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Summary and Keywords

Along with Yogācāra, Madhyamaka (Middle Way) is one of the two foundational doctrinal systems of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, which flourished from the 3rd century ce to the final disappearance of Buddhism from the subcontinent in the 12th–13th centuries. Beginning in the 4th century, it spread to East Asia, where it became the foundation of an independent school of thought and influenced the other major Chinese Buddhist schools. It took root in Tibet beginning in the 7th century, where it served as the cornerstone of all the scholastically inclined Buddhist sects. Throughout the Mahāyāna Buddhist world, Madhyamaka has occupied a foundational position in doctrinal formulations and practices. Madhyamaka has tended to be regarded as either the supreme formulation of Mahāyāna thought, as was often the case in Tibet, or as complementary to Yogācāra, which was more commonly held in China and Japan.

The name “Middle Way” references a fundamental assumption in Buddhism that stakes a middle position between the idea that the self is an irreducible, enduring entity and one in which it is wholly reducible to the physical body and perishes after death. Though central Madhyamaka ideas, such as the doctrine of the Two Truths, Dependent Origination, and Emptiness, can be found in Nikāya Buddhism and in Mahāyāna sutras, it is in the treatises of Nāgārjuna (2nd–3rd centuries ce) that we have a fully formed and distinct system of thought that can be called Madhyamaka. In earlier canonical works, and more explicitly in the Abhidharma, this notion of middle way applied exclusively to the self (Skt ātman/Pali atta) and conceptually constructed phenomena. In Mahāyāna sutras and in Nāgārjuna works, the assertion is extended to the fundamental component parts of all existents, which are declared to be empty of intrinsic nature. In Abhidharma works, the self and other composite phenomena are said to be reducible to their fundamental parts, the dharmas (Pali dhamma), which, being irreducible, must have their own identifiable intrinsic mode of existence even if they exist dependently. According to Madhyamaka, a dharma cannot possess an intrinsic nature precisely because it exists dependently. Denying any intrinsic nature, Madhyamaka asserts that things exist only dependently, and this only in terms of conventional truth, and that ultimately, emptiness of intrinsic nature is the truth and reality of all things. Not surprisingly, such a position was contentious, and numerous interpreters attempted to elucidate this rather radical position. The question of which commentator or commentators are definitive has occupied many generations of Indian, East Asian, and Tibetan Buddhists, and the issue remains very much alive in modern scholarship on Madhyamaka. Though much of this scholarship has come from a philosophical perspective, the intent of Madhyamaka, like all Buddhist thought, is primarily soteriological in nature.

Keywords: Madhyamaka, Nāgārjuna, emptiness (śūnyatā), dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda), Mahāyāna, Abhidharma, intrinsic nature (svabhāva), Two Truths

Historical Background and Context of Madhyamaka

In numerous discourses, the Buddha refers to his teaching as a middle way1 between extreme and erroneous views about the putative self (Skt. ātman2). An example of this is the frequently referenced Kaccāyanagotta Sutta, in which the Buddha tells Kaccāna that right view occupies a middle position between the two extreme conceptions of existence and nonexistence:

This world, Kaccāna, for the most part depends upon a duality—upon the notion of existence and the notion of nonexistence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world… “All exists”: Kaccāna, this is one extreme. ‘All does not exist’: this is the second extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches a Dhamma by the middle…3

This passage is followed by an iteration of the teaching on the twelve links of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda), which describes the process of the origination of suffering from ignorance (avidyā), and explains that the cessation of the first link leads to the cessation of “this whole mass of suffering.”4 Right view is the antidote to ignorance, and thus to suffering. The Sutta explicitly states that this middle view pertains to views about the self and to the cessation of suffering as its goal.

With the Abhidharma literature, we see the beginnings of categorization and standardization of concepts understood to be presented in the Suttas. Some early Buddhist traditions made this literature canonical, raising it to the status of “word of the Buddha” (buddhavacana), but others did not, and in some cases the latter integrated such material into the Sutta Piṭaka. Interpretations of the Abhidharma texts led to a proliferation of systems of exposition, and the depth and complexity of the material provided fertile ground for the further explication of Buddhist doctrine. It is against this background that Madhyamaka as a distinct doctrinal system arose. Nāgārjuna’s arguments are predominantly directed against other Buddhists, presumably Ābhidharmikas. As Siderits and Katsura in their translation of the Nāgārjuna’s Root Verses of the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) point out, Nāgārjuna’s adversaries would have shared a core set of presuppositions, which establish the parameters of what Nāgārjuna seeks to refute. These presuppositions can be summarized as follows.

What really exists, in the last analysis, and in yogic realization, is in fact a dynamic flow of fundamental, irreducible entities called dharmas. All facts about things of the conventional world, and especially the self, can be explained entirely and ultimately in terms of dharmas and their relations with one another. What one can say about composite phenomena, such as the self, is only true conventionally. Only statements grounded at the level of dharmas can be ultimately true, because only dharmas have ultimate existence. An element of the assumptions about this ultimate existence is that dharmas possess their own intrinsic natures (svabhāva), a unique property that is inherent to them and depends on nothing else. Nothing that lacks an intrinsic nature can be ultimate. The Buddhist goal of nirvāṇa, the complete and final cessation of suffering, was held to be achieved through the realization of what is ultimately true about ourselves and the world. The erroneous belief that keeps us bound in saṃsāra is the mistaken assumption that the self is ultimately real, when in fact it is a conceptual fiction that we superimpose upon an impersonal stream of mental and physical phenomena.

Nāgārjuna and Mahāyāna

Nāgārjuna (2nd–3rd centuries ce) is generally regarded by later Buddhist traditions and modern scholarship as the founder of the Madhyamaka “school.”5 Traditional accounts also associate Nāgārjuna with the rise of the Mahāyāna. In Tibetan traditions, Nāgārjuna (along with Asaṅga) is called one of the two “Re-openers” of the Mahāyāna and is credited with the return of the Perfection of Wisdom texts to the world of humans by retrieving them from the realm of the Nāgas, where they had been kept safe for centuries. He is revered as a patriarch in numerous Buddhist traditions in East Asia and Tibet, including Ch’an/Zen, Pure Land, Shingon, and the Tibetan Vajrayāna.

The emergence of the Mahāyāna is characterized by the appearance of new texts, most notably the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāparāmitā) sūtras, attributed to the Buddha. This genre of sūtra focuses on the six, or ten, perfections of the Bodhisattva culminating in the perfection of wisdom itself called, among other things, the “mother of all the Buddhas.” These texts, which depict themselves as discourses of the Buddha, flatly reject the position that, while self was utterly illusory, the skandhas, the dynamic processes upon which a self was wrongly imputed, actually had an ontological status. In these sūtras we read that the five skandhas do not exist, or are empty (śūnya). Madhyamaka thought is traditionally understood as elucidating the meaning of such assertions in the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras. In Nāgārjuna’s texts, arguments are made to demonstrate how and why this way of expressing the dharma is not only justified, but is in fact the actual and final intent of the Buddha’s teachings.

The Textual Foundations of Madhyamaka

In the Chinese Buddhist canon there are eight texts attributed to Nāgārjuna, and in the Tibetan canon, there are 116. Studies of Chinese Madhyamaka have tended to focus on the Sanlun School and the influence of Madhyamaka on later syncretic schools such as Tiantai, Huayan, and Chan.6 The bulk of most modern scholarly interest in Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka has been on just a few of the Indian texts, in some cases in their Tibetan translations. Some disagreement remains about which of them can be reliably attributed to Nāgārjuna, but there is a general consensus that the texts that the later Tibetan traditions group into the “analytic corpus” are genuine works of Nāgārjuna. In addition to the analytic corpus (rigs tshogs), the Tibetan categorization includes the hymnic corpus (bstod tshogs) and the advice corpus (gtam tshogs).7 The analytic corpus includes the Root Verses of the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā), the Sixty Stanzas on Analysis (Yuktiṣaṣṭikā), the Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness (Śūnyatāsaptati), the Dispeller of Objections (Vigrahavyāvatanī), the Treatise on Pulverization (Vaidalyaprakaraṇa), and the non-extant Proof of Conventions (Vyavahārasiddhi).8 The Precious Garland (Ratnāvalī) is sometimes substituted in the place of the latter, but it is in fact a very different sort of text from the other five, much more in accord with the advice corpus, and is often placed in that category.

The Root Verses of the Middle Way (MMK) was regarded by all the major commentators in India, China, and Tibet as Nāgārjuna’s magnum opus. Modern scholarship has accepted this and has used this text as the touchstone for determining the authenticity of the other works attributed to Nāgārjuna. The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā consists of 447 verses in twenty-seven chapters, though some modern scholars argue that the text originally ended with chapter 25. Typical of the kārikā genre, the subject matter is presented in a terse style, leading to the composition of numerous commentaries in India, China, and Tibet to elucidate the meaning of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.

The Sixty Stanzas on Analysis (Yuktiṣaṣṭikā) is a text consisting of sixty-one verses that explain Mādhyamika analysis as the elimination of thinking in terms of existence and nonexistence of what is dependently originated (pratītyasamutpāda). The Sixty Stanzas on Analysis makes the striking assertion that the world is a construction of ignorance, and nirvāṇa is precisely the realization of this fact.9 It is extant in both Chinese and Tibetan translations. The Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness (Śūnyatāsaptati) is a text of seventy-three verses that deals with the central Madhyamaka concept of emptiness (śūnyatā), accompanied by a commentary said to be authored by Nāgārjuna himself. It exists only in Tibetan translation. The Dispeller of Objections (Vigrahavyāvartinī) is a seventy-verse text that answers objections to Nāgārjuna’s views expressed in his other works, especially the MMK. It is available in the original Sanskrit and also in Chinese and Tibetan translations. The Treatise on Pulverization (Vaidalyaprakaraṇa) is a work that critiques the sixteen logical categories of Nyāya philosophy. It exists only in Tibetan translation. The Precious Garland (Ratnāvalī) is a 500-verse work that is said to be advice given to a king. Among the minor analytic corpus texts, the Dispeller of Objections is often invoked to help clarify points in the MMK, especially on the issue of Nāgārjuna’s assertion that Mādhyamikas have no philosophical thesis of their own. In the major English translations and the broader attempts to establish Nāgārjuna’s system, neither the Sixty Stanzas on Analysis nor the Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness has been much taken into account,10 despite the fact that the 7th-century Indian commentator Candrakīrti held the Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness, along with the Dispeller of Objections, to form an appendix to the MMK.11

The hymns have received relatively little attention in Western scholarship despite their importance in the Tibetan traditions and many scholars’ acceptance that at least some of these texts were likely written by the same author as the Mūlamadhyakakārikā.12 In Tibet, for the proponents of the more cataphatic “other-emptiness” (gzhan stong) doctrine, the hymns were revered as expressing Nāgārjuna’s final philosophical position and the definitive meaning of the Middle Way. For the most part, however, these texts and their message have not played a significant part in the understanding of Madhyamaka for Indian or Tibetan13 authors or for modern scholars.

What Did Nāgārjuna Mean by “Middle Way?”

As mentioned above, the early Buddhist meaning of the idea that the Buddha’s teaching is a middle way was that it staked out a position between the extreme views of “all exists” and “all does not exist.” These two views are often referred to as “eternalism” (śāśvatadarśanam) and “annihilationism” (ucchedadarśanam), and they specifically refer to views about the self. An eternalist view of the self holds that the self abides through time and across lives, and an annihilationist view holds that personal existence is annihilated at death, thus rendering null questions of karmic reward or retribution. The meaning of right view, in the Kaccāyanagotta Sutta, is defined: “Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the middle.”14 That Dhamma is the teaching of the twelve links of dependent origination.

Nāgārjuna cites the Sanskrit parallel of this sutta but takes its implications further. In chapter fifteen of the MMK, he says, “In ‘The Instructing of Katyāyana,’ both ‘it exists’ and ‘it does not exist’ are denied by the Blessed One, who clearly perceives the existent and nonexistent.”15 Here, and throughout the MMK, Nāgārjuna takes this sense of right view to apply not just to the self but to everything, including the skandhas, which are the basis for the mistaken assumption of an existent self that Ābhidarmikas held to ultimately exist. Echoing numerous statements in the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras, where it says that the five skandhas are as empty as the putative self, Nāgārjuna argues in the MMK and other texts of the analytic corpus that any conceivable entity can be demonstrated to be empty, that is, not existent, nonexistent, both existent and nonexistent, neither existent or nonexistent.

In chapter after chapter, Nāgārjuna subjects to analysis numerous things, from conditionality up through the Buddha, the Four Noble Truths, and nirvāṇa. In every case, the object is revealed not to exist in any ultimate sense. Though he uses a number of common patterns of argumentation, underlying them all is a method that sets up all possible ways that the object could exist, and then refutes each possibility. For example, in chapter 1 Nāgārjuna takes on the concept that things exist in the sense that they arise from causal conditions. He begins, “Not from itself, not from another, not from both, nor without a cause: never in any way is there any existing thing that has arisen.”16 The four possibilities for the arising of a thing are considered to exhaust the possibilities for a meaningful explanation of causation, and Nāgārjuna rejects each one as incoherent. To come to this conclusion, Nāgārjuna points out that dichotomous concepts like “self/other” are mutually dependent for their meaning, or existence. According to Ābhidharmikas, for a thing to be real, it must have an intrinsic nature (svabhāva), which makes it what it is. Nāgārjuna denies the possibility of intrinsic nature, as well as the possibility of the nature of a thing arising from something else (parabhāva), because “other” depends on “self.” Nāgārjuna seeks to demonstrate that the Ābhidharmikas’ own positions are incoherent. The conclusion here is that conditions, regarded as real things by Ābhidharmikas, are empty. “Therefore neither a product consisting of conditions nor one consisting of nonconditions exists; if the product does not exist, how can there be a condition or noncondition.”17 This discursive “emptying” of concepts that were widely accepted by scholastically inclined Buddhists of Nāgārjuna’s time is the main work of the MMK, and the conclusion that Nāgārjuna reaches again and again is that when analyzed deeply, everything is revealed to lack any unique nature or essential nature of its own. Ābhidarmikas insisted that the possession of such an intrinsic nature was necessary for something to exist in an ultimate sense; thus, from their perspective Nāgārjuna seemed to be arguing that nothing really existed, and this was thought to be thoroughly incompatible with the teachings of the Buddha.

It takes until chapter 24 of the MMK, “An Analysis of the Four Noble Truths,” before Nāgārjuna responds to this not unreasonable concern. His response is to invoke the structure of the Two Truths, which Ābhidarmikas accept, though in a completely different way, as discussed above. Nāgārjuna’s analyses have revealed that the arising and passing away of things in the phenomenal world, about which the Buddha taught, is possible only because those things lack intrinsic nature—they are neither existent, nonexistent, both, or neither.

Exactly what that entails for the level of conventional truth/existence has been disputed by Nāgārjuna’s Indian and Chinese commentators, as well as modern interpreters. If nothing can be said to exist (or not, or both, or neither) in any ultimate sense, numerous questions obviously arise about ethics, the path, nirvāṇa, and more. Nāgārjuna’s response to those who say that emptiness undermines all these things is to state that it is in fact the assumptions of existence/nonexistence, or existence by intrinsic nature, that would make the phenomenal world, knowledge of it, and the attainment of nirvāṇa impossible. “All is possible when emptiness is possible. Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible… If you look upon existents as real intrinsically, in that case you regard existents as being without cause and conditions.… Effect and cause, as well as agent, instrument and act, arising and ceasing, and fruit—all these you thereby deny.”18 Later commentators, both ancient and modern, however, have struggled with the full implications of the status of the phenomenal world after it has been emptied by Mādhyamika analysis.19

Emptiness, however, is not some ultimate nature of the sort imagined by the Ābhidarmikas. It is just a useful way of talking, a convention, that steers a middle course between absolutism and nihilism. In probably the most famous verse of the MMK, Nāgārjuna says, “Dependent Origination we declare to be emptiness. It [emptiness] is a dependent concept; just that is the middle path.”20 If everything is dependently originated, as the Buddha taught and Nāgārjuna has argued, it follows that things cannot be accurately described as existing, not existing, both, or neither. Those concepts, and all others, are only conventional. As Mark Siderits has pithily put this, “The ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth.”21

What is the Purpose of Madhyamaka?

A great deal of the modern scholarship on Madhyamaka approaches and engages with it as philosophy, but Buddhism has always been more than what we usually mean by this term. The Buddhist path is concerned with the eradication of existential suffering. Knowledge is for the sake of liberation from suffering and the cycle of birth and death (saṃsāra). What then does Madhyamaka have to do with this? It is worthwhile to look at what the MMK states as its purpose. It is often the case that Indian treatises such as the MMK lay out the intended purpose of the text in the opening dedicatory verse:

I salute the Fully Enlightened One, the best of orators, who taught the doctrine of dependent origination, according to which there is neither cessation nor origination, neither annihilation nor the eternal, neither singularity nor plurality, neither the coming nor the going [of any dharma, for the purpose of nirvāṇa characterized by] the auspicious cessation of hypostatization.22

Nāgārjuna identifies the Buddha’s fundamental teaching to be dependent origination, characterized by the negation of four pairs of concepts. The purpose of this teaching, or the fruit of its realization, is said to be cessation of “hypostatization” (prapañca), or the mental process of conceptualization or “thing-ification.”

In chapter 18, “An Analysis of the Self,” Nāgārjuna says, “Liberation is attained through the destruction of actions and defilements; actions and defilements arise because of falsifying conceptualizations; those arise from hypostatization; but hypostatization is extinguished in emptiness.”23 In the Śūnyatāsaptati, considered by Candrakīrti to be a supplement for understanding the MMK, Nāgārjuna says, “To imagine that things born by causes and conditions are real is called ignorance by the Teacher. From that the twelve members arise. But when one, by seeing correctly, has understood that things are empty one is not infatuated. That is the cessation of ignorance. Thereupon the twelve members stop.”24

The final verse of an Indian treatise of this sort can also conclude or restate the purport of all that came before it. Though the two major Indian commentators, Bhāviveka25 and Candrakīrti, take the current twenty-seven-chapter version of the MMK to be entirely composed by Nāgārjuna, some modern scholars have asserted that the final two chapters were later additions by another author. If this were so, the final verse of chapter 25, “An Analysis of Nirvāṇa,” should be expected to tell us about the intent of the work. “This halting of cognizing everything, the halting of hypostatizing, is blissful. No Dharma whatsoever was ever taught by the Buddha to anyone.”26 This verse clearly echoes the dedicatory verse, though the translation here obscures this slightly in that the same phrase (prapañcopaśamaḥ śivaḥ) found in both verses is translated differently here. In the translation of the dedicatory verse this is rendered “the auspicious cessation of hypostatization.” The second part of the dedicatory verse is the salutation to the Buddha, who taught dependent origination characterized by the eight negations. In the final line of the verse at the end of chapter 25, having been through twenty-five chapters of negations, we hear that the Buddha did not teach any dharma at all, to anyone. Without taking a stand on whether or not this was the final verse of the original text, this statement does indeed sum up the text’s work, though concluding on a far more radical point than the one on which it started, but for which Nāgārjuna has argued thus far.

Chapter 26 is an orthodox teaching on the twelve links of dependent origination, perhaps, as the commentator Bhāviveka suggests, in response to those who would take issue with the concluding verse of the nirvāṇa chapter. It is also worth noting that Nāgārjuna has used the doctrine of dependent origination as an argument for how things are in fact empty throughout the text up to this point, so perhaps this uncontroversial teaching of the twelve links helps us to see what he has meant by “dependent origination,” and links it back to the intrinsically soteriological purpose of Madhyamaka. “Upon the cessation of ignorance there is the nonarising of volitions. But the cessation of ignorance is due to meditation on just the knowledge of this. By reason of the cessation of one factor in the twelvefold chain, another successor factor fails to arise. Thus does the entire mass of suffering completely cease.”27

The twenty-seventh chapter is “An Analysis of Views,” in which Nāgārjuna tackles the so-called indeterminate questions posed to the Buddha in some sūtras. These are questions that the Buddha refused to answer, such as past and future existence of the person, the world, and so on. These questions were answered with silence, because they involved false presuppositions and thus could not be answered in a fashion that would be helpful to the questioner. Up until the final verse, most of what Nāgārjuna has said would be acceptable to his Ābhidharmika contemporaries, but the final verse says, “I salute Gautama, who, based on compassion, taught the true Dharma for the abandonment of all views.”28 In the dedicatory verse, the Buddha is praised as the teacher of dependent origination, which is described in terms of four pairs of dichotomous concepts, or views, all of which are negated. Here the purpose is stated as the abandonment of all views, the aforementioned, and presumably any and every possible view at all about the self and the world. Chapter 24, verse 18 quoted above, suggests that even emptiness, if taken to express a view, is to be ultimately abandoned.

Nāgārjuna’s Mādhyamika Successors in India

Nāgarjuna’s oeuvre gave rise to numerous commentaries on his works, and original works from authors who saw themselves standing in the Mādhyamika lineage. The earliest was Āryadeva (2nd–3rd centuries ce), who is traditionally understood to have been a direct disciple of Nāgārjuna. His major text is an original work, The Four Hundred (Catuḥśataka). This text traces the Bodhisattva’s path from the cultivation of virtues up through the attainment of full awakening, thus situating Madhyamaka much more explicitly in Mahāyāna thought and practice than Nāgārjuna’s works. The complete text is extant only in Tibetan, and there is a full translation of Āryadeva’s text into English by Karen Lang.29

Buddhapālita (early 6th century) wrote a commentary on Nāgārjuna’s MMK which is closely related to or identical with the commentary (Akutobhayā) sometimes attributed to Nāgārjuna. In Buddhapālita’s time, there were important new developments in Buddhist thought in the form of a highly developed epistemological system that would transform how Buddhist philosophy would be done. Buddhapālita resisted these innovations, employing only arguments that revealed the shortcomings of Nāgārjuna’s opponents’ positions, consistent with Nāgārjuna’s own primary argumentative method.

Buddhapālita’s conservatism on this point was criticized by the next major commentator, Bhāviveka (late 6th century). In his commentary on the MMK, the Lamp of Wisdom (Prajñāpradīpa), Bhāviveka took up a radically opposed position to that of Buddhapālita on the matter of what kind of argumentation was needed to establish the Mādhyamika position. This shift is perhaps a result of the further integration of the epistemological advances of Dharmakīrti (c. 650) into scholastic Mahāyāna discourse. Many thought that these new methods put Buddhists on a more solid footing in defending themselves against the critiques of non-Buddhist philosophers in India. Bhāviveka felt that the Mādhyamika position needed more than the unwanted-consequence method of argumentation (prasaṅga) favored by Nāgārjuna and Buddhapālita in order to give it logical establishment. Bhāviveka utilized logically elaborated syllogisms (svatantra anumāna) in order to argue for the conclusions of Nāgārjuna. For this reason, Bhāviveka would later be considered by the Tibetan traditions to be the founder of the Svātantrika school of interpretation. In addition to the Lamp of Wisdom, Bhāviveka wrote an independent verse treatise on Madhyamaka, the Verses on the Heart of the Middle Way (Madhyamakahṛdayakārikā), with a prose commentary. In this work he surveys and critiques the perspective of non-Mahāyāna Buddhists, Yogācārins, and the six philosophical systems of Hinduism. Hence, this text presents us with a snapshot of the range of philosophical positions current in India in the 6th century.

In his extensive commentary on the MMK, Clear Words (Prasannapadā), Candrakīrti (7th century) extensively critiqued Bhāviveka’s introduction of the epistemological system of Dharmakīrti into the exegesis of Madhyamaka and critiqued that system itself as well as doctrines of Yogācāra. Candrakīrti, in defense of Buddhapālita, argued for exclusive reliance on prasaṅga arguments to establish the Mādhyamika position. This emphasis on prasaṅga argumentation would cause later Tibetan doxographers to see Candrakīrti to be the founder of the Prāsaṅgikā school of Madhyamaka, which came to be seen as differing from the Svātantrikas not only in terms of methodology but also in terms of holding different philosophical positions.30 In addition to his commentary on the MMK, Candrakīrti wrote commentaries on Nāgārjuna’s Śūnyatāsaptati and Yuktiṣaṣṭikā as well as one on Āryadeva’s Catuḥśataka. His original work, Introduction to the Middle Way (Madhyamakāvatāra), was intended to be a general introduction to Madhyamaka, but with an emphasis on Bodhisattva practice and realization. It is divided into ten sections on the production of the mind of awakening (bodhicitta), which are aligned with the ten Bodhisattva stages taught in the Sūtra on the Ten Grounds (Daśabhūmika Sūtra) and the Ten Perfections. Because of this structuring, this text is far more focused on realization and soteriology than Nāgārjuna’s works of the analytic corpus. Despite the professed importance of the MMK among Tibetan scholars, Candrakīrti’s Introduction to the Middle Way has been the subject of far more commentary in Tibet.

Treatises of Late Indian Mādhyamika Thinkers

In India, Madhyamaka was followed by Yogācāra, which, like Madhyamaka, can be seen as providing a reasoned explication of the doctrines of certain Mahāyāna sūtras, especially in the Yogācāra case, the Saṃdhinirmocana. From the Yogācāra perspective, the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtras and Madhyamaka are understood as clearing away the pernicious illusions projected by hypostatization (prapañca), but the final and definitive teachings of the Buddha were to be found in Yogācāra sūtras and treatises. In these texts, it is asserted that mind, once purified of hypostatization, was ultimate reality and awakening itself. Among the early commentators on Nāgārjuna’s texts are several by prominent masters of the Yogācāra school. A portion of a commentary ascribed to Asaṅga (4th century) on the beginning of the MMK is found in the Chinese canon, and a commentary by Sthiramati (6th century) is also preserved there. Other commentaries by Yogācarins are also referred to in both Chinese and Tibetan sources, though they are not extant. This clearly demonstrates that Nāgārjuna’s works were not seen to be necessarily in conflict with the teachings of Yogācāra.

For the most part, Madhyamaka and Yogācāra became synthesized into a complementary whole that addressed both the negation of pernicious views and the establishment of ultimate truth as consciousness. The works of Jñanagarbha, Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla set the standard for Madhyamaka orthodoxy, and it was the latter two that took Madhyamaka to Tibet as part of the first establishment of Buddhism there. In India, the Svātantika-Prāsaṅgika distinction was not the important one; it was rather one between the views of those who accepted the (conventional) existence of external objects, which included both Bhāviveka and Candrakīrti, and those who asserted a more Yogācārin understanding, in which external objects were ultimately mind-originated, though also empty in the last analysis.

This latter category included Jñanagarbha, Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, and it was the dominant position in scholastic Buddhist India until at least the 11th century. Jñānagarbha wrote a treatise examining the Two Truths (Satyadvayavibhaṅga), accompanied by an auto-commentary. Śāntarakṣita wrote a treatise on Madhyamaka, the Ornament of the Middle Way (Madhyamakālaṃkāra), which established the foundation of what would later be called the Yogācāra-Madhyamaka school. He also composed the Tattvasaṃgraha, an extensive critical study of the doctrines of the different schools of Indian philosophy at the time. A commentary on Jñānagarbha’s Satyadvayavibhaṅga is attributed to him as well. Kamalaśīla was the disciple of Śāntarakṣita, on whose Tattvasaṃgraha he wrote a substantial commentary. Kamalaśīla also wrote an original work, the Illumination of the Middle Way (Madhyamakāloka), which expounds the Yogācāra-Madhymaka system in great detail, building upon and elucidating the texts of his teacher.

Madhyamaka in East Asia

Madhyamaka texts and teachings were brought to China by Kumārajīva (350–409), and these eventually became the foundation of an independent school, Sanlun or Three Treatise School. The three authoritative texts of Sanlun were the MMK (called the Madhyamakaśāstra in the Chinese canon),31 the Twelve Gate Treatise (Shih erh men lun) attributed to Nāgārjuna, and the One Hundred Verse Treatise (Pai lun) attributed to Āryadeva. The latter two texts exist only here in Kumārajīva’s translations. The text that has arguably had the greatest influence on East Asian Madhyamaka, however, was the massive Treatise Which is a Teaching on the Great Perfection of Wisdom (Ta-chih-tu lun), also translated by Kumārajīva. After Kumārajīva, his disciple Sengzhao was the most important figure in the establishment and development of Chinese Madhyamaka.32 The Mādhyamika commentaries that have figured so prominently in the Tibetan traditions’ interpretation of Madhyamaka, and in modern scholarship, are not included in the Chinese canon, so the development of Mādhyamika thought took a quite different path than in Tibet. In East Asia, there has tended to be a more ontologically positivist understanding of emptiness and a general harmonization of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra, seeing them as complementary rather than opposing systems. Though Sanlun faded from importance as a distinct school of thought, Madhyamaka remained significant throughout the later development of Chinese Buddhism, influencing Tiantai, Huayan, and especially Chan.33

Madhyamaka in Tibet

The Tibetans received Mādhyamika texts in both the first (7th–8th centuries) and second (11th–12th centuries) periods of the propagation of Buddhism there. Because scholastic monasticism was part of the institutional form that was imported, alongside Vajrayāna, Madhaymaka was important from the very beginning, and has remained so. In Tibet, monk scholars sought to establish a hierarchy of Buddhist tenet systems (grub mtha’) that encompassed all the Buddhist schools in an ascending order, beginning with the two Ābhidarmika Schools (Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika), which served as the elementary understandings of the Dharma, moving up to the Yogācāra, and culminating in the Madhyamaka. It was assumed that the understanding of the philosophical positions of each of these schools enabled one to then understand the next higher level. Ascent up through this hierarchy represented a progressively more subtle understanding of the Two Truths. The two Ābhidharma schools asserted that dharmas, understood in different ways, were ultimately real and anything that was the result of conceptual hypostatization was merely conventional. The Yogācāra was understood to assert that external objects were ultimately unreal (i.e., projected by conceptual imposition) and only consciousness was ultimately real. Madhyamaka was understood to go one step further and assert that consciousness too was empty and thus only existent conventionally.

Early in the doxographical project Tibetans followed the categorization of Madhyamaka inherited from India, in which Madhyamaka was divided into those who accepted the conventional existence of external objects (e.g., Bhāviveka and Candrakīrti) and those who declared external objects to be projections of mind and ultimately empty (Jñānagarbha, Śāntaraksita and Kamalaśīla). In the late 11th century, the Madhyamaka works of Candrakīrti were translated into Tibetan, and Tibetan doxographers began to factor them into their categorizing efforts. Shortly thereafter, the terms Svātantrika and Prāsaṅgika were coined (in Tibetan) and deployed in a new conceptualization of Madhyamaka schools. There were Tibetan scholars who accepted Candrakīrti’s interpretation of Madhyamaka and those who argued forcefully against it, but in the end it was the Prāsaṅgika approach that won the day, though it remained a matter of some dispute just what the differences between this school and the Svātantrika were.

In the 14th century, it was the writings of Tsongkhapa that introduced a new distinction between Svātantrika and Prāsaṅgika, one which posited not just a methodological distinction between the two schools but also an ontological one. Prior to Tsongkhapa and continuing after him in the scholarship of the Sakya, Kagyü, and Nyingma sects, the principal difference was one of a whether the Mādhyamika master used arguments that simply sought to demonstrate to the opponent the unwanted consequences of his position (prasaṅga) or rather utilized logically established arguments that positively proved the Mādhyamika position (svatantra). Tsongkhapa argued instead that there is an actual difference in how the two schools understand conventional truth. In his understanding, Svātantrikas accept the conventional reality of the manifest world. In that world there are things that are real and things that are illusory. The sophisticated epistemological system of Dharmakīrti was seen to provide tools to ascertain which are which, and to prove, in a real sense, the doctrinal position of Madhyamaka. According to Tsongkhapa, this entails a subtle realism that falls short of the definitive meaning of Nāgārjuna’s texts, which is that everything is empty of intrinsic nature. Only Candrakīrti’s interpretation of Madhyamaka is considered to go far enough and relegate everything in this world to the status of merely conventional.34 Though this understanding is accepted by only one of the four major sects of Tibetan Buddhism, it has had an inestimable impact on the modern scholarship on Madhyamaka.

Despite his proclaimed exclusive adherence to Candrakīrtī’s understanding of Madhyamaka, Tsongkhapa in fact relies heavily on the logico-epistemological developments of Dharmakīrti in his method of Madhyamaka argumentation and his understanding of ultimate truth. Tsongkhapa asserts that the object of Madhyamaka negation is inherent existence, but once that has been refuted, the basis of that negation, the phenomenon under analysis, can be said to exist conventionally. This move has the advantage of allowing a basis for the efficacy of logical argumentation, ethics, and religious practice. Tsongkhapa asserts that the ultimate truth, which is the emptiness of inherent existence, is itself an existent object of knowledge. This makes it possible for discursive thought to realize the ultimate truth—a claim that is unique to Tsongkhapa and the Geluk sect.

The other three major sects of Tibetan Buddhism saw Tsongkhapa’s understanding of Madhyamaka as straying from the original intent of Nāgārjuna and his Indian commentators. For the Nyingma, Sakya, and Kagyu sects generally, the final purport of Madhyamaka is freedom from the extreme views of being and nonbeing. Ultimate truth is not regarded as an object of discursive knowledge, but rather the realization that things cannot be said to exist, not exist, both, or neither. Ontologically speaking, ultimate reality qua emptiness is reality free of hypostatization. The 19th-century Nyingma scholar Jamgön Mipham critiqued Tsongkhapa’s position in his Beacon of Certainty and many other of his works.35 Mipham also wrote an extensive commentary on Śāntarakṣita’s Madhyamakālaṃkāra.36 Though several prominent Sakya scholars wrote extensive refutations, Gorampa Sönam Sengé’s Distinguishing the Views is probably the most powerful critique of Tsongkhapa’s Madhyamaka and elucidation of the Sakya Madhyamaka.37 Among Kagyu scholars, The Eighth and Ninth Karmapas composed commentaries on Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra in which Tsongkhapa’s views are frequently criticized.38

Tibetan Buddhism is Vajrayāna Buddhism, so tantric theory has always played an important role in Tibetan doctrinal formulations. Yogācāra provides a more suitable foundation for tantric theory and practice, but Madhyamaka has nearly always been regarded as compatible with, or has served as the true doctrinal foundation of, Vajrayāna. The Nyingma and Kagyu sects have typically been more inclined to an understanding of Yogācāra and Madhyamaka as complementary teachings, and one in which both were seen through the lens of Vajrayāna thought and practice.39 The Sakya and the Geluk sects have tended to privilege Candrakīrti’s understanding as definitive (though they disagree on what that understanding is) and have kept Mādhyamika doctrine and Vajrayāna more distinct.

One formulation of Tibetan Madhyamaka explicitly based itself on tantric thinking. The “Great Madhyamaka” tradition understands Madhyamaka to include not only Nāgārjuna but also the great Yogācāra figures Asaṅga and Vasubandhu as the exemplary Mādhyamikas. Here Nāgārjuna’s works from the analytic corpus serve to eliminate the hypostatizing that leads to a belief in the ultimate reality of things in the world, but his hymns express the final meaning of Madhyamaka, which is the perfected state purified of ignorance, identified with mind. Great Madhyamaka thought is characterized by its emphasis on “other-emptiness” (gzhan stong), which is the idea that the absolute is empty of conventional appearances but not of its own pure nature. This tradition is associated with Jonang Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361) and Tāranātha (1575–1635), as well as the Sakya scholar Shakya Chokden (1428–1507).40 The tradition was highly influential in its time, but it was suppressed by the Fifth Dalai Lama and largely disappeared except for some regions along the Sino-Tibetan border. The 19th-century ecumenical movement (ris med) helped revive the knowledge of this once significant Madhyamaka vision, but it has received relatively little modern scholarly attention.

Review of the Literature

Most of the modern academic interest in Nāgārjuna and the Madhyamaka has been philosophical, and over time what has been of philosophical interest has evolved. As extensively discussed in his influential book Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship,41 Andrew Tuck has pointed out that early works tended to examine similarities between Madhyamaka and one or another European philosopher.

By the end of the 19th century, European interest in Indian religions had emerged as a positive byproduct of empire. Early Orientalists, most famously Sir William Jones, discovered that India had an ancient religious and philosophical heritage equal to, or in some more enthusiastic estimates superior to, those of the West. The objects of this newfound research were primarily the “orthodox” six schools of Hindu philosophy that contemporary Indian authorities presented as the heart and pinnacle of Indian thinking. Advaita Vedānta, again in accord with Indian assumptions of the time, became particularly sought after by Orientalist scholars and became popular among Western literati. Buddhism, on the other hand, was much more slowly acknowledged as a part of this grand intellectual history of India. It was the publication of Eugène Burnouf’s Introduction à l’histoire du Buddhisme indien42 (1844) and his annotated translation of the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīkam) (1852) that brought Indian Buddhism into the spotlight and firmly established the idea that it was a thoroughly nihilist religion. Burnouf’s sources included Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāparāmitā) texts and Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā with Candrakīrti’s commentary. Burnouf was not alone in his estimation of Buddhism as nihilism, and this understanding held sway in Europe throughout the 19th century.

In the early 20th century, the Belgian scholar Louis de La Vallée Poussin published what would become the definitive edition of Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, along with Candrakīrti’s commentary. La Vallée Poussin too saw Madhyamaka as pure nihilism, but he was a champion of Mahāyāna thought more broadly. It was the Russian scholar Fyodor Ippolitovich Shtcherbatsky who first challenged this view, arguing that Madhyamaka was in fact the Buddhist parallel of Advaita Vedānta and could best be understood via Kant’s dichotomous notions of noumena and phenomena. Madhyamaka could thus be read as an ancient precursor of European idealist philosophy. Shtcherbatsky’s understanding, fully explicated in his Conception of Buddhist Nirvana (1927),43 became the new standard view about Madhyamaka, and was taken up by the Indian scholar T. R. V. Murti in his influential work The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (1955),44 in which the author pushed further the linkage of Madhyamaka, Vedānta, and Kant.

Reacting to the influence of the analytic philosophy of G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, and the Vienna Circle, a new generation of scholars began to see Nāgārjuna as a dialectician, and the interest in his works was focused on the structure of his arguments. Only two years after Murti’s book, the American Buddhist scholar Richard Robinson published the article “Some Logical Aspects of Nāgārjuna’s System,”45 in which he surveyed previous scholarship on Madhyamaka and dismissed it as philosophically unsophisticated. Unlike his predecessors, Robinson was not looking for transcendent truths, or confirmation of consistency with dominant trends in Western philosophy. He argued for taking Nāgārjuna’s arguments on their own terms, in their own forms, which he elucidated with the aid of logical notation. In the end, Robinson’s conclusion was that Nāgārjuna failed to successfully refute his opponents because his method of argumentation was logically or formally invalid.

The next phase of reading and explicating Madhyamaka similarly reflected the contemporaneous concerns of Western philosophy. Influenced by the works of Quine, Sellars, and especially the later Wittgenstein, several scholars began to assert that concepts such as “language game,” “forms of life,” and “ordinary language” provided helpful models for understanding not only what Nāgārjuna’s arguments meant, but also what they were for. Such scholars46 saw parallels between the way Wittgenstein and Nāgārjuna used language, but they also saw commonality with the primarily soteriological intent of Madhyamaka in Wittgenstein’s famous statement on the purpose of philosophy, “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” Further emphasizing this soteriological dimension of Madhyamaka, Frederick Streng published the first full translation of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā,47 and though he too quoted from Wittgenstein in his analysis, his primary concern was for understanding Madhyamaka and, especially, the concept of emptiness from a religious rather than a philosophical perspective.

In his seminal article “Nāgārjuna’s Appeal,”48 Richard Hayes nuances Tuck’s thesis that interpretations of Madhyamaka are deeply informed by the ideological or methodological interest of the translators/interpreters by arguing that a number of Buddhist scholars have resisted this and produced translations or studies that place Nāgārjuna’s works solidly in their historical and cultural contexts. Hayes highlights the work of Stanislaw Schayer, David Seyfort Ruegg, Christian Lindtner, and Kamaleswar Bhattacharya as exemplars of the ideal of detached and scientific objectivity in Madhyamaka scholarship.

In recent decades, scholars have tried to avoid the pitfalls described by Tuck and Hayes and have also argued for a deeper engagement of modern philosophy with Madhyamaka, or with Buddhist thought more broadly. These works make a plea for the inclusion of Buddhist thought, and particularly Madhyamaka, into a more globally construed notion of philosophy and engage in both exegesis and interpretation. Publications of Mark Siderits,49 Jay Garfield,50 Jan Westerhoff,51 Amber Carpenter52 and Tom Tillemans53 are among the most significant examples of this recent phase of the study of Madhyamaka. These works typically situate Madhyamaka within its Buddhist historical context as well as interrogating the texts for their potential value to modes of modern thought.

In contemporary scholarship, the question of whether Madhyamaka thought is primarily about ultimate reality (the metaphysical interpretation) or what can be said about reality (the semantic interpretation) has become an important issue. In the past few decades the semantic interpretation has tended to predominate, but this approach is not unanimously accepted.54

A recent locus of controversy in interpreting Madhyamaka has centered on the question of contradiction in Madhyamaka argumentation and the ultimate purport of such arguments. Against some scholars who regard contradictions in the texts as intended to be understood metaphorically, or as expressions of skillful means (upāya), Jay Garfield, along with coauthors Yasuo Deguchi and Graham Priest, argues that at least some contradictions in Madhyamaka texts should be taken literally and be accepted as true (the dialetheist interpretation). This interpretation provoked a number of critical responses, resulting in an entire issue of the journal Philosophy East and West devoted to these critiques, along with responses by Deguchi, Garfield, and Priest.55 Tillemans’s article in this issue is an excellent example of another current interpretation that sees Madhyamaka arguments, at least in early Madhyamaka texts, as having as their purpose the complete elimination of all views about reality (the quietist interpretation). Other recent studies have been published that question Tibetan Mādhyamikas’ doxographical categories, which have been accepted and employed by much of modern scholarship.56 A renewed interest in the question of Madhyamaka’s relation to the other major Mahāyāna doctrinal system, Yogācāra, has also recently come to the fore.57

Primary Sources

All Buddhist traditions and modern scholarship agree that the founding author of Madhyamaka is Nāgārjuna. From among his many works, it is similarly unanimous that his magnum opus is The Root Verses of the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā). The Sanskrit text was translated into other Asian languages, most importantly Chinese and Tibetan. Modern translations from each of these languages have been made into English and other European languages. At the current stage of Madhyamaka scholarship, the definitive English translation is the one by Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura.58 This translation is based on the Sanskrit original and the Tibetan translation, and utilizes all four extant Indian commentaries in its insightful yet accessible commentary. The French translation from the Sanskrit by Guy Bugault59 is highly recommended, as is the pioneering translation from Sanskrit into Italian by Raniero Gnoli60 and the German translation from the Chinese by Lutz Geldsetzer.61

Nāgārjuna’s other works have often been traditionally divided into those with a methodological affinity to The Root Verses of the Middle Way (the analytic corpus), and his hymns and the collection of practical religious advice. Among the former, the most comprehensive and still classic collection by Lindtner62 is an excellent starting point for those wanting to explore these works. Though the hymns evince a very different picture of Madhyamaka, and they have received relatively little attention in modern scholarship, Tibetan traditions and many modern scholars accept them as authentic works of Nāgārjuna. Lindtner’s aforementioned collection includes two of the hymns, and Fernando Tola and Carmen Dragonetti’s article63 contains translations and an exhaustive discussion of these works. Among the advice texts, the Ratnāvalī is widely regarded as an authentic composition of Nāgārjuna and contains important similarities and complements to the Root Verses, though it is largely a text on ethics. The translation by Jeffrey Hopkins64 contains a commentary by Hopkins and an edition of the Tibetan text.

The difficulty of the subject matter and the terse style of the kārikā form of Indian literature led to numerous commentaries on Nāgārjuna’s texts, especially the Root Verses of the Middle Way. The Tibetan traditions and most modern scholarship typically accept that there are four Indian commentaries on the text: the Akutobhayā attributed to Nāgārjuna himself, the Mūlamadhyamakavṛtti by Buddhapālita, the Prajñāpradīpa of Bhāviveka, and the Prasannapadā of Candrakīrti. The two most important of these, and the ones that have received the greatest amount of scholarly attention, are the Prajñāpradīpa and the Prasannapadā. Their authors, Bhāviveka and Candrakīrti, came to be seen by the Tibetan traditions as embodying two distinct schools of interpretation: the Svātantrika and Prāsaṅgika, with the latter occupying the peak of the doxographical hierarchy for nearly all of the Tibetan scholastic schools. The first seven chapters of the Prajñāpradīpa have been translated into English in a series of articles by William Ames,65 and a complete translation of the Prasannapadā into European languages has come together through the complementary efforts of a number of excellent scholars.66

The Mādhyamika works of Jñānagarbha, Śāntarakṣita, and Kamalaśīla have received less attention in modern scholarship. Jñānagarbha’s Distinction Between the Two Truths has been translated by Malcolm David Eckel (Satyadvayavibhaṅga) and is accompanied by a useful introduction.67 Masamichi Ichigō has published a helpful overview and full translation of Śāntarakṣita’s Ornament of the Middle Way.68 Though there are no complete translations of Kamalaśīla’s Mādhyamika works, portions are translated and discussed by Ichigō,69 Ryusei Keira,70 and Sara McClintock.71

Further Reading

Bocking, Brian, trans. Nāgārjuna in China: A Translation of the Middle Treatise. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1995.Find this resource:

    Brunnhölzl, Karl. The Center of the Sunlit Sky: Madhyamaka in the Kagyu Tradition. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2004.Find this resource:

      Cabezón, José Ignacio, and Geshe Lobsang Dargyay. Freedom from Extremes: Gorampa’s “Distinguishing the Views” and the Polemics of Emptiness. Boston: Wisdom, 2007.Find this resource:

        Chandrakirti and Ju Mipham. Introduction to the Middle Way: Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara with Commentary by Ju Mipham. Translated by Padmakara Translation Group. Boston and London: Shambhala, 2004.Find this resource:

          Eckel, Malcolm David. Jñānagarbha’s Commentary on the Distinction Between the Two Truths. SUNY Series in Buddhist Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.Find this resource:

            Garfield, Jay L., and Jan Westerhoff. Madhyamaka and Yogācāra: Allies or Rivals? Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

              Hamilton, Sue. Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

                Hayes, Richard P. “Nāgārjuna’s Appeal.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 22 (1994): 299–378.Find this resource:

                  Ichigō, Masamichi. “Śāntarakṣita’s Madhyamakālaṁkāra: Introduction, Edition and Translation.” In Studies in the Literature of the Great Vehicle: Three Mahāyāna Buddhist Texts. Edited by Luis Gómez and Jonathan Silk, 141–240. Ann Arbor: Collegiate Institute for the Study of Buddhist Literature and Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1989.Find this resource:

                    Komarovski, Yaroslav. Visions of Unity: The Golden Paṇḍita Shakya Chokden’s New Interpretation of Yogācāra and Madhyamaka. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                      Lang, Karen C. Āryadeva’s Catuḥśataka: On the Bodhisattva’s Cultivation of Method and Knowledge. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1986.Find this resource:

                        Lindtner, Christian. Nāgārjuniana: Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Nāgārjuna. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987.Find this resource:

                          Liu, Ming-Wood. Madhyamaka Thought in China. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1994.Find this resource:

                            Lopez, Donald S. The Madman’s Middle Way: Reflections of Reality of the Tibetan Monk Gendun Chöpel (Buddhism and Modernity). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.Find this resource:

                              MacDonald, Anne. In Clear Words: The Prasannapadā, Chapter One, Vols. I & II. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2015.Find this resource:

                                McClintock, Sarah, and Georges Dreyfus. The Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika Distintion: What Difference Does a Difference Make? Boston: Wisdom, 2002.Find this resource:

                                  Nagao, Gadjin M. Mādhyamika and Yogācāra: A Study of Mahāyāna Philosophies. Translated by Leslie Kawamura. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.Find this resource:

                                    Phuntsho, Karma. Mipham’s Dialectices and the Debates on Emptiness: To be, not to be, or neither. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005.Find this resource:

                                      Seyfort Ruegg, David. “The Uses of the Four Positions of the Catuḥṣkoti and the Problem of the Description of Reality in Mahāyāna Buddhism.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 5 (1977): 1–71.Find this resource:

                                        Seyfort Ruegg, David. The Literature of the Madhyamaka School of Philosophy in India. A History of Indian Literature 7. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1981.Find this resource:

                                          Siderits, Mark, and Shōryū Katsura. Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way: The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. Boston: Wisdom, 2013.Find this resource:

                                            Thupten Jinpa. Self, Reason, and Reality in Tibetan Philosophy: Tsongkhapa’s Quest for the Middle Way. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2008.Find this resource:

                                              Tillemans, Tom J. F. How Do Mādhyamika’s Think: and Other Essays on the Buddhist Philosophy of the Middle. Boston: Wisdom, 2016.Find this resource:

                                                Tola, Fernando, and Carmen Dragonetti. “Nāgārjuna’s Catuhstava.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 13 (1985): 1–54.Find this resource:

                                                  Vose, Kevin. Resurrecting Candrakīrti: Disputes in the Tibetan Creation of Prāsaṅgika. Boston: Wisdom, 2009.Find this resource:

                                                    Westerhoff, Jan. Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction. Oxford and London: Oxford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:


                                                      (1.) The Sanskrit term madhyamaka literally means just “middle,” but throughout English scholarship this has been translated as “middle way.” For the sake of consistency and clarity, “middle way” will be used throughout.

                                                      (2.) Though many of the concepts discussed here are found in both Pali and Sanskrit sources, we will use the Sanskrit terms throughout, as Nāgārjuna composed his texts in Sanskrit, and the Indian commentaries are in Sanskrit as well.

                                                      (3.) Saṃyutta Nikāya, II.15 (5), in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, trans. Bhikku Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom, 2000), 544.

                                                      (5.) The notion of Buddhist doctrinal schools has been a commonplace in Buddhist scholarship both traditional and modern, but this idea should be handled cautiously. The term “Madhyamaka School” really only refers to a lineage of writers (often separated by centuries) who wrote commentaries on one or another of Nāgārjuna’s works, and that much later were placed into a doxographical category, primarily by the Tibetan traditions. See, for example, Ian Charles Harris, The Continuity of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra in Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism (Leiden and New York: Brill, 1991); and Richard King, “Early Yogācāra and Its Relationship with the Madhyamaka School,” Philosophy East and West 40 (1994): 659–683.

                                                      (6.) For a helpful overview of Madhyamaka in China, see Dan Arnold, “Madhyamaka Buddhist Philosophy: Madhyamaka in East Asia,” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, eds. James Fieser and Bradley Dowden (2005).

                                                      (7.) For a discussion of this categorization, see David Seyfort Ruegg, The Literature of the Madhyamaka School of Philosophy in India (A History of Indian Literature 7; Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1981), 7–9.

                                                      (8.) The inclusion of the Vyavahārasiddhi was favored by most Tibetan scholars, but Tsongkhapa and his followers preferred the Ratnāvalī as the sixth text of this category. See Karma Phuntsho, Mipham’s Dialectics and the Debates on Emptiness: To Be, Not to Be, or Neither (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005), 235.

                                                      (9.) For a discussion of the full implications of these verses, see Eviatar Shulman, “Creative Ignorance: Nāgārjuna on the Ontological Significance of Consciousness,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 30. 1–2 (2009): 139–173.

                                                      (10.) A significant exception to this is Shulman, “Creative Ignorance.”

                                                      (11.) Christian Lindtner, Nāgārjuniana: Studies in the Writings and Philosophy of Nāgārjuna (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1987), 31.

                                                      (12.) Āryadeva, Bhāviveka, Candrakīrti, Prajñākaramati and other Indian commentators cite one or more of these hymns and attribute them to Nāgārjuna. For an overview of this issue, see Fernando Tola and Carmen Dragonetti, “Nāgārjuna’s Catuhstava,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 13 (1985): 1–6.

                                                      (13.) The hymns are not found in the Chinese Buddhist canon.

                                                      (14.) Saṃyutta Nikāya, II.15 (5), in The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, trans. Bhikku Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom, 2000), 544.

                                                      (15.) Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura, Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way: Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Boston: Wisdom, 2013), 159.

                                                      (16.) Ibid., 18.

                                                      (17.) Ibid., 28.

                                                      (18.) Ibid., 276–277.

                                                      (19.) For a collection of essays on the status of conventional truth, see Cowherds, Moonshadows: Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

                                                      (20.) Siderits and Katsura, Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way, 277.

                                                      (21.) Mark Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 2007), 182.

                                                      (22.) Siderits and Katsura, Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way, 13.

                                                      (23.) Ibid., 197.

                                                      (24.) Lindtner, Nāgārjuniana, 63–64.

                                                      (25.) Current scholarly consensus is that “Bhāviveka” is the proper spelling of this name, but earlier scholarship frequently used “Bhāvaviveka,” or sometimes “Bhavya.”

                                                      (26.) Siderits and Katsura, Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way, 304.

                                                      (27.) Ibid., 315–316.

                                                      (28.) Ibid., 334.

                                                      (29.) Karen C. Lang, Āryadeva’s Catuḥśataka: On the Bodhisattva’s Cultivation of Method and Knowledge (Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1986).

                                                      (30.) For a wide-ranging examination of the differences between these two schools, see Georges B. J. Dreyfus and Sara L. McClintock, eds., The Svātantika-Prāsaṅgika Distinction: What Difference Does a Difference Make? (Boston: Wisdom, 2003).

                                                      (31.) For an English translation of the Middle Treatise, see Brian Bocking, trans., Nāgārjuna in China: A Translation of the Middle Treatise (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1995).

                                                      (32.) For a translation of an important treatise of Sengzhao, see Walter Liebenthal, Chao Lun: The Treatises of Seng-chao: A Translation with Introduction, Notes and Appendices (2d rev. ed.; Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1968). For an article on Sengzhao’s understanding of Madhyamaka, and the ways that his thought both remains true to the Indian sources, yet reflects Chinese religious and philosophical concerns, see Shohei Ichimura, “On the Paradoxical Method of the Chinese Mādhyamika: Seng-chao and the Chao-lun Treatise,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 19 (1992): 51–71.

                                                      (33.) For an overview of the Sanlun School as well as later developments on Chinese Madhyamaka and its influence on other schools of Buddhism, see Ming-Wood Liu, Madhyamaka Thought in China (Leiden: Brill, 1994).

                                                      (34.) There are many works in English on Tsongkhapa’s formulation of Madhyamaka, but for a translation of his commentary on Nāgārjuna’s fundamental text, see Je Tsongkhapa, Jay L. Garfield, and Ngawang Samten, trans., Ocean of Reasoning: A Great Commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

                                                      (35.) For a translation of this work, see John Whitney Pettit, Mipham’s Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection (Boston: Wisdom, 1999); for a comprehensive study of Mipham’s Madhyamaka and his critiques of Tsongkhapa, see Phuntsho, Mipham’s Dialectics.

                                                      (36.) Chandrakīrti and Jamgön Mipham, Introduction to the Middle Way: Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara with Commentary by Jamgön Mipham, trans. Padmakara Translation Group (Boston and London: Shambhala, 2002).

                                                      (37.) For a translation and study of this text, see José I. Cabezón and Geshe Lobsang Dargyay, trans., Freedom From Extremes: Gorampa’s “Distinguishing the Views” and the Polemics of Emptiness (Boston: Wisdom, 2007).

                                                      (38.) For English translations see Candrakīrti and Mikyö Dorje, Ari Goldfield, Jules Levinson, Jim Scott, and Birgit Scott, trans., The Moon of Wisdom: Chapter Six of Chandrakirti’s Entering the Middle Way with Commentary by the Eighth Karmapa Mikyö Dorje’s Chariot of the Dagpo Kagyü Siddhas (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2005); and Dorje Wangchuk and Dewar Tyler, trans., The Karmapa’s Middle Way: Feast for the Fortunate (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2008).

                                                      (39.) Among Nyingma scholars, Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo is an early and important figure in the establishment of the Nyingma Madhyamaka, and an example of the synthesis of Madhyamaka and Tantra. See Heidi I. Köppl, Establishing Appearances as Divine: Rongzom Chözang on Reasoning, Madhyamaka, and Purity (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2008).

                                                      (40.) For translations and studies of these two Jonang figures, see Cyrus Stearns, The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2010); and Yaroslav Komarovski, Visions of Unity: The Golden Pandita Shakya Chokden’s New Interpretation of Yogācāra and Madhyamaka (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2012).

                                                      (41.) Andrew P. Tuck, Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship: On the Western Interpretation of Nāgārjuna (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

                                                      (42.) Eugène Burnouf, Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism (Buddhism and Modernity), trans. Katia Buffetrille and Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

                                                      (43.) Fyodor Shtcherbatsky, The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1968).

                                                      (44.) T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1955).

                                                      (45.) Richard H. Robinson, “Some Logical Aspects of Nāgārjuna’s System,” Philosophy East and West 6:4 (1957): 291–308.

                                                      (46.) A number of scholars, including B. K. Matilal, Ives Waldo, Nathan Katz, and Robert Thurman, utilize Wittgenstein’s thought, especially in the Philosophical Investigations, to unpack Nāgārjuna’s arguments and ultimate intent. For an extensive comparison of Nāgārjuna and Wittgenstein, see Chris Gudmunsen, Wittgenstein and Buddhism (London: Macmillan, 1977).

                                                      (47.) Frederick Streng, Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning (Nashville: Abingdon, 1967).

                                                      (48.) Richard P. Hayes, “Nāgārjuna’s Appeal,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 22 (1994): 299–378.

                                                      (49.) Siderits, Buddhism as Philosophy.

                                                      (50.) Jay L. Garfield, Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

                                                      (51.) Jan Westerhoff, Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

                                                      (52.) Amber Carpenter, Indian Buddhist Philosophy (Ancient Philosophies; New York: Routledge, 2014).

                                                      (53.) Tom J. F. Tillemans, How Do Mādhyamika’s Think: and Other Essays on the Buddhist Philosophy of the Middle (Boston: Wisdom, 2016).

                                                      (54.) See, for instance, Giuseppe Ferraro, “A Criticism of M. Siderits’ and J. L. Garfields ‘Semantic Interpretation’ of Nāgārjuna’s Theory of Two Truths,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 41 (2013): 195–219. For a much broader critique of modern understanding of Madhyamaka, see Shulman, “Creative Ignorance.”

                                                      (55.) Philosophy East and West 63.3 (2013) .

                                                      (56.) See especially Kevin Vose, Resurrecting Candrakīrti: Disputes in the Tibetan Creation of Prāsaṇgika (Boston: Wisdom, 2009).

                                                      (57.) Jay L. Garfield and Jan Westerhoff, eds., Madhyamaka and Yogācāra: Allies or Rivals? (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press 2015).

                                                      (58.) Siderits and Katsura, Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way.

                                                      (59.) Guy Bugault, ed., Stances du milieu par excellence (Paris: Gallimard, 2002).

                                                      (60.) Raniero Gnoli, ed. and trans., Nāgārjuna Madhyamaka Kārikā: Le stanze del cammino di mezzo (Enciclopedia di autori classici 61; Turin: P. Boringhieri, 1961).

                                                      (61.) Lutz Geldsetzer, ed. and trans., Die Lehre von der Mitte: Chinesisch-Deutsch (Philosophische Bibliotek 610; Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 2010).

                                                      (62.) Lindtner, Nāgārjuniana.

                                                      (63.) Tola and Dragonetti, “Nāgārjuna’s Catuhstava.”

                                                      (64.) Jeffrey Hopkins, Nāgārjuna’s Precious Garland: Buddhist Advice for Living and Liberation (Albany, NY: Snow Lion, 2007).

                                                      (65.) William Ames, “Bhāvaviveka’s Prajñāpradīpa: A Translation of Chapter One: ‘Examination of Causal Conditions’ (Pratyaya), Part One,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 21 (1994): 209–259; “Bhāvaviveka’s Prajñāpradīpa: A translation of Chapter Two: ‘Examination of the Traversed, the Untraversed, and That Which Is Being Traversed,’” Journal of Indian Philosophy 23 (1995): 295–365; “Bhāvaviveka’s Prajñāpradīpa: A Translation of Chapter Three, Four, and Five: Examining the Āyatanas, Aggregates, and Elements,” Buddhist Literature 1 (1999): 1–119; “Bhāvaviveka’s Prajñāpradīpa: A Translation of Chapters Six, Examination of Desire and the One Who Desires, and Seven, Examination of Origin, Duration and Cessation,” Buddhist Literature 2 (2000): 1–91.

                                                      (66.) J. W. de Jong, Cinq chapitres de la Prasannapadā (Paris: Geuthner, 1949); Étienne Lamotte, “Le Traité de l’acte de Vasubandhu, Karmasiddhiprakaraṇa,” Mélanges Chinois et Bouddhiques 4 (1936): 265–288; Anne MacDonald, In Clear Words: The Prasannapadā, Chapter One. Vols. I & II (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akadamie der Wissenschaften, 2015); Jacques May, Candrakīrti: Prasannapadā Madhyamakavṛtti, douze chapitre traduit du sanscrit et du tibetain (Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1959); Stanislaw Schayer, “Feuer und Brennstoff,” Rocznik Orientalistyczny 7 (1929–1930): 26–52; Stanislaw Schayer, Ausgewählte Kapitel aus der Prasannapadā (Krakow: Naktadem Polskiej Akademji Umiejetnosci, 1931); and Theodore Stcherbatsky, The Conception of Buddhist Nirvāṇa (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1977).

                                                      (67.) Malcolm David Eckel, Jñānagarbha’s Commentary on the Distinction Between the Two Truths (SUNY Series in Buddhist Studies; Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987).

                                                      (68.) Masamichi Ichigō, “Śāntarakṣita’s Madhyamakālaṁkāra: Introduction, Edition and Translation,” in Studies in the Literature of the Great Vehicle: Three Mahāyāna Buddhist Texts, eds. Luis Gómez and Jonathan Silk (Ann Arbor: Collegiate Institute for the Study of Buddhist Literature and Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1989), 141–240.

                                                      (69.) Masamichi Ichigō, “Śāntarakṣita and Bhāvaviveka as Opponents of the Mādhyamika in the Madhyamakāloka,” in Wisdom, Compassion, and the Search for Understanding: The Buddhist Studies Legacy of Gadjin M. Nagao, ed. Jonathan Silk (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2000), 147–170.

                                                      (70.) Ryusei Keira, Mādhyamika and Epistemology: A Study of Kamalaśīla’s Method for Proving the Voidness of All Dharmas: Introduction, Annotated Translations and Tibetan Texts of Selected Sections of the Second Chapter of the Madhyamakāloka (Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, 2004).

                                                      (71.) Sara L. McClintock, Omniscience and Rhetoric of Reason: Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla on Rationality, Argumentation and Religious Authority (Boston: Wisdom, 2010).