Nagarjuna in Context

Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture

Joseph Walser
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 368
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Nagarjuna in Context
    Book Description:

    Joseph Walser provides the first examination of Nagarjuna's life and writings in the context of the religious and monastic debates of the second century CE. Walser explores how Nagarjuna secured the canonical authority of Mahayana teachings and considers his use of rhetoric to ensure the transmission of his writings by Buddhist monks. Drawing on close textual analysis of Nagarjuna's writings and other Buddhist and non-Buddhist sources, Walser offers an original contribution to the understanding of Nagarjuna and the early history of Buddhism.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50623-6
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. [Maps]
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    This book is a study of Nāgārjuna, a Buddhist philosopher of the second century and a key figure in the development of Mahāyāna Buddhism in ancient India. Few figures in the history of Buddhism stand out more prominently than Nāgārjuna. In Mahāyāna hagiographies, Nāgārjuna is among the earliest of the great saints mentioned. Nāgārjuna is prominently represented in the transmission lineages for both the Zen tradition and the various Tantric traditions. He has been cited as a source of authority by personages as diverse as Tsongkhapa in Tibet and Dōgen and Shinran in Japan. As a measure of his authority,...

  6. 1 Locating Mahāyāna
    (pp. 16-58)

    To present Nāgārjuna’s role in the development and spread of Mahāyāna, we must first explore the contours of Mahāyāna in India around the time that he lived. The present chapter examines Mahāyāna’s development on two fronts: its institutional development and its geographic diffusion. To that end, I present evidence for Mahāyāna’s development in the first centuries of the Common Era through an examination of inscriptions, Mahāyāna sūtras, records of Mahāyāna translators, Chinese pilgrims’ accounts of Mahāyāna, and Buddhists’ own histories of their religion.¹ The preponderance of this evidence suggests that Mahāyāna was a relatively small, in some places embattled, movement...

  7. 2 Locating Nāgārjuna
    (pp. 59-88)

    The introduction states my intention to examine the social constraints on Nāgārjuna’s writings in order to highlight his strategies to further the cause of Mahāyāna. The discussion of Mahāyāna in Chapter 1 should make it apparent that the social constraints on Mahāyāna and the strategies necessary to overcome those constraints differed from one region to another and from one century to another. Being a Mahāyānist probably would have been much easier in fifth-century Khotan than in second-century Andhra. An examination of Nāgārjuna’s works yields fruit only if we can narrow the geographic area and the historical period in which he...

  8. 3 Mahāyāna and the Constraints of Monastic Law
    (pp. 89-122)

    Chapters 1 and 2 argue that the preponderance of evidence points to two theses: in general, Mahāyāna was probably not well established, either institutionally or financially, in India until the fifth century; and Nāgārjuna was likely to have been living in a Mahāsānghika monastery in Andhra Pradesh when he wrote the Ratnāvalī. Chapter 3 addresses the implications of these for the interpretation of Nāgārjuna.

    Few who have read Nāgārjuna’s works have failed to be struck by his unusual writing style. Nāgārjuna’s rhetorical idiosyncrasies, far from being merely adventitious, are part of a larger strategy to legitimate a budding Mahāyāna Buddhism...

  9. 4 Mahāyāna Sūtras as Monastic Property
    (pp. 123-152)

    Earlier chapters discussed the legal limitations that Mahāyānists may have encountered upon teaching their doctrine. This chapter investigates a related factor, equally crucial to Mahāyāna’s survival: the reproduction and preservation of Mahāyāna texts. The continued presence of Mahāyāna in any given monastery would require the reproduction and preservation of Mahāyāna sūtras. Sūtras are not just bundles of ideas; they are manufactured goods produced by monasteries. As such, their (re)production would have required the allocation of the resources of time and labor, pens, paper, and ink. Furthermore, storage space had to be devoted to their preservation, and each text had to...

  10. 5 On the Parasitic Strategies of Mahāyāna
    (pp. 153-187)

    The european and asian species of cuckoo are what is known as “brood parasites.” The female lays her eggs in the nests of other birds, who, in turn, raise her chicks as their own. A successful cuckoo can pass its eggs off as those of another species so that the other species will provide the labor and material resources necessary to raise the young to adulthood. The simple fact that Mahāyānists were writing and copying unsanctioned scripture was potentially divisive. To alleviate tensions they would have had to convince the readers that their texts were buddhavacana, or “word of the...

  11. 6 Abhidharma and Sectarian Identity
    (pp. 188-223)

    “Word of the buddha” was an institutional category authorizing which texts would be preserved and replicated. “Word of the Buddha” therefore becomes both the site and the objective of Mahāyāna’s struggle. If the word Tripitaka is substituted for buddhavacana, we can see how far we have come in our investigation of Nāgārjuna’s strategy. Chapters 3 and 4 showed how Nāgārjuna appeals to the authority of the Vinaya Pitaka to pre-empt any legal action taken against the Mahāyānists. Chapter 5 examined his appeal to the Sūtra Pitaka portion of the Tripitaka and highlighted his attempt to make Mahāyāna appear to conform...

  12. 7 Nāgārjuna and the Abhidharma
    (pp. 224-263)

    In order to establish mahāyāna on a firm footing in his monastery, Nāgārjuna would have to demonstrate to his confrères that the adoption of Mahāyāna would augment the doctrinal positions current in the monastery in which he resided. It is useful to emphasize this because it has become a commonplace in modern scholarship on Mahāyāna to state that one of Mahāyāna’s prime objectives was to refute “the abhidharmists.” The following statement of Musashi Tachikawa is typical:

    While adhering to the original standpoint of Early Buddhism that all things are impermanent, Mahāyāna Buddhism propounded by means of its own original methodology...

  13. Conclusion: Toward the Outline of a Career
    (pp. 264-270)

    This book aims to demythologize Nāgārjuna. However, the intent of my “demythologization” differs slightly from that of Rudolf Bultmann.¹ My intention is not to rescue universal elements from the myth of Nāgārjuna but, rather, to rescue Nāgārjuna from an overemphasis on his universality. True, the Nāgārjuna of interest in the present discussion is precisely the one that has been obscured by myth. Yet the myth that needs to be undermined is not the myth of traditional Buddhist hagiography, but the modern academic myth of Nāgārjuna. A reference to Roland Barthes should further clarify what is meant here by “myth.”


  14. Appendix: The Authorship of the Ratnāvalī
    (pp. 271-278)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 279-338)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 339-356)
  17. Index
    (pp. 357-369)