SEARCH     Home     Site Map    Symbolism    Calendar     Karmapa     News    DONATE

Now that 35 years have passed since Buddhism has spread to the mainstream In America and Europe, there are Western philosophers who are Buddhist and are familiar with both terminologies.  This has given rise to the philosophical position called Buddhist Functionalism.  

On the meaning of shunyata, the central Buddhist concept and its unique character, or 

What is the place of Madhyamika in philosophy ? 

An elucidation and summary of R. C. Pandeya's The Madhyamika Philosophy: A New Approach* from Philosophy East & West v. 14 (3-24) U. of Hawaii Press, 1964. 

Dr. Ram C. Pandeya is also the author of Nagarjuna's Philosophy of No-Identity (With Philosophical Translations of the Madhyamaka-Karika, Sunyata-Saptati and Vigrahavya-vartani) 1991, and "Human Rights: An Indian Perspective," Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights. Paris: UNESCO, 1986.

NB  Where Pandeya's exact words have been retained, they are indicated by quotation marks.

Using the approach and vocabulary of Western philosophy, about 30 years ago Pandeya meticulously and step-by-step showed that the Buddhist Madhyamika view is not a moderate position but rather, an entirely radical approach.  It is certainly not to be considered a metaphysical view.

He begins by explaining the distinction between Vaibhasika and Svatrantika [or Sautantrika], two prior schools of Buddhist philosophy.  

The Vaibhasika theory concerning the reality of all elements of past and future was criticized by the Sautrantikas on the ground that what we really know is only in the present.  This view was made possible by the development of the original theory of impermanence into that of momentariness.  This momentariness of any object  depends upon a criterion of reality called efficiency.   It is the "efficiency" of an object that ensures it reality, but that quality must always be changing since time is a flow and not a series of discrete moments.   So, any real object is constantly changing: Impermanence is the very nature of existence. 

Like Hindu Samkhya philosophers, Buddhists believe in natural, continuous change. Unlike the Hindu Nyaya-Vaishesikas, they reject the notion of an efficient cause in the form of a supernatural, metaphysical (outside "the game") reality, called Atman or God.  But, since it goes against plain common sense to believe that a thing changes its very nature from moment to moment, Buddhists explain that this change happens only in the components of the object.  This is the origin of the double character of a thing:  THE TWO VIEWS.

"Strictly speaking, a thing is constantly changing in its component elements or atoms; in other words, by its nature it is evanescent, but apparently it remains unchanged for a considerable period of time. Thus a thing-in-itself, a thing in its specific form, is momentary; but a thing-in-general, a thing in its generic form, appears to be permanent."

According to this reasoning, reality is a present condition; it cannot exist in the past or in the future. 

Now, reality, self-changing as it is, follows certain laws.  It is obvious that there is a harmony between momentary reality and the apparent permanence of most things otherwise, a thing would be unrecognizable from one second to the next.  Therefore there must be an unbroken series or flow of the set of realities that we experience and hence understand as one thing. This is where the Buddhist law of Dependent Origination comes into play. 

Also, a preceding moment cannot be thought to cause the succeeding one; for going back in time, that would entail a cause and effect relation between the two object-moments that turns a cause into an effect into a cause ... which would make no (Hindu) Samkhya sense.  And, thinking along the lines of the Hindu Nyaya-Vaisheshikas, how could something entirely new be produced out of something old? (Nyayikas might say that what seems new is only due to the fact that the old thing was lacking something.)

Buddhist philosophers called Vijnanavadins (Yogacharas,) saw a danger of eternalism in the theory of their idealist colleagues, for the latter said that the realities of the universe are merely appearances in the storehouse-consciousness (alaya-jnana.)  The standard explanation of causality: "This being, HENCE that arises" cannot explain simultaneously existing elements -- for in that formula each particular element is supposed to follow a preceding particular.  Thus causality was conceived by the Svatrantikas [also written, Sautrantikas] as 'appearance of such realities as are by their very nature evanescent, in co-ordination with other realities.' "  This is like saying that there is no causality, only synchronicity. 

The Sautrantika does not believe like Plato that reality is a sort of shadow of an Ideal, nor like the Hindu Samkhya that a thing is a product of some interplay of manifestations (or the fun and trickery, of Lila or Maya) of a Higher Being or Force.  He or she holds rather, ". . . that the very momentary existence of a naturally evanescent entity enables it to be efficacious and thus real.  Strange though it may seem, for them reality consists in appearance; in the absence of its appearance a thing is unreal. This appearance is not of something, nor is it of nothing; it is because of the force (samskara) of coordinating realities. Thus realities make other realities appear; they do not create one, nor do they produce one.  In this lies their efficacy. "

Any event, being or object in the here-and-now is only the basis of our perception of reality; the Real Thing cannot be directly grasped because it is momentary by nature.  It can be inferred only as a consequence of its impact on a perceiving mind -- that is what is meant by something's "efficacy".  But the existence of such a thing cannot be denied because how would it be possible to tell a Real thing from a seemingly-real thing -- an illusion ? 

"Veridical perception itself results when various factors, including the object, which is nothing but an appearing momentary reality, co-ordinate.  But, as the perception of an evanescent reality is not possible, it is contended that the object of perception is a composite thing which is comparatively permanent and hence not real in itself.  What we perceive is therefore not the real-in-itself but the real in-general."  

In other words, we perceive conditioned-reality only. This is because our minds are not capable of penetrating "the hard shell of generality,"  the result -- of linked moments of experience of heaps of kinds of characteristics (skandhas) -- that leads us to believe we are experiencing a relatively unchanging event, person, place or thing. 

But this generality itself should not lead us to believe that a thing is entirely non-existent in some absolute sense because after all, it does derive from evanescent reality.  However, it is entirely a creation of our own mind via our senses.  

"When we perceive a jar . . . there is a concept of jar (paratantra=depending upon the other [than the real] . . . object, viz., mind) which itself refers to the real external object, the object existing independent of any mind perceiving it (svatantra). "

When we conclude 'This is a flower,' the this stands for the object of experience that is a momentary impression but is not felt as such, and flower stands for the concept using the this as its reference.  So that any knowledge is ultimately only of "this," the momentary element which carries with it a "tinge of concepts."   Therefore, we consider that the "this now" part is real but the conceptual part is make-believe.  

"We have to sift the husk from the grain in order to be emancipated from the powerful impact of concepts." 

Svatantra theory "rules out the possibility of knowing the real but accepts its existence on the strength of its impact on our mind."  From our experience we are compelled to believe in its particularity, but its generic character is [only due to a sort of hypothetical knowledge] for what we know is the consequence of general experience, and 'efficacy' lies in a particular, not in the universal.  So to a Buddhist reality is manifold, free from concepts -- "a directly unknowable something".  

Monism ['it is all God'] is condemned as a wrong view.  Madhyamikas had to defend their own view against Brahmanical systems -- Samkhya and Vaishesika on one hand, and Vaibhasikas and the Sautrantikas on the other.  They came out with a new interpretation of the Buddha's teachings which they thought was not properly presented by any other school.   Still preserving the sanctity of the Middle Path, they presented a novel interpretation of the theory of causality called the theory of Dependent Origination (pratitya-samutpada).  This interpretation completely changes the picture of Buddha's teachings and is a landmark in Indian philosophy.

Chandrakirti, illustrious commentator on Nagarjuna, says that although the Brahmanas tell us about the soul or atman, describing it as existent, blissful, etc. it is something which is supposed to be beyond its components, the five elements.   That view never depends upon direct knowledge of atman, and Hindu scriptures generally admit this unknow-ability.  This criticism means that what the soul in-itself is is never found.  

(Chandrakirti, 7th century abbot of Nalanda from South India and his friend the layman, Chandragomin, are considered the proponents of the rangtong view later adopted by Tsongkhapa, and is therefore primarily associated with the Gelugpa denomination.)

One of the reasons any description of soul cannot refer to soul-in-itself, is that no Brahmana would say that any description really stands for a conglomeration of five elements and that would reduce it merely to evanescent reality.  Therefore the 'soul' or atman is just a word.  Madhyamikas would say that such a view of soul is even worse -- that is, inaccurate/inadequate -- than the Sautrantika view which at least can present 'soul' as referring to something, if only of a generic character.  So that if the Brahmanas actually applied logic to their view, they would have to conclude that soul is a purely imaginary notion with no inherent existence.  And just because words and concepts have a certain utility, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, we ought not to conclude that because we can say a word or phrase, that it actually confers existence.  We all know that a description without any reference is a fabrication:  "It is like the expression 'a barren woman's daughter'.  Such a description of a girl would not attract even highly passionate people." 

A second type of word-use that can create the idea that we are actually discussing something real employs an object's generic character or our past experience with it as belonging to a reality-in-itself.  Here we need to see if this generic character refers to the reality-in-itself or if it merely appears to refer to it.   In the first case, the description is accompanied by demonstration,  but in the latter there is mere description without any real demonstration.   In both cases reference is involved; but whether it is actual or only supposed makes all the difference.  "Veridical perception differs from illusory perception only on this ground."  (In Madhyamika terminology, in the former case the "truth of this" is taken in correlation with the description, whereas in the latter case there is only the "awareness of this" without an actual correlation.) 

"Apart from this distinction, the two cases are alike from the point of view of the knowledge-situation.  In knowledge, we cannot tell veridical perception from illusory perception.  This is the case with the knowledge of ordinary human beings." 

In other words, sometimes we use a word as an aid to reasoning, or as part of the thinking process, but that does not mean the words refer to anything real.  Also, we are rarely able to tell reality as it is being experienced from reality as words, or reality as part of the stream of experience.

Up to this point, Sautrantikas are somewhat similar to Madhyamikas. But wait.


We have seen that for both Buddhist schools, knowledge refers to something external.  In the phenomenological sense, all knowledge is intentional and this is also true of illusory cognition.  But for Sautrantikas, "the external is something in coordination with which knowledge arises, and this is a necessary presupposition by which they distinguish veridical perception from illusory cognition.  There is not only intentionality, there is also a real sense-datum.  But Madhyamikas cast a doubt upon the reality of this, i.e., the coordinating character of the intended reality.  The this is said to be the object of knowledge because it is efficacious in the appearance of veridical perception.  Hence, in spite of the fact that it is not known in itself, its existence cannot be denied. "

However, Madhyamikas do not subscribe to this view saying that an efficacious reality is not a necessary condition or coordinating factor for perception, because perception takes place even when there is no such reality present, e.g., the perception of triple suns or  double moons.  I think, therefore it is ?

Perception is dependent on something external but that thing does not need not be actual.  So we can say that in that view veridical perception is on a par with illusory perception.   In both the cases there is an awareness of this but we cannot at the same time confirm the truth of the actual existence of this.  Chandrakirti therefore condemns the view of truth of this as childish.

But then, how can we distinguish between a veridical perception and an illusory one? 

For Madhyamikas, this question does not arise.  But since Sautrantikas think that knowledge depends upon things other than the knowledge itself, they co-ordinate to make it appear.  The so-called real is known as the other.  This otherness is either superfluous, if it is supposed to refer to something which is already different from knowledge, or else it is impossible, if it actually does not refer to the other. 

"The supposed reality at the root of  veridical perception cannot be proved; hence, knowledge operating only with concepts will have to be explained in terms of concepts.  The supposed reality in itself does not contribute to our knowledge. The concept of it alone will explain knowledge. Thus, illusory cognition is as much conceptual as non-illusory cognition.  In the absence of any effective tool at our disposal to institute a distinction, we have to take them as of one kind. "

Inasmuch as we cannot go beyond concepts and penetrate reality in itself, it would be absurd to assert the existence of reality merely on the strength of our knowledge.  That is a mere supposition.  But if reality does not contribute to knowledge, how is it that when an object is placed before us we perceive it; when it is removed we cease to perceive it? 

If knowledge were purely conceptual, perception or non-perception would depend on the will of the perceiver.  To explain this, the famous twelve-linked formula of Dependent Origination is pressed into service, but with a rather different interpretation.  We need not say that reality actively coordinates since activity itself is a concept.  We can assert only that the all concepts are relative to each other, so that coordination is replaced by relativity.

Pandeya points out that metaphysicians are given to jumping from the concept to the actual things of which these concepts are supposed to be replicas.  (If there is a concept of the other, then they think that there must be an actual other.)  Similarly, if two things are conceived as coordinating, a metaphysician would tend to conclude that there are two actual things.  But Madhyamikas chide these metaphysicians by saying that the coordination of things is not possible, and relativity leaves any actual reality untouched.

Coordinating factors must be different from the supposed thing resulting from their co-ordination.  That is, coordination presupposes difference on the one hand, among coordinating factors, and on the other hand, between coordinating factors and their result.  But the fact is that these momentary factors cannot ever coordinate, and even if coordination is accepted, they cannot be said to be in a causal relation with something yet to be produced.   Relationship can be assumed to exist only between two things existing simultaneously.

In knowledge we assume that there is an object which is responsible for it.  But can we show the relationship between an object and its knowledge?  

Madhyamikas say No, as what we are aware of is only the concept of an object;  this concept is based upon another concept of relation.  The concept of relation, in its turn, depends upon two things that are related.  In order to prove actual relation between two things we refer to the concept of relation and say that had there been no relation the concept of relation would never have arisen. 

But Madhyamikas would pay the realists back in their own coin, because, for them, if there had been no concept of relation, actual relation itself would never have been assumed.   Therefore, we can say with justification that the concepts are responsible for the notion of actually existing things, but we cannot say the converse because except for concepts we have no way of ascertaining the actual state of affairs.  Thus, causality for Madhyamikas is not rooted in co-ordination of factors, but only in the dependence of one concept upon another.  

This dependence is not to be conceived in a metaphysical [or 'religious'] sense.  It is purely an epistemic relativity. Having proved the impossibility of actual relationships among things, Madhyamikas propose merely to show that it is a concept that makes other concepts appear.  

An example of this type of dependence, very often repeated in their texts, is that of big and small.  It is clear that in itself a thing is neither big nor small; it is only when we come to compare two things, that in relation to one the other is big or small . . .  .  Thus the concept of bigness arises because there is a concept of smallness and vice versa.  

Similarly, the entire furniture of our knowledge is nothing but a great fabrication of mutually dependent concepts.  In that case, we have to explain the origin of the primary concepts.  For realists there is no difficulty: these concepts arise in co-ordination with actual realities.  But Madhyamikas who intend to eliminate altogether the notion of metaphysics -- ultimate reality -- cannot agree to this saying that so-called basic concepts are in no way any better than other concepts.  

"Chandrakirti makes a distinction between general relativity and specific relativity. Relativity as a basic tendency of mind may be compared to a field which is given to the mind to play in. Within this relativity-field our mind encounters other things, but, conditioned as it is by the relativity-field, it takes those specific objects in the light of relativity. To say that this relativity is associated with mind without any beginning is to assert indirectly that it cannot go beyond its field.  Mind is confined to the field of relativity; only concepts and not things can be legitimately relative; hence, mind cannot know the thing-in-itself."

Sautrantikas think that although realities cannot be directly known, they are many, momentary, and efficacious.  This view is rejected by Madhyamikas such as Chandrakirti since to say that reality is many involves the concept that relation, momentariness, and efficacy are not possible without the concept of causation.  

The very logic which rejects an Advaita oneness of reality by saying that regarding knowledge only the manifold is given, and thus monism is fictitious compels us to disown plurality altogether since not the manifold real, but only the concept of relation is given to play with.  Thus reality-in-itself can neither be one nor many.

The relativity-field performs, and therefore is, as the general law of causality as expressed in the formula "this being, that arises," which means that any concept will lead to another concept.   This causal formula expressed by the Master shows that reality is not born, nor does it die; it is neither momentary nor is it efficacious.  Nagarjuna discusses this relativity-field in the first chapter of his famous book and, in subsequent chapters, particular concepts arise as a result such as motion, conjunction, time, space, emancipation, and soul. 

He invariably comes to the conclusion that all these are mere concepts rooted in their mutual dependence, and hence they cannot describe the real-in-itself. The task of philosophy is to show that reality conceived within the relativity-field is conceptual, and hence it has no essence of its own, i.e., it is not what it would be in itself.

The question as to what causes the relativity-field in our mind cannot be answered because that involves a state beyond it and our mind cannot go there.  An unanswerable question is no question.  Similarly, the question whether this relativity-field is itself relative also cannot be answered because any answer to that would presuppose relativity.  

Thus, the most consistent position is to take experience as a play of interdependent concepts which, having no connection with reality, are empty. Within the field of relativity emptiness means devoid of content (nairatmya), but not of existence (abhava).   Concepts prevail upon and obscure the vision of the mind, and though they are there, ought not be confused with reality.

But the concepts are pregnant with intentionality: a concept refers to another concept, and if a concept is taken as referring to reality, that is delusion or a 'wrong notion.'  "Notion and truth should be carefully distinguished. To think that the existence of a concept means the existence of a thing is a notion which is utterly false; to think that a concept exists because there are other concepts is a truth. The former has its repercussions in the form of bondage; the latter has no repercussions in the sense that bondage, being a relative concept, has a contentless existence."

It is possible to have a wrong notion about truth.  If it is propounded that the concepts are empty existences, it may be taken by some deluded person to mean that these concepts exist.  For such persons relativity means existence.  This is a confusion worse confounded. These people first deny what is truth  and then proceed to accept what is not so.

 One who says that there are realities first denies that there are relative concepts (a truth) and then forms a notion that these concepts must be real in themselves because they exist.  He takes relativity as an indication of the existence of concepts.  Nagarjuna thinks that those people who reduce the relative truth of concepts to a mere notion are incurable.  Hence, relativity should not be made a notion, just as eternalism is a notion.

Truth as relativity is accepted by people with no particular philosophical view in mind.  For them, one concept leads to another: Causality presupposes cause and effect, motion depends upon a mover, space depends upon an occupant, time assumes changing objects, soul depends upon mental activities, and even liberation depends upon the concept of prior bondage and subsequent release.  We are not justified in going beyond these concepts to assume any reality ... .  

What we know are mere concepts, and they are not realities in any aforementioned sense.  It would be absurd to maintain the existence of realities, but it would be more so to maintain their non-existence.  We are only conceptually undecided about there being realities, and thus Madhyamikas are exonerated from a charge of agnosticism.  Thus, any statement should always be construed in the sense that the meaning of it refers either to concepts or to words or to both together, but never to a state of material reality. 

Using modern philosophical terms, we would have either conceptual mode or formal mode, but not the material mode of speech.  The formal mode differs from the conceptual mode in that it depends purely upon habit or patterns of speech and does not arouse any concept.  For example, "A flower in the sky is fragrant" does not convey any real sense because all it is is a phrase based on a grammatical pattern or language-habit -- it has no significance.  Madhyamikas call this a language fabrication.

Significant sentences, on the other hand, give an idea of the state of affairs.  They are significant in two ways: first, they are framed in accordance with rules, just like the first sentence, but second, they arouse some concept in the minds of hearers and can continue a chain of concepts.  They are therefore not only the fabrications of language but also of mind. 

But the realm of reality is inaccessible; concepts may simply create an illusion of reality in the mind of a person.   It is as if there is an intentionality of concepts.  And if concepts cannot give us a glimpse of realities, how can we expect language to be able to describe it? Reality therefore eludes both our concepts and language.  It is entirely outside the realm of the fabrications of language but it is not metaphysical.

***Some interpreters commit the mistake which is emphatically avoided by this school. They think that, although the Madhyamikas deny speech and thought to reality, they still maintain from a "higher standpoint" an existent Real in the form of the Cosmic Body of the Buddha (dharmakaya) which is described as "without a second" (advaya).  In actuality this all seems to be a mere fabrication of mind. 

Let us examine here the concept of a "higher standpoint" (paramartha).  Nagarjuna talks of this standpoint, and his commentator explains it at great length. The entire empirical life is governed by the concepts of description, the described, knowledge, the known, etc. These are, rightly speaking, without any foundation in reality.   But they themselves, being relative, present a phase of truth.  We cannot penetrate the sheath of concepts because, since it is itself smokey in nature, it only causes our fall to fathomless depths. They are relative among themselves, but never because of something relational. This is the right view about concepts.  

Similarly, there is nothing higher than these concepts, because again, the concepts themselves, being relative, cannot lead to the pinnacle of absolute truth.  Even if that higher truth were to be there it would be relative, since it would be achieved through relative concepts. Therefore, it is difficult to agree with that interpretation which ascribes to the Madhyamikas an Absolute.***

But Nagarjuna says that truth is twofold: the truth about relatives and the truth in itself.  It is absurd to say, as many have, that the phrase "empirical truth" means relative truth.  Truth, rightly speaking, can never be relative. [And] Truth about relatives is not the same thing as relative truth. For example, to say that concepts are relative is a truth about relatives, but it itself is absolute. 

If this were not so, then it would be impossible to distinguish between the Jaina theory of relative truth and this newer concept of the Madhyamikas.  Thus, when truth is conceived in itself without any reference to relative concepts, it is absolute truth.  But any and all concepts are governed by the law of relativity and wherever that law applies, there is relativity.  

But, what about this relativity? Even a casual reader of the Madhyamika Karikas can see that for this school, the law of relativity itself is everything, and Nagarjuna salutes the Master [Shakyamuni] because he proclaimed this as truth.  Hence, to think that Madhyamikas believe in some Brahman-like Absolute seems to be reading too much between the lines. [That is, we ought not to confuse words such as Buddha-nature or Dharmakaya as referring to an Absolute such as Brahman, or some people's notion of Ishvara or God.]

Any misconception would be reduced to a minimum if we consider that: those who do not know the distinction between truth in itself and truth about relatives do not know the reality underlying the Buddha's teachings.  (The author uses "truth"  to mean an instrument for the realization of reality (tattva=suchness). 

Reality is: self-realizable, quiescent, not fabricated by speech and mind, and without distinction.  Therefore, so long as we operate with concepts we are not dealing with reality.  And when concepts cease to appear relatively, then speech and mind stop fabricating.  As a result, all afflictions arising out of attachment to these concepts cease to bother a person. 

This aware state is not achieved by means of preaching.  Chandrakirti beautifully illustrates this:  

A man with defective eyes perceives queer things like hair floating in the air, etc. If a man with normal eyesight tells him about the unreality of these apparent objects to him, he will refuse to believe him.  He may then come to think of these objects as unreal but cannot think they are non-existent.  Only when his eyes are cured can he cease to perceive their existence. 

 Similarly, a person, although convinced about the unreality of concepts, continues to be led astray by their intentionality.  He has to stop even the flow of relative concepts to get at the real.  And he has to do it by himself.  What he gets when the whirlwind of relative concepts is over is the Real, but he will not be competent to speak about it to the world at large. Truth about the relativity of concepts can be told to the world because the concepts are still there, but the truth in itself can never be told since concepts do not contribute to it.  However, since it is entirely against the accepted canon of logic to maintain a truth and yet refuse to say it, it has been found convenient to state that truth in a negative way --  Truth is the negation of concepts. 

Now, reality should not be confused with truth. Only a proposition can be true or false.  Thus truth-value applies to statements, not to facts.  (Negation or affirmation is only a mode in which propositions are stated; only a proposition can be negative or positive. There is no negative truth as such, because such a thing is not distinct from falsity -- a proposition is positive or negative; it is either true or false. )

Truth in itself is always positive. Reality is distinct from propositions because it can neither be affirmed nor denied; it is neither true nor false. It is not the same thing as truth, because it is merely the view that we have.  Hence, when we find a distinction instituted between two truths, a lower and a higher one, it means only a less correct and a more correct view of reality.  And . . .  the view is not the same thing as the real.

That concepts are relative is a truth, but a less correct one -- one that assumes relativity as the standard. A and B are conceived as relatives because of the standard of relativity.  But to ask whether relativity is relative is absurd since there cannot be another relativity for this relativity to be relative to. 

It is an absolute standard of reference in the case of all things, concepts included, other than itself.  But it is equally obvious that, in the absence of anything relative, relativity itself loses significance.  Either believe in relativity or in the Absolute -- but you cannot believe in both together. 

[Hindu] Advaita Vedanta reconciles the difference between the empirically real and the absolutely Real by introducing maya, the principle of cosmic illusion, but whether that illusion itself is illusory or not can never be adequately explained -- since, if maya itself is not illusory, then it in no way differs from the Absolute; if it is illusory, we require another illusion to make it illusory [ Mahamaya?   :-) ] 

In [Buddhist] Madhyamika this anomalous position does not arise because, unlike Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta, it is an out-and-out anti-metaphysical system. (That is, there is no higher, or ultimate, or revealable Reality.)  Relativity applied to concepts is an effective tool but when devoid of concepts, it devours itself.  Thus relativity conceived in itself would be the end of relativity.  Thus, it is said to be the consummation  of the cessation of all notions, concepts, and ideas. 

The word shunyata used by this school is very significant in this connection.  It does not mean a vacuous reality but rather, vacuity of thought.   And to say so is the most perfect wisdom that can be conceived of  (prajnaparamita.)

But the question remains:  Can there be a truth without reality? If there is nothing which this truth-statement purports to assert, it is false.  Thus it may be urged, and has been urged, that since a truth is here being asserted, therefore there must be a reality.

Such an interpretation of Madhyamika would go entirely against the spirit of it.  If Madhyamikas had ever maintained that at the empirical level concepts and realities are inextricably mixed up, as Advaitins assert, then it would be proper to say that, once they have denied any reality to concepts, whatever remains undeniable is Real for them.  

But the case is just the opposite:  Since for them relative concepts are, though  existent, devoid of any touch of Reality, when their existence (only due to the relativity) disappears there is nothing remaining as a substratum or essence to shine in its own light.  For Advaitins, negation is used with the ultimate aim of implicit affirmation. ("Not-A" implies something other than A.)  But for Madhyamikas, negation is used simply to affirm the negation itself: "Not-A" means exactly that -- simply an absence of A.   So, if the absence of a table is a fact and "table is absent" is a truth, it is equally justified to maintain, as do Madhyamikas, that "the concepts are non-existent" is a truth because of the fact that concepts are not to be found.  And this is not only a matter of emphasis on the negative approach; this is the very essence of the philosophical vision of Madhyamikas.    So if contrary to all contextual usage, we want to call a negative fact a Reality or the Absolute, we are free to do so.

For "Words," says Chandrakirti, "are like a policeman with a chain and a baton in hand, and do not compel us to use them in one way and not the other."  

Thus the relativity of concepts is a truth about relative concepts, but cessation of all concepts is a truth about relativity itself.  Just as no reality is involved in the relativity of concepts, no Reality or Absolute is involved in cessation of concepts.

The denial of concepts does not amount to denial of reality, nor does an affirmation of some Absolute.  For if there were any ultimate Reality, it certainly could not be touched by our affirmations or denials.

Nirvana, the final goal of a Buddhist, is certainly to be viewed in this light. The soul, merely a conceptual idea, is denied, and hence no conceivable thing can attain this state; nor can this state be described because, having been discovered after the cessation of all concepts, it remains beyond concepts altogether. 

"The truth about Nirvana can be couched in negative language. Even questions like whether Nirvana is the same as the Real can best be answered by comparing two negative concepts, and not by identifying [ie. equating] them.  Nagarjuna says that the nature of reality is like Nirvana.   Yes, Reality is like Nirvana only in the sense that each 'item' is conceived by negating all concepts fabricated by our mind and with language.  It would be like saying that X1 is not a, b, c ... n, X2 is also not a, b, c ... n, therefore X1 and X2 are similar.  But to say that they are identical would have to presuppose a common positive factor the presence of which warrants the identity [equivalence] of the two states. 

On the negative side, the world and Nirvana are identical because the world in itself is unaffected by transitory and relative concepts and so is Nirvana, but on the positive side nothing can be stated because Nirvana and reality are not known to share certain common characteristics."

The state of Nirvana is not an achievement; it is a revelation. The famous controversy over the relative worth of action and knowledge in Advaita Vedanta and the final decision that knowledge is not action but simple revelation, are perhaps a logical corollary of identification of liberation and the world, and accords well with the ideals of bodhisattva and jivanmukta [liberated soul].  

Any  result to be achieved is contingent upon the act done to achieve it and thus it is relative.  Nirvana, on the other hand, is simply the cessation of all relatives and therefore cannot be said to depend upon the act.  Only when relatives cease to exist, is Nirvana revealed and this is not made or unmade, known or unknown. [achieved or not.]

The Madhyamika system prefers to use the word "advaya" but (Advaita) Vedanta has a fascination for the word "advaita." These words are significant insofar as they bring out the essential differences in these two systems.  . . . "advaita" means free from duality and thus indirectly describes Brahman to which a duality cannot be ascribed.  In contrast, "Advaya" does not mean denial of duality but of two, because Madhyamikas do not make a distinction between the concept and the object of which there is the concept, [only] for a Vedantin is there such a distinction.  And thus, by denying two objects, they even deny one since the concept "one" is dependent upon the concept "two."

If we are permitted to see in Madhyamaka a philosophy of numbers, we could say that they take delight in the concept of zero.  It is against the background of zero that the concept one can arise.  To say that a number is not one means it is two or more, but to say that it is not two may mean: it is one, or, it is more than two.   In order to avoid this ambiguity, they introduce the term shunya, or zero -- a number which is definitely not two (advaya,) and this zero (shunya) just is obviously zero, without a  reference to any positive number.  

Vedantins describe the real as One only (ekam eva) that is, without any second (advitiyam).  Numerically speaking, they do not recognize zero as something significant.  Zero itself stands between the absence of numbers and all positive numbers from one to infinity.  So the word advaya read with the word shunya means "complete absence of numerable objects or the number concept."  But what the nature of this sunya is cannot be described.  Any attempt to answer this question will land us in relativity. 

However. one thing is certain; shunya is not nothing.  Had that been the case, the relative concepts would never have arisen. 


The Madhyamika system is called Dialectical Absolutism by its modern interpreters. Dialectic understood in the Hegelian sense is a synthetic thought process, but the Madhyamaka would be the last person to subscribe to any synthetic approach.  

They are out-and-out analysts; they profess the analysis of concepts. Adept as they are in bringing out an element of contradiction in every concept, they do not move upward to some synthetic unity, either in the Kantian or in the Hegelian sense.  They operate upon the concepts and leave the wound gaping without making any attempt at bandaging or balming it.  

They [are absolutely not doing dialectics or synthesis but] simply show that the concepts are self-contradictory; they never attempt to remove the contradiction.  As contradiction is the very core of the truth about relative concepts, if the contradiction is somehow removed, even relative concepts cease to be, and that would be a state of utter nothingness which is to be avoided.  [So] Let there be no illusion about the existence of un-contradictory concepts, because that would be a mere nothing. 

Madhyamikas show contradiction because they feel that in this way they would accord some reality to concepts.  Is it not a fact that what is dependently originated alone is real ? This purpose cannot be achieved by synthesis. 

Pandeya's footnotes 47& 48: 

But is it possible to call an analytic system dialectical? Madhyamikas have no thesis of their own to prove.  But every dialectician has to prove a thesis--the summation of thought-process, e.g., the Idea (Platonic), the Absolute (Hegelian or Bradleyan).  

Shankara [Hindu champion, contemporary? with Nagarjuna] gets the credit  for evolving a new technique of dialectic insofar as his Absolute is not achieved by means of upward thought-movement, the thesis for him, being indubitable, is not to be proved.  Hence, according to him, the only function left for the dialectic is to show a correlation between the accomplished (siddha-Brahman) and what is found in itself a baseless appearance.  

[Concerning the famous phrase Tat tvam asi [That, thou art [it.]]  A complete identity between "that" (tat) and "thou" (tvam) is instituted by the dialectic. "Tvam" is not brought up to the level of "tat," nor is "tat" forced down to the level of "tvam." They are on the same plane; only, "tvam" is shown not to exist as "tvam." His dialectic therefore works for the elimination of relation, internal as well as external. For Hegel and his fellow dialecticians, relation is the very core of the Absolute, as it was for Ramanuja.  For Shankara, this same relation is the root of appearance. For the former, if relation is removed a thing is reduced to naught; for the latter, removal of relation means uncovering the veil of reality.  Shankara's Brahman would be a nugatory concept for Hegel, and Hegel's Absolute would be a mass of appearances for a Shankarite. Thus, dialectic functions for Shankara only on the plane of appearance, clearing undergrowths and over-growths, and it ultimately results in the purification of thought.  So what is achieved is negative; Brahman does not depend upon any process of thought.

Nagarjuna's analysis seems to be the original on which Shankara modeled his dialectic.  When the former shows every concept to be self-contradictory and leaves it there, the latter seeks to synthesize self-contradictory concepts with the Absolute.  In Shankara we find an unwarranted jump from concepts to reality, and this is invariably the trait of all metaphysical systems.  In this respect Yogacharas are more cautious and faithful to their basic standpoint in as far as they deny any external world.  Analysis of concepts and their self-contradictory character do not warrant the self-contradictory character of objects as well. The objective reality stands unaffected by the contradiction in concepts. 

Madhyamikas think that concepts are contradictory and say nothing about realities. The Yogacharas, taking their clue from the contradiction of concepts exhibited by the Madhyamikas, believe in the non-existence of objects.  They argue that, if the concepts are contradictory and unreal, how can there be real objects corresponding to these concepts?  Thus, the consciousness which is aware of this contradiction alone is real. There is a real, not that it is warranted by contradictory concepts, but because it is presupposed by contradiction itself.

Shankara's position is different from these two systems. He agreed with Yogachara idealism so far as the presupposition of contradictions, i.e., consciousness (atman), is concerned.  But he found it difficult to agree with them on the unreality of the objective world.  He thought that if concepts are contradictory their contradiction must be judged from the standard of something non-contradictory: How can we brand a concept contradictory unless we have a scale which itself is free from contradiction?  [Also] This scale should not be another concept because it would be ex hypothesi contradictory.  Hence, it must be a unique real. With reference to this real, concepts are contradictory, but the real behind them is asserted at every step.  On the objective side, too, there is a real which is correlated to the subjective counterpart, the atman. [and] Brahman is a subject-object correlation. 

Hence, Shankara's philosophy is a synthesis of empiricism and rationalism, realism and conceptualism.[49] Madhyamikas refuse to venture into the realm of metaphysics.  They think that contradiction does not presuppose a consciousness, because such a consciousness (vijnana or atman) would not be separated from the concept of it.  Similarly, the standard of contradiction should not be sought somewhere outside the pale of concepts, because we cannot go beyond concepts.  Hence, contradiction should be taken as a fact about concepts and should nor be explained in terms of something non-contradictory. When every concept, without exception, is shown to be contradictory, the very concept of contradiction itself is contradicted.  Thus, ultimately there is no contradiction, because there is nothing to be contradicted .[50] 

There is no Absolute, because negation of contradiction does not mean some affirmative principle. There is no nihilism, because concepts have never been associated with reality, and thus, if they cease to be, reality will continue to exist in its own right.[51]  But such a reality, being conceptually zero, will not be one or many. It is neither Absolute nor a jumble of discrete particulars.[52]  Therefore, just as the Madhyamika system is not called pluralism, similarly it should not be designated as Absolutism. Metaphysical epithets like Absolutism, realism, idealism, empiricism, etc., should not be used for this, because it is not a metaphysical system. 

It would also be wrong to say that the school has any logical view of its own in the form of dialectic -- since it has nothing to establish or nothing to achieve. Accepting for argument's sake the logic of the opponent, "all that this school does is demonstrate by that very logic that his results are not free from contradiction."   Is it, then, justified to say that Madhyamikas have any form of dialectic of their own? Thus, it is neither Absolutist nor dialectical. It should therefore be called -- if a name is necessary -- an analytical philosophy, where analysis is confined only to concepts and language.  It is not factual analysis.  Again, here analysis should not be understood in the sense of exhibiting the components of a whole; rather this analysis shows that the so-called whole (concept) is pregnant with contradictions, and this is not a whole at all.  It is an analytic system but with a negative function. There is no one word to express this idea, and therefore, it should either be called "analytic zeroism" (zero is not the same thing as void) or better, be given no name at all. 


Pandeya's article makes reference to:

Chandrakirti's Madhyamaka-vrtti  that comments on Nagarjuna, Madhyamaka- karika  

Dharmakirti, Nyaya-bindu  

Annam Bhatta, Tarkasamgraha.

Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita (Calcutta 1932)

The Sriimad Bhagavata.

Nagarjuna, Vigrahavyavarttani.

Vasabandhu. Abhidharmakosa-bhasya

Th. Stcherbatsky. The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana.  Leningrad: Academy of Sciences of  USSR, 1927.  

Shankara-bhasya on the Brahma-sutra, I. 

T. R. V. Murti. The Central Philosophy of Buddhism.  London: Allen & Unwin, 1960.

L. S. Stebbing. A Modern Introduction to Logic. New York: Crowell, 1930.

A. Trendelenburg. Platonis de Ideis et Numeris Doctrina

Bertrand Russell in Mysticism and Logic. (London: Longmans, Green, 1925) says that a " true proposition contains a particular as a constituent. A proposition like "I saw a unicorn," though significant, is false, because unicorn is not a constituent. "I shall say an object is 'known by description' when we know that it is 'the so-and-so,' i.e., when we know that there is one object, and no more, having a certain property: and it will generally be implied that we do not have knowledge of the same object by acquaintance" (214.) 

He elucidates further: "Suppose we say: 'The round square does not exist.' It seems plain that this is a true proposition, yet we cannot regard it as denying the existence of a certain object called 'the round square'... . Thus in all such cases, the proposition must be capable of being so analysed that what was the grammatical subject shall have disappeared."

For Madhyamikas, every symbol, including demonstratives, is an incomplete symbol, and we can know "by description only."

"In full accordance with the idea of a monistic universe it is now asserted that there is not a shade of difference between the Absolute and the phenomenal, between Nirvana and samsara. The universe viewed as a whole is  the Absolute;  viewed as a process it is the phenomenal."  ( Stcherbatsky BN 48.) 

And "There is no reason to single out the Madhyamika as especially nihilistic. If anything,  it is a very consistent form of absolutism." 


MV, P. 493. It is wrong to translate "Nirvana" by "Absolute" and the Ashta.sahasrikaa Prajnaparamita (Calcutta 1932,  40) clearly states Nirvana also is only another concept.

30. Our cognition of empirical objects is true when those objects are viewed in the light of relative concepts. It is a truth that every concept is relative; this I call the loka-samv.rti-satya of the Madhyamika. But it is utterly false that the concepts are absolute, unrelated entities; for that matter, our notion of an absolute objective reality is relegated to the position of falsity; it is not even samv.rti. In contrast to this is a truth about this truth itself. It is true not only that the concepts are relative but also that relativity, too, thrives upon these concepts. This second truth about relativity itself is the paramartha-satya of the Madhyamikas. 

"When relativity of concepts is fully realized, the relativity itself ceases to operate because there is nothing to be operated upon.  This state is the ideal state --  Nirvana. Hence, paramartha is cessation of concepts where relativity consumes itself.  This is the truth, the real nature of things, tathata, the Supreme Doctrine of the Middle Path proclaimed by the Master;  the Perfect Wisdom- Prajnaparamita--and the Mother of all the Enlightened Ones."

36. "Absolutism is committed to the doctrine of two truths; for, it makes the distinction between the thing as it is, un-relatedly, absolutely, and how it appears in relation to the percipients who look at it through views and standpoints." Murti, op. cit., p.243.

42. "This alone can be said to be the positive aspect of the world." For the positive aspect of Nirvana, see Mk, XXV. 4-6.

45. How number has been treated as a motif for the explanation of cosmic process is evidenced by early Greek philosophy.  Parmenides, following Xenophanes, declared Being as one, complete and definitive. 

The Pythagoreans thought that the permanent Being was to be found in numbers, Plato designated his Idea of the Good as the One and attempted to derive from it the duality of infinite and measure 

Plotinus thinks that of the "First," which is exalted above all finite determinations and oppositions, nothing can be predicated in the strict sense. "It is only in an improper sense, in its relation to the world, that it can be designated as the infinite One, as the Good, as the highest Power or Force." --Dr. W. Windelband, A History of Philosophy, J. H. Tufts,
trans. (2nd ed. rev. and enl. N.Y.: The Macmillan Co., 1960), p. 245. 

Dialectical method, for Hegel, helps "to determine the essential nature of particular phenomena by the significance which they have as members or links in the self-unfolding of spirit" (Windleband, op. cit., p. 611). This review of employment of the dialectical method unmistakenly shows that (1) dialectic is a synthetic process and (2) aims at proving a thesis. 

But Madhyamikas think that the synthesis of concepts would result in another concept, which they seek to avoid. In the absence of any synthetic aim, the purpose of dialectic would be merely negative. Hence, Nagarjuna says, "yadi kaacana pratij~naa syaan me tata eva me bhaved naasti ca mama pratij~naa tasmaan naivaa' sti me (VV, p. 29). The distinction between dialectical and analytical methods is rooted in synthesis and analysis, respectively. 

Madhyamikas analyze a concept to determine whether it contains some real element, and ultimately come to conclude that it has none. Thus, instead of going upward to some synthetic unity or the Infinite, they come down to the root,  shunya.  In Kantian terms no synthetic judgment a priori is ever possible -- for  Madhyamikas.

48. The Vedantic conception of dialectic is well explained in the Bhagavata, as follows:  

sa vai na devaasura-martya-tirya^n 
na strii na .san.dho na pumaan na jantu.h
naa' ya^m karma na san na caa' san
ni.sedha-` jayataad a` (VIII, iv. 214.)

Dialectic simply helps in eliminating misconceptions; whatever remains thus un-eliminated would be the One, i.e., without a second. Thus Shankara's Brahman is not achieved by means of a dialectical process; it is simply re-discovered.   Hence, dialectic has a value only at the empirical level; transcendentally, it is also a science rooted in ignorance or avidyaa--tasmaad eva pratyak.saadiini pramaa.naani ` ca (SB, I.i.l, Introduction).  At another place (SB, II.i.1I), Shankara paraphrases Bharatrhari, the Grammarian  to the same effect.

50. Aarya-ratna-kuu.ta-suutra, quoted in MV, p. 338, reads: 

tena hyaayu.smanta.h sangaasyaamo na vivadi.sydma.havivaadapavamo hi `srama.nadharma.h,

The Samaadhiraaja also says, vivaada-praaptyaa na duhkha^m pra`samyate.  avivaada-praaptya ca dukham nirudhyate (MV, p. 136). Gau.dapaada, too, maintains the undisputability of this position (see hisKaarikaa, V. 2). This avivada is due to the fact that there is absolutely nothing contradicted even from the so-called higher standpoint (VV, p. 30).

"Zero-conceptuality" should be contrasted with "unitary-conceptuality" of Advaita Vedanta.  In Advaita, the atman is accepted on the strength of indubitable experience, and everything other than atman is shown to be mere appearance because every such object conceived by us displays doubt.  Thus, we start from the one, atman, proceed to examine the many, and in this process invariably find only the one and never the many.  Thus, the one also becomes the Infinite (ananta).  The Real is the One and therefore the Infinite. 

We may take any point in this Infinite; it. will always Point to the Infinite as its substratum. The individual is resolved in the Universal, the Infinite, and the One. Concepts always point to the unitary concept of atman. In contrast to this, Madhyamikas think that any point in the infinite series is a determination with reference to its preceding point, which in its turn depends upon its own preceding point, and so on until at last the indubitable ground is achieved.  Contrary to Vedantins, this indubitable ground is not the One, because the One itself depends upon its predecessor, the zero. 

Instead of going forward to the Infinite, Madhyamikas prefer to come backward to the root. If there is an one, there is the possibility of the Infinite because One is the threshold of infinity. If there is only a zero the possibility of infinite altogether vanishes:  If any link in the twelve-linked circle of causation (pratitya-samutpada) is broken the entire circle ceases to be operative, because the root of it, the zero, is discovered.  This origination is rooted in zero, proceeds from it, ends in it, and itself is nothing but an extension of zero. This zero is not infinite, nor is it finite, whereas the Absolute is always infinite and never finite.

[That is the key distinction between the orthodox Hindu view, and the Buddhist view.]

Note: Sanskrit transliterated spelling was altered in the main text for ease in reading, or omitted where it did not aid in clarity. 

Back ] Home ] Up ]

Philosophical Context ]
Copyright 1998-2016 Khandro.Net  All rights reserved.  This Web site is designed with Firefox as browser but should be accessible to others.  However,  if you eliminate underlining in your Preferences you could miss some of our  many links.