Nāgārjuna (right) and Āryadeva (middle).

Madhyamaka – Buddhist philosophy and practices

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Madhyamaka also known as Śūnyavāda and Niḥsvabhāvavāda refers to a tradition of Buddhist philosophy and practice founded by the Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna.

Origin of the Madhyamaka view

The foundational text of the Mādhyamaka tradition is Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.

More broadly, Madhyamaka also refers to the ultimate nature of phenomena and the realization of this in meditative equipoise.

The Madhyamaka philosophy

According to the classical madhyamaka thinkers, all phenomena () are empty (śūnya) of “nature,” a “substance” or “” (svabhāva) which gives them “solid and independent existence,” because they are dependently co-arisen.

But this “emptiness” itself is also “empty”: it does not have an existence on its own, nor does it refer to a transcendental reality beyond or above phenomenal reality.

In other words, according to Madhyamika philosophy, objects only exist in dependence upon causes and conditions, and in dependence upon the mind that apprehends it.

Madhyamaka in modern science

involve a mathematical entity (often in the form of a matrix) known as the quantum wave function (also called the quantum state).

This quantum wave function is a mathematical entity encapsulating all the information we have about a particle.

The quantum wave function actually presents the probability of a measurement to occur if and only if a measurement is made on the particle involved.

Quantum mechanics cannot predict the exact location of a particle in space, only the probability of finding it at different locations.

In other words, since quantum mechanics is about measurements by an observer and what the observer may find, it does not provide direct rules governing the behavior of particles.

This lack of governing rules reinforces the Madhyamaka view because it suggests that neither the concept of mind-body dualism nor consciousness can be derived from matter.

In this short video Geshe Dorji Damdul makes a simple paralele between Madhyamaka and Quantum Physics to help us understand the similarity and limits between both scope of study.

People & philosophical concepts

This is a glossary of people and philosophical concepts related to the Madhyamaka view.

Essence

Essence is a polysemic term, used in philosophy and theology as a designation for the property or set of properties that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity. Essence is contrasted with accident: a property that the entity or substance has contingently, without which the substance can still retain its identity.

Je Tsongkhapa

Tsongkhapa, usually taken to mean “the Man from Onion Valley”, born in Amdo, was a famous teacher of Tibetan Buddhism whose activities led to the formation of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. He is also known by his ordained name Losang Drakpa or simply as “Je Rinpoche”. Also, he is known by Chinese as Zongkapa Lobsang Zhaba, He was the son of a Tibetan Longben Tribal leader who also once served as an official of the Yuan Dynasty of China.

Middle Way

The as well as “teaching the Dharma by the middle” are common Buddhist terms used to refer to two major aspects of the Dhamma, that is, the teaching of the Buddha. The first phrasing, refers to a spiritual practice that steers clear of both extreme asceticism and sensual indulgence. This spiritual path is defined as the noble eightfold path that leads to awakening. The second formulation refers to how the Buddha’s Dharma (Teaching) approaches ontological issues of existence and personal identity by avoiding eternalism and annihilationism.

Svabhava

literally means “own-being” or “own-becoming”. It is the intrinsic nature, essential nature or essence of living beings.

The Svatantrika-Prasaṅgika distinction is a set of arguments about two different positions of emptiness philosophy which are debated within the Mahayana school of Buddhism. It is most prominently discussed in Tibetan Buddhism where Prāsaṅgika and Svātantrika, are viewed to be different forms of Madhyamaka philosophy.

Two truths doctrine

The Buddhist doctrine of the two truths differentiates between two levels of satya (Sanskrit), meaning truth or “really existing” in the discourse of the Buddha: the “conventional” or “provisional” (saṁvṛti) truth, and the “ultimate” (paramārtha) truth.

The Svatantrika–Prasaṅgika distinction is a doctrinal distinction made within Tibetan Buddhism between two stances regarding the use of logic and the meaning of conventional truth within the presentation of Madhyamaka.

Śūnyatā

Śūnyatā – pronounced in English as (shoon-ya-ta), translated most often as emptiness and sometimes voidness.

Within Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and other philosophical strands the concept has multiple meanings depending on its doctrinal context.

It is either an ontological feature of reality, a meditative state, or a phenomenological analysis of experience.

Similarities between Pyrrhonism and Buddhism

According to Edward Conze, Greek Skepticism can be compared to Buddhist philosophy, especially the Indian Madhyamika school. The Pyrrhonian Skeptics’ goal of ataraxia is similar to the Buddhist soteriological goal nirvana.

Quantum mechanics

Wave functions of the electron in a hydrogen atom at different energy levels.

Quantum mechanics is a fundamental theory in physics that provides a description of the physical properties of nature at the scale of atoms and subatomic particles.

It is the foundation of all quantum physics including quantum chemistry, quantum field theory, quantum technology, and quantum information science.

Quantum mechanics cannot predict the exact location of a particle in space, only the probability of finding it at different locations.

Pratītyasamutpāda, commonly translated as dependent origination, or dependent arising, is a key doctrine in Buddhism shared by all schools of Buddhism. It states that all dharmas (phenomena) arise in dependence upon other dharmas: “if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist”. The basic principle is that all things arise in dependence upon other things.

Neither one nor many

The ‘’ argument is an argument employed by different philosophers and spiritual traditions for various reasons. The argument and its permutations and antecedents, particularly the “problem of the One and the Many” as charted by McEvilley in his magnum opus, has an ancient pedigree in the lineages of both Indian philosophy and Greek philosophy. McEvilley (2002) also provides strongly persuasive arguments inferring the mutual influence and mutual iteration of the ancient Indian and Greek philosophical traditions but proffers patently inconclusive and undemonstrable evidence, the perennial bugbear of historical inquiry. The argument is a factor in the algorithmic function of the Catuskoti. In its Buddhist employ, the argument is one of a suite of arguments within the purview of Pramana and Indian logic to demonstrate and test various doctrines. Different authorities and sources provide different enumerations of these said arguments; Khenpo Yonten Gyamtso lists them thus:’diamond splinters’ argument ‘refutation of production of existent and nonexistent effects’ ‘refutation of production related to four possible alternatives’ ‘dependent arising’ argument argument of ‘neither one nor many’

Patsab Nyima Drakpa

(1055-1145?) was a Tibetan Buddhist scholar and translator of the Sarma era. He was a monk at Sangpu monastery and traveled to Kashmir where he translated Buddhist Madhyamika texts.

The Madhyamakāvatāra is a text by Candrakīrti on the Mādhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy. It is a commentary on the meaning of Nagarjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā and the Ten Stages Sutra. As such, within the Tibetan Buddhist canon this text is classified as commentarial literature.

Bundle theory

, originated by the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, is the ontological theory about objecthood in which an object consists only of a collection (bundle) of properties, relations or tropes.

The Madhyamakālaṃkāra is an eighth-century Buddhist text, believed to have been originally composed in Sanskrit by Śāntarakṣita (725–788), which is extant in Tibetan. The Tibetan text was translated from the Sanskrit by Surendrabodhi and Jñānasūtra.

Mabja Jangchub Tsöndrü

Mabja Jangchub Tsöndrü was an influential 12th century Tibetan Buddhist Madhyamaka scholar. He is known for his “Ornament of Reason”, an important commentary on Nagarjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.

Mokshopaya

The Mokṣopāya or Mokṣopāyaśāstra is a Sanskrit philosophical text on salvation for non-ascetics, written on the Pradyumna hill in Śrīnagar in the 10th century AD. It has the form of a public sermon and claims human authorship and contains about 30,000 śloka’s. The main part of the text forms a dialogue between Vasiṣṭha and Rāma, interchanged with numerous short stories and anecdotes to illustrate the content. This text was later expanded and vedanticized, which resulted in the Yogavāsiṣṭha.

Śataśāstra

The Śataśāstra is the reconstructed Sanskrit title of a Buddhist treatise in the Mādhyamaka tradition known only in its Chinese translation under the title Bai lun. Both names translate to the Hundred Verse Treatise, although the word “verse” is implied and not actually present in either Sanskrit or Chinese. It is attributed to Āryadeva, a student of Nāgārjuna. The text was translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva in 404 CE and came to be counted as one of the three foundational texts of the Three Treatise School. In the Chinese tradition, another text by Āryadeva called the Catuḥśataka—which was not translated into Chinese for another two and a half centuries, but is extant today in Sanskrit and Tibetan—was understood to be an expanded version of the Bai lun. However, scholars today have instead interpreted the Bai lun to be a summary the Catuḥśataka. Nonetheless, the sequence in which the topics are discussed differs, as do the specifics, and also the Bai lun has some content not seen in the Catuḥśataka at all. This has led to an alternative hypothesis that it may simply represent Kumārajīva’s understanding of the Catuḥśataka.

Buddhapālita, बुद्धपालित, (470–550) was a commentator on the works of Nagarjuna and Aryadeva.

His works were criticised by his contemporary Bhāviveka, and then he was defended by the later Candrakīrti, whose terms differentiating the two scholars led to the rise of the Prasaṅgika and Svatantrika schools of Madhyamaka.

In this sense, Buddhapālita can be said to have been the founder of the Prasaṅgika Madhyamaka School.

Catuṣkoṭi is a logical argument(s) of a ‘suite of four discrete functions’ or ‘an indivisible quaternity’ that has multiple applications and has been important in the Dharmic traditions of Indian logic, the Buddhist logico-epistemological traditions, particularly those of the Madhyamaka school, and in the skeptical Greek philosophy of Pyrrhonism.

East Asian Madhyamaka refers to the Buddhist tradition in East Asia which represents the Indian Madhyamaka (Chung-kuan) system of thought. In Chinese Buddhism, these are often referred to as the Sānlùn school, also known as the “emptiness school”, although they may not have been an independent sect. The three principal texts of the school are the Middle Treatise, the Twelve Gate Treatise, and the Hundred Treatise. They were first transmitted to China during the early 5th century by the Buddhist monk Kumārajīva (344−413) in the Eastern Jin Dynasty. The school and its texts were later transmitted to Korea and Japan. The leading thinkers of this tradition are Kumārajīva’s disciple Sēngzhào, and the later Jízàng. Their major doctrines include emptiness (k’ung), the middle way (chung-tao), the twofold truth (erh-t’i) and “the refutation of erroneous views as the illumination of right views” (p’o-hsieh-hsien-cheng).

Sengzhao

was a Chinese Buddhist philosopher from Later Qin around 384-417 at Chang’an. Born to a poor family in Jingzhao, he acquired literary skills, apparently including the capacity to read Pali, and became a scribe. This exposed him to a variety of uncommon documents. He was influenced by Taoists, Laozi and Zhuangzi., and although we are told he enjoyed Lao Tzu’s Dotokyu-kyo, he was overjoyed when he discovered the Vimalakirti Sutra. This encounter transformed his life and he became a Buddhist. He was known as being among the ablest of the disciples of Kumārajīva.

Reductio ad absurdum

In logic, , also known as argumentum ad absurdum or apagogical arguments, is the form of argument that attempts to establish a claim by showing that the opposite scenario would lead to absurdity or contradiction. This argument form traces back to Ancient Greek philosophy and has been used throughout history in both formal mathematical and philosophical reasoning, as well as in debate.

Śāntarakṣita

Śāntarakṣita was a renowned 8th century Indian Buddhist and abbot of Nalanda. Śāntarakṣita founded the philosophical approach known as Yogācāra-Mādhyamika, which united the Madhyamaka tradition of Nagarjuna, the Yogacara tradition of Asanga, and the logical and epistemological thought of Dharmakirti.

Sakya Chokden

Serdok Penchen was one of the most important religious thinkers of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism. He was a student of Rongtön Shecha Kunrig (1367-1449), Dönyö Pelwa, Künga Zangpo and many other Tibetan scholars. He also received empowerments and studied under several Kagyu lineages. Sakya Chokden’s seat was the Thubten Serdogchen monastery in south Shigatse.

Mūlamadhyamakakārikā

The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, abbreviated as MMK, is the foundational text of the Madhyamaka school of Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy. It was composed by the Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna.

Hetucakra

or Wheel of Reasons is a Sanskrit text on logic written by Dignaga. It concerns the application of his ‘three modes’ (trairūpya), conditions or aspects of the middle term called hetu or linga in a valid inference within the Indian logico-epistemic tradition, sometimes referred to as Buddhist logic.

Prasannapada

The is a commentary on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā of Nagarjuna by the 7th-century Indian Buddhist master, Chandrakirti. Its complete title is Mūlamadhyamakavṛtti-Prasannapadā.

Dependent designation is an important doctrine of Madhyamika Buddhism.

The Aṭṭhakavagga and the Pārāyanavagga are two small collections of suttas within the Pāli Canon of Theravada Buddhism. They are among the earliest existing Buddhist literature, and place considerable emphasis on the rejection of, or non-attachment to, all views.

Ātman (Buddhism)

Ātman, attā or attan in Buddhism is the concept of self, and is found in Buddhist literature’s discussion of the concept of non-self (Anatta).

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