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The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika

by Nagarjuna, Jay L. Garfield

Buy the book: Nagarjuna. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika

Release Date: June, 1995

Edition: Hardcover

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Buy the book: Nagarjuna. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika


A precious resource, but I suspect it tames Nagarjuna

This book has been a treasure to those of us who had stared in consternation at K. Inada's translation or wrestled with the misprints in D. Kalupahana's edition. Here lucidity reigns. But there is something excessively dry and scholastic about Garfield's Nagarjuna. I think this is partly due to the fact that Garfield translates from the Tibetan, not the original Sanskrit. Compare his translation of Ch. 19, verse 1: "If the present and the future/Depend on the past,/Then the present and the future/Would have existed in the past", with Sprung's: "If what is arising here and now and what is not yet realized are dependent on what is past, what is arising here and now and what is not yet realized will be in past time" (which could be further improved by translating "atita" as "what has been"). So dry is Garfield's diction that his retention of a verse format seems pointless. The Gelug-pa Tibetan interpretation of Nagarjuna is a scholasticizing one, and loses some of the savor of emptiness and liberation which gives meditative point to Nagarjuna's laconic logic. Also, Garfield keeps referring to Hume and Wittgenstein in a way that further domesticates and scholasticizes Nagarjuna, making him a linguistic therapist who frees us from substantializations and reifications, but who also allows us to install ourselves comfortably in the conventional dependently co-arising world. It seems to me that in Buddhism this samsaric world is always painful, radically unsatisfactory, and that Nagarjuna is not just curing us of false theories about it, but is revealing it as radically self-contradictory even in its everyday pragmatic or conventional texture. To say that emptiness "is not a self-existent void standing behind a veil of illusion comprising conventional reality, but merely a characteristic of conventional reality" (p. 91) sounds very bland. Emptiness is not just any characteristic, but a radically subversive quality of our world, which it is by no means easy to realize. "The actuality of the entire phenomenal world, persons and all, is recovered within that emptiness" (p. 95) is again too bland. Only a Buddha can grasp the world in its ultimate emptiness and its conventional texture at once. The recovery of the conventional from the point of view of ultimate emptiness is not a comfortable restoration or even a disillusioned Humean resignation to conventions. It means realizing that the apparently solid world of experience is only a flimsy, provisional raft or skillful means, surpassed by the empty ultimacy which it can serve to indicate. "The eventual equation of the phenomenal world with emptiness, of samsara with nirvana, and of the conventional and the ultimate" (p. 101) is very, very eventual, so that only a Buddha can perceive it correctly. Asserted too early, too sweepingly, it can short-circuit the path to liberation.

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Demanding but satisfying

As Garfield states in the introduction, his analysis of the text is more from an analytical, Western philosophical perspective than from a "Buddhalogical" (his word) one. The result is authoritative, scholarly and a little dry. His presentation reminds me of David Brazier's presentation of the Abhidharma in his book "Zen Therapy: Transcending the Sorrows of the Human Mind." The experience of reading this book is very demanding, but also very satisfying. The benefits to be derived are probably directly proportional with the work one puts in to understanding it.

A more poetically compelling translation of the Mulamadhyamikakarika, along with a very thought-provoking introduction, is to be found in Stephen Batchelor's "Verses from the Center."

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