Our Wisdom of the Ages section attempts to demonstrate the continuous stream of the ancient Wisdom Tradition throughout human history. As we continue to build the section we will regularly bring to the fore selections highlighting individuals, systems of thought, schools, movements, etc.. We now highlight our section on Mādhamika, complete with a selection of works and articles.
The Mādhyamika school is one of two ancient branches of Northern (or Mahayana) Buddhism. As D. T. Suzuki remarks:
“The Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, as far as it is known in China and Tibet, divides itself into two great schools, the Mādhyamika and the Yogācāra. … The Mādhyamika and the Yogācāra are generally contrasted, one as a system of negation or emptiness and the other as that of affirmation. The ultimate object of the Mādhyamika school is çūnyatā [sunyata] and that of tbe Yogācāra is dharmalakṣaṇa or ālīyavijñāna. Philosophically speaking, the former treats more of ontology and the latter chiefly of cosmogony or, better, psychology.” 1
It is Nāgārjuna who is viewed as the founder of the Madhyamika (Madhyamaka) School, and of Nāgārjuna, H.P. Blavatsky says:
“…going to China after his conversion [to Buddhism], [he] converted in his turn the whole country to Buddhism.” 2
While this differs from many modern historical perspectives, the underlying truth is that while Nāgārjuna himself was a native of India, and tradition has him teaching in India, 3 his teachings also took hold and spread through China to become a distinct school of Buddhism that would last beyond the expulsion of Buddhism from Indian soil. It is then from China that they spread through the far east, most notably to Japan. Of this school, D. T. Suzuki explains that:
“The Mādhyamika School is known in China as the “Three Çāstra [Shastra] Sect” which was first introduced by Kumāra-jīva in A.D. 401. With many other Çāstras and Sūtras, he translated into Chinese Nagārjuna’s “Dvādaçanikāya-Çāstra,” “Mādhyamika Çāstra,” and Kaṇa-deva’s (the most eminent disciple of Nāgarjuna) “Çata-Çāstra.” These three works constitute the canonical books of the Three Çāstra sect. Though the sect flourished only about three hundred years after the first introduction into Chinese soil, the three Çāstras are still studied by Buddhists in Japan and probably in China…” 4
“The Three Çāstra sect did not flourish very long in China. Gradually declining after the death of Chia-hsiang, it was completely excluded from the religious arena towards the end of the T’ang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). The reason why it could not enjoy a further prosperity in China is due mainly to the peculiarity of the Chinese mind which refuses to dwell on anything abstruse, and partly to the sweeping influence of the rival school, Dharmahtkṣa. sect (Yogācāra or Vijñānavāda philosophy established by Asanga), introduced and promulgated by Hsüan-tsan.” 5
The Madhyamika school is also divided into two distinct sub-schools, these being the Prāsaṅgika and Svātantrika, each interpreting Nāgārjuna’s teachings along slightly differing lines—or, as it seems, diverging chiefly in a difference in approach to philosophic argument and dialectic. 6 It is primarily due to the exceedingly subtle and abstract nature of its philosophy, that varied interpretations of Nāgārjuna’s teachings not only molded the growth of the school (primarily through commentaries and elaborations of Nāgārjuna’s works) but that in modern times there is still considerable debate as to the meaning of Madhyamika teachings.
Jacques May explains the basic nature of the school and the derivation of its name:
“Why is the school called Madhyamaka or Mādhyamika? This name refers to the adjective madhyama, ‘middle’, and more particularly to madhyamā pratipad (pratipad being here understood), the Middle Way.
“Now, the Middle Way constitutes the fundamental principle of Buddhism as a whole. So it could be conceived that all Buddhists should be called Madhyamaka or Mādhyamika. But the very title which Nāgārjuna gave to his main work, the Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā, and the name of the school which drew its inspiration from it, well enough indicate that from the very start the master and his followers intended to go to the end of the not only ethical, but metaphysical or even better existential attitude which is implied in abiding by the Middle Way.” 7
This central text—the Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way)—unanimously attributed to Nāgārjuna, contains the core of Nāgārjuna’s teachings. We must be careful at the outset, however, not to view Nāgārjuna’s work, nor the continuation of the teachings of the school that followed, as the presentation of a new philosophy, but rather as a refinement of the old, or a countering of the errors that had crept into Buddhist thought. Nāgārjuna seems to have been primarily interested in encouraging students to forgo the grasping of any particular idea or ideas. As one author says:
“Nagarjuna was trying to release people from this grasping of viewpoints by pointing out that all things are, without exception, empty and this includes causality, the Four Noble Truths, the Dharma, and Buddhism itself. This is Nagarjuna’s good medicine to overcome the sickness of attachments and erroneous views.” 8
“Essentially, this attitude could be called a ‘non-fixation’ or ‘non-clinging’ attitude. Abiding by the Middle Way means not clinging to any extreme, … that is to say, to any of the rigid and biassed ethical or metaphysical standpoints which we more or less consciously tend to adopt…” 7
Many attempts have been made to explain what the Mādhyamika philosophy is, what it stands for and what it teaches, but as the same author rightly observes “the notion of ‘Mādhyamika standpoint’ is self-contradictory” and “the Mādhyamika has no thesis of his own, or, more generally speaking, no philosophical position”, 7 this being due to the very “non-grasping” nature of Nāgārjuna’s teachings. He did not teach a new philosophy that itself could be grasped as containing the truth, but rather pointed out the essential problem with regarding any philosophical assertion as containing the truth. This is exemplified in the concept of “emptiness” prevalent in the Mādhyamika, though emptiness does not equate to nothingness. Emptiness (or śūnyatā) becomes a profound teaching tool for the student, allowing one to maintain the equilibrium of the middle-way by removing the belief that one’s concepts contain the absolute truth and therefore opening one to greater wisdom.
We see this tool used in distinguishing between Paramārtha and Samvṛti (“absolute and conditional, one and many, noumena and phenomena, universal and particular” 5). As D.T. Suzuki observes:
“The advocate of the [Mādhyamika] sect declares that the discrimination between the Paramārtha and Samvṛti, or in other words, between what appears to us, and what is in itself, is not absolute; that they have only relative Value because it is the condition by which our imperfect understanding conceives existence. Noumena and phenomena have no objective reality as some suppose; for if they have, the truth becomes dualistic and therefore conditional, and that which is conditional cannot be the truth. Nor are they subjective forms inherent in our mind as others affirm; for if so, our reason becomes incapable of grasping the truth which must be absolute, transcending all modes of relativity.” 5
We come then, to the emptiness of the ideas, which can only ever point towards the truth, but can never be it. Nāgārjuna takes the teaching of Emptiness to its ultimate profundity when he says that even “Emptiness itself is empty. Those who cling to it as if it were something existent are really incurable”. 7 Thus again, non-grasping is shown in its central role.
For more detail on the Madhyamika School and its teachings, we highly recommend the following articles:
See also the following articles:
Notes on the Madhyamika Philosophy, by D. T. Suzuki
The Madhyamika School in China, by D. T. Suzuki
On Madhyamika Philosophy, by Jacques May
And for a comprehensive list of articles on Madhyamika, see here:
Following this, if the student is interested in exploring further the Mahayana tradition and its schools in their relation to Theosophy, we’d highly recommend several articles by David Reigle, for instance:
For more on both Nāgārjuna and the Mādhyamika School, see here:
For the other main branch of ancient Buddhist teachings—Yogācāra—see here:
^1. Philosophy of the Yogācāra: The Mādhyamika and the Yogācāra, by D. T. Suzuki
^6. See Madhyamaka Buddhism, Part 4. Historical Development of Indian Schools of Interpretation (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).