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Madhyamaka (Sanskrit: मध्यमक, Madhyamaka, Chinese: 中觀派; pinyin: Zhōngguān Pài; also known as Śunyavada) refers primarily to a Mahāyāna Buddhist school of Buddhist philosophy[1] systematized by Nāgārjuna. Nāgārjuna may have arrived at his positions from a desire to achieve a consistent exegesis of the Buddha's doctrine as recorded in the āgamas. To Nāgārjuna, the Buddha was not merely a forerunner, but the very founder of the Madhyamaka system.[2] The tradition and its subsidiaries are called "Madhyamaka"; those who follow it are called "Mādhyamikas"[1].

According to the Mādhyamikas, all phenomena are empty of "substance" or "essence" (Sanskrit: svabhāva), meaning that they have no intrinsic, independent reality. Buddhapālita states, while commenting on Nagārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā,

What is the reality of things just as it is? It is the absence of essence. Unskilled persons whose eye of intelligence is obscured by the darkness of delusion conceive of an essence of things and then generate attachment and hostility with regard to them.
Buddhapālita-mula-madhyamaka-vrtti P5242,73.5.6-74.1.2[3]

Madhyamaka is a rejection of two extreme views, and therefore represents the "middle way" between eternalism—the view that something has an objective existence (i.e., its existence does not depend on external objects)—and what some Western interpreters translate as "nihilism". The term nihilism is used here in the sense from Indian philosophy, which differs from that used in Western philosophical nihilism. The sense used here denotes either an assertion that all things are intrinsically already destroyed or rendered nonexistent, or a denial of the existence of something that actually exists.



Madhyamaka is a source of methods for approaching prajnaparamita, or "perfection of wisdom", the sixth of the Six Perfections of the bodhisattva path. The term is used as the collective title of key Mahāyāna sutras. This is also often explained in Mahāyāna hagiography as the teaching on śūnyatā that occurred at Vulture Peak (Raj Gir) and has been categorized as the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.

Modern adherents

Not all Mahāyāna schools adhere to the Madhyamaka view or approach. However, the Tibetan and Zen traditions do adhere to a form of Madhyamaka, with differences in method. The present day schools of Tendai, Sanron, and the Mahā-Madhyamaka are also heirs to the Madhyamaka tradition.

Tibetan categories

There is currently no evidence that the historical Mādhyamikas divided themselves into distinct schools, but later Tibetan scholars—in particular the 11th-century Tibetan translator Patsap Nyima Drak—did categorize their views. According to the Tibetan view, the subdivisions of Madhyamaka are:

It is important to note that while these different tenet systems were discussed, it is debated to what degree individual writers in Indian and Tibetan discussion held each of these views and if they held a view generally or only in particular instances.

Both Prasangikas and Svatantrikas cited material in the āgamas in support of their arguments.[4]


The central technique avowed by Prasaṅgika Madhyamaka is to show by prasaṅga (or reductio ad absurdum) that any positive assertion (such as "asti" or "nāsti", "it is", or "it is not") or view regarding phenomena must be regarded as merely conventional (saṃvṛti or lokavyavahāra).

The Prasangika hold that it is not necessary for the proponent and opponent to use the same kind of valid cognition to establish a common subject; indeed it is possible to change the view of an opponent through a reductio argument.

Tsongkhapa's thesis is that[5]

The opponents of Candrakirti's Prassana-padā (a seminal Prasaṅgika text) are both (a) the essentialists, who accept that things ultimately have intrinsic nature, and (b) the Svātantrikas, who refute that, but accept that things conventionally have intrinsic character or intrinsic nature.
Lam Rim Chen Mo

A Prasaṅgika asserts that something exists conventionally if it meets all of the following three conditions:

  • if it is known to a conventional consciousness
  • if no other conventional cognition contradicts its being as it is thus known
  • if reason that accurately analyses reality (that is, analyses whether something intrinsically exists) does not contradict it

Whatever fails to meet those criteria does not exist.[5] Therefore Prasaṅgikas cannot accept that intrinsic nature exists, even conventionally.

Again, Je Tsongkhapa mentions[6] several common misinterpretations of the distinction between Prasangika and Svatantrika, a couple of which are:

  1. A misinterpretation (attributed to students of Jayananda, and very commonly made by modern scholars (according to Napper[7]) stating that Prasangikas have no theses of their own, and they only refute what others believe. And because Prasangikas have no beliefs of their own, the only permissible argument is the reductio which negates the opponents theses.
  2. A broader misinterpretation (attributed to Tsongkhapa's Tibetan contemporaries, and again commonly made by modern scholars[7]is made that there are no theses, positions, or arguments whatsoever held by the Prasangika:

If I had any thesis,
Then I would suffer from that fault,
But as I have no theses,
I am alone without faults.

Also, Nagarjuna's Sixty Stanzas:

Mahatmas have no positions,
They have no arguments.
How can those who have no positions themselves
Have positions vis-a-vis others?

Nagarjuna's student, Aryadeva likewise states in The Four Hundred:

No matter how long you try
You can never rebut
Those who have no position
In regard to existence, nonexistence, or both.

These misinterpretations are comprehensively refuted by Tsongkhapa[6]. Likewise, Napper's commentary[7] includes a thorough examination of common errors made by modern academics, Translators, and Buddhologists alike. Regarding the three verses above, Tsongkhapa (based on well-accepted commentaries) glosses the first verse as "If I accepted that the words of a thesis had an essential existence then I could be faulted for contradicting the thesis that all things lack an essential existence, but because I do not accept that, I cannot be faulted". Regarding the second verse, Tsongkhapa uses Chandrakirti's commentary again which explains that the reason for having no position is that there is no essentially existing position for a non-essentialist, and that this isn't to be understood to be an assertion regarding a conventional position. For the last verse, Tsongkhapa uses Candrakirti's commentary to demonstrate that for the Madhyamaka this verse means that neither the essentialists nor the nihilists (implied by the last line) can refute those who accept imputed existence while repudiating essential existence.

Buddhapalita and Candrakirti are noted as the main proponents of this approach. Tibetan teacher Longchen Rabjam noted in the 14th century that Candrakirti favored the prasaṅga approach when specifically discussing the analysis for ultimacy, but otherwise he made positive assertions. His central text, Madhyamakavatāra, is structured as a description of the paths and results of practice, which is made up of positive assertions. Therefore, even those most attributed to the Prāsaṅgika view make positive assertions when discussing a path of practice but use prasaṅga specifically when analyzing for ultimate truth.[8]


The Svātantrika Madhyamaka differs from the Prāsaṅgika in a few key ways. Conventional phenomena are understood to have a conventional essential existence, but without an ultimately existing essence. In this way they believe they are able to make positive or "autonomous" assertions using syllogistic logic because they are able to share a subject that is established as appearing in common - the proponent and opponent use the same kind of valid cognition to establish it; the name comes from this quality of being able to use autonomous arguments in debate. Svatantrika in Sanskrit refers to autonomy and was translated back into Sanskrit from the equivalent Tibetan term. [8]

Bhavaviveka is the first person to whom this view is attributed, as they are laid out in his commentaries on Nāgārjuna and his critiques of Buddhapalita.

Ju Mipham explained that using positive assertions in logical debate may serve a useful purpose, either while debating with non-Buddhist schools or to move a student from a coarser to a more subtle view. Similarly, discussing an approximate ultimate helps students who have difficulty using only prasaṅga methods move closer to the understanding of the true ultimate. Ju Mipham felt that the ultimate non-enumerated truth of the Svatantrika was no different from the ultimate truth of the Prāsaṅgika. He felt the only difference between them was with respect to how they discussed conventional truth and their approach to presenting a path[8].


A Yogācāra and Madhyamaka synthesis was posited by Shantarakshita in the 8th century and may have been common at Nalanda University at that time. Like the Prāsaṅgika, this view approaches ultimate truth through the prasaṅga method, yet when speaking of conventional reality they may make autonomous statements like the earlier Svātantrika and Yogācāra approaches.

This was different from the earlier Svatantrika in that the conventional truth was described in terms of the theory of consciousness-only instead of the tenets of Svatantrika, though neither was used to analyze for ultimate truth.

For example, they may assert that all phenomena are nothing but the 'play of mind' and hence empty of concrete existence—and that mind is in turn empty of defining characteristics. But in doing so, they're careful to point out that any such example would be an approximate ultimate and not the true ultimate. By making such autonomous statements, Yogācāra-Svatantrika-Madhyamaka is often mistaken as a Svātantrika or Yogācāra view, even though a Prāsaṅgika approach was used in analysis.[9] This view is thus a synthesis of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra.


The Madhyamaka concept of emptiness is often explained through the related concept of interdependence. This is in contrast to independence, that phenomena arise of their own accord, independent of causes and conditions. Although a common way to think about emptiness, it is a conceptual way of talking about it—to lead a student closer to the non-conceptual wisdom of the ultimate truth—and it would not withstand analysis as an ultimate view. In the first chapter of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Nagarjuna provides arguments that even causes and conditions are empty of inherent existence or essence. This analogy, however, connects the conclusion of the Middle Way tenets with the codependent origination teachings of the first turning.

The analogy to interdependence is considered helpful for students, and is presented in the famous ninth chapter of Shantideva's Bodhicharyavatara, as well as by modern writers like Thich Nhat Hanh who, in The Heart of Understanding, discusses the Heart Sutra in terms of interdependence.

In this analogy, there is no first or ultimate cause for anything that occurs. Instead, all things are dependent on innumerable causes and conditions that are themselves dependent on innumerable causes and conditions. The interdependence of all phenomena, including the self, is a helpful way to undermine mistaken views about inherence, or that one's self is inherently existent. It is also a helpful way to discuss Mahāyāna teachings on motivation, compassion, and ethics. The comparison to interdependence has produced recent discussion comparing Mahāyāna ethics to environmental ethics.


In themselves, from their side, things are free of imputation, even though there is really nothing at all that can be said from their side. This dynamic philosophical tension—a tension between the Madhyamaka accounts of the limits of what can be coherently said and its analytical ostension of what can't be said without paradox but must be understood—must constantly be borne in mind in reading the text. It is not an incoherent mysticism, but it is a logical tightrope act at the very limits of language and metaphysics.

—Jay L. Garfield, Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, p. 102

See also


  1. ^ a b Williams, Paul (2000). Buddhist Thought Routledge, p140.
  2. ^ Lindtner, Christian (1997). Master of Wisdom. Dharma Publishing, page 324.
  3. ^ Translations from "The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path of Enlightenment", Vol. 3 by Tsong-Kha-Pa, Snow Lion Publications ISBN 1-55939-166-9
  4. ^ Richard Gombrich, How Buddhism began: the conditioned genesis of the early teachings. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1996, pages 27-28.
  5. ^ a b Tsongkhapa (author); Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee (translators) (2002). The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Volume Three) Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications ISBN 1-55939-166-9, pp225-275 after a very lengthy and well-referenced debate, strongly relying upon Candrakirti's (a Prasaṅgika) analysis of Bhāvaviveka (a Svātantrika) in the Prassana-padā ('Clear Words' La Vallée Poussin (1970) 28.4-29; sDe dGe Kanjur (Kanakura 1956) 3796: Ha 9a7-b3)
  6. ^ a b Tsongkhapa; The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Volume Three); ISBN 1-55939-166-9, (2002) pp. 226-232
  7. ^ a b c Dependent-Arising and Emptiness (1989) pp. 67-150 ISBN 0861710576
  8. ^ a b c Shantarakshita & Ju Mipham (2005) pp.131-141
  9. ^ Shantarakshita & Ju Mipham (2005) pp. 117-122

External links

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  • Mādhyamaka — Madhyamaka Le Madhyamaka (sanskrit ; chinois : Zhōng guān 中觀, tibétain: dbu ma) ou Voie du milieu ou médiane, constitue l une des deux principales écoles spécifiques du bouddhisme mahāyāna. Un mādhyamikā est un tenant de cette doctrine …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Madhyamaka — (Sanskrit, m., मघ्यमक, madhyamaka, »Mittlerer Weg« zwischen Bejahung und Verneinung) ist die Bezeichnung einer Philosophenschule des Mahayana Buddhismus. Sie ist eine Gründung des indischen Philosophen Nagarjuna, der im 2. Jahrhundert… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Mādhyamaka — Madhyamaka (Sanskrit, m., मघ्यमक, madhyamaka, »Mittlerer Weg« zwischen Bejahung und Verneinung) ist die Bezeichnung einer Philosophenschule des Mahayana Buddhismus. Sie ist eine Gründung des indischen Philosophen Nagarjuna, der im 2. Jahrhundert… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Madhyamaka —   [Sanskrit »die mittlere Lehre«], die erste philosophische Schule des Mahayana Buddhismus. Begründet wurde sie von Nagarjuna (2. Jahrhundert), dessen Madhyamaka karika (»Merkverse der mittleren Lehre«) als Grundwerk der Schule gelten. Sein… …   Universal-Lexikon

  • Madhyamaka — Le Madhyamaka (sanskrit ; chinois : Zhōng guān 中觀, tibétain : dbu ma) ou Voie du milieu ou médiane, constitue l une des deux principales écoles spécifiques du bouddhisme mahāyāna. Un mādhyamikā est un tenant de cette doctrine.… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • madhyamaka — मध्यमक …   Indonesian dictionary

  • mādhyamaka — माध्यमक …   Indonesian dictionary

  • madhyamaka — noun see madhyamika 1 …   Useful english dictionary

  • madhyamaka-vṛitti — मध्यमकवृत्ति …   Indonesian dictionary

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