I am confused by the variety of views within Buddhism. It appears to me that Nagarjuna provides a complete philosophical justification and explanation for the Buddha's teachings and that this is accepted by many Buddhists. But not all. I'd like to ask:

  • Which sects or schools reject Nagarjuna's metaphysics?
  • On what grounds do they do so?
  • How do they deal with the difficulty that Nagarjuna proves all theories of Reality except his own are logically indefensible?

There are three issues here: there is N's proof of the absurdity of all positive metaphysical positions (in Fundamental Wisdom); his 'theory of Emptiness'; the doctrine of 'Two Truths'.

I wonder whether some Buddhists cherry-pick from these -- or do those who reject or accept one of them tend to reject or accept all three?

  • @ChrisW is this question safe from getting too argumentative?
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 22:30
  • @AndreiVolkov I think It's a sincere question, that Peter has been surprised that not everyone shares or understands his view[s] (which he derives from N). If I were to try to answer this I think I might just say that different schools have different "canons", which may or may include N (and that e.g. the Pali canon is already large and arguably sufficient) ... see also e.g. Nichiren I guess -- is their canon only the Lotus?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 22:38
  • It is a sincere question and I did not mean to start any arguments. Clearly there is a major argument within Buddhism as to the meaning of the teachings and I'm exploring how deep it runs.
    – user14119
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 11:07
  • We usually want to avoid topics of the form, "why does school A think that school B's doctrine-of-X is wrong?"
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 11:14
  • 1
    @ChrisW - I wonder why. It seems an excellent kind of question.
    – user14119
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 11:20

3 Answers 3


I can tell you why the Theravada school does not pay attention to Nagarjuna's works:

  1. Parable of the Poisoned Arrow
  2. Parable of the Simsapa Leaves
  3. The Discourse on the Unconjecturables
  4. The statement by the Buddha that he did not hide anything in a closed fist.
  5. Discourse on The All

Basically, this means that from the perspective of the Theravada school, everything that the Buddha had taught in the Pali Canon is sufficient. Nothing more is needed. Anything else is simply icing on the cake.

Personally, I have tried to understand Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka emptiness and tried to link it back to Theravada emptiness in this question. I appreciate the concept of Madhyamaka emptiness.

I don't think Nagarjuna is in conflict with the Buddha's original teachings (in the Pali suttas and Mahayana Agamas). But at the same, I don't think he introduced something new to improve the Buddha's original teachings.

One important contribution of Nagarjuna is the use of methodical philosophical analysis to defend Buddhism against attacks by Hindu and other non-Buddhist Indian philosophers. See this answer.

  • 1
    Thanks. I'm beginning to appreciate the depth of the divisions within the sangha. Often it is said that Nagarjuna places the Buddha;s teachings on a sound philosophical foundation but clearly this is a matter of debate. Perhaps there is an alternative sound foundation. Very much agree about the value of his philosophical explanation as a defense against sceptics but it can only work for the Middle way view. This is, indeed, why I'm confused about why he is widely rejected.
    – user14119
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 12:38
  • PS. I checked your first couple of link and found nothing there to explain why anyone would reject Nagarjuna.
    – user14119
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 12:42
  • I didn't say Theravada rejects Nagarjuna. I meant that Theravada doesn't need Nagarjuna and so ignores him.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 12:46
  • Ah. Fair enough. I presume metaphysics is not a concern for Theravadans and in this case he may be safely ignored.
    – user14119
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 12:53
  • Yes. Metaphysics is one of the unconjecturables.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Dec 23, 2018 at 12:56

I don't have the scholarship to give you a survey of several schools -- perhaps someone else will.

The way I see it is that schools will have a "canon". I think that's a bit a analogous to the "curriculum" of a school -- and different schools have different curricula ... almost by definition -- and therefore (i.e. to that extent) your question and/or my answer to it might be just trivial, or unsatisfying.

Or it may "beg the question" i.e. whether there even are different schools of sects of Buddhism, e.g.,

  • @Lanka Theravada Buddhists don't really recognize other schools. Mostly historians do that. So it's just Buddhism for us. – Sankha Kulathantille Aug 13 '15 at 13:33
  • And we do recognize other schools, it's all Buddhism for us :) – Andrei Volkov♦ Aug 13 '15 at 15:56

Now just consider the Pali canon, for example -- I thinks that's "the canon" for many Buddhists.

Trivially if something is in the canon then it's canonical, and if it's not it's not.

If you ask, "what makes something canonical?", then you might get an answer like, Buddhist councils.

If you ask, "is that (is a, is any) canon necessary and sufficient?" --

  • I won't try to answer whether and how much of it is "necessary" -- even with[in] the Tripitaka my understanding is that the suttas are accessible, and that there's (also) an "abhidharmic tradition" -- and maybe e.g. Zen schools are not a fan at all
  • But, maybe, whether "it's sufficient":

    • It's big enough ("approximately eleven times the size of the Christian bible") -- so, honestly, what more could you want?
    • It's good enough
    • It's Buddhavacana (which is another word which begs the question, i.e. different schools and even different individuals may have different definitions of what they consider buddhavacana)
    • It's partly an article of "faith" (e.g. in the triple gem, i.e. the doctrine and the teachers)
    • The Buddha himself said, famously, in several suttas, that he'd taught everything necessary -- that there's a lot of other doctrine (in theory), which he didn't teach because it isn't necessary (see e.g. "handful of leaves")

Which sects or schools reject Nagarjuna's metaphysics? On what grounds do they do so?

I don't know that they even know or care?

I don't know if this is a good analogy, but ... "How can there be people who haven't thoroughly studied Einstein's theories of relativity? How do they even explain the gravitational lensing of light, without it?" -- someone asking these questions might think that Einstein's theories are utterly fundamental to understanding the nature of the universe we live in -- for other people ("normal people", if you'll excuse my putting it that way) that's completely missing the point, quite irrelevant, nothing to even think about.

How do they deal with the difficulty that Nagarjuna proves all theories of Reality except his own are logically indefensible?

Quite. Well I suppose that Buddhism isn't necessarily "metaphysics". I think I inferred from this comment of yours that you see Taoism too as metaphysics (or what you call a "(perennial) philosophy") -- I don't know, maybe it's something else: practical, a science ... a history, a narrative (see also e.g. "is medicine a 'science', or an 'art'?") ... whereas "metaphysics" are even less relevant, more of a niche interest, than "physics" (if you'll forgive my saying so, that's me having studied physics but not formal philosophy).

  • Practically, I think that the suttas' summary is something like, "all sankharas (n.b. nibbana is a dhamma not a sankhara) are dukkha" -- and "both (i.e. all dhammas, including nibbana and sankharas) are anatta").

  • In contrast, I think that (correct me if I'm wrong) N's summary is that "everything (including nibanna) is sunyata".

Maybe the suttas aren't trying to be "logically defensible" -- they're trying to be "helpful descriptions" ... for people who have "ears to hear", and "little dust in their eyes".

I wonder whether some Buddhists cherry-pick from these -- or do those who reject or accept one of them tend to reject or accept all three?

I get from the suttas that the Buddha (and, following his example, some Buddhists) might treat that or any other kind of question as false dichotomy -- e.g., "Q: Is it this or that, or both, or neither? A: none of the above, or no answer."

Questions like, I don't know, "Are things empty or not? Are two truths, or only one, or none?" are just -- might be (at the risk of sounding rude) be called -- examples of papanca.

I mean, after you have studied -- and if you study -- Nagarjuna, then you may understand what he's saying ... and why he's saying it i.e. why it's helpful or beneficial, useful, practical, worthwhile.

Maybe you should know, though, that lots of people simply haven't (studied N that well) and don't (understand what good about it and exactly what he's saying).

If you try to make comments (brief remarks or answers), which presume that people have read N and that they understand it in the same way that you do, then your comments may be misunderstood, or baffling -- see e.g. here,

Buddhist discussions online have a tendency to attract "there is no spoon"* answers

I guess another example might be the Zen story, titled Nothing exists ... an example of the doctrine being -- variously, I guess, depending on I interpret that story -- hard to fathom, shallowly repeated, easy to misunderstand, or missing the point entirely.

  • Thanks Chris. - You go some way to answering my question by noting that many people do not study Nagarjuna. The 'Nothing Exists' link represents N;s position in that he does not say nothing exists. It seems that one answer to my question may be that not all Buddhist pay any attention to Nagarjuna or to metaphysics. I don't intend to argue with answers but I do wonder how Buddhists can feel comfortable while disagreeing so strongly on such important issues, particularly on the importance of metaphysics. But I'm just assessing the situation, not pushing a view. .
    – user14119
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 11:00
  • And even scholars with an at-least-a-superficial understanding of other schools might not properly "get it" (or get them), see e.g. this topic.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 11:07
  • Fascinating. It seems that non-duality and its many misunderstandings may be the source of much of the disagreement. I have been taking it for granted that Buddhism teaches non-duality but it seems some schools do and some don't. My suspicion is that the disagreements arise from a failure to distinguish between the Buddha;s 'Three Turnings of the Wheel' but that's a discussion for another time. For now I'm just nosing around.
    – user14119
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 11:17

Nagarjuna's ideas differ from the Pali suttas. Nagarjuna taught the following differences:

  • Using the term Dependent Origination to describe all "cause & effect" rather than merely restricting the term to the 12 conditions leading to suffering.

  • Equating Dependent Origination with Sunnata, which is wrong, because Nibbana is also Sunnata but Nibbana is not Dependently Originated. Also, for example, in SN 12.3, the Buddha taught Dependent Origination is "the wrong path".

  • Saying things that are contrary to meditative experience and contrary to the Buddha, such as there are really no causes and no effects because a cause is only cause dependent upon an effect to be a cause therefore an effect is the cause of a cause (or something like that). In reality, meditators see certain things giving rise to other things. That is why the Buddha taught there are causes. When in meditation things are seen directly, the THINKING does not occur that a cause is really an effect and an effect is really a cause and the other philosophical Taoist-like intellectual gymnastics of non-duality Nagarjuna engaged in.

  • My impression of his "Two Truths" is his so-called higher truth is "non-thinking" or "non-conceptualisation", which is unrelated to what the Buddha taught. The Buddha did not teach "non-thinking" or "non-conceptualisation" is Nibbana (the supreme state).

  • From what I have read by Mahayana Buddhists, Nagarjuna claimed the Four Noble Truths were a "conventional" or "lower" truth; which a Pali Buddhist cannot accept as true (because MN 117 says the Four Noble Truths are supramundane Right View).

  • Did Nagarjuna teach Nibbana & Samsara are the same? If so, a Pali Buddhist would generally find such an idea to be utterly ridiculous. The Pali suttas clearly say Samsara & Nibbana are totally opposite things.

  • Contrary to Satipatthana, Nagarjuna taught there is emptiness of self and emptiness of things and the "emptiness of the aggregates as things" must occur before liberation can occur. This is contrary to Satipatthana, where seeing the body as merely 'body'', etc, is sufficient for liberation.

Addition to post: I just read the comment below in answer, which is the opposite of Pali Buddhism:

I prostrate to the Perfect Buddha, the best of teachers, who taught that whatever is dependently arisen is unceasing, unborn, unannihilated, not permanent, not coming, not going, without distinction, without identity, and free from conceptual construction.


enter image description here

  • Was he a mahayanist or Theravadin?
    – user14213
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 21:06
  • @ChrisW should we allow answers like this, in light of our "defend yours, don't disparage other's" rule? I would imagine we want to allow the proponents of Nagarjuna to provide common reasons he is doubted/dismissed but not to his opponents?
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 22:26
  • @AndreiVolkov I don't know whether D's view is that of any particular school or is only his own (which makes it difficult to soften, objectify, 3rd-personify the text, e.g. "such-and-such a school teaches that etc."). The introductory sentences, at least, are peculiar or something ... pretty questionable, I guess.(if you wanted his opinion). If you find it kind of offensive, you are allowed to edit it, if you can salvage it.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 22:45
  • @AndreiVolkov It may be that because the question is asking about schools, therefore D's is "not an answer" at the moment (since it represents his own opinion). OTOH I think it's nice to be mild, if or when you post an answer which claims to represent the view of an entire school.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 22:55
  • 1
    @ChrisW - On reflection I share your view of this answer.and also now see your point about the danger in my question. I'll be more careful in future. ;
    – user14119
    Commented Dec 6, 2018 at 12:20

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