The Mulamadhyamakakarika by the second century Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna is possibly the most subtle, sophisticated, and important work on Buddhist metaphysics ever written. It is seen as the seminal text of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism and has shaped the conversation about sunyata (emptiness) within the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. It has been translated several times and has received numerous commentaries. In this blog, I have reviewed two such translations/commentaries: one by Jay Garfield and another by Stephen Batchelor. The translation/commentary currently under review is a joint effort by an American philosopher, Mark Siderits and a Japanese professor of Indian Philosophy, Shoryu Katsura. Their commentary is based on four historically significant commentaries, three by Indian philosophers, Buddhapalita, Bhaviveka, and Candrakirti and the fourth, known as the Akutobhaya by an unknown author.
The work itself explores a number of metaphysical concepts that are important to the Buddhist tradition, e.g., space, motion, the composition of objects and persons, and action. A number of traditional Buddhists doctrines are challenged by Nagarjuna. Broadly speaking, Nagarjuna's project is to demonstrate that any theory or positive assertion about ultimate reality is false. He does so by laying out all the logically possible positions one might hold about a question and systematically showing that none of them can be true. The object of his critique is sometimes known as the "tetralemma:" (1) p is true, (2) p is false, (3) both p and not p are true, and (4) neither p nor not p is true. By the impossibility of each of these statements, Nagarjuna establishes that all things are "empty." Curiously, even emptiness itself is empty.
Nagarjuna's arguments are often quite cryptic. Fortunately, Siderits and Katsura provide helpful guidance to understanding Nagarjuna's intent. To some extent, the very fact that Nagarjuna refutes all possible positions leads one to think that there must be something wrong with his reasoning; however, the arguments (as understood by the commentators) are sophisticated enough to make it impossible to dismiss Nagarjuna on such a slender basis. One is led to think that he may well be right in claiming that our ordinary capacities of reason are incapable of grasping ultimate reality and that a supra-rational insight is necessary. To reach this insight, Nagarjuna seems to suggest that the inquirer must rise through successive levels of understanding which leads through rejecting specific theories, e.g., p is true, to reach the fourth claim in the tetralemma, that neither p nor not p is true. Upon seeing that this cannot be true, the inquirer is left with the realization that a third ontological category is necessary for understanding ultimate reality: emptiness. But this too, is merely a step on the path toward a final and compete understanding that recognizes the emptiness of emptiness.
Nagarjuna's arguments lead us to recognize that emptiness itself is yet another theory about the ultimate nature of reality and if it is true, it too must be empty. It is, in essence, the least incorrect theory about world, but as a theory, it can only be conventionally true as ultimate truth is beyond the realm of what can be articulated.
Having now read three translations and commentaries of the Mulamadhyamakakarika, I have gained quite a deep respect for it. Perhaps the only Buddhist work that stands above it is the prajnaparmita literature itself, from which Nagarjuna drew his insight. For an excellent translation of important verses from that literature, see The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, translated by Edward Conze.