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Nagarjuna Lecture Notes

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(naga - serpent, dragon; arjuna - tree under which he was born)

Naga King gave him some new sutras. Closely associated with the Prajnaparamita sutras.

He himself allegedly wrote 20 works with 154 chapters--all contained in the Chinese Tripitaka.

Sometimes called the "Second" Buddha. Sometimes considered greater than the Buddha. Had to "turn the wheel of the Dharma" a second time because the Buddha allowed women into the Sangha. Kalupahana's interpretation of "second" Buddha is much different. If he is truly the Second Buddha, then his philosophy must be essentially the same as the Buddha's.

Nagarjuna's Dialectic: Total refutation = Total illumination. Only by this is craving for views totally extinguished. This is the negative transcendentalist interpretation of Nagarjuna.

"The Buddha proclaimed emptiness as a remedy for all doctrinal controversies, but those who in turn cling to emptiness are beyond treatment." Cited in Suzuki, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, p. 177.

Nagarjuna's School is called Madhyamaka Darshana (middle way + view). Shunyavada--"Way of Emptiness." Followers are called Madhyamikas.

Dedication of the Carita

McCagney: "I greet the best of teachers, that Awakened One, who taught liberation, the quieting of phenomena, interdependent origination which is nonceasing and non-arising, nonmomentary and nonpermanent, nonidentical and nondifferent, noncoming and nongoing."

Thorough and total dialectical negation of all possible independent things.

Negative Transcendentalism?

"No Dharma was taught by the Buddha at any time, in any place, to any person" (25.24, Garfield).

"I prostrate to Gautama who through compassion taught the true doctrine, which leads to the relinquishing of all views" (27.30, Garfield).

This is what many Zen masters would have us believe.

Central Theme of the Carita

Whatever is dependently coarisen

That being explained to be emptiness.

That, being a dependent designation

is itself the middle way.--Garfield

Interdependence=emptiness=middle way

Interdependence is "relative non-being."

Types of non-Being/being

Absolute Non-Being (Garfield: inherent nonexistence). The negation of Being, which would be absolute nothingness. Greek ouk on.

Relative non-being (conventional nonexistence). The negation of relative being. Shunyata or Greek me on.

Relative non-being as the principle of individuation.

Everything is defined by and depends on what it is not.

Even emptiness is empty!

No-thing-ness as an undifferentiated reality. Prism analogy.

One "thing" that would depend on no other thing?

Physics: undifferentiated matter and energy?

Shunyata would then be a substance, a thing filled with everything, which is impossible.

Relative non-being wins

Absolute Non-Being is impossible, just as absolute Being is impossible.

Nothingness as an undifferentiated reality is a substance, which is impossible.

Shunyata must be relative non-being, which is essentially the same as interdependent coorigination.

This is the Buddhist Middle Way: Madyamaka.

Rejection of Causes

Chap. 1.1. "Never, nowhere do any beings occur arisen from themselves, from others, from both or from no cause" (McCagney).

Chap. 1.1. "Neither from itself nor from another, nor from both, nor without a cause, does anything whatever, anywhere arise" (Garfield).

Rejection of self-causation, external causation, combination of both, and acaualism.

A Four-Fold Negation

Not self-caused (Vedanta, not Sankhya as in Garfield, p. 105)

Not other caused (Materialism and Sankhya)

Not both self-caused and other caused

(Jainism and Cartesianism)

Neither not self-caused nor not other caused.

Not A, Not B, Not both A and B, Neither not-A nor not-B.

Affirmation (!) of Four Conditions

Chap. 1.2. "There are four conditions: efficient condition; percept-object condition; immediate condition; dominant condition, just so. There is no fifth condition."

Efficient Condition: The condition that makes the subsequent event occur.

Example: the striking of a match.

Types of Conditions

Percept-Object Condition. The condition that makes the perception of an object possible. Imaginary objects, too.

Immediate Conditions. All the intermediate phenomena that make up any causal chain.

Dominant Condition. The purpose or end for which an action is taken. Aristotle’s "final" cause. Garfield example, p. 109.

Causes vs. Conditions

Cause. An event or state that has in it a power to bring about its effect and has that power as a part of its essence or nature.

Condition. An event, state, or process that explains another event, state, or process without any metaphysical commitment to any occult connections or powers.

See Garfield, pp. 115-16.

Difference in 1.3 translations

"The essence of entities is not present in the conditions, etc. . . . If there is no essence, there can be no otherness-essence." (Garfield)

"In these conditions we can find no self-existence of entities. Where self-existence is deficient, relational existence also lacks." (Burtt)

Is relational being rejected, too?

In substance metaphysics the identity of objects requires substantial otherness, so if an entity has no self-essence (independent substantial being), then it can have no essential otherness either.

Burtt is misleading: it should be "other existence" not "relational existence."

Therefore, Nagarjuna does not reject relational beings and their four conditions.

Rejection of causality (1.4)

"Causal efficacy is not to be associated with conditions, causal efficacy is not associated with nonconditions, conditions are not associated with causal efficacy or noncausal efficacy." (McCagney)

"Power to act does not have conditions. There is no power to act without conditions. There are no conditions without power to act. Nor do any have the power to act." (Garfield)

The puzzle of nonconditions

"These give rise to those, so these are called conditions. As long as those do not come from these, why are these not nonconditions?" (Garfield, 1.5)

Yes, they are nonconditions, because those do not depend on these.

Being and conditions (1.6)

"Neither being nor nonbeing are associated with conditions of usefulness. Of what [use] are conditions of nonbeing? And to whom [is there use] in conditions for being?" (McCagney)

What type of being and nonbeing?

It must be Being and non-Being.

Burtt translation of 1.6

Neither non-Being nor Being

Can have a cause.

If non-Being, whose the cause?

If Being , what for the cause?

The negation of Being is absolute non-Being, so asking for a cause is absurd.

Absolute Being is cause of itself, so it would need no cause.

Burtt on 1.7

Neither a Being nor a non-Being,

Nor any Being-non-Being—

No element is really turned out

[no effect can come out of them]

How can we then assume

The possibility of a producing cause?

Being is self-contained and cause of itself, so how could it produce an effect?

Non-Being is absolute nothing, so cannot produce anything either.

Percept-object condition (1.8)

"An existent entity (mental episode) has no object. Since a mental episode is with out an object, how could there be any percept-condition?" (Garfield)

What type of entity or being?

Again it has to be substantial Being.

Burtt on 1.8

A mental Being is reckoned as an element,

Separately from its objective [counterpart]

Now, if it [begins] by having no objective counterpart, how can it get one afterward?

Doctrine of Intentionality. Intentions always have objects.

How is cessation possible? (1.9)

"Since things are not arisen, cessation is not acceptable. Therefore, an immediate condition is not reasonable. If something has ceased, how could it be a condition?" (Garfield).

Gier paraphrase: "If something has not come into being, then it cannot go out of being? How can something cease to exist, if it has been conditioned to come into being?"

How can there ever be a break in inter-dependent coorgination? Nirvana is therefore impossible?

Conditionality rejected at 1.10?

"If things did not exist without essence, the phrase "When this exists so this will be," would not be acceptable." (Garfield)

"If entities are relative [[[empty of substance]]], they have no real existence. The [[[formula]]] ‘this being, that appears’ then loses every meaning." (Burtt)

Rephrasing Garfield

"If things did not exist without essence [=if things did exist with essence], the phrase "When this exists so this will be," would not be acceptable."

As in 1.3 the Burtt translation is misleading and Nagarjuna is not rejection Buddhist conditionality.


Self-existent things would be externally related to each other, which is the equivalent of no relations. One could not know such a world or make any sense out of it. But relational existence is equally meaningless. Look at this analysis of the proposition that A is internally related to B and B is internally related to A:

If A is internally related to B and R is the relation, one would then need R' to relation R to A, R that relates to R to B, R that relates R to R' ad infinitum. An infinite regress of relations.

Therefore, we have two options: either A and B are totally separate or they are the same, which could lead to absolute monism, as it does in the case of Bradley and some Buddhist schools.

But have we made the relations into things? "Formal concomitances" does not involve material implication, as if things possessed relations.

The argument above comes from F.H. Bradley, an English Hegelian, who concluded from this that absolute monism was the only correct theory of reality.


Being vs. being

Absolute vs. finite

independent vs. relative-dependent

substance vs. process

external relations vs. internal relations

As an exercise, go through each of the quatrains and locate the Beings and beings. Similarly, do it with the non-Beings, and non-beings.


What type of non-being is Nagarjuna referring to? Greek me on "relative" non-being. Everything that anything is not. I'm not this chair, table, rock, etc. Relative non-being turns out to be something after all.

Or is it Ikeda's view of pure potentiality? No-thing-ness--no-one-particular-thing.

Greek ouk on--absolute non-being total absence of being. Me on might well be relative non-being.

As an exercise go through the quatrains indentifying absolute non-being, meontic non-being, and ideas of potentiality.

Terms for Understanding Gier and Garfield

Reification. The process of making an abstraction into a thing, or making a dependent thing into a substance.

Convention/Conventional. That which humans have invented in thought and language to communicate the events of the world of interdependent coorigination. These concepts have no referent to anything absolute or fixed, such as Plato's forms. All we have are conventional truths about the world not absolute truths. Even our way of dividing up the world is conventional, i.e., dependent upon concepts and language (e.g., the Eskimo’s many types of snow).

Cause. An event or state that has in it a power to bring about its effect and has that power as a part of its essence or nature.

Condition. An event, state, or process that explains another event, state, or process without any metaphysical commitment to any occult connection between explanandum and explanans.

Explanandum and explanans. The thing explained and the "explainer."

Efficient Condition. The event the explains the subsequent event, such as the striking of a match to make its lighting "occur." Note: Nagarjuna uses a Sanskrit verb translated as "occur" deliberately to avoid the verb "cause."

Percept-Object Condition. The object in one's environment that is the condition for the mind's perception of it. For Buddhist realists this object is independent of the mind, but for Buddhist idealists this object is located in the mind itself. Nagarjuna and perhaps the Buddha himself rejects this division of "inner" from "outer."

Dominant Condition. The purpose or end for which an action is taken. Aristotle would call this a final cause.

Immediate Condition. All the intermediate phenomena that make up any causal chain, e.g., all the physical conditions found in the efficient condition of stiking a match to make it light.

Being (Garfield: inherent existence). With a capital "B" it means Being as substance, self-contained, self-sufficient, independent, eternal, unchanging reality.

being (Garfield: conventional existence; Burtt: relational existence). Relative being, i.e., dependent things that arise out of interdependent coorigination.

Absolute Non-Being (inherent nonexistence). The negation of Being, which would be absolute nothingness. This is the type of non-being that the Greek philosopher Parmenides thought could not be thought. On that point he was absolutelys right.

Relative non-being (conventional nonexistence). The negation of relative being, which according to Plato (Sophist) is eminently thinkable because it is everything that a being is not. For Nagarjuna the Sanskrit word for relative non-being is shunyata.

Tetralemma. A problem with four alternatives rather the typical dilemma with only two.