The class on Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) that I taught today and yesterday is now finished. There were seven students in the course; not much, but enough for intensive questions, answers and discussions. We worked together to understand the deep meanings behind the dense text of the Fundamental Wisdom, and I think we succeeded quite well in doing so.
The teaching was based on the text of Fundamental Wisdom that I translated into Thai. We were all exhausted in the end because we spent the whole day from 9 am to 4:30 pm both Saturday and Sunday reading almost all the chapters of the book. There are twenty-seven chapters in the Mula, so it was quite a feat covering almost all of them. We read all the verses in the chapters that we read closely, which were about twenty-five, and in the chapters that we skipped I tried to give a summary of the conclusion and the main argument.
We began by praying to Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom, to invoke his blessings so that we succeed in understanding the text. Then we began with the Dedicatory Verse, which according to the Garfield translation is as follows:
I prostrate to the Perfect Buddha
The best of teachers, who taught that
Whatever is dependently arisen is
Unannihilated, not permanent,
Not coming, not going,
Without distinction, without identity,
And free from conceptual construction.
This verse kind of summarizes the main point that Nagarjuna would like to make. Things are unceasing, unborn, unannihilated, unmade, not coming, not going, and so on. Understanding this thoroughly amounts to understanding the whole text. Whatever is dependently arisen is of the nature of being ’empty’ or śūnya in Sanskrit. As such, it is free from any kind of imputation as to its essential or substantive characteristic, either being made or born, being unborn, being permanent, being impermanent, and so on. This is an outstanding feature of the Madhyamika philosophy. It uses logic, but in the sense it apparently violates any possible laws of logic. The idea is to force us to come face to face to the real nature of things itself — the nature that is completely free from any conceptual construction and imputation.
We were all exhaused at the end of the day, but after the course was completed around 4:30 pm I think everybody came back with a better and deeper understanding of the Madhyamika teaching. What I emphasized during the course was that the distinctions between the different schools of Buddhism was not as great as some might think. For example, the two main schools of Mahayana Buddhism are the Madhyamika and the Yogācāra. The latter is known for its teaching of “Mind Only,” that is that everything that appears is ultimately speaking a projection of the mind itself. There appears to be a clear difference from that of the Madhyamika. However, when we examine closely, we find that the ultimate reality spoken of by the Madhyamika — emptiness or ordinary things themselves considered as free from any conceptual imputation — is not too different from the basic projection of the mind position of the Yogācāra. In both cases the idea is that reality as ordinarily conceived, as things with their own seemingly permanent nature and substantive identity, is not tenable. The difference seems to be only on how this basic reality itself — we might call this ‘things as they are as such’ or ‘suchness’ or ‘dependent origination’ — is called.
I think this is a very promising start, and it marks another occasion where a serious attempt to understand Madhyamika philosophy is made. Another thing I said during the course was that Nagarjuna’s teaching was not in any way any addition or deviation from the Buddha’s original teaching and had nothing that the Theravadin could not accept, if understood properly.