Buddhist philosophy and psychology

♦ Nāgārjuna on cause/condition: moral implications

According to Nāgārjuna, only a modifiable (not permanently identical with, nor permanently different from, himself/herself) person can be a concrete enjoyer of good and bad results of his/her own actions. But to be modifiable means to lack svabhāvaḥ. Now, to avoid both the svabhāvaḥ and the parabhāvaḥ positions, Nāgārjuna prefers to adopt a “neither A, nor B” formula without, in any case, agree with the Vaipulyaka-like position (described here, point 4).1 Indeed, in the Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā we find the following stanza: pratītya yad yad bhavati na hi tāvad tad eva tad | na cānyad api tat («whatever comes to be, conditioned by [some other thing], that, really, is not itself, nor it is other [than that thing]»).2 And it is relevant that a particular case of such a perspective has been by Nāgārjuna expressed as follows: sa bhoktā sa ca na kartur anyo na ca sa eva saḥ || («The one which experiences is no other that the doer, nor he is exactly himself»).3 We can summarize these sentences according to two fundamental statements: (x) na sa eva saḥ («he is not exactly himself»), and (y) na tasmāt anya saḥ («he is not other than himself»). The first statement (x) is employed for avoiding, on the one hand, some implications of the kṣaṇikatvavādaḥ perspective of the Sarvāstivādins, alongwith the brāhmaṇical definition of soul (S. ātman), because if «he were he», i.e. if «he were endowed with svabhāvaḥ» or if «he were permanent», then: sadbhūtaḥ kārakaḥ karma sadbhūtaṃ na karoty ayam | («An existing doer does not perform an existing action»).4 And it would follow that: sadbhūtasya kriyā nāsti kartā ca syād akarmakaḥ || («There is no activity of what is existent, and the doer would [consequently] be without action»).5 If svabhāvaḥ were admitted, the logical conclusion would be: dharmādharmau na vidyete kriyādīnām asaṃbhave | dharme cāsaty adharme ca phalaṃ tajjaṃ na vidyate || phale’sati na mokṣāya na svargāyopapadyate | mārgaḥ sarvakriyāṇāṃ ca nairarthakyaṃ prasajyate || («In the impossibility of activity, etc., proper and improper [actions] are not evident; if proper and improper [actions] do not exist, the effect born from them is not evident; if effect does not exist, one does not approach liberation or [birth in] heaven; it follows that the way of all activities is devoid of sense»).6 The statement (y) is useful against the Sarvāstivāda and the Sautrāntika-like positions. In the first case, because the enjoyer would be completely different from the doer (as it is supposed from the Sarvāstivādins’s kṣaṇikatvavādaḥ, according to which the agent in the kṣaṇaḥ1 is completely different from the enjoyer in the kṣaṇaḥ2). In the second case, because if the doer performs an action, and if svabhāvaḥ is denied, it follows that that very is playing the role of external parabhāvaḥ on that action, which in its turn plays the role of external parabhāvaḥ on the enjoyer; thus, even if we suppose that the doer and the enjoyer are the one and the same person, it remains the absolute difference between them and the action performed. In both cases, why could the enjoyer enjoy good or bad moral results coming from something other than himself (on the one hand a doer which is completely different from the enjoyer, on the other hand the action which is completely distinct from the doer and the enjoyer)? In the words of Nāgārjuna all this is summarized in two kārikā: na pratyayasamutpannaṃ nāpratyayasamutthitam | asti yasmād idaṃ karma tasmāt kartāpi nāsty ataḥ || karma cen nāsti kartā ca kutaḥ syāt karmajaṃ phalam | asaty atha phale bhoktā kuta eva bhaviṣyati || («Since the action is neither co-produced by conditions, nor not grown by conditions, therefore, from this reason, also the doer does not exist. If the action does not exist, how could exist a doer and an effect born from action? Then, if the effect does not exist, in which way, indeed, an enjoyer will exist?»).7

It is in such an undefined identity – because a de-finition would mean, according to Nāgārjuna, a stoppage of the flux of modifications in which the doer-enjoyer stands – between the doer and the enjoyer, that an actual moral action not only can be performed, but also can bring fruits. The “undefined identity”, about which I am speaking of, perhaps has been developed by Nāgārjuna on the basis of such Pāli passages as the following one: kammassako’mhi kammadāyādo kammayoni kammabandhu kammapaṭisaraṇo («I am the one who has action, the inheritor of the action, the womb of action, I am related to action, I am the one who lean on action»).8 Thus, we can conclude that in the relation between doer and action two steps can be distinguished: in the first moment, the agent performs concretely an action which, in its turn concurs in the definition of that agent as an agent; in a second moment, this first situation involves, in a linear, not reciprocal, way, the turning back of the action on the doer as good or bad effect, thus concretely modifying the nature of that doer, which is now ready for accomplishing another action from the level of his “new” nature, and so on. Nāgārjuna, in his Yukti-ṣaṣṭika-kārikā 32a, makes use of a particular term to define such a kind of relationship: bcas nyid, which we could restitute into Sanskrit as sāhyaṃ, «conjunction», «connection».9


(1) The (neither A nor ~A) formula is usually employed affirmatively by Nāgārjuna when he has to indicate something which exceeds the limits of substantialism and of verbalism. See, fore instance, the extreme case, applied to the Tathāgata, in PS 4, 6, 7, 10cd.

(2) MMK XVIII, 10abc.

(3) MMK XVII, 28cd. An analysis of these two kārikā, especially on account of the principle of identity involved in them has been proposed by Bugault (1983:47-48, see also 48-53). Kalupahana (1996:259) remind us the conceptual proximity existing between these words of Nāgārjuna and SN ii, 20, in which Gotama says that to consider the doer and the enjoyer as the same person would imply eternalism, whereas to consider the doer and the enjoyer as two different persons would imply nihilism.

(4) MMK VIII, 1ab. Here with sadbhūtaḥ («existent») Nāgārjuna obviously means “having svabhāvaḥ”. See the explanation of Candrakīrti, as referred to in Taber (1998:232). Compare with LS 8-9; BV 7-8. Gomez (1973:372) points out that: «the Mādhyamika philospher considers that the following three would evidently invalidates ethical values: (1) If the ego is real (or self-existent), but the external world is not real (its existence depends on the ego) […]. (2) If the external world is real (self-existent), but the ego is not real (its existence depends on nonpersonal substances). This is the position of Abhidharmic realism. (3) If both the ego and the external world are self-existent» (my italics).

(5) MMK VIII, 2cd.

(6) MMK VIII, 5-6. As it is pointed out by Scherrer-Schaub (1991:241, note 462; see also pp. 242-243), this perspective on action (karman) and doer (kartṛ) has been put forward by Nāgārjuna to contrast the Abhidhammic point of view on the pratītya-samutpādaḥ, according to which: «le Bouddha a voulu enseigner que l’acte et le fruit existent […], mais que l’agent n’existe pas en dehors de l’“expression (conventionnelle) du dharma (c’est-à-dire du pratītya-samutpāda)”».

(7) MMK XVII, 29-30. The aim of Nāgārjuna shoud have been that of dismissing every discussion which were unfruitful as regards the moral conduct, as Gomez (1973:361) suggests: «Perhaps the latter schools [of Buddhism] were more often led by dogmatical considerations than by any sincere interest in safeguarding ethical values; the main issue was, then, not how to insure salvation, but rather how to secure orthodoxy». Besides all this, we have to note that the Mahāvibhāṣā speaks of a «static (āvasthika) causation, in which dependent origination involves twelve distinct periods of the five aggregates […]. The Vibhāṣāśāstrins accept only static dependent origination […]. This type of dependent origination is most involved in the interplay between karmic cause and retribution, and points out the persistent soteriological import of the Sarvāstivāda doctrine of causation: through the present fruition moments of dependent origination (consciousness, name and form, six sense-bases, contact, and feeling), one can know the past causes (ignorance and conditioning factors) that led to that fruition; and through the present causes (desire, grasping, being and birth) one can know the future fruition (old age and death). Hence, the Vibhāṣāśāstrins explicitly interpreted dependent origination in terms of its role in bringing about liberation from the round of birth and death, rather than as an ontological principle, as some Buddhist schools were wont to do» (Potter 1996:114; emphasis added).

(8) AN III, 72. See also: MN III, 203; AN III, 186.

(9) YṢ 32a: | las rnams ’bras bu bcas nyid dang | («Actions are in connection with effects»).

References 1 (texts):

– AN=Aṅguttara-nikāyo=(1) Aṅguttara Nikāya (5 vols.), Morris, R., Hardy, E., Warder, A.K. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford 1979-1995 (rep.); (2) The Book of the Gradual Sayings (5 vols.), Woodward, F.L., Hare, E.M. (Engl. trans. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford 1994 (rep.)

– BV=Bodhicitta-vivaraṇaṃ=(1) Nāgārjuniana: Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Nāgārjuna, Lindtner, Chr., Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1987, pp. 180-217; (2) Bodhicitta-Vivaraṇa of Ācārya Nāgārjuna and Bodhicitta-Bhāvanā of Ācārya Kamalaśīla, Namdol, G (ed. and Hindī trans. by), Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath (Varanasi) 1991.

– Catuḥ-stavaḥ=(1) “The Catustava of Nāgārjuna”, in On Voidness: A Study on Buddhist Nihilism, Tola, F., Dragonetti, C. (ed. and Engl. trans. by), Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1995, pp. 101-153; (2) Catuḥstavaḥ of Ācārya Nāgārjuna, Namdol, G. (Hindi trans. and critically ed. in Sanskrit and Tibetan), Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath (Varanasi) 2001.

– LS=Lokātīta-stavaḥ, see Catuḥ-stavaḥ.

– MN=Majjhima-nikāyo=(1) Majjhima Nikāya (3 vols.), Treckner, V., Chalmers, R. (ed. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford 1993-1994 (rep.); (2) Middle Length Sayings (3 vols.), Horner, I.B. (Engl. trans. by), Pali Text Society, Oxford 2000 (rep.); (3) The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya, Bhikkhu Ñānamoli, Bhikkhu Bodhi (Engl. trans. by), Wisdom Publication, Boston 1995.

– MMK=Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā(-vṛtti-prasannapadā)=(1) Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, de Jong, J.W. (ed. by), The Adyar Library and Research Center, Madras 1977; (2) Madhyamakaśāstram of Nāgārjuna. With the Commentaries Akutobhayā by Nāgārjuna, Madhyamakavṛtti by Buddhapālita, Prajñāpradīpavṛtti by Bhāvaviveka, Prasannapadāvṛtti by Candrakīrti, Critically Reconstructed (2 vols.), Pandeya, R. (ed. by), Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1988; (3) Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nāgārjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way, Kalupahana, D.J. (ed. and Engl. trans. by), Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1996 rist.; (4) Candrakīrti Prasannapadā Madhyamakavrtti. Douze chapitres traduits du sanscrit et du tibétain, accompagnés d’une introduction, de notes, et d’une édition critique de la version tibétaine, May, J. (ed. and Franch trans. by), A. Maisonneuve, Paris 1959.

– PS=Paramārtha-stavaḥ, see Catuḥ-stavaḥ.

– YṢ=Yukti-ṣaṣṭika-kārikā(-vṛttiḥ)=(1) Nāgārjuniana: Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Nāgārjuna, Lindtner, Chr., Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1987, pp. 100-119; (2) Yuktiṣaṣṭikavṛtti. Commentaire à la soixantaine sur le raisonnement ou Du vrai einsegnement de la causalité, par le maître indien Candrakīrti, Sherrer-Schaub, C.A. (éd. et trad. de la version tibétaine par), Institut Belge des Hautes Études Chinoises, «Mélanges chinois et bouddhique» 25, Bruxelles (1991).

References 2 (studies):

– Bugault, G. 1983. Logic and Dialectics in the Madhyamakakārikās, «Journal of Indian Philosophy» 11, pp. 7-76.

– Gomez, L.O. 1973. Emptiness and Moral Perfection, «Philosophy East and West» 23, pp. 361-373.

– Potter, K.H. (ed. by). 1996. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies vol. VII, Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 A. D., Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.

– Taber, J.A. 1998. On Nāgārjuna’s So-Called Fallacies: A Comparative Approach, «Indo-Iranian Journal» 41, pp. 213-144.

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