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  • Nāgārjuna's Fundamental Doctrine of Pratītyasamutpāda
  • Ewing Chinn

It seems fitting that the very last verse of Nāgārjuna's challenging work, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way), would present the reader with what seems to be a riddle: "I prostrate to Gautama, who through compassion, taught the true doctrine, which leads to the relinquishing of all views" (27 :30). This should be read with an earlier verse (13 : 8): "The victorious ones have said that emptiness is the relinquishing of all views. For whomever emptiness is a view, that one will accomplish nothing."1 Since the last chapter deals with questions about the self and the world, it is understandable that so many commentators would assume that the "true doctrine" of which Nāgārjuna speaks is the doctrine of śūnyatā, but that gives a paradoxical character to these verses. Gautama recommends to us a doctrine that all this (we and all that we experience of the world) is śūnya, that is, empty of essence and thus of inherent, independent existence. And does this anti-realist, anti-essentialist view of things (as some would interpret śūnyatā) make possible and even constitute the relinquishing of all views, including his own? It cannot simply be the trivial and disingenuous claim that to accept the truth of śūnyatā is to relinquish all other wrong views. So is Nāgārjuna mysteriously refuting himself? Or is he uttering a paradox?

I will argue that there is no paradox or problem of self-refutation, because the true doctrine that Nāgārjuna refers to is not śūnyatā but the doctrine of pratītyasa-mutpāda (dependent arising or origination). And what the verses assert is that if we understand and accept this doctrine, we will no longer have the need or inclination to hold any view about the nature of things, including the inclination to construct a view out of the declaration that "all this is śūnya." How this is possible, how accepting the doctrine makes possible the "relinquishing of all views," certainly depends on what kind of doctrine this is and how it is to be distinguished from a "view." Part of my argument, of course, is that neither pratītyasamutpāda nor the assertion that "all this is śūnya" should be taken as even implying any metaphysical views—either nihilism, absolutism, or anti-realism (the most common metaphysical interpretations). There is no doubt that a major target of Nāgārjuna's philosophical criticism is metaphysical realism. But this does not mean that the critic must hold some alternative metaphysical view.

The logical place to begin is chapter 1, "Examination of Conditions," where the subject of discussion is the concept of pratītyasamutpāda, but it is not clear at all what Nāgārjuna is trying to establish about this concept. Jay Garfield, in his recent translation of and commentary on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā titled The Fundamental Wisdom of the MiddleWay, offers a unique interpretation of the point of this chapter, [End Page 54] and I will follow him to some extent in his analysis of the text.2 However, we will part ways at a crucial point in the chapter with regard to what Nāgārjuna is about.

On the Nature and Significance of Pratītyasamutpāda

In this first chapter, Garfield notes that "Nāgārjuna distinguishes two possible views of dependent origination or the causal process—one according to which causes bring about their effects in virtue of causal powers and one according to which causal relations simply amount to explanatorily useful regularities—and defends the latter."3 That is to say, according to Garfield, Nāgārjuna defends pratītyasamutpāda as a regularity or Humean theory of causation against an essentialist or realist interpretation. The latter contends that while we may cite one or more factors or events as the causal condition of some effect, it is the force or power in these conditions that is actually the cause of the effect. Nāgārjuna's basic criticism of this realist view is summarized in the fourth verse:

Power to act does not have conditions. There...