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This can then be further divided into:
These are all beyond extremes:
- The Ground Madhyamaka, the unity of the two truths, is beyond all extremes because it is beyond the extremes of eternalism and nihilism.
- The Path Madhyamaka, the unity of skilful means and wisdom, is beyond the extremes of exaggeration and denial.
- The Fruition Madhyamaka, the unity of the two kayas, is beyond the extremes of samsaric existence and the peace of nirvana.
Oral Teachings Given to the Rigpa Sangha
- Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, May 1982, London, St Paul’s Crescent, 'Madhyamaka, Philosophy in Practise'.
Madhyamaka (Sanskrit: मध्यमक, Madhyamaka, Chinese: 中觀派; pinyin: Zhōngguān Pài; also known as Śūnyavāda) refers primarily to a Mahāyāna Buddhist school of philosophy founded by Nāgārjuna. The school of thought and its subsidiaries are called "Madhyamaka"; those who follow it are called "Mādhyamikas". According to Madhyamaka all phenomena are empty of "substance" or "essence" (Sanskrit: svabhāva) because they are dependently co-arisen. Likewise it is because they are dependently co-arisen that they have no intrinsic, independent reality of their own.
Origins and development
The Madhyamaka school is usually considered to have been founded by Nāgārjuna, though it may have existed earlier. The name of the school is perhaps related to its close adherence to Nāgārjuna’s main work, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. The term Madhyamaka is related to 'madhya' ('the middle').
The problem with the Abidharma is not that things are 'independently existent' (a position that most Abhidharma schools would not accept), but rather (from a Madhyamaka perspective) that they are independent from notions.
The relationship between Madhyamaka and Abhidharma is complex; Abhidharmic analysis figures prominently in most Madhyamaka treatises, and authoritative commentators like Candrakīrti emphasize that Abhidharmic categories function as a viable (and favored) system of conventional truths - they are more refined than ordinary categories, and they are not dependent on either the extreme of eternalism or on the extreme view of the discontinuity of karma, as the non-Buddhist categories of the time did.
It may be therefore important to understand that Madhyamaka constitutes a continuation of the Abhidharma type of analysis, extending the range of dependent arising to entail (and focus upon) notional dependence.
Madhyamaka thought is also closely related to a number of Mahāyāna sources; traditionally, the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras are the literature most closely associated with Madhyamaka – understood, at least in part, as an exegetical complement to those Sūtras.
Traditional accounts also depict Nāgārjuna as retrieving some of the larger Prajñāpāramitāsūtras from the world of the Nāgas (explaining in part the etymology of his name). Prajñā or ‘higher cognition’ is a recurrent term in Buddhist texts, explained as a synonym of Abhidharma, ‘insight’ (vipaśyanā) and ‘analysis of the dharmas’ (dharmapravicaya).
Within a specifically Mahāyāna context, Prajñā figures as the most prominent in a list of Six Pāramitās (‘perfections’ or ‘perfect masteries’) that a Bodhisatva needs to cultivate in order to eventually achieve Buddhahood. Madhyamaka offers conceptual tools to analyze all possible elements of existence, allowing the practitioner to elicit through reasoning and contemplation the type of view that the Sūtras express more authoritatively (being considered word of the Buddha) but less explicitly (not offering corroborative arguments).
The vast Prajñāpāramitā literature emphasizes the development of higher cognition in the context of the Bodhisattva path; thematically, its focus on the emptiness of all dharmas is closely related to the Madhyamaka approach. Nāgārjuna
Recent scholarship has (occasionally) argued that Nāgārjuna's intention was not to establish an ontology or epistemology, but to free the Buddhist soteriology from essentialist notions which obscured the Buddhist Middle Way:
However, such claims are highly problematic , as most Madhyamaka analysis (including what we find in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) carries ontological implications that it would be rather implausible to deny .
Apart from the complexity of Nāgārjuna's own work, such reconstruction offers a rather simplistic view of Buddhist soteriology , divorcing it from any ontological concern ; and such a compartmentalization seems rather at odds with a recurrent idea that liberation is in fact brought about by 'seeing things as they are' (yathābhūta).
Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā is difficult to interpret as it presupposes remarkable familiarity with a sophisticated Abhidharmic background - which resembles Sarvāstivāda but not exactly and precisely in a form available to us now .
Nāgārjuna's arguments seem to be related to both Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna sources - amongst the latter, the Kātyāyanāvavāda is quoted by name , and this is likely to correspond to a Sūtra preserved in the Sanskrit Nidānasamyukta. Certain features of his treatment of dependent arising suggest greater proximity to specifically Mahāyāna materials, such as the Śālistambasūtra .
When we look at Nāgārjuna's works more broadly, the first difficulty is in deciding which texts may be reasonably ascribed to him ; even traditional scholarship is not unanimous in accepting or rejecting the same set of texts .
A sensible starting point could be what the Tibetan tradition called the 'yukti corpus' ('the corpus of reasoning') ], more directly relevant to the philosophical concerns that make for the unique traits of the Madhyamaka tradition.
However, texts like the 'Letter to a Friend' (Suhṛllekhā), not included in the yukti corpus and of no uncertain attribution , contain invaluable material to understand the broader context of Nāgārjuna's philosophical arguments and concerns .
His works are regarded as a supplement to Nāgārjuna's , on which he commented.
Madhyamaka thought has been categorized variously in India and Tibet. In his Tattvaratnāvalī, Advayavajra classified Madhyamaka into 'those who uphold non-duality from the simile of illusion' (māyopamādvayavādin) and 'those who uphold non-placement into any dharma' (sarvadharmāpratiṣṭhānavādin); furthermore, in the Madhyamakaṣaṭka he envisaged a specifically Vajrayāna type of Madhyamaka. Tibetan scholars were aware of alternative Madhyamaka sub-classifications, but later Tibetan doxography emphasizes the nomenclature of prāsaṅgika vs svātantrika – for which no conclusive evidence can show the existence of an Indian antecedent.
While these different systems of tenets were discussed, it is not certain to what degree individual writers in Indian and Tibetan discussion held each of these views and if they held a view generally or only in particular instances.
The central technique avowed by Prasaṅgika Mādhyamaka is to show by prasaṅga (or reductio ad absurdum) that any positive assertion (such as "asti" or "nāsti", "it is", or "it is not") or view regarding phenomena must be regarded as merely conventional (saṃvṛti or lokavyavahāra).
The Prāsaṅgika hold that it is not necessary for the proponent and opponent to use the same kind of valid cognition to establish a common subject; indeed it is possible to change the view of an opponent through an reductio argument.
Buddhapalita and Candrakirti are noted as the main proponents of this approach. Tibetan teacher Longchen Rabjam noted in the 14th century that Candrakirti favored the prasaṅga approach when specifically discussing the analysis for ultimacy, but otherwise he made positive assertions.
In this way they believe they are able to make positive or "autonomous" assertions using syllogistic logic because they are able to share a subject that is established as appearing in common - the proponent and opponent use the same kind of valid cognition to establish it; the name comes from this quality of being able to use autonomous arguments in debate. Svātantrika in Sanskrit refers to autonomy and was translated back into Sanskrit from the equivalent Tibetan term.
Ju Mipham explained that using positive assertions in logical debate may serve a useful purpose, either while debating with non-Buddhist schools or to move a student from a coarser to a more subtle view.
A Yogācāra and Mādhyamaka synthesis was posited by Shantarakshita in the 8th century and may have been common at Nalanda University at that time. Like the Prāsaṅgika, this view approaches ultimate truth through the prasaṅga method, yet when speaking of conventional reality they may make autonomous statements like the earlier Svātantrika and Yogācāra approaches.
This was different from the earlier Svatantrika in that the conventional truth was described in terms of the theory of consciousness-only instead of the tenets of Svatantrika, though neither was used to analyze for ultimate truth.
By making such autonomous statements, Yogācāra-Svatantrika-Madhyamaka is often mistaken as a Svātantrika or Yogācāra view, even though a Prāsaṅgika approach was used in analysis. This view is thus a synthesis of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra. Concepts
This creates a tension, since it does have to use concepts to convey its teachings:
- This dynamic philosophical tension—a tension between the Madhyamika accounts of the limits of what can be coherently said and its analytical ostension of what cannot be said without paradox but must be understood—must constantly be borne in mind in reading the text.
- Nagarjuna's critique of the notion of own-nature[note 5] (Mk. ch. 15) argues that anything which arises according to conditions, as all phenomena do, can have no inherent nature, for what is is depends on what conditions it.
Moreover, if there is nothing with own-nature, there can be nothing with 'other-nature' (para-bhava), i.e. something which is dependent for its existence and nature on something else which has own-nature.
Furthermore, if there is neither own-nature nor other-nature, there cannot be anything with a true, substantial existent nature (bhava). If there is no true existent, then there can be no non-existent (abhava).
- [T]he word "svabhava" can be interpreted in two different ways. It can be rendered either as identity [...] or as causal independence.
This ambiguity is easily lost in translation:
- When one reads Nagarjuna's argument in Sanskrit, it is not immediately obvious that the argument has taken advantage of an ambiguity in the key term.
But when one tries to translate his argument into some other language, such as English or Tibetan, one finds that it is almost impossible to translate his argument in a way that makes sense in translation.
In English, we are forced to disambiguate, and in disambiguating, we end up spoiling the apparent integrity of the argument.
- Nagarjuna had no objection to the Abhidhamma formulation of causal relations so long as the relata are not regarded as having a unique nature or substance (svabhava).
What the abhidarmikas maintained was that everything has features that distinguish it from other things.
Essentialism and nihilism
- The object of the critique is to show that the eternalist view is untenable and further to show that the 'own-being' theory adopted by some Buddhists did not really differ, when its implications were strictly worked out, from the eternalist theory of Brahmanism (theory of an eternal 'soul' and other eternal 'substances'.
- Essentialism or eternalism (sastavadava) - a belief that things inherently exist and are therefore efficacious objects of craving and clinging;
- Nihilism or annihilationism (ucchedavada) - views that lead one to believe that there is no need to be responsible for one's actions. Nagarjuna argues that we naively and innately perceive things as substantial, and it is this predisposition which is the root delusion that lies at the basis of all suffering.
Madhyamaka discerns two levels of truth, absolute and relative, to make clear that it does make sense to speak of existence. Absolutely seen, there are no "things". Relatively seen, there do exist concrete objects which we are aware of.
According to Hayes, the two truths may also refer to two different goals in life: the highest goal of nirvana, and the lower goal of "commercial good". The highest goal is the liberation from attachment, both material and intellectual.
- What is the reality of things just as it is? It is the absence of essence. Unskilled persons whose eye of intelligence is obscured by the darkness of delusion conceive of an essence of things and then generate attachment and hostility with regard to them.
- —Buddhapālita-mula-madhyamaka-vrtti P5242,73.5.6-74.1.2
The Tibetan and Zen traditions have adopted Mādhyamaka with differences in lineage. The present day schools of Tendai, Sanron, and the Mahā-Mādhyamaka are also heirs to the Mādhyamaka tradition (cf. East Asian Mādhyamaka).
Tsongkhapa's understanding is derived from Candrakirti's interpretation, who states that conventionally there are entities with distinguishing characteristics, but ultimately those qualities are not independent essences.
But since this emptiness is true for everything that exists, this emptiness may also be regarded as an essence, though not in the sense of an independent essence. Candrakirti formulates a final negation by stating that even the denial of svabhava implies ...
- ...that either oneself or one's audience is not entirely free from the belief in svabhava. Therefore, ultimate truth, truth as it is for those who are free from misknowledge, cannot be expressed by assering either the existence or nonexistende of svahbava.
Thich Nhat Hanh explains the Madhyamaka concept of emptiness through the related concept of interdependence. In this analogy, there is no first or ultimate cause for anything that occurs. Instead, all things are dependent on innumerable causes and conditions that are themselves dependent on innumerable causes and conditions.
The interdependence of all phenomena, including the self, is a helpful way to undermine mistaken views about inherence, or that one's self is inherently existent. It is also a helpful way to discuss Mahayana teachings on motivation, compassion, and ethics.
- Over the past half-century the doctrine of the Madhyamaka school, and in particular that of Nāgārjuna has been variously described as nihilism, monism, irrationalism, misology, agnosticism, scepticism, criticism, dialectic, mysticism, acosmism, absolutism, relativism, nominalism, and linguistic analysis with therapeutic value.
Garfield likewise rephrases Ruegg:
- "Modern interpreters differ among themselves about the correct way to read it as least as much as canonical intepreters. Nagarjuna has been read as an idealist (Murti 1960), a nihilist (Wood 1994), a skeptic (Garfield 1995), a pragmatist (Kalupahana 1986), and as a mystic (Streng 1967).
He has been regarded as a critic of logic (Inada 1970), as a defender of classical logic (Hayes 1994), and as a pioneer of paraconsistent logic (Garfield and Priest 2003)". These interpreattions "reflect almost as much about the viewpoints of the scholars involved as do they reflect the content of Nāgārjuna's concepts".
Most recent western scholarship (Garfield , Napper, Hopkins , Huntington, and others) have, after investigation, tended to adopt one or another of the Gelugpa collegiate interpretations of Madhyamaka.
- Nagarjuna’s writings had relatively little effect on the course of subsequent Indian Buddhist philosophy.
Despite his apparent attempts to discredit some of the most fundamental concepts of abhidharma, abhidharma continued to flourish for centuries, without any appreciable attempt on the part of abhidharmikas to defend their methods of analysis against Nagarjuna’s criticisms.
- [A] relatively primitive thinker whose mistakes in reasoning were eventually uncovered as the knowledge of logic in India became more sophisticated in subsequent centuries.
The name of the school is a reference to the claim made of Buddhism in general that it is a middle path (madhyamā pratipad) that avoids the two extremes of eternalism—the doctrine that all things exist because of an eternal essence—and annihilationism—the doctrine that things have essences while they exist but that these essences are annihilated just when the things themselves go out of existence.
The conviction of the Madhyamaka school, which can be called the Centrist school in English, is that this middle path is best achieved by a denial that things have any inherent natures at all. All things are, in other words, empty of inherent natures.
This doctrine of universal emptiness of inherent natures (svabhāva-śūnyatā) is the hallmark of the school, which places the school solidly in the tradition associated with the Perfection of Wisdom (prajñāpāramitā) literature of Mahāyāna Buddhism.
The key texts of the school comprised commentaries to the writings of Nāgārjuna—the works of Nāgārjuna most often commented upon are the Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā (MMK) and Vigraha-vyāvartanī (VV)—and a number of independent works that expanded on ideas found in Nāgārjuna's writings.
This article will deal only with the Madhyamaka school in India from the fifth through the eighth centuries, during which time the school underwent most of its evolution. 1. Issues in the Madhyamaka school
There a number of points that all Mādhyamika thinkers have in common. In all of them one finds some version of the doctrine of two truths, according to which there is a level of understanding that consists of an accurate account of the world as it is experienced in everyday life and another level of understanding that is conducive to reaching the ultimate goal (paramārtha) of Buddhist practice, namely, nirvana, understood as the absence of attachment, aversion and delusion with no possibility of their return.
There is also broad agreement that language is limited to the everyday level of understanding and that the truth of nirvana is beyond the reach of language and of the conceptualization that makes language possible.
Where differences arise among Mādhyamika thinkers is on the issue of how these two truth relate to one another. Does careful verbalization and thinking do any good in bringing one closer to nirvana, or is it invariably an obstacle? Is there any room within Madhyamaka for clear thinking and carefully wrought argumentation, or are all attempts to arrive at clear thought and rigorous argumentation ultimately delusional and therefore to be abandoned along with more obvious forms of delusion?
Another area in which Mādhyamakas differ from one another is in their attitude toward the other main school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Yogācāra school, which Mādhyamikas present as advocating a kind of subjective idealism.
Later Mādhyamikas found room for that view, usually by portraying Yogācāra as a a philosophy that prepares one intellectually and emotionally for the difficult truth that all things are lacking in inherent natures and all that we think of as knowledge is ultimately without grounding.
Aside from a commentary entitled Akutobhaya (Afraid of nothing), which is traditionally ascribed to Nāgārjuna but the authorship of which is questioned by modern scholars, the earliest extant commentary to Nāgārjuna's MMK is the Madhyamakavṛtti by Buddhapālita (ca 470–ca 540).
The original Sanskit of this text is not known to exist, but it is still extant in Tibetan translation. Buddhapālita's commentary, like Akutobhaya stays close to the text upon which it is a commentary.
Like the MMK itself, Buddhapālita's commentary does not offer a positive position but rather shows the untenability of all logically possible solutions to the philosophical questions taken up for examination.
There are only four possible relationships: the cause is the same as the effect, the cause is different from the effect, the cause is both the same as and different from the effect, or the cause is neither the same as nor different from the effect. This fourth position would be tantamount to saying that there is no cause, and that an effect therefore arises out of nothing at all.
Each of these four possibilities is rejected in turn, each for a different reason. Buddhapālita argues that if an effect were identical to its cause, then it would already exist as the cause and would have no need or coming into being a second time. Identity of cause and effect defeats the very idea of causality.
If the effect were different from the cause, on the other hand, then there be be no constraints on what could arise out of what, so long as the cause and the effect were different. The third possibility is untenable, says Buddhapālita, since it is merely the conjunction of the two hyptheses that have just been shown to be untenable.
A proposition consisting of the conjunction of two false propositions cannot be true.
Moreover, says Buddhapālita, it would render all practice ineffectual; what he probably had in mind here was specifically Buddhist religious practice, which is predicated on identifying the root causes of dissatisfaction and then eliminating those root causes so that dissatisfaction disappears.
Beyond showing the untenability of every logically possible solution to a problem, Nāgārjuna and Buddhapālita have little to say. Opponents to the Madhyamaka school were critical of this approach, saying in effect that there is little value in finding fault with a philosophical view unless one is prepared to offer a better view to replace the faulty one. As will become more clear in what follows, it was precisely this issue—that is, whether there is a value in simply finding faults in philosophical views—that became controversial among Mādhyamikas.
The strongest challege to the commentarial tradition of Buddhapālita came from Bhāvaviveka, whose approach to Madhyamaka became the basis of what Tibetan Buddhists would many centuries after the fact consider a subschool of Madhyamaka that rivalled the subschool comprising those who followed Buddhapālita.
His commentary on MMK, entitled Prajñāpadīpa (Lamp of Wisdom), now extant only in Chinese and Tibetan translations, contains not only his interpretation of Nāgārjuna's thoughts but also critiques of Buddhapālita's approach to Madhyamaka, about which more will be said below, and critiques of the Buddhist abhidharma tradition. Prajñāpradīpa also incorporates critiques of such non-Buddhist schools as Sāṃkhya, Vaiśeṣika and the Jains.
In addition to his commentary to MMK, Bhāvaviveka wrote an important independent verse treatise on Madhyamaka entitled Madhyamakahṛdayakārikā (Verses on the Heart of Centrism) to which he provided a prose commentary called Tarkajvālā (Flame of Reasoning).
This combination of works comprises eleven chapters.
- On cultivating and maintaining bodhicitta, that is, the aspiration to become enlightened in order to work for the benefit and ultimate liberation of all sentient beings
- Following the Buddhist vows
- Striving for a knowledge of reality
- Reality as understood by the conservative canonical Buddhists (Śrāvakas)
- Reality as understood by the Yogācāra school of Buddhism
- Reality as understood by the Sāṃkhya school
- Reality as understood by the Vaiśeṣika school
- Reality as understood by the Vedānta schools
- Reality as understood by the Mīmāṃsā school
- The realization of omniscience
- On the characteristics of praise
As the titles of the chapters of this work show, Bhāvaviveka was a student of most of the important movements in Indian philosophy of his era and sought to stake out the place of the Madhyamaka school within Buddhism as a whole.
Their different approaches turned out to define two of the three important sub-schools of Madhyamaka.
A distinguishing characteristic of Bhāvaviveka's approach to Madhyamaka is his conviction that a Mādhyamika should put forward a positive argument for a position rather than merely showing the inadequacies of other positions.
His criticism of Buddhapālita was focused primarily on that very point; Buddhapālita offered no statement of what the Mādhyamikas believe but confined himself to pointing out that what other people believe is untenable in one way or another.
To criticize the positions of others but not to venture to state a position of one's own was regarded by the Indian debate tradition as a substandard use of argumentation called vitaṇḍā, which literally means making an attack. Bhāvaviveka was at pains to show that Mādhyamikas could not legitimately be accused of this sort of philosophical sniping.
He affirmed that Mādhyamikas do have a conviction that they are prepared to state and defend, namely, that all phenomena are devoid of an inherent nature, that is, a nature that they have independently.
In providing arguments in favor of the conclusions accepted by Mādhyamikas, Bhāvaviveka followed the example set by the Dignāga (fl. ca. 510), a Buddhist whose principal contributions were in the area of epistemology and logic. Dignāga, following with some modifications philosophers of the Brahmanical Nyāya school, had devised a canonical form of presenting arguments, which consisted in identifying a topic (pakṣa) and reasoning on the basis of an observed feature of the topic that it also had another feature not currently available for direct observation.
The stock example given in Indian logic is that if a particular mountain is the topic, one can reason on the basis of observing smoke associated with that mountain that there is also a fire associated with that mountain.
Attributing an unobserved feature to a topic on the basis of an observed feature is legitimate only if one has previously observed the feature used as evidence together with the feature being inferred, and if one has never seen the feature used as evidence in the absence of the feature being inferred.
Dignāga's method of presenting an argument consists, then, in stating a topic (pakṣa) and a property used as evidence (sādhaka-dharma) for a property to be established (sādhya-dharma). Bhāvaviveka followed this method in arguing for the conclusions of which he claimed Mādhyamikas are convinced; he also criticized Buddhapālita for failing to follow Dignāga's method.
In his discussion of MMK 1.1, Bhāvaviveka makes the general observation that when Nāgārjuna negates a proposition, he is negating the entire proposition rather than negating just the predicate. If one negates just a predicate, that leaves open the possibility that some other predicate can suitably be applied to the subject in question.
If one were to construe Nāgārjuna's statement as equivalent to something like “The arising of a phenomenon is not from the phenomenon itself,” then one would naturally take that to be saying that the arising of a phenomenon is from something other than itself.
It is not the case that a phenomenon arises from itself and it is not the case that a phenomenon arises from something other than itself, and it is not the case that a phenomenon arises from itself in cooperation with something other than itself, and it is not the case that a phenomenon arises from nothing at all,” then there is no paradox involved in negating both a simple proposition and its contradiction.
Bhāvaviveka goes on to explain that Nāgārjuna employed sentential negations in MMK 1.1, because he was trying to establish a kind of “non-conceptual cognition,” that is, an insight that cannot be expressed in words. The scope of this non-conceptual insight is everything that is capable of being cognized.
In saying this, Bhāvaviveka is consistent with a number of important statements in MMK and VV.
Nāgārjuna had laid emphasis on the claim that the Buddha had dealt out two kinds of truth, a quotidian transactional or conventional truth (vyavahāra-satya, saṃvṛti-satya) and a truth concerning the highest goal (paramārtha-satya), namely, nirvana. Of these, only the transactional truth is capable of being articulated in language.
Where they differed with one another was on the issue of how the teachings of Buddhism, which are communicated in language, relate to the highest goal of Buddhism, which lies outside the scope of language.
Nāgārjuna wrote in MMK 18.9 that the defining characteristics of reality (tattva, literally, “thatness” or quiddity) are that it is not conditioned by something other than itself, it is peaceful, it cannot be elaborated through verbal elaborations, it is non-conceptual, and it is uniform.
In his commentary to that verse, Bhāvaviveka expands the meaning of the verse by saying that anything that is not conceptual in nature cannot be expressed through verbal elaborations or through any other kind of sign.
Even though reality itself can be known only directly through a non-conceptual awareness, language can be helpful in conveying that very information, namely, that reality can be apprehended only directly and not through language.
In his Tarkajvālā, in which Bhāvaviveka is freed from the constraints of following Nāgārjuna's texts and puts forward his own approach to Madhyamaka, he states that the term “highest goal” (paramārtha-satya) has two aspects.
One aspect is that it is free from volitional thought, pure and beyond the reach of verbal elaborations. Another aspect is that is volitional in nature, connected with the accumulation of knowledge and meritorious karma, and connected with verbal elaborations and with the transactional knowledge of everyday life.
This incremental nature of knowledge makes ample room for the traditional Mahāyāna teachings of the gradated bodhisattva path whereby one moves from the aspiration for enlightenment to the gradual realization of enlightenment.
A metaphor that Bhāvaviveka uses for the Buddhist path is that it follows verbal teachings which are like a ladder that one slowly ascends until one can climb over the wall into non-conceptual direct awareness of the peaceful reality of nirvana in which there is nothing to be wished for, nothing to be understood and no hypothesis to be defended.
4.1 Life and works
His two best-known works are his commentary to MMK entitled Prasannapadā Madhyamakavṛtti (Clear-worded Commentary on Centrism), which survives in Sanskrit as well as in Tibetan translation, and an independent treatise called Madhyamakāvatāra (Introduction to Centrism) available only in Tibetan translation. Madhyamakāvatāra is a verse text to which Candrakīrti provided a prose commentary.
It is clearly an earlier work than his commentary to MMK, since in that commentary he refers the reader repeatedly to Madhyamakāvatāra for the full arguments for the positions he endorses.
In addition to those works, Candrakīrti wrote a number of commentaries to relatively short texts by Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva, an early Mādhyamika who is traditionally said to have been a direct disciple of Nāgārjuna.
Many centuries after he wrote, Buddhist scholastics in Tibet portrayed Candrakīrti as the founder of one of the subschools of the Madhyamaka that they perceived. Because Bhāvaviveka had advocated for producing independent (svatantra) arguments for the view that all phenomena are empty of inherent natures, the Tibetan scholastics dubbed his subschool the Svātantrika school;
because Candrakīrti criticized that approach and advocated for being content to show the unwelcome consequences (prasaṅga) of all possible positions on any given philosophical issue, his subschool was named by Tibetans the Prāsaṅgika school of Madhyamaka.
Although those terms were not used by Indian Mādhyamikas themselves, it has become standard practice in modern scholarship to portray the Madhyamaka school as comprising at least two subschools with those names and to see Bhāvaviveka and Candrakīrti as the founders of those two subschools.
The virtues to be perfected are generosity; good habits of thought, word and deed; patience; courage; meditation; wisdom; proselytizing skill; application of vows; strength of character; and transcendental knowledge.
The chapter dedicated to the sixth stage, at which wisdom is cultivated to perfection, is the chapter in which Candrakīrti lays out his most detailed exposition of the Madhyamaka school of philosophy.
Candrakīrti begins this chapter with the claim that wisdom is like a sighted person who is capable of leading a group of blind people safely to a destination; similarly, wisdom guides all the other virtues to their destination of perfection.
As for the content of wisdom, it is the realization that no phenomena come into being. Phenomena cannot arise from themselves, since that possibility would make arising unnecessary or redundant; if a thing already exists, it has no need to come into being.
If it already exists, it has no need or coming into being. If it does not exist, then it cannot be an agent that does the action of coming into being; but if there is no agent, then there is no action.
After showing that there cannot be any intelligible account of the arising of phenomena, Candrakīrti acknowledges that in everyday experience we encounter phenomena coming into being all the time. This leads to a discussion of the two truths.
The ultimate truth—that is, truth concerning the highest goal—is that phenomena do not come into being; the conventional transactional truth, on the other hand, is that things do come into being and that their arising is conditioned.
That notwithstanding, the Buddha gave many teachings in words, so how is one to understand that? The Buddha, said Candrakīrti, spoke according to the linguistic conventions of the people to whom he talked.
It does not follow from grammatical correctness, however, that those words used in sentences have referents.
Similarly, even though the Buddha realized that there are no phenomena coming into being and perishing, he spoke the same kinds of sentences used by those who believe that phenomena come into being through conditions and then perish when the conditions that sustain them are no longer operative.
If one is going to use language at all, then one cannot avoid using words and constructions that apparently commit one to accepting the presuppositions upon which language rests. It is the task of the Mādhyamika philosopher to expose those presuppositions as untenable, to see that language is not grounded in realities but is purely conventional in nature.
For example, to those who believed in an enduring and unified and essentially independent self, says Candrakīrti, the Buddha taught that the self is not to be found in any of the aspects of being human that might be a candidate for being regarded as a self;
he taught that the self is not the body, the personality, awareness, thoughts or feelings or anything else that arises through causes and conditions, nor is there anything outside those things that counts as a candidate for what people intuitively take to be their selves.
In the first chapter of his commentary to MMK, Candrakīrti comes to Buddhapālita's defense and offers a sustained criticism of Bhāvaviveka, and of the tradition of Dignāga on whom Bhāvaviveka had based much of his approach.
He had also written that he apprehends no objects at all and therefore has no need to affirm or deny anything, and since he neither affirms nor denies any proposition, he need not supply any reasons to justify his stance.
If Buddhapālita had put forth arguments, then he would have opened himself up to endless disputation; since, however, he knew that the purpose of Madhyamaka is to bring all disputation, and indeed all kinds of idle chatter, to an end, he wisely avoided putting forth formal arguments that a persistent opponent might take as an invitation to debate.
He does, however, confront them with having failed to supply a convincing response to the radical critique Nāgārjuna had made of the very enterprise of grounding convictions on indisputable foundations. He recapitulates a passage of Nāgārjuna's VV in which it is said that any proposition that is supposed to be warranted must rest upon a foundation of either direct experience or one of three kinds of reasoning.
But the very claim that a proposition is warranted by a foundation is itself a proposition, and as such it must either require a warrant of its own or be deemed self-validating.
If it requires a warrant of its own, the result will be an infinite regress of propositions needing warrants; if it is declared self-validating, then why not say of all propositions they are self-validating?
Their claim that the world of experience is consciousness only and that the contents of consciousness cannot be objects external to consciousness itself is supported by several texts within the Mahāyāna scriptural tradition.
It would be a mistake to take that statement literally and to conclude that nothing but consciousness exists and that the world of experience that feels as though it is external to consciousness is in fact produced by consciousness or is inseparable from consciusness.
The Yogācāra offers good reasons to show that the contents of consciousness are conditioned and therefore are empty of inherent existence, but they fail to appreciate that exactly the same can be said of awareness itself.
In everyday experience, we feel that things arise and perish because of causes and conditions, and we feel that we are conscious subjects on whom an external world is impinging. We communicate with one another in readily comprehensible language.
The task of philosophy for Candrakīrti is not to replace unwarranted beliefs with justified true beliefs, but to break the habit of forming beliefs, declaring them to be true and then becoming attached to them.
Best estimates of the time of his activity place him at the end of the seventh century. His best-known (and most frequently translated) work is Bodhicaryāvatāra (Introduction to the practice of enlightenment), also called Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra (Introduction to the practice of the bodhisattva).
He also compiled Śikṣāsamuccaya, an annotated collection of passages from Mahāyāna scriptures for students, and he authored a commentary to Vasubandhu's Triṃśikā, a key text in the Yogācāra tradition.
Partly because he was a masterful stylist and wrote delightfully beautiful Sanskrit verse, and partly because his work exerted a strong influence on Tibetan Buddhism, Śantideva has been the focus of a considerable amount of modern scholarship in Japan, Europe and North America.
Bodhicaryāvatāra is a verse composition divided into ten chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of the traditional depiction of the bodhisattva's career. The topics of the ten chapters are as follows:
- In praise of bodhicitta, the aspiration to become enlightened for the liberation of all sentient beings
- A reflection on cultivating good character through the confession of one's personal shortcomings
- On acquiring bodhicitta
- On cultivating watchfulness with respect to bodhicitta
- On the guarding of awareness
- On the perfection of patience
- On the perfection of courage
- On the perfection of meditation
- On the perfection of wisdom
- On giving the merits accrued by cultivating virtues to all those suffering beings in need of merit
Śāntideva himself provided no prose commentary to his work, but a Sanskrit commentary by Prajñākaramati is still extant and is usually consulted by those who translate the work into English from the original Sanskrit.
Śāntideva's work is also preserved in Tibetan translation and is furnished with several Tibetan commentaries, which are routinely consulted by those who translate Bodhicaryāvatāra into English from its Tibetan translation.
Its principal contribution is in offering a concise recapitulation of the currents of Madhyamaka thought and of Madhyamaka arguments against Yogācāra monism, which portrays consciousness as the ultimate source of all realities.
While that is generally the case, one candidate for novelty occurs in earlier chapters of Bodhicaryāvatāra, where Śāntideva provides a line of argument that became standard in discussion of Mahāyāna ethics. His claim is that pain and unhappiness are by definition that which those who experience them wish to avoid.
But given that there are no inherent natures that distinguish one person from another, or one kind of person from another kind, there is no rational basis to prefer one's own experiences and judgments to those of anyone else or to prefer what one perceives as one's own kind from other kinds of people.
It is fundamentally irrational to take an interest only in one's own pain and suffering; the only reasonable approach is to be concerned with all the pain and unhappiness of which one becomes aware and to try to eradicate all of it without making artificial distinctions.
Since, however, most of what anyone finds painful and unpleasant arises from the conviction that some objects of experience are inherently undesirable or impure, the best strategy to follow in helping oneself and others overcome pain and suffering is to show that there is no basis for the belief that some objects are inherently undesirable or impure.
This recapitulates a point made by both Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti that the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is nirvana, a stillness of the mind in which there is no object being grasped as the focus of awareness, no narratives (prapañca) being told to account for one's experience, no theorizing and no argumentation.
At the outset of the chapter on wisdom Śāntideva says that the ultimate truth is of a reality that is not within range of the intellect; the intellect operates only at the level of conventional truth.
One who has cultivated the intention to become enlightened in order to lead others out of their delusion-driven suffering use language to help people realize the limitations of language and conceptual thinking.
6.1 Life and works
Jñānagarbha, who was most probably the teacher of Śāntarakṣita, probably lived in the early eighth century. Because his presentation of Madhyamaka incorporates much of the terminology used by Dharmakīrti, a member of the epistemological tradition founded by Dignāga, he is usually portrayed as a follower of Bhāvaviveka's approach to Madhyamaka.
Like his disciple Śāntarakṣita, Jñānagarbha also incorporates aspects of the Yogācāra philosophy into his presentation of Madhyamaka and can therefore be seen as a source of inspiration to those who strove to find a synthesis of the two principal schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism.
The verse text along with its commentary can be referred to together as Satyadvayavibhaṅga.
Like all the Mādhyamika thinkers who came before him, Jñānagarbha regards it vitally important to have a clear understanding of two kinds of truth, the conventional and transactional truth of everyday life, and the truth that liberates one from attachment, aversion and delusion, this liberation being the ultimate goal (paramārtha) of Buddhism.
In talking about these two truths, Jñānagarbha draws liberally from the work of Dharmakīrti, who had in turn built upon the epistemological foundations laid by Dignāga. Dharmakīrti had said that successful action is preceded by correct cognitions; what one deems to be truthful is any cognition that motivates action that leads to expected results.
Even when one's goal is to achieve nirvana by having a direct experience of a still and peaceful awareness that is not conceptual and therefore beyond the range of language, one can arrive at that goal by learning to think carefully and clearly.
Clear and careful thinking about what one hears others say enables one to discard teachings that, if acted upon, are unlikely to produce expected results and to follow teachings that, if acted upon, will lead one a desired goal, even the goal of the stillness of a mind that is not dealing in narratives and concepts.
So Jñānagarbha, like Bhāvaviveka, sees value in conceptual thinking and in careful thinking and speaking and sees less of a need than Candrakīrti and Śāntideva saw in finding a way to eliminate all conceptual thinking and theorizing.
Jñānagarbha's indebtedness to the epistemological tradition notwithstanding, he is still very much a Mādhyamika in that much of his approach consists in showing the absurdities that lurk menacingly inside all constructed theories.
Moreover, he agrees with other Mādhyamikas in his conviction that all thinking, even that which can be called verdical because it leads to expected results, is based on a presupposition that things have inherent natures—it is, after all, almost impossible to talk without at least an implicit nod in the direction of inherent natures and essences—and that that presupposition is demonstrably false.
So according to Jñānagarbha rational thinking is simultaneously veridical, in that it leads to expected results, and false, in that it is based upon the demonstrably false presupposition that things that can be named are namable because they have inherent natures.
While language operates within an ontology of causes and effects and various other kinds of relationship, such as temporal and spatial relationships, it can be shown that those relationships are all untenable if one thinks about them carefully and investigates them deeply enough.
At the heart of Jñānagarbha's argument against the tenability of causality is his argument that none of the possible ways of looking at the relation of conditions and their effects are workable. There are four possibilities.
His presentation of an explanation for why each of these possibilities is untenable is in places terse and difficult to decipher.
A single thing, such as vision, cannot be the effect of many conditions, such as the eye, visible color, an attentive mind and so forth, he says, because the effect has the feature of being one, while the causes are many, but there is nothing to account for what causes the reduction of many things to one.
If one imagines that a manifold set of causes produces a complex multiplicity of effects, then one is saying in effect that each component of the complex cause is producing one component of the complex effect, and this amounts to saying that there are many instances of one cause producing one effect.
On the other hand, if one thinks that each aspect of the complex effect is a single effect of the totality of features within the complex cause, then one is saying that a single effect has many conditions, which has already been ruled out.
Moreover, one faces the problem of explaining how the same totality of causes can have many distinct effects, each of which is a feature of the complex effect putatively arising from the causal complex.
If one imagines that a multiplicity, such as the manifold universe, arises out of a single cause, such as God or Brahman or consciousness, then one must provide a coherent account of what causes the differentiation among the many effects.
What one would expect is that some auxiliary condition combines with the single cause to produce different effects; but if that is the case, then a single cause plus an auxiliary condition is not really just a single cause.
Finally, one might imagine that a single cause produces a single effect, such as when one momentary phenomenon perishes and in the act of perishing gives rise to a subsequent momentary phenomenon of the same kind.
That, however, is impossible, since the putative cause must go entirely out of existence before its successor can takes its place, and once the preceding phenomenon has ceased to exist, there is nothing to cause its successor to arise.
Since none of the possible ways of explaining causality turns out to survive close analysis, one can only conclude that the very ideas of causality, and of arising and perishing, and of unity and multiplicity cannot correspond to reality.
Jñānagarbha, like the Mādhyamikas who came before him, sees conventional truth as a kind of screen or obstacle to the reality that becomes apparent only to an awareness that is unencumbered by concepts and narratives.
7.1 Life and works
While it is difficult to find much reliable information about the lives of most Indian philosophers, quite a bit is known about the life, especially the later life, of Śāntarakṣita, details of whose life were recorded by Tibetans when he went to Tibet in about 763 and became the first abbot of Bsam-yas monastery.
It is clear from his writings that he had studied all branches of Indian philosophy extensively.
Together Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, both of whom spent many years in Tibet, set the tone for Buddhist scholasticism in the eighth century, and their influence is felt in Tibetan Buddhism to this day.
A modern edition of the verse work and its commentary together runs to more than 1100 pages.
The work is divided into twenty-six chapters, the topics of which are as follows:
- The Sāṃkhya doctrine of primodial matter (prakṛti) as the source of the physical world
- Various doctrines of God as the source of the world
- The doctrine of inherent natures (svabhāva) as the source of the world
- Bhartṛhari's doctrine of Brahman-as-language as the source of the world
- The Sāṃkhya-Yoga doctrine of human spirit (puruṣa)
- Examination of the doctrines of the self (ātman) in the Nyāya, Mīmāṃsā, Sāṃkhya, Digambara Jaina, Advaita and Buddhist personalist (pudgalavādin) schools
- The doctrine of the permanence of things
- Various doctrines of karma and its ripening
- A critical examination of substance
- A critical examination of quality
- A critical examination of action
- A critical examination of universals
- A critical examination of particularity
- A critical examination of inherence (the relation between universals and particulars and between substances and qualities)
- An examination of words and their meanings
- An examination of sense perception
- An examination of inference
- An examination of other means of acquiring knowledge
- A critical examination of Jaina epistemology
- An examination of time
- A critical examination of materialism
- On the external world (that is, the world external to consciousness)
- A critical examination of revelation as a source of knowledge
- Examination of the idea that some propositions are self-validating
- Examination of the notion of supernormal powers
His most original contribution to the development of Madhyamaka philosophy is a verse treatise called Madhyamakālaṃkāra (Ornament of Centrism), which contains ninety-seven stanzas, to which he also provided a prose commentary.
But whereas Bhāvaviveka had refrained from following Dignāga and Dharmakīrti's lead into Yogacāra, Śāntarakṣita endorsed a kind of subjective idealism, albeit as a stage that prepared one for the Madhyamaka doctrine of the emptiness of all phenomena.
Madhyamakālaṃkāra begins with the observation that if a phenomenon has an essential nature, then either that nature is simple or complex, that is, it is either a single thing or many things; there is no third possibility.
Drawing on arguments by earlier Buddhist thinkers such as Dharmakīrti, Śāntarakṣita argues that if there were a uniform, permanent and unobstructed singularity, then everything it supposedly causes would have to exist all the time.
A cause is something in the presence of which an effect arises and in the absence of which the effect does not arise.
In a theory that posits a single permanent cause of all things, there is no satisfactory account of all the changes that are experienced in daily life, nor is there any satisfactory account of temporal sequences or the fact that things exist in some places but not in others.
The very idea of multiplicity, he notes, only makes sense if one is talking about a collection of singularities. Given, however, that there are no singularities, then cannot be any collection of them.
This being the case, no inherent nature of any entity can be either singular or multiple; if an entity has neither a singular nor a multiple inherent nature, it has no inherent nature at all. In other words, all phenomena are empty of inherent natures.
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