4. Indian Mādhyamika | Mādhyamika


1. Nāgārjuna

While Nāgārjuna is one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Asian philosophy... contemporary scholars agree on hardly any details concerning him:

This includes exactly when he lived (it can be narrowed down some time in the first 3 centuries CE), where he lived and exactly what constitutes his written corpus.

Numerous texts are attributed to him, but it is at least agreed by some scholars that what is called the Yukti (analytical) corpus is the core of his philosophical work:

These texts are:

  1. the Root verses on the Middle way (Mūla-Mādhyamika-kārikā, MMK),
  2. the 60 Stanzas on Reasoning (Yukti-ṣāṣṭika),
  3. the Dispeller of Objections (Vigraha-vyāvartanī),
  4. the Treatise on Pulverization (Vaidalya-prakaraṇa)
  5. the Precious Garland (Rātnavali).

However, even the attribution of each one of these has been questioned by some modern scholars, except for the MMK which is by definition seen as his major work.

In the MMK Nāgārjuna used reductio ad absurdum arguments (prasaṅga) to show that any theory of substance or essence was unsustainable

and therefore, phenomena (dharmas) such as change, causality, and sense perception were Empty (śūnya) of any essential existence.

Nāgārjuna also famously equated the Emptiness of dharmas with their Dependent Origination.

Because of his philosophical work, Nāgārjuna is seen by some modern interpreters as restoring the Middle Way of the Buddha, which had become challenged by absolutist metaphysical tendencies in certain philosophical quarters.

2. Classical Mādhyamika figures

Rāhulabhadra was an early Mādhyamika, sometimes said to be either a teacher of Nāgārjuna or his contemporary and follower:

He is most famous for his verses in praise of the Prajñāpāramitā (Skt. Prajñā-pāramitā-Stotra) and Chinese sources maintain that he also composed a commentary on the MMK which was translated by Paramārtha.

Nāgārjuna's pupil Āryadeva (3rd century CE) wrote various works on Mādhyamika, the most well-known of which is his 400 verses:

His works are regarded as a supplement to Nāgārjuna's, on which he commented. Āryadeva also wrote refutations of the theories of non-Buddhist Indian philosophical schools.

There are also 2 commentaries on the MMK which may be by Āryadeva, the Akutobhaya (which has also been regarded as an auto-commentary by Nāgārjuna)

as well as a commentary which survives only in Chinese (as part of the Chung-Lun, Middle treatise, Taisho 1564) attributed to a certain Ch'ing-mu (aka Pin-lo-chieh, which some scholars have also identified as possibly being Āryadeva).

However, the translator of the Chung-Lung, also states that it is likely the author of this commentary was a certain Vimalāksa, who was Kumārajīva’s old Vinaya-master from Kucha.

An influential commentator on Nāgārjuna was Buddhapālita (470–550) who has been interpreted as developing the Prāsaṅgika approach to Nāgārjuna's works in his Mādhyamika-vṛtti (now only extant in Tibetan)

which follows the orthodox Mādhyamika method by critiquing essentialism mainly through reductio ad absurdum arguments.

Like Nāgārjuna, Buddhapālita's main philosophical method is to show how all philosophical positions are ultimately untenable and self-contradictory, a style of argumentation called prasaṅga.

Buddhapālita's method is often contrasted with that of Bhāvaviveka (c. 500 – c. 578), who argued in his Prajñāpa-dīpa (Lamp of Wisdom) for the use of logical arguments using the pramāṇa based epistemology of Indian logicians like Dignāga.

In what would become a source of much future debate, Bhāvaviveka criticized Buddhapālita for not putting Mādhyamika arguments into proper autonomous syllogisms (svatantra).

Bhāvaviveka argued that Mādhyamika should always put forth syllogistic arguments to prove the truth of the Mādhyamika thesis.

Instead of just criticizing other's arguments, a tactic called vitaṇḍā (attacking) which was seen in bad form in Indian philosophical circles,

Bhāvaviveka held that Mādhyamika must positively prove their position using sources of knowledge (pramāṇas) agreeable to all parties.

He argued that the position of a Mādhyamika was simply that phenomena are devoid of an inherent nature. This approach has been labelled the Svātantrika style of Mādhyamika by Tibetan philosophers and commentators.

Another influential commentator, Candrakīrti (c. 600–650), sought to defend Buddhapālita and critique Bhāvaviveka's position (and Dignāga) that one must construct independent (svatantra) arguments to positively prove the Mādhyamika thesis, on the grounds this contains a subtle essentialist commitment.

He argued that Mādhyamika do not have to argue by svatantra, but can merely show the untenable consequences (prasaṅga) of all philosophical positions put forth by their adversary.

Furthermore, for Candrakīrti, there is a problem with assuming that the Mādhyamika and the essentialist opponent can begin with the same shared premises that are required for this kind of syllogistic reasoning

because the Essentialist and the Mādhyamika do not share a basic understanding of what it means for things to exist in the first place.

Candrakīrti also criticized the Buddhist Yogācāra School, which he saw as positing a form of subjective idealism due to their doctrine of appearance only (vijñapti-mātra):

Candrakīrti faults the Yogācāra School for not realizing that the nature of consciousness is also a conditioned phenomenon, and for privileging consciousness over its objects ontologically, instead of seeing that everything is Empty.

Candrakīrti wrote the Prasannapadā (Clear Words), a highly influential commentary on the Mūla-Mādhyamika-kārikā as well as the Madhyamakāvatāra, an introduction to Mādhyamika. His works are central to the understanding of Mādhyamika in Tibetan Buddhism.

A later Svātantrika figure is Avalokitavrata (7th century), who composed a tīka (sub-commentary) on Bhāvaviveka's Prajñāpa-dīpa and who mentions important figures of the era such as Dharmakīrti and Candrakīrti.

Another commentator on Nāgārjuna is Bhikṣu Vaśitva who composed a commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Bodhisaṁbhāra that survives in a translation by Dharmagupta in the Chinese canon.

Śāntideva (end 7th century – first half 8th century) is well known for his philosophical poem discussing the Bodhisattva Path and the 6 Pāramitās, the Bodhicaryāvatāra.

He united a deep religiousness and joy of exposure together with the unquestioned Mādhyamika orthodoxy.

Later in the 10th century, there were commentators on the works of Prasaṅgika authors such as Prajñakaramati who wrote a commentary on the Bodhicaryāvatāra and Jayānanda who commented on Candrakīrti's Madhyamakāvatāra.

A lesser known treatise on the 6 Pāramitās associated with the Mādhyamika School is Ārya Śūra's (2nd century) Pāramitāsamāsa.

Other lesser known Mādhyamikas include Devasarman (5th to 6th centuries) and Guṇamati (the 5th to 6th centuries) both of whom wrote commentaries on the MMK that exist only in Tibetan fragments.

3. Yogācāra-Mādhyamika

Possibly the earliest figure to work with the 2 schools was Vimuktisena (early 6th century), a commentator on the Abhisamayālaṅkāra and also is reported to have been a pupil of Bhāvaviveka as well as Vasubandhu.

The 7th and 8th centuries saw a synthesis of the Buddhist Yogācāra tradition with Mādhyamika, beginning with the works of Śrīgupta, Jñāna-garbha (Śrīgupta's disciple)

and his student Śāntarakṣita (8th-century) who, like Bhāvaviveka, also adopted some of the terminology of the Buddhist pramāṇa tradition, in their time best represented by Dharmakīrti.

Like the classical Mādhyamika, Yogācāra-Mādhyamika approaches Ultimate Truth through the prasaṅga method of showing absurd consequences.

However, when speaking of Conventional Reality they also make positive assertions and autonomous arguments like Bhāvaviveka and Dharmakīrti.

Śāntarakṣita also subsumed the Yogācāra system into his presentation of the conventional, accepting their idealism on a conventional level as a preparation for the Ultimate Truth of Mādhyamika.

In his Madhyamakālaṁkāra (verses 92-93), Śāntarakṣita says:

By relying on the Mind Only (citta-mātra), know that external entities do not exist. And by relying on this (Mādhyamika) system, know that no self at all exists, even in that (mind).

Therefore, due to holding the reigns of logic as one rides the chariots of the 2 systems, one attains (the path of) the actual Mahayanist.

Śāntarakṣita and his student Kamalaśīla (known for his text on self-development and meditation, the Bhāvanākrama) were influential in the initial spread of Mādhyamika Buddhism to Tibet.

Haribhadra, another important figure of this school, wrote an influential commentary on the Abhisamayālaṅkāra.

4. Vajrayāna Mādhyamika

The Mādhyamika philosophy continued to be of major importance during the period of Indian Buddhism when the tantric Vajrayāna Buddhism rose to prominence.

One of the central Vajrayāna Mādhyamika philosophers was Ārya Nāgārjuna (also known as the tantric Nāgārjuna, 7th-8th centuries) who may be the author of the Bodhicitta-vivaraṇa as well as a commentator on the Guhyasamāja Tantra.

Other figures in his lineage include Nāgabodhi, Vajrabodhi, Āryadeva-pada and Candrakīrti-pada.

Later figures include Bodhibhadra (c. 1000), a Nālanda university master who wrote on philosophy and yoga

and who was a teacher of Atiśa Dīpaṁkara Śrījñāna (982 - 1054 CE) who was an influential figure in the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet and wrote the influential Bodhipathapradīpa (Lamp for the Path to Awakening).