Paul B. Donnelly and Paul Donnelly

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online February 2012 | | DOI:


The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is generally regarded as the masterwork of the 2nd- to 3rd-century Indian Buddhist master Nāgārjuna and has been used by scholars as the test case against which other texts are judged to be authentic compositions of Nāgārjuna. Its subject matter consists of a series of examinations of Buddhist doctrinal concepts. In every case, the concept under consideration is revealed to be without reality at the ultimate level and thoroughly lacking in any unique substantial existence. To put it in Nāgārjuna’s own terms, everything is empty (śūnya) of inherent existence (svabhāva) because everything has arisen dependently (pratītysamutpāda). The world appears to the senses and the mind as composed of real, independent entities, but while this might be true from the conventional perspective (samvrtti), it is revealed to be ultimately (paramārtha) false. Nāgārjuna states that distinguishing between these two levels of knowing is crucial to understanding the teachings of the Buddha and for understanding what Nāgārjuna is doing in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. Realizing ultimate truth is what brings the attainment of nirvana. The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā consists of 447 verses in twenty-seven chapters, though some modern scholars argue that the text originally ended with chapter 25. Typical of the kārikā genre, the subject matter is presented in a concise style. Like other such texts, numerous commentaries were composed to elucidate the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. By the end of the 12th century, at which time Buddhism’s popularity was beginning to fade in India, there were numerous commentaries by Indian masters on the text, including one attributed to Nāgārjuna himself. Chinese and subsequent Japanese traditions also accept a commentary by Piṅgala and one by Asaṅga. Several of the early commentaries were by important masters traditionally understood to belong to the Yogācāra school, so the very idea of exclusive, discrete philosophical schools should be treated cautiously. Only a few of the commentaries, however, endured and influenced the development of Madhyamaka schools of thought in China and Tibet. The text exists in Sanskrit, embedded in Candrakīrti’s 7th-century commentary, the Prasannapadā, which was translated into Tibetan in the 11th century. In Tibet, and in much of Western scholarship, Nāgārjuna’s text has been seen through the lens of Candrakīrti’s interpretation and frequently through the further interpretive lens of the commentaries of the Geluk sect of Tibetan Buddhism. In China, however, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is found embedded in the commentary attributed to the early-5th-century Indian master Piṅgala. This version and its legacy have been much less studied.

Article.  5699 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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