Translator’s note: On The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā
Born in Maharashtra, India, Nāgārjuna (150–250 C.E.) is considered the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. A great philosopher, he is seen as almost a second Buddha for Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. Little is known of his life, but there is a story that he learned the perfection of wisdom from the mythical Nāgas (semi-divine snake beings), who preserved the true teaching of the Buddha. The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (the fundamental verses of the middle) is Nāgārjuna’s magnum opus, in which he establishes the path of emptiness between annihilation and permanence. These two poems, “Reincarnation” and “Liberation,” are a literary translation of this Sanskrit text, which seeks to capture and preserve its poetic and enigmatic nature. Nāgārjuna’s language in these verses is fairly simple, but every term carries with it an entire universe of meaning for Buddhism. He constantly leads the reader through a logically complicated path of being, negation, and denial into an apparent contradiction and collapse.