Susan Shannon, M. Div.
The Middle Way Teachings of Nagarjuna; Roads, Intersections, and Seeds
When I ponder the readings and teachings on Nagarjuna and the Madyhamaka school, I envision roads, intersections and seeds. Nagarjuna was a builder of Dharma roads. Perhaps he was one of the first after the Buddha to envision and build an intentional, all-access in-road to consciousness. Nagarjuna saw a clutter of too many one-way roads and combined them into a highway with pullouts and turn lanes. He saw the destination of nirvana obscured and blocked by the various erroneous interpretations of emptiness along the way. Nagarjuna saw that this philosophical point had lost its status as an informative road sign and had become instead, a bump in the road, or worse, the end of the road and the beginning of brambles. It has been suggested that Nagarjuna’s Middle Way is not so much a new philosophy as a critique of philosophy. Nagarjuna skillfully wove the basic teachings of Buddha into a philosophical viewpoint that was possibly the first both/and of post-Buddha Buddhism.
“What the Perfection of Wisdom and Nagarjuna are concerned with is to articulate is that there is a level at which views in general-even ‘right’ ones-should be seen as a form of mental rigidity, a form of opinionated-ness: that is, we become attached to our right understanding. Thus, the awakened mind is free of all views-even right views…”
In and Out of The Jungle of Theorizing
“To hold that the world is eternal, or to hold that is not, or to agree to any other of the propositions that you adduce, Oh Vaccha, is the Jungle of Theorizing, the wilderness of theorizing, the tangle of theorizing, the bondage and the shackles of theorizing, attended by ill, distress, perturbation, and fever. It does not lead to detachment, passionlessness, tranquility and peace. to knowledge, and to the wisdom of Nirvana. This is the danger I perceive in these views, which makes me discard them all.”
Going back to the foundational teachings of Buddha’s teachings is often helpful when trying to make sense of philosophical viewpoints. There is a deep altruism to Nagarjuna’s teachings. Joy and liberation are core to recognizing the inherent emptiness of self and other. The perspectives of shentong and rangtong can intersect in Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka teaching. It appears that Nagarjuna had the ability to see above the clouds of monastic and cultural debate on the nature of emptiness.
David Komito writes that “the whole point of Nagarjuna’s discourse in the Seventy Stanzas is to convert mistaken conceptions into correct beliefs.” Correct beliefs cut ignorance, which is at the root of all suffering. When this happens, a being can be liberated from the wheel of samsaric existence. In this way Nagarjuna does not dispute the first turning teachings as Dependent Arising. Rather, he provides a scaffolded system of thought that works within the abhidharma but also transcends it, providing an exoskeleton that supports the conventional teachings of abhidharma as but also turning one towards an ultimate view. Nagarjuna saw the abhidharma as being sound but still based in of conventional truth. After all, how could the ultimate be taught? His premise was that it could not.
” The Buddha’s teaching of Dharma depends equally on two truths: ordinary conventional truth and truth from the point of view of the ultimate; those who do not perceive the deep “reality” shun the teachings of the Buddhas. Without resorting to ordinary conventions, what is ultimate cannot be taught: without recourse to what is ultimate, nirvana is not attained.”
Spreading the Seeds of The Middle Way
This concept of how ultimate truth cannot be taught with conventional means resonates with the Taoist sage Lao Tzu’s first verse of the classic Taoist text the Tao te Ching:
“The way that becomes a way
is not the Immortal Way
the name that becomes a name
is not the Immortal Name.”
A point of traction for me in our Madhyamaka studies is how Nagarjuna’s teachings changed depending on where they grew. The metaphor here is that of pollination. No matter where the pure seed of Nagarjuna’s teachings fell, they would grow different depending on the soil they grew in. Factors such as cultural and academic trends, skill of translation, political and economic sway etc. directly or indirectly determined how the teachings would grow.
The concept of an intercultural migration or cross-pollination of philosophy is addressed by Lama Govinda in his book Insights of a Himalayan Pilgrim. Speaking about the disputes of the doctrine of emptiness as paradox, he writes “Paradoxes, like humor, are greatly dependent on the soil in which they grow.” He goes on to compare the paradoxes of Indian Siddhas to those of Zen masters in China or Japan.Similarly, the cross-pollination of concepts as they were translated from one culture into the next determined in part how well they would flourish.
Kumarajiva Brings the Seeds
An example of this which interested me greatly is how Nagarjuna’s Middle Way teachings became The Three-Treatise School” in China.
Historically, the teachings of Nagarjuna were translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva (344-413) According to some scholars, this could have coincided with the lifetime of the Taoist teacher Lao Tzu. Nagarjuna’s teachings have a strong connection with the Chinese philosophy of Taoism. Other scholars have Lao Tzu living around the same time as Nagarjuna is said to have lived. David Komita states these difference versions of Nagarjuna’s time on earth, but chooses to place him between 150 and 250 AD.
We may never know the exact time of his life, but the similarities in their teachings might be based in shared experience, or a similar cultural or political climate. It could also be that this debate marked a significant step in the course of human evolution of philosophy, theology, ethics, and spiritual unfoldment.
Seng-Chao Paves the Road
Nagarjuna’s doctrine was his doctrine was transmitted and first interpreted in China through Kumarajiva’s pupil Seng-Chao (384-414) and played a dominant role there from the fourth to the seventh century. Seng-Chao established Nagarjuna’s teachings by bridging the differences between Buddhism and Taoism. It had a tremendous attraction for the Chinese because its philosophy of emptiness suited the temper of Chinese in intellectuals of Wei-Chin times, who were them propagating the Taoist doctrine of non-being.
Chi-Tsang; Buddhist Scholar first, Chinese second
The popularity of Nagarjuna and the timeliness of his Middle Way teachings became the life work of the great Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar Chi-Tsang (549-623.) Chi-Tsang based his “Three Treatise School” on Nagarjuna’s teachings. He went on to write in gifted prose commentaries on the Three Treatises of Nagarjuna: The Madhyamika sastra, The Dvadasanikaya sastra, and Asanga’s Sata sastra, hence the name of the school.
Thanks to the work of Kumarajiva’s pupil Seng-Chao who had gone before him, the spiritual soil was ripe for the seeds of Nagarjuna’s teachings as they were presented by Chi-Tsang. For quite a while the “Three-Treatise School” created a lot of excitement among scholars and academics. One of Chi-Tsang’s most important works called the Erh-ti-chang, or Treatise on the Two Levels of Truths shows how strongly Chi-Tsang was laminated into the core of Nagarjuna’s writings.
“Duality is one-sided while non-duality is central. But one-sidedness is an extreme and centrality is also an extreme. One sidedness and centrality, after all, are two extremes. Being two extremes, they are therefore called worldly truth. Only neither one-sidedness nor centrality can be regarded as the Middle Path or the highest truth.
This is a direct echo of Nagarjuna’s motto:
” Not by itself nor by another, nor by both, nor without cause
Do positive existents ever arise in any way whatsoever.”
Chi-Tsang’s great scholarly mind and ability to articulate the finer points of Nagarjuna’s work began to show up in his commentaries as a very different voice than his predecessor Seng-Chao. Seng Chao had comfortably marbled the Chinese concept of identity, substance and function with the Buddhist concepts of temporary names and emptiness. This had kept everything understandable from a Chinese point of view.
Chi-Tsang contrasted these views, which ultimately proved to be too Indian for the Chinese aristocrats. DT Suzuki writes “But we can say that the author of the school was still under the influence of Indian thought. He thought as Indians did and not necessarily in the Chinese fashion.” The quality and intelligence Chi-Tsang had approached Nagarjuna’s work had both propagated it and, eventually, stripped it down to where it had become not Chinese enough. As time went by, nearly any philosophy hinted of Indian non-dualism did not last long in the philosophical circles of China.
In the early 6th century Nagarjuna’s philosophy had began to grow in Japan where it remains a strong thread throughout Japanese Buddhism.
In China however, by the seventh century, only two strains of Buddhism existed, the Yogacara consciousness-only school coming from Asanga, and the Ch’an or Zen school. Of these two, it was the Chan school that had the most synthesis of Taoist beliefs and so remained the stronger. Thus, the Three- Treatise School lost momentum in the 9th century in mainland China.
There is no doubt that Nagarjuna was one of the greatest mediators of Buddhist Thought. One does not need a fine lens to see how his work made more accessible all aspects of the Buddha’s teaching. However, we can learn even more by looking at the details of how his teachings were propagated. I imagine a giant sunflower, growing tall and looming over all the other golden flowers. This is Nagarjuna’s teaching on the Middle Way. Birds come from all over, taking seeds and dropping them in Tibet, China, Japan, where they then grew. The birds, the soil, and who knows what else.
Perhaps, if he really had lived to be 600 years old and had visited Nagaland and brought back the Prajnaparamita teachings, perhaps he was capable of living in ultimate truth and seeing what the ultimate nature of all of us would someday discover, assuming we all would wander down bodhisattva lane sooner or later. Nagarjuna’s work is highly applicable to our lives today. Its essence could also be a great mediator of all the basic faith traditions, pointing to the named and un-named Divine as One.
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