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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.
—Nāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 24:18
- 1 Origins and development
- 2 Schools
- 3 Concepts
- 4 Understanding in Buddhist tradition
- 5 Influence on Advaita Vedanta
- 6 Understanding in modern scholarship
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 Sources
- 11 External links
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 Madhyamaka school has been perhaps simplistically regarded as a reaction against the development of the Abhidharma, especially the Sarvāstivādin. In the Abhidharma, dharmas are characterized by defining traits (lakṣaṇa) or own-existence (svabhāva), whose ontological status is not dependent upon concepts. The problem with the Abhidharma 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. For the Madhyamaka, dharmas are notionally dependent, and further more, their notional dependence entails existential dependence and hence lack of ultimate, true existence.
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. The dependent arising of concepts based on other concepts, rather than the true arising of really existent causes and effects, becomes here the matrix of any possible convention.
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.
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.
Nāgārjuna's pupil Āryadeva (3rd century CE) emphasized the Bodhisattva-ideal. His works are regarded as a supplement to Nāgārjuna's, on which he commented. Āryadeva also refuted the theories of non-Buddhist Indian philosophical schools.
Buddhapālita and Bhāvaviveka
Buddhapālita (470–550) has been understood as the origin of the prāsaṅgika approach. He was criticized by Bhāvaviveka (ca.500–ca.578), who argued for the use of syllogisms "to set one's own doctrinal stance". Bhāvya/Bhāvaviveka was influenced by the Yogācāra school.
Candrakīrti (600–c. 650) wrote the Prasannapadā (Clear Words), a highly influential commentary on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. This commentary is central in the understanding of Madhyamaka in Tibetan Buddhism.
Śāntideva (end 7th century – first half 8th century) is well known for his Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life. He united "a deep religiousness and joy of exposure together with the unquestioned Madhyamaka orthodoxy".
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.
Tibetan doxography, perhaps mostly derivative of the views of he 11th-century Tibetan translator Patsap Nyima Drak—divides Madhyamaka into three main branches:
- The later Yogācāra and Mādhyamaka synthesis, sometimes rendered Yogācāra-Svātantrika-Mādhyamaka
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.
Both Prāsaṅgikas and Svātantrikas cited material in the āgamas in support of their arguments.
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. His central text, Madhyamakavatāra, is structured as a description of the paths and results of practice, which is made up of positive assertions. Therefore, even those most attributed to the Prāsaṅgika view make positive assertions when discussing a path of practice but use prasaṅga specifically when analyzing for ultimate truth.
The Svātantrika Mādhyamaka differs from the Prāsaṅgika in a few key ways. Conventional phenomena are understood to have a conventional essential existence, but without an ultimately existing essence. 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.
Bhavaviveka is the first person to whom this view is attributed, as they are laid out in his commentaries on Nāgārjuna and his critiques of Buddhapalita.
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. Similarly, discussing an approximate ultimate helps students who have difficulty using only prasaṅga methods move closer to the understanding of the true ultimate. Ju Mipham felt that the ultimate non-enumerated truth of the Svatantrika was no different from the ultimate truth of the Prāsaṅgika. He felt the only difference between them was with respect to how they discussed conventional truth and their approach to presenting a path.
A Yogācāra and Mādhyamaka synthesis was posited by Shantarakshita in the 8th century[note 1] 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.
For example, they may assert that all phenomena are nothing but the "play of mind" and hence empty of concrete existence—and that mind is in turn empty of defining characteristics. But in doing so, they're careful to point out that any such example would be an approximate ultimate and not the true ultimate. 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.
Madhyamaka uses language to make clear the limits of our 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. It is not an incoherent mysticism, but it is a logical tightrope act at the very limits of language and metaphysics.
Svabhava - essence
Nagarjuna's critique of the notion of own-nature[note 6] (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. This is because the terms in the language of translation do not have precisely the same range of ambiguities as the words in the original Sanskrit. In English, we are forced to disambiguate, and in disambiguating, we end up spoiling the apparent integrity of the argument.
The doctrine of dependent arising cannot be reconciled with "a conception of self-nature or substance". Nagarjuna refutes "the commentarial doctrine of the 'own-being' of principles as contrary to the Tripitaka":
The rejection of inherent existence does not imply that there is no existence at all. What it does mean is that there is no "unique nature or substance (svabhava)" in the "things" we perceive. This may not necessarily be in contrast to the Abhidhamma point of view, given the ambivalence in the terms used by Nagarjuna:
Essentialism and nihilism
What remains is the middle way between eternalism and annihilationism:
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'.
These two views are considered to be the two extreme views:
- 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 represents the middle way" between them.
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
Understanding in Buddhist tradition
The Tibetan and Zen traditions have adopted Mādhyamaka with differences in lineage. The present day schools of Tiantai, Tendai, Sanron, and the Mahā-Mādhyamaka are also heirs to the Mādhyamaka tradition (cf. East Asian Mādhyamaka).
Their nature of emptiness is their reality nature.
This is in line with the Eight Thousand Stanza Perfection of Wisdom Sutra:
Although Tsonkhapa argued in favour of Yogacara views early in his career his later understanding is derived from Candrakirti, 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 asserting either the existence or nonexistence of svahbava.
Thich Nhat Hanh
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. The comparison to interdependence has produced recent discussion comparing Mahayana ethics to environmental ethics.
Influence on Advaita Vedanta
- "An" means "not", or "non"
- "Utpāda" means "genesis", "coming forth", "birth"[web 2]
Taken together "anutpāda" means "having no origin", "not coming into existence", "not taking effect", "non-production".[web 3]
"Ajātivāda" is the fundamental philosophical doctrine of Gaudapada. According to Gaudapada, the Absolute is not subject to birth, change and death. The Absolute is aja, the unborn eternal. The empirical world of appearances is considered unreal, and not absolutely existent.
Gaudapada's perspective is quite different from Nagarjuna. Gaudapada's perspective is based on the Mandukya Upanishad. In the Mandukya Karika, Gaudapada's commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad, Gaudapada sets forth his perspective. According to Gaudapada, Brahman cannot undergo alteration, so the phenomenal world cannot arise from Brahman. If the world cannot arise, yet is an empirical fact, then the world has to be an unreal[note 11] appearance of Brahman. And if the phenomenal world is an unreal appearance, then there is no real origination or destruction, only apparent origination or destruction. From the level of ultimate truth (paramārthatā) the phenomenal world is Maya.
As stated in Gaudapada’s Karika Chapter II Verse 48:[web 4]
No jiva ever comes into existence. There exists no cause that can produce it. The supreme truth is that nothing ever is born.[web 5]
Understanding in modern scholarship
Western scholarship has given a broad variety of interpretations of Madhyamaka:
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 interpreters. 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 interpretations "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.
Richard P. Hayes is critical of the works of Nagarjuna:
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.
According to Hayes, Nagarjuna makes use of two different possible meanings of the word svabhava, and uses those two meanings to make statements which are not logical. In doing so, Hayes regards Nagarjuna...
[A] relatively primitive thinker whose mistakes in reasoning were eventually uncovered as the knowledge of logic in India became more sophisticated in subsequent centuries.
William Magee strongly disagrees with Hayes. He points out the influence of Nagarjuna in Tibetan Buddhism, and refers to Tsonghkhapa's interpretation of Nagarjuna to argue that
Hayes is misidentifying Nagarjuna's intended meaning of svabhava. In contradistinction to Hayes' belief that Nagarjuna speaks equivocably of an identity nature and a causally independent, non-existent nature, Dzong-ka-ba feels that in chapter XV.1-2 Nagarjuna uses the term svabhava to refer to an existent emptiness nature.
According to Magee, both Candrakirti and Dzong-ka-ba "see Nagarjuna as consistently referring to emptiness with the word svabhava".
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- Alex Trisoglio: In the 8th century, Shantarakshita went to Tibet and founded the monastery at Samyé. He was not a direct disciple of Bhavaviveka, but the disciple of one of his disciples. He combined the Madhyamika-Svatantrika and Cittamatra schools, and created a new school of Madhyamika called Svatantrika-Yogachara-Madhyamika. His disciple Kamalashila, who wrote The Stages of Meditation upon Madhyamika (uma’i sgom rim), developed his ideas further, and together they were very influential in Tibet.Khyentse Rinpoche, Dzongsar Jamyang (2003). "Introduction" (PDF). In Alex Trisoglio. Introduction to the Middle Way: Chandrakirti's Madhyamakavatara with Commentary (1st ed.). Dordogne, France: Khyentse Foundation. p. 8. Retrieved 7 January 2013.
- 'Own-beings', unique nature or substance, an identifying characteristic; an identity; an essence,
- A differentiating characteristic, the fact of being dependent,
- 'Being', 'self-nature or substance'
- Not being present; absence:
- Stephen Batchelor, Verses from the Centre, Chapter 15 (Investigation of Essences), note for verse 3: "There is a problem here with the Tibetan translation from Sanskrit. Svabhava is translated as rang bzhin, but parabhava rather clumsily as gzhan gyi dngos po [the term first appears in I:3]. A Tibetan reader would thus lose the etymological connection between "own-thing" (svabhava) and "other-thing" (parabhava), which then link up with "thing" (bhava) and no-thing (abhava). Nagarjuna is playing on the word "thing".[web 1]
- Warder: "From Nagarjuna's own day onwards his doctrine was subject to being misunderstood as nihilistic: because he rejected 'existence' of beings and spoke of their 'emptiness' (of own-being), careless students (and critics who were either not very careful or not very scrupulous) have concluded that he maintained that ultimately the universe was an utter nothingness. In fact, his rejection of 'non-existence' is as emphatic as his rejection of 'existence', and must therefore lead us to the conclusion that what he is attacking are the notions or assertions themselves as metaphysical concepts imposed on ultimate reality, which is entirely beyond any possible concept or definition.
- Alexander Berzin: There was a very famous Nyingma lama at the time called Lhodrag Namka-gyeltsen, and this Nyingma lama had, continually, visions of Vajrapani. And he invited Tsongkhapa, and they became mutual teacher and disciple. It’s from this Nyingma lama that Tsongkhapa got his main lam-rim transmissions from the Kadam tradition — two of the main Kadam lineages. There are three Kadampa lineages that had split. He got two of them from this Nyingma lama and one from a Kagyu lama. The Kadampa was divided into three: One was the lam-rim teachings, one was the textual teachings, and one was the oral guideline teachings. So he got the lam-rim and the oral guideline lineages from this Nyingma lama, and the textual tradition from a Kagyu lama. This I find very interesting. One always thinks that he got them from Kadampa lamas; he didn’t. And that Gelugpa was so separate from all these other traditions; it wasn’t. Look at this Kagyu lama, Lama Umapa, that Tsongkhapa studied Madhyamaka with; he had studied Madhyamaka with Sakya. The Sakyas were the main Madhyamaka people of those days.Berzin, Alexander (December 2003). "Life of Tsongkhapa". Munich, Germany. Retrieved 7 January 2013.
- The term is also used in the Lankavatara Sutra. According to D.T Suzuki, "anutpada" is not the opposite of "utpada", but transcends opposites. It is the seeing into the true nature of existence, the seeing that "all objects are without self-substance".
- C.q. "transitory"
- Williams 2000, p. 140.
- Warder 2000, p. 358.
- Kalupahana 1994, p. 169.
- Warder 2000, p. 368.
- Rizzi 1988, p. 2.
- Rizzi 1988, p. 3.
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- Rizzi 1988, p. 5.
- Gombrich 1996, p. 27-28.
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- Garfield 1995, p. 102.
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- Hayes 1994, p. 317.
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- Kalupahana 1994, p. 165.
- Hayes 1994, p. 316.
- Harvey 1995, p. 97.
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- Hayes 2003, p. 10.
- Warder 2000, p. 363.
- Garfield 1995, p. 88 footnote.
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- Tsong Khapa 2002.
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- Renard 2010, p. 160.
- Suzuki 1999.
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- Comans 2000, p. 36.
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- Garfield and Samten 2006, p. xx.
- Daye 1971, p. 77.
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- Napper 1989.
- Hopkins 1996.
- Kalupahana 1992.
- Kalupahana 1994.
- Hayes 2003, p. 2.
- Hayes 2003, p. 3-5.
- Hayes 2003, p. 7.
- Magee 1999, p. 126.
- Magee 1999, p. 127.
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