Who was Nagarjuna?


Arya Nagarjuna

"I call to mind esteemed Nagarjuna, who, as prophesied, introduced
The Madhyamaka system, the excellent path, and who was skilled in clarifying
The meaning of suchness, free of extremes, the intention of the Mother of the Conquerors,
Through the profound logical presentation of dependent arising.¹"

Nagarjuna (150 - 250 CE) was the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism, and after Gautama Buddha, one of India’s most influential Buddhist thinkers. He is credited with rediscovering the Prajñaparamita sutras, and elucidating their doctrine of emptiness. Many legends surround Nagarjuna’s life, and few details of his deeds have been authenticated. Traditional biographers and historians such as Kumarajiva suggest he was born in a Brahmin family in South India, perhaps near the town of Nagarjunakonda. Later he converted to Buddhism and entered Nalanda monastery. Tibetan sources credit him with composing the six treatises on logic (rigs sogs drug), the most important being the Fundamental Wisdom (Mulamadhyamakakarika). This work constitutes a clear and profound presentation of emptiness and the basic tenets of Middle Way view in twenty-seven brief chapters.

Nagarjuna's main contribution to Buddhist philosophy was the clarification of the idea of sunyata or "emptiness". For Nagarjuna all entities are empty of an atman (self) or svabhava (self-nature). Phenomena including persons are free of being established inherently by their own characteristics or from their own side. As such they exist nominally as states that are merely imputed to exist by term and conception and since they lack inherent existence they are like an illusion. Nagarjuna developed the doctrine of two truths where relative truth (samvrti satya) referred to the coarse mode of abidance of phenomena and ultimate truth (paramartha satya) referred to their final mode of abidance or emptiness. For him these two levels of truth were not unrelated but shared the same nominal essence. While Nagarjuna’s six treatises on logic addressed emptiness, many of his other works such as Ratnavali, Sutrasamuccaya, and Suhrllekha explained upaya or method, the means by which one engages in the practice of the perfections. Nagarjuna profoundly influenced the development of ontology and hermeneutics within Buddhism and his ideas inspired fundamental changes in the wider sphere of Indian philosophy and thought.

¹His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama from his composition ‘Illuminating the Threefold Faith - An Invocation of the Seventeen Great Scholarly Adepts of Glorious Nalanda’