Some notes on reading a Madhyamaka text
Without referring to the specific posts, I would like to answer some points that have been raised, venturing to advance some possible suggestions.
1. Background readings for the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā
In effect, studying Theravāda Abhidhamma is unlikely to be very useful. The reason is that Nāgārjuna starts from a framework which is closer to some form of Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma. For this reason, it may be useful to familiarize oneself with some of the basic ideas of the Sarvāstivāda. (In general, Sanskrit rather than Pāli sources are the likely background for Nāgārjuna’s thought, whether we refer to Mahāyāna or to non-Mahāyāna texts).
Fortunately, there are some good sources translated into English. I would recommend *anyone* to read Saṁtāni’s translation of the Arthaviniścayasūtra’s commentary. The text was probably used as a basic manual in Nālanda University:
Samtani, N.H. (tr) (2002). Gathering the Meanings: The Compendium of Categories: The Arthaviniścayasūtra and its Commentary Nobandhana. Berkeley: Dharma Publishing
There is some debate as to whether the text is 100% Sarvāstivāda, however, it does not affect its usefulness in terms of a basic framework of reference.
Another very useful, concise and well translated introduction to Sarvāstivāda categories is the following:
Dhammajoti, Bhikku K.L. (tr.) (2008, second rev. ed.). Entrance into the Supreme Doctrine: Skandhila’s Abhidharmāvatāra. Hong Kong: Centre of Buddhist Studies
For more general introductions to Sarvāstivāda:
Dhammajoti, K.L. (2002). Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma. Sri Lanka: Center for Buddhist Studies
Willemen, C., Dessein, B. and Cox., C. (1998). Sarvāstivāda Buddhist Scholasticism. Leiden: Brill
Furthermore, it may be desirable to read at least the first chapter of the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya. The text is surely much later than Nāgārjuna, nonetheless it continues and represents more ancient layers of Abhidharma discussions:
Pruden, Leo M. (tr.) (1988). Abhidharmakośabhāṣyam by Louis de La Vallée Poussin. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press
Stcherbatsky, Th., Central Conception of Buddhism, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1970
A very general first step is to read two useful texts by Williams:
Williams, Paul (with Anthony Tribe) (2000). Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition, London: Routledge
Williams,Paul (2005). Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. New York: Routledge
I think this will allow anyone to acquire a basic framework within which to place the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.
2. Books on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā
Garfield’s translation and commentary (the initial topic of this post) is in my opinion a commendable and useful text, offering a coherent and well argued interpretation. However, there are some points about his treatment where I think it would be worth being cautious.
The first point is his treatment and description of the 4 conditions and 6 causes. According the Sarvāstivāda framework, the 6 causes can in fact be subsumed within the 4 conditions. The situation is not dissimilar from that of the 5 aggregates and 12 entrances; they are alternative classifications. Garfield’s contention that Nāgārjuna would accept conditions but not causes is therefore highly problematic.
Furthermore, his actual description of the 4 conditions is not (in my understanding) very faithful to their actual definitions of the texts. Candrakīrti clarifies that Nāgārjuna’s own verses are worded in such a way to respect those definitions; since I believe Candrakīrti to be correct, it seems to me that Garfield’s treatment of the 1st Chapter contains some inaccuracies.
Other difficulties arise in Garfield’s treatment of the last two Chapters, where – I would argue – he has occasionally missed the actual focus of Nāgārjuna’s argument. The twelve limbs of dependent arising and their relation to rebirth are a crucial part of Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, which Garfield tends to downplay (more in general, his exegesis of Madhyamaka tries to de-emphasize the importance of rebirth in Madhyamaka thought, which may be interesting to some, but I think is not very faithful to the original sources).
In brief, the strong point of Garfield’s treatment is the cogency of his arguments and the clarity with which he expresses them. The weak point (if I may dare to point this out) is that perhaps he could have been more careful in representing the Abhidharmic background of the text.
Before reading the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā itself, it may be useful to read some more general introductions to Madhyamaka. I would personally recommend the following two texts:
Westerhoff, Jan (2009). Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hopkins, J. (1987). Emptiness Yoga. Ithaca: Snow Lion
As for the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā itself, a partial translation together with a (somewhat free, but still useful) translation of Candrakīrti’s commentary is to be found here:
Sprung, M. (tr.) (1979). Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way. Boulder: Prajñā Press
Furthermore, Thomas Doctor has recently translated the oldest Tibetan commentary to te Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. I don’t recall the reference – however, it should be easy to find.
Lastly, I would recommend the following texts, available for free:http://peterdellasantina.org/books_on_buddhism.htm
Especially, the first one offers a selection of shorter and more accessible works by Nāgārjuna, translated by Dr. Della Santina in a highly readable style. Reading these texts first will make the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā more comprehensible: it may be reasonable to say that the latter is Nāgārjuna’s most difficult work – since it relies so heavily on a Sarvastivāda-like Abhidharmic background and hence is highly technical.
I hope this may be useful.