Someone on Reddit called Nagarjuna a badass. Damn right. He was. He kicked butt, philosophy speaking. As far as I’m concerned he was far superior to any Western philosopher. You can keep your Nietzsches and Rousseaus and all the rest, because they Kant compare.
Just what made Nagarjuna such a badass? One believer, Karl Jaspers said that in Nagarjuna’s philosophy “everything can be formulated negatively and positively . . . Not only is the opposition between true and false transcended but also the opposite of this opposition. In the end no definite statement is possible.”
Nagarjuna was a demolition expert. He blew-up all operations of thought, views, and statements by clarifying how everything is ultimately empty, and then he demolished emptiness with sunyata-sunyata, the emptiness of emptiness.
For those unfamiliar with Nagarjuna’s thinking, and even for some who are, it is easy to mistake emptiness for a negative or nihilistic philosophy. That is a superficial understanding. As Jaspers also wrote, “Emptiness permits the greatest openness, the greatest willingness to accept the things of the world as a starting point to make the great leap.”
And as Nagarjuna himself said,
Everything is in harmony for the person who is in harmony with emptiness; but nothing stands in harmony with the person who is not in harmony with emptiness.”
To understand Nagarjuna, it’s important to have an appreciation of his dialectical method, and a good grasp of the Two Truths. The latter is crucial, for without knowing the difference between the Conventional Truth and the Ultimate Truth, one can easily become lost.
Other than the Buddha himself, no other historical Buddhist figure is more revered than Nagarjuna, or as legendary. Throughout the centuries, he has been called a “second Buddha,” and almost all the Mahayana schools of China, Tibet, and Japan have regarded him as a paramount spiritual ancestor. He is considered the founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school, as well as the founder of eight other Buddhist schools.
We are in possession of very few facts concerning Nagarjuna’s historicity. Nearly all of his story is pure myth. The Buddhist historian, Kenneth Inada once wrote that Nagarjuna’s “veneration at times reached such ridiculous heights that his name was sanctified and stamped everywhere with reckless abandon . . .” If all the stories were believed, Nagarjuna was not only a great scholar, but also a tantric master, a magician, a scientist and physician, an alchemist. He is said to have built innumerable temples, written hundreds of books, and was abbot of the Nalanda monastic university. Certainly stories like the one in which he brought the world the Mahayana sutras by diving into the ocean and retrieving them from underwater dragons are not historically credible.
As I said above, Nagarjuna is thought to have been a prolific writer, although it is doubtful that he composed all of the texts attributed to him. It was a custom in India (and China) to give credit to the founder of a school for the composition of texts authored by later followers. This was done as an act of homage to the teacher, not as an attempt to mislead anyone, and it may be that this is the case with Nagarjuna.
There is, however, scholarly consensus that a teacher named Nagarjuna did live, most likely in the 2nd century of the Common Era; and that he did write at least two works: Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra and Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way. Either one of these two texts alone is worthy enough to justify the great respect he is afforded.
Nagarjuna’s name is virtually synonymous with emptiness., but there is much more to his philosophy than that. Equally esteemed are his teachings on the Four Sublime States, also known as the Four Immeasurable Minds, mentioned in Monday’s post: equanimity (upekkha), loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna); and sympathetic joy (mudita).
Here is a passage on the subject of metta, translated by Thich Nhat Hanh from Etienne Lamotte’s French translation of Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra. It’s found in Hanh’s book Teachings on Love (Parallax Press, 2009):
When we want beings in all directions to be happy, there arises in us the intention to love. This desire to love enters our feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness; and it becomes manifested in all our actions, speech, and other mental activities. Events that are neither mental nor physical arising after that are in accord with love and can in themselves be called love, as love is their root. These events determine our future actions, and they are directed by our will, which is now suffused with love. Will is the energy that drives our actions and speech. The same is true with regard to the arising of compassion, joy, and equanimity.”
I’ve devoted plenty of space on The Endless Further to discussions of Nagarjuna’s badass side, that is, the complex side. My simple explanations barely scratch the surface of his profundity. Labyrinthine as they may be in places, his teachings on emptiness, concepts and entities, ignorance, knowledge, and reality, all point to the very simple truth of love. Only when we give up forming attachments to unimportant things can we fix our mind on the one important matter of practicing compassion, of faring on the Bodhisattva Way. That, in my opinion, is the “great leap” that Karl Jaspers referred to, and considering this, we should know that compassion is not only the flip side, it is the raison d’être for emptiness.
Great compassion is the root of the Path of the Buddha.”
– Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra
Nagarjuna was a revolutionary. A bold outlaw philosopher. Like Billy the Kid, his aim was true. Like Lenny Bruce, he was bad, he was the brother you never had.
Apologies to Messrs. Costello and Dylan.