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December 06, 2010


Thanks for the wonderful clarity of this, and the lead to Westerhoff. I was about to comment on 3Qd when the post there disappeared. Please put it back! The usual discussion of religion there needs to rise to this level.

For those eager for additional Internet resources on Nagarjuna (beyond the IEP), here are some articles (I'll add more over time):

Second Buddha : Nagarjuna - Buddhism's Greatest Philosopher by David Loy

We might regard Nagarjuna’s philosophy as linguistic therapy: it uses language to reveal how language deceives us. We assume that the world we experience is the real world, but this is delusion. The world as we normally understand it is a linguistic construct. Clinging to conceptual elaborations causes suffering, for they do not accurately reflect how the world actually is. As it turns out, our common sense view of the world is not commonsense at all, because an unconscious metaphysics is built into the ways we ordinarily use language. [David Loy is Besl Professor of Ethics/Religion at Xavier University and a Zen teacher]

Nāgārjuna in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by Jan Westerhoff

There is unanimous agreement that Nāgārjuna (ca 150–250 AD) is the most important Buddhist philosopher after the historical Buddha himself and one of the most original and influential thinkers in the history of Indian philosophy. His philosophy of the “middle way” (madhyamaka) based around the central notion of “emptiness” (śūnyatā) influenced the Indian philosophical debate for a thousand years after his death; with the spread of Buddhism to Tibet, China, Japan and other Asian countries the writings of Nāgārjuna became an indispensable point of reference for their own philosophical inquiries. A specific reading of Nāgārjuna's thought, called Prāsaṅgika-Madhyamaka, became the official philosophical position of Tibetan Buddhism which regards it as the pinnacle of philosophical sophistication up to the present day.

Nagarjuna and the Limits of Thought by Jay L. Garfield and Graham Priest

Nagarjuna establishes that everything is empty, contingently dependent on other things - dependently coarisen, as it is often put. We must take the 'everything' here very seriously, though. When Nagarjuna claims that everything is empty,everything includes emptiness itself. The emptiness of something is itself a dependently co-arisen property of that thing. The emptiness of emptiness is perhaps one of the most central claims [of Nagarjuna, who] reduces to absurdity the assumption that dependent co-arising is itself an (ultimately) existing property of things.

Here are two online translations of the Madhyamika Karika: one, two.

And a book, Nagarjuna in Context by Joseph Walser (recommended to me by Jan Westerhoff for Nagarjuna's historical context).

Nagarjuna, one of India's greatest philosophers, is the most influential thinker in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. While his philosophy has been the subject of numerous studies and translations, Joseph Walser provides the first examination of Nagarjuna's life and writings within the social, religious, and institutional contexts of the early history of Buddhism. Walser locates Nagarjuna's second century writings at a critical juncture in the development and spread of Mahayana Buddhism. At this time, Mahayanist writings and teachings were regarded with great suspicion, and its followers were subject to legal censure. Walser explores how Nagarjuna's writings ... established a connection between the authority of the existing Buddhist canon and Mahayana teachings. In doing so, Nagarjuna was able to demonstrate the legality of Mahayana interpretation within the strictures of Buddhist monastic law. This established a place for Mahayana in the Buddhist tradition and insured the reproduction and transmission of the sect's central texts.... Walser also examines how the philosopher forged alliances with the laity and other Buddhist sects alliances that proved pivotal in insuring the survival of Mahayana teachings.... Walser explores a range of Buddhist and non-Buddhist sources, as well as art historical and epigraphic evidence to offer a creative and original contribution to the understanding of Nagarjuna and the early history of Buddhism.

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