- Mark SideritsMark SideritsEmeritus, Department of Philosophy, Illinois State University
Nāgārjuna was the 2nd-century ce founder of the Madhyamaka school of Indian Buddhist philosophy. He is best known for his articulation and defense of the core Mahāyāna claim that all things are empty (śūnya) or devoid of intrinsic nature. When this claim is understood against the background of the metaphysical theories of the Abhidharma schools of Buddhism, it amounts to the denial that anything is ultimately, or strictly speaking, real. This appears tantamount to the (seemingly absurd) claim that nothing whatsoever really exists, and this interpretation has been common among Nāgārjuna’s opponents, both classical and modern. Defenders of Nāgārjuna and the Madhyamaka school have developed a variety of ways of understanding emptiness that seek to do justice to Nāgārjuna’s denial that he is a nihilist. An additional constraint on interpreting Nāgārjuna’s arguments has been arriving at a reading that also accommodates the soteriological significance claimed for the doctrine: How might the realization that nothing has its nature intrinsically prove crucial to attaining the Buddhist goal of the cessation of suffering? Given the many challenges inherent in developing a suitable hermeneutical strategy, Nāgārjuna’s work has garnered much attention both in the world of Asian Buddhism and among modern scholars.