Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture by Joseph
Walser (Columbia University Press) Joseph Walser's provocative new book,
Nāgārjuna in Context, is aptly characterized as "pioneering." As a whole, the
book is rich and rewarding. It is also, however, somewhat problematic, though
this is perhaps to be expected of any work of such ambition. Despite the book's
problems, which include an unusually high number of typographical errors and
other such infelicities, Walser is to be congratulated for writing a text that
will surely provoke productive debate.
Walser aims in this book to locate Nāgārjuna geographically and historically,
and to offer a reading of Nāgārjuna's work that emphasizes the impact of
institutional forces on his authorial output. His major claim is that Nāgārjuna
should be seen as working to advance a specifically Mahāyāna agenda, in an
institutional context not necessarily favorable to that aim. For this reason,
the book begins not with an investigation of Nāgārjuna, but rather with an
attempt to trace the geographical and historical boundaries of early Indian
On Walser's reading, the early "Mahāyāna movement" (a phrase intended by
Walser in a sociologically technical sense) straddled the doctrinal and the
social, comprising not only "attempts at doctrinal or literary innovation" (p.
5), but also those historical agents who propagated or were sympathetic to such
innovation ("Mahāyānists"), whether inside or outside Buddhist monastic
institutions. While acknowledging the diversity of doctrinal positions to which
the label "Mahāyāna" has traditionally been applied, Walser suggests that much
of this diversity "can be ascribed to the different strategies used by
Mahāyānist groups to respond to the different political and legal structures in
which they were enmeshed" (p. 9). This typifies Walser's idea that doctrinal
content is ineluctably conditioned by social contexts, and that some of the
specifics of doctrinal content can, accordingly, be explained by attending to
the particularities of these contexts.
Walser sees Mahāyāna texts as offering not simply "ideas whose survival requires processes of production" (p. 12). Rather, he argues that "the demands of production come to determine the final form of Mahāyāna texts" (p. 13). In order for a text to survive, it must first meet the demands of those who control available processes of production; texts that fail in this regard vanish from the historical record. Walser argues that Nāgārjuna recognized this, and that he worked to meet these demands by self-consciously employing various rhetorical and commentarial strategies. These strategies are discussed in later chapters of Nāgārjuna in Context. Before treating them, however, Walser considers the figure of Nāgārjuna himself.
In chapter 2, Walser sifts through a wide variety of textual, epigraphic, and art-historical evidence (as well as previous work by scholars such as Ian Mabbett) in an effort to contextualize the great philosopher and his literary output. He concludes, fairly convincingly, that Nāgārjuna was a late-second- or early-third-century Buddhist monk who lived, for at least a portion of his career, in a Pūrvaśailya, Aparaśailya, or Caityaka monastery in the area of Andhra. Given the fragmentary nature of the evidence we have, Walser has done a remarkable job here; it is hard to imagine a better case being made for Nāgārjuna's historical, institutional, and geographical location.
However, in his efforts to construct a plausible historical picture, Walser occasionally neglects some of the methodological problems introduced by his evidence. To be sure, he realizes that the hagiographies of Nāgārjuna are historically unreliable: "Almost all the elements contained therein are mythical at best and conflicting at worst.... Most of this material comes from accounts that were written with hagiographical interests ahead of historical documentation"
(p. 60). Nevertheless, Walser forges ahead, proposing a "tool" that can, he
promises, enable us to determine which details in the hagiographies are no more
than "spurious" (p. 68)--and thereby enable us to distinguish historical facts
from the accretions of legend.
He begins with the presumption that, "in general, hagiographers compose their
stories with two purposes in mind: spiritual edification and institutional
legitimation" (p. 67). If statements found in the hagiographies can be
understood as falling into either (or both) of these categories, Walser argues,
then we should question their historical accuracy. He acknowledges that such
statements maybe true: assuming them to have been included for the purpose of
edification or legitimation "does not prove that there is no factual basis [for
them]" (p. 68). But he insists that we should not presume their truth, for such
statements are more plausibly read as "literary devices" that "tell us more
about the needs of the compilers of the legend than about the subject of the
legend itself" (p.68). By contrast:
"[I]f an item of the Nāgārjuna legend proves to be an early element in the
tradition, and if it does not have an obvious role in edification or
legitimation, then we have no choice but to assume that it was included into the
hagiographies because it was 'common knowledge' to the compilers of these texts.
This does not mean that the information is objectively true but, rather, that
the compilers assumed that it was a fact that their readers probably already
knew" (p. 68).
Walser thus draws an opposition between literary devices, on the one hand, and common knowledge, on the other. While he notes that this opposition does not necessarily correspond to the opposition between fiction and fact, he sometimes writes as though he has forgotten these distinctions: "[T]he associations of Nāgārjuna with both Stāmbana [sic] Tīrtha and Kashmir should be regarded as serving a legitimating function in their legends and not as fact" (p. 75; emphasis added). Walser's tool may help us to isolate "common knowledge" regarding Nāgārjuna--but "common knowledge" can comprise "spurious details." Hence, if one is after facts about Nāgārjuna (as opposed to facts about what people presumed about Nāgārjuna), the tool is of little help; at the very least, it requires a good deal of sharpening if the conclusions drawn from its application are to bear much weight.
In chapter 3, "Mahāyāna and the Constraints of Monastic Law," Walser explores
the institutional circumstances in which the early Mahāyāna took shape, and the
ways in which vinaya protocols may have impacted the rhetoric of Mahāyānists
like Nāgārjuna. Walser is to be applauded for attending to these issues and it
is to be hoped that his treatment of them will serve to stimulate further work
in this important and neglected area. In this chapter, much of the discussion
regarding Nāgārjuna focuses on passages found in the fourth chapter of the _Ratnāvalī_.
Some of these have already been discussed by Gregory Schopen, and Walser's
conclusions regarding these passages do not differ substantially from Schopen's
own: both agree that the rhetoric of the _Ratnāvalī_ implies that the Mahāyāna
was both minor and marginalized at the time the text was composed.
As an author, Nāgārjuna was undoubtedly concerned with the way that his texts
would be treated by those charged with transmitting them. In chapter 4, Walser
explores the material circumstances under which Buddhist texts were preserved in
monastic communities. Who owned these texts, and how were they passed down over
time? For the most part, Walser focuses on protocols delineated in the various
vinayas regarding textual recitation, copying, and storage, and he constructs a
remarkably detailed and intriguing account of the institutional forces that may
have impacted textual practice in Indian monastic communities. Although the
sources for his account are scattered and inconclusive (as Walser himself
acknowledges), the sources clearly portray texts comprising _buddhavacana_ as
texts meriting preservation.
If Nāgārjuna shared this view, then it is reasonable to assume that he would
have had an interest in portraying Mahāyāna texts as the word of the Buddha. On
Walser's reading, Nāgārjuna worked to accomplish this goal by employing a number
of rhetorical strategies. These are explored in detail in chapter 5. According
to Walser, Nāgārjuna, as an early Mahāyānist, appropriated canonical passages in
his texts via a process of allusion. Doing so enabled him to piggyback on the
authority of such texts, while reinterpreting their content in accordance with
what Walser reads as novel--and constitutively Mahāyānist--doctrinal
One such development is, for Walser, to be found in the reformulation of the
notion of emptiness (śūnyatā). Unlike a notion of emptiness found in the Pali
suttas, where the term suññatā generally denotes "a psychological state reached
at the end of a series of meditations wherein defilements are extinguished" (p.
117), Mahāyāna texts typically present emptiness as a characteristic equally
applicable to all dharmas--as the logical ground for, or ontological
precondition of, any phenomenon whatsoever. Walser is surely right that Mahāyāna
texts present emptiness in this way, but he does not pause to ask whether
similar formulations may be found in non-Mahāyāna sources (such as, for example,
Samyutta Nikāya IV.85 and Paṭisambhidhāmagga II.10).
If this formulation of emptiness is indeed constitutively Mahāyānist, then it
seems we must conclude that Mahāyāna doctrine is to be found in the Pali Nikāyas.
While Nāgārjuna would likely have approved of this idea, it is not clear that
Walser's case is supported by it. Indeed, such passages challenge Walser's
reading of what Nāgārjuna was attempting. For it is possible that Nāgārjuna
assumed that his own view did not, in fact, constitute a radical departure from
accepted Buddhist tradition, but rather constituted the most convincing
interpretation of that tradition. That is, Nāgārjuna may not have
self-consciously applied rhetorical strategies in order to cloak novel ideas
under the guise of acceptable doctrine. On the contrary, he may have felt that
his doctrinal commitments were precisely those voiced by the authoritative texts
of the tradition. If so, he would plausibly have seen such commitments as
demanding not dissimulation, but elucidation.
At the end of his chapter, Walser cites two passages in which he sees
Nāgārjuna to be smuggling new interpretive wine in old doctrinal bottles. These
passages are crucially important for Walser's argument; unfortunately, however,
his reading of them is somewhat strained. The first example is drawn from
Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK). Following Kalupahana, Walser reads the
fifteenth chapter of this work as offering an interpretation of the doctrinal
content sketched out in the Kaccānagotta sutta. He cites Buddhaghosa's
commentary on a short section of that sutta, in hopes of providing "a
contrasting interpretation" (p. 184). But it is difficult to see how
Buddhaghosa's interpretation of the Kaccānagotta sutta passage differs
substantially from Nāgārjuna's own. The relevant portion of the Kaccānagotta
sutta has the Buddha emphasizing that it is an error to fall into the extreme of
existence or nonexistence, and that his own teaching of dharma traces a middle
path between these two extremes. Following this, the Buddha outlines the
twelve-limbed presentation of dependent arising, illustrating thereby the middle
path to which he has just referred. Buddhaghosa, commenting on this verse,
labels the two extremes respectively as sassatam and ucchedo--terms that Walser
translates as "eternalism" and "disruption"--and notes that each constitutes a
negative extreme (hence one rightly to be avoided). But this is precisely the
point that Nāgārjuna himself is plausibly read as striving to make in chapter 15
of the MMK--and verse 15.7 does little more than underline the fact that this
point was anticipated by the Blessed One.
So where, precisely, is the new interpretive wine? Walser seems to think that
it is to be found in "the Mahāyāna teaching of emptiness" that constitutes "the
logical ground on which the more common interpretation must rely" (p. 185). But
the term śūnyatā itself appears nowhere in MMK 15; when it later surfaces, it is
explicitly stated (as at MMK 24.18) to be equivalent to dependent
arising--thereby placing Nāgārjuna perfectly in line with the doctrinal contours
sketched out in the Kaccānagotta sutta. If Nāgārjuna was indeed attempting to
smuggle new wine in old bottles, he may have done his job too well--the new wine
is arguably indistinguishable from the old.
The second example adduced by Walser comes from the first chapter of the
Ratnāvalī. Here again, Walser argues that we are faced with several verses
(1.78-93; the Sanskrit here is lost) that, when taken together, reveal an
agenda: Nāgārjuna is aiming to cloak the "Mahāyāna doctrine of emptiness" under
the guise of already accepted buddhavacana. In these verses, Nāgārjuna offers a
lengthy analysis of the person (skyes bu) and the elements (khams) that might be
thought to make up the person. The analysis is undertaken in order to
demonstrate that ideas such as "person" and "element" are conventional (kun
rdzob). Nāgārjuna then goes on to note that this mode of analysis is applicable
to a number of other concepts (enumerated in 1.91-93); he concludes by quoting a
short passage of buddhavacana in which such concepts are stated to be "ceased in
consciousness" (rnam shes su / 'gag par 'gyur zhes thub pas gsungs). Walser
notes that the Kevaddha sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya may have provided Nāgārjuna
with the source for the latter quotation, and observes that "it is significant
that here, at the first place in the Ratnāvalī where Nāgārjuna refers to the
Mahāyāna doctrine of emptiness, he illustrates it with an allusion to a
scripture that would have been known by any Buddhist" (p. 187).
But one may reasonably wonder whether Nāgārjuna in fact refers to "the Mahāyāna doctrine of emptiness" in this section of the text. The terms Mahāyāna (theg pa chen po) and śūnyatā (stong pa nyid) do not appear; furthermore, Nāgārjuna goes on to note explicitly (in verses 1.94 and following) that his discussion pertains "to that consciousness which is signless, boundless, supreme over all" (rnam shes bstan med mtha' yas pa / kun tu bdag po de la ni). This description looks suspiciously similar to one offered in the Kevaddha sutta itself (viññāṇaṃ anidassanaṃ anantaṃ sabbato pa(b)haṃ, although the Tibetan kun tu bdag po points perhaps to an underlying *sarvataḥ prabhu rather than *sarvataḥ prabhā). Walser may be right to assume that Nāgārjuna uses the rhetorical strategy of appropriating "terms and concepts that are already well-established for describing high states of meditative absorption" and then applying those terms "to reality regardless of one's mental state"
(p. 187). Indeed, Nāgārjuna may well have believed that the terms and
concepts he employed can and should be generalized in this way. But the passage
cited by Walser doesn't quite show that Nāgārjuna believed this, nor does it
show that Nāgārjuna assumed that such a generalization would be held by his
audience to be problematic. If anything, the passage simply shows Nāgārjuna to
have worked to advance his arguments by appropriating passages from accepted
Buddhist doctrinal texts.
The final two chapters of the book should be taken as a unit; both stake out
new and valuable territory. In chapter 6, Walser provides an overview of
abhidharmic doctrine and the doctrinal differences between early Buddhist sects.
Here, he focuses especially on texts in Chinese translation, many of which have
been largely neglected by Western scholars. He also examines sources--chief
among them the _Samayabhedopacaraṇacakra_, attributed to Vasumitra--that
allow him to reconstruct (provisionally) some of the doctrines of Mahāsāghika
abhidharma. These investigations are valuable and on the whole fairly clear,
even if Walser's exposition occasionally is weighed down by the mass of details
that he is attempting to present.
At certain points, however, Walser veers into obscurity and risks
misrepresenting the tradition. One such occasion occurs when he attempts to
clarify the relation between saṃsāra and nirvāṇa by
invoking the principle of bivalence. Unpacking a passage from the Udāna that
defines nirvāṇa and saṃsāra via mutually exclusive
predicates--nirvāṇa is unconditioned, while saṃsāra is
conditioned--Walser notes that "[t]he principle of bivalence (a.k.a. tertium non
datur) states that between A and non-A there can be no third term--and yet
Buddhism does introduce a third term--namely, the karma, a category under which
falls [sic] all the practices used to convey one from saṃsāra to
nirvāṇa" (p. 194). This implies that Buddhist thinkers either
ignore or repudiate the insight expressed in the principle of bivalence--but
they do not. The principle of bivalence states simply that any meaningful
proposition must be either true or false; this is an idea to which no Buddhist,
to my knowledge, has ever taken exception. In any case, it is difficult to see
what the principle of bivalence has to do with the notion that karma is held by
Buddhists to bridge the divide separating saṃsāra and nirvāṇa.
Walser's goal in chapter 6 is to lay the groundwork for chapter 7, in which
Nāgārjuna's relation to abhidharmic literature is explored. This chapter, like
the one that precedes it, is somewhat sprawling, though this is perhaps in
keeping with the complexity of the source material with which Walser is dealing
and the difficulty of the task he is attempting. I am, unfortunately, unable to
pronounce on the accuracy of Walser's conclusions regarding his Chinese sources
(as I do not read Chinese), but in at least one respect, the chapter is an
unqualified success: it shows, conclusively, that the common notion that
Nāgārjuna stakes out a position "in opposition to abhidharma" is overly
simplistic, and needs to be carefully and continually rethought in light of
materials available in Chinese translation.
Walser's reading of Nāgārjuna's work is one to which objections will surely
be raised. His attempt to identify particular doctrines as constitutively "Mahāyānist"
may be challenged, and some of his other hypotheses are likely to provoke heated
debate--e.g., the notion that the early Mahāyāna was an embattled movement whose
exponents were self-consciously collusive in their attempts to secure status for
their favored texts and doctrines. Whether or not one agrees with the book's
conclusions, however, Walser is to be commended for writing a work that dares to
stake out new territory and to challenge received assumptions regarding
Nāgārjuna and the early Mahāyāna. With _Nāgārjuna in Context_, we have the first
large-scale, synthetic attempt at situating Nāgārjuna within the complex web of
forces--social, institutional, doctrinal, and rhetorical--that impacted him and
his work as an author. Though the book presents the fruit of years of
painstaking research, it also makes clear that a great deal of work remains to
be done. We are in Walser's debt for revealing just how much we have left to
. See Gregory Schopen, "The Mahāyāna and the Middle Period in Indian
Buddhism: Through a Chinese Looking-Glass," in Eastern Buddhist,n.s. 32, no.2
H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-Buddhism@h-net.msu.edu (January, 2006) Reviewed for H-Buddhism by Richard Nance, University of Chicago. Copyright (c) 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online.
Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime by Stephen Batchelor (Riverhead Books) (Paperback) Ex-monk Stephen Batchelor has stirred up controversy in the past by marrying Buddhism to secular agnosticism. Now he goes right to the greatest Buddhist sage after Sakyamuni, Nagarjuna, for corroboration. In this translation of Nagarjuna's seminal work, Verses from the Center, we see Nagarjuna turning a skeptical eye to all dogmatic beliefs. But Batchelor, through his emphasis on the poetics of the work, moves away from polemics to experience--experience of the emptiness that pervades existence and teaches deeper truths. Verses from the Center is an extended meditation on the implications of emptiness, and thanks to Batchelor's limpid rendering, it prompts a meditative reading. Batchelor's opening essay, half of the book, is one of the best introductions you'll find on Nagarjuna's notion of emptiness, emphasizing that emptiness ultimately brings us back to face the world.
A relaxed distillation of Nagarjuna's teaching, fleshed out
with various reflections from the author's experience and intuitions gleaned
from personal reading habits, this book has proven satisfying to people who
might otherwise baulk at taking Nagarjuna 'straight.' Whether it constitutes a
'translation' of Nagarjuna's karikas - is open to question. For the Buddhist
background, the now classic
Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of Madhyamika System by Tirupattur
Ramaseshayyer Venkatachala Murti (Munshirm Manoharlal Pub Pvt Ltd ) is
introductory providing a useful schema by which to characterize the various
typical movements within Buddhist philosophical thinking. There is a class of
scholars who are of the opinion that Buddhism in general, and Madhyamaka of
Nagarjuna in particular, is not only deconstructionistic in orientation, but
also nihilistic in content. How far this assertion is tenable or valid depends
from what perspective we look at the Middle Way philosophy of Nagarjuna. While
analyzing the general orientation of Buddhist thought, Prof. Murti shows that
Nagarjuna's philosophy, although deconstructionist in its approach, is not at
all nihilistic in orientation. The dialectical methods of the reductio ad
absurdum, which Murti employs as a basic tool of critique, is meant to show that
reason cannot reach or comprehend that which is a priori of the Beyond, or what
we call Transcendent.
It is through the method of negation that Nagarjuna, on the one hand, affirms the Buddha's noble silence concerning that which is inexpressible, and confirms, on the other hand, that the Absolute as Emptiness can be intuited only through the silence of negation. The Emptiness of the Madhyamaka, thus, must not be seen as a philosophy of nihilism; rather it must be viewed as pointing out the limitations of reason, or what we call conceptual knowledge, in the context of that which is beyond reason, and therefore transcendent to thought and language. This book is a veritable treasure of information concerning the evolution of human thought in the East and West. This book is a must for such seekers of truth who would like to plunge to the depths of knowledge.
True, not everyone wants to read Nagarjuna with a close eye
on all the interpretive questions that might be raised about the place this text
occupies in Buddhism. Nevertheless, the wish to present the Madhyamaka - shorn
of its traditional trappings, Buddhist-scholastic exegeses etc. - means that we
are left wholly dependant upon the 'Batcheloresque' exegesis.
Nagarjuna saw the Madhyamika as 'marga' centered - i.e. that it presupposed the Buddhist path. Even though it forsakes all dualism (advayavada) and allied thought constructs (drsti), Nagarjuna made it clear that this was in the interest of a religious ideal - viz. realization of the unconditioned (absolute), as against nihilism, skepticism or agnosticism etc. The Buddha said: 'two things only do I teach, suffering and its cessation.' The first - suffering (duhkha) is a corollary of impermanence (antiya) and 'dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada). Hence, to note we are (relatively) 'contingent beings.' But this is only half the picture. Buddhism is not just a philosophy of 'shifting sand' and the Madhyamika does not stop there. In theory, at least, that much is implied in the title of this book ('verses from the centre'). By teaching us to recognise the 'emptiness' of that which arises and passes away, it enables us to realize that which does not arise and pass away - hence the cessation of suffering and the path (nirodhapratipat/marga).
What troubles me about Batchelor's account, is that he seems to stop with the sense of impermanence (anitya), yet when Nagarjuna declares that 'samsara is nirvana,' that is tantamount to saying that what appears contigent is simply that - apparent, not ultimately real. Hence, it is not a simple philosophy of 'contingent being/s.' That may well be said from the standpoint of conventional knowledge (samvrtti), but it is not true seen paramartha-satya - viz. through prajna insight, co-terminous with the path (marga). It strikes me that Batchelor has fudged this issue. The Buddha and Nagarjuna are not Heraclitus, and Buddhism is not a simple statement that that 'everything flows,' let alone a recommendation to get dragged along with the current! Without clearer reference to praxis, making Buddhism into a philosophy of 'letting go' is a dangerous generalisation. The Buddha compared the Dharma to a raft, which can be abandoned only upon reaching the other shore. He who abandons it in mid-stream or even before leaving the banks of samvrtti-land, will never reach the other shore!
Most Buddhists endeavour to make sense of Nagarjuna's Madhyamika - through practices such as samatta-vipasyana and cognate disciplines. There is nothing adventitious about it. No marga or path - then, no 'Madhyamika' or 'middle way.' It is nice to invoke the intuitions of poets like Keats etc., but what real evidence is there, to suggest that Keat's had found 'the middle way'? In letters and literature, Keat's is always remembered as a poet dying of consumption, pining for Fanny Brawn.
A final point. However tempting it may be to present Nagarjuna's ideas as a kind of 'free floating philosophy,' minus Buddhist doctrine, the truth of the matter is that 'pure' Madhyamika is something of a fiction. In India, Tibet, China and Japan, it was combined with elements of the Vijnanavada/Yogacara, without which it was difficult to resolve many of the issues raised by the Madhyamika, such as how the illusion of nescience arises? Why the unconditioned appears 'conditioned' etc? For that, the Buddhists have had to rely on the teaching of the Alaya-vijnana etc.
In a chapter called "Acts," Nagarjuna says:
My acts are irrevocable
Because they have no essence...
Where are the doers of deeds
Absent among their conditions?
Imagine a magician
Who creates a creature
Who creates other creatures.
Acts I perform are creatures
Who create others.
There is much about Batchelor's new translation of Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika which is extremely useful, although the work is also highly problematic. Batchelor has chosen to render Nagarjuna's verses in a very free fashion, communicating what he discerns to be the real message at the heart of the Karikas. He has felt free to omit material, paraphrase, summarize, and reword entire sections with enormous liberty. On the one hand this has freed the text from much of its cryptic quality which has resulted from the metrical constraints of the Sanskrit root text. On the other hand we must rely heavily on Batchelor's interpretation of what Nagarjuna actually meant. What did Nagarjuna actually mean? Batchelor sets forth his interpretive model in the lengthy and challenging introduction. Nagarjuna, Batchelor argues, should be interpreted as belonging to a common philosophical heritage. In comparing Nagarjuna's text with the writings of Taoism and Zen and even the English Romantic poets, Batchelor suggests that the Verses espouse a common insight which is far broader than many modern interpreters have suggested. It seems probable that the unspoken opponent of his exegesis is the Gelukpa and Gelukpa-inspired scholarship which has had much to say about Madhyamaka in recent years, and of which Batchelor himself was once a part when he translated Chandrakirti's Madhyamakavatara with Geshe Rabten in Echoes of Voidenss. Here, he briefly presents Dzong-ka-ba's view on Nagarjuna, which Batchelor clearly thinks is overly scholastic and removes the heart of the message by viewing emptiness as primarily a kind of anti-metaphysics. The real message, we learn, is that we are to approach the world with a particular stance of openess and sense of interconnectedness. Emptiness is to be lived in its realization, not realized propositionally. Clearly Batchelor has been deeply influenced by his experiences with Zen in this approach, and it has much to offer in considering the relationship of emptiness to the endeavor of liberation. This work is obviously highly personal, and highly personalizes the process of meditation on emptiness.
There is little doubt that Nagarjuna gave humanity a masterpiece with the Mulamadhyamakakarika which is evident in the attention that this text has received over the centuries.
Moreover as a vertebra in the backbone of the student-centric disclosure of emptiness, Mulamadhyamakakarika is indeed an essential read for those of us who tread the fascinating and beautiful road to insight.
The Mulamadhyamakakarika is not about Philosophy or Sanskrit but of sharing a direct, living experience of emptiness through the medium of writing; using language and concept to reveal a non-conceptual experience of emptiness. In my mind this would be the only way of 'translating' a text such as the Mulamadhyamakakarika. A good representation of the Mulamadhyamakakarika must be memorable and life-changing. Self-grasping must be left with nothing to hold onto and be clearly revealed as the unskillful, foolish enemy that it is.
I feel that with this book, Batchelor is attempting to offer an alternative experience of Mulamadhyamakakarika to those that are currently presented by the linguists and philosophers who have chosen Mulamadhyamakakarika as belonging to their respective domains. His arguments are at their strongest when he resists ownership of the text by intellectualizing academics. For this alone he gets a star. For his provocative alternative rewriting of the Mulamadhyamakakarika, (helping us remember that there are alternative approaches to translation) he gets one more star.
Batchelor wishes to share with us the spontaneity of the verse form without getting lost in a rarified explication of his own understandings of the intellectual import of the verses, which is indeed a lofty and noble goal, but the question arises over whether or not Batchelor is up to the challenge; I believe that he is not.
In this battle of academic ownership, Batchelor ends up forgetting the purpose of the text; his rendition is not student-centric, does little to help reveal the experience of insight and is not particularly memorable.
Instead, what we read is Batchelor. The text shows a lot of Batchelor- his life, his views and his interests ring out on nearly every page. In this he doesn't differ from most other translators, but my expectations were higher regarding both text and translator. Moreover I feel that he ends up conveying himself as an expert - as does several of his contemporaries (Berzin springs to mind) which is deeply unfortunate as self-aggrandizement is not a part of the path to emptiness and should not form a component of any translation of the Mulamadhyamakakarika.
Batchelor also attempts to syncretize different traditions which more often than not is akin to shoving a stick into a hornets nest. It isn't even skilful as it implies that there is some Platonic 'truth' in the form of a common ground; this of course really weakens the purpose of the Mulamadhyamakakarika altogether.
Why not just get on with the basic job of soteriesis?
In my opinion Batchelor fails again on the poetic front. He does not manage to convey any spirit or experience through verse in the Mulamadhyamakakarika. I am at a loss to find either rhythm or meter in his 'verses'. It looks to me that he translated the verses into prose, and then used word juggling and formatting to make his translation appear to be an attempt at free verse.
If he wishes to translate texts such as the Mulamadhyamakakarika into verse he must also remind himself of the purpose of verse in India and Tibet- to help the reader memorize and recite the text, rather than for any sense of beauty or revelation. I feel that there is a pragmatic and legitimate purpose in following the import of the Indians and that a useful versification of the Mulamadhyamakakarika is possible, but I believe it would require much more experience with writing verse in English than Batchelor reveals here.
He must always remember the purpose of the Mulamadhyamakakarika to be student-centered, soteriological and memorable; not poetic, philosophical, academic or as an excuse to talk about personal experiences or views.
He must also apply a strong vigilance to his authorship to leave the reader to struggle with the reader rather than with the author.
My position rests that the book is an entertaining but
complementary read of Mulamadhyamakakarika, not a final read.
Try reading it alongside e.g. Garfield's philosophical Mulamadhyamakakarika: The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika by Nagarjuna, Jay L. Garfield (Oxford University Press).
Or for the gist read the Dalai Lama’s "The Key of Madhyamika" in Essential Teachings: His Holiness the Dalai Lama by Dalai Lama XIV (North Atlantic Books) for a simple, practical and powerful introduction to emptiness.
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