Nargarjuna not Mahayana

I don’t know if he is or not.
Thanissaro says Nargarjuna is NOT Mahayana although people claim he is. That he NEVER touches on the Bhodhisattva path, in turn he’s a straight Hinayana teacher. Trying to decide if I should study Nargarjuna, but don’t want to fall into confusion. Another point Thanissaro makes is Nargarjuna is only approaching clinging with pure logic and misses a lot… I don’t know guys, any advise?

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I think a good piece of advice towards study can be found in Aṅguttara Nikāya Book of 3’s #65, the “Kalama Sutta”.

Yadā tumhe, kālāmā, attanāva jāneyyātha: ‘ime dhammā kusalā, ime dhammā anavajjā, ime dhammā viññuppasatthā, ime dhammā samattā samādinnā hitāya sukhāya saṃvattantī’ti, atha tumhe, kālāmā, upasampajja vihareyyātha.

When, Kalamas, all of you know this personally, ‘these things are wholesome, these things are without blame, praised by the wise, if accepted and undertaken lead to your welfare and happiness’, then having taken them up, live with them.

In other words, it’s up to you to personally figure out what’s beneficial to your practice, what’s leading to confusion and doubt, etc.

(I personally don’t think debating the merits of Nagarjuna on an internet forum will lead to much benefit.)


Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda had this comment in Questions and Answers Books Archive - seeing through the net

“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.”


Hi Joe. I think the disputes below occur with Nagarjuna:

  • The term ‘dependent origination’ is used very loosely & broadly to refer to all types of cause & effect rather than restricted to related to the 12 conditions found in the Pali Suttas (SN 12.2).

  • The term ‘dependently originated’ is used to explain ‘sunnata’ (‘emptiness’). This seems contrary to the Pali Suttas (such as SN 35.85).

  • Nibbana is regarded as conditioned or dependently originated because it seems it is argued mind is required to know Nibbana. This seems contrary to the Pali Suttas, which say Nibbana is ‘unconditioned’ and independent.

  • Nagarjuna opposes the belated Theravada notion of ‘sabhava’; which, when viewed accurately, seems consistent with certain principles found in the Pali Suttas (such as Nibbana having its own intrinsic independent nature).

Regards :slightly_smiling_face:

The above is possibly a case of the like-mindedness described in SN 14.15.

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I’m no expert on Nagarjuna, but unfortunately his analysis often gets reduced to inaccurate soundbites that are then ridiculed. Bhante Sujato gave a nice analysis of the so-called “Nibbana is the same as Samsara” sound bite:


Unfortunately, this is a case of an expert in one field speaking on something outside of his expertise, with negative results.

With all respect to the venerable, he is wrong on this count. Nagarjuna is clearly a Mahayanist. Various scholars have found references to Mahayana sutras in his work. The first karika of the Mulamadhyamikakarika, for example, seems to be to be a restatement of a quote from the Prajñaparamita sutra. Joseph Walser in Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture talks about this and cites the relevant material.

Another piece of evidence for this are Nagarjuna’s poetic epistles (like the Ratnavali and Suhrlleka) teach classic Mahayana Buddhist ideas and defend Mahayana against criticism. This paper by Walser contains a lot of food for thought regarding these works of Nagarjuna and how they relate to Mahayana.

Of course there is a lot of disagreement on what Nagarjuna wrote, but there’s not much of a scholarly argument that he was not a Mahayanist. The only issue here is that what Mahayana meant to Nagarjuna was probably quite different than what Mahayana is today. It likely didn’t see itself as a separate school per se but as a tradition within mainstream Buddhism. And this is of course to be expected as early Mahayana does not seem to have been a schismatic group, but rather a small group of people within mainstream Buddhist sanghas.

When it comes to Thanissaro, if he says anything about Mahayana, I would take this with a huge bucket of salt…


If somebody said this already, I apologize, but the term ‘hinayana’ is a pejorative. This is just a general FYI.



Can you touch a little more on why one should take Thanissaro’s Mahayana views lightly. I listen and study a lot of his works. But as a novice I want to be open to other ideas.

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It’s worth noting that there has been a genuine development of scholarly understanding on this point. The idea that Nagarjuna was not Mahayanist was proposed by AK Warder, and followed by David Kalupahana, both of whom are among the finest modern scholars of Buddhist philosophy.

Subsequent research has established that this view is not correct, but the raising of the question was still a productive move. It’s prompted a deeper inquiry into Nagarjuna, his place in the Buddhist tradition, and the relationship between Mahayana and early Buddhist philosophy.

I still believe that Nagarjuna was trying to position himself in the “middle”, enunciating a philosophical position that would show the unity of early Buddhism and the Prajnaparamita texts. Much of what we consider “Mahayana” of course arose later than this.


Nagarjuna’s analysis is certainly worth spending some time on, IMO.

Yes, there is Warder’s paper Is Nagarjuna a Mahayanist?

From his definitive writing, he is a Mahayanist.

Just as those Bhagavān Buddhas and Great Bodhisattvas gave rise to the Mind for Great Enlightenment, likewise, I, as well, will give rise to the mind for Great Enlightenment from now onwards until I have reached the essence, Full Enlightenment, for the sake of liberating the un-liberated, of freeing the un-freed, of granting breath to the suffocating and of utterly leading beyond suffering, the sentient beings who have not been utterly led beyond suffering.

174. Thus observe the practices incessantly
And abandon those counter to them.
If you and the world wish to attain
Unparalleled enlightenment,
175. Its roots are the altruistic aspiration to
Firm like the monarch of mountains,
Compassion reaching to all quarters,
And wisdom not relying on duality.

  1. Just as in all directions
    Space, earth, water, fire, and wind
    Are without limit,
    So suffering sentient beings are limitless.
  2. Through their compassion
    Bodhisattvas are determined to lead
    These limitless sentient beings out of suffering
    And establish them in Buddhahood.
  3. [Hence] whether sleeping or not sleeping,
    After thoroughly assuming [such compassion]
    Those who remain steadfast –
    Even though they might not be meticulous –
  4. Always accumulate merit as limitless as all
    sentient beings
    Since sentient beings are limitless.
    Know then that since [the causes] are limitless,
    Limitless Buddhahood is not hard to attain.
    source: thezensite: the precious garland of ratnavali of nagarjuna

Anyway, even if he is a Mahayanist, there is a merit to study his writing for one who is not a Mahayana.

  1. His writings on emptiness, end up establishing a school of thought, Madhyamika, which last thousand of years in India, and birthing the Zen school in China, and studied as one major subject in Tibet monasteries.
    It thoroughly stop the development of scholasticism in Sarvastivada Abhidharma.
    One can claim that no one after that in Indian philosophy successfully refuted him.

  2. He wrote a text directed to layperson, covering the basics and gradually introducing higher teachings. Only few last verses had Mahayana teaching, one can ignore that.

One could use this text as guide for gradual practice. This text quoted a lot from early sutta. And very inspirational.

(114) This rebirth is suffering; that which is called craving is the wide-ranging originator of that; the stopping of this is liberation; and the pathway mind for the attainment of that is eightfold: those branches of an arya’s pathway mind.

(115) With it being like that, you need always to strive for the sake of seeing the four truths of the aryas. Even householders, in whose laps rest glory, can, with awareness, ford cross the rivers of the disturbing emotions.
Letter to a Friend — Study Buddhism

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(One of the bases for the argument is that many of the texts attributed to Nagarjuna may have been written by someone else. So the discussion has to begin with looking at what was written by “Nagarjuna”, or more specifically, what was written by the same person who wrote the Mulamadhyamakakarika.)


That’s true.

That’s why I only mention 3 works here, that I am quite sure is written by Nagarjuna who wrote Mulamadhyamakarika.

Bodhicittavivarana, Ratnavali, and Suhṛllekha

These 3 works has the same style and (the earlier two has) profound argument similar to Mulamadhyakarika.
If Nagarjuna has some other works, these three can be included as top contenders.


I really should read these, I’ve only read the Mulamadhyamakakarika. Are there English translations online?

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Letter to a friend (Suhrlekha)
This is English translation from tibetan by Alexander Berzin, former translator for HH Dalai Lama.

Ratnavali (precious garland advice to a king)


There is also translation of Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness and Letter to A Friend in a free ebook.

I prefer this English translation of Letter to a friend, because it is less flowery

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The Bodhicittavivarana, which is often attributed to Nagarjuna, cannot be by him (for example it critiques Vijñanavada, and so must be later). This was established by Paul Williams.

Some of the issues with authorship are discussed on the wikipedia article for Nagarjuna. I added some details awhile ago and also more recently:

Other scholars have challenged and argued against some of the above works being Nagarjuna’s. David F. Burton notes that Christian Lindtner is “rather liberal” with his list of works and that other scholars have called some of these into question. He notes how Paul Williams argued convincingly that the Bodhicittavivaraṇa must be a later text.[1] In his study, Burton relies on the texts that he considers “least controversial”: Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā, Vigrahavyāvartanī, Śūnyatāsaptati, Yuktiṣāṣṭika, Catuḥstava, Vaidalyaprakaraṇa and Ratnāvalī.[1]

Similarly, Jan Westerhoff notes how there is uncertainty about the attribution of Nagarjuna’s works (and about his life in general). He relies on six works: MMK, Vigrahavyāvartanī, Śūnyatāsaptati, Yuktiṣāṣṭika, Vaidalyaprakaraṇa and Ratnāvalī, all of which “expound a single, coherent philosophical system,” and are attributed to Nagarjuna by a variety of Indian and Tibetan sources.[2]


Why do you say that?

Only ‘Concept of nibbana’ is regarded as conditioned or dependently originated, not nibbana itself because when we talk about nibbana it’s like conceptualizing it.
Pali suttas are not contrary to this…Pali suttas are never contrary to any Mahayana teachings. If it is contrary then Mahayana teaching should be termed as wrong. It’s safe this way.

I do think that Nagarjuna’s main purpose was not to establish Mahayana or anything like that, his purpose was to defend Buddhism in the context of philosophy because at that time philosophical discussions was the general norm. Those people who say that Mahayana is completely different actually miss the point. It’s like lord buddha came to rescue and take us to other shore of happiness but some want to do the same instead of going to the other shore…well problem arises when that person prioritises roaming in the ocean with many others instead of going to other shore…and says that those crossing to other shore are actually selfish and thinks of himself as mahayanist ignorantly. This person is missing the purpose of all the teachings. Nagarjuna’s teaching I believe is to guide these kind of people. Buddha does everything for liberation of others…true dhamma is one which liberates and not the one which entangles. But someone has to disentangle those who are entangled too much hence Nagarjuna was there…to disentangle those entangled ones who will want to follow Bodhisattva path blindly ignoring the core of dhamma.

Also however great Bodhisattva is it is the fact that he is not liberated…even those bodhisattvas living for thousands of years for the sake of helping beings in samsara…are greatest of beings but not liberated beings. That’s why they are placed after arhats. Because arhatship is goal, everyone else who is not arhat is still distracted one and one who is still missing the point(even if on purpose but still missing the point) Siddharth Gautama’s supreme enlightenment was completed only after he became arhat. But there will always be group which will misinterpret Bodhisattva vehicle and undermine the core of dhamma and to guide those people was the purpose of Nagarjuna.

You can find the Śūnyatāsaptati here Bhante: (PDF) Śūnyatāsaptati the Seventy Kārikās on Voidness (According to the Svavṛtti) of Nāgārjuna | Carmen Dragonetti y Fernando Tola -