Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way is a landmark text in Mahayana Buddhist thought. The text is a foundational work to the Madhyamaka school.

In the Middle Way, Nagarjuna subjects a variety of concepts and statements to extreme, skeptical scrutiny. Throughout the course of the texts, he proves, one by one, that assertions and negations of each statement are inadequate. He employs the tetralemna form of argumentation, which is:

  • Affirmation: This is a cat.
  • Negation: This is not a cat.
  • Both: This is both a cat and not a cat.
  • Neither: This is neither a cat nor not a cat.

He subjects a battery of topics to his logical assault. He employs the tetralemma argument first to topics such as conditions, going/not going, and sense experiences. He eventually moves on to employ his arguments against dearly-held Buddhist views likes the Four Noble Truths, Nirvana, and Dependent Origination.

Nagarjuna’s non-assertions form a language suited for the understanding of absolute reality. Throughout the sutra, Nagarjuna subjected the assertions of his opponents to a deductive reductio ad absurdium. This is called prasanga in Sanskrit. From this term comes Prasangika, the Madhyamaka sub-school founded by him.1 The tetralemma, expressed through the prasanga method, bears emptiness as its logical fruit.

Sanskrit:  Mūlamadhyamakakārikā

1Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, 1991, 132.