Make your own free website on


by Dan Lusthaus

           Naagaarjuna, one of India's greatest philosophers, lived ca. the 1st-2nd century CE, a time of great diversity and change for Indian Buddhism. Roughly five hundred years after Buddha's death Buddhist schools were proliferating, debating the whole range of Buddhist doctrines and practices. They were also engaged in serious arguments with non-Buddhist schools. The most innovative of these new schools, an incipient form of Mahaayaana, produced a new literature that it claimed went back esoterically to Buddha himself: this new literature was called Praj~naa-Paaramitaa (Perfection of Wisdom). Its most distinctive feature was a reanalysis of all the earlier doctrinal models designed to show that they all implicitly involved the notion of `suunyataa (emptiness). For Buddhists, both the Praj~naa-Paaramitaa literature as well as the notion of emptiness came to be associated with Naagaarjuna, in fact, they became synonymous with his teachings. Naagaarjuna is the first individual associated by tradition with Mahaayaana Buddhism, the form of Buddhism that developed from the Praj~naa-Paaramitaa literature, today dominant in Tibet, East and Central Asia, and Vietnam. For Mahaayaanists, Naagaarjuna is considered second only to Buddha in importance and depth of insight.

Preliminary remarks on Naagaarjuna's method
           At the core of Naagaarjuna's key writings -- the Muula-madhyamaka-kaarikaa (MMK) (Verses on the Fundamental Middle Way) and Vigraha-vyavaartanii (VV) (Refutation of Objections) -- lay a devastating methodological attack on the coherency of some of the most cherished and ingrained Indian beliefs, views, presuppositions, and theories. Naagaarjuna's critique challenged Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. While he extols the Buddha and the doctrine of pratiitya-samutpaada (conditioned co-arising), his assault on the underlying assumptions entailed in notions of selfhood and causality deliberately undermined the conventional as well as the more sophisticated ideas held by Buddhists concerning Buddha and pratiitya-samutpaada.
           He deployed a tetralemmic logic already adopted by Buddha in the early Paali texts (such as in the Brahmajaala-sutta, Diigha-Nikaaya I). In the Paali tradition, the use of the Tetralemma is initially attributed to Sa~njaya, a skeptical teacher whose students challenged Buddha early in Buddha's teaching career. Two of Sa~njaya's students, Upatissa and Kolita, were won over, and went on to become two of Buddha's most important disciples, better known in the Buddhist tradition by the names Sariputta and Moggallana. It is possible that it was they who introduced the tetralemmic method to Buddhism.
           Just as Buddha described his Middle Way as a renunciation of extremes, such as eternalism and annihilationalism, or pleasure and pain, etc. (see below), employing the Tetralemma to expose the fallacies of such extremisms, Naagaarjuna also deployed the Tetralemma along with other logical and rhetorical strategies in order to expose and negate all manner of extremist thinking, down to the most presuppositional level. His critique was so devastating that few in the history of Indian thought ever confronted it head on. Non-Buddhists, such as the Nyaaya (Hindu logic school), avoided the thrust of his arguments by branding him a nihilist (naastika), and thus dismissing him; thereby allowing themselves to comfortably ignore him. The nihilist label, though a gross mischaracterization and misunderstanding of Naagaarjuna's philosophy, has persisted and even recurs from time to time in modern scholarship on Madhyamaka.
           Buddhists, many of whose fundamental assumptions were also targets for Naagaarjuna, insulated themselves with different strategies, the most common one being to cast Naagaarjuna as a supporter of their agenda while insisting that the targets of his attacks were the views of other Buddhists. Thus, for instance, for Pure Land Buddhists, Naagaarjuna was a patriarch of Pure Land practice; for certain Mahaayaanists, he was the ultimate Mahaayaanist whose attacks were aimed at Hiinayaana Buddhism; for Tibetan Buddhists, the primary target of his attack was Abhidharma Buddhism, especially as espoused by Sarvaastivaada, since Sarvaastivaada was the bottom rung form of Buddhism in the Tibetan heirarchy of Buddhist teachings; and so on. Tantric Buddhists even developed elaborate legendary narratives depicting Naagaarjuna as a great Tantric adept, possessing great magical skills. A further strategy used by Buddhists was to attribute works to him that were often at odds with the philosophical orientation of his key works, thereby associating the ideas in those other works with his name.

Yogacara critique
           Only the Yogacarins, the other Indian Mahaayaana school, confronted Madhyamaka teachings directly. Exploiting an inconsistency in Madhyamakan rhetoric, namely that while the fourth lemma of the Tetralemma, "neither x nor not x", was considered to be as invalid a position as any of the other three lemmas, nonetheless Naagaarjuna and his followers frequently, and at critical points, employed this lemma approvingly, Yogacarins replied that while the false notions of essential nature and selfhood (svabhaava) that Madhyamaka attacks are indeed unreal and nonexistent (see below), emptiness itself is not. Moreover, consciousness is real -- not as a substantial, svabhaavic entity or ground, but as the facticity of cognition within which all experience, including all affirmations and negations, occur. In other words, while svabhaavic components theoretically imputed as either revealed by or constitutive of consciousness were indeed unreal and nonexistent, the fact that one cognizes is not. For Yogacaras, then, Madhyamika was an important therapeutic remedy to the deep-seated problem of aatma-d.r.s.ta (self-view)(see below), but it was no longer true to its own convictions if it denied the reality of cognition. If it did cling to the fourth lemma, Madhyamaka would be just another type of extremism, one dangerously close to nihilism. To follow a 'middle way' (which is what madhyamaka means) requires acknowledging, analyzing, and correcting cognition. The Madhyamakan method does that indirectly, by flushing out d.r.s.tis, while Yogacara tackles this directly by paying attention to all forms of cognition, from perception and emotional colorings, to philosophical acuity, to meditative insight.

Legends of Naagaarjuna
           Although those writings that we can confidently attribute to Naagaarjuna display a quick, sober, logical and deeply insightful mind, his reputation became so great that soon many fanciful legends were attached to his name.
           Aside from knowing that Naagaarjuna was born in Southern India and that he came north to achieve some degree of prominence at Naalandaa (the central seat of Buddhist learning until the thirteenth century) all the details we have of his life are deeply embedded in legends. He is reputed to have been a magician and a playboy, who, when caught taking his pleasure with some of the royal ladies by a local king, had a moment of profound remorse, became a monk, and thereafter devoted himself wholeheartedly to Buddhist teachings. Reflecting these sorts of stories, several Tantric and magical texts, such as the Ratnamaala, have been ascribed to him.
           In the Ancient Hindu scripture, .Rg Veda, numerous myths about V.rtra the Dragon describe how, in primordial times, she lived in the depths of the sea holding back all beings in the undifferentiated waters of her belly (asat, 'nonexistence'). Everything was trapped in Nonexistence until the Vedic hero Indra slayed her, splitting open her belly and releasing all the repressed waters and beings which then flowed out into Existence (sat). Buddhists refashioned this psychological cosmogonic story of the actualization of potentialities by discarding the violence and making Naagaarjuna the hero. In the Buddhist version, Naagaarjuna travels deep into the ocean depths to the home of the Naagaa King. Naagaas are dragonlike beings usually extremely hostile to humans. Naagaarjuna discourses on Dharma (Buddhist teachings) with the Naagaa King, who is so delighted with what Naagaarjuna says that he allows him to return to the surface and gives him the complete corpus of the Praj~naa-Paaramitaa literature as a parting gift, telling Naagaarjuna that these are the authentic words of the Buddha which he has kept safely locked away in the depths of his ocean lair since Buddha's passing, awaiting a sage wise enough to disseminate them to humans. Naagaarjuna is thus credited with literally bringing this "hidden" literature to light. According to Candrakiirti (8th century), the most important commentator on Naagaarjuna's works, the myth signifies Naagaarjuna scouring the depths of human ignorance in order to bring the liberating Wisdom of the Buddha to the surface, from the depths of darkness (tamas) to enlightenment (pradiipa). Praj~naa-Paaramitaa texts continued to be written for many centuries after Naagaarjuna, and many of these were pseudepigraphically attributed to him. In China, the most important of these is the Da zhi du lun (Ta chih-tu lun), "Great Liberating Wisdom Treatise," which, despite presenting ideas that are often at odds with those in Naagaarjuna's main texts, quickly became a foundational source for East Asian interpretations of Naagaarjuna.

           The most important--and most misunderstood--term used by Naagaarjuna is "emptiness" (`suunyataa). It does not mean a cosmic void, nonexistence, a substratum nihilum, or a denial of the world(s) of common experience. Nor does it signify a mystical via negativa. Rather it signifies the absence of something very precise: svabhaava, or self-essence. "Self-essence" is a technical Indian philosophical term denoting anything that creates itself (sui generis), is independent, immutable, possessing an invariant essence, self-defining, etc. Usually Hindus envision self-essential things as eternal also. The two most important self-essential things in Hindu thought are God and the Self (or soul).
           According to standard Buddhist doctrine the subtlest, deepest, and most dangerous false view held by humans is the belief in a permanent, independent self. Our sense of "self" derives from "misreading" the causes and conditions of experience. Afraid of death and the possibility of our personal nonexistence, we desperately impute and cling to permanence where there is none, imagining that something permanent subtends the flux of experiential conditions. Rather than recognize causes and conditions for what they are, we hypostatize their obvious effects, often deeming these hypostatized "entities" to be more real than what we encounter in actual experience. Thus the notion of "self" is symptomatic of our deepest desires and fears. Overcoming that view by seeing that all that comes into existence does so dependent on perpetually changing causes and conditions (pratiitya-samutpaada) is to "see things as they truly become" (yathaa-bhuutam).
           Buddha had spoken often of a "middle way" between extreme views. The two extremes he discussed most often were "eternalism" and "annihilationalism," or put in other terms, "continuity" and "discontinuity." Things (e.g., the world, persons, etc.) were neither continuous nor discontinuous. Neither the world nor the things in it endure unchanging and endlessly; nor is the world a random, discontinuous, fragmented happenstance. Things are neither reducible entirely to their specific causative conditions, nor are they ever something other than their conditions: this is the middle way.
           Naagaarjuna understood the basic message of Buddha to be the elimination of all hypostatic theoretizations, i.e., abstractions which had been concretized to the point of seeming more real than the conditions from which they had been abstracted. Such views he called d.r.s.ti. For Naagaarjuna, however, the problem of hypostatization was not confined to the notion of self in its limited sense of an individual's self-essence, but was apparent everywhere, since all seemingly rational explanations of the way things are--including the Buddhist explanations of his day--were grounded in conceptual entities that were ultimately unreal (e.g., self, God, nirvana, etc.). All our fundamental notions, including time, actions (karma) and the agents of action, the characteristics with which things are defined and classified, relations, and so on, all were infiltrated by d.r.s.ti. Naagaarjuna recognized that at bottom d.r.s.ti hinged on the notions of "identity" and "difference." Identity was simply another name for self-essence (svabhaava): a continuous, invariant, self-identical essence. Difference presupposed the very notion of identity that it attempted to negate, since to claim 'X is different from Y' presupposes that X and Y have determinate identities; and if taken seriously such that difference marks the complete absence of all identities, difference would entail such radical discontinuity, disjunction, and lack of intelligibility that even the most mundane things would become incoherent and inexplicable. In his major work, the Muula-madhyamaka-kaarikaa, he constructed a methodology for ferreting out d.r.s.ti such that the middle way between identity and difference might be realized. "Empty" signifies what occurs through causes and conditions and is therefore devoid of self-essence. Everything, when seen properly, is devoid of self-essence, and thus "empty." It is the self-essence which is unreal, not the flux of conditions (though Naagaarjuna also warns against hypostatizing "conditions").

           The Muula-madhyamaka-kaarikaa, in 27 chapters of varying lengths, takes up virtually all fundamental religious, philosophical and doctrinal issues. The school that founded itself on his teachings, the Madhyamaka (the Middle Way-ers), took its name from the title of this text. Written in a precise couplet verse form (and in a style of great poetic beauty), it is at the same time one of the most logically rigorous treatises ever written.
           Naagaarjuna employs a strategy designed to force either definitions or relations into at least one of three unsatisfactory consequences: 1. Tautology, 2. mutually exclusive contradiction, and/or 3. infinite regress. He implements this strategy by exploiting a fundamental incoherence in the notions of 'identity' and 'difference,' notions without which thinking cannot think. Since anything that might be taken under consideration must either be taken by itself (and thus understood in terms of its definition) or in relation to other things, Naagaarjuna's strategy is comprehensive. Naagaarjuna repeatedly demonstrates in the course of his arguments that things can neither be adequately explained in terms of themselves in isolation (X=X, i.e., a tautology) nor in terms of their relations with other things (X=Y, X implicates Y, X causes Y, X defines [-X], etc.). Moreover, relations are as prone to hypostatization as things. As he says: "Whatever arises dependent on something other, is neither identical to nor [utterly] different from that other; thus, things neither perish completely nor are they everlasting" (18.10). And yet to speak of X as related to Y requires that they somehow be either the same or different. "Conditional co-arising" (pratiitya-samutpaada), which all Buddhists take to be the fundamental insight of Buddha's enlightenment, for Naagaarjuna is neither a thing nor a relation since it does not involve either identity or difference.
           Since those two options (X as 'self' and X as 'related to others') prove to be untenable, attempts to combine the two ("both self and others" or "both X and non-X") produce only further untenable complications. The notion of "identity in difference," for instance, is incoherent since identity and difference are mutually exclusive; one cannot reify identity while admitting difference. Nonetheless, since both experience and logic depend on and are inseparable from conceiving everything in terms of self and other, this or that, X or non-X, etc. (thinking and perceiving are always contrastive), things and relations cannot be simply ignored or rejected out of hand. Thus the position "neither X nor non-X" proves just as unsatisfactory and untenable as the previous three options. These four options (X; non-X; Both X and non-X; Neither X nor non-X) exhaust all the possibilities for thinking about or describing anything. Since there is no other way to state anything except through one of these four alternatives, all linguistic formulations are invariably problematic. Are words the same or different from their referents?
           For instance chapter seven examines the notion of "conditioned things" which Buddhists define as "all things characterized by arising, abiding, and ceasing." Naagaarjuna notes these three characteristics must themselves be either conditioned or unconditioned. If the latter, they are incommensurate with conditioning and cannot be used to define it. If the former, they too should be subject to the three characteristics, which entails that arising must arise, abide, and cease. But then the arising of arising must also be conditioned, and thus has the three characteristics (arising, abiding, ceasing), and so into infinite regress. What actually initiates arising? Does arising produce itself? Wouldn't it have to already be present to produce itself, in which case further production would be redundant? If arising cannot give rise to itself, how can it account for the arising of anything else? And so on. The more one tries to respond to Naagaarjuna's objections, the more one finds oneself proposing hypostatic explanations. Naagaarjuna's method is precisely the ferreting out of those hidden presuppositions that reveal themselves through our compulsion to propose these explanations. By revealing them, and recognizing them to be incoherent and insupportable, one ceases clinging to them and they cease to act as hidden compulsions and proclivities (anu`saya), so that the suffering and anxiety they engender are brought to rest (prapa~ncopa`sama).
           For Naagaarjuna language is self-referential, tautological. The danger of tautologies --and Naagaarjuna consistently exploits this danger--is that though two different terms are being used to describe an event that is an event precisely because its causal conditions are not radically separated, nonetheless because the terms are different they can be separated and treated as independent entities. This seeming independence is merely a linguistic illusion. For example, one can say "John walks." For Naagaarjuna this is a tautological statement, since without 'John' this particular 'walking' could not occur, and conversely, without 'walks' we would have a different 'John' (a cooking John, or sitting John, or talking John, etc.). 'John' and 'walks' are inseparable, but by separating the two words, one begins to imagine that something called 'John' exists independent of walking and that 'walking' exists independent of John. In fact, grammatically we are compelled to separate nouns from verbs, adjectives from nouns, adverbs from verbs, etc.
      But these linguistic distinctions conceal the actual inseparability of the factors being carved up by distinct words. The danger of this separation is that these separate 'entities' are then given invariant identities, and ultimately assigned to universal classes (class of humans, class of walkers, etc.). So John (noun), even when not walking, is taken to still be John, and thus his essential identity remains unchanged and unaffected by the various activities (verbs) he engages in. But that is untrue. Our activities (karma) are perpetually changing us. Once John has been given the status of "unchanging John" (i.e., his identity remains constant through time and differing actions) by this simple trick of language, it is a short step to positing an unchanging, invariant identity that is John, that is his 'essence' or self (aatman), an essence that remains invariant and constant from life to life and even beyond. Noun-verb phrases are tautologies, not relations between separate classes. Metaphysics grow out of linguistic fictions.
           Because John and walking are not different, it does not follow that they are the same. John is not the only thing that can walk (though "John walks" can only signify the John who walks). To argue they are either the same or different is to fall into one or the other extreme, i.e., to lose the 'middle way.'

Naagaarjuna's "claims"
           Another text unquestionably authored by Naagaarjuna is the Vigraha-vyavaartanii (Refutation of Objections) consisting of 70 verses with auto-commentary that refute objections raised against his key methodological insight, `suunyataa (emptiness), and especially the charge that his dialectic is nihilistic or self-disqualifying. To the charge that if all words are "empty" then his arguments too are empty and thus cannot refute anything, Naagaarjuna responds that emptiness does not mean nonexistence, and on the contrary, emptiness is not a denial of the world as such, but rather the reason why the world happens at all. If things really were the frozen, immutable, fixed-essnce entities philosophers claimed, nothing could change, move or occur. He explains that his arguments take over the assumptions and assertions of his opponents, and then explore their cogency. He makes no counterclaims, and thus cannot be refuted.
           Several notable "conclusions" are reached in the course of his arguments nonetheless. Naagaarjuna concludes that not the slightest iota of difference can be drawn between sa.msaara (the conditioned cycle of birth and death) and Nirvana (the unconditioned). (This conclusion is incessantly misquoted as "sa.msaara is Nirvana" - but for Naagaarjuna a negation of difference should not automatically entail an affirmation of identity; leaping to the 'other extreme' is not the middle way.) Further the "notion" of Nirvana and the path to its attainment is incoherent. If Nirvana is unconditioned, then there can be no conditions that produce it. Hence if Buddhists claim that such and such a practice or meditation, etc. "produces" Nirvana, then they are stating conditions which produce it, in which case it is not unconditioned. If it is conditioned, it is not Nirvana.
           Naagaarjuna also introduces an important distinction between two types of ways of looking at things: 1. - conventional, and 2. paramaartha - ultimate. He writes: "On the basis of the conventional, the ultimate is taught. On the basis of the ultimate, Nirvana is attained." Subsequently, these two were refined by Buddhists over many centuries.
           A passage that has attracted much attention is: "conditioned co-arising is itself emptiness. These are heuristic designations for the middle way." This passage was subjected to an extensive analysis by Zhiyi (Chih-i) who made it one of the cornerstones of his Tiantai (T'ien-t'ai) philosophy.
           Finally, Naagaarjuna took seriously the notion of prapa~nca, the cognitive-linguistic proliferation of misconceptions upon which we ground our misunderstandings of the world and the theories (d.r.s.ti) we cling to to legitimate those misunderstandings. Throughout his writings, Naagaarjuna assures us that conscientious application of the middle way will "silence" or "put to rest" prapa~nca (prapa~ncopa`sama). For him that is the equivalent of enlightenment.

Summary of Major Ideas

All things, ideas, events, etc., are 'empty,' meaning they don't cause or define themselves, but arise and cease due to conditions.

Under close scrutiny even the most rationally constructed positions and systems-- including Buddhism-- are demonstrably incoherent and irrational.

The four alternatives-- X is, X is not, X both is and isn't, X neither is nor isn't-- underwrite all theories, propositions, beliefs, etc.; given any X, all four alternatives can be demonstrated to be invalid and inadequate.

No entity arises from itself, from another, from both itself and another, or from neither itself nor another.

All thinking presupposes the categories 'identity' and 'difference,' but these categories are incoherent and have no referent.

Language does not refer to things, but is self-referential.

There are two levels of discourse, the conventional and the ultimate; one learns the latter through the former, and realizes Nirvana on the basis of the latter.

Our deepest emotional and existential problems stem from clinging to cognitive positions and presuppositions (d.r.s.ti).

The deep-seated, driving propensity to create the illusion of conceptual order through self-justifying rationalizations (prapa~nca) can be overcome and eliminated.


There are several complete English translations of the Muula-madhyamaka-kaarikaa :

Streng, Fredrick J. Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning. Nashville and New York: Abingdon Press, 1967. The translations in the appendix of Muula-madhyamaka-kaarikaa and Vigraha vyavaartanii are useful if occasionally unclear and inaccurate. The body of the book evaluates Naagaarjuna from a Wittgensteinian perspective.

Inada, Kenneth. Naagaarjuna: A Translation of his Muula-madhyamaka-kaarikaa with an Introductory Essay. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1970. Inada's translation is influenced by East Asian translations and interpretations. Includes the Sanskrit text in roman script.

Kalupahana, David J. Naagaarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. Albany: SUNY Press, 1986. Includes romanized Sanskrit text (with frequent errors) and a controversial running commentary that plays up Naagaarjuna's proximity to the earlier Buddhist tradition while narrowing the focus of his intended targets.

Garfield, Jay. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Although translated from the Tibetan rather than Sanskrit, the best, most philosophically accurate modern commentary.

Harris, Ian Charles. The Continuity of Madhyamaka and Yogaacaara in Indian Mahaayaana Buddhism. Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1991. Fine discussion. Possibly best treatment of Bhaaviveka so far available in English.

Sprung, Mervyn. Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way: The Essential Chapters from the Prasannapadaa 0f Candrakiirti. Boulder: Praj~naa Press, 1979. Abridged translation of the most important Indian commentary on the Muula-madhyamaka-kaarikaa .

Bhattacarya, Kamakeswar. The Dialectical Method of Naagaarjuna: Vigraha vyavaartanii. An excellent translation, includes the Sanskrit text in devanagri and roman scripts.

Lindtner, Christian. Nagarjuniana: Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Naagaarjuna. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987. An important discussion of which of Naagaarjuna's works are genuine and which are spurious. Includes Sanskrit and Tibetan versions of some texts, and some English translations.

Ramanan, K. Venkata. Naagaarjuna's Philosophy as Presented in the Mahaa-Praj~naapaaramitaa-`Saastra. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1966. A detailed discussion of the version of "Naagaarjuna" found in the Da zhi du lun.

Scherrer-Schalb, Cristina Anna. Brussels: Institut Belge des Hautes 'Etudes Chinoises, 1991. A French translation of Candrakiirti's commentary on Naagaarjuna's Sixty Verses (

Walleser, M. The Life of Naagaarjuna from Tibetan and Chinese Sources. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1990 rpt.