Sunday, June 9, 2013

Root of the Middle Way / Nagarjuna in Ornament of Reason: the Great Commentary to Nagarjuna's Root of the Middle Way -- Dharmachakra Translation Committee -- Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications, 2011

The Dharmachakra Translation Committee has provided us with a new translation of the Mulamadhyamaka-karikas, translating the title as The Root of the Middle WayThe Root of the Middle Way is among the most important texts in all of Buddhist literature.  Written by the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna in the second century, it explains the concept of sunyata or "emptiness," upon which the important school of Madhyamaka Buddhism is based.

While historically important, The Root of the Middle Way is a difficult and work to understand.  Consequently, one would be well advised to read several works in the secondary literature to gain good understanding of The Root.  It is, however, brief in comparison to many seminal Buddhist works, so a quick initial reading will give the reader a flavor of the work.

The central idea of sunyata is arrived at in the work through a dialectical process in which all logically possible metaphysical views are said to be refuted.  The force of the work is rather like recognizing the validity of both the Heraclitean argument against stasis and Zeno's argument against change. However, the resulting view is neither nihilism nor agnosticism.  Nihilism, the view that nothing exists, is among the refuted metaphysical views and that all possible metaphysical views are refuted does not preclude us from reaching an understanding of what is true.  Instead, it demonstrates that conventional truth is distinct from absolute truth and that the techniques of argumentation and analysis are incapable of reaching the absolute truth.  Understanding the absolute truth comes only after one has set aside conventional truth and come into direct experience of the emptiness of the phenomenal world.

This particular translation of The Root is by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee.  The Committee does a fair job of presenting the work in an idiom that is largely intelligible to contemporary English readers; however, it does not seem especially more readable than the translation by Jay L. Garfield, reviewed in this blog.  The Dharmachakra Translation Committee also includes with The Root their translation of Ornament of Reason, a commentary written by Mabja Jangchub Tsondru (twelfth century).  Mabja's extensive commentary has had a profound influence on the understanding the The Root over the centuries and remains a lucid explanation of the work today. 

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