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Madhyamaka


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(Skt.). The ‘Middle School’, a system of Buddhist philosophy founded by Nāgārjuna in the 2nd century ce which has been extremely influential within the Mahāyāna tradition of Buddhism (a follower of the school is known as a Madhyamika). The school claims to be faithful to the spirit of the Buddha's original teachings, which advocate a middle course between extreme practices and theories of all kinds (see madhyamā-pratipad). It applies this principle to philosophical theories concerning the nature of phenomena. Thus the assertions that ‘things exist’ or that ‘things do not exist’ would be extreme views and should be rejected. The truth, it is thought, lies somewhere in between and is to be arrived at through a process of dialectic in the course of which opposing positions are revealed as self-negating. The adoption of any one position, it was argued, could immediately be challenged by taking up its opposite. The Madhyamaka therefore adopted a strategy of attacking opponent's views rather than advancing claims of its own (which is not to deny that they might none the less hold their own philosophical views). Chief among the views they attacked was the theory of dharmas. This had been evolved in the Abhidharma tradition as a solution to philosophical difficulties arising out of problems concerning causation, temporality, and personal identity. The scholastic solution was to posit a theory of instantaneous serial continuity according to which phenomena (dharmas) constantly replicate themselves in a momentary sequence of change (dharma-kṣanikatvā). Thus reality was conceived of as cinematic, like a filmstrip in which one frame constantly gives way to the next: each moment is substantially existent in its own right, and collectively they produce the illusion of stability and continuity. The Madhyamaka challenged this notion of the substantial reality of dharmas, arguing that if things truly existed in this way, and were possessed of a real nature or ‘self-essence’ (svabhāva), it would contradict the Buddha's teaching on selflessness (anātman) and, moreover, render change impossible. What already substantially exists, they argued, would not need to be produced; and what does not substantially exist already could never come into being from a state of non-existence. Thus real existence cannot be predicated of dharmas, but neither can non-existence since they clearly enjoy a mode of being of some kind. The conclusion of the Madhyamaka was that the true nature of phenomena can only be described as an ‘emptiness’ or ‘voidness’ (dharma-śūnyatā), and that this emptiness of self-nature is synonymous with the doctrine of Dependent Origination (pratītya-samutpāda) taught by the Buddha. This reasoning is set out in Nāgārjuna's terse Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā, the root text of the system.

There were important implications in Madhyamaka metaphysics for Buddhist soteriology. Since emptiness is the true nature of what exists, there can be no ontological basis for the differentiation between nirvāṇa andsaṃsāra. Any difference which exists, it was argued, must be an epistemological one resulting from ignorance (avidyā) and misconception. Accordingly, the Madhyamaka posits ‘two levels of truth’, the level of Ultimate Truth (paramārtha-satya), i.e. the perception of emptiness of the true nature of phenomena (in other words, the view of the enlightened), and the level of ‘relative or veiled truth’ (saṃvṛti-satya), i.e. the misconception of dharmas as possessing a substantial self-existent nature (in other words, the view of the unenlightened).

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Subjects: Buddhism.


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