Friday, September 7, 2018

Nagarjuna's Middle Way - a tough balancing act between translation and commentary (Book Review)

I usually alternate between novels and buddhist teachings in my evening reading. After starting it once, putting it down, and starting again, I just finished Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura's translation of Nagarjuna's Middle Way published by Wisdom Publications. The translation is easy to read, but the blend of four historical commentaries with the author's own analysis/summary of the commentaries is uneven. It did win the 2014 Khentse Foundation Translation Prize, so that's something.

Some background if you need it: Nagarjuna is a 2nd century Buddhist scholar/practitioner credited with co-founding the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism and for providing clarity on the Prajnaparamita sutras that are central to Mahayana Buddhism. The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (The Middle Way) is his best known text and works as a refutation of other sects' interpretations of the Prajnaparamita literature. It has had a profound effect on many strands of modern Mahayana Buddhism.

For those just beginning (and I'm right there with you, so forgive me if I'm not as accurate as a scholar), Mahayana Buddhism, which is the dominant form through India, Tibet, China and Japan, including such derivations as Zen Buddhism, fundamentally is based on the idea that the reason one seeks a release from suffering is in order to help all other sentient beings to be released from suffering. It is not focused on personal attainment, but on universal liberation for all people.

The Prajnaparamita cannon (The Large Sutra and many shorter ones - typically identified by line length, but also including several others) are devoted to two main concepts: 1) the Bodhisattva path and 2) the emptiness of all dharmas. Nagarjuna's Middle Way is a discourse expounding on the idea of emptiness and seeking to refute what Nagarjuna felt were misinterpretations of the idea of emptiness.

In summary, Nagarjuna believed the Buddha preached that all dharmas (things, ideas, people, etc..) although conventionally real, were empty of inherent existence or intrinsic nature and thus were not ultimately real. He disagreed with various stands of early Mahayana Buddhism who felt only people lacked intrinsic nature. The Middle Way is a series of explorations of the emptiness of all dharmas.

Nagarjuna called it The Middle Way (after Buddha's own term) because he is not saying that nothing exists, which would be nihilism. He is saying that things exist in conventional reality (we can touch things, smell, taste, change, etc...) but that Nirvana alone is the only thing which ultimately exists. That alone is the only thing that has an intrinsic nature that is eternal and not conditionally dependent. However, Nagarjuna does leave open the possibility that there is also no such thing as ultimately existing, that that too may be empty, and thus all we have is conventional reality. Because he rejects the idea that any dharma has intrinsic nature (and thus is indestructible) he also rejects eternalism and thus his philosophy squarely is between the extremes of nihilism and eternalism and so conforms to the Buddha's approach.

In reflection on the Prajnaparamita, I wonder why other schools misinterpreted emptiness because it seemed pretty clear in those sutras that all dharmas (not just people) were empty of intrinsic nature. I wonder if the other schools either a) did not have access to the Prajnaparamita sutras or b) that somehow the translation into English after several thousand years was so informed by Nagarjuna that the lack of clarity disappeared. I'll never know, but find me a good scholar and I'll definitely ask.

Also, when I read the Prajnaparamita sutras, which I really got a lot out of, I had to keep reminding myself that they were situated within the four noble truths, particularly the first two. Many of the Prajnaparamita sutras don't really reference that the reason we learn about dharmic emptiness (is that a term?) is to help us stop clinging and thus stop suffering. One major component of Nagarjuna's Middle Way that I appreciated is that he explicitly makes clear those connections between the Prajnaparamita and the first discourse of the Buddha.

So that's a hell of a lot of background about the text. What about this edition you might ask? The translation of Nagarjuna's sparse prose was well done, however it is so sparse (originally) that it needs substantial expounding. The translators pull excerpts and summaries from four primary early commentaries on The Middle Way, namely: The Akutobhayā, Candrakirti's Prasannapadā, The Madhyamakavrtti by Buddhapalita and Bhaviveka's Prajnapradipa. The authors of this edition make note that they try not to place their own interpretive views into the text and only to report on what the early commentators state to clarify Nagarjuna's text.

Therein lies my biggest struggle with this version. While I respect the work of the original historical commentators, they were commenting based on an understanding of the world (conventional reality) that is almost 2,000 years out of date. Many of the metaphors they use to explain Nagarjuna's thinking just don't make sense any more and were distracting to me. One recurring theme looks at a flame. But it doesn't have the understanding of modern science behind it and so fails to make Nagarjuna's point clearly. I can understand what they're getting at, but it was distracting to have old metaphors. Same with the focus on the "elements" (earth, air, water, fire) and similar constructions that are not based in our modern understanding of how the world works. However, nothing in contemporary science undermines anything Nagarjuna says so it would not be impossible to update the examples.

Yet, when the translators did either summarize or add in their own thoughts, they seem stuck with the traditional explanations and supports rather than attempting to provide a modern set of guides to enhance the text. It would have been a different venture to add their own commentary, and I completely understand why they did not. In that case, I would have rather had all the text from the original commentaries they chose so I could read it with an historical mindset, rather than their summaries and small text-pulls which led me to read it more like I was trying to learn how to apply the teachings in my own life (whereabouts I got distracted by the out-of-date-ness). I will be looking for another translation with a contemporary commentary because I love the Prajnaparamita and I really like Nagarjuna's main thesis, so a contemporary commentary will help me in my own practice. I would also be interested in reading an unabridged version of one or more of the historical commentaries on The Middle Way.

So whether you read this version should be a multi-factored decision. If you're new to Buddhist studies or practice, this probably isn't a great starting point. If you're familiar with the Prajnaparamita literature and want to reflect more on it, this is a good volume (but I'll let you know when I read other translations too). If you want the full historical commentaries, this won't do. If you want a modern commentary on Nagarjuna, look elsewhere. For what it is, it's well done, but I felt that it was somewhat indecisive - not entirely scholarly but not contemporary enough either. A worthy read for sure, but I'm curious what else is out there on this.


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Remember: please talk about the work, and offer counter points to others' analyses but DO NOT ATTACK THE PERSON whose analysis you are countering. (no ad hominem comments) Thanks! <3