Mādhyamika (Middle Way) is the Mahāyāna school of Indian Buddhist thought that aimed to find the “Middle Way” between the extreme views of eternalism and nihilism through the doctrine of śūnyatā (emptiness). It traces its roots back to the legendary scholar-monk Nāgārjuna (c. 150-250 C.E.), famous for his writings elucidating the Prajñā-Paramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutras, and his primary disciple Āryadeva (c. third century C.E.), who wrote commentaries illuminating the meaning of his teacher's works. Mādhyamika split into two philosophical camps in the sixth century C.E.: the Prāsangika, founded by Buddhapālita (sixth century C.E.), and the Svātantrika, started by Bhāvaviveka (c. 500-570 C.E.). Other seminal figures in this tradition include Candrakīrti (c. seventh century C.E.), who solidified the dominance of the Prāsangika school, and Śāntideva, famous for his Bodhicaryāvatāra (Entry into the Way of Awakening), a classic of Buddhist religious literature (Mitchell, 137).
Mādhyamika dominated Buddhist philosophical debate in India for close to 700 years, through their powerful prasanga (reductio ad absurdum) debating style, and clear presentation of their central principal of śūnyatā. After the demise of Buddhism in the sub-continent, their influence would continue to be felt across Asia. In China, they spawned the San-Lun (Three Treatises) school, which later spread to Korea and Japan. It would continue to have potent influence in Tibet, where the Prāsangika teachings and methods would be seen as the quintessential expression of the Mahāyāna tradition. The element of interdependence inherent in Mādhyamika provides a spiritual insight common to all great religions.
Mādhyamika was one of the earliest schools of Mahāyāna thought, and its initial focus was the clarification of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. These texts are given a special association with Mādhyamika through a popular legend that tells of their re-introduction to the world by Nāgārjuna, who traveled deep in the earth to retrieve them from the nāgas. Nāgārjuna’s primary writings are explications of this body of scripture, with his most famous work, the Mula Mādhyamika Karika (MMK), being almost exclusively devoted to the illumination of the Prajñā-Paramitā’s central concept: śūnyatā. His other texts cover a diverse range of topics, such as the bodhisattva bhūmi (stages of the bodhisattva) and right conduct of a ruler in The Precious Garland, and the third turning of the wheel teachings on Buddha Nature in The Collection of Seventeen Praises.
Also central to the emergence of Mādhyamika was Nāgārjuna’s student Āryadeva, who clarified Nāgārjuna’s teachings through his commentaries. These texts are preserved only in the Tibetan language, with the most notable being the Catuhśataka (Four Hundred Verse Treatise), which was a detailed refutation of non-Buddhist philosophies (and one third of the San-Lun canon) (Huntington Jr., 33). Together, Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva are considered to be the “early period” of Mādhyamika.
The “middle period” of Mādhyamika was marked by its division into two schools. The Prāsangika wing was founded by Buddhapālita (ca. 500 C.E.), about whom little is known. The only work attributed to him is a long commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Mādhyamika Shastra (Commentary on the Middle Way), the Mula Mādhyamika Kavrtti, which focuses on the use of reductio ad absurdum in order to undermine the false views of others and to reveal the teaching on śūnyatā.
The Svātantrika school was founded by Bhāvaviveka (ca. 500-570 C.E.), who was born into a prominent Hindu kshatriya family in the eastern Indian kingdom of Magadha, and became a Buddhist Bhikshu (monk) at a young age. He brought about a division within the Mādhyamika school when he wrote the Prajñā Pradipa (Lamp of Wisdom), his commentary on Nāgārjuna’s MMK, which criticized Buddhapālita’s technique for demonstrating the doctrine of emptiness (SGI “Bhāvaviveka”).
By far the most influential of the Prāsangika was Candrakīrti (c. 600-650 C.E.), who consolidated the school and solidified its predominance over their rival faction, marking the “late period” of Mādhyamika. Again, very little is known about this figure. Tibetan sources report that he was born in southern India in the area of Samanta, that he was a antagonistic contemporary with the famous Sanskrit grammarian Candradragomin, and that he was a “brilliant philosopher but [also] a rather difficult personality as well” (Huntington Jr., 33). He is best known for his impressive breadth and depth of writing, with notable titles including the Madhyamakāvatara (Entry into the Middle Way), the Prassanapadda (Clear Words), a commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Mādhyamika Shastra, as well as a number of tantric texts (Huntington Jr., 34).
Another famous follower of the Prāsangika school was Śāntideva (ca. eighth century C.E.), whose Bodhicaryāvatāra (Entry Into the Way of Awakening) continues to be one of the most popular and inspirational texts to both laity and monastics within the Tibetan tradition. His association with this school is derived from the ninth chapter on Prajñā (wisdom), which propounds their view of emptiness utilizing their style of argumentation.
Mādhyamika was transmitted to China as the San-lun (Three Treatise) School, which was founded by Chi-tsang (549-623 C.E.). He derived its doctrine from two texts written by Nāgārjuna (the MMK and Treatise on the Twelve Gates—the Dvadashamukha Shastra) and Āryadeva’s Catuhshataka, all of which were transmitted to China by the famous Indian monk/translator Kumārajīva. Chi-tsang, faithful to the methods of early Mādhyamika, used the prasanga methods to refute the views of his detractors, while propounding the two-truths doctrine of highest and relative truths. While his audience linked the Mādhyamika teaching of the unity of the highest meaning (paramartha satya) with the natural word, his refusal to describe it in positive terms would prove unpopular and limit the life of the school in China. The school dissipated soon after his death, but was successfully transmitted to both Korea and Japan by his student, the Korean monk Hyegwan (Mitchell, 187-88).
Mādhyamika would have its most durable success in Tibet, where its philosophy and dialectical style has been preserved up to the present day. The tradition was transplanted in its entirety over the course of several hundred years. During the “first dissemination,” the religious kings, Songtsen Gampo (ca. 618-650 C.E.), Trisong Detsen (ca. 740-798 C.E.), and Relbachen (reigned 815-836 C.E.), funded translation committees of Tibetan and Indian scholars in order to render the entire Mahāyāna (including the Mādhyamika works) and Vajrayāna canons into Tibetan (Powers, 126-134). The most notable figure in the “second dissemination” was the renowned Indian monk Atisha (982-1084 C.E.), who continued the process of transmission of both texts and lineages, as well as in reestablishing the full vinya (monastic rules) (Powers, 137-139). The complete transmission of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna texts into the Tibetan tradition has proven to be invaluable, as the majority of the Sanskrit originals were lost when Buddhism was wiped out in India. Mādhyamika never existed as an independent school in Tibet, but their tradition serves as the philosophical basis for all four of the main sects.
Mādhyamika began with Nāgārjuna’s attempts to clarify the meaning of the doctrine of emptiness found in the newly emerging Mahāyāna sutras (particularly the Prajñā-Paramitā Sutras), and to reconcile these new doctrines with the teachings of the established Tripitaka canon. He accomplished this by arguing that the emptiness of all phenomena is the logical extension of the Buddha’s teachings on pratītya-samutpāda (interdependent arising) and anātman (no-self). If everything that arises does so dependent on other things as their causes, they cannot exist separately from them, and therefore cannot have an essential, unchanging self-essence (svabhāva). Nāgārjuna was simply extending the logic of the doctrine of anātman to apply to all things. As a result of this radical teaching, he was accused by Buddhist and Hindu philosophers of being a nihilist, a charge he adamantly denied. He countered this allegation by arguing through his prasanga method that those who believed in eternal essences were, in fact, logically eliminating causality (karma), as well as the possibility of liberation from suffering (for Buddhists nirvāna, for Hindus moksha), the very things they had accused him of.
All later Mādhyamika thought can be seen as commentaries on Nāgārjuna’s writings. The only significant divergence came when the school split into two rival factions during its “middle period.” (For a more detailed explanation of his method and philosophy, see the full article: Nāgārjuna.)
The Prāsangika and Svātantrika Debate
The splintering of the Mādhyamika into two schools did not occur over doctrinal differences, but rather over methodological ones. Both sides agreed with the doctrine of emptiness, but Bhāvaviveka argued that unless the highest meaning could be “grounded in a rationalist methodology” (Huntington Jr., 35), there would be no way to connect it to the relative truth, as is required by the Mādhyamika belief in interdependence. He argued for the use of the traditional Indian approach of providing a “proposition, a supporting reason, and a suitable example” (Huntington Jr., 34).
Candrakīrti objected to this approach to Mādhyamika because “such an appeal to abstract reason would inevitably undermine the soteriological purpose of the Mādhyamika critique” (Huntington Jr., 35). This argument may well have its roots in Nāgārjuna’s MMK, which in chapter 24 reads:
- Without relying upon conventions
- The meaning of the ultimate cannot be expressed.
- Without realizing the ultimate meaning
- Nirvana cannot be achieved. (CTAO, 26)
This passage sounds as if it lends support to Bhāvaviveka’s argument. However, interpretation of this passage must be made with consideration of what was written in chapter 18:
- That which cannot be known from another, peaceful,
- Unfabricated by [mental] fabrications,
- Non-conceptual and not separate in meaning,
- These are the characteristics of suchness. (CTAO, 24)
Given this context of the higher meaning (synonymous with tathatā—suchness) as being beyond linguistic limitations, most particularly language’s inherent projection of dualism onto undifferentiated experience, it is obvious the statement of chapter 24 must be interpreted differently. Candrakīrti argued that the use of language should not create a solidified position, but instead must be used in order to deconstruct the false views of others, naturally revealing the truth of emptiness. Any fixed interpretation of the higher meaning would result in further clinging to some form of externalism (i.e. “the higher meaning is like this, not like that”), one of the extremes that Mādhyamika had originally sought to undermine.
- CTAO. Kalachakra 2004: Select Practice Texts in English and Tibetan. Toronto, ON: Canadian Tibetan Association of Ontario, 2004.
- Huntington, C.W. Jr. The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Mādhymika. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai'i Press, 1994. ISBN 0824817125
- Mitchell, Donald W. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0195139518
- Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1995. ISBN 1559390263
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