East Asian Mādhyamaka
Hundred Schools of Thought
Four Tenets system
Nāgārjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE) is widely considered one of the
Mahayana philosophers. Along with his disciple
Āryadeva, he is considered to be the founder of the
of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Nāgārjuna is also credited with developing
the philosophy of the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras and, in some sources,
with having revealed these scriptures in the world, having recovered
them from the nāgas (water spirits often depicted in the form of
serpent-like humans). Furthermore, he is traditionally supposed to
have written several treatises on rasayana as well as serving a term
as the head of Nālandā.
2.2 Other attributed works
3.2 Two truths
5 See also
8 External links
Very little is reliably known of the life of Nāgārjuna, since the
surviving accounts were written in Chinese and Tibetan centuries
after his death. According to some accounts, Nāgārjuna was
originally from South India. Some scholars believe that
Nāgārjuna was an advisor to a king of the Satavahana dynasty.
Archaeological evidence at Amarāvatī indicates that if this is true,
the king may have been Yajña Śrī Śātakarṇi, who ruled between
167 and 196 CE. On the basis of this association, Nāgārjuna is
conventionally placed at around 150–250 CE.
According to a 4th/5th-century biography translated by Kumārajīva,
Nāgārjuna was born into a
Brahmin family in Vidarbha (a
region of Maharashtra) and later became a Buddhist.
Some sources claim that in his later years, Nāgārjuna lived on the
mountain of Śrīparvata near the city that would later be called
Nāgārjunakoṇḍa ("Hill of Nāgārjuna"). The ruins of
Nāgārjunakoṇḍa are located in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh.
Bahuśrutīya nikāyas are known to have had
monasteries in Nāgārjunakoṇḍa.
There exist a number of influential texts attributed to Nāgārjuna
though, as there are many pseudepigrapha attributed to him, lively
controversy exists over which are his authentic works.
Main article: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā
Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is Nāgārjuna's best-known work. It is
"not only a grand commentary on the Buddha's discourse to
Kaccayana, the only discourse cited by name, but also a detailed
and careful analysis of most of the important discourses included in
the Nikayas and the agamas, especially those of the Atthakavagga of
Utilizing the Buddha's theory of "dependent arising"
Nagarjuna demonstrated the futility of [...]
metaphysical speculations. His method of dealing with such metaphysics
is referred to as "middle way" (madhyama pratipad). It is the middle
way that avoided the substantialism of the Sarvastivadins as well as
the nominalism of the Sautrantikas.
In the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, "[A]ll experienced phenomena are empty
(sunya). This did not mean that they are not experienced and,
therefore, non-existent; only that they are devoid of a permanent and
eternal substance (svabhava) because, like a dream, they are mere
projections of human consciousness. Since these imaginary fictions are
experienced, they are not mere names (prajnapti)."
Other attributed works
According to one view, that of Christian Lindtner, the works
definitely written by Nāgārjuna 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)
Bodhicittavivaraṇa (Exposition of the Enlightened Mind)
Suhṛllekha (Letter to a Good Friend)
Bodhisaṃbhāra (Requisites of Enlightenment)
Buston considers the first six to be the main treatises of
Nāgārjuna, while according to Taaranaatha only the first five are
the works of Nāgārjuna. TRV Murti considers Ratnaavali, Pratitya
Samutpaada Hridaya and
Sutra Samuccaya to be works of Nāgārjuna as
the first two are quoted profusely by Chandrakirti and the third by
In addition to works mentioned above, several others are attributed to
Nāgārjuna. There is an ongoing, lively controversy over which of
those works are authentic. Contemporary research suggest that these
works belong to a significantly later period, either to late 8th or
early 9th century CE, and hence can not be authentic works of
However, several works considered important in esoteric
attributed to Nāgārjuna and his disciples by traditional historians
like Tāranātha from 17th century Tibet. These historians try to
account for chronological difficulties with various theories. For
example, a propagation of later writings via mystical revelation. For
a useful summary of this tradition, see Wedemeyer 2007.
Lindtner considers that the Mahāprajñāpāramitāupadeśa
"Commentary on the Great Perfection of Wisdom" is not a genuine work
of Nāgārjuna. This work is only attested in a Chinese translation by
Kumārajīva.There is much discussion as to whether this is a work of
Nāgārjuna, or someone else. Étienne Lamotte, who translated one
third of the work into French, felt that it was the work of a North
Indian bhikṣu of the Sarvāstivāda school who later became a
convert to the Mahayana. The Chinese scholar-monk
Yin Shun felt that
it was the work of a South Indian and that Nāgārjuna was quite
possibly the author. These two views are not necessarily in opposition
and a South Indian Nāgārjuna could well have studied the northern
Sarvāstivāda. Neither of the two felt that it was composed by
Kumārajīva, which others have suggested.
Statue of Nāgārjuna in Tibetan monastery near Kullu, India
From studying his writings, it is clear that Nāgārjuna was
conversant with many of the
Śrāvaka philosophies and with the
Mahāyāna tradition. However, determining Nāgārjuna's affiliation
with a specific nikāya is difficult, considering much of this
material has been lost. If the most commonly accepted attribution of
texts (that of Christian Lindtner) holds, then he was clearly a
Māhayānist, but his philosophy holds assiduously to the Śrāvaka
Tripiṭaka, and while he does make explicit references to Mahāyāna
texts, he is always careful to stay within the parameters set out by
Nāgārjuna may have arrived at his positions from a desire to achieve
a consistent exegesis of the Buddha's doctrine as recorded in the
āgamas. In the eyes of Nāgārjuna, the
Buddha was not merely a
forerunner, but the very founder of the
Madhyamaka system. David
Kalupahana sees Nāgārjuna as a successor to
being a champion of the middle-way and a reviver of the original
philosophical ideals of the Buddha.
Nāgārjuna assumes a knowledge of the definitions of the sixteen
categories as given in the
Nyaya Sutras, the chief text of the Hindu
Nyaya school, and wrote a treatise on the pramanas where he reduced
the syllogism of five members into one of three. In the
Vigrahavyavartani Karika, Nāgārjuna criticizes the
Nyaya theory of
pramanas (means of knowledge) 
Nāgārjuna was fully acquainted with the classical Hindu philosophies
Samkhya and even the Vaiseshika.
Because of the high degree of similarity between Nāgārjuna's
philosophy and Pyrrhonism, particularly the surviving works of Sextus
Thomas McEvilley suspects that Nāgārjuna was
influenced by Greek Pyrrhonists texts imported into India. Pyrrho
of Elis (c. 360-c. 270 BCE), who is usually credited with founding
this school of skeptical philosophy, was himself influenced by Indian
philosophy, when he traveled to India with Alexander the Great's army
and studied with the gymnosophists.
Nāgārjuna's major thematic focus is the concept of śūnyatā
(translated into English as "emptiness") which brings together other
key Buddhist doctrines, particularly anātman "not-self" and
pratītyasamutpāda "dependent origination", to refute the metaphysics
of some of his contemporaries. For Nāgārjuna, as for the
the early texts, it is not merely sentient beings that are "selfless"
or non-substantial; all phenomena (dhammas) are without any svabhāva,
literally "own-being", "self-nature", or "inherent existence" and thus
without any underlying essence. They are empty of being independently
existent; thus the heterodox theories of svabhāva circulating at the
time were refuted on the basis of the doctrines of early Buddhism.
This is so because all things arise always dependently: not by their
own power, but by depending on conditions leading to their coming into
existence, as opposed to being.
Nāgārjuna means by real any entity which has a nature of its own
(svabhāva), which is not produced by causes (akrtaka), which is not
dependent on anything else (paratra nirapeksha).
Chapter 24 verse 14 of the
Mūlamadhyamakakārikā provides one of
Nāgārjuna's most famous quotations on emptiness and co-arising:
sarvaṃ ca yujyate tasya śūnyatā yasya yujyate
sarvaṃ na yujyate tasya śūnyaṃ yasya na yujyate
All is possible when emptiness is possible.
Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.
As part of his analysis of the emptiness of phenomena in the
Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Nāgārjuna critiques svabhāva in several
different concepts. He discusses the problems of positing any sort of
inherent essence to causation, movement, change and personal identity.
Nāgārjuna makes use of the Indian logical tool of the tetralemma to
attack any essentialist conceptions. Nāgārjuna’s logical analysis
is based on four basic propositions:
All things (dharma) exist: affirmation of being, negation of non-being
All things (dharma) do not exist: affirmation of non-being, negation
All things (dharma) both exist and do not exist: both affirmation and
All things (dharma) neither exist nor do not exist: neither
affirmation nor negation 
To say that all things are 'empty' is to deny any kind of ontological
foundation, therefore Nāgārjuna's view is often seen as a kind of
ontological anti-foundationalism or a metaphysical
Understanding the nature of the emptiness of phenomena is simply a
means to an end, which is nirvana. Thus Nāgārjuna's philosophical
project is ultimately a soteriological one meant to correct our
everyday cognitive processes which mistakenly posits svabhāva on the
flow of experience.
Some scholars such as
Fyodor Shcherbatskoy and T.R.V. Murti held that
Nāgārjuna was the inventor of the
Shunyata doctrine, however, more
recent work by scholars such as Choong Mun-keat,
Yin Shun and
Dhammajothi Thero has argued that Nāgārjuna was not an innovator by
putting forth this theory, but that, in the words of Shi
Huifeng, "the connection between emptiness and dependent origination
is not an innovation or creation of Nāgārjuna."
Nāgārjuna was also instrumental in the development of the two truths
doctrine, which claims that there are two levels of truth in Buddhist
teaching, the ultimate truth (paramārtha satya) and the conventional
or superficial truth (saṃvṛtisatya). The ultimate truth to
Nāgārjuna is the truth that everything is empty of essence, this
includes emptiness itself ('the emptiness of emptiness'). While some
(Murti, 1955) have interpreted this by positing Nāgārjuna as a
Neo-Kantian and thus making ultimate truth a metaphysical noumenon or
an "ineffable ultimate that transcends the capacities of discursive
reason", others such as Mark Siderits and
Jay L. Garfield have
argued that Nāgārjuna's view is that "the ultimate truth is that
there is no ultimate truth" (Siderits) and that Nāgārjuna is a
"semantic anti-dualist" who posits that there are only conventional
truths. Hence according to Garfield:
Suppose that we take a conventional entity, such as a table. We
analyze it to demonstrate its emptiness, finding that there is no
table apart from its parts […]. So we conclude that it is empty. But
now let us analyze that emptiness […]. What do we find? Nothing at
all but the table’s lack of inherent existence. […]. To see the
table as empty […] is to see the table as conventional, as
In articulating this notion in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā,
Nāgārjuna drew on an early source in the Kaccānagotta Sutta,
which distinguishes definitive meaning (nītārtha) from interpretable
By and large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by a polarity, that
of existence and non-existence. But when one reads the origination of
the world as it actually is with right discernment, "non-existence"
with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one reads the
cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment,
"existence" with reference to the world does not occur to one.
By and large, Kaccayana, this world is in bondage to attachments,
clingings (sustenances), and biases. But one such as this does not get
involved with or cling to these attachments, clingings, fixations of
awareness, biases, or obsessions; nor is he resolved on "my self". He
has no uncertainty or doubt that just stress, when arising, is
arising; stress, when passing away, is passing away. In this, his
knowledge is independent of others. It's to this extent, Kaccayana,
that there is right view.
"Everything exists": That is one extreme. "Everything doesn't exist":
That is a second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata
teaches the Dhamma via the middle...
The version linked to is the one found in the nikayas, and is slightly
different from the one found in the Samyuktagama. Both contain the
concept of teaching via the middle between the extremes of existence
Nagarjuna does not make reference to
"everything" when he quotes the agamic text in his
See also: Causality
Jay L. Garfield describes that Nāgārjuna approached causality from
the four noble truths and dependent origination. Nāgārjuna
distinguished two dependent origination views in a causal process,
that which causes effects and that which causes conditions. This is
predicated in the two truth doctrine, as conventional truth and
ultimate truth held together, in which both are empty in existence.
The distinction between effects and conditions is controversial. In
Nāgārjuna's approach, cause means an event or state that has power
to bring an effect. Conditions, refer to proliferating causes that
bring a further event, state or process; without a metaphysical
commitment to an occult connection between explaining and explanans.
He argues nonexistent causes and various existing conditions. The
argument draws from unreal causal power. Things conventional exist and
are ultimately nonexistent to rest in the middle way in both causal
existence and nonexistence as casual emptiness within the
Mūlamadhyamakakārikā doctrine. Although seeming strange to
Westerners, this is seen as an attack on a reified view of
Nāgārjuna also taught the idea of relativity; in the Ratnāvalī, he
gives the example that shortness exists only in relation to the idea
of length. The determination of a thing or object is only possible in
relation to other things or objects, especially by way of contrast. He
held that the relationship between the ideas of "short" and "long" is
not due to intrinsic nature (svabhāva). This idea is also found in
Pali Nikāyas and Chinese Āgamas, in which the idea of relativity
is expressed similarly: "That which is the element of light ... is
seen to exist on account of [in relation to] darkness; that which is
the element of good is seen to exist on account of bad; that which is
the element of space is seen to exist on account of form."
Nāgārjuna is often depicted in composite form comprising human and
nāga characteristics. Often the nāga-aspect forms a canopy crowning
and shielding his human head. The notion of the naga is found
throughout Indian religious culture, and typically signifies an
intelligent serpent or dragon, who is responsible for the rains, lakes
and other bodies of water. In Buddhism, it is a synonym for a realised
arhat, or wise person in general.
Nagarjuna High School
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^ Garfield, Jay L. (1995), The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way,
Oxford: Oxford University Press
^ Hsing Yun, Xingyun, Tom Manzo, Shujan Cheng Infinite Compassion,
Endless Wisdom: The Practice of the
Bodhisattva Path Buddha's Light
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^ Rongxi, Li; Dalia, Albert A. (2002). The Lives of Great Monks and
Nuns, Berkeley CA: Numata Center for Translation and Research, pp.
^ Buddhist Art & Antiquities of Himachal Pradesh By Omacanda
Hāṇḍā (Page 97)
^ Notes on the Nagarjunikonda Inscriptions, Dutt, Nalinaksha. The
Indian Historical Quarterly 7:3 1931.09 pp.633–653 "..Tibetan
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^ Geri Hockfield Malandra, Unfolding A Mandala: The Buddhist Cave
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^ Shōhei Ichimura, Buddhist Critical Spirituality: Prajñā and
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^ a b Hirakawa, Akira. Groner, Paul. A History of Indian Buddhism:
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^ See SN 12.15 Kaccayanagotta Sutta: To Kaccayana Gotta (on Right
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^ Kalupahana 1994, p. 161.
^ a b Kalupahana 1992, p. 120.
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philosophy of Nāgārjuna, Copenhagen: Akademisk forlag, page 11
^ TRV Murti, Central philosophy of Buddhism, pages 89-91
^ Christian Lindtner, Master of Wisdom.
Dharma Publishing 1997, page
^ David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nāgārjuna: The
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^ S.Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy Volume 1, page 644
^ TRV Murti, The central philosophy of Buddhism, page 92
^ Adrian Kuzminski, Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented
^ Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought 2002 pp499-505
Indian philosophy Volume 1, page 607
^ Siderits, Mark; Katsura, Shoryu (2013). Nagarjuna's Middle Way:
Mulamadhyamakakarika (Classics of Indian Buddhism). Wisdom
Publications. pp. 175–176. ISBN 1614290504.
^ Dumoulin, Heinrich (1998)
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^ Siderits, Mark.
Nagarjuna as anti-realist, Journal of Indian
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^ Yìn Shùn, An Investigation into Emptiness (Kōng zhī Tànjìu
^ Choong, The Notion of Emptiness in Early
^ Medawachchiye Dhammajothi Thero, The Concept of Emptiness in Pali
^ Shi huifeng: “Dependent Origination =
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^ a b Siderits, Mark, On the Soteriological Significance of Emptiness,
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Bhikkhu (1997). SN 12.15 Kaccayanagotta Sutta: To
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