The Madhyamaka School of Thought

The first major school of Mahayana philosophy is known as the Madhyamaka, or “Middle Way School”. The Madhyamaka school emerged in India in the second or third century of the Common Era in the works of the philosopher Nagarjuna. It was developed for almost a thousand years in India, then it was transmitted to Tibet and became the dominant tradition of Tibetan philosophy.

Nagarjuna and the Two Truths

Nagarjuna talks about the understanding of emptiness in the way I outlined it in my last series of articles. There, we talked about emptiness in a way that Nagarjuna would have understood.

Nagarjuna said that when the Buddha teaches the Dharma, you learn two truths: Ordinary relative truth and ultimate truth. This is the doctrine of two truths. Nagarjuna said that anyone who does not know the distinction between these two truths does not know the profound point of the Buddha’s teaching.

From the point of view of ultimate truth, all things are empty of identity. This is the point we discussed last time. From the relative or conventional point of view, the categories of ordinary life have to be accepted as valid.

Nagarjuna distilled this point into a simple formula: “It’s impossible to teach ultimate truth without relying on conventional truth. Without understanding the ultimate, it’s impossible to attain Nirvana.”

The key point of controversy for Nagarjuna commentators has to do with the meaning of the word “rely”. What does it mean to rely on conventional truth when you make some kind of statement about ultimate truth? There is a split in the Madhyamaka school on this point.

The Svātantrika Sub-School

One group of followers known as Svātantrikas thought that they had to accept that things have to be established or proven in a conventional sense before they could argue against them in an ultimate sense. This position came from their believe that philosophers had to start from established premises before they could refute the positions of their opponents. This position is actually embodied and expressed in the name of this group.

The word Svātantrika comes from the Sanskrit word Svatantra, that means “independent”. The Svātantrika were people who thought that Madhyamakas had to make independent arguments in order to respond to the positions of their opponents. In order to make an independent argument, you have to state a premise that you think as valid, and then you have to use that premise to argue to a conclusion.

They felt that conventional reality had to be established at the start of an argument in order to move forward to convince their opponent of their position. The Svātantrika had a lot of influence in India and Tibet, but it wasn’t the one that eventually won the day, at least from the Tibetan point of view.

The Prasangika Sub-School

Another group of followers was known as the Prasangikas. They thought that they only needed to presuppose the positions of their opponents before showing that they led to absurd conclusions. This position is embodied too in the name of their subschool. The Prasangika comes from the word Prasanga, that means “an absurd conclusion”.

All they do is to take the words of their opponents and then show that those would lead to some kind of absurd conclusion.

What Does it All Mean?

You might wondering at this point why we are going into this in so much detail. We now have followed the argument of the two truths into what is a genuinely a technical dispute between two groups of commentators in the Madhyamaka school. We should ask ourselves what is at stake here. Why is it interesting for us to consider an argument like this?

If you’ve been reading this site, specially my articles about the Buddhist concept of no-self, you may understand that this simple phrase, no-self, expresses the key point in the Buddhist view of the world. Buddhists want to find a way to live in the world and take it seriously, but not be bounded by any of it. This requires a delicate balance between the two intellectual pulls of the Middle Path. Not too much self, and not too little self. You need just enough to be effective and enough to be free.

This is what the Madhyamaka school was trying to get at when was doing this exegesis of the concept of conventional reality. Conventional reality is what we mean by self. What am I? Just some kind of conventional entity that stands here. It is not ultimately real. But how is it real? That’s the question. How can you be a self in a way that is out there and at the same time not being anything at all?

The Prasangika says that you are a self in a sense that it is true only when it is not analyzed. You can’t be a self that is established in its own right either from the conventional or ultimate point of view. If you were, you will be holding on to that self, you wouldn’t be able to flow freely through the flow of experience.

The issue that lies behind this dispute between the Svātantrika and Prasangikas is really a dispute of selfhood and in the end a dispute about freedom. How can you define philosophically what is to be free? This is the Madhyamaka school, the school of the Middle path, and it is the fundamental position of the Tibetan tradition. It is shared by all Tibetan schools in one way or another.

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