Distinguished scholar Jay Garfield is Professor of Philosophy at Smith College, taught at BCBS October 29, 2011. His course was titled “Nāgārjuna’s Dharma.” His translations of the texts of Nāgārjuna are among the most well-respected in English. Nāgārjuna is known as the founder of the Madhyamaka tradition (which later evolved into the Tibetan tradition, among others) and is considered so influential in later traditions that he is known by some as the “second Buddha.”
We asked Professor Garfield about Nāgārjuna’s key teachings on emptiness, what we as contemporary students and practitioners might take away from them, and how he compares teaching college students with teaching adult learners. Here is the conversation.
Your course is titled “Nāgārjuna’s Dharma.” How is that different from what your average Western vipassanā practitioner thinks of as Dharma?
That’s a hard question, as it is hard to figure out who counts as the “average Western Vipassanā practitioner.” So let me just talk about what I think Nāgārjuna has in mind when he addresses Dharma. At the end of the 24th chapter of Mulamadhāyamakakārikā, Nāgārjuna says, “Whoever understands dependent origination understands suffering, its cause, its cessation and the path.” Earlier in that chapter, he identifies dependent origination with emptiness, and identifies that insight with the middle way taught by the Buddha. So, for Nāgārjuna, the heart of understanding Dharma is the understanding of emptiness, and the heart of understanding emptiness is understanding that to be empty is simply to be dependently originated. When one really sees all phenomena—including external phenomena and one’s own mind—as completely empty, yet dependently originated, then one realizes Dharma. At least that is how I read Nāgārjuna.
Emptiness—in the sense of a lack of an individual essence—is the core teaching of Nāgārjuna. Although it’s tricky at first, especially for those with no background or interest in philosophy, to understand Nāgārjuna’s “emptiness,“ we can eventually get the idea that nothing exists “from its own side,” that everything depends on other things for its existence. We can get it in our heads, that is, as an idea. But what does it mean for practice, both on the cushion and in daily life?
There are three stages in realizing Dharma: hearing (or reading); contemplation; meditation. Without first reading or hearing teachings of Dharma there is nothing to contemplate. So, study is important. It represents the foundation of practice (at least in the Mahāyāna tradition as practiced in the great Indian universities such as Nalanda, Vikramsila and Taxisila, and preserved in Tibet). But if one does not subject what one hears to careful rational analysis one never really understands it, and without this deep, discursive understanding, all the reading and listening in the world is just idle infotainment. But once one attains a real discursive understanding of Dharma, one must internalize it, to make it effective in how one engages with the world—with oneself, with others, and with the events and objects we encounter in daily life. Making it part of oneself in this way is the task of meditation. Without discursive understanding, there is nothing on which to meditate; without meditation, the discursive understanding is simply one more kleśa, a bit more fabrication in the way of genuine openness to reality.
Having understood Nāgārjuna’s teachings on emptiness, what light might that shed for us on the meaning of teachings in the Pali Canon? Does he improve on the explanation of suññatā / emptiness found there? Does he help us with any other teachings?
Nāgārjuna’s philosophical ideas build directly on the Pali canon. I think that we should see Madhyamaka not as an alternative to Pali Buddhist doctrine, but as a further development of it. When we read in the Pali canon that the aggregates are “on fire,” that they are the fuel for saṃsāra, we may wonder how to extinguish that fuel. Nāgārjuna’s understanding of the aggregates as empty, but as conventionally real, allows us to transform them from the basis of suffering into the basis of liberation.
It’s often noted that Nāgārjuna must have been reacting to developments in his own time, some 500 years after the time of the Buddha. He seems to stress non-reification, not considering any object or idea as a thing unto itself. What ideas or concepts or practices do you think he was aiming at? Is this a message we still need to hear today? What are we reifying?
Nāgārjuna was concerned both with reification and with nihilism, and his Madhyamaka is a middle path between them. Reification is a cognitive reflex: it causes us to posit substantial selves; to see objects around us as substantially existent, permanent, etc… That cognitive reflex is as much a part of our psyches today as it was a part of those with whom the Buddha was in dialogue 2500 years ago. Nāgārjuna saw that reification and nihilism go hand in hand: when you reify yourself, you take others less seriously; when you treat something as permanent, you deny the reality of change and dependency that are the basis of reality. So, I think that we reify just about everything we encounter; and that in virtue of doing so, we are also subtly nihilistic. The middle path is one that eschews both of these cognitive attitudes in an appreciation of the emptiness and dependent origination of all things.
You hint in your course description that a literal, intellectual-only understanding of emptiness leaves one with a feeling of nihilism; if everything is empty, how can anything then truly matter? What is Nāgārjuna’s answer?
To be empty is not to be non-existent; rather, to exist is to be empty. Emptiness is not an alternative to reality, it is the only kind of reality that anything can have. So, if you deny emptiness, you are in fact a nihilist, even though the route to that nihilism is the instinct of reification.
At one point Nāgārjuna says that what he means by emptiness is the same meaning or goal as the ending of the àsavas, or defilements, in the classical teachings in the Pali Canon. There is apparently some linguistic ambiguity about this distinction between “meaning” and “goal.” That is, he could be saying that both his teaching and the Buddha’s original teaching seek to liberate beings into nirvana (even though they have different meanings) or he could be saying that these are literally two different ways of saying exactly the same thing. Which do you think it is, and does the answer make any difference for a contemporary practitioner?
Both. The term “artha” in Sanskrit can be translated as “meaning,” “goal,” “object,” “end,” or “purpose.” Nāgārjuna takes himself to be expounding the meaning of the teachings of the Buddha, and to be doing so for the same purpose as did the Buddha—to provide sentient beings with a means to attain liberation.
How is it different teaching these topics to students in a university versus the people who come to a place like BCBS?
In many ways, it is the same. I love to read, to discuss and to think about these wonderful texts and the Dharma they expound. And I talk about them in the same way no matter where I am. But then, goals are different. In a college or university classroom, I am also concerned to teach a range of scholarly skills and approaches: how to use canonical texts, translations and secondary literature; how to analyze and comment upon the texts; textual history; connections to texts in Western philosophy. And many of my students may have limited background in Buddhism, so a lot has to be filled in. And of course they are not so interested in the implications of the texts for practice or daily life. In a Dharma Center, I am teaching to people with a more extensive background in Buddhism, a deeper personal engagement with Dharma, but with less interest in the activity of Buddhalogical scholarship or philosophical comparison. Often, just as I have to teach why Buddhism is important to college students, I have to teach why philosophy is important to Dharma practitioners.
Here are a few of the charming but enigmatic verses from Nāgārjuna’s Mulamadhāyamakakārikā (MMK). What can we take away from them?
Makes a magical illusion, and
By the illusion
Another illusion is created,
The agent is like the illusion,
Is like the illusion’s illusion…”
Agents and fruits are
Like a city of Gandharvas and
Like a mirage or a dream.”
transl. J. Garfield
Nāgārjuna here points out both that restraint (the control of attraction and aversion and the actions they occasion) and positive benefit (the cultivation of bodhicitta) is the essence of Dharma practice. Even though MMK seems to be preoccupied with metaphysics, the understanding of the nature of reality and ethical practice are inseparable.
This is a reply to the worry that even if actions are impermanent, dependent and hence empty, the agent must be real in order to perform them and to realize their karmic consequences. Nāgārjuna deploys the analogy of an illusion begetting an illusion to show that an empty agent can perform empty actions with empty consequences. While they all, like illusions, mirages and dreams, appear to exist in one way (with intrinsic reality) they in fact exist in quite another way (as empty and dependent). This is not to say that they ARE illusory but that like illusions they are deceptive. But deceptive illusions, like mirages, are real: they are real mirages.