system’, although this expression also is too clear-cut and hence may not successfully be applied to the Mādhyamika.

If, however, the Mādhyamika admits that his own word is empty, does it not follow that it is completely inefficient or useless: [that not only it will not be in a position to state anything, but even to refute others’ statements]?

This is actually the main objection of the opponent in Vigraha-vyāvartanī. But it is the contrary that is true. Just as empty things only can act as causes, because if they are not empty they are self-contained and consequently have neither ground nor power to produce any effect, just so a non-empty word would be self-contained and consequently totally devoid of application and inefficient or useless as a philosophy.

Emptiness applies even to the most venerable principles of Buddhism itself. For instance, Nāgārjuna bluntly states (XXII. 13ab) that believing that the Tathāgata exists is a gross mistake (… grāho … ghano ‘stīti Tathāgataḥ). In a universe which, as well as its components, exists only relatively — that is to say, in the ontological outlook of the Mādhyamika hardly exists, is close to nothingness — , what will be the place of Buddhism and its teachings? Is the Mādhyamika going to destroy Buddhism itself? For Buddhism as a religion, as a teaching, is part of the empirical world, and is just as empty, as insubstantial, as any constituent of it.

One answer is that, as we have seen, Emptiness in the sense of relativity is the very condition of efficiency. But a better answer can be given by evoking the principle of the double truth. The theory of the two truths already appears in the early schools; and it is common to the whole of the Mahāyāna. So the answer is more Mahāyānic in general than specifically Mādhyamika.

Nagārjuna’s views on the two truths are stated in kārikās XXIV.8 and XXIV.10:

XXIV.8. dve satye samupāśritya Buddhānāṃ dharma-deśanā |
loka-saṃvṛti-satyaṃ ca satyaṃ ca paramārthataḥ ||
XXIV.10. vyavahāram anāśritya paramārtho na deśyate |
paramārtham anāgamya nirvāṇaṃ nādhigamyate ||

In spite of its lack of substantial reality, empirical existence, first, is a fact of experience; second, it has such a practical and propaedeutical value, as soon as it gets interpreted along the lines of the Buddhist teaching which is part of it, that it asserts itself as a truth, against the truth of its own final insubstantiality.

Actually, it is a truth only insofar as it is emptied, nullified by the other truth. This dialectics of two truths, one of which nullifies the other, underlies more than one religious or philosophical thought; but nowhere does it stand out as clearly as in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Willy-nilly, we start from the empirical existence and from a teaching at the level of empirical existence, even if an inquiry (parīkṣā) into this empirical existence leads to the conclusion that it is radically empty.

Actually, in the Mahāyāna in general and in the Mādhyamika in particular, the two truths should not be taken apart from each other, at least as long as nirvāṇa has not been fulfilled. Whatever we do, whatever we think, we should refer this action or this thought to both truths at the same time. Considering the empirical truth without referring it to the ultimate truth which empties and nullifies it, is a commonplace error, rather easy to detect. The ultimate truth is more elusive: it is ambiguous, being both the dialectical counterpart of the practical truth and the true nature of things. In this last regard, it could be conceived, in final analysis, that the ultimate truth might be considered for itself. But at this level, which is that of parinirvāṇa and of dharmakāya, there is only sheer Emptiness, lack of any determination (lakṣaṇa, nimitta), of any concept (vikalpa) or expression (prajñapti).So there is nothing to be considered; and Buddhism at this level is completely emptied, is just silence or even less.

If one tries to resort immediately to the ultimate truth, taking it by itself, apart from the practical truth, then Emptiness gets deprived of the ballast of the empirical world which it empties, and becomes sheer nothingness. Moreover, it is a self-contradictory claim, for it is just impossible to ‘resort to’ the ultimate truth, which is in itself non-fixation, non-settling.

There is a last term in kārikā XXIV.l8 which I have not yet commented upon: upādāya prajñapti, the ‘metaphorical designation’. The kārikā equates it to Emptiness, and the equation can be taken from both sides: Emptiness is metaphorical designation, and metaphorical designation is Emptiness. The term upādāya prajñapti is difficult in any language: in Sanskrit, where its meaning, as well as the meaning of its two components, is by no means obvious; in Japanese, where it is usually rendered by kemyō , ‘provisional name’, ‘assumed name’, ‘borrowed name’, to mention some of the many meanings of ;and in Western languages we usually render it by ‘metaphorical designation’, in French ‘designation metaphorique’. ‘Metaphor’ is a Greek word, which literally means ‘transfer’. It designates an extremely general language device: any indirect designation of, any hinting at, something that we cannot designate directly or do not want to designate directly, is a metaphor. The term upādaya prajñapti is no less general in Buddhism. Actually, its mere use involves a whole theory of language in the widest sense of the term; it would be extremely interesting and even important to define and develop this theory some time, but it would be out of place here. We shall only make a few remarks in connection with our subject.

The term upādāya prajñapti stresses the close dependance of any signifier upon the signified: the mode of existence of signifiers, especially verbal ones, has always been felt by the Buddhists as a particularly striking example of dependent, non-absolute existence. Metaphorical designations are most strikingly empty: the very nature of metaphorical designation is Emptiness.

From a more metaphysical point of view, we can also say that the whole world is a metaphorical designation. It designates something; it hints at something. And at what? At its own Emptiness. He who knows how to interpret empirical existence correctly, sees everywhere its Emptiness thoroughly.

This is in close connection with the principle of the two truths. Saṃvṛti-satya, as it were, is the metaphorical designation of paramārtha-satya.

The reverse equation, ‘Emptiness is metaphorical designation’, throws particularly a flood of light on the nature of absolute reality. It reminds us that śūnyatā, just because it is a word, is still on the side of saṃvṛti-satya. All designations of paramārtha-satya, including the word ‘paramārtha-satya‘ itself, are saṃvṛti-satya; and when I mention ‘the nature of absolute reality’, I express myself, of course, from the point of view of saṃvṛti-satya. This again shows how self-contradictory it is to try to give any definition or description of paramārtha. In kārikā XVIII.9, Nāgārjuna does indeed give a definition of tattva, Reality; this definition still stands on the side of saṃvṛti-satya. Later, Candrakīrti gives a nearer approximation in his famous formula: paramārtho hy āryāṇaṃ tūṣṇīṃbhāvaḥ (Pr. 57.7-8): ‘the absolute reality is the saints’ keeping silent’. But this formula is still language. Language is necessary, and even valuable, as kārikā XVIII.10 reminds us. But there comes a time when it should yield to silence. This time has now come for me, although I am far from being an ārya. Therefore I shall stop here this prapañica, this keron, , after thanking you for listening to it patiently.1


1. This is the text of a lecture delivered in the Department of Indian and Buddhist studies of Hiroshima University, Japan, in 1977.

See Also

Doctrinal Position of the Wisdom Religion: Great Madhyamaka

Selected Quotes from Nagarjuna

  1. The Relinquishing of all Views

    "The victorious ones have said
    That emptiness is the relinquishing of all views.
    For whomever emptiness is a view,
    That one has accomplished nothing."
    Mula madhyamaka karika
  2. On Pleasure

    "There is pleasure when a sore is scratched,
    But to be without sores is more pleasurable still.
    Just so, there are pleasures in worldly desires,
    But to be without desires is more pleasurable still."
    The Precious Garland of Advice
  3. The Illusion of 'I'

    “Just as it is known
    That an image of one's face is seen
    Depending on a mirror
    But does not really exist as a face,
    So the conception of "I" exists
    Dependent on mind and body,
    But like the image of a face
    The "I" does not at all exist as its own reality.”
  4. Philosophies are Mental Fabrications

    "All philosophies are mental fabrications. There has never been a single doctrine by which one could enter the true essence of things."

Selected Quotes on Nagarjuna

  1. Negation and Non-Grasping

    Indian traditions use four positions: true (not false), false (not true), both true and false, and neither true nor false (prasanga or tetralemma). ...  However, Nagarjuna goes even one step further, basically arguing, “None of the above”, leaving the reader with nowhere to go and nothing to grasp. Nagarjuna used negation not to prove another viewpoint or truth but to negate all viewpoints. He thereby destroyed all logical arguments or speculation about Ultimate reality... — Vladimir K., The Zen Teachings of Nagarjuna
  2. The Greatest Philosopher of the Buddhists

    "He was famous for his dialectical subtlety in metaphysical arguments ... Viewed as the greatest philosopher of the Buddhists, he was referred to as “one of the four suns which illumine the world”." — H.P. Blavatsky, Theosophical Glossary
  3. Nagarjuna's Great Wisdom

    "Because he had a very lucid mind and great wisdom, Nagarjuna was able perfectly to understand the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and explain them to others. He spread these teachings widely, thus instigating a great revival of the Mahayana doctrine in this world." — Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, from the book Ocean of Nectar.

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