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His writings are the basis for the formation of the Madhyamaka school, which was transmitted to China under the name of the Three Treatise (Sanlun) School. He is credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajnaparamita sutras, and was closely associated with the Buddhist university of Nalanda. In the Jodo Shinshu branch of Buddhism, he is considered the First Patriarch.
Little is known about the actual life of the historical Nagarjuna. The two most extensive biographies of Nagarjuna, one in Chinese and the other in Tibetan, were written many centuries after his life and incorporate much lively but historically unreliable material which sometimes reaches mythic proportions. Nagarjuna was born a Brahmin, which in his time connoted religious allegiance to the Vedas, probably into an upper-caste Brahmin family and probably in the southern Andhra region of India.
Very few details on the life of Nāgārjuna are known, although many legends exist. He was born in Southern India, near the town of Nagarjunakonda (నాగార్జునకొండ) in present-day Nagarjuna Sagar (నాగార్జునసాగర్) in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh. According to traditional biographers and historians such as Kumarajiva, he was born into a Brahmin family, but later converted to Buddhism. This may be the reason he was one of the earliest significant Buddhist thinkers to write in classical Sanskrit rather than Pāli or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.
From studying his writings, it is clear that Nāgārjuna was conversant with many of the Nikaya school philosophies and with the emerging Mahāyāna tradition. However, affiliation to a specific Nikaya school is difficult, considering much of this material is presently 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 non-Mahāyāna canon, and while he does make explicit references to Mahāyāna texts, he is always careful to stay within the parameters set out by the canon.
Nagarjuna may have arrived at his positions from a desire to achieve a consistent exegesis of the Buddha's doctrine as recorded in the Canon. In the eyes of Nagarjuna the Buddha was not merely a forerunner, but the very founder of the Madhyamaka system. David Kalupahana sees Nagarjuna as a successor to Moggaliputta-Tissa in being a champion of the middle-way and a reviver of the original philosophical ideals of the Buddha.
There exist a number of influential texts attributed to Nāgārjuna, although most were probably written by later authors. The only work that all scholars agree is Nagarjuna's is the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way), which contains the essentials of his thought in twenty-seven short chapters. According to Lindtner the works definitely written by Nagarjuna 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 (To a Good Friend)
- Bodhisaṃbhāra (Requisites of Enlightenment)
There are other works attributed to Nāgārjuna, some of which may be genuine and some not. In particular, several important works of esoteric Buddhism (most notably the Pañcakrama or "Five Stages") are attributed to Nāgārjuna and his disciples. Contemporary research suggests that these works are datable to a significantly later period in Buddhist history (late eighth or early ninth century), but the tradition of which they are a part maintains that they are the work of the Mādhyamika Nāgārjuna and his school. Traditional historians (for example, the 17th century Tibetan Tāranātha), aware of the chronological difficulties involved, account for the anachronism via a variety of theories, such as the propagation of later writings via mystical revelation. A useful summary of this tradition, its literature, and historiography may be found in Wedemeyer 2007.
Lindtner considers that the Māhaprajñāparamitopadeśa, a huge commentary on the Large Prajñāparamita not to be a genuine work of Nāgārjuna. This is only extant 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 Upadeśa into French, felt that it was the work of a North Indian bhikkhu 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. Actually, these two views are not necessarily in opposition, and a South Indian Nāgārjuna could well have studied in the northern Sarvāstivāda. Neither of the two felt that it was composed by Kumārajīva which others have rashly suggested.
Nāgārjuna's primary contribution to Buddhist philosophy is in the use of the concept of śūnyatā, or "emptiness," which brings together other key Buddhist doctrines, particularly anattā (no-self) and pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination), to refute the metaphysics of Sarvastivāda and Sautrāntika (extinct non-Mahayana schools). For Nāgārjuna, as for the Buddha in the early texts, it is not merely sentient beings that are "selfless" or non-substantial; all phenomena are without any svabhāva, literally "own-being" or "self-nature", 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 dependently: not by their own power, but by depending on conditions leading to their coming into existence, as opposed to being. Nāgārjuna was also instrumental in the development of the two-truths doctrine, which claims that there are two levels of truth in Buddhist teaching, one which is directly (ultimately) true, and one which is only conventionally or instrumentally true, commonly called upāya in later Mahāyāna writings. Nāgārjuna drew on an early version of this doctrine found in the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta, which distinguishes nītārtha (clear) and neyārtha (obscure) terms -
- 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..."
Nāgārjuna differentiates between saṃvṛti (conventionally true) and paramārtha (ultimately true) teachings, but he never declares any conceptually formulated doctrines to fall in this latter category; for him, even śūnyatā is śūnya--even emptiness is empty. For him, ultimately,
- nivṛttam abhidhātavyaṃ nivṛtte cittagocare|
- anutpannāniruddhā hi nirvāṇam iva dharmatā||7
- The designable is ceased when the range of thought is ceased,
- For phenomenality is like nirvana, unarisen and unstopped.
This was famously rendered in his tetralemma with the logical propositions: X, not X, X and not X, neither X nor not X.
Nagarjuna 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 the 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."
For more on Nāgārjuna's philosophy, see Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.
Nagarjuna as Ayurvedic Physician
Nagarjuna was also a practitioner of Ayurveda, or traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine. First described in the Sanskrit medical treatise entitled Sushruta Samhita (of which he was the compiler of the redaction), many of his unique conceptualizations, such as his descriptions of the circulatory system and blood tissue (uniquely described as rakta dhātu) and his pioneering work on the therapeutic value of specially treated minerals knowns as bhasmas, which earned him the title of the "father of iatrochemistry," are described by Frank John Ninivaggi in his text: Ayurveda: A Comprehensive Guide to Traditional Indian Medicine for the West, p. 23. (Praeger/Greenwood Press, 2008). ISBN 978-0-313-34837-2.
Nāgārjuna is often depicted in composite form comprising human and naga characteristics. Often the naga 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 realized arhat, or wise person in general. The term also means "elephant".
|Lindtner, C||Nagarjuniana||Motilal, 1987 ||Contains Sanskrit or Tibetan texts and translations of the
Shunyatasaptati, Vaidalyaprakarana, Vyavaharasiddhi (fragment), Yuktisastika, Catuhstava and Bodhicittavivarana. A translation only of the Bodhisambharaka. The Sanskrit and Tibetan texts are given for the Vigrahavyavartani. In addition a table of source sutras is given for the Sutrasamuccaya.
|Komito, D R||Nagarjuna's "Seventy Stanzas"||Snow Lion, 1987||Translation of the Shunyatasaptati with Tibetan commentary|
|Bhattacharya, Johnston and Kunst||The Dialectical Method of Nagarjuna||Motilal, 1978||A superb translation of the Vigrahavyavartani|
|Kawamura, L||Golden Zephyr||Dharma, 1975||Translation of the Suhrlekkha with a Tibetan commentary|
|Jamieson, R.C.||Nagarjuna's Verses on the Great Vehicle
and the Heart of Dependent Origination
|D.K., 2001||Translation and edited Tibetan of the Mahayanavimsika and the Pratityasamutpadahrdayakarika, including work on texts from the cave temple at Dunhuang, Gansu, China|
|Lindtner, C.||Master of Wisdom: Writings of the Buddhist Master Nāgārjuna||Dharma, 1986||An excellent introduction to Madhyamika, Master of Wisdom contains two hymns of praise to the Buddha, two treatises on Shunyata, and two works that clarify the connection of analysis, meditation, and moral conduct. Includes Tibetan verses in transliteration and critical editions of extant Sanskrit.
Tibetan Translation (product ID: 0-89800-286-9)
|Tola, Fernando and Carmen Dragonetti||Vaidalyaprakarana||South Asia Books, 1995|
|Hopkins, Jeffrey||Nagarjuna's Precious Garland: Buddhist Advice for Living and Liberation||Snow Lion Publications, 2007||ISBN 1559392746|
|Brunnholzl, Karl||In Praise of Dharmadhatu||Snow Lion Publications, 2008||Translation with commentary by the 3rd Karmapa|
- Middle way
- Acharya Nagarjuna University, a modern University named after Nagarjuna
- Buddhist Art & Antiquities of Himachal Pradesh By Omacanda Hāṇḍā (Page 97)
- Christian Lindtner, Master of Wisdom. Dharma Publishing 1997, page 324.
- David Kalupahana, Mulamadhyamakakarika of Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. Motilal Banarsidass, 2005, pages 2,5.
- Lindtner, C. (1982) Nagarjuniana, page 11
- SN 12.15, . The version linked to is the one in 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 and non-existence. See A.K. Warder, A Course in Indian Philosophy. Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1998, pages 55-56, or for the full text of both versions with analysis see pages 192-195 of Choong Mun-keat, The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism: A comparative study basted on the Sutranga portion of the Pali Samyutta-Nikaya and the Chinese Samyuktagama; Harrassowitz Verlag, Weisbaden, 2000. Nagarjuna does not make reference to "everything" when he quotes the agamic text in his MMK; in this regard see David Kalupahana, Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. SUNY Press, 1986, page 232.
- David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, pages 96-97. In the Nikayas the quote is found at SN 2.150.
- Campbell, W. L. Ed. and trans. 1919. The Tree of Wisdom: Being the Tibetan text with English translation of Nāgārjuna's gnomic verse treatise called the Prajñādanda. Calcutta University. Reprint: Sonam T. Kazi, Gangtok. 1975.
- Forizs, Laszlo, 1998. "The Relevance of Whitehead for Contemporary Buddhist Philosophy. Pāṇini, Nāgārjuna and Whitehead."
- Hoogcarspel, E., 2005. The Central Philosophy, Basic Verses. Olive Press Amsterdam (translation from Sanskrit, commentary with references to contemporary philosophy)
- Kalupahana, David J. The Philosophy of the Middle Way. SUNY, 1986
- Lamotte, E., Le Traite de la Grande Vertu de Sagesse, Vol I (1944), Vol II (1949), Vol III (1970), Vol IV (1976), Institut Orientaliste: Louvain-la-Neuve.
- McCagney, Nancy, Nāgārjuna and the philosophy of openness. Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield, c 1997.
- Magliola, Robert. Derrida on the Mend. Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue UP, 1984; 2nd ed. 1986; rpt., 2000. (Through a sustained comparison, this book first brings Nagarjuna to the attention of American and European specialists in Jacques Derrida and French 'deconstruction'.)
- Magliola, Robert. On Deconstructing Life-Worlds: Buddhism, Christianity, Culture. Atlanta: Scholars P, American Academy of Religion, 1997; Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. (This book further develops comparisons between Nagarjunist and Derridean deconstructions of substantialism.)
- Murti, T. R. V., 1955. The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. George Allen and Unwin, London. 2nd edition: 1960.
- Murty, K. Satchidananda. 1971. Nagarjuna. National Book Trust, New Delhi. 2nd edition: 1978.
- Ramanan, K. Venkata. 1966. Nāgārjuna's Philosophy. Charles E. Tuttle, Vermont and Tokyo. Reprint: Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. 1978. (This book gives and excellent and detailed examination of the range and subtelties of Nagarjuna's philosophy.)
- Samdhong Rinpoche, ed. 1977. Madhyamika Dialectic and the Philosophy of Nagarjuna. Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, India.
- Sastri, H. Chatterjee, ed. 1977. The Philosophy of Nāgārjuna as contained in the Ratnāvalī. Part I [ Containing the text and introduction only ]. Saraswat Library, Calcutta.
- Streng, Frederick J. Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967.
- Walser, Joseph. Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
- Wedemeyer, Christian K. 2007. Āryadeva's Lamp that Integrates the Practices: The Gradual Path of Vajrayāna Buddhism according to the Esoteric Community Noble Tradition. New York: AIBS/Columbia University Press.
- Zangpo, Ngorchen Kunga. 1975. The Discipline of The Novice Monk. Including Ācārya Nāgārjuna's The (Discipline) of the Novice Monk of the Āryamūlasaryāstivādīn in Verse, and Vajradhara Ngorchen Kunga Zenpo's Word Explanation of the Abridged Ten Vows, The Concise Novice monks' Training. Translated by Lobsang Dapa et al. Sakya College, Mussoorie, India
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