Professor Richard Hayes

On Nagarjuna's Eight Negations

I am not sure how much clarification I can give, but I can perhaps offer a few reflections on the famous opening verse of the MMK(Muula-madhyamaka-kaarikaa). Then perhaps I will tell you a personal story about what these verses mean to me. As far as I can recall, the first verse goes like this:

anirodham anutpaadam anucchedam as'aas'vatam
anekaartham anaanaartham anirgamam anaagamam
ya.h pratiitya samutpaadam prapancopasamam s'ivam
des'ayaam aasa sabuddhas tam vande vadataam varam

What this verse says is: I praise (vande) the best of teachers (vadataam varam), who, fully awake (ya.h sambuddhas) taught (des'ayaam aasa) that dependent origination (pratiitya samutpaadam), the blissful (s'ivam) stilling (upas'amam) of partisan thinking (prapanca) is not an act of cessation, not an arising, not an interruption, not a perpetuation, not one thing, not many things, not a going forth, and not an arrival.

Now each one of these terms is loaded with meaning and implications, so no one
translation can do them full justice.

Not an act of cessation

anirodham: this is the negation of nirodham (prevention), which is the
standard definition of nirvana. Nirvana is defined as kles'a-nirodham (the
prevention of afflictions or defilement's), bhava-nirodham (the prevention of
coming to being in any of the three realms), and upadaana-skandha-nirodham
(the prevention of the future arising of the five aggregates as the basis, or
literally the fuel, for future suffering. Nirodha, which means the prevention
of a future state through the eradication of its causes, is usually seen as
the summum bonum of Buddhist practice. It is the ultimate goal (paramaartha)
of all practice. So it is a bit shocking to begin a work with its negation. It
tells us that we are in for a bit of an interesting ride.

Not an arising

anutpaadam: this is the negation of utpaadam (arising), which is the key word
in the second noble truth. Dependent origination, the very heart of the
Buddha's dharma, is all about how things arise. The whole doctrine of
causation, which is the bedrock of Buddhist theory is all about arising. So it
is shocking (and apparently a flat contradiction) to say that dependent
origination (samutpaada) is not about origination and arising. One suspects
the author may be trying to get a rise out of his readers.

Not an interruption

anucchedam: No surprises here. Dependent origination is always said to be the
middle path between the view that a self exists and then is discontinued.
Liberation, properly understood, is not the discontinuation (uccheda) of a
self; rather, it is the recognition that there never was a self from the very
beginning. So now we are on very solid Buddhist bedrock, very standard

Not a perpetuation

as'aas'vatam: Again, no surprises. Just as the standard interpretation of
dependent origination shows there is no self that undergoes discontinuation,
it also shows that there is no self that undergoes perpetual continuation
(s'aas'vatam). It is no paradox to say that the self neither comes to an end
nor continues to exist. Neither predicate can be applied when there is no
subject to which to apply them. If there is, and never has been a self, then
there can be no predicates applied to a self. So here, Nagarjuna is giving us
very standard Buddhist doctrine, with no shocks and no new twists.

Not one thing

anekaartham: Dependent origination, properly understood, denies that anything
is absolutely singular. A thing is nothing more than the coming together of
all its causes, and no thing has a single cause. So even though a thing may be
perceived a single thing, reflection will always reveal that it is in fact a
multiplicity of factors complexly arranged. What we take to be an individual
(literally undivided whole) is never in fact indivisible. For Nagarjuna this
means that no physical thing is simple; every thing is composed of parts, and
therefore is liable to decompose. But it also means that no concept is
primitive and basic. Every concept is built up of related concepts. Every
concept has meaning only within a specific context of other concepts. And so
the very attempt to arrive at primitive ideas, or axioms, from which other
ideas can be derived, is doomed to failure.

Not many things

anaanaartham: Nagarjuna was very fond at applying recursive logic. Recursion
is the name given to using the output of an operation as input to the same
operation. Now we saw above that nothing is simple, because everything is made
of a multiplicity of factors. So, for example, we could say that an apparent
whole W is in fact a set of parts {a,b,c,d....}. But we can now substitute any
one of those parts for W, with the result that we realize that none of the
apparent parts of the whole is itself a simple thing. Indeed, if we continue
to process of analysis to its logical conclusion, the result is that there are
no things at all, even to serve as parts of larger wholes. But if there are no
parts at all, then it is really not true after all to say of a whole that it
is in fact made of many parts (nanaartha).

Not a going forth

anirgamam: Not a nirgamam (the act going away or disappearing).

Not an arrival

anaagamam: Not aagamam (the act of coming down to the present from the past,
hence its common meaning as "tradition" or "lineage")


Each one of these predicates in their positive forms can sensibly be applied
only of an existing subject. But once it is denied that a subject exists (and
making such a denial is what the doctrine of dependent origination is all
about), then no predicate can be applied. This is shown by putting all
possible predicates in the negative. This negation is not the type that
implies that the opposite is true; rather, it is a simple, non-implicative
negation that simply denies that the positive form of the predicate applies.

Once dependent origination is properly grasped, it is understood that there
never has been a subject, not only a perceiving subject worthy of being called
one's personal self (aatman), but no subject of any kind anywhere. Since all
thinking and speaking is founded on the presupposition that there are
subjects, when this presupposition is shown to be false, all thinking and
"knowing" proves to be completely unwarranted and without foundation. This
means that one stops taking sides in disputes that can never be solved. Taking
sides in a dispute is called prapanca, and dependent origination is therefore
called prapancopas'amam (the stilling of partisan thinking). In the very last
verse of the MMK, Nagarjuna says that the purpose of the Buddha's teaching was
to enable people to eliminate all views. In other words, Nagarjuna's teaching
follows exactly the same trajectory that Steve Collins describes as operating
in the Pali canon in his book "Selfless Persons." One first eliminates wrong
views by adopting right views. But one then eliminates right views by holding
no views at all.

Nagarjuna's "no view" position is spelled out further in his
Vigraha-vyaavartini (Avoiding disputes), where he argues that no opinion on
any topic anywhere is ultimately grounded on an indisputable and independently
verifiable fact. Everything that one takes to be fact is really just a tissue
of assumptions and unwarranted opinions, and no matter how much one tries to
get down to basics, one finds only ungrounded views.

My study of these two texts (on which I wrote my honours thesis and to which I
have returned many times) has led me to see an interesting parallel between
Nagarjuna's radical skepticism and Richard Rorty's notion of philosophical
irony. Rorty's view is that philosophy is a process of inquiry that ultimately
leads an honest person to the recognition that no conclusion is free from
circularity, for every conclusion rests upon premises that are either pure
assumption or have their verification resting on a hidden assumption that the
conclusion derived from them is true. This does not mean that one must abandon
all philosophical systems. It means only that whenever one goes to a
philosophical system for refuge, one must realize that the decision to come to
this particular one for refuge was ultimately arbitrary. Whatever solace this
particular set of dogmas, institutions and practices may provide could have
been provided by countless other sets of dogmas, institutions and practices.
Realizing this, one continues to do philosophy, but one can only do it
ironically, playfully, humorously. Play is the only work possible for the
enlightened mind.

On a personal note, I honestly believe that thinking about Nagarjuna's texts
once saved my life. I don't wish to go into details, because doing so would
require my saying things about the actions of identifiable people who are
still living. Suffice it to say that in 1971 I had just been dealt a very
difficult dose of dukkha that nearly overwhelmed me. All I could do was to
wander around for about two weeks just reciting this verse and thinking about
every phrase and reflecting on what the implications were. For days on end, I
just walked around chanting that verse. Finally, one day I stood looking at my
reflection in a river, and it hit me very hard that all the pain I was feeling
was just a result of my taking myself too seriously, and that I had just spent
a whole year writing a thesis on Nagarjuna, whose message was "Don't take
yourself too seriously. And don't take me seriously either." Somehow I
realized that I am no more real than the shimmering reflection in the water,
but also no less real. Within an instant, all the pain just vanished into
nowhere. It was just gone. Or perhaps it had never been there at all. I don't
know which. I see no point in thinking about it. But Nagarjuna has been my
favorite Buddhist playmate ever since.