Nagarjuna: Philosopher and Alchemist, Robert Beer, gouache, 1988. Courtesy Inner Traditions and Robert Beer.
Nagarjuna: Philosopher and Alchemist, Robert Beer, gouache, 1988. Courtesy Inner Traditions and Robert Beer.

Although Nagarjuna is arguably the most important figure in Buddhism after the Buddha himself, very little is known about him. All that can be said with any certainty is that he lived at some time around the second century C.E. in India and is the author of a Sanskrit work of 448 verses, divided into twenty-seven chapters entitled: Verses from the Center(Mulamadhyamakakarika). The first known account of Nagarjuna’s life was composed from Indian sources by Kumarajiva, the Central Asian scholar who translated Verses from the Center from Sanskrit into Chinese in 409 C.E.

According to Kumarajiva, Nagarjuna was born at the foot of an Arjuna tree to a brahmin family in South India. He excelled in the traditional religious and secular subjects studied by the Indian priestly caste and by the age of twenty was renowned for his learning. But the sensual side of his character was unfulfilled. He and three friends learned from a sorcerer the art of making themselves invisible. They entered the private quarters in the royal palace and seduced the women. When the king learned of this, he ordered his soldiers to occupy the palace. By aiming their swords above the footprints left by the invisible men, the soldiers were able to kill Nagarjuna’s three companions. Nagarjuna was spared only by standing close to the king.

The brush with death impressed on the young man how craving leads to anguish. He escaped from the palace and fled to the mountains, where he became a monk and studied the teachings of the Buddha. Within three months he gained mastery of the early canonical texts but found they did not adequately answer his deepest questions. He then met an old monk who introduced him to the doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism.

The Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) was, at the time of Nagarjuna, a newly emerging movement of thought and practice whose advocates criticized the spiritual detachment and social isolation of those monks who claimed to represent the early Buddhist tradition. Such people, they claimed, placed too great an emphasis on the attainment of their own liberation and ignored the plight of the world. The Mahayanists took as their ideal the bodhisattva: one who seeks awakening not merely for his or her own sake but in order to be able to liberate others from suffering. Followers of this movement believed that such ideas were not new but had been expounded by the historical Buddha. The discourses in which Gautama taught Mahayana doctrines had, however, only been preserved in non-human realms. Now, they maintained, the time was ripe for their dissemination on earth.

Nagarjuna was sufficiently inspired by the vision of these teachings that he left his mountain retreat and wandered through India in search of other Mahayana discourses. In the course of his travels, he refined his dialectical skills against Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. He defeated those who challenged him in debate and became so convinced of his superior understanding that he finally declared: “I have no master.” He founded an order based on his own understanding and then devised a rule for his disciples to follow. It was at this point that a naga, an intelligent subaquatic serpent, had compassion for him and guided him to the bed of a lake where the Mahayana Wisdom Discourses entrusted to the nagas by the Buddha were stored.

The Wisdom Discourses (Prajnaparamita Sutras) are a series of inspirational dialogues between the Buddha and his leading disciples, which explore at length the metaphysical implications of emptiness. Through studying these texts Nagarjuna was convinced of the centrality of emptiness in the process of awakening. On returning to India from the naga realms, he then composed Verses from the Center and other commentaries on the Wisdom Discourses, thus accelerating the spread of Mahayana Buddhism.

Nagarjuna’s renown was such that he was invited by a king to participate in a contest of magical powers with a brahmin scholar. The brahmin created a lake, seated himself on a giant lotus flower in the center of it and mocked Nagarjuna for being stranded on solid ground like an ox. In response, Nagarjuna conjured up a white elephant that crushed the lotus seat and tossed the brahmin back onto dry land. The brahmin admitted defeat but made a wish that Nagarjuna were dead. Nagarjuna locked himself inside a room. The next day a worried disciple broke down the door. A cicada flew out. The room was empty.

Kumarajiva’s biography appears to weave two entirely different versions of Nagarjuna’s life into a single narrative. The first version depicts Nagarjuna as a passionate trickster figure with an exceptional critical intelligence, who is unwilling to compromise his own search for truth by settling for the dogmas of either Brahmanism or Buddhism. His intention to found his own order and rule rings true because it is hard to see what sectarian interests would have been served by adding this detail later.

 Nagarjuna: Philosopher and Alchemist, Robert Beer, gouache, 1988. Courtesy Inner Traditions and Robert Beer.
Nagarjuna, seated at right, with disciple Aryadeva. A naga presents a sutra text. Sized pigment on cotton thangka, Eastern Tibet, Kham, mid- to late-eighteenth century. Courtesy The Tibet House and ©The Shelly and Donald Rubin Himalayan Project,

The second version of Nagarjuna’s life, however, is not only less historically plausible but reveals through its overlay of mythical elements how Nagarjuna came to be represented as a founder of Mahayana Buddhism. Yet nowhere in Verses from the Center is there a reference to either the Buddha’sWisdom Discourses or the Mahayana ideal of the bodhisattva. Not only does Nagarjuna fail to mention the bodhisattva, he explicitly understands the Buddhist path to be the way of the liberated sage (arhat). Since the Buddha compared this sage to a naga, it could be that Nagarjuna received teachings on emptiness that had been preserved as an oral tradition in the early schools.

Whatever the case, Nagarjuna is convinced that the intelligence that animates the Buddhist path is incompatible with any orthodoxy. He concludes his enquiry into the self with these lines:

When buddhas don’t appear
And their followers are gone,
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself.

If Nagarjuna considered the vitality of the early tradition to be exhausted and the Mahayana as propounded through the Wisdom Discourses to be the way forward, why did he not use this verse as an opportune moment to extol the virtues of the bodhisattva? Instead he looked to the emergence of “solitary buddhas” (pratyekabuddha): those who achieve awakening independently of Buddhist institutions through their own insight into contingency and emptiness.

Whoever else he may have been, Nagarjuna was indisputably the first person after the historical Buddha to disclose the Dharma in a voice of his own. Until then, Buddhists had confined themselves to remembering the discourses given by Gautama, while classifying, defining, and cross-referencing his key terms and ideas into encyclopedia (abhidharma) and metaphysical systems. By the time of Nagarjuna, there was no consensus among different Buddhist schools either as to what constituted an authoritative canon, or to what the welter of conflicting discourses meant.

In this uncertain milieu, Nagarjuna’s Verses from the Center served as a catalyst to trigger the chain of events that was to revolutionize Buddhist tradition. Through his startling sequence of verses, Nagarjuna recovered the key liberative insights of the Buddha’s teaching and articulated them in an original and compelling language. He opened up the possibility of tradition being animated as much by contemporary voices as by reference to ancient discourses and encyclopedia.

The key to Nagarjuna’s Verses from the Center lies in his understanding of emptiness as inseparable from the utter contingency of life itself. Moreover, the emptiness experienced by easing one’s obsessive hold on a fixed self or things is declared by Nagarjuna to be the Buddha’s middle way:

Contingency is emptiness
Which, contingently configured,
Is the middle way.

Emptiness is not a state but a way. Not only is it inseparable from the world of contingencies, it too is “contingently configured.” To experience emptiness is not a descent into an abyss of nothingness but a recovery of the freedom to configure oneself as an intentional, unimpeded trajectory through the shifting, ambiguous sands of life.

Every moment of experience is contingent on a vast complex of myriad conditions. Nothing exists in and of itself as “this” or “that,” “self” or “other.” Everything is what it is only in relation to what it is not. To recognize this emptiness is not to negate things but to glimpse what enables anything to happen at all:

When emptiness is possible,
Everything is possible;
Were emptiness impossible,
Nothing would be possible.

Being inseparable from life itself, emptiness cannot be experienced apart from things. Emptiness is a way of talking about the sublime depth, mystery, and contingency that are revealed as one probes beneath the surface of anything that seems to exist in self-sufficient isolation. Emptiness is the untraceability of any such isolated thing. Yet for something to be empty does not imply that there is nothing there at all. “Were there a trace of something,” says Nagarjuna,

There would be a trace of emptiness.
Were there no trace of anything,
There would be no trace of emptiness.

To understand emptiness does not mean that “emptiness” becomes a discrete “object” of a “consciousness.” Emptiness is experienced as the letting go of fixed ideas about oneself and the world:

Buddhas say emptiness
Is relinquishing opinions.
Believers in emptiness
Are incurable.

One can become fixated on emptiness as easily as anything else. In doing so, what is intended “to stop fixations” becomes an insidious form of entrapment. To symbolize this, Nagarjuna compares emptiness to a snake: a dangerous but fascinating creature that elegantly negotiates the trickiest terrain. While a handler knows exactly how to pick it up, one who does not will be bitten and killed.

An urgency runs through the verses that reveals Nagarjuna’s concern to ease the existential and linguistic fixations that keep one locked in repetitive cycles of anguish. He pulls the comfortable rug of common sense from beneath one’s feet, short-circuiting the habits of the mind, leaving nothing to hold on to. Instead of offering the consolations of belief, he holds out the tantalizing possibility of freedom.

Nagarjuna is not interested in simply reiterating the Buddha’s discourses or offering formulaic reinterpretations of orthodox doctrines. He acknowledges his debt to tradition while speaking in a voice that departs from its stylistic conventions. A playful and provocative tone runs through his text. The verses embody the movement of a supple but disquieting intelligence, which constantly has to sidestep the logical traps of the language Nagarjuna cannot help but utter. His awareness of the contingency of “self” and “other,” “something” and “nothing,” is expressed in a voice that is quixotic and inquisitive, dramatic and tentative, always poised to surprise:

Believers believe in buddhas
Who vanish in nirvana.
Don’t imagine empty buddhas
Vanishing or not.

Nagarjuna has relatively little to say about emptiness. Each poem is an attempt to disclose emptiness through the play of language. For poetry works not by describing its subject with detached objectivity from without, but by imaginatively entering inside its subject so as to disclose it from within. As a poet, Nagarjuna gives voice to the freedom of emptiness from within. He is not interested in confirming what is safe and familiar but in exploring what is unsettling and strange. For the letting go of fixed opinions about oneself and the world can be both frightening and compelling. Although such emptiness may seem an intolerable affront to one’s sense of identity and security, it may simultaneously be felt as an irresistible lure into a life that is awesome and mysterious.

Excerpts from Nagarjuna’s Verses from the Center


No trace of space
Is there before
The absence of obstruction
Which describes it.

With no obstruction,
How can there be
Absence of obstruction?
Who distinguishes between them?

Space is not obstruction
Or an absence of it,
Nor is it a description
Or something to describe.

Fluidity and heat,
Energy and gravity
Are just like space.

In seeing things
To be or not to be
Fools fail to see
A world at ease.



If I had a past,
What is now and yet to come
Would have already happened.
Were there no now and future then,
How could now and future
Ever have a past?

Without a past
There is no now and future;
What is now and still to come
Would never happen.

Past, present, future
Are like bottom, middle, top
And one, two, three.

You can’t grasp time
And times you can
Are never time itself.
Why configure time you cannot grasp?

If time depends on things,
How could I ever have
Time apart from things?
Without things how could time persist?



Were mind and matter me,
I would come and go like them.
If I were something else,
They would say nothing about me.

What is mine
When there is no me?
Were self-centeredness eased,
I would not think of me and mine –
There would be no one there
To think them.

What is inside is me,
What is outside is mine –
When these thoughts end,
Compulsion stops,
Repetition ceases,
Freedom dawns.

Fixations spawn thoughts
That provoke compulsive acts –
Emptiness stops fixations.

Buddhas speak of “self”
And also teach “no self”
And also say “there’s nothing
Which is either self or not.”

When things dissolve,
There’s nothing left to say.
The unborn and unceasing
Are already free.

Buddha said: “It is real,”
And “it is unreal,”
And “it is both real and unreal,”
And “it is neither one nor the other.”

It is all at ease,
Unfixatable by fixations,

You are not the same as or different from
Conditions on which you depend;
You are neither severed from
Nor forever fused with them –

This is the deathless teaching
Of buddhas who care for the world.

When buddhas don’t appear
And their followers are gone,
The wisdom of awakening
Bursts forth by itself.

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