There is another side to Nagarjuna (circa 150–250 A.D.) which is generally hidden from the view of Western Buddhists. It is the Nagarjuna who composed the Mahâprajñâpâramitâ Shastra which was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese by Kumarajiva (344–413), a Madhyamika scholar. To be sure, it is not at all like N’s ever popular and almost incomprehensible Mulamadhydamaka Karika which, according to Thomas McEvilley, is not without significant parallelism to Pyrrhonism (cp. McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought:Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, p. 455).
Noteworthy, is the fact that both Nagarjuna and Sextus Empiricus can be put into the same time frame. Both fall under the rubric of skeptic philosophy in which the aim of the karikas and tropes is to lead to the suspension of judgment by which the conceptual accounts of the dogmatists, when turned against themselves, can make no satisfactory judgement or headway.
To escape from the negative imposition of words and concepts is at the heart of both philosophies. Both, in their own unique way, help to prepare us for gnosis which transcends words and concepts. However, if we just stay fixed on N’s karikas, we lose big time. N’s karikas are still dealing with the conventional, samsaric world which seems forever stuck on words and concepts. When we decide to cut through our own internal dialogue and concepts and reach for the absolute, it is quite beyond convention and the karikas.
Swinging back to N’s Mahâprajñâpâramitâ Shastra we find a different Nagarjuna. He aims for the absolute but not one in the world of words and concepts. It is by direct experience or gnosis that we are to meet with it. The following passages are from the Shastra which is from K. Venkata Ramanan’s marvelous book, Nagarjuna’ Philosophy (yep, get it!). (I have omitted the Chinese characters.)
“Whatever is in the three realms, all that is the construction of mind (citta). How is it so? It is in accordance with one’s thought that one realizes all things. By mind does one see the Buddha and by mind does one become a Buddha. The mind itself is the Buddha, the mind itself is my body. (Under ignorance) the mind does not know itself; does not see itself; it is due to ignorance that one seizes the determinate nature of the mind. (In this state), the mind (that is thus seized) is also false. All (these) things arise from ignorance. The bodhisattva penetrates into the ultimate reality of all things, viz., the eternal sunyata, through (his comprehension of) this nature of mind. (276b)” (p. 72)
“The common people dwell only in nâma [name] and laksana [signs, marks], the thought—constructions that are devoid of substantiality. (688a)” (p. 72, brackets are mine.)
“Owing to the power of the false sense of self, one sees the self in four ways, viz., that “rûpa is I,” “rûpa is mine,” “in me there is rûpa” and “in rûpa there is myself.” (Similar kinds of views arise even in regard to the other four skandhas). Thus there are altogether twenty kinds of false sense of self. When one realizes the awakening to true wisdom, then one understands the falsity of these. (103c)” (p. 100)
"To him who understands the meaning in the teaching of the Buddha and grasps the truth of derived name, he has taught that there is "I"; but to one who does not understand the meaning in the teachings of the Buddha and does not grasp the truth of the derived name, He has taught, there is no "I." (253c) (p. 105)
“The teaching of no "I" is of two kinds: the one in which there is the seizing of the determination of "no I," clinging to the denial of "I," and the other is the denial of "I" while refraining from seizing "no I" and keeping free from (turning it into a drsti by) clinging to it. (In the latter case) one naturally gives up (all clinging). The first kind of no "I" is an extreme, (a case of exclusiveness) while the second one is the Middle Doctrine (the non-exclusive way). (253c) (p. 105)
“The ultimately real nature of the “I”...the ultimately real nature of the knowledge of all forms, the ultimately real nature of the Tathagata, all this is one reality, not two, not divided.” (563b) (p. 269)