Nagarjuna & Early Buddhist Texts

Nagarjuana is so influential on the history of Mahayana Buddhism, that he’s often referred to as the Second Buddha. However, most of the scriptures he quoted were from the agamas, which are seen as pre-Mahayana scriptures.

If Nagarjuna were alive today, would he consider himself a scholar of Mahayana Buddhism, a scholar of early Buddhist texts, or both?


I don’t know a lot about Ven Nāgārjuna, but Bhikkhu K. Ñāṇananda did mention him from time to time. From Questions & Answers On Dhamma, Books Archive - seeing through the net

“The five ascetics were given a teaching based on the
ethical middle path, avoiding the two extremes of kāmasukhal-
likānuyoga and attakilamathānuyoga. But the middle path of
right view is found in the Kaccānagotta Sutta, beautifully used by
Ven. Nāgārjuna. When the Theravadins got engrossed with the
Abhidhamma they forgot about it. The Mādhyamikas were alert
enough to give it the attention it deserved.

“I didn’t quote from the Mahāyāna texts in the Nibbāna
sermons,” he says, “because there was no need. All that was
needed was already found in the Suttas. Teachers like Nāgārjuna
brought to light what was already there but was hidden from
view. Unfortunately his later followers turned it in to a vāda.”

He goes on to quote two of his favourite verses from Ven.
Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamādhyamakakārikā (as usual, from memory):

Śūnyatā sarva-dṛṣtīnaṃ proktā niḥsaranaṃ jinaiḥ,
yeṣāṃ śūnyatā-dṛṣtis tān asādhyān babhāṣire [MK 13.8]
The Victorious Ones have declared that emptiness is the
relinquishing of all views. Those who are possessed of the
view of emptiness are said to be incorrigible.

Sarva-dṛṣti-prahāṇāya yaḥ saddharmam adeśayat,
anukampam upādāya taṃ namasyāmi gautamaṃ
I reverently bow to Gautama who, out of compassion, has
taught the doctrine in order to relinquish all views.
– [MK 26.30]

Bhante doesn’t bother translating the verses; the ones
provided above are by David Kalupahana.;

“When I first read the Kārikā I too was doubting Ven.
Nāgārjuna’s sanity” he laughs. “But the work needs to be
understood in the context. He was taking a jab at the
Sarvāstivādins. To be honest, even the others deserve the rebuke,
although they now try to get away by using Sarvāstivāda as an
excuse. How skilled Ven. Nāgārjuna must have been, to compose
those verses so elegantly and filling them with so much meaning,
like the Dhammapada verses. It’s quite amazing. This has been
rightly understood by Prof. Kalupahana.”

Prof. David J. Kalupahana is an eminent Sri Lankan
scholar who stirred up another controversy when he portrayed
Ven. Nāgārjuna as a reformist trying to resurrect early Buddhist
teachings. He had been a lecturer during Bhante Ñāṇananda’s
university days as a layman at Peradeniya.

“Ven. Nāgārjuna was right: at the end, all is empty. We
are not willing to accept that existence is a perversion. Existence
is suffering precisely because it is a perversion.”


AK Warder famously asked the question, “Was Nagarjuna a Mahayanist”. This was followed up by David Kalupahana, who argued at length that there was nothing Mahayanist in Nagarjuna. However more recent scholarship has shown that there are indeed specifically Mahayanist references in the Mulamadhyamakakarika. Nevertheless, it remains the case that Nagarjuna—not to mention Vasubandhu and Asanga—was strongly grounded on the early suttas, and used them as his primary references.


I don’t think Nagarjuna is “a scholar of early Buddhist texts”.
By his time (AD2-3), the Theravada & Sarvastivada’s Abhidhammas were no yet complete, and a number of Mahayana sutras were just made up.
In order to make people accept those Mahayana sutras, Nagarjuna wrote several theses to demonstrate that “the Mahayana sutras were also said by the Buddha, because their opinions could be found in the agamas”.
So for proofing the orthodoxy of Mahayana sutras, you may not quote from Mahayana sutras themselves.
You really need some old and accepted suttas to support the not-yet-accepted Mahayana sutras.
And Nagarjuna was using the Advaita Vedanta from Brahmanism/Hinduism to distort Buddha’s words.

So as the most important founder of Mahayana Buddhism, Nagarjuna was called the “Second Buddha”.
But he was not the only one for this title, Vasubandhu (AD5-6) and Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) were also called the “Second Buddha”.
Maybe they should be the 3rd & 4th Buddha?
But considering Mahayana has so many Buddhas, it doesn’t matter.

And Nagarjuna was not the only one to certify Mahayana sutras by quoting agamas.
Asanga (AD5-6, Vasubandhu’s elder brother) also quoted a lot of gathas from early Buddhist texts to certify the theories of Vijnaptimātratā School.
Even today, Pings Xiao (萧平实, 平实居士, 1944- ) is also quoting a lot of sutras from agamas to proof his own Vijnaptimātratā equation:
Śūnya(emptiness) = Tathagata-garbha = Alaya-consciousness (the 8th Consciousness)

Of course these people are familiar with early Buddhist texts, but are them scholars of early Buddhist texts?
If someone has the knowledge of zoology, and does a lot of studies, he is a zoologist.
If another guy also has the knowledge of zoology, but uses the knowlege to smuggle animals, he is then an expert animal smuggler, not a zoologist at all!


I couldn’t possibly add more to your post, you took the words out of my mouth.

I will add this paper by Ven Huifeng if the OP is further interested in the intersections between classical Madhyamaka, Early Buddhism, and shrāvakayāna.


What evidence is there of that?

Mahayana Buddhism teaches that all beings have the potential for Buddhahood.

The term “Mahayana” means “the great vehicle” or “the wide vehicle,” because of its intent to carry all beings to Buddhahood. This is how the term “Mahayana” is defined by the classic treatise, The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana.

Isn’t it a good thing if the essential concepts of Mahayana sutras can be traced back to the nikayas/agamas?


It’s interesting how practically every school or sect of Mahayana Buddhism traces its lineage to Nagarjuna, due to some writing either penned by Nagarjuna or attributed to him.

For example, Nagarjuna is regarded as the first patriarch of Pure Land Buddhism, due to the ‘Chapter on Easy Practice’ in his Discourse on the Ten Bodhisattva Stages.


Bhante, do you happen to recall which publication discusses the Mahayanist elements of the MMK?


In Advaita, Brahman is the substrate and cause of all changes.

Nāgārjuna’s major thematic focus is the concept of śūnyatā (translated into English as “emptiness”)…

sarvaṃ ca yujyate tasya śūnyatā yasya yujyate
sarvaṃ na yujyate tasya śūnyaṃ yasya na yujyate
All is possible when emptiness is possible.
Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.

This is very obvious.
śūnyatā from Nagarjuna = Brahman from Advaita

Mahayana “Buddhism” distorted the sayings of Buddha, insulted the true Dhamma of Buddha as “Hinayana” (the small and low vehicle), and played down the Arahantship as “Charred buds & corrupted seeds” (焦芽败种), for the venerable arahants could not become their “Buddhas”.

Just like all the cheap copycats can be traced back to the original goods, of course they do.
But I am a follower of the true Dhamma, not the copycats.


Did Advaita Vedanta influence Mahayana Buddhism, or was it the other way around?

Some Hindu scholars criticized Advaita for its Maya and non-theistic doctrinal similarities with Buddhism.[460][461] Ramanuja, the founder of Vishishtadvaita Vedanta, accused Adi Shankara of being a Prachanna Bauddha, that is, a “crypto-Buddhist”,[458] and someone who was undermining theistic Bhakti devotionalism.[461] The non-Advaita scholar Bhaskara of the Bhedabheda Vedanta tradition, similarly around 800 CE, accused Shankara’s Advaita as “this despicable broken down Mayavada that has been chanted by the Mahayana Buddhists”, and a school that is undermining the ritual duties set in Vedic orthodoxy…

According to scholars, the influence of Mahayana Buddhism on Advaita Vedanta has been significant.[461][469] Advaita Vedanta and various other schools of Hindu philosophy share numerous terminology, doctrines and dialectical techniques with Buddhism.[470][471] According to a 1918 paper by the Buddhism scholar O. Rozenberg, “a precise differentiation between Brahmanism and Buddhism is impossible to draw.”[470]

Both traditions hold that “the empirical world is transitory, a show of appearances”,[472][473] and both admit “degrees of truth or existence”.[474] Both traditions emphasize the human need for spiritual liberation (moksha, nirvana, kaivalya), however with different assumptions.[475][note 39] Adi Shankara, states Natalia Isaeva, incorporated “into his own system a Buddhist notion of maya which had not been minutely elaborated in the Upanishads”.[470] Similarly, there are many points of contact between Buddhism’s Vijnanavada and Shankara’s Advaita.[477]

According to Frank Whaling, the similarities between Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism are not limited to the terminology and some doctrines, but also includes practice. The monastic practices and monk tradition in Advaita are similar to those found in Buddhism.[461]

Dasgupta and Mohanta suggest that Buddhism and Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta represent “different phases of development of the same non-dualistic metaphysics from the Upanishadic period to the time of Sankara.”[478][note 40]
Advaita Vedanta - Wikipedia

Bodhisattva Ideal in Buddhism
Walpola Rahula Thera

There is a wide-spread belief, particularly in the West, that the ideal of the Theravada, which they conveniently identify with Hinayana, is to become an Arahant while that of the Mahayana is to become a Bodhisattva and finally to attain the state of a Buddha. It must be categorically stated that this is incorrect. This idea was spread by some early Orientalists at a time when Buddhist studies were beginning in the West, and the others who followed them accepted it without taking the trouble to go into the problem by examining the texts and living traditions in Buddhist countries. But the fact is that both the Theravada and the Mahayana unanimously accept the Bodhisattva ideal as the highest…

From this we can see that anyone who aspires to become a Buddha is a Bodhisattva, a Mahayanist, though he may live in a country or in a community popularly and traditionally regarded as Theravada or Hinayana. Similarly, a person who aspires to attain Nirvana as a disciple is a Sravakayanika or Hinayanist though he may belong to a country or a community considered as Mahayana. Thus it is wrong to believe that there are no Bodhisattvas in Theravada countries or that all are Bodhisattvas in Mahayana countries. It is not conceivable that Sravakas and Bodhisattvas are concentrated in separate geographical areas.
Bodhisattva Ideal in Buddhism – Walpola Rahula Thera

May you be happy and safe.


Look up Ven Bhāvaviveka. He made the same arguments against Vedantists.


The concept of Brahman from Rigveda is much older than Nagarjuna’s Sunyata, even older than Buddha.

This sentence overlooked the insults from Mahayana, the “Hinayana” and “Charred buds & corrupted seeds” (焦芽败种).

Sutta Nipāta 135:
Who, though not an Arahant,
yet pretends to be—is Thief—
in this world with Brahmin gods,
the lowest outcaste of them all,
These indeed are “outcaste” called
as I’ve declared to you.

But the Mahayana is even lower than the Arahant-pretenders, because they insulted the most venerable Arahantship.


How is Brahman and Shunyata even the same concept? I think Nagarjuna spent a great deal of his time and effort differentiating the two.

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Just like an iPhone copycat would say “I am not iPhone at all”.


Wow… Are you an asura or something?

Insisting that Brahman and Shunyata are the same concept is like insisting that Nirvana and Brahman are the same concept.

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Wikipedia: Monier-Williams traces the etymological roots of Asura (असुर) to Asu (असु), which means life of the spiritual world or departed spirits.

Asura was a good god in the time older than Rigveda, but later people explained this word as a- + sura (non- + god).

If you do not go back to the most original root, of course you’ll be puzzled.


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Nagarjuna is perhaps most well-known for expounding on the two-truths doctrine, for finding the middle way between existence and non-existence, which he saw as based on the early Buddhist texts:

Nāgārjuna based his statement of the two truths on the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta. In the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta, the Buddha, speaking to the monk Kaccayana Gotta on the topic of right view, describes the middle Way between nihilsm and eternalism:

By and large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by a polarity, that of existence and non-existence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, “non-existence” with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, “existence” with reference to the world does not occur to one.[30]
Two truths doctrine - Wikipedia


So you noticed my post was vague! Sorry, it was years ago I read it, and I can’t recall much about it. I think there was a line in the MMK that quoted or closely echoed a phrase from the Prajnaparamita Sutra.


I also can’t source it, but it know that it is commonly said that Ven Nāgārjuna allegedly worked “chiefly” with these sets of scriptures. Of course, actually looking at the texts cited systematically has shown that the Buddhavacana sourced is mostly from earlier layers.

Still, I can’t imagine that there is nothing behind the association other than the folktale of a psychically scuba-diving Nāgārjuna descending to the bottom of the Indian Ocean to visit the Nāga society and retrieve them.

Of course, Nāgārjuna has written a lot more than Nāgārjuna has written. So that might be where the associations lie moreso, with those texts.