Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture

Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture

Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture

Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture

Synopsis

Nagarjuna, one of India's greatest philosophers, is the most influential thinker in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. While his philosophy has been the subject of numerous studies and translations, Joseph Walser provides the first examination of Nagarjuna's life and writings within the social, religious, and institutional contexts of the early history of Buddhism. Walser locates Nagarjuna's second-century writings at a critical juncture in the development and spread of Mahayana Buddhism. At this time, Mahayanist writings and teachings were regarded with great suspicion, and its followers were subject to legal censure. Walser explores how Nagarjuna's writings, including his most famous works, The Jeweled Garland and Foundational Stanzas, established a connection between the authority of the existing Buddhist canon and Mahayana teachings. In doing so, Nagarjuna was able to demonstrate the legality of Mahayana interpretation within the strictures of Buddhist monastic law. This established a place for Mahayana in the Buddhist tradition and insured the reproduction and transmission of the sect's central texts. Walser's analysis draws on close readings of Nagarjuna's texts, particularly their treatment of the "three baskets" of the Buddhist canon: Vinaya (Buddhist monastic law), Sutra (the sermons of the Buddha), and Abhidharma (Buddhist sectarian treatises). Walser also examines how the philosopher forged alliances with the laity and other Buddhist sects -- alliances that proved pivotal in insuring the survival of Mah'y'na teachings. In addition to his analysis of Nagarjuna's writings, Walser explores a range of Buddhist and non-Buddhist sources, as well as art historical and epigraphic evidence to offer a creative and original contribution to the understanding of Nagarjuna and the early history of Buddhism.

Excerpt

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 prominendy 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, in the eighth century the Tibetan king Khri Srong IDe brTsan declared, "Everyone should follow the teachings of Nāgārjuna and engage assiduously in the practice of morality and the perfections."

To find someone of comparable stature in other religions, one would have to look to Augustine of Hippo or, perhaps, to Moses Maimonides. Yet such a comparison with Augustine and Maimonides would soon expose a serious deficiency in our knowledge about Nāgārjuna. Scholars of Augustine, for example, have not only examined his arguments against Pelagius but also have investigated his institutional role as the bishop of Hippo. Similarly, scholars of Maimonides study his Thirteen Articles of Faith and Guide for the Perplexed but also examine and debate his other roles as a chief justice (dayyan) and as the physician to Saladin. Indeed, it has become common in scholarship of Western religious figures not merely to study the ideas of the author but to look at what those ideas meant in the social and institutional context in which the author wrote.

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