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The Buddha Tree

    Nāgārjuna (in Telugu, 龍樹 in Chinese) (c. 150 - 250 CE) was an Indian philosopher, the founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Path) school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and arguably the most influential Indian Buddhist thinker after the Gautama Buddha himself.

    His writings were the basis for the formation of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school, which was transmitted to China under the name of the Three Treatise (Sanlun) School. He is credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajnaparamita sutras, and was closely associated with the Buddhist university of Nalanda.

    Very few details on the life of Nāgārjuna are known, although many legends exist. He may have been born in South India, probably near the town of Nagarjunakonda in present day Andhra Pradesh. According to traditional biographers and historians such as Kumarajiva(鳩摩羅什), he was born into a Brahmin family, but later converted to Buddhism. This may be the reason he was one of the earliest significant Buddhist thinkers to write in Sanskrit rather than Pāli or Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.

    From studying his writings, it is clear that Nāgārjuna was conversant with the Nikaya school philosophies and with the emerging Mahāyāna tradition. If the most commonly accepted attribution of texts (that of Christian Lindtner) holds, then he was clearly a Māhayānist, but his philosophy holds assiduously to the canon, and while he does make explicit references to Mahāyāna texts, he is always careful to stay within the parameters set out by the canon.

    There exist a number of influential texts attributed to Nāgārjuna, although most were probably written by later authors. The only work that all scholars agree is Nagarjuna's is the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way), which contains the essentials of his thought in twenty-seven short chapters. According to Lindtner the works definitely written by Nagarjuna are:

Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way) 
śūnyatāsaptati (Seventy Verses on Emptiness) 
Vigrahavyāvartanī (The End of Disputes) 
Vaidalyaprakaraṇa (Pulverizing the Categories) 
Vyavahārasiddhi (Proof of Convention) 
Yuktiṣāṣṭika (Sixty Verses on Reasoning) 
Catuḥstava (Hymn to the Absolute Reality) 
Ratnāvalī (Precious Garland) 
Pratītyasamutpādahṝdayakārika (Constituents of Dependent Arising) 
Bodhicittavivaraṇa (Exposition of the Enlightened Mind) 
Suhṝllekha (To a Good Friend) 
Bodhisaṃbhāra (Requisites of Enlightenment)

    There are other works attributed to Nāgārjuna, some of which may be genuine and some not. There is evidence for a second, later, Nāgārjuna who was the author of a number of tantric works which have subsequently been incorrectly attributed to the original Nāgārjuna.

    Lindtner considers that the Māhaprajñāparamitopadeśa, a huge commentary on the Large Prajñāparamita not to be a genuine work of Nāgārjuna. This is only extant in a Chinese translation by Kumarajiva. There is much discussion as to whether this is a work of Nāgārjuna, with some original comments by Kumarajiva, or an original work by Kumarajiva based on the philosophy of Nāgārjuna.

    Nāgārjuna's primary contribution to Buddhist philosophy is in the development of the concept of śūnyatā, or "emptiness," which brings together other key Buddhist doctrines, particularly anatta and pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination). For Nāgārjuna, it is not merely humans that are empty of ātman; all things are without any svabhāva, literally "own-nature" or "self-nature", and thus without any underlying essence; they are empty of being. This is so because they are arisen dependently: not by their own power, but by depending on conditions leading to their coming into existence, as opposed to being. Nāgārjuna was also instrumental in the development of the two-truths doctrine, which claims that there are two levels of truth in Buddhist teaching, one which is directly true, and one which is only conventionally or instrumentally true, commonly called upāya in later Mahāyāna writings. Nāgārjuna drew on an early version of this doctrine found in the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta, which distinguishes nītārtha (clear) and neyārtha (obscure) terms -

    By and large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by a polarity, that of existence and non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'non-existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, 'existence' with reference to the world does not occur to one. 

    Nāgārjuna differentiates between conventional and ultimately true teachings, but he seldom declares any to fall in this latter category; for him, even śūnyatā is śūnya--even emptiness is empty. For him, ultimately,

nivṛttamabhidhātavyaṃ nivṛtte cittagocare| 
anutpannāniruddhā hi nirvāṇamiva dharmatā||7 
The designable is ceased when the range of thought is ceased, 
For phenomenality is like nirvana, unarisen and unstopped. 
For more on Nāgārjuna's philosophy, see Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.


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