Book Reviews · Buddhism

The Sun of Wisdom: Teachings of the Noble Nagarjuna – Review

nagarjuna-mipham_sun-of-wisdom_coverThe Sun of Wisdom is a commentary on one of the classics of Buddhist literature by one of the great Tibetan masters, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso. Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way was written by Nagarjuna in the 2nd century and is a commentary on the Buddha’s teachings on the nature of appearance and emptiness.

The Buddha prophesied that someone would come 400 years after his death to give a perfect explanation of his teachings, and Nagarjuna fulfilled the prophecy. Khenpo Rinpoche uses Nagarjuna’s text and modern master Ju Mipham’s commentary as a framework to explain and illustrate the most important verses. He deconstructs the ideas and shows how they apply to your everyday experience, and how you can put them into practise.

Three Turnings of the Wheel

Before we look at some of the ideas in this book, it’s important to understand that the teachings are given in three stages. Each stage is a Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, and the teachings are aimed at different levels of analysis.

  1. The first turning is the stage of no analysis where you learn about the causes of suffering and the self, and you take appearances to be real.
  2. The second turning is the stage of slight analysis where you start to want to change, to let go of suffering and long for liberation. Here is where you learn about emptiness and how nothing really exists because it lacks inherent nature. (Don’t worry, we’ll get into what that means later…)
  3. The final turning is the stage of thorough analysis where you learn that the true nature of reality transcends both of the above stages. It neither exists nor doesn’t exist.

So if a teaching is a refutation of existence then it’s helping you to let go of things as being real. If a teaching talks about freedom from concepts then it’s helping you understand that reality exists beyond concepts. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way is a teaching on emptiness and the true nature of reality and the mind. It’s called the Middle Way because it lies between all possible extremes and beyond all concepts.

Emptiness can’t be grasped by the intellect and can only be experienced directly. Nagarjuna uses logical reasoning to point in the direction of this truth. He shows how you can use the rational mind to analyse everything that appears, and so gain clarity and certainty in your understanding.

Reality is not what you think

Everything that appears to exist arises due to various causes and conditions, but these causes also depend upon other causes, and so on. For example, consider a seed and a plant – which came first? To grow the plant you need the seed, but the seed comes from the plant. Also the seed won’t grow without soil, water, and favourable conditions. Does the seed cause the plant? Does the plant cause the seed? A seed can’t pop into existence on its own without cause, and neither can a plant.

To inherently exist a form would have to arise spontaneously from nothing without cause. You can see from this that a cause can’t exist before its result. And the result can’t exist before its cause. Cause and result can’t exist simultaneously. Therefore any form that arises due to causes and conditions, does not inherently exist. Its appearance is empty. This applies to everything that arises, including your feelings, thoughts, and consciousness. It’s instructive to look at opposites too, such as light and dark, clean and dirty, happiness and suffering. Which comes first? Can light exist without dark? What does up mean without down?

If something actually existed it would have to exist on its own, objectively and without depending on anything else. It would have its own inherent nature. Since everything does depend on something else in order to exist, or appear, things don’t have any inherent nature or existence. They are empty of true existence. So no thing can be said to truly exist.

Sometimes people get confused at this point, and think that reality is nothingness, but this isn’t what emptiness means. Reality appears to exist, but things only appear in relationship to everything else. Emptiness is no-thingness. Those who can see the true nature of reality don’t think that things are real, but they don’t think that there is nothing either. They understand the union of appearance and emptiness. Everything is free to arise due to the coming together of causes and conditions. If things did exist and had their own inherent existence, nothing would be possible because things wouldn’t be able to arise.

“With a water-moon, for example, not a single particle of the moon exists there in the water, so it cannot be called existent. At the same time, that appearances do appear due to the coming together of causes and conditions is undeniable, and this eliminates the extreme of nonexistence. For example, no one could deny the vivid appearance of the moon there in the water. Therefore, in order to follow the Middle Way that falls into neither the extreme of existence nor that of nonexistence, we must understand that all phenomena are the union of appearance and emptiness, like dreams, illusions, and water-moons.” – Khenpo Rinpoche

Emptiness is what makes everything possible. If reality wasn’t empty of existence, then it wouldn’t be able to exist!

“There is not a single phenomenon

That is not dependently arisen.

Therefore, there is not a single phenomenon

That is not empty.” – Nagarjuna

Selflessness and Emptiness

Khenpo Rinpoche says a city is a great place to train in recognising illusion because modern technology has created so many empty forms, like films, TV, email, and the internet (and this blog!). In order to stop thinking that something exists you can meditate on the non-affirming negation of existence which, if you follow it through to its logical conclusion, leaves nothing remaining. Non-affirming negation says something doesn’t exist but doesn’t say anything else exists in its place.

For example, the Buddha said, “The eye is empty of the eye.” The eye doesn’t exist in the normal sense of the word, but there is the appearance of the eye. The eye that appears is empty of essence, or self.

There are two types of selflessness: of the individual and of phenomena. Selflessness is just a synonym for emptiness; others include: actual reality, dharmadhatu (expanse of genuine reality), dharmata (essential reality), and the precise nature of reality. Genuine reality can’t be experienced by the intellect, or expressed or represented in any form. The only way to talk about the true nature of reality is to say what it isn’t. It can only be negated. Doing this dissolves your made up concepts of what you think it is.

Remember that the true nature of reality goes beyond either existing or not existing. Something neither exists, nor doesn’t exist, nor is some combination of the two, nor is something that is neither of them. You have to start from where you are. If you think things exist, first you need to learn that they don’t exist before you can drop any concepts you have about reality. If you think things don’t exist, then you learn that reality transcends both existence and non-existence. Here are the four perspectives again:

  1. You can think something exists
  2. You can think something doesn’t exist
  3. You can think something both exists and doesn’t exist
  4. You can think something neither exists nor doesn’t exist

The true nature of reality is beyond all these positions and beyond any concept you can have of what it might be, or not be. Once you understand this it’s impossible to assert anything about the true nature of reality. But when talking about conventional appearances, you need to be able to use appropriate designations of terms otherwise you can’t say anything about anything, which misses the point completely!

Emptiness is Empty

What’s the point of all this philosophising and tying the mind up in confusing negations? The idea is to apply this logical deduction to everything you experience in your life so you can remember that things only appear to be what they are – they’ll soon become something else. You can then experience things that would normally be painful or difficult as open, spacious and relaxed. This takes a lot of practise, but you can start with minor suffering (like missing the bus, or watching politicians on TV) and work up to the larger problems (like grief or fear).

Happiness and suffering are the way things appear to be. Duality is appearance, and happiness and suffering are concepts. Genuine reality transcends them both. That’s hard to accept when you’re in the middle of an extreme experience, but ultimately, all the suffering in the world comes from either thinking that there is something or that there is nothing – from ideas of existence or non-existence. Recognising that appearances don’t inherently exist can take the sting out of suffering and eliminate the extremes of life.

Khenpo Rinpoche says you have to really think about this, and really analyse it and meditate on it, and then apply it to your life. Otherwise you can read something like, “As for mind, there is no mind! Mind is empty of essence,” and it’s just words, an opinion, or a guess. There’s no understanding of the truth of the words. So you must take the four perspectives and apply them to everything – no exceptions.

In my novel about spiritual awakening, Addled, Zoe Popper is struggling with the fear that has arisen in her practice. In this short extract her teacher, Adam teaches her about the four perspectives:

“‘Nagarjuna demonstrated four perspectives, or logical refutations, which you were to apply to everything,’ he continued. ‘Have you ever looked at a photo of yourself as a baby and wondered if it really is you?’

I nodded.

‘Is the baby in the picture you or not?’ he said.

‘Is this a trick question?’

Adam smiled and waited for me to answer.

‘Well, it kind of is me,’ I said, ‘but then, it isn’t because I’ve grown, I have more hair and teeth, and back then I didn’t even know I was born. But then, I can’t say it isn’t me because it was me, well, sort of…’ I trailed off and stared into space. I’d never thought about this before. When did I become me? There was no moment I could pinpoint where I could say – there, that’s me. As soon as you think it, the moment has gone and a whole new me is being formed. Calling it ‘me’, or ‘I’, made it sound static and fixed, but it wasn’t.

‘There are four ways of looking at this,’ said Adam, and counted them off on one hand. ‘Yes, the baby is you. No, the baby is not you. The baby is both you and not you. And finally, the baby is neither you nor not you. Which one is true?’

‘None of them? All of them? But they negate each other,’ I said, confusion pushing the fear out of my mind.

‘It’s a great tool for breaking through to reality,’ he said. ‘Apply it to objects, thoughts, feelings, everything. Another example: you can ask, does this concrete seat exist? And you have four answers. The concrete seat exists – here I am sitting on it. The concrete seat doesn’t exist – it can’t exist, in fact, because it is a compound thing and so does not inherently exist. Third, the concrete seat both exists and doesn’t exist, and then it neither exists nor doesn’t exist.’

‘Is that supposed to be helpful?’ I said, feeling mutinous.

‘Listen, Zoe. The point is to see through the nature of appearance and emptiness. The blackness or void that you feel you are hitting, is really a glimpse of the nature of reality. It’s just that you’re conceptualising it, thinking it’s something you can get a hold of. It can’t be understood with the intellect. This is what Nagarjuna demonstrates. The process, the deconstruction, is designed to push you beyond concepts, beyond thought.’

He beamed at me, his smile dazzling and terrifying in equal measure. ‘You’ve reached the limits of rationality. This is a good thing.’

He made it sound like a fantastic achievement. I was far from convinced. I had set off to explore reality, sailed to the horizon, and was about to drop off the edge of the world. Here be dragons.

‘Just remember,’ said Adam, with what seemed like a crazed twinkle in his eyes, ‘the four perspectives apply to everything. Emptiness is also empty of emptiness.'”

Yes, emptiness doesn’t exist either! It just appears to, like everything else. Emptiness can only exist in relation to something that isn’t empty. Empty and not empty exist in dependence on each other, so neither of them exists.

In the end, if suffering was real we could never be free of it – it would be our permanent nature – and that’s impossible. Permanent, impermanent, finite, infinite – all are dependently arisen, like reflections. Samsara and nirvana too. Samsara doesn’t exist, it never began and will never end. It’s a mistaken thought about reality. Nirvana is the correction of that mistake, but both samsara and nirvana are empty. There is no awakening, no enlightenment, no Buddha.

Being in samsara is like dreaming but not realising it, whereas nirvana is lucid dreaming – recognising the dream for what it is.

“When one is free of the murkiness of clinging to things as being real, causes and conditions shine like reflections in clear pools of water, as vivid manifestations of appearance-emptiness. Knowing them to be this way, one gains precise knowledge of what to do and what not to do. …It is just like when you stand in front of a mirror and the reflection of your face appears within it. Knowing all the while that the reflection is not real, you can still use that reflection to remove stains from your face and make yourself look beautiful.” – Khenpo Rinpoche

Needless to say, this book is not for beginners. If you haven’t come across the philosophy underpinning emptiness and non-being, you may struggle – but don’t let that put you off. This is a brilliantly lucid book and richly rewarding. One to return to and study over time as your practice and understanding deepens. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Further Reading:

>Browse the Buddhism Bookshelf


21 thoughts on “The Sun of Wisdom: Teachings of the Noble Nagarjuna – Review

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post – it’s a great book. I’ve barely scratched the surface in this review. It’s well worth getting a copy and diving in.

      Thanks for the link – interesting post. I love Buddhist art too, especially Tibetan with all their wrathful deities 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi donsalmon. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for your kind comments.

      I just popped over to your blog – it looks very interesting. I’ll have to settle down for a long read of it soon. Your website looks good too.

      Glad you like the site and welcome!


      1. Hi, yes, enjoying the site still:>) And finding it helpful. A meet up group here in Asheville, North Carolina just started studying Joanna Macy’s Active Hope” – it was a very nice group but I always felt Joanna was a bit too much into chaos and complexity theory and kind of overlaid a semi-materialist view on Buddhism, so we didn’t go back last week. Now, reading your posts on Active Hope, I’m reconsidering – maybe we’ll go back. Thanks!

        Just also wanted to say – the real “meat” of our site is going to be music and videos. Jan (my wife) and I have turned a corner (the ‘great turning”, so to speak:>)) After 3 years working on the site, and the last 1 1/2 years mostly producing music and videos, I think we may actually be ready to post stuff in a few months.

        We’ll have about 18 videos explaining the brain stuff, a few dozen audios for guided meditations of various kinds, and a few dozen “breathing videos” – with various visual animations to guide people in simple breathing exercises, to reconnect to their “Center” or “core” throughout the day (i.e. remembering to breathe!). Will keep you posted.


        1. Sounds great – I look forward to it and exploring the site further!

          Glad you’re enjoying some of my posts. I found the Active Hope book to be quite well balanced overall – could probably do with reading it again. Let me know what you make of it if you do go back to the group – always keen to hear new perspectives!


  1. This is the simplest and most straightforward exposition of Nagarjuna’s philosophy that I’ve ever found. Completely recommend it. Nice article. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Careful Peter. Your new religion doesn’t hold with either unqualified non-dualism nor seeking answers anywhere but from itself. You wouldn’t want to be an apostate would you? 😉

      Or have you given up on ACIM?


      1. Cogrogal – Sorry, but I’m missing your meaning here. I endorse nondualism and love ACIM, which I see as a masterful explanation of what it is all about. I don’t have a ‘new’ religion but am happy with that of the Upanishads.


  2. So do you reckon the Vajrayana take on Nagarjuna has any substantial differences from that of the Zen masters?

    Reality appears to exist, but things only appear in relationship to everything else.

    I’ve found the metaphor of Indra’s Net to be a particularly effective way to communicate that concept. Visual imagery seems to work better than words alone.

    Happiness and suffering are the way things appear to be. Duality is appearance, and happiness and suffering are concepts. Genuine reality transcends them both. That’s hard to accept when you’re in the middle of an extreme experience …

    … or when you’ve devoted your life thus far to the pursuit of happiness. Hence the New Age.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hmm. Nor me. It might be because it would be looking backwards, Seems to me that Zen begins where N’s analysis ends.


      2. Oops. I exposed my own laziness.

        The only text on Nagarjuna by an alleged Zen Master I have a copy of is a brief set of notes by Judy Roitman (aka Bon Hae). What’s more, I hadn’t even got around to reading it until I’d read this post. It’s more a point by point summary than an exposition and is what prompted me to ask you the question.

        To be honest, I was hoping your answer would point me towards some good examples.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d be unhappy with the statement ‘Reality appears to exist’. It seems to suggest the very opposite of the truth. If something appears to exist then it must be an appearance. Nagarjuna is clear and states that nothing really exists. Francis Bradley overs much the same ground in his famous essay ‘Appearance and Reality’ – where reality would not appear to exist.

      On these topics controlling the words is like herding cats.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah. It’s that word ‘reality’ again. I’d phrase it – What is unreal is appearance as it reduces to emptiness, while the Real would be beyond the possibility of appearance.

          Even this seems muddled since the world of opposites clearly does exist as a real phenomenon in a sense. But it would not be an ultimate sense, For an ultimate view, according to N, nothing would really exist and nothing would really happen.

          Nagarjuna is complex but his result, that all positive metaphysical positions are logically absurd, and should be dismissed as false, sums up his philosophy. From there to Zen would be one single step and thus he is a patriarch.

          Liked by 1 person


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