Chapter Eighteen The Philosophy of the Middle Way The philosophy of the Middle Way, or Madhyamaka philosophy, has

sometimes been called the central philosophy of the Mahayana tradition. It has even been called the central philosophy of Buddhism in general. This alone is sufficient to give us s ome idea of its importance. The Madhyamaka philosophy has also been called the doctrine o f emptiness (shunyata) and the doctrine of the non-self-existence, or insubstantia lity, of things (nihsvabhavavada). The founder of this philosophy was the great holy man and scholar, Nagarjuna, wh o lived between the end of the first and the beginning of the second century of the comm on era. He was born in the south of India, of Brahmin parents. Biographers, however, tel l us that he was an early convert to Buddhism. Nagarjuna was an interpreter more than an innovator. He took certain inspirations and insights from the sutras and the Abh idharma, reinterpreting and restating them in a particularly clear and forthright way. He is noted for his substantial literary works, which include not only philosophical works, like the Foundation Stanzas of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika) and the Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness (Shunyatasaptati), but also works on logic, the practices o f the Bodhisattva, fundamentals of Buddhism, and even works of a devotional character, such as four works extolling the virtues of qualities like the perfection of wisdom. Nagarjuna's efforts in promoting and propagating the central ideas of the Mahayana won him widespread recognition as a Bodhisattva not only in India but also in Tibet, Chi na, and Japan. He figures prominently among the primary founders of the Tibetan, and Ch' an, and Zen Buddhist traditions. The works of Nagarjuna--and, indeed, the teaching of the Madhyamaka philosophy-should not be seen as a radical departure from the general direction and develop ment of Buddhist thought as a whole. They had definite origins in the teachings of the B uddha and in the early Buddhist tradition, particularly the Abhidharma. In the Therava da canon, there is a record of the Buddha's statements about the importance of emptiness ( shunyata) and also a record of the famous 'fourteen inexpressibles,' or unanswerable quest ions. In addition, we find a very clear precursor of the Madhyamaka philosophy in the Per fection of Wisdom literature, where the primary theme is emptiness. This is the very the me elaborated by Nagarjuna in works like his Mulamadhyamakakarika. In the Abhidharm a Pitaka, in the Book of Causal Relations (Patthana), too, we can see the anticipa tion of the

where we find the various alternatives isolated and method s of answering questions elucidated. like the substance of the Madhyamaka. 'the doctri ne that refutes svabhava') emphasizes Nagarjuna's characteristic rejection of the notion of selfexistence. One might even say that its characterist ic method is not only analysis but also critical dialectic. The characteristic method of the Madhyamaka is analysis--the analysis of phenomena and of relations. All thes e are clear indications of the very early and authentic origins of the Madhyamaka phil osophy. dialectic way. in the independent reality of phenomena. or interdependent orig ination. The fact that his doctrine has been termed the doctrine of insubstantiality (nihsvabhavavada. As for Nagarjuna's fundamental message in his philosophical works. and (3) the investigation of knowl edge. Nagarjuna rejects self-existence by examining relativity. beginning with the idea of self-existence. Nagarjuna and the Madhyamaka system take us from the naive. Let us first look at the Madhyamaka critique of causality. to an intellectual understanding of emp tiness. insofar as all thi ngs exist dependent on a combination of causes and conditions. In this context it is shown that. but can be found in the very earliest period of the Buddhist tradition. Through the investigation of these three classes of phenomena. indicated bot h in the Buddha's own approach in his discourses. so the method of the Madhyamaka is not. the notion of independent being. everyday belief in the idea of self-ex istence. literally. This should be sufficient to indicate that the o rigins and methods of the Madhyamaka philosophy go far back in the history of Buddhist thou ght.Madhyamaka philosophy in the emphasis on the examination of relations. or self-existence (svabhava). These three steps--from self-existence to non-self-existence. they have no independent se lf- . it is importa nt first to realize the object toward which his criticism is directed--namely. All this methodology--from ana lysis to criticism and dialectic--is. and in the approach of the Abhidharma tradition. and terminating with the idea of em ptiness (shunyata). Madhyamaka philosophy arrives at the insubstantiality and relativity of all phenomena through an exami nation of interdependent origination. in a critical. and fi nally to emptiness--are developed through three types of investigation: (1) the investiga tion of causality. (2) the investigation of concepts. Just as the contents of the Madhyamaka philosophy are not anything radically new . going on t o the idea of relativity or the absence of self-existence. the sutras.

emptiness also means non-origination. And being without self-existence. water. or in any manner from self. But for the Madhyamaka. earth.' This is the fundamental Madhyamaka critique of causality. Na garjuna explains this particular consequence of emptiness through the dialectic method. in the Madhyamaka philosoph y. we isolate the first two of the four altern atives: the identity of cause and effect. emptiness means non-origination--the non-arising in reality of all phenomena. a nd (d) that phenomena arise without cause. if we accept that phenomena do originate with a cause. as we saw in the Heart Sutra. from other. The latter position is represented in the fourth alternative. Here.existence and are therefore empty. then the effect and the cause can eith er be identical or different. we analytically arrive at the four alternatives. or without ca use. non-production. Here we see again the fourfold dialectical analysis that appeared in the fourteen inexpr essible propositions which the Buddha rejected. too. Otherwise. (b) that the caus e and effect are different. (c) that the cause and effect are both identical and different. and it leads us straight to t he notion of emptiness. air. one might wonder how it is that we isolate only these four. anywhere. in turn. which exists dependent on the seed. Now. which states that 'No entity is produced at a ny time. These four basic alternatives are indicated in th e first verse of the Mulamadhyamakakarika. The third alternative-that the cause and effect are both identical and different--is simply a combinat ion of the first two. and the difference of cause and effect. In this way. the idea of non-o rigination and non-cessation occurs very frequently. There are four possibilities for the origination of phenomena. from both. or the relationsh ip between cause and effect: (a) that the cause and effect are identical. according to which phenomena originate without a cause. It is interesting to note that these four alternatives are analytically derived. This is the simpl est and most direct Madhyamaka investigation of causality. Here we already have two fundamental alternatives: phe nomena originate either with or without a cause. it is empty. it has no self-existence and is ther efore without self-existence. In the Perfection of Wisdom literature. to be rejected. The Madhyamaka isolates these four in the following way: If phenomena do originate. The classical example is that of the sprout. each of which is. . In this way. they will originate either with a cause or without a cause. and sunlight. Inasmuch as the s prout depends on these factors for its existence.

because all phenomena are equally different. I f cause and effect are identical. and suffers from two faults. for there would be no connection between a stalk of rice and a grain of rice. and a piece of coal and a grain of rice would have the same relationship of difference to a stalk of ric e. The last alternative. We rea lly have no . which holds that phenomena orig inate without a cause. First. the Vaibhashik as and the Sautrantikas.Each of these four explanations of the nature of causality was represented by a philosophical school contemporary with the Madhyamaka. The Madhyamaka says that. was affirmed by the materialists in ancient India. The position that maintai ns that cause and effect are identical was advocated by the Sankhya system. which affirms the identity of cause and effect. and also no difference between food and excrement. The position according to which cause an d effect are different was propounded by the Hinayana schools of Buddhism. The argument refuting the identity of cause and effect is applicable insofar as cause and effect are identical. both the argument that refuted t he identity of cause and effect and the argument that refuted the difference of cause and ef fect are applicable to the third alternative as well. Thus the notion that cause and effect are absolutely different is an intrinsically absurd idea. Let us try to illustrate how this method of argumentation w orks. Take the first alternative. and it is a kind of negative dialectic that exposes the inherent contradictions and absurdit ies in the opponent's position. The position accor ding to which phenomena originate from causes that are both identical and different was affirmed by the Jaina philosophers. The third alternative--that cause and effect are both identical and different--i s no more acceptable. This method is called the method of reductio ad absurdum. then there would be no difference between father and son. The Madhyamaka refutes these four explanations of origination by means of a very typical Madhyamaka method that has drawn the attention of many scholars both in the East and the West. and the argument refuting their difference is applicable insofar as cause and effect are different. if in fact cause and effect are identical. The idea that cause and effect are identical thus leads to absurdity. one ought to be able to cloth e oneself with it. In the case of the second alternative--that cause and effect are different--anyt hing could originate from anything else. Hence a stalk of rice might just as easily originate from a piece of coal as from a grain of r ice. and by some of the Brahmanical schools. then having bou ght cottonseed with the price one would pay for cloth. one of the classical systems of Indian philosophy.

An entity cannot be both existent and nonexistent at once. sunlight. we speak about the future. they are mutually conditioning. the analysis of relativity is applied to knowledge. And just as short and long are dependent one upon another. For instance. Hence Madhyamaka philosophy concludes that causality according to any one of these fou r alternatives--from self. and so on. For ex ample. existence and nonexistence. we speak about the present. the water will boil. or to the means of acquiring knowledge. the third alternat ive is faulty because of the law of contradiction: no phenomenon can have contradictory characteristics. Depending on the past. Just as we have material dependence in the origin of a sprout t hat is dependent on a seed. The ideas of short and long are relative one to the other. The same is true of exi stence and nonexistence. so the concepts of long and short are relative. and so forth. unrelated to anything else. depending on the past and future. This is an important application of the Madhyamaka critique because ordinarily we accept the reality of phenomena on the basis of perception. and existence and nonexistence--are all concepts that are interdependent. All these concepts are rel ative. This is also true of the three divisions of ti me--past. from both. Finally. and empty. Let us take the concepts of short and long. we can say that one finger is longer than the proposition in the case of the third alternative. and without cause--is impossible . If I put two fingers sid e by side. the earth. the ideas of the present and future are conceived. just as one entity cannot be both red and not red at the same time. We say that A is shorter than B or that B is longer than C. Identity only has meaning in relation to difference. The three moments of tim e--like short and long. we say that this cup which I have before me undoubtedly exists because I perceiv . here we have conceptual dep endence. but if I put out a single fing er. or relative. and wi thout nonexistence. to each other. This is anot her kind of interdependence. nonexistence has no meaning. from other. the dependence of one concept on another. relative. but if we set it on a block of ice. and difference only makes sense in relation to identity. and future. Finally. Second. Without the idea of existence. the fourth alternative--the idea that phenomena originate without cause --is rejected by appeal to common experience. There is also a Madhyamaka critique of concepts--the concepts of identity and difference. we cannot say anything about it being long or short. if we set a kettle of wat er on a lighted stove. it won't . This is the Madhyamaka critique of causality. existence has none. present. so identity and diffe rence are dependent. identity and difference. and dep ending on the present and the past.

if perception is established by the object of perception. Let us now consider some of the more practical. and so on and so forth. in fact. since they depend on each other. that it is through perception that we accept the exis tence of the cup: What. The Madhyamaka uses the critical and dialectical method to reject the notions of cause and effect. Nowhere can we find a firm foundation for per ception if perception is proved by other means of knowledge. Thus knowledge--like cause and effect and mutually related concepts--is interdependen t. and so forth that we are imprisoned in samsara. and is therefore empty. Nagarjuna says that. Nagarjuna composed a very interest ing text.. We have knowledge of things through the means of knowledge . which has its seed in the mind. is the fundamental cause of suffering. Discriminating thought. is it that proves the existence (or truth) of the perception it self (i. I n that case it would not require proof. It is as a result of discriminating the ideas of cause and effect. identity and difference. replied that it stood on a great tortoise. called The Turning Away of Objections (Vigrahavyavartani) which discusses this point. They are mutually conditioned. in India. and (iv) comparison. This is. (ii ) inference.e. the case: The subject and object of perception are interdependent. Traditionally. Finally. and that object i s in no position to prove the existence of perception. (iii) testimony. let us take the case of perception. when asked what the earth stood on. there were four means of knowledge: (i) perception. one might say that perception is established or proved by other m eans of knowledge. then. and the subje ct and object of knowledge because these notions are the products of imagination. as in the old story of the philosopher who. mutually related concepts. but since when can something be accepted withou t proof? Alternatively. Perc eption is therefore in no position to prove the existence of its object.e it--I can see and touch it. said that it stood on four great elephants. but in that case we have an infinite regress. It lacks self-existence. then percepti on and its object are mutually established and interdependent. Suppose somethin g is established by perception. the means of knowledge itself)? One might say that perception is proved by itself. is . and when asked what the great tortoise stood on. existence and nonexistence. or discriminating thought (vikalpa). therapeutic applications of the Madhyamaka philosophy. For the sake of simplicity. having painted the picture of a fearful demon. just as a painter. The Madhyamaka is concerned with dispelling th ese products of discriminating thought because they are the causes of suffering.

and that of insubstantiality. origination. existence and nonexistence. identity and difference. Thus samsara and nirvana do not depend on anything 'out there': they depend. on the point of view. or samsara. reality appears as samsara. where the concepts of causality. beyond origination and cessation. and the rest have a meaning. afflicted point of view obscured by ignorance. This is the origin of suffering. so ignorant people. reality appears as nirvana. Like samsara and nirvana. rat her. and the like. The conventional truth is valid of this w orld in which ignorance prevails. identity and difference. it must transc end these relative concepts. and without arriving at the ultimate truth. beyon d all conceptions and expressions. And if samsara is the product of discriminating thought--if cause and effect. if nirvana is unconditioned. the ultimate trut h is not taught. They refer to two points of view-the ordinary. In these few . The ultimate truth is valid of this world seen in the light of insubstanti ality. which is afflicted by ignorance through the function of discriminating thought. existence and nonexistence). relativity. Hence mind. What the renowned Mahayana and Madhyamaka doctrine of the non-differentiation of samsara and nirvana means is that the difference between samsara and nirvana is a subjective difference. through discriminating thought . and emptiness--are reflected in the do ctrine of the two truths.then terrified by that image. ces sation. relativity. The two points of view--that of discriminating thought and ig norance. in which we operate by accepting--and taking for grant ed--the ideas of cause and effect. and emptiness. however. Samsara and nirvana are the same thing seen from tw o different points of view: from the point of view of ignorance (of causality. and emptiness. produce the cycle of the six realms of existence and then suffer as a consequence. nirvana is not achieved. produces the world we know. relativity. a difference within one's own mind. Nagarjuna said that without relying on the conventional truth. from the po int of view of insubstantiality. conventional and ultimate. the conventional truth and ultimate truth are not contradictory but complementary. Indeed. ide ntity and difference. and the point of view o f the enlightened ones. It is not a differenc e in anything objective or real. It is in this context that the portrayal of nirvana emphasize s the fact that it is beyond existence and nonexistence. and exi stence and nonexistence are actually relative and empty--then there is no objective differe nce between samsara and nirvana.

eternalism and nihilism is also the Middle Way taught by the Buddh a. Without relying on the notion of cause and effect.words. Therefore. All that is interdependent origination is also emptiness. nirv ana is not gained. But interdep endent origination is also emptiness. karma. And inter dependent origination which avoids the alternatives of identity and difference. we can understand the complementary and necessary relationship between th e two truths. because everything that exists dependent on somet hing else does not really exist--it has no independent being and does not exist by itself. We must rely on the conventional truth to communicate and function in th e world. sustains. or karma (wholesom e and unwholesome actions with their consequences). and expressions . emptiness. nirvana is not achieved. or the doctrine of karma. yet without arriving at an understanding of ultimate reality. They exist as long as they are sustained by discriminating thought and ignorance . . the ultimate is not taught. Taken from the point of view of ignorance. Hence we can see how groundless is the charge of nihilism leveled agains t the Madhyamaka by some of its opponents. All these exist on the conventiona l level. or Madhyamaka. yet without transcending causality. and is the very essence of samsara. Emptiness is not nothingness. existence and nonexistence. The Madhyamak a does not teach the absolute nonexistence of cause and effect. or emptiness. interdepen dent origination explains. Nagarjuna asserts that interdependent origination. concepts. Hence the system founded by Nagarjuna and sustained by his disciples and success ors is known as the philosophy of the Middle Way. and the Middle Way are identical in significance. it is empty.

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