Nāgārjuna — the second buddha

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Nāgārjuna’s disciple Chandrakīrti, said:
“Emptiness is not a property, or universal mark, of entities … it is a mere medicine, a means of escape from all fixed convictions.”
(Prasannapadā 12)


For a critical introduction to Nāgārjuna, see this article on Wikipedia.


For a mythical hagiography, visit the Berzin Archives.

The South-Indian sage and philosopher Nāgārjuna was pivotal to the growth of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and, even more than Siddhattha Gotama, is the subject of rich mythology (see sidebar at left). Known as The Second Buddha, he lived about six centuries after Gotama. His writings form the basis of Mādhyamika philosophy, on which Tibetan tantrism is based. Legend has it that he retrieved the Mahayana sutras, lost shortly after Gotama’s death, from the subterranean world of the nāgas (a snake kingdom); hence his name.

Nāgārjuna elaborated three key teachings: prajñāpāramitā, (the trancendance of wisdom), śūnyatā (emptiness) and pratītyasamutpāda (dependent origination). By referring closely to the Mahāyāna sutras and maintaining a broad compatibility with early Buddhism, he gained a widespread following that to this day constitutes the principal schism in the Buddhist world, between Northern and Southern Buddhists.

The Southern school refers to itself as the Theravāda, teachings of the Elders, and is also called Hīnayāna, the lesser vehicle, by the Northern school (Mahāyāna means greater vehicle). Although this occasionally creates ill feeling, the distinction is generally held to be philosophical rather than qualitative — mahāyāna shifts the primary focus of Buddhist practice from personal liberation to the full awakening of all sentient beings. Also, Nāgārjuna’s core teaching is the emptiness (śūnyatā) of all phenomena, as opposed to early Buddhist emphasis on non-self (anātman). The philosophies are compatible, but the mahāyāna scope is broader, hence greater vehicle.

The Southern (Theravada) school of Buddhism accepts only the Pali Canon as authentic teachings of the historical Buddha.

On a less religious note, Thomas McEvilley’s groundbreaking book The Shape of Ancient Thought traces parallels and probable exchanges between Greek and Indian philosophy, in particular by Sextus Empiricus who, like Nāgārjuna, advised that we should suspend judgment about virtually all beliefs.


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