Mahayana Buddhist tradition attributes the founding of the Madhyamika School to Acharya Nagarjuna (c. 150-c. 250 CE), but this attribution is probably incorrect, because there is no designation for such a school until the work of another monk named Candrakirti refers to it in the 7th century CE. Although he is credited with composing other works, Nâgârjuna’s seminal text is Fundamentals on the Middle Way, in which he advocates a philosophy of the middle way between the extremes of being (eternalism) and nonbeing (nihilism).
This philosophical position means that nothing in the world exists absolutely and nothing perishes totally. Nagarjuna’s middle way is located beyond concepts or speech in the sense that it is transcendental. This philosophical position also means that no specific position is limitless or ultimate. In fact, the ultimate truth is that there is no correct view, final truth, or goal, because all views are flawed. Nagarjuna’s middle way implies rising above clinging to either existence or nonexistence. More precisely, the middle way is the practice of the perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita), or ultimate virtue for a bodhisattva (enlightened being). When one achieves wisdom, one does not arrive at a particular type of knowledge, but one rather reaches a point at which all knowing and theorizing are terminated.
Nagarjuna makes a distinction between two kinds of truth: conventional and ultimate. The former is valid and useful for practical living, but it is illusory, because it becomes self-contradictory if we push it too far. This is evident with the concept of time. From a conventional perspective, the concept of time represents the past, present, and future that appear as a series of moments; this is associated with human perception and conceptual formulation. The conventional concept of time is formed by the assumption of a self-substantiated reality that binds persons to their own emotional and conceptual habits. In short, for Nagarjuna this is the realm of ignorance, which involves mistaking things or concepts for what they are not in fact, because ignorance obscures the real nature of things and constructs a false appearance.
In contrast to conventional truth, Nagarjuna defines ultimate truth as a nondual type of knowledge that involves a contentless intuition. By viewing time from this perspective, we observe it simultaneously much as we view a painting on a wall by seeing the whole of it. This intuitive type of knowledge is beyond ordinary objective knowledge and reason, because it represents dissolution of the conceptual function of the mind, although it does not represent a total rejection of conventional truth. It is the realization that all distinctions, such as the three moments of time, are empty (sunyata), which is true of everything in the world.
If time and everything else in the world is empty, there can be no essential distinction between existing things. Nagarjuna denies the distinction between self-being (svabhava) and other-being (parabhava) . If self-being is the essential nature by which something is what it is and not something else, and other-being owes its existence to something else, Nagarjuna denies that there is anything that is not dependent or conditioned. The heat of fire, for instance, is never encountered apart from fire, making heat something created and not self-existent. If the true nature of everything is emptiness, there is nothing that is self-existent, because it would have to be necessarily noncontingent and unrelated to anything else, which means that lack of self-existence is the nature of things.
These fundamental philosophical convictions motivate Nagarjuna to criticize basic categories, such as causation, motion, and time. If all things are conditioned, each phase, for instance, possesses a before (future) and an after (past) relative to it. Using his dialectic that undermines all philosophical positions, Nagarjuna asserts that each part of his dialectic is a counterpart to the prior step, which results in each part negating and canceling out its predecessor. Nagârjuna’s dialectic moves toward the negation of the final part. By thus disposing of all philosophical views, Nagarjuna uses his dialectical method as a therapeutic device to cure humankind of its suffering, which is caused in part by its mental and emotional attachment to phenomenal and conceptual entities in preparation for genuine insight into the nature of things.
With respect to the notion of time, the dialectic indicates that neither the present, past, nor future can be seized as absolute, but they have significance only relative to each other. Thus the three moments of time are relational concepts. There is no such thing as the past in itself, the present in itself, or the future in itself. Moreover, time is pertinent merely to this world. If ultimate truth indicates that there is neither past, nor present, nor future, time is a derived notion or a mental construct. There are no individual entities of time.
This position means that time is not an immutable substance that can be grasped and measured. There is also no absolute time that continues to be real apart from successive moments. Time is merely a mode of reference that points to the arising and perishing of events. When a person witnesses these arising and perishing events, he or she names them “time” and draws distinctions among the moments of time in relation to each other.
From Nagârjuna’s perspective, the three moments of time enable one to grasp time as a set of relations. To be located in any particular moment—past, present, or future—means to be dependent upon the location of the other moments. Therefore, the present is, for instance, such only because it is located within the instants of the past and future, which suggests that time is a dependent set of relations among three moments. No single moment of time represents an entity in its own right.
From the perspective of attaining liberation, there is no escape from time, because there is nothing from which to escape. In the final analysis, Nagarjuna does not deny the commonsense view of time. What he wants to show is that time and other categories are not ultimately real.
See also Buddhism, Mahayana; Buddhism, Theravada;
Buddhism, Zen; Dialectics; Intuition; Time, Nonexistence of
Nagarjuna. (1986). The philosophy of the middle way: Mulamadhyamakakarika (D. Kalupahana, Trans.). Albany: State University of New York Press.
Streng, F. J. (1967). Emptiness: A study in religious meaning. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Wood, T. E. (1994.) Nagarjunian disputations: A philosophical journey through an Indian looking glass (Monographs of the Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy, No. 11). Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.