7. Critique of Mādhyamika | Mādhyamika

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Asanga statue
Asanga statue

1. Yogācāra

The Yogācāra School was the other major Mahāyāna philosophical school (darśana) in India and its complex relationship with Mādhyamika changed over time.

The Saṁdhi-nirmocana sūtra, perhaps the earliest Yogācāra text, proclaims itself as being above the doctrine of Emptiness taught in other sūtras.

The Saṁdhi-nirmocana claims that other sūtras that teach Emptiness as well as Mādhyamika teachings on Emptiness are merely skilful means and thus are not definitive (unlike the final teachings in the Saṁdhi-nirmocana).

Yogācāra authors like Asaṅga were careful to point out that the doctrine of Emptiness required interpretation in lieu of their 3 natures theory which posits an inexpressible ultimate that is the object of a Buddha's cognition.

Asaṅga also argued that one cannot say that all things are empty unless there are things to be seen as either empty or non-empty in the first place. Asaṅga attacks the view which states the truth is that all is just conceptual fictions by stating:

As for their view, due to the absence of the thing itself which serves as basis of the concept, conceptual fictions must all likewise absolutely not exist.

How then will it be true that all is just conceptual fictions? Through this conception on their part, reality, conceptual fiction, and the 2 together are all denied.

Because they deny both conceptual fiction and reality, they should be considered the nihilist-in-chief.

Asaṅga also critiqued Mādhyamika because he held that it could lead to a laxity in the following of ethical precepts as well as for being imaginatively constructed views that are arrived at only through reasoning.

He further states:

How, again, is Emptiness wrongly conceptualized?

Some ascetics and Brahmins do not acknowledge that (viz. intrinsic nature) of which something is empty.

Nor do they acknowledge that which is empty (viz. things and dharmas).

It is in this way that Emptiness is said to be wrongly conceived.

For what reason?

Because that of which it is empty is non-existent, but that which is empty is existent -  it is thus that Emptiness is possible.

What will be empty of what, where, when everything is unreal? This thing's being devoid of that is not then possible. Thus Emptiness is wrongly conceptualized in this case.

Asaṅga also wrote that:

if nothing is real, there cannot be any ideas (prajñapti).

Someone who holds this view is a nihilist, with whom one should not speak or share living quarters. This person falls into a bad rebirth and takes others with him.

Vasubandhu also states that Emptiness does not mean that things have no intrinsic nature, but that this nature is inexpressible and only to be apprehended by a kind of cognition that transcends the subject-object duality.

Thus early Yogācārins were engaged in a project to reinterpret the radical Mādhyamika view of Emptiness.

Later Yogācārins like Sthiramati and Dharmapāla debated with their Mādhyamika contemporaries.

However, Yogācāra authors also commented on Mādhyamika texts:

Asaṅga, Sthiramati, and Guṇamati composed commentaries on the foundational text of Mādhyamika, Nāgārjuna's Mūla-Mādhyamika-kārikā.

According to Xuanzang,

Bhāvaviveka, who critiques Yogācāra views in his Mādhyamika-hṛdaya-kārikā, was disturbed by the views of Yogācārins and their critiques of Mādhyamika as nihilism,

and himself travelled to Nālanda to debate Dharmapāla face to face, but Dharmapāla refused.

Bhāvaviveka quotes the attacks from the Yogācārins in his texts as claiming that while the Yogācāra approach to Prajñāpāramitā is the means to attain omniscience, the Mādhyamika approach which concentrates on the negation of arising and cessation is not.

Bhāvaviveka responds to various Yogācāra attacks and views in his Tarka-jvālā (Blaze of reason) including the view that there are no external objects (idealism), the view that there is no use for logical argumentation (tarka), and the view that the dependent nature (para-tantra-svabhāva) exists in an absolute sense.

2. Advaita Vedanta

Several modern scholars have argued that the early Advaita Vedanta thinker Gauḍapāda (c. 6th century CE), was influenced by Mādhyamika thought.

They note that he borrowed the concept of ajāta (un-born) from Mādhyamika philosophy, which also uses the term anutpāda (non-arising, un-originated, non-production).

The Buddhist tradition usually uses the term anutpāda for the absence of an origin or śūnyatā. Ajāti-vāda is the fundamental philosophical doctrine of Gauḍapāda.

According to Gauḍapāda, the Absolute (Brahman) is not subject to birth, change and death.

Echoing Nāgārjuna’s use of the catuṣ-koṭi, Gauḍapāda writes that

nothing whatsoever is originated either from itself or from something else; nothing whatsoever existent, non-existent, or both existent and non-existent is originated.

However, it has been noted that Gauḍapāda ultimate philosophical perspective is quite different from Nāgārjuna’s

since Gauḍapāda posits a metaphysical Absolute (which is aja, the unborn, and eternal) based on the Māṇḍūkya Upanishad and thus he remains primarily a Vedāntin.

The empirical world of appearances is considered unreal, and not absolutely existent.

In this sense, Gauḍapāda also shares a doctrine of 2 truths or 2 levels of reality with Mādhyamika:

According to Gauḍapāda, this absolute, 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 appearance of Brahman.

From the level of Ultimate Truth (paramārthataḥ) the phenomenal world is Māyā (illusion).

The 4th prakaraṇa of the Gauḍapādiya-kārikā promotes several Mahāyāna Buddhist ideas, such as a Middle Way free from extremes, not being attached to dharmas and it even references beings called Buddhas.

This could be an attempt to either reach a rapprochement with Buddhists or to woo Buddhists over to Vedanta.

Śankara (early 8th century), a later Advaitin, directly dismissed Mādhyamika as irrational and nihilistic, stating that it was a kind of nihilism that held that absolutely nothing exists and that this view:

is contradicted by all means of right knowledge and requires no special refutation.

For this apparent world, whose existence is guaranteed by all means of knowledge, cannot be denied, unless someone should find out some new truth (based on which he could impugn its existence) - for a general principle is proved by the absence of contrary instances.

This critique was upheld by most post Śankara Advaitins.

However this did not prevent later Vedanta thinkers like Bhāskara of accusing Śankara of being a crypto-Buddhist for his view that everyday reality is Māyā (illusion) and that Brahman has no qualities and is undifferentiated.

Another Vedāntin philosopher, Rāmānuja (1017–1137), directly compared Śaṅkara’s Māyāvāda views to Mādhyamika,

- arguing that if Māyā/Avidya is unreal, that would involve the acceptance of the Mādhyamika doctrine, viz. of a general void.

This critique by comparison is also echoed by the later philosophers like Madhva as well as Vijñānabhikṣu (15th or 16th century), who goes as far as to call Śankara a Nāstika (unorthodox).

Later Advaitins also acknowledged the similarity of their doctrine with Mādhyamika.

Vimuktātma states that if by A-sat (non-being), the Mādhyamika means Māyā and not mere negation, then he is close to Vedanta.

Sadananda also states that if by Śūnya, what is meant is the reality beyond the intellect, then the Mādhyamika accepts Vedanta.

Śrīharṣa notes that the 2 schools are similar, but they differ in that Advaita holds consciousness to be pure, real and eternal, while Mādhyamika denies this.

3. Jain philosophy

Modern scholars have also noted that the influential Jain philosopher Kuṇḍakuṇḍa also adopted a theory of 2 truths, possibly under the influence of Nāgārjuna.

He also adopts other Buddhist terms like prajñā under the influence of Nāgārjuna, though he applies the term to knowledge of the Self (jīva), which is also the ultimate perspective (niścayanaya), which is distinguished from the worldly perspective (vyavahāranaya).

The Jain philosopher Haribhadra also mentions Mādhyamika:

In both the Yoga-bindu and the Yoga-dṛṣṭi-samuccaya, Haribhadra singles out Nāgārjuna’s claim that saṁsāra and nirvāṇa are not different for criticism, labelling the view a fantasy.