Nāgārjuna vis-à-vis the Āgamas and Nikāyas

Acharya Mahayogi Sridhar Rana Rinpoche

Tri Ratna Sharanam
Namo Amitābhaya

Ityapi Sa Bhagwānstathāgato’rhan Samyaksambuddho Vidyācaranasampannah Sugato
Lokavidanuttarah Purushadamyasārathih Shāstā Devamanushyanam Buddho Bhagavāniti

Some Theravada scholars accuse Nāgārjuna of interpreting the Buddha’s teachings and thus distorting the teachings. Some other scholars think Nāgārjuna re-interpreted the Buddha’s teaching [Bhikkhu Rahula Walpola, 1978, pp.79] but did not really create a new philosophy. To the first group of scholars, the psychological fact must be pointed out that to read or study the Buddha Vacana is already to interpret it. Man does not study a thought of anybody without giving it a meaning. Even if such thoughts had no meaning, it is in the nature of mind to give it meaning. The mind does not take in what is out there like a simple mirror, it always recreates on the basis of the patterns available to it [Jerome Bruner, 1986, pp.47, 79-92, 95 & Humberto R. Matarana PhD & Francisco Varela PhD., 1987, pp.169]. So the question is who hasn’t interpreted or reinterpreted the Buddha’s teachings? Isn’t the Theravada Milindapanna an interpretation of the Buddha Vacana? Aren’t the commentaries of the Pāli Abhidhamma interpretations of the Buddha Vacana? If Nāgārjuna has interpreted the Buddha Vacana, he has done us a service for otherwise each individual would automatically interpret the Buddha Vacana in accordance with his own individual conditionings (Sanskaras).

Now let us see if Nāgārjuna’s interpretation is really his own conditioned ideas or tallies with the Buddha Vacana found even in the Śrāvaka Pitaka. We shall use the Theravadin Pāli Nikāyas and the Sarvāstivādin Sanskrit āgamas vis-à-vis Nāgārjuna’s main thesis which is his hermeneutics. The magnum opus of Nāgārjuna, the Mūla Mādhyamika Kārikā begins with a homage to the Buddha. But the homage itself contains succinctly the Samyagdristi of the Buddha and Nāgārjuna’s hermeneutics. It shows clearly that Nāgārjuna’s hermeneutics is based squarely on the words of the Buddha. Nāgārjuna extols the Buddha thus in his homage which begins the Mūla Mādhyamika Kārikā.

Anirodham Anutpādam Anucchedam Aśāsvatam
Anekārtham Anānārtham Anāgamam Anirgamam
Yah Pratitya Samutpādam Prapañcopashamam Shivam
Deshayāmāsa Sambuddhastam Vande Vadatām Varam

Professor Ram Chandra Pandey and Mañju translates it thus : “I pay respect to the best among speakers who, having attained Enlightenment, has taught relative origination (Pratītyasamutpāda) which is no-cessation, no-origination, no- annihilation, no-abiding, no-one-thing, no-many-thing, no-coming-in, no-going-out; being the termination of linguistic description (Prapañcopashamam), it is the good (Shivam) [Ram Candra Pandey & Mañju, 1999, pp.1]. Mervyn Sprung in collaboration with T.R.V. Murti and U.S. Vyas has translated it thus: “Neither perishing nor arising in time neither terminable nor eternal, neither self-identical nor variant in form, neither coming nor going, such is the true way of things (Pratītyasamutpāda), the serene coming to rest of the manifold of the named things (Prapañcopashamam), as taught by the perfectly Enlightened One whom I honor as the best of all teachers.” [Mervyn Sprung in collaboration with TRV Murti and U.S. Vyas, 1979, pp.32-33].

Now the Pāli Samyutta Nikāya (SN) 12:15 Nidāna Vaggo Kacchāngotta Sutta says: “Dvenissito Khvāyam, Kacchāna, Loko Ye Bhuññena – Atthitanche va Natthitancheva” This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality upon the notion of existence and the notion of non-existence.

“Lokasamudayam Kho Kacchāna, Yathābhutam Sammappaññaya Passato Ya Loke Natthitā Sa Na Hoti” But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is (Yathābhutam) with correct wisdom, there is no notion of non-existence in regard to the world (Anirodham).

“Loka Nirodham Kho, Kacchāna, Yathābhutam Sammappaññaya Passato Ya Loke Atthitā Sa Na Hoti” And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world (Anutpādam).

“Sabbam Atthi’ti Kho, Kacchāna, Ayameko Anto Sabbam Natthi’ti Ayam Dutiyo Anto. Ete te, Kacchāna, Ubho Ante Anupagamma Majjhena Tathagato Dhamman Deseti” All exists: Kacchāna, this is one extreme. All does not exist, this is another extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle [Bhikkhu Bodhi (tr.), 2000, pp.544].

The Attakathā Sāratthapakāsini of Buddhaghosa says: “Atthitantisassatam, Natthitanti Ucchedam” The Atthianta is Shāswat and the Natthianta is Uccheda (translation: Bhikkhu Bodhi, Samyutta Nikaya).

Since the Tathāgata teaches the middle way without falling towards either of the two, what the Tathāgata teaches is Anirodham Anutpādam Anucchedam Aśāsvatam. This is what Nāgārjuna teaches. This same Sutta is also found in the Sarvāstivāda Samyuktāgama 301 (SA 301) (The Notion of Emptiness in Early Buddhism: Choong Mun Keat). Ananda tells Channa exactly the same thing in SN 22.90 Khandasamyutta Channa Sutta. The same Sutta is found in SA 262 also.

In SA 300, the Buddha says, “To declare that the one who acts is the same as the one who experiences the result is to fall into the Shāsvat view. To declare that one acts and another experiences the result is to fall into the Uccheda view….I avoid these two extremes. I teach the dharma of the middle way…… This same point is found in SN 12.17 and 12.46 i.e. Nidānavagga Acela Kassapa Sutta and Aññatarabrāman Sutta. Again theShāstā himself says he avoids Shāsvatvāda and Ucchedavāda (Anucchedam Asāsvatam) “Ubho Ante Anupaggama Majjhena Tathāgato Dhammam Deseti”. As the Attakathā says that ‘Ubho Ante’ means “Sassatucchedasankhāto Ubho Ante”, ‘Anupagamma’ means “Pahāya Analliyitvā” (to drop or let go, not to grasp) and ‘Majjhena’ means “Majjhimāya Patipadāya” (Skt. Madhyamāpradtipadā) the Middle Way. Nāgārjuna calls his view Dvayāntamukta and Madhyamāpratipadā.

In the Nidānavagga, Avijjyāpacchaya Sutta (SN 12.35-36) the Shāstā says, “Tam Jivam Tam Sariranta va, Bhikkhu, Ditthiyā Sati Bramacariyavāso Na Hoti. Aññam Jivam Aññam Sariranti Va, Bhikkhu Ditthiyā Sati Bramacariyavāso Na Hoti…… Ubha Ante Anupagamma Majjhena Tathāgato Dhammam Deseti” - If there is the view ‘the soul and the body are the same (Ekartha), there is no living of the holy life, and if there is the view ‘the soul is one thing and the body is another’ (Anyārtha), there is no living of the holy life….. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma of the middle. This same Sutra is to be found also in the SA 297. Chandrabhāl Tripāñhi has reconstructed the Sutra into Sanskrit from the fragmentary Sanskrit text. It goes thus,

“Yaj Jivas Tacchariram Iti Dristau Satyām Bramhacaryavāso Na Bhavati Anyajjivo Anyacchariram Iti Bhikchuvo Dristau Satyām Bramhacaryavāso Na Bhavati Iti Etāva Ubhāva Antāva Anupagamyasti Madhyamāpratipat”

So, the Buddha Vacana itself says what the Shāstā teaches is free from the two Antas i.e. he teaches Anekārtha Anānārtham which is exactly what Nāgārjuna says.

Now the Samyuktāgama 335 (SA 335) & 273 (SA 273) both describe the ‘Shadayatanas’ as not coming from anywhere, not going anywhere. The French scholar Etienne Lamotte has reconstructed the Chinese Sutra into Sanskrit (Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, v.36, pp. 313-323, 1973, University of London).

“Cakshur Bhiksava Utpādayamānam Nakutascid āgacchati / Nirudhyamānam Ca Nakvacit Samnicayam Gacchati….Evam Strotram Ghrānam Jihva Kāyo Mano Vācyam Anyatradharmasamketad iti.” Monks, when the eyes arise, there is no place from where it comes (Anāgamam); when it ceases, there is no place to which it goes (Anirgamam)….. The same teaching applies to the ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. They are exceptions to the conventional dharma.

The Sutra says that ‘conventional dharma’ means, “Yadutāsmin Satidambhavati, Asyotpādād Idam Utpadhyate (The meaning of conventional dharma is: because this exists that exists, because this arises that arises). Although the Pāli for the above is - “Ismamsmim Sati Idam Hoti, Imassupādā Idam Upajjhati”, there is no counterpart in the Pāli literature for SA 335. Here too we have Anāgamam, Anirgamam of Nāgārjuna in the Sarvāstivāda Srāvaka Pitaka itself. We can also easily interpret the SN 12.17 & 12.46 and SA 300 given above as Anāgamam, Anirgamam too, as ‘the person who acts’ is not ‘the one who experiences the result’. It is not ‘A’ itself that goes on to ‘B’ to experience the result (Anirgamam); nor is it that ‘B’ itself came from ‘A’ (Anāgamam)

Nāgārjuna’s main thesis was Śūnyatā or Nisvabhāvatā. His thesis was that Śūnyatā was the other side of the coin of Pratityasamutpāda. In SN 12, 20 and its Chinese counterpart SA 296 and SA 299, it is stated that Pratityasamutpāda is not something made by the Buddha himself or by others: whether or not a Buddha arises in the world, this is the mode of being of Dharma (P. Dhammaññhitatā / Skt. Dharmasthitatā), the certainty of Dharma (P. Dhamma-Niyāmatā / Skt. Dharma- Niyāmatā), the fact of causal connection (P. Idappaccayatā / Skt. Idampratyatā) or the nature of Dharma (Dharmadhātu). In other words, both the Pāli literature and the āgama-s agree that Pratityasamutpāda is a principle of nature of Dharma as it really is (Yathābhuta).

Now the SN 20.7 Nidānvagga Opammasanyutta, āõisutta and the Anguttara Nikāya 5th Nipāta Anāgata Bhaya Sutta says, “In the future when the Sutras (Suttāntas) taught by the Tathāgata which are profound (Gambhãr), supramundane (Lokottara), dealing with Śūnyatā (Śūnyatāprātisanyukta) are expounded, the Bhikkhus will not listen to them….” (Ye te Suttantā Tathāgatabhāsitā Gambhirā Gambhiratthā, Lokuttarā Śūññatāppatisañyuttā, Tesu BhaññamānesuNa Sussusissanti.....)

Since it need not be proven that the Shāstā teaches the teaching of the Pratityasamutpāda, the above verse (SN 20.7) makes it clear that that teaching of the Pratityasamutpāda is Śūññatāppatisañyuttā which is Gambhira, Lokottara and taught by the Tathāgata. So here too Nāgārjuna is one on one with the Tathāgata.

Thus we find that the Dvayāntas (two extremes) which Nāgārjuna has enumerated are all to be found as words of the Shāstā himself. The concept of ‘Dvayānta Mukta’ (free from the two extremes) are also found as the very words of the Shāstā, and Śūnyatā was what the Tathāgata taught. Nāgārjuna certainly did not create a philosophy of his own. All he did was bring out the deeper implications already inherent in the Shāstā’s words. The result was a more powerful hermeneutical tool to bring out all the aspects of the Shāstā’s teachings which Srāvaka hermeneutics failed to bring out.

Before ending, it is paramount to clarify that the word ‘Advaya’ as used by Mahāyāna in general and Nāgārjuna in specific is a synonym of ‘Dvyayānta Mukta’, whose meaning has already been clarified above; and is not a correlate of the Vedāntic ‘Advaita’ which means ‘Dvitiyam Nāsti’ i.e. there is only this One and there is no other or second – according to the Chāndogya Upanisad and also according to the commentaries of Shamkarācārya.

Ye Dharmā Hetuprabhavā Hetumstesāmstathāgato’hyavadat
Tesāñca Yo Nirodha Evamvādi Mahāsramanah