From Encyclopedia of Buddhism
(Redirected from Mūlamadhyamakakārikā)
Jump to: navigation, search

The Mulamadhyamaka-karika (Skt. mūlamadhyamakakārikā; Tib. དབུ་མ་རྩ་བ་ཤེས་རབ་, Uma Tsawa Sherab, Wyl. dbu ma rtsa ba shes rab; Trad. Chin. 中論) or Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, is a key text of the Madhyamaka-school, written by the great Indian teacher Nagarjuna.

The central topic of the text is emptiness--the Buddhist technical term for the lack of independent existence, inherent existence, or essence in things. Nagarjuna relentlessly analyzes phenomena or processes that appear to exist independently and argues that they cannot so exist, and yet, though lacking the inherent existence imputed to them either by naive common sense or by sophisticated, realistic philosophical theory, these phenomena are not nonexistent--they are, he argues, conventionally real.[1]

This text belongs to Nagarjuna’s Collection of Middle Way Reasoning.

Alternate names for the text


  • Mulamadhyamaka-karika
  • Prajñā-nāma-mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Buswell, Rigpa wiki)
  • Mūlamadhyamakakārikā-prajñā-nāma
  • Madhyamaka-shastra (title used by Kumarajiva in his Chinese translation)

English language:

  • Root Verses of the Middle Way
  • Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way
  • Fundamental Stanzas of the Middle Way (Jay Garfield 1994)
  • The Root Verses on the Wisdom of the Middle Way (Rigpa Wiki)
  • Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Jay Garfield 1995)
  • The Root Stanzas on the Middle Way (Padmakara)
  • Verses from the Center (Stephen Batchelor)

Chinese language:

  • Zhong lun ("The Chinese analogue of this text is the Zhong lun, which renders the title as Madhyamaka-shastra. This Chinese version was edited and translated by Kumārajīva. Kumārajīva’s edition, however, includes not only Nāgārjuna’s verses but also Piṅgala’s commentary to the verses."[2])

Main topic

Overview from Jay Garfield

Contemporary scholar Jay Garfield states:

The central topic of the text is emptiness--the Buddhist technical term for the lack of independent existence, inherent existence, or essence in things. Nagarjuna relentlessly analyzes phenomena or processes that appear to exist independently and argues that they cannot so exist, and yet, though lacking the inherent existence imputed to them either by naive common sense or by sophisticated, realistic philosophical theory, these phenomena are not nonexistent--they are, he argues, conventionally real.

This dual thesis of the conventional reality of phenomena together with their lack of inherent existence depends upon the complex doctrine of the two truths or two realities--a conventional or nominal truth and an ultimate truth--and upon a subtle and surprising doctrine regarding their relation. It is, in fact, this sophisticated development of the doctrine of the two truths as a vehicle for understanding Buddhist metaphysics and epistemology that is Nagarjuna's greatest philosophical contribution. If the analysis in terms of emptiness is the substantial heart of Mulamadhyamikakarika, the method of reductio ad absurdum is the methodological core. Nagarjuna, like Western skeptics, systematically eschews the defense of positive metaphysical doctrines regarding the nature of things, demonstrating rather that any such positive thesis is incoherent, and that in the end our conventions and our conceptual framework can never be justified by demonstrating their correspondence to an independent reality. Rather, he suggests, what counts as real depends precisely upon our conventions.

For Nagarjuna and his followers, this point is connected deeply and directly with the emptiness of phenomena. That is, for instance, when a Madhyamika philosopher says of a table that it is empty, that assertion by itself is incomplete. It invites the question, "empty of what?" And the answer is: "empty of inherent existence, or self-nature, or, in more Western terms, essence." Now, to say that the table is empty is hence simply to say that it lacks essence and, importantly, not to say that it is completely nonexistent. To say that it lacks essence, the Madhyamika philosopher will explain, is to say, as the Tibetans like to put it, that it does not exist "from its own side"--that its existence as the object that it is, as a table, depends not only upon it or on any purely nonrelational characteristics, but upon us as well. That is, if this kind of furniture had not evolved in our culture, what appears to us to be an obviously unitary object might instead be correctly described as five objects: four quite useful sticks absurdly surmounted by a pointless slab of stick-wood waiting to be carved. It is also to say that the table depends for its existence on its parts, on its causes, on its material, and so forth. Apart from these, there is no table. The table, we might say, is a purely arbitrary slice of space-time chosen by us as the referent of a single name, and not an entity demanding, on its own, recognition and a philosophical analysis to reveal its essence. That independent character is precisely what it lacks, on this view.[1]

Overview from Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamsto

Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso states:

The main topic of The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way is emptiness. In fact, the terms Middle Way and emptiness are synonyms. Middle Way means that the true nature of the phenomena we experience lies in the middle, between all possible extremes that can be conceived of by the intellect. The true nature of reality cannot be described by any conceptual fabrication, by any conventional term or expression. Thus, it is not existent, not nonexistent, not something, not nothing, not permanent, not extinct; it is not the lack of these things, and it is not even the middle in between them, for that is a conceptually fabricated extreme as well. The true nature of reality transcends all the notions we could ever have of what it might be. This is also the ultimate understanding of the second turning’s description of emptiness. Emptiness ultimately means that genuine reality is empty of any conceptual fabrication that could attempt to describe what it is.

The path leading to the direct realization of this inconceivable, genuine nature of reality begins with gaining certainty in this profound view of emptiness. This is an essential first step because it is not enough just to read the teachings that say, “All phenomena are emptiness; the nature of reality is beyond concept,” and, without knowing the reasons these teachings are accurate, to accept them on blind faith alone. If we do, we will not remove our doubts, and our mere opinion that the teachings are valid will not do us any good when these doubts come to the surface. When we gain certainty in the teachings on emptiness, however, then it will be impossible for doubts to arise.

The way that Nagarjuna helps us to gain such certainty is through the use of logical reasoning.[3]

Historical context

Siderits and Katsura

Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura state:

The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (MMK) by Nāgārjuna (ca. 150 C.E.) is the foundational text of the Madhyamaka school of Indian Buddhist philosophy. It consists of verses constituting twenty-seven chapters. In it, Nāgārjuna seeks to establish the chief tenet of Madhyamaka, that all things are empty (śūnya) or devoid of intrinsic nature (svabhāva). The claim that all things are empty first appears in the Buddhist tradition in the early Mahāyāna sūtras known collectively as Prajñāpāramitā, beginning roughly in the first century B.C.E. Earlier Buddhist thought was built around the more specific claim that the person is empty: that there is no separately existing, enduring self, and that the person is a conceptual construction. Realization of the emptiness of the person was thought to be crucial to liberation from saṃsāra. The earliest Mahāyāna texts go considerably beyond this claim, asserting that not just the person (and other aggregate entities like the chariot) but everything is devoid of intrinsic nature. While they assert that all things are empty, however, they do not defend the assertion. Nāgārjuna’s task in MMK is to supply its philosophical defense.[4]

David Kalupahana

David Kalupahana examined this text in relation to the views of the Early Buddhist Schools. One colleauge wrote of Kaluphana's work:

David translated Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā with a substantial critical introduction. In it he argued that this text, which is regarded as representing the high watermark of Mahāyāna thinking in India, can be usefully situated within the axiomatics of early Buddhism. Far from deviating from the tenets of early Buddhism, it was a return to them.[5]

Kalupahanna stated that the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is...

...not only a grand commentary on the Buddha's discourse to Kaccayana, the only discourse cited by name, but also a detailed and careful analysis of most of the important discourses included in the Nikayas and the agamas, especially those of the Atthakavagga of the Pali Canon.[6]

According to Kalupahanna, in this work,

Utilizing the Buddha's theory of "dependent arising" (pratitya-samutpada), Nagarjuna demonstrated the futility of [...] metaphysical speculations. His method of dealing with such metaphysics is referred to as "middle way" (madhyama pratipad). It is the middle way that avoided the substantialism of the Sarvastivadins as well as the nominalism of the Sautrantikas.[7]

Structure of the text

Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura state:

As is usual in texts of this nature, the arguments are presented in highly compressed form and so are extremely difficult to comprehend without a commentary. This is due to the nature and purpose of such texts. A kārikā is a work in verse form that contains a concise formulation of some (often philosophical) doctrine; the kārikās are the individual verses making up the work. Texts of this sort were originally used because it is easier to memorize information when it is put in verse form. The regular cadence that results when a verse is constructed out of its four feet (referred to as a, b, c, and d), each consisting of eight syllables, serves as an important mnemonic aid. On the other hand, it would be difficult to clearly formulate and fully defend a sophisticated philosophical thesis within the form’s constraints. But texts of this genre were not composed with that end in mind. The original expectation seems to have been that the student would commit the verses to memory, recite them to the teacher to demonstrate mastery, and then receive an account from the teacher that fully explained the content of each verse. In time these explanations of individual teachers came to be written down in the form of prose commentaries. It is text plus commentary that together are meant to do the work of formulating and defending the philosophical thesis in question. Memorizing the verses would have given students the outline they need in order to remember the full details of the system spelled out in the commentary.[4]


The Mulamadhyamaka-karika consists of twenty-seven chapters.

Each [chapter] is itself a commentary on a different statement made by the Buddha in the sutras comprising the second turning of the wheel of Dharma. Nagarjuna proves the validity of the Buddha’s teachings with logical reasoning. The chapters also answer the successive arguments put to Nagarjuna by those who believed that things truly exist. In each chapter, Nagarjuna would successfully refute one such argument; his opponents would then come up with another argument that they thought proved that things were real, and Nagarjuna would refute that, and so on—that is why there are twenty-seven chapters! They are all very beneficial to us because they help us to overcome our own doubts, the same doubts that Nagarjuna’s opponents had.[3]

The twenty-seven chapters are:

  1. Examination of Conditions (Skt. Pratyayaparīkṣā)
  2. Examination of Motion (Skt. Gatāgataparīkṣā)
  3. Examination of the Senses (Skt. Cakṣurādīndriyaparīkṣā)
  4. Examination of the Skandhas (Skt. Skandhaparīkṣā)
  5. Examination of the Dhatus (Skt. Dhātuparīkṣā)
  6. Examination of Desire and the Desirous (Skt. Rāgaraktaparīkṣā)
  7. Examination of the Conditioned (Skt. Saṃskṛtaparīkṣā)
  8. Examination of the Agent and Action (Skt. Karmakārakaparīkṣā)
  9. Examination of the Prior Entity (Skt. Pūrvaparīkṣā)
  10. Examination of Fire and Fuel (Skt. Agnīndhanaparīkṣā)
  11. Examination of the Initial and Final Limits (Skt. Pūrvaparakoṭiparīkṣā)
  12. Examination of Suffering (Skt. Duḥkhaparīkṣā)
  13. Examination of Compounded Phenomena (Skt. Saṃskāraparīkṣā)
  14. Examination of Connection (Skt. Saṃsargaparīkṣā)
  15. Examination of Essence (Skt. Svabhāvaparīkṣā)
  16. Examination of Bondage (Skt. Bandhanamokṣaparīkṣā)
  17. Examination of Actions and their Fruits (Skt. Karmaphalaparīkṣa)
  18. Examination of Self and Entities (Skt. Ātmaparīkṣā)
  19. Examination of Time (Skt. Kālaparīkṣā)
  20. Examination of Combination (Skt. Sāmagrīparīkṣā)
  21. Examination of Becoming and Destruction (Skt. Saṃbhavavibhavaparīkṣā)
  22. Examination of the Tathagata (Skt. Tathāgataparīkṣā)
  23. Examination of Errors (Skt. Viparyāsaparīkṣā)
  24. Examination of the Four Noble Truths (Skt. Āryasatyaparīkṣā)
  25. Examination of Nirvana (Skt. Nirvānaparīkṣā)
  26. Examination of the Twelve Links (Skt. Dvādaśāṅgaparīkṣā)
  27. Examination of Views (Skt. Dṛṣṭiparīkṣā)


Sanskrit text

Tibetan text

Selected verses

Verse 1:1

Jay Garfield translation:

Neither from itself nor from another,
Nor from both,
Nor without a cause,
Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.[8]

Ari Goldfield translation:

Not from self, not from other,
Not from both, nor without cause:
Things do not arise
At any place, at any time.[9]

Rigpa wiki translation:

Not from itself, nor from another,
Not from both, nor without a cause,
Does anything anywhere ever arise.[10]

Stephen Batchelor translation:

No thing anywhere is ever born from itself, from something else, from both or without a cause.[11]

Richard Jones translation:

No entities whatsoever are found anywhere that have arisen from themselves, from another, from both themselves and another, or from no cause at all.[12]

Verse 15:10

Jay Garfield translation:

To say "it is" is to grasp for permanence.
To say "it is not" is to adopt the view of nihilism.
Therefore a wise person
Does not say "exists" or "does not exist".[13]

Richard Jones translation:

To say “It is” is to grasp for eternal permanence. To say “It is not” is to grasp for complete annihilation. Therefore, the clear-sighted should not adhere to either "It is" or "It is not".[14]

Verse 16:10

Ari Goldfield translation:

There is no nirvana to be produced
And no samsara to be cleared away.
In essential reality, what samsara is there?
What is there that can be called nirvana?[15]

Verse 22:11

Jay Garfield translation:

"Empty" should not be asserted.
"Nonempty" should not be asserted.
Neither both nor neither should be asserted.
They are only used nominally.[16]

Verses 24:18-19

Jay Garfield translation:

Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.
Something that is not dependently arisen
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a non-empty thing
Does not exist.[17]

Verses 25:19-20

Stephen Batchelor translation:

Samsara does not have the slightest distinction from Nirvana.
Nirvana does not have the slightest distinction from Samsara.
Whatever is the end of Nirvana, that is the end of Samsara.
There is not even a very subtle slight distinction between the two.[18]

Verses 25:22-24

Stephen Batchelor translation:

In the emptiness of all things what ends are there? What non-ends are there?
What ends and non-ends are there? What of neither are there?
Is there this? Is there the other?
Is there permanence? Is there impermanence?
Is there both permanence and impermanence?
Is there neither?
Totally pacifying all referents and totally pacifying fixations is peace.
The Buddha nowhere taught any dharma to anyone.[19]



It is said there were eight important commentaries on the text in India, but only four of them have been translated into Tibetan and subsequently found their way into the Tengyur.

  • Akutobhayā (Skt. Akutobhayā, Wyl. dbu ma rtsa ba'i 'grel pa ga las 'jigs med) [note 1][note 2]
  • Buddhapalita, Mula Madhyamaka Vritti (Skt. Mūla-madhyamaka-vṛtti, in Tibetan referred to as the Buddhapalita commentary; Wyl. dbu ma rtsa ba'i 'grel pa buddha pā li ta)
  • Bhavaviveka, The Wisdom Lamp: A Commentary on the Root Verses on the Wisdom of the Middle Way (Skt. Prajñā-pradīpa-mūla-madhyamaka-vṛtti, Wyl. dbu ma'i rtsa ba'i 'grel pa shes rab sgron ma)
BDRC icon.png དབུ་མ་རྩ་བའི་འགྲེལ་པ་ཚིག་གསལ་བ་, dbu ma rtsa ba'i 'grel pa tshig gsal ba


BDRC icon.png དབུ་མ་རྩ་བའི་ཚིག་ལེའུར་བྱས་པ་ཤེས་རབ་ཅེས་བྱ་བའི་མཆན་འགྲེལ་, dbu ma rtsa ba'i tshig le'ur byas pa shes rab ces bya ba'i mchan 'grel
BDRC icon.png དབུ་མ་རྩ་བའི་མཆན་འགྲེལ་གནས་ལུགས་རབ་གསལ་ཀླུ་དབང་དགོངས་རྒྱན་, dbu ma rtsa ba'i mchan 'grel gnas lugs rab gsal klu dbang dgongs rgyan
  • Mabja Jangchub Tsöndrü
Ornament of Reason (translated by Dharmachakra Translation Committee)


  • "Middle Treatise" (中論 Zhong Lun), translated by Kumarajiva in 409. The author of this commentary is given as either "Blue Eyes" (青目; back translated as *Vimalākṣa) or *Piṅgala (賓伽羅). This is by far the best known commentary in East Asian Mādhyamaka, forming one of the three commentaries that make up the East Asian Madhyamaka (Salun) tradition.

Translations into English

Author Title Publisher Date ISBN Notes
Richard Jones Nagarjuna: Buddhism's Most Important Philosopher Jackson Square Books 2014 ISBN 978-1502768070 A plain English translation intended for a general audience. Translated from the Sanskrit.
Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura Nāgārjuna's Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā Wisdom Publications 2013 ISBN 978-1-61429-050-6 The root text is translated from the Sanskrit and the authors present a commentary based on the four classical Indian commentaries.
Gudo Wafu Nishijima and Brad Warner Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika Monkfish Book Publishing 2011 ISBN 978-0-9833589-0-9 A modern interpretation from a Zen perspective.
Dharmachakra Translation Committee Ornament of Reason: The Great Commentary to Nagarjuna's Root of the Middle Way Snow Lion 2011 ISBN 978-1-55939-368-3 A translation from the Tibetan of the root text and commentary by Mabja Jangchub Tsöndrü.
Padmakara Translation Group The Root Stanzas on the Middle Way Éditions Padmakara 2008 ISBN 978-2-916915-44-9 A translation from the Tibetan, based on a commentary by Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche. This volume was made to mark the visit of the Dalai Lama to France in August 2008.
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso The Sun of Wisdom Shambhala 2003 This commentary by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso includes translation of selected verses. Translated by Ari Goldfield.
Luetchford, Michael J. Between Heaven and Earth - From Nagarjuna to Dogen Windbell Publications 2002 ISBN 978-0-9523002-5-0 A translation and interpretation with references to the philosophy of Zen Master Dogen.
Batchelor, Stephen Verses from the Center Diane Publishing 2000 ISBN 978-1-57322-876-3 Batchelor's translation is the first nonacademic, idiomatic English version of the text. This translation is available online; see Translations available online
McCagney, Nancy Nagarjuna and the Philosophy of Openness Rowman & Littlefield 1997 ISBN 978-0-8476-8626-1 Romanized text, translation and philosophical analysis.
Garfield, Jay L. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way Oxford University Press 1995 ISBN 978-0-19-509336-0 A translation of the Tibetan version together with commentary.
Kalupahana, David J. Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way State University of New York Press 1986 ISBN 978-81-208-0774-7 Translation, and commentary. Interpretation of the text in the light of the early Buddhist Canon.
Sprung, Mervyn Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way Prajna Press, Boulder 1979 ISBN 978-0-7100-0190-0 Partial translation of the verses together with Chandrakirti's commentary.
Inada, Kenneth K. Nagarjuna: A Translation of his Mulamadhyamakakarika With an Introductory Essay The Hokuseido Press 1970 ISBN 978-0-89346-076-1 Romanized text and translation.
Streng, Frederick Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning Abdingdon Press 1967 (predates ISBN) Translation and considerable analysis.

Translations available online

The complete text of Stephen Batchelor's translation is available at these sites:

Similarities to Greek philosophy

Because of the high degree of similarity between the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā and Pyrrhonism, particularly the surviving works of Sextus Empiricus.[20] Contemporary scholar Thomas McEvilley suspects that Nagarjuna was influenced by Greek Pyrrhonist texts imported into India. However, since Pyrrho of Elis is known to have visited India, it is also suspected that his formulation of the Three Marks of Existence and the tetralemma was influenced by Buddhist and Jain philosophers (the so-called gymnosophists) from whom he is known to have learnt during his travels to India.[21]

See also


  1. Some attribute the text to Nagarjuna, but others cite the fact that the text quotes Aryadeva as evidence that it could not have been composed by Nagarjuna, who was Aryadeva's teacher.
  2. The Akutobhayā is held by Ames to be the first commentary on the MMK. See: Ames, William L. (1993). "Bhāvaviveka's Prajñāpradīpa ~ A Translation of Chapter One: 'Examinations of Causal Conditions' (Pratyaya)". Journal of Indian Philosophy, 1993, vol.21. Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, p.209



  • Garfield, Jay L. (1994), "Dependent Arising and the Emptiness of Emptiness: Why did Nagarjuana start with causation?", Philosophy East & West, Vol. 44 Issue 2, April 1994 
  • Garfield, Jay L. (1995), The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Oxford: Oxford University Press 
  • Jones, Richard (2014), Nagarjuna: Buddhism's Most Important Philosopher (Kindle ed.), Jackson Square Books 
  • Kalupahana, David J. (1992), The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, Delhi: ri Satguru Publications 
  • Kalupahana, David J. (1994), A history of Buddhist philosophy, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited 
  • Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso (2003), The Sun of Wisdom, translated by Goldfield, Ari (Kindle ed.), Shambhala 
  • Siderits, Mark; Katsura, Shōryū (2013), Nāgārjuna's Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Wisdom Publications 

External links

This article includes content from Mulamadhyamaka-karika on Wikipedia (view authors). License under CC BY-SA 3.0. Wikipedia logo
This article includes content from Mulamadhyamaka-karika on Rigpawiki (view authors). Licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0 RW icon height 18px.png