3. Origins and sources | Mādhyamika

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Buddha Śākyamuni
Buddha Śākyamuni

The Mādhyamika School is usually considered to have been founded by Nāgārjuna, though it may have existed earlier.

Various scholars have noted that some of themes in the work of Nāgārjuna can also be found in earlier Buddhist sources.

1. Early Buddhist Texts

It is well known that the only sūtra that Nāgārjuna explicitly cites in his Mūla-Mādhyamika-kārikā (Chapter 15.7) is the Advice to Katyāyana, stating that

according to the Instructions to Katyāyana, both existence and non-existence are criticized by the Blessed One who opposed being and non-being.

This appears to have been a Sanskrit version of the Kaccānagotta Sutta (Saṁyutta Nikāya ii.16-17 / SN 12.15,).

The Kaccānagotta Sutta itself says:

This world, Kaccāna, for the most part depends on a duality–upon the notion of existence and the notion of non-existence.

But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of non-existence in regard to the world.

And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world.

Also the verse 6 of chapter 15 contains an allusion to the Mahāhatthipadopama sutta, another sutta of the Nidānavagga,

the collection which also contains the Kaccānagotta, and which contains various Suttas that focus on the avoidance of extreme views, which are all held to be associated with either the extreme of Eternality (sasvata) or the extreme of Disruption (uccheda).

Another allusion to an early Buddhist text noted is in Nāgārjuna's Rātnavali chapter 1, where he makes reference to a statement in the Kevaddha sutta.

The Aṭṭhakavagga (Pāḷi, Octet Chapter) and the Pārāyanavagga (Pāḷi, Way to the Far Shore Chapter) are 2 small collections of Suttas within the Pāli Canon of Theravada Buddhism:

They are among the earliest existing Buddhist literature, and place considerable emphasis on the rejection of, or non-attachment to, all views.

They can be compared to later Mādhyamika philosophy, which in its Prasaṅgika form especially makes a method of rejecting others' views rather than proposing its own.

2. Abhidharma and early Buddhist schools

The Mādhyamika School has been perhaps simplistically regarded as a reaction against the development of Buddhist Abhidharma, however this is problematic.

Svabhāva in the early Abhidharma systems is not a kind of ontological essentialism, but it is a way to categorize dharmas according to their distinctive characteristics.

According to some, the idea of svabhāva evolved towards ontological dimension in the Sarvāstivāda Vaibhāṣika School’s interpretation, which began to also use the term dravya which means real existence:

This then, may have been the shift which Nāgārjuna sought to attack when he targets certain Sarvāstivāda tenets.

However, the relationship between Mādhyamika and Abhidharma is complex:

Nāgārjuna’s position regarding Abhidharma is neither a blanket denial nor a blanket acceptance. Nāgārjuna’s arguments entertain certain Abhidharmic standpoints while refuting others.

One example can be seen in Nāgārjuna’s Rātnavali which supports the study of a list of 57 moral faults which he takes from an abhidharma text named the Ksudravastuka.

Abhidharmic analysis figures prominently in Mādhyamika treatises,

and authoritative commentators like Candrakīrti emphasize that Abhidharmic categories function as a viable (and favoured) 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.

3. Prajñāpāramitā

Mādhyamika thought is also closely related to a number of Mahāyāna sources;

traditionally, the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras are the literature most closely associated with Mādhyamika – understood, at least in part, as an exegetical complement to those Sūtras.

Traditional accounts also depict Nāgārjuna as retrieving some of the larger Prajñāpāramitā sūtras 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' (dharma-pravicaya).

Within a specifically Mahāyāna context, Prajñā figures as the most prominent in a list of 6 Pāramitās ('perfections') that a Bodhisattva needs to cultivate in order to eventually achieve Buddhahood.

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 Mādhyamika approach.

Allusions to the prajñā-pāramitā sūtras can be found in Nāgārjuna’s work:

One example is in the opening stanza of the MMK, which seem to allude to the following statement found in 2 Prajñāpāramitā texts:

And how does he wisely know conditioned co-production?

He wisely knows it as neither production, nor stopping, neither cut off nor eternal, neither single nor manifold, neither coming nor going away, as the appeasement of all futile discoursing, and as bliss.

The first stanza of Nāgārjuna’s MMK meanwhile, state:

I pay homage to the Fully Enlightened One whose true, venerable words teach dependent-origination to be the blissful pacification of all mental proliferation,

neither production, nor stopping, neither cut off nor eternal, neither single nor manifold, neither coming, nor going away.

4. Pyrrhonism

Because of the high degree of similarity between Mādhyamika and Pyrrhonism, some have suspected that Nāgārjuna was influenced by Greek Pyrrhonist texts imported into India.

Pyrrho of Elis (c. 360-c. 270 BCE), who is credited with founding this school of sceptical philosophy, was himself influenced by Buddhist philosophy during his stay in India with Alexander the Great's army.