The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Sanskrit: मूलमध्यमककारिका, Root Verses on the Middle Way), abbreviated as MMK, is the foundational text of the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy. It was composed by the Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna (approximately around 150 CE). The MMK makes use of reductio arguments to show how all phenomena (dharmas) are empty of svabhava (which has been variously translated as essence, own-being, or inherent existence). The MMK is widely regarded as one of the most influential and widely studied texts in the history of Buddhist philosophy. The MMK had a major impact on the subsequent development of Buddhist thought, especially in Tibetan Buddhism and East Asian Buddhism.
The MMK is the work of Nāgārjuna, an Indian Buddhist monk and philosopher writing in Sanskrit. Very little is known about this figure, including exactly where he lived (somewhere in the Indian subcontinent), exactly what time (some time around the 2nd or 3rd century CE), and how many texts he composed. As with many early Indian historical figures, the biographical information which does exist is mainly hagiographical and from later periods. Most scholars agree that Nāgārjuna was a Mahāyāna Buddhist who believed all things (dharmas) to be empty, or without an intrinsic existence and nature (svabhāva). Beyond that, little can be said about him with certainty.
During the second and third centuries, Mahāyāna ideas were held by a minority of Buddhists in India who lived within the communities of Nikāya Buddhism (i.e. non-Mahāyāna Buddhism). Although all the major Buddhist schools at the time held that the person was empty of any eternal self or soul, some of the Abhidharma schools conceived of dharmas (transient phenomena, impermanent events) as ultimately real entities (dravyata) that had essences or "intrinsic natures" (svabhāva). These intrinsic natures were seen as an independent part of a phenomenon, an inherent self-sufficiency that was not caused by something else. Abhidharma schools like the Vaibhasikas accepted this doctrine and did not see it as conflicting with the idea of dependent origination.
In the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Nāgārjuna sought to refute these essentialist ideas found in Buddhist traditions such as Vaibhasika and Pudgalavada, as well as in Brahmanical schools of thought like Nyaya who also defended an essence based metaphysics. As such, his philosophy is also often termed Niḥsvabhāvavāda (the no svabhāva doctrine).
Nāgārjuna's main contention with svabhāva theories was that they contradicted the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda). Furthermore, essence theories are not in agreement with the Mahāyāna sutras Nāgārjuna would have been familiar with. These sutras, particularly the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras, teach a kind of comprehensive illusionist ontology that sees all dharmas, even nirvana and Buddhahood, as being empty and like an illusion. This illusionism was not totally new, since similar ideas about emptiness can be found in the early Buddhist texts (see: Samyutta Nikaya 22:95, as well as Samyukta Āgama 335 and 297). However, the Prajñāpāramitā texts are unique in seeing all dharmas, including nirvana, as empty illusions. The MMK cites the Kaccānagotta Sutta, an early Buddhist text, from which it draws one of its major ideas regarding the middle way: the explanation of "right-view" as being a middle way between saying that "everything exists" (referring to the view of permanent existence: Pali: atthitā, Skt. astitva) and saying that "everything does not exist" (non-existence; Pali: n'atthitā, Skt nāstitva). This middle way is then defined as the 12 principles (dvādaśāṅga) of dependent origination.
Thus, Nāgārjuna's main project was to develop the philosophical position of the Buddha's teaching of dependent origination and not-self/emptiness as well as the ideas of the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras in a logical and systematic manner by refuting svabhāva theories and self theories.
The text is a series of 450 verses (karikas) organized into 27 chapters. The verses are aphoristic, often enigmatic, and extremely short. The text's arguments are presented in a highly compressed and concise form. This is because the text is a karika-style work. Such texts were meant to be memorized as an aid to learning by students. The text's arguments would be filled out through the oral commentary of a master. As such, the karikas are like a verse outline of the major philosophical arguments of an oral tradition.
The text seems to be mainly addressed to a Buddhist audience, particularly those who followed Abhidharma doctrines which held that dharmas are ultimately real and have svabhava (an intrinsic nature). The MMK takes up numerous Buddhist Abhidharma categories and ideas and examines them to show that they are empty and cannot have intrinsic nature. The MMK presents various arguments, mostly reductio in style, such as showing that an idea leads to an infinite regress.
The text begins with the following dedication verse:
I salute the Fully Enlightened One, the best of orators, who taught the doctrine of dependent origination, according to which there is neither cessation nor origination, neither annihilation nor the eternal, neither singularity nor plurality, neither the coming nor the going [of any dharma, for the purpose of nirvāṇa characterized by] the auspicious cessation of hypostatization.
The dedication sets out the main goal of the MMK, to eliminate conceptual proliferation, reification and hypostatization (prapañca), which expresses itself in different philosophical concepts such as essentialism, eternalism and annihilationism. The first chapter discusses causation. The main thesis to be defended is given in the first verse:
Not from itself, not from another, not from both, nor without cause: Never in any way is there any existing thing that has arisen.
To put it another way, the main thesis which Nāgārjuna will defend here is that phenomena (dharmas) do not come into being in any of the following four ways:
The main view that MMK focuses on debating with is the second one, which is held by Buddhist Abhidharma theorists which put forth four main forms of conditionality: the primary cause (hetu-pratyaya), the objective support (ārambaṇa-pratyaya), the proximate condition (samanantara-pratyaya), and the dominant condition (adhipati-pratyaya). The MMK takes up each one in order to refute them, arguing that, for those who hold that cause and effect are distinct, the producing relation can only be a conceptual construction.
The 27 chapters of the MMK are as follows:
The authenticity of the last two chapters is disputed, and they may have been later additions, not composed by Nāgārjuna. However, most ancient commentaries take them to be canonical.
Different scholars divide up the work into different main parts. According to Jay Garfield, the MMK can be divided into four main sections:
As a kārikā-style text, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā presents only aphoristic, often enigmatic and extremely short verses, much like the sūtra works of the various Hindu philosophical schools. Since they served primarily as pedagogical or mnemonic aids for teachers, commentaries were required to make the meaning of this type of text more explicit to the uninitiated reader.
The Indian Akutobhayā, whose authorship is unknown, though is attributed to Nagarjuna in the tradition, is held by Ames to be the earliest commentary on the MMK. C.W. Huntington has suggested that this commentary may not have been considered a separate text, but instead may have been a set of notes which may go back to oral explanations of the root text by Nāgārjuna himself.
The earliest known commentary on the MMK by another author is preserved within the first Chinese translation of the Kārikā, known as the "Middle Treatise" (中論 Zhong Lun), translated by Kumarajiva in 409. The author of this commentary is given as either "Blue Eyes" (青目; back translated as *Vimalākṣa) or *Piṅgala (賓伽羅). This is by far the best known commentary in the East Asian Mādhyamaka tradition, forming one of the three commentaries that make up the Sanlun ("Three Treatise") school. An influential figure of the Sanlun school is Jízàng (549–623), who wrote a commentary on the Middle Treatise in Chinese, the Zhongguanlun shu (中觀論疏).
Other surviving and influential Indian commentaries on the MMK include Buddhapālita's (c. 470–550) "Madhyamakvr̩tti" and Bhāviveka's (c. 500–578) "Prajñāpradīpa" (Lamp of Wisdom). The most influential commentary in later Indian and Tibetan Buddhism is Candrakirti's (c. 7th century) Prasannapadā (Clear Words), which survives in Sanskrit and Tibetan translation. An MMK commentary by the Indian Yogacara philosopher Sthiramati also survives in Chinese.
In Tibet, various influential Tibetan language commentaries were written on the MMK. An early and important commentary is Ornament of Reason by Mabja Jangchub Tsöndrü (12th century). In the Gelug school, the key and definitive commentary is Je Tsongkhapa's (1357–1419) Ocean of Reasoning. Meanwhile, in the Nyingma school, the most important commentaries are by more recent figures, mainly Ju Mipham and Khenpo Shenga.
During the modern and contemporary periods, new commentaries have been written from different perspectives. David Kalupahana, a Sri Lankan scholar, wrote a commentary (Kalupahana 1986) which interprets the text from an early Buddhist perspective. Meanwhile, Jay Garfield has published an English translation and commentary (Garfield 1995) which, though influenced by Tibetan interpretations, also attempts to explain the text to Western philosophers. Gudo Nishijima wrote a commentary from a Soto Zen perspective, while Siderits and Katsura have published a translation and commentary (2013) which mainly follow the classical Sanskrit tradition.
As noted by Ruegg, Western scholarship has given a broad variety of interpretations of Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka thought in the MMK, including: "nihilism, monism, irrationalism, misology, agnosticism, scepticism, criticism, dialectic, mysticism, acosmism, absolutism, relativism, nominalism, and linguistic analysis with therapeutic value".
Some of the main scholarly interpretations of Nagarjuna's MMK include the following:
|Richard Jones||Nagarjuna: Buddhism's Most Important Philosopher||Jackson Square Books||2014||ISBN:978-1502768070||Translation from the Sanskrit of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā and Nagarjuna's other available Sanskrit texts.|
|Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura||Nāgārjuna's Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā||Wisdom Publications||2013||ISBN:978-1-61429-050-6||A new translation from the Sanskrit. Sanskrit verses are presented in Roman characters prior to their translations. The authors have created a brief running commentary that conveys interpretations given in extant Indian commentaries in order to capture the early Indian perspectives on the work.|
|Gudo Wafu Nishijima and Brad Warner||Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika||Monkfish Book Publishing||2011||ISBN:978-0-9833589-0-9||A modern interpretation from a Zen perspective.|
|Mabja Jangchub Tsöndrü||Ornament of Reason: The Great Commentary to Nagarjuna's Root of the Middle Way||Snow Lion||2011||ISBN:978-1-55939-368-3||Commentary translated by The Dharmachakra Translation Committee.|
|Padmakara Translation Group||The Root Stanzas on the Middle Way||Éditions Padmakara||2008||ISBN:978-2-916915-44-9||A translation from the Tibetan, following (but not including) the commentary of the Nyingma and Rimé master Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche. This volume, containing both the Tibetan text and translation, was made to mark the visit of the Dalai Lama to France in August 2008, and as a support for the teachings scheduled for that occasion.|
|Luetchford, Michael J.||Between Heaven and Earth - From Nagarjuna to Dogen||Windbell Publications||2002||ISBN:978-0-9523002-5-0||A translation and interpretation with references to the philosophy of Zen Master Dogen.|
|Batchelor, Stephen||Verses from the Center||Diane Publishing||2000||ISBN:978-0756760977||Batchelor's translation is the first nonacademic, idiomatic English version of the text.|
|McCagney, Nancy||Nagarjuna and the Philosophy of Openness||Rowman & Littlefield||1997||ISBN:978-0-8476-8626-1||Romanized text, translation and philosophical analysis.|
|Garfield, Jay L.||The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way||Oxford University Press||1995||ISBN:978-0-19-509336-0||A translation of the Tibetan version together with commentary.|
|Bocking, Brian||Nagarjuna in China: A Translation of the Middle Treatise||Edwin Mellen Press||1995||ISBN:978-0-7734-8981-3||Kumarajiva's Chinese version with commentary by Blue Eyes.|
|Kalupahana, David J.||Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way||State University of New York Press||1986||ISBN:978-81-208-0774-7||Romanized text, translation, and commentary. Interpretation of the text in the light of the Canon.|
|Sprung, Mervyn||Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way||Prajna Press, Boulder||1979||ISBN:978-0-7100-0190-0||Partial translation of the verses together with Chandrakirti's commentary.|
|Inada, Kenneth K.||Nagarjuna: A Translation of his Mulamadhyamakakarika With an Introductory Essay||The Hokuseido Press||1970||ISBN:978-0-89346-076-1||Romanized text and translation.|
|Streng, Frederick||Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning||Abdingdon Press||1967||(predates ISBN)||Translation and considerable analysis.|