Nāgārjuna and the Two Truths

Nāgārjuna is perhaps the most celebrated philosopher-sage of Mahayana/Mādhyamika Buddhism. Despite the enormous popularity very little is actually known concerning his Biographical details apart from the generally-held belief that he lived during the 2nd century CE. While rooted in rich mythical soil, his name is in reference to the “Nagas” from whom he received the Prajnaparamita teachings. The Śatasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā, which the Buddha had especially entrusted to the Nagas for safekeeping, was handed over to Nāgārjuna who later propagated the teachings. In the west, he is best known for his teachings on emptiness, (śūnyatā), which he espoused during his formation of the Mādhyamika School. For our purposes in this series, his own nuanced views on śūnyatā follows most closely from the doctrine of Dependent-Origination which states that nothing within the created-order has an intrinsic-existence of its own. Indeed, the term śūnyatā has an “entirely different nuance in the Mādhyamika thought from that of other Buddhist schools and traditions.”

In the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna, śūnyatā has been used for nothingness or emptiness of dharmas (dharma-nairātmya or dharma-śūnyatā), of person or whole (pudgala-nairātmya or pudgala-śūnyatā), and even for the nothingness of nothingness or emptiness of emptiness (śūnyatā). [C.D. Sebastian, ibid, pg. 52]

It also needs to be stressed that for Nāgārjuna śūnyatā itself is self-empty in the ultima rerum of the Supreme Nirvanic Reality of Self-identity (devoid of all discriminatory factors) in the Unborn and Absolute. Thus, in the ultimate scheme of things Nāgārjuna stresses that all dharmatas are dependently-originating due to the lack of any resemblance to the Nirvanic-Self, and hence is śūnya or self-empty. All of this is related to the notion of Existence itself.

Existence does not mean an ultimate existence or ontological existence. There is no inherent existence (svabhāvatā) in an ontological sense of the term at all. Things exist only conventionally, or when we say ‘exist’, it should be taken as a conventional existence. (ibid, pg. 58)

This leads us now to the main emphasis of this blog concerning Nāgārjuna’s sense of the Two-Truths, i.e., Conventional and Absolute Reality. This understanding of the Two-Truths can be found in all facets of Indian Philosophy, as well as Indian-Buddhist Philosophy. An excellent resource is The Theory of Two Truths in India, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This can be broken down in such diversified schools as the Ābhidharmikas / Sarvāstivāda and Yogācāran. The Madhyamaka-system and Nāgārjuna considers it in the following fashion:

Nāgārjuna saw himself as propagating the dharma taught by the Buddha, which he says is precisely based on the theory of the two truths: a truth of mundane conventions and a truth of the ultimate. ([MMK] 24.8, Dbu ma tsa 14b–15a) He saw the theory of the two truths as constituting the Buddha’s core teaching and his philosophy. Nāgārjuna maitains therefore that those who do not understand the distinction between these two truths would fail to understand the Buddha’s teaching ([MMK] 24.9, Dbu ma tsa 15a). This is so, for Nāgārjuna, because (1) without relying on the conventional truth, the meaning of the ultimate cannot be explained, and (2) without understanding the meaning of the ultimate, nirvāṇa is not achieved ([MMK] 24.10, Dbu ma tsa 15a).

Nāgārjuna’s theory of the two truths is fundamentally different from all theories of truth in other Indian philosophies. Hindu philosophers of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika, Sāṃkya-Yoga, and Mīmāṁsā-Vedānta—all advocate a foundationalism of some kind according to which ultimate reality is taken to be “substantive reality” (drayva) or foundation upon which stands the entire edifice of the conventional ontological structures where the ultimate reality is posited as immutable, fixed, irreducible and independent of any interpretative conventions. That is so, even though the conventional structure that stands upon it constantly changes and transforms.

As we saw the Buddhist realism of the Vaibhāṣika and the representationalism of the Sautrāntika both advocate ultimate truth as ultimately real, logically irreducible. The idealism of Yogācāra holds nondual mind as the only ultimate reality and the external world as merely conventional truths. On Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka all things including ultimate truth are ultimately unreal, empty (śūnya) of any intrinsic nature (svabhāva) including the emptiness (śūnyatā) itself, therefore all are groundless. In this sense a Mādhyamika (a proponent of the Madhyamaka thought) is a an advocate of the emptiness (śūnyavādin), advocate of the intrinsic unreality (niḥsvabhāvavādin), groundlessness, essencelessness, or carelessness. Nevertheless to assert that all things are empty of any intrinsic reality, for Nāgārjuna, is not to undermine the existential status of things as simply nothing. On the contrary, Nāgārjuna argues, to assert that the things are empty of any intrinsic reality is to explain the way things really are as causally conditioned phenomena (pratītyasamputpaṅhā).

Nāgārjuna’s central argument to support his radical non-foundationalist theory of the two truths draws upon an understanding of conventional truth as tied to dependently arisen phenomena, and ultimate truth as tied to emptiness of the intrinsic nature. Since the former and the latter are constitutive of each other, in that each entails the other, ultimate reality is tied to being that which is conventionally real. Nāgārjuna advances important arguments justifying the correlation between conventional truth vis-à-vis dependent arising, and emptiness vis-à-vis ultimate truth. These arguments bring home their epistemological and ontological correlations ([MMK] 24.14; Dbu ma tsa 15a). He argues that wherever applies emptiness as the ultimate reality, there applies the causal efficacy of conventional reality and wherever emptiness does not apply as the ultimate reality, there does not apply the causal efficacy of conventional reality (Vig.71) (Dbu ma tsa 29a). According to Nāgārjuna, ultimate reality’s being empty of any intrinsic reality affords conventional reality its causal efficacy since being ultimately empty is identical to being causally produced, conventionally. This must be so since, for Nāgārjuna, “there is no thing that is not dependently arisen; therefore, there is no such thing that is not empty” ([MMK] 24.19, Dbu ma tsa 15a). [From the above reference]

Conventional truth (saṁvṛti-satya) is what we primarily attribute to our everyday associations, i.e., what appears to be true to our ordinary consciousness. Whereas ultimate truth, Paramārtha-satya, is NOT Self-empty of its own intrinsic nature (svabhāva), but rather fully endowed with Its own Nirvanic-Suchness—and is devoid of all conventionally conceived connotations. For Nāgārjuna everything that we conceive and perceive through our ordinary and thus conventional lens is null and void due to its dependent structure; hence no-thing is original but just carbon copies of nominally-diseased constructs.

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