Āryanāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, and the Dispensation of the EBTs

How kosher is Venerable Nāgārjuna for followers of the EBTs?

For the sake of discussion, I would like to presume the author of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, MMK, as the “historical Nāgārjuna”, for the single reason that a) this is Ven Nāgārjuna’s most famous and reliably-his text and b) this is the text that has had most comparison to the EBTs.

There are other texts attributed to a “historical” Nāgārjuna, but I would like to limit the focus of this discussion solely on the MMK.

How kosher is the MMK? What sections of the MMK are kosher, which aren’t? Which other of his works are considered similarly kosher?

“Kosher” here, rather than referring to that is acceptable for consumption for Jews under ‘the law’ (the torāh), refers to “what is acceptable, samyagdṛṣṭi, amongst followers of the dispensation of the ‘historical’ Buddha as attested to in EBTs.”


Ideally, this thread would serve as a comparison resource for the MMK and the EBTs.

Some starting resources: “Dependent Origination = Emptiness” —Nāgārjuna’s Innovation? An Examination of the Early and Mainstream Sectarian Textual Sources | Matt (Huifeng) B Orsborn - Academia.edu

Venerable Shì Huìfēng (聖釋慧峰比丘), a Chán Mahāyānika Bhikṣu ordained under the rubrics of the Dharmaguptakavinaya, in the above paper, argues that Venerable Nāgārjuna’s notion of emptiness is largely congruent to the emptiness espoused in the EBTs. He focuses his analysis exclusively on Ven Nāgārjuna’s MMK.

Also here: Korin -Mulamadhyamaka-Karika-Study

These are the study notes of an āryopāsaka named “Korin” on the MMK, see pages 55-76 for the relevant details that Korin summarizes from Dr. David Kalupahana’s 1991 text Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna, which, in Korin’s words “contends that MMK basically extends the early Buddhist Middle Way teaching of the Kaccāyanagottasutta” (SN12.15). He also extensively in this section compares the MMK with the Dhammacakkappavattanasutta (SN 56.11) and in later sections of Korin’s document, with the Brahmājālasutta (DN 1).

Obviously the above Kalupahana text is also invaluable for our purposes.

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Pretty much?

I haven’t studied it in detail, although I have read the text in Sanskrit and English, and some studies such as Kalupahana, but as far as I can see it is a philosophically acute and interesting response to certain tendencies in middle-period Abhidhamma, with a main foundation on the EBTs, especially the Kaccayanagotta Sutta. I believe the MMK makes a valid and important critique of Abhidhamma which is, to this day, misunderstood and largely ignored in modern Theravada.

Contra Kalupahana, however, subsequent scholarship has, I believe, revealed that the MMK does, in fact, refer to Mahayana sutras. Which doesn’t affect the philosophy, but it does help inform the background.

You beat me to the punch, Bhante, I was going to put an example up. I will do it all the same, in light of your comments nonetheless.

A passage that may be congruent to the theory underlying the practice of those here:

Some say that whatever is involved in seeing, hearing etc. and feeling etc. exists prior to them.

If [that] thing is not evident, how can there be seeing etc? Therefore, the presence [of that] thing [must] exist before them.

What configures/makes known that thing which is present before seeing and hearing etc. and feeling etc.?

If it were present even without seeing etc., there would be no doubt that they would exist even without it.

It is illuminated by them; they are illuminated by it. How could it exist without them? How could they exist without it?

It is not evident prior to the totality of seeing etc. From among seeing etc. a different one illuminates [it] at different times.

If it is not evident prior to the totality of seeing etc., how can it be evident prior to [each of them] seeing etc. individually?

If the seer itself [were] the hearer and the feeler [were] it too, if it existed prior to each, in that way it would not make sense.

If the seer were different, the hearer different, the feeler different, at the time the seer exists, there would be a hearer.

Many selves would come about.
(T1564 Āryanāgārjunasya Mūlamadhyamakakārikāyām Pūrvaparīkṣā)

A more problematic passage:

All is real, all is unreal,
all is both real and unreal
all is neither real nor unreal,
this is called all Buddhas’ dharma
(T1564 Āryanāgārjunasya Mūlamadhyamakakārikāyām Ātmaparīkṣā)

Could you give us the Sanskrit for these?

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More more astute and present will always punish the tardy for posting too soon, I was in the process of supplying more context while you posted.

A fuller rendering of T1564.23c16 Āryanāgārjunasya Mūlamadhyamakakārikāyām Ātmaparīkṣā is

All Buddhas either speak of self or speak of no self.
All dharmas’ true aspect, within this, there is neither self nor no self.
All dharmas’ true aspect is defined as mental activity’s and spoken language’s ending.
There is no arising and no cessation, there is calm extinction, such is nirvāṇa.
All is real, all is unreal, all is both real and unreal,
all is neither real nor unreal: this is called all Buddhas’ dharma.

Example 1:
darśanaśravaṇādīni vedanādīni cāpyatha |
bhavanti yasya prāg ebhyaḥ so’stītyeke vadantyuta ||
kathaṃ hyavidyamānasya darśanādi bhaviṣyati |
bhāvasya tasmāt prāg ebhyaḥ so’sti bhāvo vyavasthitaḥ ||
darśanaśravaṇādibhyo vedanādibhya eva ca |
yaḥ prāg vyavasthito bhāvaḥ kena prajñapyate’tha saḥ ||
vināpi darśanādīni yadi cāsau vyavasthitaḥ |
amūnyapi bhaviṣyanti vinā tena na saṃśayaḥ ||
ajyate kenacit kaścit kiṃcit kena cid ajyate |
kutaḥ kiṃcid vinā kaścit kiṃcit kiṃcid vinā kutaḥ ||
sarvebhyo darśanādibhyaḥ kaścit pūrvo na vidyate |
ajyate darśanādinām anyena punar anyadā ||
sarvebhyo darśanādibhyo yadi pūrvo na vidyate |
ekaikasmāt kathaṃ pūrvo darśanādeḥ sa vidyate ||
draṣṭā sa eva sa śrotā sa eva yadi vedakaḥ |
ekaikasmād bhavet pūrvam evaṃ caitan na yujyate ||
draṣṭānya eva śrotānyo vedako’nyaḥ punar yadi |
sati syād draṣṭari śrotā bahutvaṃ cātmanāṃ bhavet |

Example 2:
ātmetyapiprajñapitam anātmetyapideśitam |
buddhair nātmā nacānātmā kaścid ityapi deśitam ||
nivṛttam abhidhātavyaṃ nivṛttaś cittagocaraḥ |
anutpannāniruddhā hi nirvāṇam iva dharmatā ||
sarvaṃ tathyaṃ na vā tathyaṃ tathyaṃ cātathyam eva ca |
naivātathyaṃ naiva tathyam etad buddhānuśāsanam ||

Ven Candrakīrti (hopefully I can write this before you respond bhante!) does a wonderful job of contextualizing the latter more allusive passage, but it will take me a second to get his commentary. Also there is no guarantee it will hold water when put up against the EBTs as a metric.

MMK is so subtle and employs paradox so joyfully, I’m never really sure I get it. But just to take the shorter second passage.

I’m not sure about the translation; the text says nothing of this, it doesn’t even have the word dharma (just dharmatā).

Let me try to translate it. Here be dragons, I am just messing around!

ātmety api prajñapitam anātmety api deśitam |
“Self” is just a designation, and even “not-self” is just a teaching. [1]
buddhair nātmā na cānātmā kaścid ity api deśitam ||
The Buddha taught that there’s not even such a thing as self nor not-self.
nivṛttam abhidhātavyaṃ nivṛttaś cittagocaraḥ |
What is nameable has ceased, the scope of consciousness (or thought?) has ceased
anutpannāniruddhā hi nirvāṇam iva dharmatā ||
For the nature of extinguishment (nirvāṇa) is like the cessation of what has never arisen.
sarvaṃ tathyaṃ na vā tathyaṃ tathyaṃ cātathyam eva ca |
All is real, and not real, and both real and not real [2]
naivātathyaṃ naiva tathyam etad buddhānuśāsanam ||
and all is neither real nor not-real: this is the teaching of the Buddhas.

  • [1] I think the use of api as connector here rather than ca or is significant; it has the nuance of “even if”, “so little as”.
  • [2] Note the text uses both the disjunctive and conjunctive, I assume the conjunctive sense is meant.

Just to focus on the last lines, in the EBTs, the “all” means the six senses. Persumably this is the case here (unless Nagarjuna uses it otherwise).

So he is saying that the six senses can be looked upon as “real”, as truly existing. This, by itself, would seem to endorse the Abhidharma doctrine of svabhāva. But, he goes on, it can also be seen as non-existing, presumably because it ceases. Remember that in Indian philosophy “exists” means “exists eternally and absolutely”. The verse deals with impermanence, so that is presumably what is meant here.

Things can also be seen as both existing and non-existing. In Indian logic, this is not meant to be a paradox, but an acknowledgement of the complexity of reality that cannot be reduced to binaries. I would think that here this refers to “change while persisting”, an idea found in the suttas that was much debated in the Abhidhamma system. A house, for example, lasts for many years, yet it is nevertheless constantly changing.

Finally, the neither -nor construction points to the fact that our language, being based on our limited experience, falters when it comes to things on the borders. This category could include, for example, concepts such as “number”, “Time” or “being”, which do not exist as such, but which are not entirely imaginary either. This would hark back to the lines that refer to concepts and language.


Indeed, this is from the Chinese 諸法實相. 實相 = “true aspect” = dharmatā.

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I haven’t fully digested all of it but the four fold negation is a way of countering philosophical inquiry to not confuse the questioner - vacchagotta being an example- he even tells Ven Ananda this much in that sutta. This means any further philosophical development shouldn’t be based on the four fold negation but where he tells ordained monks that the existence of impermanence and suffering leads to a conclusion of not-self. SuttaCentral

Anything can be named including Nibbāna. It’s more acurately expressed if we say conceptual thoughts (including naming) has ceased in Cessation. This makes sense.

Okay, but there’s still nothing corresponding to “all dharmas”.

Yes, I’m not sure exactly the sense of this line. Grammatically it is, or seems to be, a future passive participle (abhidhātavyaṃ), hence “nameable”. But I may well be wrong, so please don’t blame Nagarjuna for my poor Sanskrit!


Indeed, in the Sanskrit there is not. I am citing a parallel recension, which is sometimes called the Madhyamakaśāstra to differentiate it.

(all)(dharmas’)(real)(characteristic)(within this)

諸佛或說我 或說於無我
諸法實相中 無我無非我
諸法實相者 心行言語斷
無生亦無滅 寂滅如涅槃
一切實非實 亦實亦非實
非實非非實 是名諸佛法

Oh, okay, thanks for clarifying. I guess that version expands the text based on a commentary? A problematic procedure, but in the case of the MMK, an understandable one!

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Yes, but, it seems that T1564 is either very free with the text, or was in a different recension before entering Chinese.

Hopefully I can get this link to work. It compares the various commentaries off one another.

Hmm… this sounds tricky- maybe with expert Sanskrit translation we could review it? No slight on your prodigious skills Bhanthe @sujato!

How “kosher” Nāgārjuna is from an EBT standpoint depends on how one interprets what he’s doing in the MMK.

If you take the Kalupahana route and just see him as a return to the middle way of the Buddha, he’s pretty kosher. I think his anti-foundationalist views and critiques of svabhava are pretty compatible.

But I’m not sure if all his ideas are sourced in EBTs or can be supported by them, I’m especially thinking about his idea that nirvana and samsara are not different (at least “ultimately”):

na saṁsārasya nirvāṇāt kiṁ cid asti viśeṣaṇaṁ

There is nothing whatsoever of samsara distinguishing (it) from nirvana.

na nirvāṇasya saṁsārāt kiṁ cid asti viśeṣaṇaṁ | 19

There is nothing whatsoever of nirvana distinguishing it from samsara.

nirvāṇasya ca yā koṭiḥ koṭiḥ

(That?) is the limit which is the limit of nirvana and the limit of samsara;

na tayor antaraṁ kiñcit susūkśmam api vidyate | 20

Even a very subtle interval is not found of (between) them.

Needless to say, a lot of ink has been spilled and much yarn has been spun from this doctrine in Mahayana schools, but I am not sure if it’s “kosher” as per EBTs. From an EBT perspective, there is certainly a difference between the two and this is important, it is dukkha. If I recall, at least one explanation of this doctrine is that what Nagarjuna means here is that “ultimately” there is not difference between the two (since they are both empty).

Of course, this doctrine relies on the further theory of the two truths (which Nagarjuna and Abhidharmikas identified with samsara and nirvana, another innovation not in the EBTs). Nagarjuna was involved in working with this theory, which was invented by the Abhidharmikas (according to Karunadasa in his Theravada Version of the Two Truths). But IMO I think that the “two truths” model is not one which the Buddha taught, it was a later Abhidharma elaboration based on the idea of statements which are nītattha (explicit, definitive) and neyyattha (requiring further explanation). But for me, this teaching of the EBTs is not an epistemic or metaphysical theory, its one of hermeneutics. According to Karunadasa, sammuti (linguistic conventions) are not analyzed down into existents called paramattha (ultimate) in the EBTs. It seems like Abhidharma made up an epistemic and metaphysical theory which tied certain EBT ideas of hermeneutics and knowledge with a person’s understanding (arhats see the ultimate truth, paramattha).

This theory got all weird and essentialist in Sarvastivada, and Nagarjuna came along and critiqued it. But he failed to see that the entire theory is unnecessary and retained the “two truths” model, only modifying it. IMO from an EBT perspective, the best thing to do probably is to chuck this model, which is based on a misunderstanding of the Abhidharma. I know this is heresy to some Abhidharma people and to Mahayanists who worship Nagarjuna as a second Buddha, but this is just my own opinion. Another option is to just see this model as one possible interpretation of Buddhist epistemology, but not necessarily the only possible way of reading the texts.

So I would say the very idea of the “two truths” which is such an important and foundational doctrine in Madhyamaka, is somewhat problematic and definitely not the only way to read the EBTs. I don’t think we should be hamstrung by this doctrine to divide everything into “ultimate” vs “conventional” and so on when reading the EBTs. Especially since, the Sanskrit term samvrti means to conceal and hide, while it doesn’t seem like this term had the same connotation in the Buddha’s time. But at the same time I can see a lot of sophistication in the work of Nagarjuna, so I think he should still be read today (but not slavishly of course).


I agree completely, I think the two truths idea is alien to the EBTs.

I’m not so sure, however, how important it is to the MMK. If I recall correctly, Kalupahana addressed this issue, and argued that it was mentioned only once in the MMK, and there it was justifiable. I am afraid I can’t recall any more details.

Be that as it may, I don’t think the two truths doctrine is needed to explain this verse. Nagarjuna was addressing people who are familiar with the suttas, and they would have known that samsara has no first point (koṭi)—a famous doctrine of the early texts.

The first lines of this verse set up an apparent paradox, intended to provoke a response from his audience—“Nibbana and samara are opposites, any newbie knows this!” “How can he say such a thing!?” “WTF!!” By this time, even the laziest students at the back of the class are sitting up. It’s a stock rhetorical device, I do it all the time.

The second half resolves the apparent paradox. By “distinction” (viśeṣa) he means extent in time, or the presence of a first point. Samsara has no first point. And since nirvana can only be realized by a being in samsara, it too has no defined first point; or else, it has no first point because it is outside of consciousness and time.

The point he is trying to make is that there is a limit on how far our conceptual analysis can go. The Abhidharmists think they can get it all sorted out. They make their fine and subtle distinctions, differentiating this from that, putting everything neatly in columns and categories. Yet they can’t even make a coherent conceptual case to distinguish nirvana and samsara, the two things that are most distinct in the whole world! The verse is not about samsara or nirvana, it’s about the limits of concepts.


Nagarjuna was addressing people who are familiar with the suttas, and they would have known that samsara has no first point ( koṭi )—a famous doctrine of the early texts.

Can you say more about this? I don’t much about verses in the Nikayas which talk about this.

Regarding statements about the two truths in Nagarjuna, Kalupahana cites these:

The teaching of the doctrine by the Buddhas is based upon two truths:
truth relating to worldly convention and truth in terms of ultimate fruit.
MKV§ p.492; MKV(fl) lp.214.

Those who do not understand the distinction between these two truths do
not understand the profound truth embodied in the Buddha’s message.
MKV§ p.494: MKV(V) p.215 .

Without relying upon convention, the ultimate fruit is not taught.
Without understanding the ultimate fruit, freedom is not attained.
MKV§ p.494; MKV(V) p.216.

Here’s the Siderits trans with the Sanskrit:

dve satye samupāśritya buddhānāṃ dharmadeśanā |

lokasaṃvṛtisatyaṃ ca satyaṃ ca paramārthataḥ || 8 ||

  1. The Dharma teaching of the Buddha rests on two truths: conventional truth and ultimate truth.

ye ’nayor na vijānanti vibhāgaṃ satyayor dvayoḥ |

te tattvaṃ na vijānanti gambhīre buddhaśāsane || 9 ||

  1. Who do not know the distinction between the two truths, they do not understand reality in accordance with the profound teachings of the Buddha.

vyavahāram anāśritya paramārtho na deśyate |

paramārtham anāgamya nirvāṇaṃ nādhigamyate || 10 ||

  1. The ultimate truth is not taught independently of customary ways of talking and thinking. Not having acquired the ultimate truth, nirvāṇa is not attained.

Thanks for the refs! I have to go now, but I’ll look more closely later.

As for the “first point”, there’s a whole Samyutta on the topic:


Here’s the commentary by Siderits and Katsura:

The term we translate as “conventional” is a compound made of the two words loka and saṃvṛti . Candrakīrti gives three distinct etymologies for saṃvṛti . On one etymology, the root meaning is that of “concealing,” so conventional truth would be all those ways of thinking and speaking that conceal the real state of affairs from ordinary people ( loka ). The second explains the term to mean “mutual dependency.” On the third etymology, the term refers to conventions involved in customary practices of the world, the customs governing the daily conduct of ordinary people ( loka ). He adds that this saṃvṛti is of the nature of (the relation between) term and referent, cognition and the cognized, and the like. So on this understanding, conventional truth is a set of beliefs that ordinary people ( loka ) use in their daily conduct, and it is conventional ( saṃvṛti ) because of its reliance on conventions concerning semantic and cognitive relations. It may be worth noting that when Indian commentators give multiple explanations of a term, it is often the last one given that they favor.

The Akutobhayā explains that the ultimate truth is the faultless realization of the noble ones ( āryas ), namely that no dharmas whatsoever arise. There are two ways that this might be understood. The first is that according to Madhyamaka, ultimate reality does not contain anything that arises. (And since Buddhists generally agree that there are no eternal entities, this would mean that ultimate reality contains no entities whatsoever.) The realization of emptiness would then be insight into the true character of reality: that it is utterly devoid of existing entities. According to the second possible interpretation, the ultimate truth according to Madhyamaka is just that there is no such thing as the way that reality ultimately is. Or to put this in a somewhat paradoxical way, the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth. On this reading, what the āryas realize is that the very idea of how things really are, independently of our (useful) semantic and cognitive conventions, is incoherent.

Needless to say that there is thousands of pages on this stuff in Indian and Tibetan texts.

But I’ve always found this kind of stuff to be pretty pointless to the actual practice of the Dhamma. Not that I think its somehow wrong, but it seems like it wouldn’t really help me much in practicing the path.