Acharya Nagarjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE) is one of the most popular Buddhist philosophers from India. He is well known for Maadhyamika (Middle way) philosophy of emptiness (Sunyatha) in Mahayana Buddhist sect. Lord Budda (c. 563 BCE/480 BCE – c. 483 BCE/400 BCE) did not write any texts nor any literature about his teachings were written in his life time by his disciples. Many of his teachings were passed down to next generations by oral tradition until prominent early texts like Tripitikas were written down ( c. 3 BCE) after a few centuries by Buddhist scholars emphasising various aspects of Buddism. Acharya Nagarjuna lived in India and served as head of Nalanda University and written many texts out of which his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is best known work. In this, he claimed Maadhyamika (Middle way) philosophy of emptiness (Sunyatha) which has influenced many Buddhist thinkers and lot of commentaries and critics came up later on the theory.
Central Theme :
Maadhyamika (Middle way) philosophy of emptiness (Sunyatha) is not entirely new but mainly based on old Buddha’s philosophy of Dependant Origin (Pratya-samutpada). The philosophy of dependant origin views every object in the external world as dependent on its entities or components and hence, the whole object we perceive is not real and has no independent existence. For example, if we see a tree, it is actually composed of many parts like branches, leaves, roots etc. and it is also dependant on many other factors like the seed, the soil, the sun, the water etc. for its existence. Hence, what we see as ‘Tree’ has no independent existence and is not a permanent reality. Extending similar argument to any object in the external world, we observe that all things we see in this Nature have no independent existence and everything in the external world has dependant origination. Maadyamika Siddantha takes this central idea of dependant origination and proposes in a more radical way that the external world can be reduced to emptiness in reality. The Maadyamika Siddantha extends dependant origination to entities and components of an object and claims these entities also lack inherent existence and dependant of some other entities and eventually all the entities in the world can be traced to emptiness; hence emptiness (Sunyatha) is the reality. Maadyamika Siddantha do not claim that the components and entities are illusions but it simply argues that they have no existence unconditionally. Hence, Maadyamika siddantha denies nihilism (which says all entities are non existent in reality) on one extreme and also denies eternalism (which says all or some things in this world exists independent of conditions) on the other extreme. Hence, Nagarjuna’s philosophy is called Madhyamaka(middle way) of emptiness (Sunyatha). Nāgārjuna means by real any entity which has a nature of its own (svabhāva), which is not produced by causes (akrtaka), which is not dependent on anything else (paratra nirapeksha).
In some aspects, Maadhyamika Siddantha claim not only that the emptiness, the absence of inherent existence, of entities means that these entities originate in dependence upon conditions. In addition, many Madhyamika statements indicate that all entities lack inherent existence in the sense that they are conceptual constructs, mental fabrications. Thus, according to Madhyamika, the entity is simply a name or concept attributed to the conglomeration of conditions. It is not just that the tree, for example, originates in dependence upon numerous conditions—such as the water, the earth, the sun, the seed. It is, furthermore, the case that the tree, the water, the earth, the sun, the seed, etc. originate in dependence upon the mind. As this is sometimes expressed in Madhyamaka texts, all entities are simply conventions (sa.mv.rti, saamv.rta) or fictions (kalpanaa, parikalpa, and vikalpa); and other Madhyamika statements declare entities to be name-only (naamamaatra), and to have a merely conceptual existence (prajnaptisat). Furthermore, mind is also not an exception to dependant origination as per Maadyamika Siddantha considering its perceptions, thoughts etc as entities and mind is also empty. This is where many schools of Buddhim (Yogaaccara etc.) don’t agree with Madhyamika theory as they claim that if mind is also a mere fabrication then every thought process of Buddhism is nothing more than a fiction and the consciousness of observer will also collapsed as weird and cannot be accepted rationally. The Maadhyamika thought of correlating the dependant origination with conceptual existence is questionable as things in external world can still exist even without out a conceptual mind and entity need not be necessarily a concept. Thus Maadhyamika claim is a form of extreme ontological reductionism.
However, In true sense, Maadyamika theory is more like an affirmation of early Buddhist view of rejecting eternalism (permanamce of self, aatman) concepts. Lord Budda initially tried the most ascetic way of life , fell ill and again rejuvenated with intense desire to realise the ultimate truth and finally got enlightenment. Hence, he rejected both strict ascetic life and luxurious life styles, and preached middle way of life for peaceful living of common man. In this way, Maadyamika theory both conceptually and in life style is close Buddha’s view of life. In a way, Acharya Nagarjuna, with his work, revived Buddism close to its original teachings.
Chapter 24 verse 14 of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā provides one of Nāgārjuna’s most famous quotations on emptiness and co-arising :
sarvaṃ ca yujyate tasya śūnyatā yasya yujyate
sarvaṃ na yujyate tasya śūnyaṃ yasya na yujyate
All is possible when emptiness is possible.
Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.