Nagarjuna (who lived during the second century C.E) is regarded as the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism. His most important work was the Mulamadhyamaka-karika (‘Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way’). Other important works included the Yuktisastika (‘Sixty Verses on Reasoning’), and the Shunyatasaptati (‘Seventy Verses on Emptiness’).
Nagarjuna’s most important disciple, Aryadeva (second century C.E.), became a leader of the Madhyamaka school. Arydeva’s best-known work was the Catuhshatakastava (‘Four Hundred Verses’).
The teachings of the Madhyamaka School were based on the Prajna-paramita (‘Perfection of Wisdom’) sutras, ancient scriptures dating from the first centuries B.C. and C.E.
Madhyamaka means ‘Middle Way.’ A Madhyamika is a follower of the Middle Way.
Another important development in Mahayana Buddhism was the Yogachara School, founded by Vasubandu and by Asanga (in the fourth century C.E.). While the Yogachara School agreed with the Madhyamaka that all things are empty of self-existence, it differed in that it asserted that all things exist in consciousness only (thus, it is referred to as the Mind-Only or Consciousness-Only School).1
A fundamental teaching of Nagarjuna’s philosophy is the concept of emptiness (shunyata).
Nagarjuna’s Seventy Verses on Emptiness explain his teaching that phenomena are empty of inherent existence. Nagarjuna says that phenomena are not inherently existent, because they are dependent-arising. Dependent-arising refers to the fact that phenomena arise dependently in relation to their causes and conditions of existence.
The arising of phenomena dependently in relation to their causes and conditions of existence means that phenomena are in cause-and-effect relationships. Phenomena are not inherently the cause of their own existence. The continuation or cessation of phenomena is also dependent upon causes and conditions of existence, and is not inherently existent.
The unity or plurality of phenomena is not inherently existent, but is dependent on causes and conditions of existence (verse 7). Moreover, phenomena are not inherently permanent or temporary (verse 9).
To say that phenomena are not inherently existent is not to say that phenomena are non-existent. The statement that phenomena are not inherently existent means that phenomena depend upon causes and conditions of existence. If phenomena did not depend on causality, they would not exist. Therefore, to say that phenomena exist inherently is actually to say that they do not exist (verse 16).
If phenomena were inherently existent, they would be independent of causes and conditions of existence. But any such phenomena would be non-existent, if they were independent of causes and conditions of existence.
According to Nagarjuna, the way that phenomena appear to us is different from the way that they actually exist. Although phenomena appear to exist inherently, they are actually empty of inherent existence.
If it is understood that phenomena are not inherently existent, it can be seen that suffering does not exist inherently. Recognition of this teaching can help us to attain nirvana, which is the cessation of suffering.
Since, phenomena do not inherently exist, consciousness of the phenomenal world is not inherently existent. Life and death do not inherently exist.
Time does not inherently exist, because the past, the present, and the future are dependent on each other (verse 29). Phenomena which are time-dependent, in their beginning, continuing, and ending in relation to each other, are thus not inherently existent.
Nagarjuna says that to know the non-inherent existence of phenomena is to understand the reality of their emptiness. To know the emptiness of phenomena is to overcome our ignorance about reality (verse 65).
To understand the emptiness of inherent existence is to know dependent-arising as the reality of all phenomena (verse 68).
Nagarjuna’s Seventy Verses are an analysis of the nature and mode of existence of the phenomenal world. The Seventy Verses do not address the question of whether there can be any inherently existent being which transcends the emptiness of the phenomenal world. Nagarjuna says, however, that non-inherent existence is the ultimate reality of phenomena.
It is important to emphasize that Nagarjuna’s philosophy is not a form of nihilism. Nagarjuna regards nihilism as a form of error. Nagarjuna views the concept of emptiness as a Middle Way between both sides of the argument about what does exist or does not exist.
In Nagarjuna’s philosophy, emptiness as the ultimate reality of phenomena transcends existence and non-existence. Emptiness transcends the duality of being and non-being, unity and plurality, subject and object, self and non-self.
For Nagarjuna, emptiness is not nothingness, or non-being. Emptiness is absence of inherent existence. Emptiness is also non-inherent existence. For Nagarjuna, emptiness is the true reality of the phenomenal world.
1Jim Powell, Eastern Philosophy for Beginners (New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, 2000), p. 65.
Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, history and practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1990), pp. 95-103.
Komito, David Ross. Nagarjuna’s “Seventy Stanzas”: A Buddhist Psychology of Emptiness. With translation and commentary on the Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness by Venerable Geshe Sonam Rinchen, Venerable Tenzin Dorjee, and David Ross Komito. Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications (1987), pp. 79-95.
Powell, Jim. Eastern Philosophy for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing (2000), pp. 63-65.
Skilton, Andrew. A Concise History of Buddhism. Birmingham: Windhorse Publications (1994), pp.116-119.
Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism: The doctrinal foundations. London: Routledge (1989), pp. 55-71.