Saturday, May 06, 2006

Just finished reading... Nagarjuna

I've just finished reading Jay L Garfield's
The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way : Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika, which seems to be the best rated commentary on Nagarjuna's most important work. It's quite dense reading but very rewarding - Garfield's insight is penetrating and Nagarjuna's philosphy is powerful, rigorous and sublime.

Nagarjuna is probably the most influential Buddhist philosopher after Gautama Buddha himself and the chief proponent of the early Mahayana Madhyamaka philosophy, which emphasises the 'Middle Way' between philosophical extremes particularly Eternalism and Nihilism. Nagarjuna is also the developer of Gautama Buddha's concept of sunya ('void') into the concept of Sunyata ('emptiness of self-nature'). This logical approach to Buddhist philosphy, although very powerful was often misunderstood as a form of Nihilism and probably for this reason was generally supplanted with more poetic, metaphorical approaches.

Much like Wittgenstein, Nagarjuna is logically rigorous yet manages to indicate a 'sublime' reality which transcends logic and language. He even refutes the views of philosophers without proposing or holding any view whatsoever - successfully as far as I can tell.

He covers pretty much every aspect of philosphy and metaphysics - reducing beliefs and problems (again like Wittgenstein) to errors of thought and language - and reading him clarifies a great many confusing aspects of Buddhist philosophy such as the nature of the self, which are glossed over by so many others.

One of the concepts I really wanted to get to grips with when I started this was the idea that not only are entities 'empty' but that 'emptiness itself is empty' (and so on). And this book certainly helped me to understand this. Emptiness is not to be mistaken as an essential characteristic of entities or reality - it is not itself the self-existent nature of things - it is only a reference to the lack of self-existence in things. That lack is not a property just as nothing is not a thing.

Here are a few choice extracts.

He opens with this little corker:

Neither from itself nor from another,
Nor from both,
Nor without a cause,
Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.

Although this sounds Nihilistic, it is not, but this can only be properly understood in the context of the rest of the work. And refuting the view of emptiness as a an inherent property or a view to be clung to is perhaps the core and final message of the text.

On emptiness he says:

Whatever is the essence of the Tathagata [Buddha],
That is the essence of the world.
The Tathagata has no essence.
The world is without essence.

Everything is real and is not real,
Both real and not real,
Neither real nor notreal.
This is Lord Buddha's teaching.

Many problems in Western philosphy as well as Buddhism can be seen in terms of a confusion between conventional and 'ultimate' categories of truth.

The Buddha's teaching of the Dharma
Is based on two truths:
A truth of worldly convention
And an ultimate truth.

Those who do not understand
The distinction drawn between these two truths
Do not understand
The Buddha's profound truth.

Without a foundation in the conventional truth,
The significance of the ultimate cannot be taught.
Without understanding the significance of the ultimate,
Liberation is not achieved.

The human tendency to reify - to treat abstract concepts as inherent entities or properties - is difficult to escape. Even emptiness becomes something that Buddhist's cling to and regard as some sort of inherent or transcendent reality or a nihilistic view of the universe as non-existent.

By a misperception of emptiness
A person of little intelligence is destroyed.
Like a snake incorrectly seized
Or like a spell incorrectly cast.

For that reason - that the Dharma is
Deep and difficult to understand and to learn -
The Buddha's mind dispaired of being able to teach it.

You have presented fallacious refutations
That are not relevant to emptiness.
Your confusion about emptiness
Does not belong to me.

"Empty" should not be asserted.
"Nonempty" should not be asserted.
Neither both nor neither should be asserted.
They are only used nominally.

What is dependently co-arisen
That is to be explained to be emtiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.

The victorious ones [ie. Buddhas] have said
That emptiness is the relinquishing of all views.
For whomever emptiness is a view,
That one has accomplished nothing.

For those, like myself who desire logical thoroughness, Nagarjuna is ideal, yet he leaves us with a vision of the world in which logic and language are peripheral and provisional and in which 'absolute truth' is absent - a view of reality in which everything is just as it is. I'll finish with this excerpt from Wittgenstein which resonates extremely well with Nagarjuna.

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

What can be said can be said clearly
What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence.

Given that Nagarjuna has only become visible to western philosophers in the last two or three decades, it seems, I imagine that Wittgenstein was entirely unaware of Nagarjuna.


  1. Hi, Justin - Very nice! I enjoy your posts more and more. There are those who see Nagajuna as a 'slight of hand' philosopher. It is not easy to see the depths. There are moe, I think, than Garfield has caught in this book. Not that I claim to have caught it all.

    As for Wittgenstein, he may not have know Nagarjuna's work by name. But much of the culture of ancient India seeped into Constantinople and eastern europe and, through there, to germanic cultures. I'm not sure it is entirely co-incidience that so many German/Austrian philosophers carried forward ideas into the west that seem to have originated in ancient India.


  2. Hi. I have read your post, and some of the former posts. Your description of Nagarjuna is clear and very interesting. I think, just like the above commentator, that Wittgenstein indirectly had absorbed the essence of Buddhism by reading related books or translated texts at that time. As far as I know, there are many researchers who point out the similarity between Witt and Buddhist logicians.

    I read your commentary on Dogen. I am Japanese, and I once read Dogen in the original texts when I was a graduate student. I didn't know the text was translated into English. I think Dogen is the most important Japanese philosopher up until the present (of course, strictly speaking, he is not a philosopher. He is a zen master, Buddhist). Dogen's original sentenses are rhythmic and beautiful. I love Genjo-koan, Sinjin-gakudo, and other chapters.

    Your post "Why I don't separate the personal stuff from the philosophy" is interesting, too. If you love zen, you can't separate them. I am not zen buddhist, I am agnostic, but I don't want to separate them, too, as a philosopher (I call this way of thinking and living, "life studies"). Anyway, thanks for your good posts. I will come here again.

  3. meleephd,

    Many thanks for your ongoing and helpful comments. Yes indeed as you and masahiro point out, Buddhist (and Hinduist) ideas have entered western philosophy through such thinkers as Schopenhauer. For me Nagarjuna is a head above typical Buddhist philosophy though and I just meant that Wittgenstein probably had not come across Nagarjuna's ideas directly. If he had I'm sure he'd have been impressed.

  4. masahiro,

    My comments on Dogen were rushed and incomplete really. It was also probably too academic for most... including me!

    I know that Dogen's language is subtle and poetic, which makes interpretation difficult even for native speakers.

    As far as I know, the only complete translation in English is Nishijima and Cross.

    When I first read Nishijima's interpretation I was very impressed by it, but the more I learn about Buddhist philosophy, and the more interpretations of Dogen I read, the more I get the impression that Nishijima's 'SOAR' interpretation is off-target and idiosynchratic. I'd be very grateful if you, as a native speaker, with some education in Dogen could comment on this. You can find an essay about this interpretation here:
    Understanding the Shobogenzo

    I think that although there are plenty of people who identify themselves as Zen Buddhists and who have religious beliefs, Zen is not really about believing things. I don't personally believe in literal rebirth or traditional descriptions of the nature of karma for example. Does that make me 'not a real Buddhist'? I don't think so - and even if it did it wouldn't matter to me. Zen is just about paying attention, so it too is 'agnostic' in a sense. We are all students of life together. :)

  5. Oh, I meant to say, that I intend to post the final part of my comments on the Genjo Koan soon. Let me know what you think.

  6. Justin, Thank you for your link to Nishijima's article. I have read one third of it, and found it very interesting. Please give me time to read through. My impression is that translated Dogen looks very new to me, it is a strange feeling to read Dogen in English, but it's moving as well. I wonder if Dogen's "daemonic" style (I call it) might disappear in translation, but i don't know... Because I am not a native English speaker, I can't taste his English text so deeply.

  7. I look forward to your comments.

  8. Anonymous9:22 pm

    s nagarjuna said "Samsara is Nirvana. there is not the subtlest difference between the two"! This is probably the most difficult truth to grasp. And as Jiddu Krishnamurti said"Truth is living.therefore you cannot grasp it through a conclusion or a point of view. It has to be discovered from moment to moment"!
    That's all for now.

  9. Nice. Thank you.