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Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way

Nagarjuna's Madhyamakakarika (a title sometimes prefixed with Mula-, to suggest Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way) now stands at the centre of modern philosophical analysis of the Madhyamaka philosophy, which is rapidly proliferating to match the rich and varied commentarial tradition that the text has accumulated over the centuries since its composition (most likely in the 2nd century).

The argument is unusually susceptible to interpretation, as it is expressed almost wholly as a series of refutations. We may classify the divergent treatments of the Madhyamakarika under three headings: those presenting the text as an appendix to a previously established philosophical tradition, those reading the text as a proem to subsequent philosophical developments, and those that would present it as philosophical teaching unto itself. For a brief example of each, we may consider that the modern Theravada have represented the text as a recapitulation of anatman-theory (i.e., the Buddha's philosophy of the self), various Mahayana schools have regarded the text as the basis for their metaphysics (as with the Yogacara[?] in India, or the Hua-Yen[?] in China), and the Prasangika[?] school (led by Candrakirti[?]) regarded the Madhyamakakarika as a definitive manual on method, allowing of little in the way of further development and taking little interest in text's sources in the Shravaka Sutras.

It is to be observed that Nagarjuna's other works are not nearly so constrained in form, and have not been given a place of equal prominence in modern scholarship. This is sometimes attributable to misgivings over the authenticity of other texts (many of which are not extant in Sanskrit), but is sometimes due to sectarian biases. The openness of the Madhyamakakarika to interpretation and re-interpretation has garnered the interest of diverse religious and secular schools, and has at the same time fostered a reluctance to interpret it in light of the same author's other, less ambiguous writings.

The content of the text is summarized as "the teaching of emptiness". In the early chapters of the book, this seems at first to be an ontological argument, but in the progress of the text it becomes clear that the author's vantage is phenomenological, questioning the nature of existence only in so far as it is knowable, and never allowing any margin for speculative constructions about the unknown.

To some extent the refutations that comprise the bulk of the text may be supposed to have been intended for the benefit of definite, historical schools of opponents. The amount that we may know about Nagarjuna's contemporaries will remain limited, and it is reasonable to suppose that Nagarjuna largely made his opponents' doctrines a convenience for unfolding his own, as he took no trouble (in this text) to give a balanced view or summary of what he argued against. Most commonly, we have only a few words of each objection from the interlocutor before Nagarjuna proceeds to refute the error at length. The extent to which the author may have misrepresented his opponents out of convenience may never be known. Some portions of the Madhyamakakarika certainly appear to have been polemics against the ontology (and cosmology) of the Maha-Vaibhasa-Abhidharma-Shastra, and others seem to target the Pudgalavada school. The influence of early Lankavatara texts may be surmised, but the paucity of early manuscripts of the latter has left its historical significance open as another matter of speculation.

The Madhyamakakarika provides us with a theory of knowledge and a "critique of reason". Those who have read the text as a philosophy unto itself (e.g., the Prasangikas) have emphasized the extent to which understanding the limitations of knowledge and reasoning precludes the need for metaphysics or even for "truths", "standpoints", and other certainties. However, many Mahayana schools have made this very teaching of emptiness the basis of their systems of speculative constructions, cosmologies, ethics, and metaphysics. The Theravada interpretation (which has come to prominence only recently) suggests that Nagarjuna neither intended to preclude metaphysics (with a perfect system of reasoning) nor to found a new system of thought. The purpose of the text, so the argument goes, was to counteract certain misinterpretations that had sprung up around the Buddha's original teaching of anatman (literally "no soul" or "no self"). Simplicity might seem to favour the latter treatment, but to apply Nagarjuna's interpretation of anatman (namely, extending it to all entities equally, including dharmas) to the Shravaka Sutras (not to mention the Abhidharmapitaka) would either throw the Theravadin canon into considerable self-contradiction, or call for a thorough-going re-interpretation of the Buddha's original teaching.

The Madhyamakakarika's ultimate purpose, we should remember, was not to stake out a sectarian position, nor was the author attempting to establish a "fixed view" of a pre-established philosophical controversy. Nagarjuna repeatedly and emphatically states that to make a "fixed view" of his teaching is to tragically miss the point. The purpose of the Madhyamkakarika's short course in reasoning is soteriological: to demonstrate the fallacy of clinging to views (or any standpoint whatever, however valid or true) and, in so doing, to remove an obstacle to enlightenment. For this reason it may be described as an "anti-philosophy" as well as a philosophy in its own right.

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