Daily Archives: July 16, 2007

The secret life of Nāgārjuna

Please forgive me for the title. No, I’m not going to write about Nāgārjuna’s biography. I’m sorry. You see, I just succumbed to that disease that prompts academic writers to come up with sexy titles that only obliquely hint at their real topic.

I do not intend to write about Nāgārjuna’s life but about his texts. Or more precisely, I intend to talk about an insidious form of tunnel vision that can develop when studying Nāgārjuna’s philosophy. It is an affliction that has for root an over-reliance on Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK) combined with a neglect of Nāgārjuna’s other works. Not without warrant, the MMK is given primary importance in Nāgārjunian studies. This primacy becomes problematic when the MMK becomes the only lens through which Nāgārjuna’s philosophy is approached. I must admit that I have been afflicted by it. I’ve written term papers in which I spent no small amount of effort demonstrating that Nāgārjuna’s philosophy in the MMK entails consequence X. Now I’m finding out by reading his other works that I could have saved myself that effort by simply citing his verse. From the standpoint of personal cultivation, the effort I spent is not lost because there is value in arguing for X on the basis of the contents of the MMK instead of just citing a verse that states X. Arguing requires the ability to see the connexions between the various elements of the philosophy in a way that just citing does not. Still, I need to adjust my lens to include into its scope what I had hitherto neglected and which, blissfully abusing language, I have called Nāgārjuna’s secret life.

I am taking responsibility for my own foibles but I do think however that this disease is one the entire field of Mādhyamika studies has to guard against. It would be nice to see in scholarly publications engaging general Madhyamaka topics more reliance on Nāgārjuna’s other works and less emphasis on the MMK.