It is said that the Buddha prophesied that someone would come after him who
would clear up any confusion regarding Buddha-dharma. Nagarjuna is
considered to be that person. Often called The Second Buddha, Arya
[noble] Nagarjuna (2nd century CE) was from a wealthy South Indian Brahmin family. He is
considered a terton (hidden-text revealer) as well as a
Nagarjuna is sometimes called the First of "The Six
Scholarly Ornaments," a group that also includes Aryadeva, Asanga,
Vasubandhu, Dignaga, and Dharmakirti.
Two groups of texts are attributed to him. The Collections
of Reasonings gives the Buddha's intentions in Turning
the Wheel of Dharma for a Second Time. The Collection of
Praises concerns the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. Khenpo
Tsultrim Gyamtso explains that in it we come to understand via meditation
that the dharmadhatu and our own Buddha potential are the same.
The Legend of His Name
While he was seated
by a lake one day, a naga came from the depths and invited him to Potala to
teach the serpentine water spirits.
As a parting gift, they presented him with the 12 volumes known as the
Sutra. (This teaching had been entrusted to them by Ananda, the
He is best known for his explanation of the term shunyata (Emptiness,
or Open-ness) that is developed in that treatise. The volumes are kept
today still, in a temple dedicated to him in Kathmandu.
In those days, there was a terrible famine in the land that grievously
affected the monks, for they were supported only by the surrounding community's
generosity. Nagarjuna is said to have gone to a distant planet and returned
with a Philosopher's Stone that could turn base metals into gold. With the
profit he earned from that enterprise he supported the monastery for six years,
but when the monks learned that he had broken a major precept by handling gold,
they expelled him.
When Nagarjuna left the monastery, he went to live in the forest where he
mastered all the accomplishments of the yogi. He could make detailed
mandalas, prepare the ingredients for the finest incense, and practice
astrology. He is believed to have encountered, and having attained the
highest siddhis, subdued yakshas, ghouls and vampires.
He is also said to have found a copper casket containing the text of the
Hayagriva tantra, in the Shankarakuta stupa at the Sitavana charnel ground
near Bodhgaya. He is also known for his revelation of the
Green Tara practice.
He established and built many temples and stupas with special clay he had
received from the nagas.
As a philosopher and exponent of the Middle Way (Madhyamika
philosophy) Nagarjuna gave many teachings, had hundreds of disciples and won
many debates. He not only explained the more abstract principles of the
Buddha's doctrine, but also poignantly presented the more mundane:
- "Whoever is born has to die; whoever are together have to separate;
whatever is saved has to be used; whatever is created is impermanent. So do
not be upset over these laws of nature."
He warned against wrong interpretations, saying:
"The Conqueror [Buddha] taught openness [sunyata: emptiness] as
the refutation of all [any] views. But those who hold openness as
a view are called irremediable."
"Openness [sunyata] wrongly conceived destroys the dimly witted.
It is like a snake grasped by the head, or a garbled incantation."
~ Nagarjuna (MK 13: 8 and 24:11
in McCagney, Nancy.
Nagarjuna and the Philosophy of Openness.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.)
Legends of His Death
According to legend, he spent the last part of life in meditation at Shri
Pravarta mountain in South India. His reputation for selflessness was so
great that it is said that when his opponents wished his death because they
never could best him in an argument, he offered to cooperate. (They were
powerless to do him any physical harm.)
Nagarjuna revealed that one of the debaters had been an ant in a previous
life, and was accidentally killed by Nagarjuna with a blade of kusha
grass. This person -- the only being who could harm him in return -- now
had the power to kill him which he did, using only a stalk of that same kusha
Aryadeva, the second of The Six Ornaments, continued his teaching
traditions. Nagarjuna's remains, with the exception of his head, are said to be
preserved at Shri Pravarta.
Nagarjun, [ancient case suffixes are dropped in Hindi
and other contemporary languages] as he is called in India and Nepal, is
believed by Nepalis to have retired to Nagarjun Mountain near
A person with a similar name was the abbot of Nalanda, the great Buddhist
monastic university near Bodhgaya, since there is no evidence that the
institution was founded before the third century CE. There was also
an alchemist by that name who may also have become identified with the
great teacher Nagarjuna. Therefore there is wide disagreement as to how
long Nagarjuna lived, with estimates as high as 300 years. The Chinese
believe that he visited and taught there. Also, he is credited by Japanese
Buddhists with having taught the complete path of reliance on Amitabha.
In any case, teachings attributed to Nagarjuna are today still widely
followed in all the countries where Mahayana Buddhism is practiced.
Named for Acharya
[master-teacher] Nagarjuna, Nagarjuna Sagar is a place 150 kms. from
Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, India. It is where the Mahachaitya, most
sacred of stupas [Tib. chorten] is located. The Brahmi
inscription states it contains relics of the Buddha.
A Few Links
About Nagarjuna's Madhyamika, A. Charles Muller of Toyo Gakuen University
"Nagarjuna (c.150-250 CE) ... realized at a profound level the
difficulties of carrying out Buddhist discourse in the medium of language, and
the degree of attachment that could occur with even such subtle concepts as shunyata.
Therefore he endeavored to prevent people from falling into the error of
attaching to Emptiness as a "something" or as
He made his project an exercise in consciousness that sought to free people
from being limited in thought by the linguistic options of "this or
that" and "existence or non-existence." He did this by taking
Buddhist philosophical terms and putting them into his formula of
"neither x nor not-x." According to this formula, existence is
"neither empty nor not empty," "neither samsara nor
nirvana." Nagarjuna's teachings are not something new ontologically
speaking, but were developments toward a more advanced logical form that can
be seen in his Madhyamaka-karikas.
In these texts, he strove to stop the reification of the concept of
emptiness by: (1) stressing the non-difference between emptiness and
dependent origination; (2) by emphasizing the understanding of emptiness as a
mental attitude which pays attention to the non-attachment to concepts and
theories. That is, emptiness should not be made into a theory to be clung to
(as are other philosophical and religious doctrines). According to Nagarjuna,
he who does so is like "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
For Nagarjuna, emptiness should not be interpreted ontologically, but rather
in the way of the parable of the raft: The Buddhist teaching (especially
shunyata), is like the raft one constructs for the crossing of a river. Once
the river is crossed, the purpose of the raft has been served. It may now be
The same is true of emptiness: it should not be held on to; one who does
hold on to it will have trouble functioning in life. In this sense, emptiness
could also be compared to a laxative: once the obstruction has passed, there
is no need to continue taking it. Nagarjuna wrote extensively, and his
teachings resulted in the formation of an Indian school called Madhyamika or
the "Middle Way School."
This school was later transmitted to China [as] San-lun Tsung (School of
the Three Treatises) where, although it died out as an independent sect, had
great influence on the formation of Chinese Buddhist philosophy."
~ Madhyamika: The Teaching of the Middle Way at
Toyo Gakuen University, Japan. (9/2/1998 link to
Buddhism Electronic forum is no longer available in
2009 but on the University web site, A. C. Muller is still listed among
Andrew Tuck, in an inquiry into the philosophy of scholarship, charts
three phases in the sequence of views of Western-trained scholars concerning
interpretation of Nagarjuna's Treatise on the Middle Way:
"A classic is a classic because it engenders multiple meanings. The
most lasting truths are found in the least reductive configurations of
the largest possible number of conflicting interpretations. In other
words, the most useful interpretation may well be one that takes into
account as many previous interpretations as possible and attempts to
disclose the ways in which these earlier readings made sense, both to the
interpretative scholar and to his or her readers . . . .
Every reading of a text--including, of course, the most carefully contextualized
and historicized readings--will, in some ways, be unavoidably determined
by some set of prejudgments. The choice is, therefore, not between good
readings, undetermined by irrelevant considerations, and bad readings,
rendered inaccurate by interpretive prejudice. The choice between one
reading and an even better reading is a difference in degree and not
Within any set of rules for what counts as a desirable
interpretation, choices between more and less preferable readings of
texts can and will be made. And a study such as this suggests that our
conventionally agreed-on rules of interpretation--the rules that tell us
what is relevant, and what sorts of judgments are harmfully
prejudiced--are anything but constant. Our preferences in regard to what
constitutes a good interpretation are just as determined as our readings
themselves... . Nagarjuna's celebrated warnings about the perils of
wrongly understanding sunyata [... ] or holding this non-position as if
it constituted a philosophical view in itself ("Those for whom
sunyata is itself a theory, I call incurable." ch. 13, v. 8) thus
become doubly important in the new Western climate of skepticism about
Nagarjuna ... did not intend to substitute his theory for those of
his opponents. His only intention...was to cure others of the
philosophical illness ... . Nagarjuna was convinced, as a Buddhist, that
the salvation of all living beings was at issue ... .
This study offers neither an indictment of the comparative
enterprise nor a suggestion that any new interpretive perspective . . . will
offer anything like a 'final and infallible,' or even a wholly
satisfying, interpretation. A new interpretation is often a
response to a new set of critical concerns, not a solution to a formerly
unsolved or poorly solved puzzle.
Looked at in this way, the post-Wittgensteinian [Western
philosopher,1889 - 1951] fondness for Madhyamika Buddhism is not less
determined by contemporary trends than was the late-nineteenth-century
fascination with Advaita Vedanta [a Hindu school of non-dualism]. What we
do seem to have is a collection of intelligent misreadings, and
that may be enough . . . . We should not be surprised that interpretation
is not an exact science. After all, translation is not an exact
science. Science is not an exact science."
~ Tuck, Andrew P.
Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship: On the Western Interpretation of Nagarjuna. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1990. (v-vii, 92, 99-100.)
Tuck cites (mainly) the Introductions of:
Garfield, Jay L. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way:
Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika. Oxford U P, 1995.
Inada, Kenneth. Nagarjuna: A Translation of his
Mulamadhyamakakarika. Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1970.
Sprung, Mervyn. Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way. Boulder: Prajna
Streng, Frederick J. Emptiness: A Study in Religious
Meaning. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967.
Wayman, Alex. "The Tathagata chapter of Nagarjuna's
Mula-Madhyamaka-karika." Philosophy East and West 38.1 (Jan.
Philosopher's Stone: a term more
appropriate to the European alchemical tradition. It may be that the description
of the wisdom of the nagas as a Wish-fulfilling Jewel led some people to
misunderstand what he had revealed as a kind of object that confers worldly
The tangka of Nagarjuna was from the
TibetShop web site.
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