6. East Asian Mādhyamika | Mādhyamika

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Kumārajīva (344–413 CE)
Kumārajīva (344–413 CE)

1. Sānlun School

Chinese Mādhyamika (known as Sānlun, or the 3 Treatise School) began with the work of Kumārajīva (344–413 CE) who translated the works of Nāgārjuna (including the MMK, also known in China as the Chung lun, Mādhyamika-śāstra; Taishō 1564) to Chinese.

Another influential text in Chinese Mādhyamika which was said to have been translated by Kumārajīva was the Ta-chih-tu lun, or Mahā-prajñā-pāramitā-upadeśa Śāstra (Treatise which is a Teaching on the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra):

This text is only extant in Kumārajīva's translation and has material that differs from the work of Nāgārjuna. In spite of this, the Ta-chih-tu lun became a central text for Chinese interpretations of Mādhyamika Emptiness.

Sānlun figures like Kumārajīva's pupil Sengzhao (384–414), and the later Jizang (549–623) were influential in restoring a more orthodox and non-essentialist interpretation of Emptiness to Chinese Buddhism.

Yin Shun (1906–2005) is one modern figure aligned with Sānlun.

Sengzhao is often seen as the founder of Sānlun:

He was influenced not just by Indian Mādhyamika and Mahāyāna sūtras like the Vimalakīrti, but also by Taoist works and he widely quotes the Lao-tzu and the Chuang-Tzu and uses terminology of the Neo-Daoist Mystery Learning (xuanxue) tradition while maintaining a uniquely Buddhist philosophical view.

In his essay The Emptiness of the Non-Absolute, Sengzhao points out that the nature of phenomena cannot be taken as being either existent or inexistent:

Hence, there are indeed reasons why myriad dharmas are inexistent and cannot be taken as existent; there are reasons why (myriad dharmas) are not inexistent and cannot be taken as inexistent. Why?

If we would say that they exist, their existent is not real; if we would say that they don't exist, their phenomenal forms have taken shape.

Having forms and shapes, they are not inexistent. Being not real, they are not truly existent.

Hence the meaning of Not Really Empty is made manifest.

Sengzhao saw the central problem in understanding Emptiness as the discriminatory activity of prapañca:

According to Sengzhao, delusion arises through a dependent relationship between phenomenal things, naming, thought and reification and correct understanding lies outside of words and concepts.

Thus, while Emptiness is the lack of intrinsic self in all things,

this Emptiness is not itself an absolute and cannot be grasped by the conceptual mind, it can be only be realized through non-conceptual wisdom (prajñā).

Jizang (549–623) was another central figure in Chinese Mādhyamika who wrote numerous commentaries on Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva and is considered to be the leading representative of the school.

Jizang called his method deconstructing what is misleading and revealing what is corrective.

He insisted that one must never settle on any particular viewpoint or perspective but constantly re-examine one's formulations to avoid reifications of thought and behaviour.

In his commentary on the MMK, Jizang's method and understanding of Emptiness can be seen:

The Abhidharma thinkers regard the 4 Holy Truths as true.

The Tattvasiddhi-Śāstra regards merely the truth of cessation of suffering, i.e., the principle of Emptiness and equality, as true.

The Southern Mahāyāna tradition regards the principle that refutes truths as true, and the Northern (Mahāyāna tradition) regards that-ness (suchness) and prajñā as true…

Examining these all together, if there is a single true principle, it is an eternal view, which is false. If there is no principle at all, it is an evil view, which is also false.

Being both existent and non-existent consists of the eternal and nihilistic views altogether. Being neither existent nor non-existent is a foolish view.

One replete with these 4 phrases has all wrong views.
One without these 4 phrases has a severe nihilistic view.

Now that one does not know how to name what a mind has nothing to rely upon and is free from conceptual construction, he foists that-ness (suchness) upon it, one attains sainthood of the 3 vehicles…

Being deluded in regard to that-ness (suchness), one falls into the 6 realms of disturbed life and death.

In one of his early treatises called The Meaning of the 2 Truths, Jizang, expounds the steps to realize the nature of the Ultimate Truth of Emptiness as follows:

In the first step, one recognises reality of the phenomena on the conventional level, but assumes their non-reality on the ultimate level.

In the second step, one becomes aware of Being or Non-Being on the conventional level and negates both at the ultimate level.

In the third step, one either asserts or negates Being and Non-Being on the conventional level, neither confirming nor rejecting them on the ultimate level.

Hence, there is ultimately no assertion or negation anymore; therefore, on the conventional level, one becomes free to accept or reject anything.

In the modern era, there has been a revival of Mādhyamika in Chinese Buddhism. A major figure in this revival is the scholar monk Yin Shun (1906–2005):

Yin Shun emphasized the study of Indian Buddhist sources as primary and his books on Mādhyamika had a profound influence on modern Chinese Mādhyamika scholarship.

He argued that the works of Nāgārjuna were the inheritance of the conceptualisation of Dependent Arising as proposed in the Agamas

and he thus based his Mādhyamika interpretations on the Agamas rather than on Chinese scriptures and commentaries.

He saw the writings of Nāgārjuna as the correct Buddha-dharma while considering the writings of the Sānlun School as being corrupted due to their synthesizing of the Tathāgata-garbha doctrine into Mādhyamika.

Many modern Chinese Mādhyamika scholars have been students of Yin Shun.

2. Chan

The Chan/Zen-tradition emulated Mādhyamika-thought via the San-lun Buddhists, influencing its supposedly illogical way of communicating absolute truth.

The Mādhyamika of Sengzhao for example, influenced the views of the Chan patriarch Shen Hui (670-762), a critical figure in the development of Chan, as can be seen by his Illuminating the Essential Doctrine:

This text emphasizes that true Emptiness or Suchness cannot be known through thought since it is free from thought:

Thus we come to realize that both selves and things are, in their essence, Empty, and existence and non-existence both disappear.

Mind is fundamentally non-action; the way is truly no-thought.

There is no thought, no reflection, no seeking, no attainment, no this, no that, no coming, no going.

Shen Hui also states that true Emptiness is not Nothing, but it is a Subtle Existence, which is just Great Prajña.