The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā

Also known as:

The charm and the fault[1] of Buddhism lie in its philosophical bend. This aspect makes it almost inaccessible to an untrained person.

This is probably the most important Buddhist-philosophical work ever produced. The logical rigor it shows makes it a formidable standard that is very hard to meet.

The structure is quite different from western philosophical texts. It was written in verse. Understanding this is not easy. However, Garfield's extensive commentary made it much more digestible.

Most of the religions we know, and were prevalent in Nāgārjuna's time, are essentialist. The concept of the soul, an all-transcending God, is directed to some essence, some reality more real than the one we perceive. The lure was strong. So strong that many Buddhist ideas got interpreted in the essentialist light.

This is a treaty against such an essentialist interpretation. Case by case, he tried to destroy the essentialist arguments by using Reductio ad absurdum. He elevated it to state-of-the-art.

One strategy was to start the argument from dependant origination, which can be considered an axiom in this context since everyone agrees on it. Then he sought to show the emptiness of the phenomena like self, dhamma, nirvana, and virtually everything. Some schools of Buddhist philosophy considered these (except for self) to be essential.

Another strategy worked by showing how essentialism is directly in discord with the natural world, dependant origination, and doctrine of impermanence:

If there is essence, the whole world
Will be unarising, unceasing,
And static. The entire phenomenal world
Would be immutable.

In the process of refuting essentialism, slowly, he churned a much clearer form of metaphysics deduced from the core Buddhist metaphysics known then.

Notes and Highlights
About The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika by Nagarjuna

For nearly two thousand years Buddhism has mystified and captivated both lay people and scholars alike. Seen alternately as a path to spiritual enlightenment, a system of ethical and moral rubrics, a cultural tradition, or simply a graceful philosophy of life, Buddhism has produced impassioned followers the world over. The Buddhist saint Nagarjuna, who lived in South India in approximately the first century CE, is undoubtedly the most important, influential, and widely studied Mahayana Buddhist philosopher. His many works include texts addressed to lay audiences, letters of advice to kings, and a set of penetrating metaphysical and epistemological treatises. His greatest philosophical work, the Mulamadhyamikakarika--read and studied by philosophers in all major Buddhist schools of Tibet, China, Japan, and Korea--is one of the most influential works in the history of Indian philosophy. Now, in The Foundations of the Philosophy of the Middle Way, Jay L. Garfield provides a clear and eminently readable translation of Nagarjuna's seminal work, offering those with little of no prior knowledge of Buddhist philosophy a view into the profound logic of the Mulamadhyamikakarika. Translated from the Tibetan, the tradition through which Nagarjuna's philosophical influence has largely been transmitted, Garfield presents a superb translation of Mulamadhyamikakarika in its entirety. Illuminating the systematic character of Nagarjuna's reasoning, as well as the works profundity, Garfield shows how Nagarjuna develops his doctrine that all phenomena are empty of inherent existence and essenceless. But, he argues, phenomena nonetheless exist conventionaly, and that indeed conventional existence and ultimate emptiness are in fact the same thing. This represents the radical understanding of the Buddhist doctrine of the two truths, or two levels of reality. Nagarjuna reinterprets all of Buddhist metaphysics and epistemology through this analytical framework--"a systematic and beautifully elegant philosophical dissection of reality." In turn, Garfield goes on to offer the only verse-by-verse commentary based upon the Indo-Tibetan Prasangika-Madhyamika reading of Nagarjuna, the school most influential in the development of Mahayana philosophy in Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan. Written specifically for the Western reader, the commentary explains Nagarjuna's positions and arguments in the language of Western metaphysics and epistemology, and connects Nagarjuna's concerns tho those of Western philosophers such as Sextus, Hume, and Wittgenstein. A fascinating and accessible translation of the foundational text for all Mahayana Buddhism text, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way will enlighten all those in search of the essence of reality.

  1. As a missionary religion. ↩︎