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Buddhadharma : Winter 2006
buddhadharma| 75 |winter 2006 interpretations of Madhyamaka philos- ophy from the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism have become well known in recent years, especially through the writ- ings of Robert Thurman, Jeffrey Hopkins, and H.H. the Dalai Lama. With the publi- cation of Ngawang Samten and Jay Gar- field’s lucid translation of the Ocean of Reasoning, by the founder of the Geluk, Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), Western read- ers can for the first time appreciate the most influential Tibetan commentary on the single most important text in the Mahayana philosophical canon: Nagar- juna’s second-century Sanskrit classic, the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika). Nagarjuna figures in nearly all major Mahayana lineages. Whether you practice the nondual awareness of Mahamudra or Dzogchen, contemplate the dialectics of detailed expositions of emptiness, work with the energies of the tantric subtle body, sit zazen, or chant the name of Amida Bud- dha, it is likely that you look to Nagar- juna as a great exemplar and predecessor. Nagarjuna, who is nearly as protean a fig- ure as the Buddha himself, is said to have rescued the Perfection of Wisdom sutras from the naga world, lived six hundred years, and composed not just incisive phil- osophical poems but also scholastic manu- als, devotional hymns, tantric treatises, and mystical songs. Much about Nagarjuna’s life, legend, and body of writings is in doubt, but few dispute that his most important work was the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way . Comprising 447 stanzas divided into twenty-seven chapters, the Funda- mental Verses systematically examines the major concepts of early Indian Buddhist thought, including causation, motion, the senses, the aggregates, the elements, action and agent, suffering, essence, self, time, error, the four noble truths, nirvana, and dependent origination. Employing a variety of analytical tools, Nagarjuna investigates whether any of these con- cepts can withstand critical scrutiny and be shown to exist svabhavena: from its own side, independently, essentially, truly, inherently. In the end, every attempt to establish a concept as inherently exis- tent results in failure, for every concept turns out to be relative – dependent for its coherence on other concepts, hence to have as its nature not inherent existence, but emptiness. (Though emptiness itself is as empty as any other concept, it must be understood if conceptualization is to be stilled and enlightenment attained.) Despite his relentless denial of the coherence of any conceivable concept or entity, Nagarjuna is very careful to point out that his negations must be understood to apply only to cases where one seeks in things an ultimate, inherent nature. No such nature can be found, he says, but emptiness does not cancel the conventions of the world. Indeed, the conventions of the world require emptiness, for if things are not empty, then they must exist inher- ently. Yet inherent existence entails the sort of independence and permanence that entities and concepts obviously lack – for there is not a single one that does not arise in dependence upon causes and conditions. In denying that things exist in any essential manner, while also denying their utter nonexistence, Nagarjuna sees himself as restoring the Buddha’s middle way between reification and nihilism, and it is that ideal of a middle way that gives the school that followed him its name: Madhyamaka. A brief summary such as the foregoing barely hints at the subtlety and difficulty of Nagarjuna’s verses, and virtually from the moment of their publication, they were subjected to reams of analysis and interpretation, both laudatory and damn- ing. Non-Buddhists, predictably, found that the Fundamental Verses fell into pre- cisely the nihilism Nagarjuna eschewed, asking how the world could possibly be explained without some sort of meta- physical substance (such as atman) to give things continuity and coherence. But Buddhists, too, found his words disturb- ing, and the development of the Yogacara school of philosophy, with its emphasis on a positive account of the mind and its roger Jackson is a proFessor oF religion and south asian studies at carelton college in northField, minnesota. he is the author oF tantric trEasurEs: thrEE coLLEctions of mys- ticaL VErsE from buddhist india. the naGarjuna deBates ocean of reasoninG: a Great commentary on nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika By tsongkhapa translated by Geshe ngawang samten and jay l. Garfield oxford university Press, 2006 603 pages; $99.00 (hardcover), $29.95 (paperback) reviewed by roger jackson