The school of the Middle Way, founded by Nagarjuna, has proved to be profoundly influential on the development of Buddhism in Asia and beyond.
While you might not find a Madhyamika temple or a monk in Madhyamikan robes, you will find heavy traces of Madhyamika philosophy in all of the world’s Mahayana schools. From Zen, to Nichiren, to the Tibetan masters—the doctrine of the Middle Way, with its emphasis on emptiness, is thriving. Madhyamikas, starting with its early proponents Nagarjuna and Aryadeva, made their mark through reductio as absurdum arguments. They subjected their opponents’ assertions to rigorous scrutiny, ultimately exposing fatal inconsistencies. The “Middle Way” of the school refers to the Middle Way between the affirmation of, or denial of, the existence of things.
The great translator Kumarajiva transcribed three important Madhyamika works from Sanskrit into Chinese: Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way and Treatise of the Twelve Gates as well as Aryadeva’s Treatise of the Hundred Songs.
The name of Nagarjuna is the first great name in Buddhist thought since the Buddha, and for that reason (among others) he is sometimes referred to as the ‘second Buddha.”1
Nagarjuna (whoever he was, if he, indeed, was a real person) contributed a bounty of contributions to Buddhism in the early Common Era. His works, which ranged from hymns, to treatises, to analytic works, are noted for their philosophical rigor. He is widely credited with founding the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism, which is a Mahayana school concerned with the fundamental importance of the Middle Way. For a person whose existence is shrouded in such mystery, and whose origin is no less than mythological, he has given the world a trove of insights relating to the nature of the Four Noble Truths. While it’s possible,2 but far from certain3 that “Nagarjuna” was more than one person, or one of two particular Nagarjunas (both of whom had very different lives and areas of expertise), what is certain is that his work Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way is a classic expression of the Buddhist tendency toward skepticism. Nagarjuna’s Middle Way work can be divided into four sections.4 In the first section, Nagarjuna discusses common Buddhist ontological concepts, such as impermanence, dependent origination, perception, the Five Aggregates, etc. In the section section, he focuses on the nature of self and its experience of conventional reality. In the third section, he concerns himself with the details of conventional reality and how it relates to the self. In the final section, he addresses topics related to the true essence of things, or ultimate truth, Shunyata, and Nirvana. Nagarjuna’s unique brilliance was his ability to argue against all opposites to illustrate the fundamental truth of Shunyata. He sufficiently demonstrates the impossibility of opposites by subjecting a gallery of topics (e.g., conditions, motions, becoming, destruction) to the following argument: X can be produced:
- From itself.
- From something else
- From both itself and other things
- From neither
In Nagarjuna’s view, none of these things can satisfactorily explain how X is produced. Nagarjuna is not merely asserting a brand of absurdity, in spite of prodigiously utilizing the reducto ad absurdium argument. He is using conventional reality to illuminate ultimate reality. The ultimate reality is Shunyata. His view is not so different from most Buddhists. It is the mutually dependent nature of things that prevents any one thing from possessing an essence of its own. He does not say definitively whether things exist or not. He characterizes their dependent nature, which cannot be proven to exist or not, as emptiness. Emptiness cannot be said to exist or not, yet it is the one link between all perceived things. While the Yogacharins posit only the mind (and, thus, the unreality of all things) and the Theravadins, influenced by the Abhidarmikas, posit the very real existence of dharmas, the Madhyamikas, following Nagarjuna’s lead, take neither position.
Other prominent Madhyamaka philosophers include Nagarjuna’s pupil Aryadeva (who composed a 400-verse commentary on Nagarjuna’s work), Buddhapalita (who further developed Nagarjuna’s reductionist argumentation style), Bhavaviveka (who challenged Buddhapalita to make assertions rather than relying on reductionist arguments), Candrakirti (who defended the reductionist approach of Buddhapalita and criticized the Yogacarins), and Shantideva.
1Williams, 1989, 55
2Williams, 1989, 56
3Garfield, 1995, 88
4Garfield, 1995, 91