Life and Accomplishments:
Nagarjuna was an Indian philosopher who lived in the 2nd or 3rd century. He founded the Madhyamika school, a foundation of Mahayana, and wrote the Mula-Madhyamaka-karika. Historians know little else about his life, however.
In explaining the philosophy of Madhyamika, Nagarjuna presented four positions he would not take:
- All things (dharmas) exist; affirmation of being, negation of nonbeing.
- All things do not exst; affirmation of nonbeing, negation of being.
- All things both exist and do not exist; both affirmation and negation.
- All things neither exist or do not exist; neither affirmation nor negation.
Nagarjuna rejected each of these propositions and took a middle position between being and nonbeing.
Friend of the Nagas:
In some legends, Nagarjuna was befriended by the nagas, which are snake beings that live in unseen realms. Nagas appear in many Hindu and Buddhist myths. In this story, the nagas had been guarding sutras containing teachings of the Buddha that had been hidden from mankind for centuries. The nagas gave these sutras, called the Wisdom Sutras -- to Nagarjuna, and he took them back to the human world.
The Wisdom Sutras are collected under the title Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutra. Wherever he found them, Nagarjuna is remembered as the one who systemized and deepened the teachings of the Wisdom Sutras.
The Wish-Fulfilling Jewel:
In the Transmission of the Light (Denko-roku), Zen Master Keizan Jokin (1268-1325) wrote that Nagarjuna was the student of Kapimala. Kapimala found Nagarjuna living in isolated mountains and preaching to the nagas.
The naga king gave Kapimala a wish-fulfilling jewel. "This is the ultimate jewel of the world," Nagarjuna said. "Does it have form, or it is formless?"
Kapimala replied, "You do not know this jewel neither has form nor is formless. You do not yet know that this jewel is not a jewel."
On hearing these words, Nagarjuna realized enlightenment.