2. Philosophy | Mādhyamika

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Nāgārjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE)
Nāgārjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE)

1. Svabhāva, what Mādhyamika denies

Central to Mādhyamika philosophy is śūnyatā, Emptiness, and this refers to the central idea that dharmas are empty of svabhāva.

This term has been translated variously as essence, intrinsic nature, inherent existence, own being and substance.

Furthermore, svabhāva can be interpreted as either identity or as causal independence.

The Mādhyamika thinker Candrakīrti defines it, something that does not depend on anything else.

It is substance-svabhāva, the objective and independent existence of any object or concept, which Mādhyamika arguments mostly focus on refuting.

A common structure which Mādhyamika uses to negate svabhāva is the catuṣ-koṭi (4 corners), which roughly consists of 4 alternatives:

  1. some proposition is true,
  2. it is false,
  3. it is both,
  4. it is neither true nor false.

Some of the major topics discussed by classical Mādhyamika include causality, change, and personal identity.

Mādhyamika's denial of svabhāva does not mean a nihilistic denial of all things,

for in a conventional everyday sense, Mādhyamika does accept that one can speak of things, and yet ultimately these things are Empty of inherent existence.

Furthermore, Emptiness itself is also Empty: it does not have an existence on its own, nor does it refer to a transcendental reality beyond or above phenomenal reality.

Svabhāva's cognitive aspect is merely a superimposition (samāropa) that beings make when they perceive and conceive of things.

In this sense then, Emptiness does not exist as some kind of primordial reality, but it is simply a corrective to a mistaken conception of how things exist.

This idea of svabhāva that Mādhyamika denies is then not just a conceptual philosophical theory, but it is a cognitive distortion that beings automatically impose on the world, such as when we regard the 5 aggregates as constituting a single self.

Candrakīrti compares it to someone who suffers from vitreous floaters that cause the illusion of hairs appearing in their visual field.

This cognitive dimension of svabhāva means that just understanding and assenting to Mādhyamika reasoning is not enough to end the suffering caused by our reification of the world, just like understanding how an optical illusion works does not make it stop functioning.

What is required is a kind of cognitive shift (termed Realization) in the way the world appears and therefore some kind of practice to lead to this shift.

As Candrakīrti says:

For one on the road of cyclic existence who pursues an inverted view due to ignorance,

a mistaken object such as the superimposition (samāropa) on the aggregates appears as real, but it does not appear to one who is close to the view of the real nature of things.

Much of Mādhyamika philosophy centres on showing how various essentialist ideas have absurd conclusions through reductio ad absurdum arguments (known as prasaṅga in Sanskrit).

Chapter 15 of Nāgārjuna's Mūla-Mādhyamika-kārikā centres on the words svabhāva   parā-bhāva  bhāva   and abhāva.

Nāgārjuna’s critique of the notion of own-nature (Mk. ch. 15) argues that anything which arises according to conditions, as all phenomena do, can have no inherent nature, for what it 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 (abhāva).

An important element of Mādhyamika refutation is that the classical Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Arising (the idea that every phenomena is dependent on other phenomena) cannot be reconciled with a conception of self-nature or substance

and that therefore essence theories are contrary not only to the Buddhist scriptures but to the very ideas of causality and change.

Any enduring essential nature would prevent any causal interaction, or any kind of origination. For things would simply always have been, and will always continue to be, without any change. 

As Nāgārjuna writes in the MMK:

We state that Conditioned Origination is Emptiness. It is mere designation depending on something, and it is the Middle Path.

Since nothing has arisen without depending on something, there is nothing that is not Empty.

MMK 24.18-19

2. The 2 truths

Beginning with Nāgārjuna, Mādhyamika discerns 2 levels of truth:

  1. Conventional Truth (everyday common sense reality)
  2. Ultimate Truth (Emptiness).

Ultimately, Mādhyamika argues that all phenomena are Empty of svabhāva and only exist in dependence on other causes, conditions and concepts.

Conventionally, Mādhyamika holds that beings do perceive concrete objects which they are aware of empirically.

In Mādhyamika this phenomenal world is the limited truth - saṁvṛti satya, which literally means to completely cover, conceal, or obscure and arises due to ignorance.

This seeming reality does not really exist as the highest truth realized by wisdom which is param-ārtha satya (Paramā is literally supreme or ultimate, and artha means object, purpose, or actuality), and yet it has a kind of conventional reality which has its uses for reaching Liberation.

This limited truth includes everything, including the Buddha himself, the teachings (dharma), liberation and even Nāgārjuna's own arguments.

This 2 truth schema which did not deny the importance of convention allowed Nāgārjuna to defend himself against charges of nihilism, understanding both correctly meant seeing the Middle Way:

Without relying upon convention, the ultimate fruit is not taught.
Without understanding the ultimate, Nirvāṇa is not attained.

The limited, perceived reality is an experiential reality or a nominal reality which beings impute on the Ultimate Reality;

it is not an ontological reality with substantial or independent existence:

Hence, the 2 truths aren't 2 metaphysical realities, but the 2 realities refer to just what is experienced by 2 different types of beings with different types and scopes of perception.

As Candrakīrti says:

It is through the perfect and the false seeing of all entities
That the entities that are thus found bear 2 natures.
The object of perfect seeing is True Reality,
And false seeing is Seeming Reality.

This means that the distinction between the 2 truths is primarily epistemological and depending on the cognition of the observer, not ontological.

As Śāntideva says there are 2 kinds of world, the one of yogis and the one of common people.

The seeming reality is the world of Samsara because conceiving of concrete and unchanging objects leads to clinging and suffering.

As Buddhapālita states:

unskilled persons whose eyes 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.

The 2 truths may also refer to 2 different goals in life:

the highest goal of Nirvāṇa, and the lower goal of commercial good. The highest goal is the liberation from attachment, both material and intellectual.

3. The nature of Ultimate Reality

Nāgārjuna associates Emptiness with the Ultimate Truth

but his conception of Emptiness is not some kind of Absolute, but rather it is the very absence of true existence with regards to the conventional reality of things and events in the world.

Because the Ultimate is itself Empty, it is also explained as a transcendence of deception and hence is a kind of apophatic truth which experiences the lack of substance.

Because the nature of Ultimate Reality is said to be Empty, even of Emptiness itself, along with the very framework of the 2 truths are also conventional realities, and not part of the Ultimate.

This is often called the Emptiness of Emptiness and refers to the fact that even though Mādhyamika speak of Emptiness as the ultimate unconditioned nature of things, this Emptiness is itself empty of any real existence.

The 2 truths themselves are therefore just a practical tool used to teach others, but do not exist within the actual meditative equipoise that realizes the ultimate.

As Candrakīrti says:

the noble ones who have accomplished what is to be accomplished do not see anything that is delusive or not delusive.

From within the experience of the Enlightened Ones there is only One Reality which appears non-conceptually, as Nāgārjuna says in the 60 stanzas on reasoning:

that Nirvāṇa is the sole reality, is what the Victors have declared.

Bhāvaviveka's Mādhyamika-hṛdaya-kārikā describes the Ultimate Truth through a negation of all 4 possibilities of the catuṣ-koṭi:

  1. Its character is neither existent,
  2. nor non-existent,
  3. Nor both existent and non-existent,
  4. nor neither.

- Centrists should know True Reality
That is free from these 4 possibilities.

Atiśa describes the ultimate as

here, there is no seeing and no seer,
No beginning and no end, just peace...
It is non-conceptual and non-referential...
it is inexpressible, unobservable, unchanging, and unconditioned.

Because of the non-conceptual nature of the ultimate, the 2 truths are ultimately inexpressible as one or different.

4. The Middle Way

Both non-Buddhist and Buddhist writers, ancient and modern, have argued that the Mādhyamika philosophy is nihilistic

and this view has been challenged by others who argue that it is a Middle Way (Mādhyama-prati-pada) between Nihilism and Eternalism.

Mādhyamika philosophers themselves explicitly rejected the nihilist interpretation, as Nāgārjuna writes: through explaining true reality as it is, the seeming saṁvṛti does not become disrupted.

Candrakīrti also responds to the charge of nihilism in his Lucid Words:

Therefore, Emptiness is taught in order to completely pacify all discursiveness without exception.

So if the purpose of Emptiness is the complete peace of all discursiveness and you just increase the web of discursiveness by thinking that the meaning of Emptiness is non-existence, you do not realize the purpose of Emptiness (at all).

Some scholars interpret Emptiness as described by Nāgārjuna as a Buddhist Transcendental Absolute, while other scholars consider this a mistake since this would not make it Middle Way.

Mādhyamika thinkers also argue that since things have the nature of lacking true existence or own being (niḥ-svabhāva), all things are mere conceptual constructs (prajñapti-mātra) because they are just impermanent collections of causes and conditions.

This also applies to the principle of causality itself, since everything is dependently originated.

Therefore, in Mādhyamika, phenomena appear to arise and cease, but in an Ultimate Sense they do not arise or remain as inherently existent phenomena. 

This is believed by Mādhyamika philosophers to show that both views of absolute or Eternalist existence (such as the Hindu ideas of Brahman or sat-dravya) and Nihilism are untenable.

These 2 views are considered to be the 2 extremes that Mādhyamika steers clear from:

1) Essentialism or Eternalism (śassata-vāda) - a belief that things inherently or substantially exist and are therefore efficacious objects of craving and clinging;

Nāgārjuna 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.

2) Nihilism or Annihilationism (uccheda-vāda) - views that lead one to believe that there is no need to be responsible for one's actions,

such as the idea one is annihilated at death or that nothing has causal effects, but also the idea that absolutely nothing exists.

5. The usefulness of reason

In Mādhyamika, reason and debate is understood as a means to an end (liberation), and therefore it must be founded on the wish to help oneself and others end suffering.

Reason and logical arguments (such as those employed by classical Indian philosophers, i.e. pramāṇa) however, are also seen as being empty of any true validity or reality:

They only serve as conventional remedies for our delusions.

Nāgārjuna famously attacked the notion that one could establish a valid cognition or epistemic proof (pramāṇa) in his Vigraha-vyāvartanī:

If your objects are well established through valid cognitions, tell us how you establish these valid cognitions:

If you think they are established through other valid cognitions, there is an infinite regress. Then, the first one is not established, nor are the middle ones, nor the last.

If these (valid cognitions) are established even without valid cognition, what you say is ruined. In that case, there is an inconsistency, and you ought to provide an argument for this distinction.

Candrakīrti comments on this statement by stating that Mādhyamika does not completely deny the use of pramāṇas conventionally, and yet ultimately they do not have a foundation:

Therefore we assert that mundane objects are known through the 4 kinds of authoritative cognition. They are mutually dependent:

When there is authoritative cognition,
there are objects of knowledge;
when there are objects of knowledge,
there is authoritative cognition.

- But neither authoritative cognition nor objects of knowledge exist inherently.

To the charge that if Nāgārjuna's arguments and words are also empty they therefore lack the power to refute anything, Nāgārjuna responds that:

My words are without nature.
Therefore, my thesis is not ruined.
Since there is no inconsistency,
I do not have to state an argument for a distinction.

Further Nāgārjuna states:

Just as one magical creation may be annihilated by another magical creation, and one illusory person by another person produced by an illusionist, This negation is the same.

Śāntideva makes the same point when he states:

thus, when one's son dies in a dream, the conception he does not exist removes the thought that he does exist, but it is also delusive.

In other words, Mādhyamika accepts that their arguments are not ultimately valid in some foundational sense, just like all things.

However, conventionally, one is still able to use the opponent's own reasoning apparatus to refute their theories and help them see their errors.

This remedial deconstruction does not replace false theories of existence with other ones, but simply dissolves all views, including the very fictional system of epistemic warrants (pramāṇas) used to establish them.

The point of Mādhyamika reasoning is not to establish any abstract validity or universal truth, it is simply a pragmatic project aimed at ending delusion and suffering.

Nāgārjuna also argues that Mādhyamika only negates things conventionally, since ultimately, there is nothing there to negate,

I do not negate anything and there is also nothing to be negated.

Therefore, it is only from the perspective of those who cling to the existence of things that it seems as if something is being negated.

But Mādhyamika is not annihilating something, merely elucidating that this so called 'true existence' never existed in the first place.

Thus, Mādhyamika uses language to make clear the limits of our concepts. Ultimately, reality cannot be depicted by concepts.

6. Soteriology

For Mādhyamika, the realization of Emptiness is not just a satisfactory theory about the world, but a key understanding which allows one to reach Liberation or Nirvāṇa.

Nāgārjuna states in the MMK:

With the cessation of ignorance, formations will not arise. Moreover, the cessation of ignorance occurs through right understanding.

Through the cessation of this and that (link of dependent origination) this and that (other link) will not come about. The entire mass of suffering thereby completely ceases.

Dependent Origination is the fundamental Buddhist analysis of the arising of suffering

and therefore, according to Nāgārjuna, the cognitive shift which sees the non-existence of svabhāva leads to the cessation of the first link in this chain of suffering, which then leads to the ending of the entire chain of causes and thus, of all suffering.

Nāgārjuna also states:

Liberation (mokṣa) results from the cessation of actions (karman) and defilements (kleśa).

Actions and defilements result from representations (vikalpa).
These from false imagining (prapañca).
False imagining stops in Emptiness (śūnyatā). (18.5)

Therefore, the ultimate aim of understanding Emptiness is not philosophical insight as such, but to gain a Liberated Mind which does not cling to anything.

To realize this, meditation on Emptiness may proceed in stages, starting with the Emptiness of both self, objects and mental states, culminating in a natural state of non-referential freedom.

Moreover, the path to understand the Ultimate Truth is not one that negates or invalidates Relative Truths (especially truths about the path to awakening).

Instead it is only through properly understanding and using relative truth that the ultimate can be attained, as Bhāvaviveka says:

In order to guide beginners a method is taught,
comparable to the steps of a staircase that leads to perfect Buddhahood.
Ultimate reality is only to be entered
once we have understood seeming reality.

7. Does Mādhyamika have a position?

Nāgārjuna is famous for arguing that his philosophy was not a view, and that he in fact did not take any position (pakṣa) or thesis (pratijñā) whatsoever since this would just be another form of clinging to some form of existence.

In his Vigraha-vyāvartanī, Nāgārjuna states:

If I had any position, I thereby would be at fault.
Since I have no position, I am not at fault at all.

If there were anything to be observed through direct perception and the other instances (of valid cognition), it would be something to be established or rejected.

- However, since no such thing exists, I cannot be criticized.

Likewise in his 60 Stanzas on Reasoning, Nāgārjuna says:

By taking any standpoint whatsoever, you will be snatched by the cunning snakes of the afflictions. Those whose minds have no standpoint, will not be caught.

As Nāgārjuna says:

The Victorious Ones have announced that Emptiness is the relinquishing of all views. Those who are possessed of the view of Emptiness are said to be incorrigible.

Āryadeva echoes this idea in his 400 Verses:

First, one puts an end to what is not meritorious.
In the middle, one puts an end to identity.
Later, one puts an end to all views.
Those who understand this are skilled.

However, other texts mention a specific Mādhyamika thesis or view:

Śāntideva for example says:

one cannot uphold any fault-finding in the thesis of Emptiness

and Bhāvaviveka’s Blaze of Reasoning says:

as for our thesis, it is the Emptiness of nature, because this is the nature of phenomena.

Even though Mādhyamika thinkers may express a thesis pedagogically,

what they deny is that they have any thesis that involves real existence or reference points or any thesis that is to be defended from their own point of view.

Mādhyamika analysis applies to all systems of thought, ideas and concepts, including Mādhyamika itself. This is because, the nature of Mādhyamika is the deconstruction of any system and conceptualization whatsoever, including itself.

In the Root verses on the Middle Way, Nāgārjuna illustrates this point:

By the flaw of having views about Emptiness, those of little understanding are ruined, just as when incorrectly seizing a snake or mistakenly practicing an awareness-mantra.