Nagarjuna with Manjushri (top right) and Dorje Shugden (bottom right)

A glimpse of Madhyamaka philosophical currents

Mādhyamaka (“middle way”), otherwise known as Śūnyavāda (“the emptiness doctrine”) and Niḥsvabhāvavāda (“the no svabhāva doctrine”), refers to a tradition of Buddhist philosophy and practice founded by the Indian Buddhist monk and philosopher Nāgārjuna (c. 150 – c. 250 CE).

Mādhyamaka thought had a major influence on the subsequent development of the Buddhist tradition.

It is for instance the dominant interpretation of Buddhist philosophy in Tibetan and has also been influential in East Asian Buddhist thought.

Origin of the Madhyamaka philosophy

The foundational text of the Mādhyamaka philosophy is Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (“Root Verses on the Middle Way”).

Nāgārjuna is one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Asian philosophy and numerous texts are attributed to him.

The corpus of Nāgārjuna’s philosophical work is called the “Yukti” (analytical) and includes:

  • “Root verses on the Middle way” (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, MMK)
  • “Sixty Stanzas on Reasoning” (Yuktiṣāṣṭika)
  • “Dispeller of Objections” (Vigrahavyāvartanī)
  • “Treatise on Pulverization” (Vaidalyaprakaraṇa)
  • “Precious Garland” (Ratnāvalī)

Nāgārjuna’s main goal is often seen as refuting the essentialism of certain Buddhist abhidharma schools (mainly Vaibhasika) including theories suchas as:

  • The theory of essential nature (svabhava)
  • The theory of ontological substances (dravyatas)

Classic Madhyamaka teachings

Following Nāgārjuna, the classic madhyamaka views and teachings originated with the works and commentaries of the following philosophers:

  • Rāhulabhadra (2nd to 3rd CE)
  • Āryadeva (3rd century CE)
  • Buddhapālita (c. 470–550)
  • (c. 500 – 578)
  • Candrakīrti (c. 600–650)
  • Śāntarakṣita (c. 725–788)
  • Avalokitavrata (7th CE)

Rāhulabhadra for instance was an early madhyamika philosopher, sometimes said to be either a teacher of or his contemporary and follower.

He is most famous for his verses in praise of the Prajñāpāramitā (Skt. Prajñāpāramitāstotra).

During the same period Āryadeva wrote various works on madhyamaka, the most well known of which is his “400 verses”.

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

Those various teachers, and their approaches were grouped together into two main approeaches:

  • The prāsaṅgika approach
  • The svātantrika approach

The prāsaṅgika approach

Prāsagika views argue that we should only rely on “prasaga”, which is a method of reasoning that shows how an idea is false by showing that it leads to a contradiction.

Buddhapālita is a madhyamaka thinker who has been interpreted as developing the prāsaṅgika approach to Nāgārjuna’s works in his Madhyamakavṛtti (now only extant in Tibetan) which follows the orthodox Madhyamaka method by critiquing essentialism.

The Prāsagika approach is considered to be more inclusive and compassionate than the Svātantrika approach.

The svātantrika approach

The Svātantrikas negates intrinsic nature ultimately, but accept that things conventionally have “intrinsic nature”.

To simplify this statment, conventional phenomena are things that we see everyday, like a pencil or a chair.

The svātantrika state says that these things exist, but not in an ultimate way.

This means that we can use logic to argue about them, because we all see them in the same way.

A later svātantrika philosopher is Avalokitavrata, who composed a tika (sub-commentary) on Bhāvaviveka’s Prajñāpadīpa and who mentions important figures of the era such as Dharmakirti and Candrakīrti.

The subtle essentialist commitment

Candrakīrti is the madhyamaka  philosopher who sought to defend Buddhapālita and critique Bhāvaviveka’s position (and Dignāga) that one must construct independent (svatantra) arguments to positively prove the madhyamaka thesis, on the grounds this contains a subtle essentialist commitment.

In other words, the madhyamaka thesis is that everything is empty of inherent existence.

To prove this, one must construct independent arguments that show that everything is empty of inherent existence.

However, this contains a subtle commitment to essentialism, which is the belief that everything has an inherent existence.

Tibetan Madhyamaka teachings

When Buddhism was established in Tibet, the primary philosophic viewpoint established there was that of Śāntarakṣita, a synthesis of Madhyamaka, Yogācāra and Buddhist logic called Yogācāra-Mādhyamaka.

In this synthesis, conventional truth or reality is explained and analyzed in terms of the Yogācāra system, while the ultimate truth is presented in terms of the Madhyamaka system.

In the 12th century Candrakīrti’s works started to rise to prominence when Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa school, followed Candrakīrti in his rejection of the view of Svātantrikas.

For instance Tsongkhapa and the later Karma Kagyu school, both refute essential or intrinsic nature even conventionally.

From the 17th century up to the 20th century, Tsongkhapa’s views dominated Tibetan Buddhism until the Rimé movement revived alternate teachings, providing alternatives to Tsongkhapa’s interpretation, and reintroducing Śāntarakṣita’s nuances.

For the Sakya and Nyingma schools, which participated in the Rimé movement, the Svātantrika–Prāsaṅgika distinction is generally viewed to be of lesser importance.

Glossary of notable philosophers

This is a list of well-known Madhyamika philosophers studded by scholars and practioners from all around the world.

Nagarjuna

Nāgārjuna is widely considered one of the most important Buddhist philosophers. Along with his disciple Āryadeva, he is considered to be the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Nāgārjuna is also credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras and, in some sources, with having revealed these scriptures in the world, having recovered them from the nāgas. Furthermore, he is traditionally supposed to have written several treatises on rasayana as well as serving a term as the head of Nālandā.

Nāgārjuna is widely considered one of the most important Buddhist philosophers. Along with his disciple Āryadeva, he is considered to be the founder of the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Nāgārjuna is also credited with developing the philosophy of the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras and, in some sources, with having revealed these scriptures in the world, having recovered them from the nāgas. Furthermore, he is traditionally supposed to have written several treatises on rasayana as well as serving a term as the head of Nālandā.

Aryadeva

Āryadeva, was a disciple of Nagarjuna and author of several important Mahayana Madhyamaka Buddhist texts. He is also known as Kanadeva, recognized as the 15th patriarch in Chan Buddhism, and as “Bodhisattva Deva” in Sri Lanka.

Atiśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna was a Bengali Buddhist religious leader and master from the Indian subcontinent. He was one of the major figures in the spread of 11th-century Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism in Asia and inspired Buddhist thought from Tibet to Sumatra. In 1013 CE, he traveled to the Srivijaya kingdom and stayed there for 12 years and came back to India. He is recognised as one of the greatest figures of classical Buddhism, and Atisa’s chief disciple Dromtön was the founder of the Kadam School, one of the New Translation schools of Tibetan Buddhism, later supplanted by the Geluk tradition in the fourteenth century, adopting its teaching and absorbing its monasteries.

Shantideva

was an 8th-century Indian Buddhist monk and scholar at Nalanda. He was an adherent of the Madhyamaka philosophy of Nagarjuna.

Chandrakirti

Candrakīrti was a Buddhist scholar of the Madhyamaka school and a noted commentator on the works of Nagarjuna and those of his main disciple, , authoring two influential works, Prasannapadā and Madhyamakāvatāra.

Jnanasutra

There appear to be two Jnanasutras, with different Tibetan orthographies for their names.

Jñanasutra one of the early masters of the Dzogchen lineage.

He was a disciple of Shri Singha and the main teacher of Vimalamitra.

His last testament, which he conferred upon Vimalamitra before passing into the rainbow body, is called the Four Means of Abiding.

Chandragomin

was an Indian Buddhist lay scholar who the Tibetan tradition believes challenged . According to the Nepalese tradition, Chandragomin’s student was Ratnakirti. It is unclear when Chandragomin lived, with estimates ranging between 5th to 7th-century CE.

Gorampa

Sonam Senge was an important philosopher in the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism. He was the author of a vast collection of commentaries on sutra and tantra whose work was influential throughout Tibetan Buddhism. He established one of the definitive Tibetan understandings of the Prasaṅgika model of the Madhyamaka school of philosophy. He was the student of Rongtön. He founded the Thuptén Namgyél Monastery in Tanag, which is just north of Shigatse.

Jizang

(549–623) was a Persian-Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar who is often regarded as the founder of East Asian Mādhyamaka. He is also known as Jiaxiang or Master Jiaxiang because he acquired fame at the Jiaxiang Temple.

Kumārajīva was a Buddhist monk, scholar, missionary, and translator from the Kingdom of Kucha. He first studied teachings of the Sarvastivadin schools, later studied under Buddhasvāmin, and finally became an adherent of Mahayana Buddhism, studying the Mādhyamaka doctrine of Nāgārjuna.

Bhāviveka

Bhāviveka, also called Bhavya or Bhāvaviveka was a sixth century Madhyamaka Buddhist. In Tibetan Buddhism Bhāviveka is regarded as the founder of the Svātantrika tradition of the Mādhyamaka school of Buddhism, which is seen as antagonistic to Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka.

Dharmakīrtiśrī

Dharmakīrtiśrī, also known as Kulānta and Suvarṇadvipi Dharmakīrti, was a renowned 10th century Buddhist teacher remembered as a key teacher of Atiśa. His name refers to the region he lived, somewhere in Lower Burma, the Malay Peninsula or Sumatra.

Haribhadra (Buddhist philosopher)

Haribhadra was an 8th-century CE Buddhist philosopher, and a disciple of Śāntarakṣita, an early Indian Buddhist missionary to Tibet. Haribhadra’s commentary on the Abhisamayalankara was one of the most influential of the twenty-one Indian commentaries on that text, perhaps because of its author’s status as Shantarakshita’s student. Like his master, Haribhadra is retrospectively considered by Tibetan doxographical tradition to represent the Yogācāra-Svatantrika-Mādhyamaka school.

Jñānagarbha was an 8th-century Buddhist philosopher from Nalanda who wrote on Madhyamika and Yogacara and is considered part of Bhāviveka’s Svatantrika tradition. He was a student of Shrigupta and the teacher and ordaining master of Shantarakshita.

Kamalaśīla was an Indian Buddhist of Nalanda Mahavihara who accompanied Śāntarakṣita (725–788) to Tibet at the request of Trisong Detsen.

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