Thursday, 8 December 2016

Nagarjuna's Middle Way

Starting in the first century B.C. and over the subsequent centuries, there is the emergence in Buddhist literature of the prajnaparamita sutras. These writings praise merit and discipline not as ends in themselves, but merely as a vehicle for the realization of transcendent wisdom. This wisdom, impossible to describe, is characterized by insight into the emptiness of conventional reality. Only one who abides in transcendent wisdom is liberated from the suffering of the world, and it matters not whether he or she be monk or nun.

In one such sutra, a lay person expounds the transcendent wisdom to an audience of monks. How astoundingly revolutionary that must have been! And yet this seemingly new philosophy of emptiness accords with what the Buddha himself had taught. In the Dhammapada, for example, he instructs that one look upon this this world as if it were a bubble and you its dreamer. 

Nagarjuna in his verses on the  Middle Way takes it upon himself to provide a philosophical basis to this insight. His approach is utterly negative, critiquing anything that might seek to fill the gap of emptiness. Even the concept of emptiness will not do! There was a great tradition of philosophical argument in ancient Buddhism. The great and good would gather round to listen and the stakes were often high, the loser of an argument often making obeisance to and becoming a disciple of the winner. It was a good way of resolving disputes. 

Nagarjuna enters this arena as the dispeller of all disputes. He plays the language game but only in order to forbid every move except the move not to play. Nagarjuna, his adversaries and his readers get caught in their own game, but we emerge wiser: it is but a game. How could it be otherwise?
The Magic Gateway by Jeremiah Morelli
The following is the entire set of 26 verses of Nagarjuna's 12-gate treatise to enlightenment based on the translation of Hsueh-li Cheng, though lacking the accompanying explanations and commentary.

1. (Causal Conditions)
Things are produced from various conditions and hence have no self-nature.
If they have no self-nature, then how can there be such things?

The [twelve] causal conditions really have no production.
If they have production, then do they have it in one mind-moment or in many.

2. (With or without effect)
If an effect is already real[ised in the cause], then there can be no production.
If at the outset unreal[ised], then there can be no production either.
If both real and unreal, then there can be no production.
How then can there be production?

Four conditions produce things; 
there is no fifth condition:
the cause condition, 
the sequential condition, 
the appropriating condition and 
the upheaving condition.

3. (Conditions)
Briefly and broadly, conditions do not contain effect.
If there is no effect in conditions, 
how can it be claimed to come from conditions?

If effect does not exist within conditions, 
and yet comes from the conditions,
can it not come from non-conditions?

4. (Characteristics)
Neither created nor non-created things have characteristics.
Since they have no characteristics, they are both empty.

If origination is a created thing, then it should have three characteristics.
If origination is a non-created thing, how can it be called a created characteristic?

The origination of origination comes from the primal origination.
Meanwhile the primal origination is originated by the origination of origination.

If it is said that the origination of origination originates the primal origination,
How can the origination of origination origination primal origination
If it is itself originated by primal origination?

If it is said that the primal origination originates the origination of origination
How can the primal origination originate the origination of origination
If it is itself originated by the origination of origination.

When the origination of origination is being originated,
it may originate primal origination.
How can it originate primal origination
If it itself has not yet been originated?

There is no darkness in the light, 
nor is there darkness in that place.
The elimination of darkness is called illumination.
Now what could the light illuminate?

How can darkness be eliminated by the light being lighted,
When the light, just being lighted, does not come into contact with darkness?

If the light can eliminate darkness while having no contact with darkness,
then the light here should eliminate all darkness.

If the light illuminates itself and other things, 
then darkness will also cover itself and other things.

If origination is not yet originated, how can it originate itself?
If it is already originated and then originates itself, why should it need originating?

5. (With or Without Characteristics)
There is no function of characterisation in the case of a thing with characteristics.
Nor is there function of characterisation in the case of a thing without characteristics.
Besides these, what can characteristics characterise?

6. (Identity or Difference)
Characteristics and the characterisable are neither the same nor different.
If they are neither the same nor different, how can both be established?

7. (Being or Non-Being)
There cannot be being with non-being;
Nor can there be being without non-being.
If there can be being with non-being,
Then being should always be non-being.

8. (Nature)
By observing that the characteristics change, we know all things are devoid of nature.
Things which are devoid of nature are also non-existent, so all things are empty.

9. (Cause and Effect)
Within all conditions, effect is ultimately unattainable.
Nor does it come from elsewhere…
How can there be an effect?

10. (The Creator)
It is not justifiable that suffering is made by itself,
by another, by both, or from no cause at all.
Therefore there is no suffering.

Effect is produced from conditions, conditions are not self-existent,
If conditions are not self-existent, then how can they produce effect?

11. (The Three Times)
Earlier, later, and simultaneous, 
these three events are impossible.
How can events be produced from causes?

12. (Production)
The effect already produced is not to be produced;
that not yet produced is not produced.
Without that which is already produced, 
and that which is not yet produced,
that which is being produced is not produced.

Image: The Magic Gateway, copyright of Jeremiah Morelli.

Shared originally on Buddhist Travellers in 2012.

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