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Buddhadharma : Winter 2015
winter 2 0 1 5 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 29 The story of Shi Tou and Ya Shan brings us to the middle way (which is what Madhya maka, the school Nagarjuna founded, means). This middle way is not about living your life between the extremes of asceticism and luxury; it is a philosophically technical stance with vast ethical ramifications. “Is” is false; “is not” is also false; “is and is not” is false; “neither is nor is not” is also false. You cannot assert any of them. You can’t assert any- thing. each statement of the tetralemma is, respec- tively, false, false, false, and false again. This holds true for any form the tetralemma might take. It also holds true for any view you might hold. The great Zen monk Mu Mun expressed this clearly in his response to the thirty-seventh case of the Gateless Gate. In this case, a monk comes to the great Zen master Zhao Zhou and asks, “Why did Bodhidharma come to China?” Zhao Zhou answers, “The cypress tree in the garden.” Mu Mun responds with this poem: Words cannot show truth. Speech cannot point into nature. one who holds words is dead. one who attaches to sentences is lost. Does this seem a little extreme? It’s not. Look carefully at how sentences, any sentences, are constructed, and there is always a problem. “I am standing here. You are sitting there.” By the dictates of english grammar (and every language has its grammatical exigencies), we’ve got I, you, stand- ing, sitting, here, there. The specific grammatical demands of Navajo or Bantu might be different, but they are there, guaranteed. And grammar necessarily distorts things. Nagar- juna’s methodology is to point out the distortions. How can there be a “here” without a “there?” How can there be a “there” without a “here?” How can we distinguish here from there? Where does here begin, where does there end? And so on. Consider, for example, the tenth chapter in the Mulamadhyamakakarika, “On Fire and Fuel.” Nagarjuna shows that fuel cannot be fire and fire cannot be fuel, but fuel cannot not be fire and fire ➤ NO ONe ReALLY KNOWS. There are stories—in one, he was beckoned to the kingdom of the nagas, underwater ser- pents, where he found the Prajnaparamita Sutras, lost since the time of the Buddha. He is said to have had magical abilities that extended his life for centuries, and to have used those same abilities to prolong the life of a benevolent king. But the king’s son, eager to assume the throne and recognizing that Nagarjuna was preventing his father’s death, asked Nagarjuna to commit suicide as a display of generosity. According to the story, because Nagarjuna had once accidentally killed an ant while gathering grass for meditation, the one weapon that could kill him was a single blade of grass. He took one and cut off his own head. When the proper time comes, goes the story, his head and body will rejoin so he can once again serve all beings. The actual historical record, however, offers nothing so dramatic, or even anything definitive. Nagarjuna is usually spoken of as a Buddhist monk and scholar who lived between 100 and 300 Ce, but it’s not even clear if he was a single person or a composite figure, a mythology molded out of multiple teachers of that place and time. He may have come from southern India—both an ancient Buddhist settlement and a modern dam that flooded the ancient Buddhist settlement in south India are named for him—but it’s uncertain. He may or may not have been associated with Nalanda, the ancient monastic university, though some accounts claim he was head of the school for a term. Numerous books are attributed to him, but almost certainly, not all were his works. His name is a combination of naga, from the story, and arjuna, meaning hero. Within Buddhism, Nagarjuna is remembered as the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philoso- phy, which had a deep influence on all of the Mahayana, and especially on Tibetan Buddhism. He is thought to be one of the principal developers of the two truths doctrine. In the Zen tradition, he appears on every lineage chart as the fourteenth ancestor. His influence, both on Buddhist thought and on Buddhism’s narrative of itself, cannot be overestimated. Nagarjuna (detail) eastern Tibet, 19th century Karma Gardri School Collection Rubin Museum of Art HAR#00174 | himalayanart.org Who Was naGarJuna?