Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

The Buddhist Philosophy of the Middle - Preface

Essays on Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka


The present volume comprises reprints of a selection of studies concerned with the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist thought in India and Tibet. For this volume misprints in the original articles have been corrected. The transliteration of Tibetan has been altered by the publishers, who have also made a number of editorial changes. To the paper on linguistic and mathematical models (no. 1) a postscript has been appended listing some newer publications dealing with the relative places of linguistic and mathematical models in Indian thought and providing references to some recent treatments of Indian mathematics and astronomy.

These papers were written in parallel with, and thus complement, their author’s Literature of the Madhyamaka School of Philosophy in India (1981) and Three Studies in the History of Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka Philosophy (Part 1 of Studies in Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka Thought, 2000). The latter volume contains an outline history of earlier Madhyamaka in Tibet, a study on the place of propositional assertions or theses (pratijñā), philosophical positions (mata, pakṣa, etc.), and non-contentiousness or eirenicism in Madhyamaka thought (an earlier article on the subject published in 1983 is therefore not reproduced here) and a study on epistemological-logical (pramāṇa) theory and the ontic in Tsong kha pa’s (1357–1419) Madhyamaka philosophy (an earlier version published in 1991 is therefore not reprinted here). Part 2 of Studies in Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka Thought (2002) is comprised of a translation of Candrakīrti’s (seventh-century) comment in his Prasannapadā on the first stanza of Nāgārjuna’s great Mūlamadhyamakakārikās and a translation of a treatise going back to Tsong kha pa, but recorded by his immediate disciple Rgyal tshab Dar ma rin chen (1364–1432), on the Eight Crucial Points (dka’ gnad or dka’ gnas brgyad) in Madhyamaka philosophy.

Since the original publication of the article on the Tibetan Jo nang pas (no. 12)—the first of its kind on the subject—original texts composed by many of this remarkable school’s principal authorities have very fortunately come to light and been made more readily available in printed form; at the time of writing of this article in the early 1960s, the oldest such works known to be accessible in a public collection in the West were probably some manuscripts held by the Reiss Museum in Mannheim. The article reprinted here will serve the purpose of providing the reader with two examples of the Tibetan historiography and doxography of this school, including a critique, by an eighteenth-century master of the Dga’ ldan pa school, of the Jo nang pa doctrine of Emptiness of the other (Tib. gzhan stong, i.e., Emptiness of the heterogeneous, as opposed to Emptiness of self[-existence], rang stong or svabhāvaśūnyatā).

Concerning the negation of the so-called tetralemma (catuṣkoṭi), a characteristic and very fundamental procedure in Buddhist thought studied in the third article in this volume, further observations on it—and also on non-presuppositional and non-implicative negation (prasajyapratiṣedha) sometimes also referred to as propositional or external negation—are included in both parts of the present writer’s Studies in Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka thought (especially Part 1, pp. 109–12, 142–44, on the tetralemma itself, with Part 2, pp. 19–24, on the two types of negation: paryudāsa and prasajyapratiṣedha).

These papers were written over a time-span of several decades, and the reader will doubtless notice in them a gradual evolution in the translations of Indian and Tibetan technical terminology as well as in the description of systems of Buddhist philosophical thought. In the original of the earliest article reprinted here (no. 12), technical terms were often rendered by European equivalents with initial capitalized (following a style once introduced by the great Indologist Sylvain Lévi). In later papers, this style has been used more sparingly, exceptions still being, e.g., “Emptiness (of self-existence)” for (svabhāva)śūnyatā, “Gnosis” for jñāna, “Truth/Reality” for satya, and “Middle” for madhyamaka. It seems appropriate to retain this typographical convention at least in the case of European equivalents of terms having technical meanings in Buddhist thought where no single translation-equivalent seems to be entirely satisfactory and any rendering is an approximation. (Especially problematical is the matter of the translation of satya [Tib. bden pa] by “truth” in the Tibetan expression bden par grub pa [or bden grub] meaning “hypostatically established” or “reified.”) Capitalization of a term serves to underscore the fact that it is not in the first place a definition in an English dictionary of the equivalent selected for an original Sanskrit or Tibetan term that will be determinative of its technical meaning in a given passage but, rather, definitions and uses of the term in our Sanskrit and Tibetan sources.

lt is evident that studies in Indian, and in particular Buddhist, thought have long been complicated, sometimes obfuscated, and occasionally severely hampered by the fact that no system of technical equivalents—however conventional these must in many cases be—has been agreed upon by modern scholars. The development of a system of equivalents was, however, something achieved by Tibetan scholars and translators at a very early stage of their endeavours at the turn of the ninth century.

A case in point is the not infrequently found description of Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka philosophy as “nihilism.” Now, it is anything but clear how in modern English his philosophy of the Middle could be fittingly described as nihilism, a word that has as its closest equivalent Skt. nāstikya (even if Apte’s English-Sanskrit dictionary has very curiously translated “nihilism” by Skt. śūnyavāda—while rendering “atheism” by nāstikya although this English word corresponds most closely to anīśvara/nirīśvaravāda—thus creating an inextricably confused skein of concepts and terms!). The very purpose of Nāgārjuna and his followers, the Mādhyamikas, was precisely to steer clear of the twin positions of nihilism and substantialism (metaphysical essentialism), each of which they regarded as an extreme (Sanskrit anta = Tibetan mtha’) to be carefully eschewed by the philosopher-practiser. (Many have indeed considered nihilism to be at least as dangerous as substantialism, if not more so; see Kāśyapaparivarta §§ 64–65 on śūnyatādrṣṭi in relation to pudgaladrṣṭi, as well as Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikās xiii.8 and xxiv.11 on śūnyatādrṣṭi.) at the very same time Mādhyamikas have refused to adopt and entrench themselves in some putative middle position (pakṣa, etc.) or speculative view (drṣṭi) between two extremes (see Samādhirājasūtra ix.27). If, then, the Mādhyamikas are “centrists,” they are so in a special sense. and Madhyamaka is strictly speaking no “third way.” Buddhists in general have indeed ever sought to avoid the twin extremes of destructionism (ucchedānta) and eternalism (śāśvatānta), nihilism and substantialism. Those who explain śūnya and śūnyatā in terms of nihilism and nihility—or the néant—overlook the fact that the two Sanskrit expressions are as it were shorthand for svabhāvaśūnya(), so that what the Mādhyamika is speaking about is not nihilism but, rather, the fact of emptiness of self-existence. Thus a śūnyatāvādin is a niḥsvabhāvavādin, one who considers all factors of existence (dharma), all entities (bhāva), to be without self-existence (svabhāva). But he does not consider everything to be a mere nothing (abhāva), which would of course be an extreme position in terms of Madhyamaka.

The two extremes thus rejected are equivalent to the first two positions of a tetralemma (catuṣkoṭi), namely the positively expressed one and the negatively expressed one. and the notion of a “third way”—i.e., a putative intermediate position or view between two extremes, which is also rejected—is reducible to the fourth (“neither…nor”) position, or perhaps to the third (“both…and”) position, of a tetralemma. now, in Madhyamaka thought, all four positions of the tetralemma are in fact negated (through non-presuppositional and non-implicative negation, prasajyapratiṣedha).

Most of the branches of Madhyamaka philosophy are, moreover, not philosophically idealist in so far as the pure Madhyamaka admits pragmatically the relative existence of an object of cognition (the bāhyārtha) external to mind (citta, vijñāna) (the Yogācāra-Madhyamaka tradition being something of an exception in this regard). and in this sense Mādhyamikas might be described as realists. But they are realists of a very particular kind, ones who posit the ultimate reality neither of an external, objective, world, nor of an internal, mental, world; hence, in some respects, they have been described as anti-realists as well as anti-foundationalists. In what sense the Yogacara-Vijñānavādins—the advocates of the Cittamātra (Tib. sems tsam) who make up the second main school of Mahāyāna philosophy alongside the Madhyamaka—are “idealists” (cf. vijñānamātra), “mentalists” (cf. cittamātra), or “representationists” (cf. vijñaptimātra) has equally been the subject of discussion among historians of Indian and Buddhist thought. Very interestingly, early in the history of the Madhyamaka, authors belonging to the Vijñānavāda movement apparently wrote commentaries on nāgārjuna (now extant only in Chinese versions), examples being Asaṅga and Sthiramati.

Because of the very considerable problems we encounter in employing terms borrowed from Westem philosophy, or from the ordinary linguistic usage of some idiom of “Standard average European,” some writers have preferred to retain the original (Sanskrit or Tibetan) technical terms, which they then explain in a glossary, note, or monograph. But this solution is not really available when translating from Sanskrit and Tibetan.

It is clear, then, that an adequate philosophical description of the traditions and systems of Buddhist thought, and in particular of the Madhyamaka, is a matter of the utmost importance because it raises a number of critical and complex issues, as does the translation of the technical vocabulary of these traditions and systems. There are required both a sort of modern (meta)language capable of describing specific (and perhaps fairly unfamiliar) systems of thought and a coherent set of established and agreed technical European-language equivalents for translating the relevant philosophical vocabularies. In this regard—and concerning the unavoidable conventionality of such renderings—reference may be made to the present writer’s “Some Reflections on Translating Buddhist Philosophical Texts from Sanskrit and Tibetan” (1992: pp. 367–91) and “La traduction de la terminologie technique de la pensée indienne et bouddhique depuis Sylvain Lévi” (2007: pp. 145–71).

The glossary appended to the present book seeks to clarify some of the above-mentioned issues with particular reference to a selection of important technical terms in Madhyamaka thought.

Concerning the proper names Bhāviveka, Bhāvaviveka, Bhāvin, and Bhavya,—Legs ldan (’)byed, Snang ’bral, and Skal ldan in Tibetan—, they have often been seen as alternative appellations of a single person, the sixth century Mādhyamika known to Candrakīrti. And in some articles in this collection the appellations Bhā(va)viveka and Bhavya have been used as appellations for the same person. The name found in Candrakīrti’s metrical Madhyamakaśāstrastuti is Bhāvin (rendered Legs ldan byed in the Tibetan translation published by de Jong); but in the prose of the Prasannapadā by the same authority we find Bhāvaviveka in the edition published by La Vallée Poussin. The form Bhāviveka is now widely accepted. It seems appropriate to refer to the author of the Prajñāpradīpa, a commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikās, and of the Madhyamakahrdaya(kārikās), an independent text, as Bhāviveka. Whether this Bhāviveka was also the author of the Madhyamakārthasaṃgraha is perhaps not altogether settled yet. The Madhyamakaratnapradīpa is evidently to be assigned to a later Bhavya. The authorship of the (Madhyamakahrdayavrtti-) Tarkajvālā ascribed in the Tibetan Bstan ’gyur to Bhavya—and very often assigned to Bhāviveka, which, if correct, would make this very extensive work an autocommentary—raises problems discussed in section 5 of the present publication. The main source of the “Svātantrika” branch of the Madhyamaka was, of course, the author of the Prajñāpradīpa. On these matters see also sections 2, 6, 11, and 15 in this publication. When reading the relevant articles in this book, these points are to be kept in mind. As for Bhavyakīrti and Bhavyarāja, they are different, and later, figures.

My sincere thanks go to those connected with the publication of this volume, and in particular to Tom Tillemans and Burkhard Quessel, both of whom have spared no pains in arranging for the reprinting of these articles.




How to cite this document:
© David Seyfort Ruegg, The Buddhist Philosophy of the Middle (Wisdom Publications, 2010)

Creative Commons License
This selection from The Buddhist Philosophy of the Middle by David Seyfort Ruegg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at