Madhyamika Buddhism

The term ‘Madhyamika’ means ‘Middle Way’, and Madhyamika is a philosophical school of Mahayana Buddhism (the second phase of Buddhism that began about 500 years after the Buddha and spread from India into China, Tibet and Japan). If you see the term ‘Middle Way’ highlighted in a Buddhist context, it is most likely to be refer to the thought and influence of this school, particularly its lead thinker Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna, in texts like the Mulamadhyamakakarika (‘Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way’) does a lot to develop and apply Indian Buddhist thought about the Middle Way beyond the base created by the Buddha. It is Mahayana Buddhists influenced by the Madhyamika who are most likely to lay claim to the term ‘Middle Way’, and might even take offence at any attempt to separate it from Buddhist tradition, so an explanation is needed here of how the aims of the Middle Way Society differ from those of Mahayana Buddhism.Nagarjuna

Perhaps the most important distinction between the Middle Way in Madhyamika and the universal Middle Way is that Madhyamika treats the Middle Way as a way of talking about an ultimate reality of some kind. This ontology is one of the ultimate emptiness of all phenomena, but nevertheless the concern of all the texts is with showing that metaphysical beliefs are ultimately unreal. This can be contrasted with the focus in universal Middle Way Philosophy on the Middle Way as method. Whilst the Madhyamika does have a practical motive, this practice is focused on realising the truth of emptiness by reflecting on the conditionality of all phenomena, rather than on making incremental practical judgements about all our experiences that use the Middle Way as a principle.

This is an important distinction, because the idea that the Middle Way offers an insight into reality can still be used as the basis of an appeal to authority. Madhyamika is made compatible with the authority of the Mahayana tradition and its gurus through the idea that its gurus have insights into the nature of emptiness as a sort of subtle reality. These gurus (for example, incarnate lamas or rimpoches in the Tibetan tradition) thus become idealised as individuals, the uneven positive qualities they often possess treated as a basis of authority discontinuous from ordinary experience, and the traditional dogmas of each Buddhist school are passed on through them. If the Middle Way was treated just as an incremental model, this kind of idealisation of teachers and tradition would not be possible, as all spiritual progress would be understood subject to asymmetries and as a matter of degree.

Nagarjuna dealt with the discontinuity between the ultimate emptiness of everything and our experience of things through his doctrine of two truths. This means, in effect, that we have to switch between an ordinary ‘truth’ and an enlightened ‘truth’ like a toggle switch, with the insights provided by ultimate emptiness somehow filtering into our ordinary experience. This is a very unsatisfactory way of thinking about the Middle Way, because it makes it irrelevant to ordinary experience. Even when you’ve supposedly experienced ultimate emptiness, this may or may not change your way of thinking about what you experience in everyday life. This problem arises from a mistaken way of thinking about the Middle Way in the first place. The Middle Way should not involve us in making even very subtle claims about a reality of any kind, but rather be a method we can apply at any level of experience from the grossest everyday life to the subtlest meditation. You don’t need an experience of ultimate emptiness to start applying the Middle Way, but just to recognise metaphysical assumptions and start changing your judgements.

The discontinuity in the Madhyamika account of the Middle Way also tends to go with an ego-killing view of our goals. If you think there are two discontinuous views of the world, one deluded by an ego (everyday awareness) and the other not (enlightened awareness), the only way forward is to get rid of the ego that is causing the delusion. In Middle Way Philosophy, on the other hand, the ego is seen as the positive basis of all progress. We just need to stretch and integrate that ego rather than kill it in order to make gradual spiritual progress.

It would be quite possible to practise the Middle Way in the universal sense whilst working within the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism and being inspired by the work of philosophers like Nagarjuna. However, as with any other tradition, to make it compatible with the Middle Way it is necessary to decisively avoid the metaphysical beliefs that go with appeals to authority in that tradition, and which tend to follow beliefs about a reality that has been reached by the leading authorities in that tradition. In some ways it might actually be harder to follow the Middle Way decisively when the very same term is constantly understood in an ontological way in all the texts and teachings that people use for inspiration in that tradition. However, Mahayana Buddhism in the West is also open to debate in a way that might raise some hopes that its interpretation of the Middle Way can be reformed.

9 thoughts on “Madhyamika Buddhism

  1. Your definition of the two truths doctrine was developed after Nagarjuna. His idea was that all phenomena are conditional and empty of any self essence. This is his relative truth. His ultimate truth was that ultimate truth is also empty and therefor the same as conditional truth. The emptiness of emptiness is that the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth. Don’t blame Nagarjuna for the later interpretations of the two truths doctrine, which are as you describe above. See Jay Garfield “The Emptiness of Emptiness.”

  2. Hi Carl, I’m happy to take your word for this on a provisional basis, but have no desire to get involved in a scholarly discussion about who actually wrote what, which makes no practical difference to anything.

    1. I find the two truths useful. As I see it, it’s about being very specific about the object of negation: self-existence. Then, emptiness is merely a negation of the false notion of the self-existence of anything, which tends to be created by a natural slippage of the symbolic mind combined with the survival instinct that seeks safety. The ultimate truth is then the universal condition of any specific object, entity or substrate. However this doesn’t negate the relative existence of anything. So these two truths are mutually dependent.

      Yes, the problem arises when existence is projected onto a construct of “emptiness” and emptiness becomes somehow ultimately real of itself, as opposed being the universal condition of identified things. Change, transformation and progress could not happen if it were not for the two truths.

      1. Hi Mark,
        I’d want to clarify two ideas here. Firstly, what do you mean by ‘negation’? Negation can mean either denial or agnosticism. I don’t think we have any grounds to deny self-existence, but we do have grounds to be rigorously agnostic about both it and its denial.

        The other term that needs clarifying is ‘truth’. I’m concerned, not with truth in the abstract, but with the concrete effects of people believing they have it. The two truths may be ‘useful’ as concepts that enable us to think about possibilities, and in that sense I’d agree that they are mutually dependent. ‘Truth’ can be meaningful even though we don’t claim to have it. However, I don’t agree at all if you mean that the two truths can be useful as objects of belief. Our beliefs need to be clearly-focused bases of action, not contradictory abstractions.

  3. I agree that it doesn’t make a practical difference. The two truths doctrine is a very unfortunate development that’s become common in so many schools of Buddhism. It creates a dangerous dualism. I just don’t like to see Nagarjuna take the rap for it, especially when his ideas don’t actually seem to be in conflict with yours. Thanks for the work you’re doing.

  4. Perhaps it’s because Jay Garfield’s work is also my interface to Nagarjuna that I don’t see any major contradictions between N.’s Middle Way and, say, Robert’s Middle Way – particularly if one accounts for the cultural disparity between the two thinkers.

    To quote from Garfield’s commentary on his translation, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way:

    Nagarjuna replaces the view shared by the metaphysician and the person in the street, a view that presents itself as common sense, but is in fact deeply metaphysical, with an apparently paradoxical, thoroughly empty, but in the end commonsense view not only of causation, but of the entire phenomenal world. This theme – the replacement of apparent common sense that is deeply metaphysically committed with an apparently deeply metaphysical but actually commonsense understanding of the phenomenal world – will recur in each chapter of the text.

    I suppose that begs the question: Where is Garfield’s interpretation of N. coming from, Buddhist-wise? In short, he claims that his work is “situated squarely within a Prasangika-Madhyamika interpretation”, which reflects “Candrakirti’s and Je Tsong Khapa’s commentaries”, but he also claims that he does “not consistently side with any particular faction”, wherever interpretive debates traditionally occur. Of course, his situation as a 20th-21st-Century American philosopher warrants consideration here, as well.

    Does any of this make a practical difference?

    I can attest that it’s made a practical difference in how I respond to philosophy – that is, from a more skeptical place (in the Madhyamika/Pyrrhonian sense). But that only reveals something about me – in particular, that I sometimes read philosophy (and science and history, as they bears on philosophy), whereas most lay folks whom I know do no such thing and seem to have little or no interest in this pastime.

  5. Hi Jason,
    I wouldn’t say that Nagarjuna’s ideas themselves (together with those of Chandrakirti and associated thinkers) haven’t made a difference. They’ve certainly contributed to a chain of Buddhist thinking that has influenced me in some ways. It’s just scholarly disputes which are concerned with who wrote what that I suggested make no practical difference. What I want to get away from is either the idea that Nagarjuna sorted it all out and thus that we only need to study him (in enormous detail, preferably in the original Sanskrit etc.) to find out the truth of the matter, or that if I think otherwise then I must have misinterpreted him etc. At one time I did engage in such conversations, and found them generally to be a quagmire with a sucking appeal to authority lurking at the bottom of it. For the same reason, I’m afraid I’m going to decline to get involved in any discussion of Garfield’s interpretation. If you find it inspiring and useful for its content, then I’m glad.

  6. My way of relating to the two truths, in a practical sense, is that even though there’s no way or reason to attribute any truth-value to a particular position (ultimate truth), I can work within the context of any given narrative or mythos (a conventional truth). By thinking of various worldviews as simply stories about the world, I neither adopt them as true in an absolute sense, nor reject them as false ideologies that need to be denied. The truth or otherwise of a particular point of view is in that way not a matter of contention, so instead I can adopt a pragmatic approach by asking ‘is this point of view useful’? Or ‘what are the limits of the contexts in which this point of view is useful’? For example, science might be a good ‘conventional truth’ or paradigm for certain purposes, while in other circumstances, poetry might be a better platform for exploring or expressing an idea.

  7. Hi Regan, That sounds like a helpful approach. However, within what you call ‘stories about the world’ I’d distinguish meaning and belief, then within beliefs provisional and absolute types. Some ‘stories about the world’ simply provide us with potential symbolic resources, whilst others are practically relied on in some way and thus become beliefs, even if they can still be reviewed. Thus there is a distinction between the function of poetry and that of science which does not have to absolutise scientific beliefs.

    If you haven’t looked at them already, you might be interested in the videos listed under Media/MWP introductory videos/5: Agnosticism on the menus above, for development on this area.

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