It’s time to pull poor Nagarjuna out of the closet and dust him off. Our world is possessed in a sea of rights vs. wrongs, governments trapped in ideological deadlocks, wars, and conflicts based on the same, and religions likewise immersed in egocentric self-righteousness that results in an ever increasing division of denominations and sects.
So that we begin this dusting off in a familiar fashion I need to introduce readers to Mr. Nagarjuna. The fellow lived a long time ago, roughly 1,800 years ago (150–250 CE) and according to modern scholars, was thought to have resided in Southern India. In the Zen tradition, he is the 14th Patriarch. He is also recognized as a patriarch in Tantric and Amitabha Buddhism. While considered a philosopher of incomparable standing he put no stock in philosophy claiming as his mission to be the apologist of the Buddha’s transcendent wisdom: beyond any rational articulation. In that sense, he was a sort of Apostle Paul of Buddhism. The Buddha attempted to convey, with words, matters beyond words and like Jesus was consequently recondite and rarely understood. Nagarjuna set out to correct that and in the process created what is now understood as The Middle Way (or the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism).
The reason he is so important in today’s world is that he was able to show, in a less mind-boggling way, that we live within a world of seeming contradictions that are not contradictory. To most, we live in a relative world, governed by conditional rights vs. wrongs with nothing beyond that. Nagarjuna used the logical method of his era to articulate how there is no contradiction (even though there appears to be). At that point, ancient Indian scholars employed a method of logic called a tetralemma: a method with four dimensions (affirmation, negation, equivalence and neither). In terms of rights versus wrongs it would look like this:
- Absolute right exists: affirmation of absolute right, negation absolute wrong
- Absolute right does not exist: affirmation of absolute wrong, negation absolute right
- Absolute right both exists and does not exist: both affirmation and negation
- Absolute right neither exists nor does not exist: neither affirmation nor negation
Allow me to translate for you. What we ordinarily consider truth is conventionally conditional but there is an ultimate truth beyond convention and these two (while appearing as two), are actually just two sides of the same thing. They arise dependent upon one another and neither can exist without the other. One of these truths is a truth of discriminate opposition (this vs. that: right vs. wrong...the core dilemma), but the other truth is a truth of indiscriminate union. We must use the conventional truth to lead us to the other higher truth since the conventional is the coin of common logic and communications (words) and we use this truth to know how this truth is different from the higher truth. BUT unless we experience the higher truth we will forever be lost in a rational trap.
Then he stated a subset of this doctrine and said that conventional truth was a matter of perceptible form but the higher truth was of imperceptible emptiness itself (thus what the Buddha had said in the Heart Sutra/Sutra of Perfect Wisdom: Form IS emptiness. Emptiness IS form). Nagarjuna reasoned that if this ineffable dimension of emptiness was valid, then it must apply to everything including emptiness, thus empty emptiness, which creates an inseparable feedback union back to form again. The two are forever fused together.