In addition to reading Dogen's Shobogenzo I wanted to read Nāgārjuna's Mūlumadhyamakakārikā. References to Nāgārjuna and this work just kept cropping up in the Zen reading I was doing, and it seemed to point to a deeper understanding of the Buddhist concept of emptiness than I had.
Nāgārjuna is one of the most important philosopher's in Buddhism. Not much is known for sure about him. He was an Indian philosopher, but the surviving accounts of him are Chinese and Tibetan, and post-date his death by hundreds of years. He is typically thought to have lived around 150 AD to 250 AD. This would make him possibly a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher.
Nāgārjuna wrote a lot of stuff, although again it is not totally clear what he did and did not write. The Mūlumadhyamakakārikā is probably his most famous work. The title translates to English as the Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way. It is quite possibly the most influential text on Buddhist philosopy ever, especially Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism is a later form of Buddhism that adds sutras written after the texts in the Pali Cannon, and is the broad designation of Buddhism that fits Chan and it's decendants like Zen.
I originally had a translation and commentary written by Gudo Nishijima and Brad Warner, both of whom are priests in the school of Zen that I follow (Soto Zen). But I read a statement (from Warner) that it was very much Nishijima's view of the Fundamental Verses, rather than a straight translation. I (perhaps a bit pompously) decided that I wanted more a straight translation, and less of a particular perspective on the Fundamental Verses. To that end I got the translation and commentary by Jay Garfield (titled slightly differently as The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way).
When I started reading it I was much dismayed to find Garfield making the same caveats about his version as Warner made about the version he wrote with Nishijima. Rather than the Soto Zen I am used to, Garfield is coming at it from an "Indo-Tibetan Prāsangika-Mādhyamika" perspective. I don't even know what that is, except maybe the "Indo-Tibetan" part.
Garfield provides his translation of the text before providing a version of it interlaced with his commentary. From the straight translation I can see why he says that every translation of the Mūlumadhyamakakārikā has to be an interpretive effort. The text is 1,800 years old, and it is written by an accomplished philosopher of his age responding to other accomplished philosophers of his age.
Have you ever tried to read an article from a modern philosophical journal? That stuff is impenetrable. Not only are they talking in the obscure dialect of English known as High Academic, but there is also a large technical vocabulary of terms relevant to contemporary philosophy. You need a graduate degree just to understand what is going on. I really got the same feeling reading Nāgārjuna: that there was a philosophical genre that he was writing in that makes it very had to understand what he is getting at. One big issue is that there are parts of the text that Garfield identifies as coming from a hypothetical opponent of Nāgārjuna's. They are providing an argument which Nāgārjuna then refutes. But in reading the straight text it was not clear to me how it was indicated that it was an opponent speaking and not Nāgārjuna.
In any case, I want to go back and read the Nishijima/Warner version, and maybe another version from the Zen perspective by Inada that Garfield mentions. If I manage that, I may come back here and make additions to this page.
The Fundamental Verses are a logical exploration of the consequences of dependent origination. Dependent origination is the idea put forth by the Buddha (Sidartha Guatama) that all things exist dependently on other things. Therefore they are empty of independent existence. This concept is usually just called emptiness in Buddhism. It has been said that emptiness is the most misunderstood concept in American Buddhism. The misunderstanding is that things don't exist at all, when really it is saying that things exist in a way that our mind can't really comprehend.
Emptiness is at the core of the Heart Sutra, a fundamental sutra in Zen. Both of the zendos I have practiced in chanted the Heart Sutra on a weekly basis, and it was a large part of what brought Brad Warner to Zen. The main thrust of it is a negation of the core of Zen philosophy, and by extension Buddhist philosophy. For example, the most fundamental teaching of Buddhism, the first teaching of Buddhism, is the Four Truths of the Buddha (or the Four Noble Truths): we suffer, the cause of suffering is clinging to desire, we can cease suffering by letting go, and the Eightfold Path will help us do that. The Heart Sutra, on the other hand, says "No suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path." It would be like Christians chanting "No Jesus, no cross, no redemption, no sin." And the Heart Suutra goes on to negate lots of other fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy.
For a long time as a Buddhist I chanted this, accepting it but not really understanding it. Then I had the good (bad?) fortune to experience emptiness, and I felt I got a better sense of what the Heart Sutra was saying. Nāgārjuna logical;u proves each of the negations of the Heart Sutra, assuming the basic idea of dependent existence. This is a fundamentally insane thing to do, but he does it very well.
It is insane because things that exist dependently defy logic. This is always the problem I have when I try to explain Zen philosophy to friends and family members. I invariably get to the point where I state a contradiction, because things that exist dependently don't follow the rigid logic of true and false. The don't because true and false exist dependently. There is no truth without falsehood, and there is no falsehood without truth. But Nāgārjuna skips around this problem by showing that things fall into the category of dependently existing without messing around with things in that category too much.
I mentioned the Heart Sutra as a way to bring up emptiness, but the Heart Sutra is not really the limit of what Nāgārjuna is doing. He does go after Buddhist philosophy, and specific examples in Buddhist philosophy. For instance, he has a section on fire and flame, which is a classic example in Buddhist philosophy. The idea is that fire depends on something to burn, but things that burn do not depend on fire. This argues for independent objects being able to interact with dependent objects. At the end of the verses he is going after things like the Four Truths of the Buddha and Nirvana.
But this is all a carefully constructed ladder of logic leading up to these lofty Buddhist ideas. Along the way he goes after the fundamental nature of reality. Things like motion, perception, cause and effect, action, and time. This is the part that really hit me hard. Because of my experience with Dependent Co-Origination at the bus stop, I deeply believe in it. And I did think of this as fundamentally changing my view of reality. But Nāgārjuna's logical journey showed me that the consequences of that belief go way beyond the changes I thought I understood. My world was shaken to pieces.
The Two Truths
Another thing that Garfield talks about is Nāgārjuna's view of the Two Truths. This concept especially makes me want to read other translations and commentaries, because I'm not sure how much of this is Nāgārjuna and how much of it is Garfield. I think a parallax view could be illuminating.
The idea is that there is this absolute truth that all existence is really dependent existence, contrary to our common view that things are independent of each other. There are some consequences of this, such as things not having an identity. If things are dependent on each other, it become problematic to say where one thing ends and where another begins. That leads to the classic Zen idea that All is One, although it's not clear that Nāgārjuna agrees with that.
But Nāgārjuna does not negate conventional truth. The word 'conventional' is used here to mean that there are conventions we use to distinguish things, and to talk about them as if they were separable things. These conventions may not be explicitly stated or agreed to, and my feeling is that they arise from the way our brains work to deal with our perceptions of reality. But they are essential for communication, discussion, and logical arguments such as the Mūlumadhyamakakārikā. While Nāgārjuna is not negating this truth, it is my sense that we have to understand conventional truth in the context of absolute truth so that we can see the limits of conventional truth.
Garfield's position is that this is the Middle Way of Buddhism: to hold both of these truths together. It reminds me very much of my first contact with Zen, in the Confucius to Zen class I took as part of my Comparative Religions minor in college. The professor talked about the existence and non-existence of things in terms of a cart. The wheel is not the cart. The axle is not the cart. The seat is not the cart. No piece of the cart has any cartness about it, so there cannot be said to be any cart. On the other hand, we can load the cart up to groceries, hook it up to some horses, and ride it off into the sunset. The first part is the absolute truth, the second part is the conventional truth, and both are operating at the same time.
Reading this book was one of the more mind-blowing experiences of my Zen practice. I'm not sure I can manage any more of them because I'm not sure I have any mind left to blow. But I found it interesting to compare some of them. The experience at the bus stop really blew out my conception of myself (or anyone else) as an independent being. It also really showed me the falsehood of seeing Buddhism's belief in non-existence as nihilism. I don't exist. You don't exist. But that doesn't mean that nothing matters. It means that we are so connected with each other and the rest of the universe that things matter far more than we can possibly understand.
Then I read Dogen, and he says a lot of stuff that doesn't really make any sense. But my experience at the bus stop made me feel that there is sense to what Dogen is saying when you view it in that context. I feel that what Dogen is doing with these nonsensical juxtapositions is trying to get us to go beyond our understanding of reality that makes them nonsensical to that experience of reality where it no longer matters if they make sense or not. He is trying to wrap our minds around something our minds cannot deal with, to bring about a profound experience.
Now there is Nāgārjuna, who takes that experience and walks you through the myriad gateways that it leads to, each step shattering one of the rocks you have used to build the foundation of your world view. And yet he does this while dancing on those very same rocks. Rather than try to wrap your mind around a spiky fractal, he chops off the legs of your mind one at a time until it is floating in the air, giving you the choice of whether you want to fall out of the sky.