5. Tibetan Buddhism | Mādhyamika


Mādhyamika philosophy obtained a central position in all the main Tibetan Buddhist schools, all whom consider themselves to be Mādhyamikas.

Mādhyamika thought has been categorized in various ways in India and Tibet.

1. Early transmission

Influential early figures that are important in the transmission of Mādhyamika to Tibet include the Yogācāra-Mādhyamika Śāntarakṣita (725–788), and his students Haribhadra and Kamalaśīla (740-795)

as well as the later figures of Atiśa (982–1054) and his pupil Dromtön (1005–1064) who were mainly influenced by Candrakīrti’s Mādhyamika.

The early transmission of Buddhism to Tibet saw these 2 main strands of philosophical views in debate with each other:

The first was the camp which defended the Yogācāra-Mādhyamika interpretation centred on the works of the scholars of the Sangphu Monastery founded by Ngog Loden Sherab (1059-1109) and also includes Chapa Chokyi Senge (1109-1169).

The second camp was those who championed the work of Candrakīrti over the Yogācāra-Mādhyamika interpretation, and included Patsab Nyima Drag (b. 1055) and Jayānanda (fl 12th century).

It was the Mādhyamika interpretation and the works of Candrakīrti which became dominant over time in Tibet.

2. Prāsaṅgika and Svātantrika interpretations

In Tibetan Buddhist scholarship, a distinction began to be made between:

  1. Autonomist (Svātantrika, rang rgyud pa)
  2. Consequentialist (Prāsaṅgika, Thal 'gyur pa)

- approaches to Mādhyamika reasoning.

The distinction was one invented by Tibetans, and not one made by classical Indian Mādhyamikas.

Tibetans mainly use the terms to refer to the logical procedures used by:

  1. Bhāvaviveka (who argued for the use of svatantra-anumāna or autonomous syllogisms)
  2. Buddhapālita (who held that one should only use prasaṅga or reductio ad absurdum).

Tibetan Buddhism further divides Svātantrika into:

  1. Sautrāntika Svātantrika Mādhyamika (applied to Bhāviveka),
  2. Yogācāra Svātantrika Mādhyamika (Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla).

The Svātantrika states that 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.

In contrast, the central technique avowed by the Prasaṅgika 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 (saṁvṛti or loka-vyavahāra).

The Prāsaṅgika holds that it is not necessary for the proponent and opponent to use the same kind of valid cognition (pramāṇa) to establish a common subject; indeed it is possible to change the view of an opponent through a reductio argument.

Although presented as a divide in doctrine, the major difference between Svātantrika and Prāsaṅgika may be between 2 style of reasoning and arguing, while the division itself is exclusively Tibetan.

Tibetan scholars were aware of alternative Mādhyamika sub-classifications, but later Tibetan doxography emphasizes the nomenclature of Prāsaṅgika versus Svātantrika.

No conclusive evidence can show the existence of an Indian antecedent,

and 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.

Longchen Rabjampa noted in the 14th century that Candrakīrti favoured the prasaṅga approach when specifically discussing the analysis for ultimacy,

but otherwise he made positive assertions such as when describing the paths of Buddhist practice in his Mādhyamika-vatara.

Therefore even Prāsaṅgikas make positive assertions when discussing conventional practice, they simply stick to using reductio specifically when analysing for Ultimate Truth.

3. Jonang and other empty

Further Tibetan philosophical developments began in response to the works of the scholar Dölpopa Sherap Gyaltsen (1292–1361) and led to 2 distinctly opposed Tibetan Mādhyamika views on the nature of Ultimate Reality.

An important Tibetan treatise on Emptiness and Buddha Nature is found in Dölpopa’s voluminous study, Mountain Doctrine.

Dölpopa, the founder of the Jonang School, viewed the Buddha and Buddha Nature as not intrinsically empty, but as truly real, unconditioned, and replete with eternal, changeless virtues.

In the Jonang school, Ultimate Reality, i.e. Buddha Nature (Tathāgata-garbha) is only empty of what is impermanent and conditioned (conventional reality), not of its own self which is ultimate Buddhahood and the luminous nature of mind.

In Jonang, this Ultimate Reality is a ground or substratum which is uncreated and indestructible, non-composite and beyond the chain of dependent origination.

Basing himself on the Indian Tathāgatagarbha sūtras as his main sources, Dölpopa described the Buddha Nature as:

Non-material Emptiness, Emptiness that is far from an annihilatory Emptiness, great Emptiness that is the ultimate pristine wisdom of superiors ...Buddha earlier than all Buddhas, ... causeless original Buddha.

This great Emptiness i.e. the Tathāgata-garbha is said to be filled with eternal powers and virtues:

Permanent, stable, eternal, everlasting:

Not compounded by causes and conditions, the matrix-of-one-gone-thus is intrinsically endowed with ultimate Buddha qualities of body, speech, and mind such as the 10 powers;

it is not something that did not exist before and is newly produced; it is self-arisen.'

The Jonang position came to be known as Emptiness of other (gzhan stong, Shentong),

because it held that the Ultimate Truth was positive reality that was not empty of its own nature, only empty of what it was other than itself.

Dölpopa considered his view a form of Mādhyamika, and called his system Great Mādhyamika.

Dölpopa opposed what he called Rangtong (self-empty), the view that Ultimate Reality is that which is empty of self-nature in a relative and absolute sense, that is to say that it is Empty of everything, including itself.

It is thus not a transcendental ground or metaphysical absolute which includes all the eternal Buddha qualities.

This Rangtong - Shentong distinction became a central issue of contention among Tibetan Buddhist philosophers.

Alternative interpretations of the Shentong view is also taught outside of Jonang:

Some Kagyu figures, like Jamgon Kongtrül (1813–1899) as well as the unorthodox Sakya philosopher Sakya Chokden (1428–1507), supported their own forms of Shentong.

4. Tsongkhapa and Gelug Prāsaṅgika

The Gelug School was founded in the beginning of the 15th century by Je Tsongkhapa (1357–1419).

Tsongkhapa's conception of Emptiness draws mainly from the works of Prāsaṅgika Indian thinkers like Buddhapālita, Candrakīrti, and Śāntideva and he argued that only their interpretation of Nāgārjuna was ultimately correct.

Tsongkhapa also argued that the Ultimate Truth or Emptiness was an absolute negation (med dgag) - the negation of inherent existence - and that nothing was exempt from being empty, including Emptiness itself.

Tsongkhapa also maintained that the Ultimate Truth could be understood conceptually, an understanding which could later be transformed into a non-conceptual one.

This conceptual understanding could only be done through the use of Mādhyamika reasoning, which he also sought to unify with the logical theories of Dharmakīrti.

Because of Tsongkhapa's view of Emptiness as an absolute negation, he strongly attacked the Other Empty views of Dölpopa in his works.

Tsongkhapa major work on Mādhyamika is his commentary on the MMK called Ocean of Reasoning.

Tsongkhapa's doctrine of the object of negation is one of his most innovative but also controversial ideas:

Tsongkhapa pointed out that if one wants to steer a middle course between the extremes of over-negation (straying into nihilism) and under-negation (and thus reification),

it is important to have a clear concept of exactly what is being negated in Mādhyamika analysis (termed the object of negation).

For Tsongkhapa, there are 2 aspects of the object of negation:

  1. “erroneous apprehension”
  2. “the existence of intrinsic nature thereby apprehended”.

The 2nd aspect is an erroneously reified fiction which does not exist even conventionally:

This is the fundamental object of negation for Tsongkhapa since the reified object must first be negated in order to eliminate the erroneous subjective state.

Tsongkhapa's Mādhyamika does not deny the conventional existence of things per se,

but merely rejects our way of experiencing things as existing in an essentialist way, which are false projections or imputations.

This is the root of ignorance, which for Tsongkhapa is an active defiling agency (Sk. Kleśa-varaṇa) which projects a false sense of reality onto objects.

Because conventional existence (or 'mere appearance') as an interdependent phenomenon devoid of inherent existence is not negated or rationally undermined in his analysis,

Tsongkhapa's approach was criticized by other Tibetan Mādhyamikas who preferred an anti-realist interpretation of Mādhyamika.

Tsongkhapa's view allows him to preserve a robust sense of the reality of the conventional world in the context of Emptiness

and to provide an analysis of the relation between Emptiness and conventional reality that makes clear sense of the identity of the 2 truths.

Following Candrakīrti, Tsongkhapa also rejected the Yogācāra view of Mind Only,

and instead defended the conventional existence of external objects even though ultimately they are mere thought constructions of a deluded mind.

Tsongkhapa also followed Candrakīrti in rejecting svātantra (autonomous) reasoning, arguing that it was enough to show the unwelcome consequences (prasaṅga) of essentialist positions.

Gelug scholarship has generally maintained and defended Tsongkhapa's positions up until the present day, even if there are lively debates considering issues of interpretation.

5. Sakya Mādhyamika

The Sakya School has generally held a classic Prāsaṅgika position following Candrakīrti closely, though with significant differences from the Gelug.

Sakya scholars of Mādhyamika, such as Rendawa Shyönnu Lodrö (1349–1412) and Rongtön Sheja Kunrig (1367–1450) were early critics of the other empty view.

Gorampa Sonam Senge (1429-1489) was an important Sakya philosopher which defended the orthodox Sakya Mādhyamika position, critiquing both Dölpopa and Tsongkhapa's interpretations. He is widely studied, not only in Sakya, but also in Nyingma and Kagyu institutions.

Gorampa called his version of Mādhyamika the Middle Way as freedom from extremes  or Middle Way as freedom from proliferations and claimed that the Ultimate Truth was ineffable, beyond predication or concept.

Gorampa’s interpretation of Mādhyamika is committed to a more literal reading of the Indian sources than either Dölpopa’s or Tsongkhapa's, which is to say that it tends to take the Indian texts at face value.

For Gorampa, Emptiness is not just the absence of inherent existence, but it is the absence of the 4 extremes in all phenomena i.e. existence, non-existence, both and neither, without any further qualification.

In other words, conventional truths are also an object of negation, because as Gorampa states they are not found at all when subjected to ultimate rational analysis.

Hence, Gorampa's Mādhyamika negates existence itself or existence without qualifications,

while for Tsongkhapa the object of negation is inherent existence, intrinsic existence or intrinsic nature.

In his Elimination of Erroneous Views, Gorampa argues that Mādhyamika ultimately negates all false appearances, which means anything that appears to our mind (i.e. all conventional phenomena).

Since all appearances are conceptually produced illusions, they must cease when conceptual reification is brought to an end by insight:

This is the ultimate freedom from conceptual fabrication. To reach this, Mādhyamikas must negate the reality of appearances.

In other words, all conventional realities are fabrications and since awakening requires transcending all fabrication, conventional reality must be negated.

Furthermore, the object of negation consists of an objective aspect (yul), comprising all conventional truths and a subjective aspect (yul can), comprising all cognitions (with the exception of Ārya’s meditative equipoise).

For Gorampa, all conventional knowledge is dualistic, being based on a false distinction between subject and object.

Therefore, for Gorampa, Mādhyamika analyses all supposedly real phenomena and concludes through that analysis that those things do not exist and so that so-called conventional reality is entirely non-existent.

Gorampa writes:

Suppose someone replied:

If that were the case, even conventional truths would have to be the object of negation from the perspective of the ultimate rational analysis.

- Precisely, absolutely! This is because they are not found at all when subjected to ultimate rational analysis.

Gorampa also argues that accepting the conventional reality of conventional truth undermines soteriology:

If there is grasping to the reality of phenomena, i.e., the (5) aggregates, then similarly grasping to the reality of person will surely arise, which is itself primal confusion, the first of the 12 links.

And all of the subsequent links arise from this one.
Thus the root of suffering is grasping to the reality of phenomena.

Furthermore, Gorampa argues that from the perspective of a Buddha's Enlightened gnosis, conventional truth is not found:

Conventional realities presented in the contexts (of Nāgārjuna’s MMK XXIV.8–10 and Candrakīrti’s Mav VI.23–24) are non-existent (at the level of Buddhahood)

because where there is no erroneous apprehending subject, its corresponding object (i.e., conventional reality) cannot exist.

Regarding the Ultimate Truth, Gorampa saw this as being divided into 2 parts:

  1. The Emptiness that is reached by rational analysis (this is actually only an analogue, and not the real thing).
  2. The Emptiness that yogis fathom by means of their own individual gnosis (prajñā). This is the real Ultimate Truth, which is reached by negating the previous rational understanding of Emptiness.

Unlike most orthodox Sakyas, the philosopher Sakya Chokden, a contemporary of Gorampa, also promoted a form of Shentong as being complementary to Rangtong:

He saw Shentong as useful for meditative practice, while Rangtong as useful for cutting through views.

6. Kagyu

In the Kagyu tradition, there is a broad field of opinion on the nature of Emptiness, with some holding the other empty (Shentong) view while others holding different positions.

One influential Kagyu thinker was Rangjung Dorje, 3rd Karmapa Lama. His view synthesized Mādhyamika and Yogācāra perspectives.

Several Kagyu figures disagree with the view that Shentong is a form of Mādhyamika:

Mikyö Dorje, 8th Karmapa Lama (1507–1554) and 2nd Pawo Rinpoche Tsuglag Threngwa see the term Shentong Mādhyamika as a misnomer,

for them the Yogācāra of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu and the system of Nāgārjuna are 2 clearly distinguished systems. They also refute the idea that there is a permanent, intrinsically existing Buddha nature.

Mikyö Dorje also argues that the language of Other Emptiness does not appear in any of the sūtras or the treatises of the Indian masters.

He attacks the view of Dölpopa as being against the sūtras of ultimate meaning which state that all phenomena are Emptiness as well as being against the treatises of the Indian masters.

Mikyö Dorje rejects both perspectives of Rangtong and Shentong as true descriptions of Ultimate Reality, which he sees as being the utter peace of all discursiveness regarding being empty and not being empty.

One of the most influential Kagyu philosophers in recent times was Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Taye (1813–1899) who advocated a system of Shentong Mādhyamika and held that primordial wisdom was never empty of its own nature and it is there all the time.

The modern Kagyu teacher Khenpo Tsultrim (1934–), in his Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, presents 5 stages of meditation, which he relates to 5 tenet systems:

He holds the Shentong Mādhyamika as the highest view, above Prāsaṅgika.

He sees this as a meditation on Param-ārtha-satya (Absolute Reality), Buddha-jñāna, which is beyond concepts, and described by terms as truly existing.

This approach helps to overcome certain residual subtle concepts, and the habit – fostered on the earlier stages of the path – of negating whatever experience arises in his/her mind.

It destroys false concepts, as does Prāsaṅgika,

but it also alerts the practitioner to the presence of a dynamic, positive Reality that is to be experienced once the conceptual mind is defeated.

7. Nyingma

In the Nyingma School, like in Kagyu, there is a variety of views.

Some Nyingma thinkers promoted Shentong, like Katok Tsewang Norbu,

but the most influential Nyingma thinkers like Longchenpa and Ju Mipham held a more classical Prāsaṅgika interpretation

while at the same time seeking to harmonize it with the Dzogchen view found in the Dzogchen tantras which are traditionally seen as the pinnacle of the Nyingma view.

The Ultimate Truth in the Nyingma tradition, following Longchenpa, is that reality,

which transcends any mode of thinking and speech, one that unmistakenly appears to the non-erroneous cognitive processes of the exalted and awakened beings

and this is said to be inexpressible beyond words and thoughts as well as the reality that is the transcendence of all elaborations.

The most influential modern Nyingma scholar is Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso (1846–1912):

He developed a unique theory of Mādhyamika, with 2 models of the 2 truths.

While he adopts the traditional Mādhyamika model of 2 truths, in which the Ultimate Truth is Emptiness, he also developed a 2nd model, in which the Ultimate Truth is reality as it is which is established as ultimately real.

This Ultimate Truth is associated with the Dzogchen concept of Rigpa.

While it might seem that this system conflicts with the traditional Mādhyamika interpretation, for Mipham this is not so:

For while the traditional model which sees Emptiness and Ultimate Truth as a negation is referring to the analysis of experience, the 2nd Dzogchen influenced model refers to the experience of unity in meditation.

Some scholars see the Mipham's work as an attempt to bring together the 2 main Mahāyāna philosophical systems of Yogācāra and Mādhyamika, as well as Shentong and Rangtong into a coherent system in which both are seen as being of definitive meaning.

Regarding the Svātantrika - Prāsaṅgika debate, 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 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 Svātantrika 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.