Nagarjuna receives the Perfection of Wisdom scripture from a nagini. Beside him is Aryadeva, who elaborated his teaching. In the sky, astride a lion, is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Manjushri, in human guise.
Nagarjuna receives the Perfection of Wisdom scripture from a nagini. Beside him is Aryadeva, who elaborated his teaching. In the sky, astride a lion, is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Manjushri, in human guise.

IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT, after the Buddha, the single most important figure in the entire Buddhist tradition was a monk named Acharya Nagarjuna, sometimes called the Second Buddha. As is the case with many religious giants, we know little about the historical Nagarjuna. Scholars usually place him sometime in the late second century C.E., but he may have lived a hundred years before or after that period. According to tradition, Nagarjuna was a scholar-monk at Nalanda University, the great Buddhist center of learning in northeast India. Although we know him through his body of writings, we don’t really know how many “Nagarjunas” there actually were, for it is unlikely that all the works attributed to him were written by the same person. There may well have been three or four monks all writing under the same name.

We do know that Nagarjuna’s writings are the basis for the Madhyamaka, or “Middle Way,” school of Buddhism and that Nagarjuna himself became the most influential figure in the development of Mahayana Buddhism, which had begun to emerge during the first century B.C.E. out of disagreements within the Indian sangha about the path to enlightenment. This is despite the fact that his writings never mention many of the signature Mahayana ideas, such as the bodhisattva ideal or the identity of form and emptiness. This raises the intriguing possibility that this pivotal figure in the rise of Mahayana may not himself have been a Mahayanist.

The most famous by far of all the writings attributed to Nagarjuna—and, not incidentally, the most important philosophical text in the Buddhist tradition—is the Mulamadhyamakakarika (“Root Verses on the Middle Way”). The Karikas, as they are often called, are composed of about four hundred and fifty short stanzas, which were eventually divided into twenty-seven chapters. These chapters address the major philosophical issues of his time—including the nature of causality and conditionality, motion and action, the self, its suffering and bondage, nirvana, and the Buddha—but Nagarjuna’s profound insights have proven to be timeless. Unfortunately for the general reader, Nagarjuna’s Sanskrit, although not lacking in grace or precision, is impersonal and dense. The Karikas were meant to be memorized rather than read, and they would normally have been supplemented by the oral commentary of a teacher. But even then, Nagarjuna’s philosophy is notoriously difficult to understand (which might help explain why he is more revered than studied).

Some Buddhists might think of such a philosophical investigation as incompatible with their contemplative or devotional practice. But that is like separating meditation from wisdom. Absorption in one’s meditation practice develops calmness and clarity, yet peace of mind by itself is not the goal of the Buddhist spiritual path. Buddhism also emphasizes insight—seeing through the thought-constructions that our minds are usually stuck in—and it is these forms of reified thought that Nagarjuna deconstructs.

Nagarjuna’s philosophical approach was revolutionary, but he probably did not think of himself as a radical, which may be why he did not emphasize the Mahayana connection. His innovations are firmly rooted in the original teachings of the Buddha, who refused to discuss metaphysical questions. The Buddha said that debating such issues as whether the world had a beginning or not or what happens to an enlightened person after death was like being struck by an arrow and refusing to be treated until one knows what wood the arrow was made of, who shot it, and so forth. Instead of offering a speculative explanation of the world, the Buddha’s approach was pragmatic. He compared his dharma to a raft, which should wisely be used to cross the river of life and death. Once having crossed, however, one should not carry it everywhere on one’s back. Nevertheless, in the years after the Buddha’s passing, the compilers of the Abhidharma (“higher teaching”) extracted a metaphysics from his teachings.

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