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A relaxed distillation of Nagarjuna's teaching, fleshed out with various reflections from the author's experience and intuitions gleaned from personal reading habits, this book has proven satisfying to people who might otherwise baulk at taking Nagarjuna 'straight.' Whether it constitutes a 'translation' of Nagarjuna's karikas - is open to question. For the Buddhist background, I recommend Murti's 'The Central Philosophy of Buddhism.'
True, not everyone wants to read Nagarjuna with a close eye on all the interpretive questions that might be raised about the place this text occupies in Buddhism. Nevertheless, the wish to present the Madhyamaka - shorn of its traditional trappings, Buddhist-scholastic exegeses etc. - means that we are left wholly dependant upon the 'Batcheloresque' exegesis.
Other reviewers have pointed out some of the textual issues involved here - viz. Stephen's reading of the karikas. We might add that - contrary to what some of Stephen's observations suggest, Nagarjuna saw the Madhyamika as 'marga' centered - i.e. that it presupposed the Buddhist path. Even though it forsakes all dualism (advayavada) and allied thought constructs (drsti), Nagarjuna made it clear that this was in the interest of a religious ideal - viz. realization of the unconditioned (absolute), as against nihilism, scepticism or agnosticism etc. The Buddha said: 'two things only do I teach, suffering and its cessation.' The first - suffering (duhkha) is a corollary of impermanence (antiya) and 'dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada). Hence, Stephen's reference to the fact that we are (relatively) 'contingent beings.' But this is only half the picture. Buddhism is not just a philosophy of 'shifting sand' and the Madhyamika does not stop there.In theory, at least, that much is implied in the title of this book ('verses from the centre'). By teaching us to recognise the 'emptiness' of that which arises and passes away, it enables us to realize that which does not arise and pass away - hence the cessation of suffering and the path (nirodhapratipat/marga).
What troubles me about Stephen's account, is that he seems to stop with the sense of impermanence (anitya), yet when Nagarjuna declares that 'samsara is nirvana,' that is tantamount to saying that what appears contigent is simply that - apparent, not ultimately real. Hence, it is not a simple philosophy of 'contingent being/s.' That may well be said from the standpoint of conventional knowledge (samvrtti), but it is not true seen paramartha-satya - viz. through prajna insight, co-terminous with the path (marga). It strikes me that Stephen has fudged this issue. The Buddha and Nagarjuna are not Heraclitus, and Buddhism is not a simple statement that that 'everything flows,' let alone a recommendation to get dragged along with the current! Without clearer reference to praxis, making Buddhism into a philosophy of 'letting go' is a dangerous generalisation. The Buddha compared the Dharma to a raft, which can be abandoned only upon reaching the other shore. He who abandons it in mid-stream or even before leaving the banks of samvrtti-land, will never reach the other shore!
Most Buddhists endeavour to make sense of Nagarjuna's Madhyamika - through practices such as samatta-vipasyana and cognate disciplines. There is nothing adventitious about it. No marga or path - then, no 'Madhyamika' or 'middle way.' It is nice to invoke the intuitions of poets like Keats etc., but what real evidence is there, to suggest that Keat's had found 'the middle way'? In letters and literature, Keat's is always remembered as a poet dying of consumption, pining for Fanny Brawn.
A final point. However tempting it may be to present Nagarjuna's ideas as a kind of 'free floating philosophy,' minus Buddhist doctrine, the truth of the matter is that 'pure' Madhyamika is something of a fiction. In India, Tibet, China and Japan, it was combined with elements of the Vijnanavada/Yogacara, without which it was difficult to resolve many of the issues raised by the Madhyamika, such as how the illusion of nescience arises? Why the unconditioned appears 'conditioned' etc? For that, the Buddhists have had to rely on the teaching of the Alaya-vijnana etc.