Joshua McDonough
Religious Studies 460
December 5, 2003

By the second century CE, during which Nagarjuna was most likely active, Buddhist philosophy had already experienced a noticeable transformation from its origins during the time of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni, to the rigid, systematic description of reality as presented in the Abhidharma schemas of several non-Mahayana schools existing at that time. It was about to undergo a second, and perhaps even more extreme, transformation at the hands of Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy. Though there are certain similarities, the differences between Nagarjuna’s view of reality and the views posited by Abhidharma thinkers are immediately apparent and seemingly incompatible. In fact, Nagarjuna’s radical sunyatavadin stance regarding key Buddhist doctrines, such as the Noble’s
Four Truths, nirvana, and even the Tathagata himself, is diametrically opposed to that of propounders of Abhidharma, whose reification of dharmas as ultimate existents is as far from the tenets of Madhyamaka philosophy as one can get. In order to further illustrate the differences between these two philosophical traditions, this paper will critically examine their respective positions concerning dharmas, nirvana, and dependent origination (pratityasamutpada) while emphasizing Nagarjuna’s conclusions and their relationship, or lack thereof, with the Abhidharma understanding of reality.

Perhaps the most important concept within Abhidharma thought is that of the dharma. It is these dharmas, for those who accept this theory, which make up the reality that we experience, not only in the world without, but also in our own psychophysical continuums. Buddhist schools which consider Abhidharma theory to be authoritative hold that these dharmas are the ultimate existents in this fluctuating universe, out of which all conventional entities are constructed. The reasoning behind this conclusion is based on analysis, an important activity within the Buddhist worldview. According to all schools of Buddhism, anything that cannot withstand analysis, but instead breaks down to a collection of parts or a collocation of conditions, does not truly exist from an ultimate standpoint; therefore, for propagators of Abhidharma theory, dharmas are able to withstand this analysis and do indeed exist “from their own side.” One such school of Buddhism that developed its own complete Abhidharma system is the Theravada. “From the standpoint of Theravada orthodoxy the system that they expound is not a figment of speculative thought, not a mosaic put together out of metaphysical hypotheses, but a disclosure of the true nature of existence as apprehended by a mind that has penetrated the totality of things both in depth and in the finest detail” (Bodhi 2-3). The notion of the true nature of reality is very important within a Buddhist context, for it is traditionally held that Buddhas see things as they really are.

For Nagarjuna, this notion is of equal importance, but he would undoubtedly disagree with the above position of the Theravada orthodoxy. First, a brief summation of Madhyamaka philosophy as posited by Nagarjuna is necessary. Nagarjuna held that nothing in this universe could withstand reasoned analysis. He believed, as is evidenced in his most famous work, the Madhyamakakarika, that all entities lack intrinsic existence. Any idea of intrinsically existing phenomena is merely imputed by the observer. It follows that, ultimately, all phenomena are akin to magical creations, illusory and unreal. Nagarjuna uses razor-sharp logic to convince his readers that this is indeed the case. However, he does this in a very careful and clever way. Instead of overtly stating his own views, if he truly held any, he takes various positions which were held during his time, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, and deconstructs them into oblivion, showing the absurdity of holding such a position. “This is the sole concern of the Madhyamika, to analyse the positions of the opponent, not to put forward counter-positions which might entail something of their own capable of resisting analysis” (Williams 146).

The keyword for the Madhyamaka school is sunyata, or emptiness. Specifically, it is used to illustrate that all phenomena are sunya, or empty, of intrinsic existence, including the dharmas of the Abhidharma systems. Obviously, this pits Nagarjuna and the advocates of Abhidharma against each other, from a philosophical standpoint. It is difficult to say whether Nagarjuna saw sunyata as the purgative remedy for the growing Abhidharma philosophical mire or as the logical, final conclusion of Abhidharma thought. For it seems, from a certain point of view, that Nagarjuna’s sunyatavadin philosophy merely ties up the one loose end of Abhidharma theory, the reification of dharmas. In the Abhidharma, everything is said to exist conventionally except dharmas, which intrinsically exist and thus constitute all conventional entities. In the Madhyamaka, everything is said to exist conventionally, with no exceptions. Unfortunately, this is an unanswerable conundrum and must be left behind.

Because of the subtleties of Nagarjuna’s method, the Madhyamaka school is often misunderstood and misrepresented. Two common accusations leveled at the Madhyamaka are that sunyata implies either some sort of Absolute Reality or complete nihilism. Since sunyata is the ultimate mode of existence, it could be construed as some sort of ultimate Absolute, totally separate from, and independent of, the conventional realities which make up our existence. However, upon a careful read of the eighteenth verse of the twenty-fourth chapter of the Madhyamakakarika, one can see that such an interpretation of sunyata is erroneous. “Whatever is dependently co-arisen, that is explained to be emptiness. That, being a dependent designation, is itself the middle way.” This verse shows that even emptiness itself is dependent upon conventional realities, and thus Nagarjuna escapes the trap of positing emptiness as the end-all Absolute by showing the “emptiness of emptiness.”

The charge of nihilism is more difficult to confront. It is likely that most Indian Buddhists who encountered Nagarjuna’s works perceived sunyata as nihilism, thus accounting for the disregard the Madhyamaka received in India. “I suggest that most Buddhists in India, familiar with the Abhidharma, still felt that the Madhyamaka position was tantamount to nihilism for the simple reason that it is incoherent to maintain that all are merely conceptual constructs” (Williams 150). This does not mean, however, that Nagarjuna did not address the problem of nihilism. He recognized that sunyata is difficult to grasp, so he provided a logical counter-argument to the allegation. First and foremost, it must be understood that Nagarjuna is negating intrinsic existence. Without this prerequisite understanding, it would be impossible to distinguish between Madhyamaka philosophy and nihilism. Intrinsic existence (svabhava) has, for Nagarjuna, three definite characteristics. Anything that inherently exists must be noncontingent, independent, and invariable. Thus, any notion of inherent existence seems irreconcilable with Buddhist conceptions of causation. This relates to the allegation of nihilism in that, for Nagarjuna, inherent existence would, in principle, make any sort of fluctuating universe impossible. “An intrinsic nature originated through causes and conditions would be manufactured. Indeed, how could an intrinsic nature be manufactured? And an uncreated intrinsic nature would have no relation to or dependence on what is other than it” (MMK 15.1-2). These verses illustrate the problem for those who posit the intrinsic nature of any phenomena, i.e. Buddhists who regarded the Abhidharma as accurate. Since all Buddhists hold that this universe operates on the level of cause and effect, how could they also posit inherently existing dharmas since anything which exists with an intrinsic nature cannot, by definition, be subject to cause and effect. So, in effect, Nagarjuna is not negating the functional, or conventional, existence of phenomena, but rather the intrinsic existence of any such phenomena, even dharmas. “Once it is appreciated that emptiness is an implication of dependent origination and is by no means identical with nonexistence it can be seen that for something to be empty implies that such a thing must in some sense exist, since it must have originated through some sort of dependence” (Williams 147).

In mainstream Buddhism, out of which developed the Abhidharma system, the final goal of the spiritual aspirant, whether lay or monastic, is nirvana. The concept of nirvana was purposefully left ambiguous by the Buddha and his most learned disciples, though they did, in some instances, give hints as to its characteristics and effects. Most often in the Tripitaka, nirvana is referred to as the “unborn,” or the “unconditioned.” These descriptions serve a specific purpose, especially within the context of the Noble’s Four Truths and Dependent Origination, extremely important doctrines for mainstream Buddhists. With the Noble’s Four Truths, the Buddha posits that the endless wandering in samsara, which is experienced by all sentient beings, is invariably accompanied by duhkha, or dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction has craving as its overt cause and ignorance as its more subtle cause. However, with the cessation of craving comes the cessation of duhkha, and this is identical to nirvana. One result of nirvana is that any being who attains it is no longer subject to rebirth in the wheel of samsara, hence the label, “unborn.” The Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Origination describes the world in terms of causes and conditions. There is no event in the universe that can escape being a conditioned and conditioning event except nirvana, hence the identification, “unconditioned.”

In the context of the Abhidharma, the concept of nirvana is fleshed out more so than in the sutras. Nirvana itself is regarded as a dharma, and for Theravadins, it is the sole unconditioned dharma. In this context, nirvana is directly related to the eight supramundane consciousnesses, which correspond with the eight types of noble beings. The Theravadin definition of nirvana runs as follows: “Nibbana is termed supramundane, and is to be realized by the knowledge of the four paths. It becomes an object to the paths and fruits, and is called Nibbana because it is a departure from craving, which is an entanglement” (Bodhi 258). Since nirvana is considered a dharma by those in the Abhidharma camp, it must, for them, inherently exist. This is indeed the case. “Nibbana is timeless because its intrinsic nature (svabhava) is without arising, change, and passing away” (Bodhi 137).

Clearly, to hold nirvana to be a dharma is to posit it as some sort of ultimately existing thing. This does not appear to be totally congruent with the concept of nirvana as presented in the sutras. Similarly, for Nagarjuna, to assert that nirvana is an inherently existing phenomenon is an inaccuracy beyond measure. An entire chapter of the Madhyamakakarika is devoted to nirvana, and, from it, one can glean Nagarjuna’s position on the subject. Obviously, given the purpose of sunyata, Nagarjuna refuses to allow nirvana to exist intrinsically; it must also be sunya. “First of all, Nirvana is not existent (bhava) because decay and death would absurdly become its characteristics, since no existent thing (bhava) exists without decay and death” (MMK 25.4). Thus does Nagarjuna exclude nirvana from the realm of existent things. He then moves on to exclude nirvana from the category of nonexistent things. “If Nirvana is not existent (bhava), how could Nirvana be nonexistent (abhava)? How could there be a nonexistent thing where there is no existent thing? If Nirvana is a nonexistent thing, then how would it occur without reliance, since there is no nonexistent thing that occurs without reliance?” (MMK 25.7-8). Here Nagarjuna is demonstrating the limit of language. If one labels something nonexistent, then that designation is dependent upon, due to its contradistinction, the term “existence.” One appellate is, therefore, incoherent without the other. For Nagarjuna, then, the correct way to appraise nirvana is as the Blessed One taught. “The teacher said that one should abandon samsaric being (bhava) and nonbeing (vibhava). Therefore, it is correct to think, ‘Nirvana is not existent, nor is it a nonexistent thing’” (MMK 25.10). Nirvana, consequently, is beyond the dichotomization of language, and it certainly is not an intrinsically existing dharma. The nearest Nagarjuna comes to giving a definition of nirvana comes at the end of the twenty-fifth chapter of the Madhyamakakarika. “Peace is the calming of all perception, the calming of fabrication: no dharma has been taught by the Buddha for anyone anywhere” (MMK 25.24).

Dependent Origination, as presented in the Abhidharma of the Theravada school, is said to occur over three lifetimes. In this triple-lifetime system, ignorance and formations deal with the past life. It is ignorance in the previous life which causes morally determinative intentions to be produced in that same life which, in turn, produces the third link, consciousness, in the present life. In this instance, consciousness indicates the state which arises in the mother’s womb. This consciousness, in turn gives rise to the biologically developing mind and body, where mind is the remaining three aggregates other than physical form. As a result of having a mind and body, the fifth link, the six senses, arise. Due to the existence of the six senses and external material objects, sense-contact comes into being. Such contact is automatically categorized into one of three compartments of the seventh link, feeling: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Up to this point, a being, in respect to the present life, has no control over the links; therefore, they are neither morally wholesome nor unwholesome. However, with the advent of the eighth link, craving, an irreversible process begins with new karma formations as the end result. From craving results attachment and these are both morally negative taints. Once craving and attachment begin, it is difficult to discern Dependent Origination as it occurs, much less trace its progress in reverse order. Conditioned by attachment is becoming, and with this, the tenth link, the future life begins to be affected. Becoming here should be taken to mean the becoming of karmic formations since volition begins to occur, which produces entirely new karma and entirely new results that will manifest in the present life and the future life. Conditioned by the becoming of karmic formations is birth in the future life, which inevitably leads to the twelfth link, old age and death.

The Madhyamaka take on Dependent Origination is quite different from that of the Abhidharma. In the Abhidharma system, Dependent Origination appears very rigid and formulaic, but Nagarjuna’s interpretation of this doctrine is less structured, though no less universal. For Madhyamikas, the twelve-link version of Dependent Origination is merely a liberative technique taught by the Buddha, a conventional way of expressing cause and effect. The reasoning behind this assertion is clear given the tenets of Madhyamaka philosophy. To call the twelve-link formula definitive and ultimate would imply that it, as a whole and as twelve distinct aspects, somehow exists intrinsically. This does not agree at all with Nagarjuna’s principle of sunyata, though Nagarjuna accepts the twelve-link formula as a conventional device. A major difference between the Abhidharmacist explication of Dependent Origination and that of Nagarjuna is their respective opinion of which link in the cycle must be overcome in order to attain liberation. The weakest link for those of the Abhidharma bent is craving (trsna) such that when craving is totally and completely overcome, suffering ends and thus nirvana is achieved. On the other hand, Nagarjuna explicitly states that it is ignorance (avidya) that must be overcome in order to end karmic formations. “Thus, the unwise are karmic agents. Therefore, the wise are not, since they see ultimate reality. When ignorance has ceased, karmic conditionings do not originate. The cessation of ignorance comes from the meditation on that very interdependent origination with knowledge” (MMK 26.10-11). It has already been stated that the twelve-link formula for Dependent Origination, for Nagarjuna, is not a definitive teaching. What, then, is the definitive version of Dependent Origination according to Nagarjuna? It is simply this: “When this is, that is; this arising, that arises; when this is not, that is not; this ceasing, that ceases.”

In sum, it could be argued that Nagarjuna is the single most influential figure in the history of Buddhist philosophy given his radical departure from the conclusions of the Abhidharma and his undeniable, subsequent influence on later developments in Buddhist philosophy, such as the formulation of the Yogacara school and the dominance of the Madhyamaka in Tibet. Though he did, through his arguments, distinguish himself from the Abhidharmacists, Nagarjuna’s philosophy is nevertheless closely related to Abhidharma thought. “Mahayana philosophy, far from representing a negation of the approach of the Abhidharma, is best seen as a series of strategies within the Abhidharma enterprise” (Williams 140). Many of the subjects addressed and refuted in the Madhyamakakarika are strictly Abhidharma concerns, and sunyata itself could be construed as the doctrine of selflessness (anatman) merely taken to its logical extreme in that Nagarjuna argues for the selflessness (essencelessness) of all phenomena from an ultimate standpoint. If anything, the entirety of the Abhidharma undertaking is an attempted elaboration upon the Buddha’s core teachings. As the Master himself states, “Elaboration, however, ceases in emptiness (sunyata)” (MMK 18.5).


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