Nagarjuna was badass

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 to me, they Kant compare.

badass-nagarjuna2Just what made Nagarjuna such a badass? The existentialist philosopher 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.”

In this way, Nagarjuna was a demolition expert. He blew-up all operations of thought, all points of view, and all 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 concept. But this is not the case.  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 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 are to be 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. But most of this, and 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, his complex philosophical corpus. However, 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 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 we never had.

Apologies to Messrs. Costello and Dylan.


15 thoughts on “Nagarjuna was badass

  1. The one thing that stuck with me is the part, “in the end, no definite statement is possible.” I’ve been starting to come to that idea on my own lately, but have not been able to convince anyone of it, haha. It’s neat to see that such an awesome dude said it himself. It’s a big idea that’s hard to get my head around!

  2. It is hard to wrap your mind around it, but it forces us to reconsider our so-called “stands”, so many of our fixed ideas . . .

  3. Excellent piece.

    In terms of N?g?rjuna’s biography, as far as it can be reconstructed, the best book is Joseph Walser’s N?g?rjuna in Context. In fact, it is probably the best book about the rise of Mah?y?na that I can recommend.

  4. Thanks for the kind word, Michael, and thanks also for the tip on Walser. I have been working on a similar project concerning Nagarjuna for some time and may be sharing bits and pieces from it in upcoming posts.

  5. I look forward to reading the future posts– I did my M.A. thesis on Nagarjuna, and early Madhyamaka is still my major area of research.

    1. Well, don’t expect too much from what I have to offer. At this point, it’s mostly a survey of various Nagarjuna legends.

      1. I like superhero comics. And Nagarjuna is the coolest kind of superhero. So I expect these legends to me a lot of fun.

        1. I like superhero comics, too – but not as much as I used to. Well, stay tuned . . . same Bat-time, same Bat-channel . . .

  6. Bodhisattva N?g?rjuna in his Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom says, “[The Lotus Sutra is] like a great physician who can change poison into medicine.” This quotation occurs in a passage in Great Perfection of Wisdom that explains the virtues inherent in the character my? of the Lotus Sutra. The Great Teacher Miao-lo remarks, “Because it can cure what is thought to be incurable, it is called my?, or wonderful.”27, [WND Vol 1,p. 146]

    Sure seems hard for some to just follow the Buddhist teaching – the Lotus Sutra. Just have to keep chipping away at those shomon and engaku.


  7. Just discovered your blog, Riley-San. Good stuff, thanks, especially for your take on Nagarjuna!
    Sarva Mangalam.

  8. Indeed. Baddest of the bad…in a good way!? … On a lighter note, looking at that picture, with that caption, that hand sign looked like a gang signal, I wonder what LA street gangs think of that sign 🙂

  9. Did you know that Nagarjuna endorsed Pure Land Buddhism as the easy path to enlightenment, and even offered up his own praises to Amida Buddha? –

    In the commentary Nagarjuna classifies Buddhism into two divisions, namely the path of Difficult Practice and the Path of Easy Practice and advises all men to follow the Path of Easy Practice instead of the Path of Difficult Practice. The reason for is that the Path of Difficult Practice requires infinite time and various austerities in order to reach the objective. It is as if one climbs laboriously by foot on a steep path. A person following this course requires a strong will, but those who are weak of will fall by the wayside. In comparison to this in the Path of Easy Practice one is required only to have Shinjin the Original Vow of Amida Buddha and repeat the Nembutsu. He will attain the objective very easily; this is like boarding a ship and reaching the other shore without any difficulty or hardship.

    Though Nagarjuna was a person of strong will and could and did practice the various austerities, yet he considered himself but a frail mortal and believed wholeheartedly in the Power of Amida for Salvation and encouraged other to follow the Path of the Nembutsu. Shonin Shinran in his Psalm praising Nagarjuna said: The great Master Nagarjuna wrote the commentaries of the Prajna Paramita Sutra and the Daca-Sastra. In these commentaries he praised the Western Land and encouraged all to have faith in Amida.

  10. There is an excellent article on emptiness and Nagarjuna here:

    I am not exaggerating when I say it changed my life. I came out of the Soka Gakkai/SGI tradition (before they kind of ditched the Lotus Sutra in favor of worshiping Daisaku Ikeda instead), and everything that had struck me as dissonant, uncomfortable, and irrational about what SGI was teaching really crystallized for me as I read this summary of Nagarjuna’s very clear perspective on emptiness. It all finally made sense. Of course, at that point I could be a part of Soka Gakkai/SGI any more…

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