The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (book review)

Updated: Nov 6, 2021

Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā

Nāgārjuna,

Jay L. Garfield (Translator)


110220: i have been reading this, studying actually, going back and forth, comparing it to all the other philosophy- particularly buddhism- i have read over the years. this is one i remember best [book:Wisdom Beyond Words: The Buddhist Vision of Ultimate Reality|4329466] . i have far from exhausted the insight in that text or this, the understanding, i feel gained over just the past weeks (and years...). this is a text to read over and over. from the second century this is timeless, brilliant, logical (buddhist logic) and has given me great moments of awareness that exceed any intellectual comprehension. i feel a need to write out what little i get right now, however limited, for this is something i will often return to...


the first part of the book is translation of the text of ‘fundamental wisdom of the middle way’, the second part is garfield’s extensive commentary...


as this is translation from tibetan and sanskrit, from an entire different time, culture etc, garfield must argue for his interpretations, but as i do not read the original languages i just accept the rendering. there are twenty-six chapters of verses, the arguments very dense, closely entwined, and any repetition is directed to support each argument. buddhist logic that nagarjuna employs is ‘four cornered’: that is, true, false, both true and false, neither true and false. i think there is equivalent form in western logic but have not studied it. each chapter nagarjuna uses this logic to come to conclusion and move on to the next conception to be sort of ‘deconstructed’, that is, revealed as incoherent in terms usually given, leading to his final ‘conception’...


i give conception quotes because for nagarjuna this is probably the wrong way to think of it. more perspective than concept. garfield maintains the most important chapters, the most concise, are chapter 1) examination of conditions, and chapter 24) examination of four noble truths, so i will try to focus on those. or rather, give an idea what they argue. the entire ‘wisdom of the middle way’ is an argument for our self and world as between essence and nihilism. 1) insists that all that exists (self, world) is of ‘dependent origination’, exists only because of how it relates to everything else, has no ‘inherent essence’, or being from its own side, then goes on to argue in subsequent chapters how because of this there are two levels of truth: ‘conventional’ and ‘ultimate’, where dependent origination is the perspective of our conventional, daily, ordinary world, grass is green, snow is white, you are you, i am i etc, but on the ultimate level there are none of these determinations but instead ‘emptiness’...


‘emptiness’ is not ‘nonexistence’. our world is not ‘illusion’ in that sense, it is very real, it is illusion if we insist it has an inherent essence, that something desired is desirable, hated is hateful etc rather than reflecting our attitude or relationship. this is called ‘reifying’ (making ‘concrete’) and is an error built on refusal to awareness of the fact of ultimate emptiness. dependent origination is the way of conventional truth but awareness is not somehow transcending the world, seeing platonic forms etc, but coming to that perspective by which what exists is seen as empty. and then the argument must continue: emptiness is itself ‘empty’ of inherent essence. nagarjuna works through a series of chapters that clarifies this (i hope) but it is not until he talks about the table i sort of understand...


the table is empty: that is, it is of its parts, antecedent and subsequent history, various ways it is employed etc, it is not ‘essentially’ a table, not ‘inherently’... and then this ‘emptiness’ is itself empty for there is nothing but ‘emptiness of’ the table. it is as much mistake to claim emptiness is essence as anything else is essence, so nagarjuna insists not to say ‘is’ or ‘is not’ or ‘both is and is not’ or ‘neither is or is not’...


by chapter 24) examination of four noble truths, we get to the core of all buddhism and how nagarjuna argues for conventional truth and ultimate truth and the relationship between them, the first to note is one is not ‘more’ than the other though it is called ‘ultimate’, that both are ‘real’. through previous chapters nagarjuna has argued how emptiness is real, here he must argue the four noble truths apply to emptiness. first, there is suffering, second, there is a cause for suffering, third, there is a cure for suffering, fourth, this is the cure (eightfold path)...


the way i understand his arguments here as through the whole text is that we live simultaneously on the two levels of truth, that the suffering referred to is on the conventional truth, of becoming, persistence, decay. cyclic existence, dependent origination. samsara. and nirvana is not separate realm of bliss but enlightened perspective of the emptiness of cyclic existence of birth, suffering, death. to become a buddha, become enlightened, is to recognize that inherent essence is error of reifying, and perspective of emptiness of all existence (world, self) is awareness of ultimate truth, of nirvana...


note: i have read a few books on buddhism (61) but few primary texts, i do not read the languages, i have read no other commentary on this text. so my enthusiasm is perhaps amateur but no less sincere... there are so many books to read and so little time...

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if you like this review, i now have website: www.michaelkamakana.com 220611: this is probably the most academically accurate of the translations I have read of this book, but still prefer commentary o