Schools of Buddhism – The Madhyamaka – The Zen Universe

The Madhyamaka school of Buddhism, the followers of which are called Madhyamikas, was one of the two principal schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India, the other school being the Yogācāra. Madhyamaka (also known as Śūnyavāda) is usually considered to have been founded by Nāgārjuna, though it may have existed earlier. The name of the school is perhaps related to its close adherence to Nāgārjuna’s main work, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. The term Madhyamaka is related to ‘madhya’ (‘the middle’).

The name of the school is a reference to the claim (made of Buddhism in general) that it is a middle path (madhyamā pratipad) that avoids the two extremes of eternalism—the doctrine that all things exist because of an eternal essence—and annihilationism—the doctrine that things have essences while they exist, but that these essences are annihilated just when the things themselves go out of existence.

While the Madhyamaka as a systematic philosophy arose only in the second century C. E. with the figure of the great scholar Nagarjuna, the essentials of the Madhyamaka were anticipated by the earlier Buddhist tradition, as it developed out of the teachings of the Buddha Sakyamuni, representing a legitimate interpretation of the original teaching of the Buddha. The tetralemma (the fourfold negation: affirmation, negation, both, neither), which is so characteristic of the Madhyamaka, is met with at numerous places within the Pali canon, as it is the concept of the void, or emptiness (sunyata).

Also, the Law of interdependent origination (pratityasamutpada) is universally acknowledged by all the Buddhist schools, including the Madhyamaka, to be the teaching of the Buddha. While the other schools understood the doctrine of the interdependent origination propounded by the Buddha Sakyamuni to mean the temporal succession of momentary and discrete existences which were in themselves real, the Madhyamaka interpreted the doctrine of interdependent origination to signify the universal relativity and unreality of all phenomena. According to the Madhyamaka, this doctrine is meant to indicate the dependence of all entities upon other entities. This is equivalent to their lack of self-existence (svabhava) and emptiness (sunyata).

The conviction of the Madhyamaka school, which can be called the Centrist school, is that this middle path is best achieved by a denial that things have any inherent natures at all. All things are, in other words, empty of inherent natures. This doctrine of universal emptiness of inherent natures (svabhāva-śūnyatā) is the hallmark of the school, which places the school solidly in the tradition associated with the Perfection of Wisdom (prajñāpāramitā) literature of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

There a number of points that all Mādhyamika thinkers have in common. In all of them one finds some version of the doctrine of two truths, conventional truth and ultimate truth, according to which there is a level of understanding that consists of an accurate account of the world as it is experienced in everyday life (this perceived reality is an experiential reality, not an ontological reality with substantial or independent existence, with the goal of “commercial good”) and another level of understanding that is conducive to reaching the ultimate goal (paramārtha) of Buddhist practice, namely, nirvana, understood as the absence of attachment, both material and intellectual, aversion and delusion with no possibility of their return. The ultimate truth of sunyata does not refer to “nothingness” or “non-existence”; it refers to the absence of inherent existence.

There is also broad agreement that language is limited to the everyday level of understanding and that the truth of nirvana is beyond the reach of language and of the conceptualization that makes language possible.

There are some differences among Mādhyamika thinkers:

– How the two truths relate to one another?

– Does careful verbalization and thinking do any good in bringing one closer to nirvana, or is it invariably an obstacle?

– Is there any room within Madhyamaka for clear thinking and carefully wrought argumentation, or are all attempts to arrive at clear thought and rigorous argumentation ultimately delusional and therefore to be abandoned along with more obvious forms of delusion?

 Another area in which Mādhyamakas differ from one another is in their attitude toward the other main school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Yogācāra school, which Mādhyamikas present as advocating a kind of subjective idealism. Early Mādhyamikas tended to refute the Yogācāra doctrine that all the contents within awareness arise out of awareness itself and are thus ontologically at one with consciousness. Later Mādhyamikas found room for that view, usually by portraying Yogācāra as a philosophy that prepares one intellectually and emotionally for the difficult truth that all things are lacking in inherent natures and all that we think of as knowledge is ultimately without grounding.

The method of analysis used in Madhyamaka is the “critical dialectic” or “reductio ad absurdum” logical form of reasoning (latin for “reduction to the absurd”). “Reductio ad absurdum is a mode of argumentation that seeks to establish a contention by deriving an absurdity from its denial, thus arguing that a thesis must be accepted because its rejection would be untenable.” Nagarjuna applies this method to claims about: causality, motion, self, the Buddha, the Four Noble Truths and nirvana.

The key texts of the school comprised commentaries to the writings of Nāgārjuna—the works of Nāgārjuna most often commented upon are the Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā (MMK) and Vigraha-vyāvartanī (VV)—and a number of independent works that expanded on ideas found in Nāgārjuna’s writings.

Some of the Nagarjuna’s Conclusions

– On Sunyata: “Empty” should not be asserted. “Non-empty” should not be asserted. Neither both nor neither should be asserted. They are only used nominally. (Fundamental Verses, Chapter 22, verse 11)

– On Interdependent Arising: “Whoever sees interdependent arising also sees dukkha, its arising, its cessation, and also the path.” (Fundamental Verses, Chapter 24, verse 18)

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