Sunday, November 16, 2008

Nagarjuna in Context

I've been on a little kick lately of putting my old work online, and I suppose I may as well continue that trend with a paper I wrote on the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna a few years ago. This one goes out to Anne Cleveland, whose fascinating post on Admiral Byrd made me remember writing it. Thanks, Anne! Without further ado:


In the second century in India, many different schools of thought were trying to unlock the secrets of existence through the pursuit of some form of ultimate knowledge. It is in this setting that we can find the man who was perhaps the most significant thinker in the Buddhist tradition after the Buddha himself: Nagarjuna. Little is known for certain about the historical Nagarjuna, but it is believed that he was born in the southern Andhra region of India, probably to an upper-caste Hindu family, and lived around the period of 150-250 CE (Berger, 2006, 1; Wikipedia, 2006a). This essay will examine the historical context in which Nagarjuna’s work came into being, Nagarjuna’s contribution to philosophical discourse, and the reception he earned from contemporaries.

Details regarding Nagarjuna’s conversion to Buddhism are hazy (Berger, 2006, 1). What we do know is that Nagarjuna encountered Buddhism at a critical point in its development, when Buddhist thinkers were grappling with the very foundations of their shared worldview. Historically, Buddhism had not been concerned with uncovering the secrets of existence. The Buddha famously refused to answer existential questions, even going so far as to formulate an argument known as the “four errors” denial (catuskoti), which disproved all common ways of approaching such questions. With regard to the question of whether the world has a beginning or not, we may illustrate the four errors denial by answering that “the world does not have a beginning, it does not fail to have a beginning, it does not have and not have a beginning, nor does it neither have nor not have a beginning” (5). This principled opposition to the pursuit of ultimate truth about the universe identified the Buddhist tradition as one of skepticism, but not of pessimism; though absolute knowledge was viewed as irrelevant, Buddhists would have agreed that people can still diagnose and cure their own problems, and this was considered to be quite satisfactory (5).

In the time between the Buddha’s life and Nagarjuna’s, however, the intellectual atmosphere had shifted, making it imprudent for Buddhists to continue to refuse to engage in existential discussion (Berger, 2006, 5). Questions from other schools of thought were challenging the legitimacy of the basis of Buddhism (5-6). Brahminical logicians posed such questions as, “If there is no self, then what is this I am experiencing?” (6). Other philosophers inquired, “If there is no enduring identity, who is it that practices Buddhism and is liberated from suffering?” (9). Faced with these intuitively damning critiques, Nagarjuna’s Buddhist contemporaries had no choice but to play ball.

The initial Buddhist response was anchored in a sort of Substantialism. This system was built upon two main tenets. The first was the assertion that causality exists. Without causality, the Buddhist thinkers reasoned, it would be impossible to diagnose and solve the problem of suffering (samsara). The Buddhist’s second axiom claimed that since causes are not arbitrary, but rather are predictable and orderly, things must have some fixed nature (svabhava) which makes this so (Berger, 2006, 10).

Within the Buddhist camp, two factions were readily identifiable. The first was known as the Sarvastivada school. Adherents to this system of thought believed that the fixed natures of objects determine the ways that they are able to act as causes (Berger, 2006, 10). This idea can be illustrated by the statement that “Water…can quench thirst and fire can burn other things, but water cannot cause a fire, just as fire cannot quench thirst” (10). The Sarvastivada school’s main adversaries represented the Sautrantika school. These thinkers believed that change is only potential until it affects some change in the receptor. In other words, someone who ascribed to Sautrantika ideas might claim that water quenches thirst because molecules in your stomach interact with the water (10).

The differences between the schools should not obscure the fact that they both agreed on the fundamental idea of fixed natures. The logic behind this belief can be illustrated by the assertion that if people did not have a fundamentally fixed nature, we could not say that an individual really is suffering or that nirvana is attainable by anyone who perfects their wisdom (Berger, 2006, 8). This newly formulated view of causal potential as being inherent in objects and phenomena was applied by the Buddhist thinkers to all of Buddhist practice, with the intention of justifying them. Nagarjuna’s contemporaries concluded that because essences were fixed, “Those causes which lead to enmeshment in the worldly cycle of rebirth (samsara) [could not] be the same as those which lead to peace (nirvana). These states of existence are just as different as fire and water, samsara will quench thirst just as little as nirvana will lead to the fires of passion” (11). They believed that the Buddha’s words had the potential to purify consciousness (11). But these ideas were not uncontroversial; rather, they were the source of Nagarjuna’s disagreement.

Like the Buddha, Nagarjuna viewed metaphysical theory as a waste of time. He did not believe that it facilitated, explained, or justified practice, but rather that it was the enemy of practice, and must be exposed as irrelevant (Berger, 2006, 6). He was intent on “showing all the players that the game had all along been just that, merely a game which had no tenable real-life consequences” (8). One commentator, Andrew Tuck, points out that “Nagarjuna…did not intend to substitute his theory for those of his opponents. His only intention…was to cure others of the philosophical illness…” (quoted in Khandro Net, 2006). To do this, he set out to disprove systems which looked at reality as composed of substances or essences (Berger, 2006, 3).

Nagarjuna thus set out to express his doubt in a methodical, consistent way, believing that the best way to refute a system was to show that it didn’t make sense even in its own terms (Berger, 2006, 4; 6-7). Nagarjuna employed a form of philosophical argumentation called “destructive” debate, a method by which one does not pose a thesis of one’s own, but rather endeavors only to disprove the opponent’s thesis. This was generally looked down upon because it could only establish falsehood, and not truth, but this was Nagarjuna’s goal from the beginning (7).

Nagarjuna dredged up the Buddha’s “four errors” denial, and adapted it to fit the situation at hand. Recall that the Sarvastivada school of Buddhism viewed causal abilities as inherent in objects. Nagarjuna argued that if all properties were contained in the objects that expressed them, then causal reactions would simply be the manifestation of causes which were predetermined to react to some circumstance; this view would entail the admission that novel change is impossible (Berger, 2006, 11-12). On this ground, Nagarjuna rejected the Sarvastivada view of reality, and turned to the Sautrantika schema with equal disdain. As discussed above, the Sautrantika view held that actors can affect each other, and yet have their own fixed nature. Nagarjuna dismissed this view as well, pointing out that if the actors can change their own natures in response to other actors, then their natures are not fixed (12).

Nagarjuna then addressed the view that events come about due to their own causal powers, as well as the causal powers of other things around them, a view held by Jaina philosophers of his time. Nagarjuna cast this argument aside by illuminating the contradiction involved in claiming that something is caused by external factors, and simultaneously claiming that they are caused by things which are not external factors. This involves characterizing things by some attribute as well as its negation, which is a fallacious method of argumentation. Nagarjuna turned next to the view that metaphysics are nonexistent, that there are no cause and effect relationships between phenomena, a view held by the Indian Materialist school. This conception of reality goes against the most fundamental teachings of the Buddha, because Buddhism is predicated on the idea that one can predictably affect change through rational means, and so Nagarjuna asserted that no Buddhist could accept this as true (Berger, 2006, 12).

Nagarjuna’s argument can be boiled down to the claim that novel change is only possible if things do not have fixed essences. Using the four-errors denial format, Nagarjuna asserted that change can not produce itself, can not be introduced by outside influences, can not be both self-produced and introduced extrinsically, nor can it arise with no influence at all (Berger, 2006, 3; 8).

Nagarjuna’s conclusion was that Substantialist views of essential properties of objects are inadequate for describing reality. He recognized that changes do indeed happen, and so they must happen somehow. But since changes can not happen as a result of the fixed essences of objects, they must happen because of a lack of fixed essences in these objects (Berger, 2006, 12). To illustrate this position, Nagarjuna even attacked the most fundamental of Buddhist concepts, going so far as to say that “There is not the slightest distinction between samsara and nirvana. The limit of the one is the limit of the other” (quoted in Berger, 2006, 11). In this statement, and in his four-errors denial, he hopes to convey that the alterability of phenomena means that even concepts like samsara and nirvana are not built upon essence, but “upon the fact that nothing (sunya) ever defines or characterizes them eternally and unconditionally” (13). This view can be refined and expanded on by pointing out that by taking one point of view as to the nature of some phenomenon, we necessarily exclude other points of view which may be crucial for complete understanding of the phenomenon. Asserting one view as correct implies that the others are false, which often results in conflict. Nagarjuna would further hold that a single view, if taken as completely true, leads to contradictions and dead ends. Thus if we cling to extremes, we will never be correct (McFarlane, 1995).

Accordingly, Nagarjuna’s view of reality was multifaceted. His emphatically non-theoretical view of existence, the “Two Truths doctrine,” holds that there are two seemingly mutually exclusive tools for looking at reality which must be taken into account simultaneously in order to gain a true understanding of the world around us (Wikipedia, 2006c). The first of the two paradigms has been called Samvrtisatya, and refers to the conventional way of dealing with concepts used in everyday life (Berger, 1998, 2). Nagarjuna accepts the fact that there is value in this schema, because it allows us to act and convey meaning to others. However, the use of concepts carries the implication of differentiability, and therefore can not account for the difficulties in identifying the essences in things. Therefore, Nagarjuna offers another way of viewing reality, Paramarthasatya, which encapsulates an ultimate, or transcendental, truth of existence (ibid). This ultimate truth requires the recognition of existence as a single boundless “conceptionlessness.” The crucial understanding to be drawn from this view is that separating one part of existence from all other parts causes one to run into the difficulties alluded to above.

However, Nagarjuna was very explicit in his assertion that both of these truths must be viewed as equally significant parts of an integrated whole. He recognized that people might easily get hung up on the idea of emptiness (sunyata), and might become attached to it as a “something” or as “non-existence.” Nagarjuna saw the importance of practical action, and believed that holding onto the idea of emptiness would paralyze one’s ability to act (Khandro Net, 2006).

Recall that Nagarjuna’s intention was not to get involved in a complex theorization. Nagarjuna believed that the Buddhist doctrine was a pragmatic one, meant to provide a guide to living satisfactorily, rather than one meaning to explain the mysteries of the universe. He thus took the stance that no essential difference could be pointed to between the world of suffering and the practices which lead to nirvana and satisfactoriness. He interpreted the Buddhist view to merely be embracing the lack of guarantees in the world and the possibility of change, and he painted the oath to avoid suffering as not intending to deplore existence, but rather aiming to express a desire to work towards nirvana (Berger, 2006, 13). Nagarjuna viewed samsara and nirvana as nothing more than “alternative outcomes in the nexus of worldly interdependence” (13). Thus, emptiness was not intended to be viewed as a theory, but as a mental attitude which would help one avoid becoming attached to concepts and theories (Khandro Net, 2006). Appropriately, Nagarjuna compared someone clinging to emptiness as a theory to “a customer to whom a merchant has said that he has nothing to sell and the customer now asks to buy this ‘nothing’ and carry it home” (quoted in Khandro Net, 2006).

Nagarjuna’s anti-theoretical stance was quite contentious at the time of its exposition, as it stood in stark contrast to the position of the main intellectual heavyweights of the day: the Vedic school of Logic known as the Nyaya. The Nyaya posited a form of Realism which defined all knowledge as being related to substances, qualities, or activities (Berger, 2006, 2; 16). Accordingly, attainment of true knowledge was accepted as being possible, as long as logic was strictly adhered to (5). One commentator, Douglas Berger, explains that “For Nyaya, while anything and everything can be doubted, any and every doubt can be resolved” (5).

Indubitable and unerring knowledge was viewed to be the causal result of pramanas, which took four different forms (Mohanta, 1998, 1): perception (pratyaksa), inference (anumana), comparison (upamana), or word (sabda). The pramana of “perception” refers to sensory contact with objects, which the Nyaya believed to be unerring. “Inference” describes the movement from particular to particular via generality, and, if done correctly, was viewed as an infallible source of knowledge. “Comparison” expresses the relationship between some object and a word describing that object (Wikipedia, 2006b). It was thought that if there is a word, there must be an object which that word is describing (Berger, 1998, 2). The final type of pramana, “word,” encompasses truths which are communicated through the sacred texts. These truths were also held to be infallible (Wikipedia, 2006b).

The Nyaya argued that the acceptance of pramanas is central to any argument, and that argument can not exist without it. They claimed that the denial of any particular pramana necessarily presupposed the acceptance of some other pramana (Mohanta, 1998, 2). From this framework, the Nyaya claimed that Nagarjuna’s logic was self defeating; countering with the question, if nothing has a fixed nature, then what about the truth of the statement that nothing has a fixed nature? Why is such a statement necessarily true (Berger, 2006, 14-15). This question hinges on the recognition that a universal denial must hold true across circumstances, and thus contradicts the denial of the possibility of something maintaining its identity across all circumstances (15).

To combat this attack, Nagarjuna resorted to the sort of destructive debate which was his trademark. His goal was to dismantle the Nyaya system of thought from the inside out, and to substitute his principled non-argument in its place (Berger, 2006, 7). Hence, he called into question the criteria of proof which were considered by his contemporaries to be axiomatic (4). Nagarjuna inquired, if knowledge can only be obtained through acceptance of pramanas, then how can one know that pramanas must be accepted? If pramanas are self-validating, but all other knowledge must be based on reference to pramanas, Nagarjuna claimed that it must be explained why pramanas are given such privileged status (Mohanta, 1998, 3). This line of questioning went outside the logical framework established by the Nyaya, because it could not presuppose the validity of pramanas as sources of unerring knowledge, and called into doubt the epistemological basis of the entire Nyaya system of thought.

The Nyaya understanding of epistemology held that a piece of knowledge could either be self-evident, or could be acquired through reference to other true facts. Nagarjuna attacked the latter claim first, citing the example of determining the weight of an object. He mused that if a scale is used to arrive at this knowledge, then must the scale not be tested for accuracy using another scale? And that scale must be tested with another scale, and so on, because it will never be possible to actually eliminate all doubt. Consequently, the epistemological status of reference to true facts was left discredited. At this point, the Nyaya were left only with appeals to self-evidence, but Nagarjuna rejected this method as well, claiming that epistemology seeks to know how knowledge becomes evident; if all knowledge were self evident, then there would be no need to ask these questions (Berger, 2006, 15).

In any case, Nagarjuna continued, his argument of sunyata did not fit into any of the categories of knowledge which the Nyaya had defined, for it described neither a substance, nor a quality, nor an activity. He pointed out that the Nyaya system of logic presupposed that no one making such an argument could enter into rational philosophical discussion. But this was exactly the point being contested (Berger, 2006, 16). Nagarjuna conceded that if his argument was a positive statement, he would be incorrect. However, we can recall that the idea of emptiness was not intended to represent an actual thing (Berger, 1998, 1-2). Thus, Nagarjuna’s argument against the Nyaya could be summed up by the twenty-ninth verse of his Vigrahavyavartani, where we find Nagarjuna declaring victory, explaining, “If I had any proposition, this defect [(that accepting sunyata would require acceptance of the Nyaya framework)] would be mine. I have, however, no proposition. Therefore, there is no defect that is mine” (quoted in Berger, 1998, 2).

Ultimately, Nagarjuna’s was received with skepticism by his contemporaries. Most did not accept that he was taking a genuinely philosophical stance, because of his refusal to take a stance himself while engaging in destructive argumentation (Berger, 2006, 16-17). This would not have bothered Nagarjuna, because this was his intention from the beginning. Recall that his purpose was not to put forward any theory of existence; rather, Nagarjuna aimed only to show that his opponents would be unable to achieve the epistemological goals towards which they aimed.

Nagarjuna’s importance in the context of his time can not, however, be ignored. His voice was central in altering the course of Buddhist understanding of existential questions. With Nagarjuna’s argument in mind, we can safely turn away from the questions of precisely what sort of existence we are faced with, leaving us to ponder the questions which Nagarjuna deemed to be much more important, like how to escape from a life of suffering, and how to find stable peace in a world that is constantly changing.

Works Cited

Berger, D. (1998). Illocution, No-Theory and Practice in Nagarjuna’s Skepticism: Reflections on Vigrahavyavartani. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2006, from

Berger, D. (2006). Nagarjuna. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2006, from

Khandro Net. (2006). Nagarjuna. Retrieved Nov. 10 from

McFarlane, T. J. (1995). The Meaning of Sunyata in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2006, from

Mohanta, D. K. (1998). Cognitive Skepticism of Nagarjuna. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2006, from

Wikipedia. (2006a). Nagarjuna. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2006, from

Wikipedia. (2006b). Pramana. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2006, from

Wikipedia. (2006c). Two-Truths Doctrine. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2006, from

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