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  • Nāgārjuna and the Doctrine of "Skillful Means"
  • John Schroeder

Although a number of Buddhist scholars have examined the doctrine of "skill-in-means" (upāya-kauśalya) in Mahāyāna Buddhist literature, it is surprising that no one has yet developed this important concept in relation to Nāgārjuna. Given that upāya is a central doctrine in the early Mahāyāna texts, and given that Nāgārjuna is a central philosopher of this tradition, it is unfortunate that scholars pay little attention to how upāya influenced Nāgārjuna's thought. Michael Pye's Skilful Means is the only significant study of upāya to date, and it notes how scholars consistently overlook its importance:

'Nirvāṇa;, 'bodhisattva', 'emptiness' (Skt. śūnyatā) and so on have all been considered in this way and that, but apart from occasional references and brief definitions 'skilful means' has scarcely been attended to at all. A concept which has been used to explain the very existence of Buddhism as a functioning religious system demands closer attention.

(Pye 1978, p. 2)

This lack of attention to upāya certainly applies to Nāgārjuna, who is usually depicted in the West as someone engaged in a metaphysical dispute. According to most Western scholars, Nāgārjuna not only does metaphysics but actually believes that liberation depends on it. Whether he is depicted as a conventionalist, an absolutist, a nihilist, or a deconstructionist, and whether or not his dialectic of "emptiness" (śūnyatā) undermines all positive philosophical positions, it is commonly assumed that Nāgārjuna is dealing with important metaphysical problems and that he thinks Buddhist praxis is somehow incomplete without it.

If we read Nāgārjuna as primarily concerned with upāya, however, then this way of framing his project is mistaken. What is interesting about upāya is that it has little in common with traditional Western metaphysics: it is not concerned with the nature of space and time, causality, personal identity, or consciousness, and it resists the tendency to conceptualize liberation apart from Buddhist praxis. To think otherwise is to assume that the Dharma can be abstracted from its soteriological and rhetorical context and that Buddhism can be preached without any particular audience in mind. Most contemporary Western Nāgārjuna scholars adopt this unskillful position by privileging metaphysics over praxis and by telling us that liberation requires a correct understanding of certain metaphysical problems. Given the Buddhist insistence on the indispensable nature of practice, however, and given Nāgārjuna's own position within the Mahāyāna tradition, it is highly unlikely that he is raising traditional metaphysical questions, and even more unlikely that he thinks that Buddhist soteriology depends on it. [End Page 559]

The purpose of this article, then, is to offer a different account of Nāgārjuna from the one that is found in contemporary Western scholarship. While most scholars relate Nāgārjuna to metaphysics and wonder how "emptiness" undermines all traditional philosophical views and doctrines, a "skillful means" reading will relate Nāgārjuna's philosophy solely to issues of Buddhist practice. It will not ask what it means for causality, truth, the self, or consciousness to be "empty" in a very general sense, but how "emptiness" relates to the soteriological practices of Buddhism and what it means for those practices to be "empty" of inherent nature.

Contrary to what one may think, this does not turn Nāgārjuna into a non-philosopher. "Skill-in-means" is philosophy, albeit in a different sense from the way it is traditionally conceived. Western philosophy traditionally favors theoretical reflection over praxis and devotes most of its intellectual effort to solving metaphysical problems, often with the assumption that these problems need to be solved in order to live a meaningful life. What distinguishes the doctrine of upāya (and perhaps the entire Buddhist tradition) from this approach is that it shuns any attempt to understand Buddhism apart from its practices. Taking its cue from the Buddha's refusal to speculate on non-soteriological problems, upāya rejects the idea that metaphysics precedes praxis or that liberation requires theoretical speculation. It...


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