Naagaarjuna's masterpiece -- logical, mystical, both, or neither?
By L. Stafford Betty
Philosophy East and West
V. 33 No. 2 (April, 1983)
Copyright 1983 by University of Hawaii Press
L. Stanfford Betty is Associate Professor of Religious Studies, California State College, Bakersfield, California.
Naagaarjuna, the great second-century Indian Buddhist, seems to enjoy a strange immunity from radical criticism. Much of what is said of him, far from being critical or challenging, is rather either flushed with superlatives or served up with an editorial "stamp of approval" (if only implicit). It is not unusual to see him praised as "the greatest intellectual Buddhism has ever produced,"  or as "one of the greatest spiritual geniuses and most brilliant thinkers the world has ever seen." 
A minor part of the reason for this hero-worship is that there is a certain fitness that Mahaayaana Buddhism have its great father-figure, just as the other great religious movements have had theirs. Naagaarjuna, from the third or fourth century on, has traditionally had ascribed to him all the honorifics and reverence befitting a founding father. So great is his name that, for example, the Chinese "Pure Land" Buddhists -- though sharing almost nothing in common with his Maadhyamika school but the name "Buddhist" -- nevertheless recognize him as their first patriarch. He early acquired the status of a bodhisattva, "equal to all the deities and buddhas of the past, present and future,"  wherever the Mahaayaana was found. Many of the great treatises by later Buddhist thinkers seem to rest on his insight and dialectic as on a fulcrum; more often than not it is Naagaarjuna whose ideas are averred, explained, and expanded by the Buddhist faithful, and denied and refuted or distorted by schools hostile to the Mahaayaana. The work of his that through the centuries has attracted most attention is the famous, or infamous, Muulamaadhyamakakaarikaa, also known as the Maadhyamikakaarikaa, or simply the Kaarikaas. 
When I say that Naagaarjuna has seldom been radically criticized in recent times, I mean that the reasoning, the logic, and the consistency of the arguments in his writings, most notably the Kaarikaas, are usually passed off as "consistent within the framework" of Maadhyamika Buddhist thought. Most effort seems to be directed to understanding Naagaarjuna, to "following" his dialectic -- that perhaps seeming challenge enough. Not that there has not been a great fuss over Naagaarjuna, and specifically over the Kaarikaas, recent articles and a few books devoted exclusively to exploration of Naagaarjuna's thought show that there has. But most of this discussion is between critics challenging each other's interpretation of Naagaarjuna rather than Naagaarjuna himself. And what challenges are aimed directly at him are mostly based on his conclusions -- specifically, whether they are nihilistic or imply some kind of positive Absolute -- and not on how he arrived at these conclusions. 
In the first half of this paper I will "radically criticize" the methodology of the Kaarikaas. This paper may be looked upon as the long-overdue "rebuttal time"
which Naagaarjuna's opponent in the Kaarikaas never received. To most readers, I hope that what I say will be obvious -- almost too obvious to require a study such as this. I suspect, however, that there will be many who insist I have missed the point. To these latter I will say in advance that I am not unaware of the need to view the Kaarikaas in their historical context. Quite to the contrary, I hope that this paper will tempt the experts to give the historical context the seriousness it deserves. Let me again remark in advance -- this time to those who hold that our criteria of logical consistency should not be applied to a second-century Buddhist tract -- that the criteria I am applying are the same that Naagaarjuna puts in the mouth of his imaginary opponent in the Kaarikaas. I do not agree with T. R. V. Murti when he, inveighing against a "neutral logic,"  maintains that the Realist has his own logic and the Idealist his. I would reply that the Realist and the Idealist have their own respective biases, or presuppositions, but that they reason the same way.  I plan to argue this thesis on the basis of the same rules of logic that Naagaarjuna himself used. 
It is necessary to make one more observation before getting down to business. This essay would have seemed to me unnecessary if it had not become apparent that Naagaarjuna is extolled largely for the wrong reasons. It is my belief that he should be ungrudgingly extolled and that the scholar's assessment of his preeminent position in Mahaayaana Buddhist history is accurate and justified. But somehow there has arisen a misunderstanding. In place of a clear recognition of the real reasons for his pre-eminence there is too often a forced application to his philosophy of qualities the West likes to find in its own great philosophers. In particular, we see Naagaarjuna celebrated for his supposedly invulnerable logic.  Or we hear that his philosophy is sound enough for modern man to resurrect and build on.  In other words, Naagaarjuna's credentials for noteworthiness are being transformed into something the West can easily swallow. It appears as if he has been and is to be celebrated because, after all, he outsmarts everybody else; it is his system which is airtight; it is his which demolishes all the others. I believe that this assessment is not only untrue, but, more to the point, irrelevant.
There are several means a critic could use to discredit Naagaarjuna's reasoning. The least cogent of these would be to attack the dynamics of his logical method -- his use of syllogism, enthymeme, and sorites. Twenty-five years ago Richard Robinson showed (for the first time?) that Naagaarjuna made very few logical slips.  A slightly more important objection to his method could be based on what F. Streng calls "an analysis which appears to be rather arid and often simply a play on words."  Streng specifically calls our attention to chapter 2 of the Kaarikaas, Naagaarjuna's famous critique of motion, as an example of this questionable technique. (We will consider two examples of "word play" in the next paragraph.) A far more serious objection -- which is based on Naagaarjuna's dependence on certain presuppositions, or views (d.r.s.ti), alongside and in spite of
his rejection of all views -- is sufficient, if it can be sustained, to discredit entirely and even annihilate his system: For there is not a single strand of it which can stand, so the argument goes, if what he himself claims is taken at face value and rigidly applied at every step of his argument. We will look into this at greater length below.
Let us begin our criticism by looking at a passage in the Kaarikaas where Naagaarjuna seems to advance his arguments by "a play on words." The first, probably the most obvious example of this occurs in chapter 2, where Naagaarjuna analyzes motion. With the aid of an alliterative play on words,  he divides "motion" into gamana ("act of going"), gamyamaana ("present going to"), gati ("process of going to"), and gamyate ("being gone to").  I have not been able to discover any basis in the empirical world for making this quadruple distinction. If one puzzles over these verses long enough, he can probably imagine that he understands what Naagaarjuna is getting at; he may tentatively see why the four terms may be admissible. But by the time he has reached this level of abstraction, the process of distinguishing these four "modes" of motion is as profitable as pigeonholing cubic yards of empty space. It simply doesn't pay to probe this jingle. On the other hand, listening to it (in Sanskrit) can be almost mesmerizingly effective. The passage may well have been designed merely to dazzle -- dazzle an objector into bewildered submission.
Later on in the same chapter there is a play on words of a different, less theatrical nature. Strictly speaking, it is not a play on words but, if you like, a play with words. The two words here in question are gantaa ("goer") and gamana ("act of going"). Earlier in the chapter Naagaarjuna has distinguished and, as it were, "separated out" the gamana from the gantaa. He has also postulated that "there is no going (gamana) without a 'goer'" (v. 7) and vice versa (v. 6). In other words, there is both a "goer" and a distinct "act of going," neither of which, however, can exist separately or independently. But, as Naagaarjuna goes on to say,
...if the "act of going" and the goer are identical,
The fallacy logically follows that the "person acting" (kartaa) and the action (karman) are identical.
Alternatively, if the "goer" is different from the "process of going" (gati),
The "act of going" (gamana) would exist without the "goer" and the "goer" would exist without the "act of going" (ch. 2, vv. 19-20).
Both these alternatives being manifestly absurd, Naagaarjuna concludes that the "process of going" and the "goer" "do not exist" (v. 25). Has Naagaarjuna reasoned sensibly? Yes he has. We would agree with his conclusion, his presuppositions being what they are. We would agree that the alternative views (identity and difference) are equally absurd and impossible, and that the problem, as it is set up, is insoluble. Of course, what we could not grant (even if Naagaarjuna's immediate rivals, the Buddhists of the "Lesser Vehicle," could) is the reification of the "act of going." We could not reasonably grant that there is any such "thing" in the empirical world as a bare "act of going." Once having
disallowed this presupposition, Naagaarjuna's argument loses cogency. It loses cogency because one of the terms in the premise is meaningless; gamana has no referent in the world we know; it is an empty "play''-thing. Because the word is empirically meaningless, the premises built around the word are also meaningless. The argument fails.
I could be misunderstood here, so let me clarify a point. When I say that Naagaarjuna reifies the "act of going," I do not mean to say that he makes the same well-known mistakes of his opponents. His opponents impute svabhaava to gantaa and gamana: they make a metaphysical error as well as an empirical one. Naagaarjuna, rightly denying the reification at the metaphysical level (denying svabhaava to the two conceptions), reifies at the empirical level only. He imputes an empirical facticity or reality (equivalents at this level) to an "act of going" separate from a "goer." But Naagaarjuna, we learn elsewhere (see immediately below), was never one to permit, even at this level, an empty reification, a name without form. Even though he knew that all forms were empty from the perspective of the highest truth, he could not brook an empty reification when dealing from the perspective of the lower truth. He saw the necessity of an empirical truth -- the Buddha's teachings, for example -- which served in a mysterious way as the very means of enlightenment;  for him there was a "world-ensconced truth"  (24.8) which "is not taught apart" (24.10) from the highest truth. Therefore, the argument we have been considering, because of its infidelity to empirical experience (the "name" gamana corresponding to no empirical "form"), should fail to convince according to the very standards he himself has set up. 
The two cases of word-play we have looked at above are useful to a point as material for rebuttal, but they have their limitations. They are useful as obstacles but not successful as a final neutralizer. They discredit more than refute. Furthermore, they can be applied only where Naagaarjuna makes himself vulnerable in a particular way. Their chief function here is to suggest, even symbolize, the method of my critique which follows. They show that even at the level of word usage Naagaarjuna can be self-convicted -- that is, convicted according to the standards he himself maintains elsewhere. What I intend to suggest, and hopefully to demonstrate, now is that there is a flaw running through the entire fabric of the Kaarikaas -- that, according to strict logic, Naagaarjuna's prasa^nga can be used more effectively against his own d.r.s.ti than against those of his opponents. We now ask: Is there a vulnerable point which if breached would convict, indeed self-convict, all of Naagaarjuna's philosophy?
To my way of thinking there definitely is. In spite of the attempt by Murti to demonstrate that Naagaarjuna's Achilles' heel is only apparent and not real, I see no way of salvaging the Kaarikaas from the scourge of their own conclusions. We are all agreed that the major theme of the Kaarikaas is the emptiness (`suunyataa) of everything. The philosophical (as opposed to the religious, or "emotive") meaning of emptiness as Naagaarjuna uses the word is relativity, relatedness,
dependence, contingency. Synonyms for emptiness are often, though not always, non-reality and non-existence. Throughout the Kaarikaas this "emptiness," the true state of all empirical things, is diametrically opposed to "self-existence" or "own-being" (svabhaava). Svabhaava is the characteristic which, according to Naagaarjuna's school, ordinary people unconsciously and erroneously suppose all individual entities to possess; svabhaava is their substance, that by which they are what they are. Furthermore, according to Naagaarjuna, svabhaava, by definition self-existent, could not be produced because it would then be dependent on what produced it,  on something other than itself; furthermore, since nothing could have produced it, it would have to be eternal if existing at all; and lastly, since it would be eternal, it would be unchangeable, there being no reason for or principle of otherness in it. But of course Naagaarjuna is only describing what svabhaava would be like if it existed. The purpose of the Kaarikaas is to show that it does not exist -- that all is the opposite of svabhaava, which is to say that all is empty, relative, dependent -- `suunya.
Now back to the question: Is there a vulnerable point in the Kaarikaas which undercuts all its conclusions -- or rather its one conclusion -- that all is empty? The last verse of the Kaarikaas, which summarizes all that has gone before, brings into clear relief the basis of my thesis:
To him possessing compassion, who taught the real dharma
For the destruction of all views -- to him, Gautama, I humbly offer reverence (27.30). 
More explicity supporting my thesis are these words earlier:
Emptiness is proclaimed by the victorious one as the refutation of all viewpoints;
But those who hold "emptiness" as a viewpoint--[the true perceivers] have called these "incurable" (asaadhya) (13.8). 
In both passages Naagaarjuna is declaring the emptiness -- which is to say the non-substantiality, the ultimate meaninglessness -- of all views (d.r.s.ti). In the second passage he lets us see how determinedly he is standing behind his thesis that all is empty: The thesis that all is empty is itself empty. This admission might at first strike us as nothing more than, let us say, thoroughly and "unselfishly" consistent. We would be right in thinking so, but, unfortunately, that is not all there is to the matter. There is a weakness -- a weakness which, once it is pointed out, is all too obvious. If all is empty, then on what grounds can one meaningfully teach the emptiness of all views? On what grounds can he teach anything at all? Though "all too obvious," however, the difficulty is apparently not at all easy, as we shall learn, to accept.
Naagaarjuna himself saw the problem so clearly that he devoted the major part of his second most renowned short work, the Vigrahavyaavartanii, to it. He opens this treatise by placing the problem squarely before us. He has an opponent say,
If self-existence (svabhaava) does not exist anywhere in any existing thing,
Your statement, [itself] being without self-existence, is not able to discard self-existence.
But if that statement has [its own] self-existence, then your initial proposition is refuted;
There is a [logical] inconsistency in this, and you ought to explain the grounds of the difference [between the principle of validity in your statement and others] (vv. 1-2). 
Naagaarjuna's reply is that the very fact of the lack of self-existence (svabhaava) in his thesis is proof of his thesis that all is empty: it just goes to show, he would hold, that his thesis is no exception to the universal law of emptiness: he says,
Just as a magically formed phantom could deny a phantom created by its own magic,
Just so would be that negation.
Here Naagaarjuna is being consistent (in a way) in maintaining that all, even his thesis of emptiness, is empty, but he is not coming to grips with the overruling, potentially lethal objection which the objector has put forth. He has not addressed himself to the challenge, "Your statement, [itself] being without self-existence, is not able to discard self-existence." It is as if the objector had said to Naagaarjuna, "You're wrong," and Naagaarjuna had answered, "Of course I'm wrong; that's precisely what makes me right." As alluring, as stunning, as Taoistically fascinating as such an answer is, it is not really an answer; it is not cogent in an argument where the rules of logic apply, as they do here. Naagaarjuna has evaded the issue; he has seen the problem, but he has not treated it seriously: he has not "accepted" it.
Several of Naagaarjuna's critics, sympathetic and unsympathetic alike, have evaded the issue too, though more subtly. Taking their cue from his proclamation of the emptiness or "destruction of all views,"  they hold that Naagaarjuna is not putting forth any views of his own in refuting his adversaries; rather he is merely demonstrating the logical consequences of whatever d.r.s.ti his opponents hold -- consequences which show all views whatever to be self-contradictory or, as Murti says, "self-convicted."  Thus we read that Naagaarjuna had "the consistency to refrain from formulating any proposition of his own" and that his logical method is "purely negative."  We find that Murti, the ablest spokesman for this viewpoint, believes that Naagaarjuna "is a praasa^ngika -- having no tenet of his own and not caring to frame a syllogism of his own" or "vindicate any assertion in order to convince an opponent";  and that "Negation of positions is not one more position."  Before proceeding, let us consider for a moment exactly what Murti is saying here.
If Murti is right, then I am wrong, wrong from start to finish. My thesis is that Naagaarjuna resorts to views in destroying views, and that therefore his Kaarikaas are self-contradictory -- in other words, that it and not the d.r.s.ti of the rival schools stands self-convicted. But if Naagaarjuna has not resorted to views, and if Murti has reasoned correctly, then there is no a priori reason not to take the former's
conclusions at face value; there is every reason to consider seriously whether or not Naagaarjuna has described the inmost nature of things with accuracy. But I think Murti's position cannot be maintained. Murti is correct when he says that the emptiness Naagaarjuna is trying to get at is "the negation of judgment," but he is wrong when he equates this negation with "Negative judgment."  There is no such thing as "Negative judgment" as such; we can speak only of a negative judgment. And a negative judgment is patently every bit as much a view, a d.r.s.ti, as a positive judgment. Saying "no" is saying something -- and believing something. It is to hold a view about something. Again, Murti might be correct when he says, "Criticism is but the awareness of what a theory is, how it is made up; it is not the proposing of a new theory" -- but wrong when in the next breath he unaccountably identifies "criticism of theories" with "Negation of positions" and declares that "Negation of positions is not one more position."  To negate another's position quite obviously is to have a position of one's own. It is to call someone else wrong -- a very definite view to take and a view almost always grounded on other views formed earlier and now presupposed, views which are felt to be inconsistent with those contested.
The Kaarikaas are full of negative judgments -- or more to the point -- judgments. One of the most incisive critics of Naagaarjuna, R. Robinson, who perhaps might have initially confronted my thesis with raised eyebrows, has written: "Naagaarjuna eschews affirmation of terms, but he does affirm propositions."  To affirm a proposition is to express a view. The Kaarikaas, therefore, along with all the views they describe as empty, are themselves empty. For they are nothing but a melange of views.
I anticipate the reaction of at least a few readers at this point to what I am holding: "He has missed the point; Naagaarjuna has expressly stated that the views he puts forth in the Kaarikaas are not his own, but those he supposes his opponents to maintain. Naagaarjuna is merely demonstrating that all these views are self-contradictory, self-convicted, and absurd. It is wrong to suppose that any statement in the Kaarikaas is Naagaarjuna's; rather they are his opponents'."
Even if this were true, even if none of the statements in the Kaarikaas were Naagaarjuna's, the treatise would stand on ground none the firmer. For the Kaarikaas depend on the truth of certain statements, be they Naagaarjuna's or not, for their meaning and even their logical validity. If these "truths" are not really true, but empty, of what worth is the treatise? Indeed, if all statements in the Kaarikaas are empty, and if the reader knows this, of what worth can the treatise be? You cannot prove something to be erroneous with an erroneous proof. But, in spite of his assertion to the contrary, it is wrong, I think, to suppose that Naagaarjuna had no views of his own.
In the first place, Naagaarjuna implicitly places full faith (and so must the reader) in the rules of logic.  Robinson writes: "Analysis of the logical constructions in the Stanzas [Kaarikaas] confirms the statement in the Chinese biography of Naagaarjuna that he adopted methods of formal reasoning from the Tirthikas and
utilized them to expound the Dharma."  Naagaarjuna's aim may indeed have been "to undermine logical methods altogether and to demonstrate the hopeless contradictions of the principles upon which logic is built,"  as Stcherbatsky has said; but if so, it is nonetheless true that he has relied completely on logic to destroy logic; in other words, if Naagaarjuna says, "therefore, all logic is refuted," the fact still remains, if somewhat paradoxically, that he has said "therefore."
Secondly, Naagaarjuna, if I am not altogether misreading the Kaarikaas, does have views of his own. The opening lines set up, as it were, the rules of the contest:
Never are any existing things found to originate
From themselves, from something else, from both, or from no cause.
There are four conditioning causes:
A cause (hetu), objects of sensations, "immediately preceding condition," and of course the predominant influence -- there is no fifth.
Certainly there is no self-existence (svabhaava) of existing things in conditioning causes, etc.;
And if no self-existence exists, neither does "other-existence" (parabhaava) (1.1-3).
These statements are not conclusions which necessarily follow once the views of the opponent are unscrambled and "self convicted." They are not conclusions at all, but rather presuppositions: Naagaarjuna's presuppositions as well as his opponent's. They are simply the rules of the contest. Now how do we know they are Naagaarjuna's? Chapter 24 provides an interesting clue in this regard. In verses 31 and 32 Naagaarjuna qualifies the verses with the pronoun tava or te  ("your," that is, the adversary's) to show that the opinions summarized in the two verses are not his own, but his objector's. But in verse 33 (the next) neither of these pronouns appears. It reads simply:
Neither the dharma nor the non-dharma will be done anywhere.
What is produced which is non-empty? Certainly self-existence is not produced.
The conclusion that here Naagaarjuna is expressing one of his views is further reinforced when in each of the next two verses (34-35) the pronouns tava and te turn up again -- presumably in order to make it clear that, as in the earlier two verses, the views expressed are the opponent's, not Naagaarjuna's. The conclusion that in v. 33 Naagaarjuna is expressing his own views is reinforced still again when we learn that the view "Certainly self-existence is not produced" (v. 33) is the same as that expressed in the opening line of the Kaarikaas ("Never are any existing things found to originate"). As a matter of fact, this view appears to be a (perhaps unconsciously) accepted dogma for Naagaarjuna. It turns up everywhere and it is the very backbone of his prasa^nga, or method of reducing his opponent's arguments to absurdity. I should make a clarification here: I am not maintaining that Naagaarjuna believed there was any referent for such a notion as "self-existence" -- only that he accepted the definition of it as he expresses it. In other words, he held the view that svabhaava, existent or not, had to be defined in this way.
There are other views (d.r.s.ti) in the Kaarikaas which I believe Naagaarjuna held (again perhaps only unconsciously, and certainly not consciously as such), along with a large number of the Buddhists of his day. We read, for example, concerning "conditioned elements" (sa^mskaara):
A thing of which the basic elements are deception is vain, as the glorious one said.
All conditioned elements (sa^mskaara) are things that have basic elements (dharma) which are deception; therefore, they are vain (13.1).
This idea of "deception" was common to all Buddhists who based their beliefs on teachings of the Praj~naapaaramitaa. Or again, in 25.4, we see Naagaarjuna "derive" the emptiness of nirvaa.na with the help of his presupposition that all existing (here not equitable with self-existing) things are characterized by old age and death  -- and that since nirvaa.na is obviously not subject to old age and death (the obverse of the same presupposition), it is not something which exists. A final d.r.s.ti I will mention is the belief that "Wherever there is no existing thing, neither is there a non-existing thing" (25.7).  Robinson says that this passage and others like it in the Kaarikaas "seem to maintain that the presence of the negation of any variable implies the presence of that variable,"  and therefore the negation must not be allowed either. Whether this way of thinking is an instance of an apparatus unique to "Buddhist logic," such as the well known tetralemma, or just another unextraordinary d.r.s.ti, I am not sure. What is to the point, however, is that here we have still another example of a presupposition which Naagaarjuna depends upon for furthering his teaching and which he personally and effectually, though perhaps unconsciously, accepts.
There is another possible objection to my thesis -- that the Kaarikaas "undercut themselves" and are therefore not philosophically cogent -- which I can foresee. It is contended that Naagaarjuna, just like the Buddha, rendered the Great Dharma, which is essentially ineffable, into words understandable to his listeners strictly out of compassion for them. It is contended that this practice -- which exercises the famous Buddhist principle of upaayakau`salya, "excellence in the choice of methods,"  or simply "skill in means," as it is mostly known to the West -- is for the Maadhyamika Buddhist a hallmark and an indispensable justification of all his activity and his teaching (which is at the deepest, or "real" level, unteachable), and was certainly followed by Naagaarjuna: For he makes explicit reference to the "slow-witted" (24.11), "the stupid" (24.12), for whom a lower truth must be taught; for "The highest sense [of the truth] is not taught apart from practical behavior" (24.10). It is further maintained that emptiness, which for Naagaarjuna is the higher truth (the absolute truth), is a dangerous thing in the wrong head: it "utterly destroys the slow-witted. / It is like a snake wrongly grasped or [magical] knowledge incorrectly applied" (24.11). Thus Naagaarjuna, just like the Buddha, "had recourse to two truths" (24.8).
I agree with those who invoke the "two truths" theory in order to explain Naagaarjuna's method in the Kaarikaas -- but not in order to "justify" it. It is also
true that this method was enormously productive of conversions on the one hand and enlightenment for the already initiated on the other. But I am just as sure that any reversion to a "two truths" methodology is not conducive to philosophical knowledge of the real. For ultimately there is only one truth, not two, and any discussion at a lower level is, for a philosopher, discussion at the wrong level. I do not mean to say, however, that there is no philosophical content to the Kaarikaas. Nor do I disbelieve that the treatise served splendidly as philosophy for most of its Buddhist readers: Undoubtedly it inspired much of the Buddhist world to see the universe as `suunya -- a position more or less emotional, more or less philosophical, depending on the nature of the person or community; undoubtedly it told its readers about what was to them the Real. My only point here is that whatever insights into reality it revealed, it did so by a method which was unphilosophical -- or, more accurately, alogical. Every so often a certain poem or a passage in a novel impresses us as getting to the essence of things; certain poems expressly set out to do that -- Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, for instance. But never are such works considered philosophy. Of course, I am not suggesting that we put the Kaarikaas in the same class as Pope's Essay. In one sense nothing could be more foolish: Where is there in all the world a treatise alongside the Kaarikaas as unremittingly given over to a method we can term only as logical? And where in all ancient literature is logic wielded so self-consciously and generally so well? Without any question the Kaarikaas have most impressed the world -- not because of their poetry, their religious mysticism, their wit or cleverness, or even, perhaps, because of their truth or "reality value," their insight -- but because of their spectacular and up until then incomparable use of reductio ad absurdum by means of -- yes -- syllogism, sorites, enthymeme, the standard accoutrement of formal logic. It is for their spectacle of logic that they have been uniquely revered by Mahaayaana Buddhists, and perhaps uniquely respected by those opposed to their conclusions. And it is this same logical spectacle which most captivates the student or critic of Buddhism writing or teaching in the West today.
And yet -- what a marvellous paradox! -- the Kaarikaas in the ultimate analysis are not logical. They are like a fabulous picture without a wall to hang on or a marvellous tangle of ivy without a trellis to support it. Its latticework is rococo in its intricacy and richness, but its foundation is next to nonexistent. If Naagaarjuna had acted logically according to his beliefs, he could not have written, notwithstanding the "two-truths" theory, an empty treatise in order to lead illusory phenomena passing themselves off as persons to a nirvaa.na which existed only as an empty concept. Fortunately, however, he seemed to be "suffering" from what has been accurately described as that "common Indian trait of dichotomizing truth into the transcendental and the empirical, in effect wholly unconnected with each other";  thus he left us one of the literary wonders of the world as a skillful means of leading men from the mundane truth to the ultimate truth (`suunyataa) -- though in doing so he made it theoretically impossible for the passage to be made, because the passage was itself an illusion.
Have the Kaarikaas been overrated? No -- that at least has not been the point I want to make. But we must, I think, learn to regard them as the work of a Buddhist. By reading them in the same spirit of inquiry with which we tackle, say, Hume or Kant, we do not exactly overrate them -- we overextend them. And in overextending them we expose them to ridicule, ridicule not at all apropos of Naagaarjuna's intent in writing them, but rather of the understanding of those non-Buddhists who have misread them. We would do well to listen again to the warning which E. Conze constantly stresses: that any Buddhist work, the Kaarikaas included, is first of all "motivated by man's spiritual needs, and aims at his salvation from the world and its ways,"  and is only secondarily philosophical, "objective," or scientific.
What is the right way to regard the Muulamaadhyamaka-kaarikaas? There is of course no single right way. The only excuse for the emergence of such a thing as a "right way" is the pressing need for a foil to a seriously wrong way of interpreting the work. We have seen that a wrong interpretation proceeds from the Western habit of regarding as philosophy anything which self-consciously and skillfully employs a logical methodology in an attempt to describe the real. So many in the West have come to regard the Kaarikaas as a philosophical treatise and not as what in fact they are -- a mystical manifesto in philosophical guise.
Naagaarjuna -- like `Sa^nkara, who is considered by many as the only other Indian thinker of equal stature -- was a man who had found enlightenment. His vision of truth or reality was so overwhelming, so certain, that all empirical things and logical laws were by contrast pale -- and ultimately quite out of sight. From his spiritual plateau it did not seem possible that what he had won stood comparison with anything else, certainly not with anything in the phenomenal order he had risen above. It stood quite alone -- it was real -- it alone was real. Nothing could share its reality, nothing could be classed with or even under it -- all else was not less real, but unreal, empty, `suunya. Did Naagaarjuna really believe that there were two truths? There is good reason to doubt it. Yet he knew that somehow it was only by means of, with the help of, the phenomenal world that insight was achieved.
Had Naagaarjuna been more strictly a philosopher and less exclusively concerned with salvation from sa^msaara, he would have forced himself precisely at this point to make some kind of allowance for these all-important means in the value-scale. He would have admitted that, though it might not have seemed so according to his post-enlightenment experience, the phenomenal world was at least a reflection of the Real. He would have done as Thomas Aquinas did when talking about God: Aquinas knew that nothing he could say about God was able to describe God as He is, just as Naagaarjuna knew that none of our words could describe the Dharmadhaatu as It is. But Aquinas, rightly recognizing that his entire philosophy of God was in danger of unintelligibility if he could not
meaningfully ground the reality of God in human speech, devised a means to do so. The result was his famous "analogical mode" of predicating attributes of God. That is, while not pretending to be able to predicate attributes of God in the same way that we might ascribe attributes (like love or justice) to a human being, Aquinas held that it was possible, and indeed necessary, to predicate attributes "according to likeness and metaphor."  In this way he gave the phenomenal world, and in particular human speech, a philosophically legitimate place in the economy of man's salvation. It is exactly this that Naagaarjuna -- who postulates only the conditioned and the Unconditioned, which are related in no intelligible way even if they are identified mystically -- fails to do.  I think that Radhakrishnan is completely wrong when he says that Naagaarjuna was "sustained by an unselfish intellectual enthusiasm and philosophical ardour, which aim at thoroughness and completeness for their own sake."  What sustained Naagaarjuna more than anything else, I believe, was his desire to bring others to the same saving experience that he himself had realized. He had no interest at all in "objectivity" as Western philosophers define that word.
The dominating drive behind Naagaarjuna's writing the Kaarikaas was his desire to save, not to explicate or describe. He called upon his masterly logical skills not so much to reveal the nature of reality as to make it possible for his disciples to gain release from a world he thought was illusory and distracting. K. V. Ramanan puts it this way: "The realization of the non-ultimacy of specific views and the non-substantiality of specific entities is the essential first step in the wayfarer's realization of the ultimate truth as well as in his work in the world."  Naagaarjuna's intention was to divest the natural and intellectual universe of value so that as a "logical" consequence the disciple could be freed from attachment to it -- freed, if you favor the optimistic interpretation of the Maadhyamika "Absolute,"  from the obstacles to the realization of this Absolute -- call it `Suunyataa, Tathaataa, Dharmadhaatu, Praj~naapaaramitaa, or whatever else.  If the Kaarikaas must be compared to a Western work, Augustine's City of God is more appropriate than Kant's Critique of Pure Reason or Bradley's Appearance and Reality. Both Augustine and Naagaarjuna, unlike Kant or Bradley or Hume, were first of all defenders of their vision, defenders of their faith. Another analogy to the Kaarikaas might be Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Ives Waldo writes that the Kaarikaas should be viewed "as the early Wittgenstein viewed the Tractatus, as a supremely transparent example of the limits of logic and language. The comprehending [that is, Buddhist] reader will come to see through it the absurdity of all metaphysical projects... Eventually the practitioner must leap free of all preconceptions into the realm of `Suunyataa, which is beyond any question of being or not being. "  Of course, Naagaarjuna was not, as I hope I have shown, himself free of all preconceptions. Perhaps they were so much a part of his being -- his unconscious, taken-for-granted Weltanschauung -- that he could ingenuously believe he held no views of his own. But views he had. On the other hand, it
is most certainly true that, compared to the mystical topography at the bosom of Dharmakaaya, the views he had were of secondary importance. They were important to him only as upaaya, as means of deliverance for those still enchained in sa^msaara.
To sum up, Naagaarjuna was first of all a realized mystic, only secondarily a teacher with a worldview and a methodology which he knew from experience yielded a fruitful harvest. His vision worked -- that he was absolutely certain of. "The fact is," writes Glyn Richards, "that emptiness in its highest sense is not taught apart from practical behaviour. That is, its meaning is related to its use. When emptiness 'works' then everything 'works.'"  So Naagaarjuna wrote the Kaarikaas. It was necessary that his worldview be revealed -- by whatever means (upaaya) worked best. The fact that a mystical worldview mediated by a brilliant logical tour de force was what worked best was incidental to his mission. Just enough logic and self-consistency as would be sufficient to convince was all that was required or even desirable.
It would not be fair to conclude this paper without calling attention to the greatness of the Kaarikaas. This unique hybrid of logic and mysticism (to answer the question posed by the title) is one of the most powerful and persuasive works in religious literature. Today it is still celebrated by philosophers for its "inexorable logic,"  just as it has been from the beginning. On the other hand, it endears itself to many who have grown weary of the philosopher's quest for truth -- either because, like Naagaarjuna, they have come to see the ultimate importance of a grander quest, or because, like many a modern relativist, they delight to see what they take to be evidence of the futility of all quests. Others find it completely unconvincing, yet they are nevertheless fascinated. Richard Jones unmasks it as "a fabrication whose function is to counteract other fabrications."  Richard Robinson has written, somewhat disparagingly, that its logical sleight-of-hand "resembles the shell game in several ways. Its elements are few and its operations are simple, though performed at lightning speed and with great dexterity."  Yet both Robinson and Jones esteem it as a uniquely ingenious work written for the noblest of reasons. As for me, I would compare it to a botanical garden, full of beautifully manicured trees and exotic shrubs and flowers, in the midst of a large city. The grandeur of the flora (the verses) and the impeccable care taken in their planting and pruning and weeding (the methodology) can make the weary stroller forget that he is surrounded by a busy city (sa^msaara). He might even feel that he is in the midst of a beautiful, charmed forest (Dharmakaaya). But he might feel otherwise. He might feel that, in spite of the garden's undeniable beauty, there is something slightly artificial and unconvincing about it. Even as he looks and admires and is refreshed, he will hear the noise of traffic and smell the fumes. And he will forget the garden's effect as soon as he walks out of the gate onto the concrete sidewalk.
Of course, many will reject this analogy. Where I see an artificial, if singularly
impressive garden, they may see a primeval rain forest in whose cool shadows life expresses itself profusely and with untethered spontaneity, with spectacular effect. The Kaarikaas will reflect the way they see their world, they will contain their "philosophy." They may be a "fabrication," but they are a fabrication which works -- somehow.
I want to leave no one the wrong impression. I do not doubt that the Kaarikaas are a masterpiece. I have a great esteem for Mahaayaana Buddhism and revere anyone who, like Naagaarjuna, has experienced Dharmakaaya. In general I have a higher regard for the mystic, whatever his tradition, than for the philosopher, whatever his school. My intention here is not to dishonor Naagaarjuna; it is to honor him -- but for the right reasons. His work has been taken out of context, misinterpreted, and overextended. The Kaarikaas belong to no recognizable literary genre. Their style is unlike any other mystical tract that I have seen, and they are, both in their intent and their methodology, decidedly unlike any other philosophical treatise that I know of. Yet the world will continue to call Naagaarjuna both mystic and philosopher. And rightly so -- as long as the world remembers that when it calls him philosopher, it is speaking from the point of view of the lower truth, which is `suunya.
1. R. C. Jha, The Vedaantic and the Buddhist Concept of Reality as Interpreted by `Sa^mkara and Naagaarjuna (Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1973), p. 102.
2. Bhikshu Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism (Bangalore, India: W. Q. Judge Press, 1957), p. 332.
3. Kenneth K. Inada, Naagaarjuna: A Translation of His Muulamadhyamakakaarikaa with an Introductory Essay (Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1970), p. 3.
4. It has traditionally been held that Naagaarjuna composed the monumental Mahaapraj~naapaaramitaa`saastra. If he did, then there might be some who would regard this work as his chief one. For opposing views concerning the authorship of the `Saastra, see `Etienne Lamotte's preface to his Le Traite de la Grande Vertu de Sagesse, Tome 1 (Louvain: Bureaux du Museon, 1944), and K. Venkata Ramanan's preface to his Naagaarjuna's Philosophy as Presented in the Mahaa-Praj~naapaaramitaa `Saastra (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975).
5. Increasingly there are exceptions to this general rule. Richard Robinson, in his "Did Naagaarjuna Really Refute All Philosophical Views?" (Philosophy East and West 22, no. 3 (July 1972), flatly states: "... the application of such a critique [as Naagaarjuna's] does not demonstrate the inadequacy of reason and experience to provide intelligible answers to the usual philosophical questions" (p. 331).
6. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, 2nd ed. (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1960), p. 152.
7. I have no disagreement, however, with Edward Conze, who speaks insightfully of a "logic of the Absolute." See Conze, Buddhist Thought in India (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1967), p. 263.
8. See especially Richard Robinson, "Some Logical Aspects of Naagaarjuna's System," Philosophy East and West 6, no. 4 (January 1957): 291-308; Ives Waldo, "Naagaarjuna and Analytic Philosophy, II," Philosophy East and West 28, no. 3 (July 1978): 287-298; and Richard H. Jones, "The Nature and Function of Naagaarjuna's Arguments," Philosophy East and West 28, no. 4 (Oct. 1978): 485-502, for analyses of the logical methodology deployed in the Kaarikaas.
9. See Murti's Central Philosophy.
10. See S. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, vol. 1 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1923), p. 655: "It is the higher superstition of science, that the categories useful in the world of experience are ultimately real, that Naagaarjuna explodes" (my italic).
11. Richard Robinson, "Some Logical Aspects."
12. Frederick J. Streng, Emptiness -- A Study in Religious Meaning (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967), pp. 181-182.
13. gamyamaanasya gamana^m yasya tasya prasajyate
.rte gater gamyamaana^m gamyamaana^m hi gamyate (v. 4).
See P. L. Vaidya, Madhyamaka`saastra of Naagaarjuna with the Commentary: Prasannapadaa by Candrakiirti, Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, no. 10 (Darbhanga, India: Mithila Institute of Post-Graduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning, 1960), p. 34.
14. See Streng's translation of the Kaarikaas in the Appendix to his book Emptiness, pp. 184-185. This and all other quotations from the Kaarikaas are taken from Streng's translation unless otherwise indicated. All Sanskrit words in italics and/or parentheses and all bracketed elements in these quotations are also Streng's unless otherwise indicated.
15. See Kaarikaas, 24.7-14. Radhakrishnan says: "Of course, the world reflects the permanent substance, otherwise we cannot attain paramaartha [absolute reality] through samv.rti , which Naagaarjuna admits" (Indian Philosophy, vol. 1, p. 664). I do not believe that Naagaarjuna states that the world "reflects the permanent substance," or anything like it. It is difficult to see how he could make such a claim for a world so radically conditioned, and thus so unlike the unconditioned Absolute.
16. lokasa^mv.rtisatya^m.Cf. Vaisya, p. 215.
17. See Robinson, Early Madhyamika in India and China (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967), pp. 48-49, for a dubious and, I think, misleading distinction between the "descriptive order" and the "factual order" in Naagaarjuna.
18. See Kaarikaas, chap. 15 (Streng, pp. 199-200), for an analysis in Naagaarjuna's own words of svabhaava.
19. Second italic mine.
20. First italic mine.
21. See Streng's translation of the Vigrahavyaavartanii in the Appendix to his book Emptiness, p. 222. The following quotations from the Vigraha are also taken from Streng. Rules for punctuation are the same as for the Kaarikaas (see note 14).
22. My italic. In the Vigraha Naagaarjuna says more pointedly: "If I would make any proposition whatever, then by that I would have a logical error; / But I do not make a proposition; therefore I am not in error" (v. 29).
23. Murti, Central Philosophy, p. 136.
24. Sangharakshita, Survey, p. 336.
25. Murti, p. 145.
26. Murti, p. 161.
27. Murti, p. 155.
28. Murti, p. 161.
29. Robinson, "Some Logical Aspects," p. 304.
30. Occasionally this "faith" is quite explicit. In 21.6, for example, we read, "When two things cannot be proved either separately or together, / No proof exists of these two things." This is a Buddhist adaptation of the Law of Excluded Middle.
31. Robinson, Early Madhyamika, p. 50.
32. F. Th. Stcherbatsky, Buddhist Logic, vol. 2 (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1962), p. 153n.
33. See Vaidya, p. 223. "Your" is my translation, not Streng's.
34. This verse, incidentally, directly contradicts 16.4: "The final cessation (nirvaa.na) of the conditioned elements certainly is not possible at all." There are other contradictions in the Kaarikaas. Cf. Jones, "The Nature and Function," pp. 496-497.
35. See also 23.22: "But if individual self, 'what is pure,' 'what is eternal,' and happiness do not exist, / Then non-individual self, 'what is impure,' 'what is impermanent' and sorrow do not exist."
36. Robinson, "Some Logical Aspects," p. 300.
37. Murti, p. 350.
38. Harsh Narain, "`Suunyavaada: A Reinterpretation," Philosophy East and West 13, no. 4 (January 1964): 338.
39. Conze, "Buddhist Philosophy and Its European Parallels," Philosophy East and West 13, no. 1 (April 1963): 14.
40. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, trans. Anton C. Pegis (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1955), p. 140.
41. I have tried to show elsewhere that `Sa^nkara's Non-Dualism is philosophically unintelligible and thus unconvincing for reasons similar to those we have just examined. See "A Death-Blow to `Sa^nkara's Non-Dualism? A Dualist Refutation," Religious Studies 12, no. 3 (Sept. 1976): 281-290.
42. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, vol. 1, p. 644.
43. Ramanan, Naagaarjuna's Philosophy, p. 46.
44. Three articles dealing specifically with the problem of the nature of the Maadhyamika Absolute are Jan W. De Jong's "Le Probleme de l'Absolu dans l'ecole Maadhyamika," Revue Philosophique 140 (1950): 322-327; Alex Wayman's "The Buddhist 'Not This, Not This,' " Philosophy East and West 11, no. 3 (October 1961), 99-114; and Narain's "`Suunyavaada" (see note 38). Also of interest and help in this regard are Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, vol. 1, pp. 644-657; Surendranath Dasgupta, Indian Idealism (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1933), p. 79; and Robinson, Early Madhyamika, pp. 60-61. For a particularly interesting analysis of and challenge to Naagaarjuna's conception of the Absolute, cf. D. C. Mathur, "Experience and Dialectic, A Study in Dialectical Interplay," Diogenes (Winter 1967): 38-40.
45. See Ramanan, Naagaarjuna's Philosophy, chap. 9, for an insight into what Naagaarjuna might have believed in regard to an Absolute. If he did write the Mahaapraj~naapaaramitaa`saastra, as it has been traditionally thought, then the Kaarikaas are far from sufficient for representing the full scope or even perhaps the core of Naagaarjuna's beliefs. See also Lamotte, Traite, Preface.
46. Ives Waldo, "Naagaarjuna and Analytic Philosophy," Philosophy East and West 25, no. 3 (July 1975): 281-290.
47. Glyn Richards, "`Suunyataa: Objective Referent or Via Negativa?" Religious Studies 14, no. 2 (June 1978): 258.
48. Kamaleswar Bhattacharya, The Dialectical Method of Naagaarjuna (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1978), p. 1.
49. Jones, "The Nature and Function," p. 496.
50. Robinson, "Did Naagaarjuna Really Refute All Philosophical Views?" p. 325.