Nagarjuna championed the term sunyata (शून्यता) to express his understanding of dependent arising. Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (मूलमध्यमककारिका, MMK) translated as “Fundamental wisdom of the middle path” is Nagarjuna’s main text which is considered one of the foundational texts in Mahayana Buddhist traditions. MMK is a series of 450 verses organized into 27 chapters. I haven’t read the entire MMK yet. However, this is my first attempt to pick a few verses to present my understanding of Nagarjuna’s sunyata. Who knows? It might open new channels of conversations that I enjoy and learn from.
On English translation: I have used the Sanskrit version of MMK from here. I have used this online Sanskrit dictionary and also referred to translations inspired by multiple Buddhist traditions such as Tibetan (Jay Garfield), Japanese Zen (Kenneth Inada), Theravada (David Kalupahana) as well as works by T R V Murti, G C Nayak, and Ananda Mishra. All sources are given at the end. However, I haven’t stuck to any particular translation and sometimes used my own phrases.
How important is sunyata to Nagarjuna?
सर्वं च युज्यते तस्य शून्यता यस्य युज्यते ।
सर्वं न युज्यते तस्य शून्यं यस्य न युज्यते ॥ 24.14 ||
sarvaṃ ca yujyate tasya śūnyatā yasya yujyate
sarvaṃ na yujyate tasya śūnyaṃ yasya na yujyate
Whoever is in tune with1,2 sunyata is in tune with everything
Everything is out of tune for him who is out of tune with sunyata
Is sunyata the middle path of Buddha?
यः प्रतीत्यसमुत्पादः शून्यतां तां प्रचक्ष्महे ।
सा प्रज्ञप्तिरूपादाय प्रतिपत्सैव मध्यमा ॥ 24.18 ||
yaḥ pratītyasamutpādaḥ śūnyatāṃ tāṃ pracakṣmahe
sā prajñaptirūpādāya pratipatsaiva madhyamā
We see clearly that whatever is dependently arising is sunyata
That is a term for inter-dependence3, is itself the middle way.
यः प्रतीत्यसमुत्पादं पश्यतीदं स पश्यति ।
दुःखं समुदयं चैव निरोधं मार्गमेव च ॥ 24.40 ||
yaḥ pratītyasamutpādaṃ paśyatīdaṃ sa paśyati
duḥkhaṃ samudayaṃ caiva nirodhaṃ mārgameva ca
Whoever sees dependent arising, sees this
Suffering, its arising and its cessation, and the path itself
What is sunyata?
The following two verses are my most favourite as far as sunyata is concerned.
शून्यता सर्वदृष्टीनां प्रोक्ता निःसरणं जिनैः ।
येषां तु शून्यतादृष्टीस्तानसाध्यान् बभाषिरे ॥ 13.8 ||
śūnyatā sarvadṛṣṭīnāṃ proktā niḥsaraṇaṃ jinaiḥ
yeṣāṃ tu śūnyatādṛṣṭīstānasādhyān babhāṣire
Sunyata is the dissipation4 of all views, said the wise,
They spoke, For whomever, sunyata is a view are incorrigible5
My comment: “all views” means all rigid beliefs. Hence, sunyata is a state where all beliefs are tentative.
अस्तीति शाश्वतग्राहो नास्तीत्युच्छेददर्शनं ।
तस्मादस्तित्वनास्तित्वे नाश्रीयेत विचक्षणः ॥ 15.10 ||astīti śāśvatagrāho nāstītyuccedadarśanaṁ
tasmād astitvanāstitve nāśrīyeta vicakṣaṇaḥ
Saying “it exists” means holding onto permanency, saying “it doesn’t exist” is the nihilistic view
Hence, a wise man doesn’t resort to “exists” or “doesn’t exist”
How does perception of sunyata manifest itself?
अपरप्रत्ययं शान्तं प्रपञ्चैरप्रपञ्चितं ।
निर्विकल्पमनानार्थमेतत्त्वस्य लक्षणं ॥ 18.9 ||
aparapratyayaṃ śāntaṃ prapañcairaprapañcitaṃ
Not dependent on another, peaceful, unfooled by the conceptual play6
Thoughtless, without multiplicity, these are the characteristics of reality7,8
My comment: When reality perceives its nature to be sunya i.e. dependently arising it manifests itself through these characteristics.
What does it mean practically?
MMK is not written in the spirit of a “step-by-step guide to sunyata” 😊 However, we can infer a few things which may be practical. The first thing to notice is that, at least in these verses, Nagarjuna is not talking about what to do or not do. He is talking about a kind of seeing or perceiving. The phrase in verse 24.40 – यः पश्यति स पश्यति, yaḥ paśyati sa paśyati, one who sees, sees – communicates the spirit. In sunyata, it is the perception that matters, not action.
Next, if I pay attention to my mental state and observe that it is anxious or agitated (i.e. not peaceful) then it would imply that I am not perceiving sunyata (last verse 18.9). That means not all beliefs have been dissipated yet (13.8). That is, at least one view (belief) is being held too tightly and the current or an imagined situation has threatened its validity. For example, the belief could be that “I must always have a job” or “I must always be liked by family/friends/colleagues” or “I must be successful” etc. and in the current or in an imagined situation this may not be true. Nagarjuna is indirectly nudging us to ask, “Is there a belief being held too tightly? (15.10)”
Not sure if you noticed, but all the sample beliefs in the para above assume “I am an independent agent”. 😊 Am I? Or is it just another belief held tightly? Am I getting fooled by my thought process? (18.9) Looks tricky? Who says the middle path is not slippery? In fact, Nagarjuna says misperception of sunyata can be as dangerous as a snake held incorrectly (24.11, सर्पो यथा दुर्गृहीतो, sarpo yathā durgṛhīto).
Going back to the hypothesis in my book, is Nagarjuna saying that reality is unknown and unknowable? In verse 15.10 Nagarjuna is suggesting that taking a hard stance on “it is” or “it is not” is dangerous. Once I take a hard stance, I need to defend it, either win or lose arguments, all of this generates suffering sooner or later. Once I see this, I may say “yes” or “no” to any question but tentatively – treating every belief as a hypothesis.
I am sure MMK has much more to offer than what I have presented here. And I am looking forward to exploring it further. In the meantime, I am happy to hear your comments and I welcome them in the spirit of MMK, all views are tentative 😊
Update-1: (24-Oct-22) English translation of the second line of verse 24.18 was earlier translated as "That is a term (used) for dependent (arising), is itself the middle way." It has been updated to "That is a term for inter-dependence, is itself the middle way". Thanks to Prof. Ananda Mishra for his comments.
- Kenneth Inada translates the Sanskrit term युज्यते (yujyate) as “in correspondence with”. He translates the first line as: “Whatever is in correspondence with sunyata all is in correspondence (i.e. possible).”
- Jay Garfield translates this line as: “For him to whom emptiness is clear, everything becomes clear.”
- Kenneth Inada translates this line as, "It is a provisional name (i.e. thought construction) for the mutuality (of being) and, indeed, it is the middle path". Garfield translates it as, "That, being a dependent designation, is itself the middle way".
- Jay Garfield translates this line as: “The victorious ones have said, that emptiness is the relinquishing of all views."
- The Sanskrit word asādhyān (असाध्यान्) has been translated as incorrigible as in Kenneth Inada’s translation. Jay Garfield translates it as “accomplish nothing”. His line: “For whoever emptiness is a view, that one will accomplish nothing.”
- The phrase "prapañcaiḥ aprapañcitaṃ" (प्रपञ्चैः अप्रपञ्चितं) has been translated here as “unfooled by the conceptual play”. Inada translates it as: “non-conceptualized by conceptual play” and Garfield translates it as: “Not fabricated by mental fabrication”.
- The word tattva (तत्त्व) is also translated as suchness or thusness corresponding to the Sanskrit word tathatā (तथता) as mentioned by G C Nayak pg 20. Garfield also mentions “reality (that-ness)”.
- For T R V Murti tattva is “the Real is something in itself, self-evident and self-existent” pg 139 2016 edition. This is the Absolutistic interpretation of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka. Ananda Mishra (additional source 3 below) gives a good overview of nihilistic and absolutistic interpretations and suggests, “The true meaning of sunyata can never be grasped by mere textual exegesis, rhetorics, dialectics or analytics and discursive reasoning. It is something to be realized and felt within.” Dalai Lama also mentions a similar view (see additional source 4 below).
- Sanskrit Devanagari version edited by Douglas Bachman, 2001. (Available from archive.org)
- P. L. Vaidya, “Mādhyamakaśāstra of Nāgārjuna with the commentary Prasannapadā by Candrakīrtī”, Buddhist Sanskrit texts No. 10, The Mithila Institute, 1960. (Available from archive.org). This is a Sanskrit text in Devanagari which includes MMK commentary by Candrakīrtī (7th century CE). I haven’t read Candrakīrtī’s commentary yet. However, it is not possible to read Nagarjuna without encountering Candrakīrtī.
- Jay L. Garfield, “The fundamental wisdom of the middle way”, Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Kenneth K. Inada, “Nagarjuna: A translation of his Mulamadhyamakakarika”, Sri Satguru Publications, 1993. (Available at archive.org)
- David J. Kalupahana, “Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna: The philosophy of the middle way”, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers, 1999. (Available at archive.org)
Additional sources referring to the Sanskrit version of MMK (I am sure there are many other books that refer to MMK in Tibetan, Chinese, Korean and Japanese editions):
- T R V Murti, “The central philosophy of Buddhism: A study of Mādhyamika system”, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers, 2016. First published in 1955, this book gives a good exposition of Nagarjuna and Madhyamika school and compares it with various other Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain schools and western scholars like Kant and Hegel. TRV interprets Nagarjuna as an Absolutist.
- G C Nayak, “Madhyamika sunyata: A reappraisal”, Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 2001. (Available on archive.org) A short (150 pages) and yet very good appraisal of Nagarjuna and his commentator Chandrakirti’s philosophical enterprise. Invokes Wittgenstein quotes a few times to compare it with Nagarjuna.
- Ananda Mishra, “Nāgārjuna’s śūnyatā: Beyond being and nothingness”, Journal of East-West thought, Vol. 8 No. 1, 2018
- Dalai Lama, “Nagarjuna’s ‘fundamental wisdom’ – day-1”, This is a 3-hour lecture delivered by Dalai Lama at Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi on March 20, 2015. At the time of the lecture, he was 4 months short of turning 80. He focuses on chapter 24 of MMK. He sometimes speaks in English and other times speaks in Tibetan and there is a translator. However, it is clear that he has studied Nagarjuna deeply and speaks from the heart. He does not translate verse by verse. Roughly, the first 40 minutes is an overview of different Buddhist schools, 41:30 Talks about core tenets like dependent origination, dependent designation, and non-independence of self. 1:17:30 Starts with chapter 24 At 1:39:50 he mentions, “That experience (of having a weak negative emotion) goes for years, decades and then real transformation (happens) in our emotions” and then adds, “These are not just empty words – I myself although not very big experience but (have had) some experiences. Therefore, these days I often talk about emptiness, emptiness like that.”