Nagarjuna, who founded the Middle Way School of Buddhist philosophy, reasoned that everything, without exception, is empty. Through his writings translated by Garfield, he attempts to convince his audience of his ideas on permanence and essence: that all things equally lack in essence and are equally interdependent with each other, and that nothing exists independently on its own. His teachings create the philosophical system of The Two Truths. This two-fold belief causes much confusion in Buddhist thought due to the paradox of depending on the conventional truth to teach the ultimate truth, as the ultimate truth refutes the conventional truth. Essentially, Nagarjuna’s philosophy relies on the conventional truth to create a system of learning that its teaching ultimately refutes.
Garfield translates Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way, explaining that “all phenomena are empty of essence, but exist conventionally, interdependently, and impermanently” (p.26). The translation of the verses first introduces Nagarjuna’s opponent who challenges his particular way of thinking. His opponent explains “if all this is empty,/ There would be neither arising nor ceasing,/ And it follows that/ The Four Noble Truths do not exist” (p.29). Here, the opponent counterpoints Nagarjuna’s argument, saying that if everything is truly empty and nothing exists, then this does not exclude the Dharma, Sangha, and even the Buddha. If these Three Jewels do not exist, then Buddhism itself does not exist. Fundamentally, the opponent finds fault in Nagarjuna’s thinking, explaining that it undermines the sheer existence of Buddhism.
Nagarjuna responds to his opponent, emphasizing the distinction between the truth of worldly conventions and the ultimate truth. He explains that “Those who do not understand/ The distinction between these two truths/ Do not understand/ The Buddha’s profound teaching” (p.30). The conventional truth encapsulates an ordinary person’s perception of a mistaken reality, as they engage with things and the world on the level of its appearance. The ultimate truth, however, defines the vision of the world through an awakened one’s eyes. This allows for a true understanding of reality, as those who are enlightened engage with the level of how things really are, not how they appear. This two-fold division of reality and truth is the basis of Nagarjuna’s teachings. In order to understand Nagarjuna’s arugement, one must realize the necessity to escape the realm of the conventional truth to see the world as the Buddha sees it in ultimate truth. This is why Nagarjuna’s opponent is incapable of understanding his framework of thought.
One flaw of Nagarjuna’s thought on Buddhist teachings however, is that its teachings depend on using conventional truth as a means of teaching the ultimate truth. Nagarjuna argues that to see the world through the Buddha’s perspective is the main goal of Buddhism, but the teachers of Buddhism must operate from the ordinary level of reality. How can one truly learn of the ultimate truth while their studies rely upon its exact opposite, or moreover the mindset that hinders its achievement? This system of learning that Nagarjuna proposes is quite paradoxical. How can Buddhist philosophy rely on a system of learning that its teaching ultimately refutes?
Garfield, J. L. (2009). Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way) Chapter 24: Examination of the Four Noble Truths. Buddhist Philosophy: Essential readings (pp. 26). Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press.