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  • Nāgārjuna's Theory of Causality:Implications Sacred and Profane
  • Jay L. Garfield


Nāgārjuna properly emphasizes that one understands the fundamental nature of reality (or lack thereof, depending on one's perspective) if, and only if, one understands the nature of dependent origination:

Whoever sees dependent arisingAlso sees sufferingAnd its arisingAnd its cessation as well as the path.


And he devotes two important chapters of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā to the analysis of causality per se and of dependent arising more generally. The analysis developed in these chapters permeates the rest of the treatise. I have largely said my piece about how these chapters are to be read and about their role in Nāgārjuna's larger philosophical enterprise (Garfield 1990, 1994, 1995). I will review that account only briefly here as a preliminary to some applications.

I think not only that Nāgārjuna is right about the fundamental importance of causality, and of dependence more generally, to our understanding of reality and of human life but also that his own account of these matters is generally correct. Given these two premises, it follows that our conduct of natural science as well as the pursuit of our moral life should be informed by Nāgārjuna's account of these matters. Here, I will develop some of these implications. I caution, however, that my development, at least in the case of ethics, is heterodox—although, as I will argue, absolutely orthodox Madhyamaka—within at least one major living tradition in which Madhyamaka is preserved and practiced: the dGe lugs pa school of Tibetan Buddhism. As a consequence, we will have reason to question both certain substantive claims made within that tradition about the necessary conditions of the cultivation of bodhicitta and the doxographic strategy of the tradition.

My claims about the philosophy of science may be less controversial, but will nonetheless offend some. And that (on both counts) is as it should be. For the philosophy of science has been steadily maturing into a more Buddhist framework over the past few decades (even if most Western philosophers of science would not recognize that characterization). But there are residues of pre-Buddhist modernism in practice, and even those who opt for a more enlightened approach to these matters do not always see the big picture. [End Page 507]

I will first sketch Nāgārjuna's view. The account will be straightforward, and I will not defend my reading any further here. I will then turn to the implications of this view for the philosophy of science, arguing that Nāgārjuna's account of inter-dependence shows how we can clearly understand the nature of scientific explanation, the relationship between distinct levels of theoretical analysis in the sciences (with particular attention to cognitive science), and how we can sidestep difficulties in understanding the relations between apparently competing ontologies induced by levels of description or explanation supervening on one another.

Finally, I will examine rGyal tshab's exposition of Dharmakīrti's account, in the pramānasiddhi chapter of the Pramāṇavarttika, of the necessity of a belief in rebirth for the cultivation of bodhicitta. This account is accepted in the dGe lugs tradition both as an accurate representation of Dharmakīrti's views and as authoritative regarding bodhicitta and the mahākarunā, which is its necessary condition. But, I will argue, Dharmakīrti, rGyal tshab, and their followers are, by virtue of accepting this argument, neglecting Nāgārjuna's account of dependent arising and in consequence are implicated in what might be seen from a proper Prāsangika-Madhyamaka point of view as the very subtlest form of self-grasping. We can use Nāgārjuna's account to extirpate this final self-grasping, thus freeing the morally central notion of bodhicitta from unnecessary and perhaps implausible metaphysical and cosmological baggage. This also suggests some caution regarding a doxography that takes as axiomatic the consistency of Dharmakīrti's pramānavāda and Nāgārjuna's Madhyamaka. We will conclude with a few observations on common lessons emerging from these applications of Nāgārjuna's insights...


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