How Do Mādhyamikas Think? - Selections

And Other Essays on the Buddhist Philosophy of the Middle

A respected professor of Buddhist philosophy brings readers on a fascinating journey through Buddhism’s most animating ideas.



296 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9781614292517

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eBook Bundle (PDF, epub, mobi)


ISBN 9781614292661

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1. Trying to Be Fair

Madhyamaka, the philosophy of the middle, is one of the principal interpretations of Mahāyāna Buddhist scriptures and has a lineage of several prolific and revered thinkers in India, Tibet, and China, beginning with Nāgārjuna and  ryadeva in about the second century CE and going on to Candrakīrti and Bhāviveka in the sixth century, Kamalaśīla and Śāntarakṣita in the eighth, and a host of illustrious Tibetan exponents, not the least of which was Tsongkhapa (Tsong kha pa) in the fourteenth century. It has fascinated Western writers from the end of the nineteenth century on, including the major figures in Buddhist philology, like Theodore Stcherbatsky, Louis de La Vallée Poussin, and Étienne Lamotte, and even some well-known philosophers, like Karl Jaspers. Practitioners of Buddhism in the West inspired by, or belonging to, one or another Tibetan school often faithfully endorse the hierarchy of Indian thought as found in the genre of Tibetan works known as grub mtha’ or siddhānta, the doxographical literature that maintains that Buddhist philosophy culminates in the Madhyamaka. The point is incontestable: Madhyamaka, whether in the East or in the West, has often been revered for its depth and has stimulated many of the best minds in Buddhism and in Buddhist studies. I’ll attempt a working philosophical introduction and will seek to bring out what I think is promising philosophically. I will not do a survey of the history and literature of the school, as others have done that already and much better than I can here. I will, however, approach that philosophy in a slightly more backhanded way than is usual. To see what is promising we first need to look seriously at a potentially darker side to Madhyamaka, for there are interesting and well-informed contemporary critics of Madhyamaka who have seen deviousness and fraudulence where most everyone else saw depth.

The first article in this direction was that of Richard Robinson (1972) entitled “Did Nāgārjuna Really Refute all Philosophical Views?” For Robinson, the principal complaint was that Nāgārjuna and the Madhyamaka school were attributing to their opponents notions and positions to which these opponents themselves would never agree. The second major article was a follow-up to Robinson by Richard P. Hayes (1994), “Nāgārjuna’s Appeal,” in which the author argued that not only did this Mādhyamika regularly misrepresent his opponent’s positions and thus refute a man of straw, but that his key arguments only appear to work because of a systematic equivocation upon the polysemic term “intrinsic nature” (svabhāva). While Robinson saw a strategy of deliberate misrepresentation, Hayes added equivocation to the would-be sins of Nāgārjuna.

That there would be this strong negative turn some time or another is to quite a degree understandable. After all, what could be more irritating to a good, serious scholar than a general idolatry of a philosophy that seemed to him to be a series of bad arguments, misrepresentations, and sloppy or deliberate plays on words? The temptation is great to buck the tide of exaggerated claims. Nonetheless, the Robinson-Hayes type of reaction is short on charity, leading to more heat than light. Worse, it is sometimes short on some potentially relevant information on the complicated points it treats. Indeed, as we shall see, the later Indian and Tibetan Mādhyamika scholastic had taken up accusations similar to those Robinson and Hayes are leveling and had some solutions that involved considerable ingenuity and in some cases, I would argue, significant insights. I think it is clear that at least the impatient tone of Robinson’s and Hayes’s articles is unfair: the Mādhyamika philosopher is much, much less of an amateur; or to put it more strongly, he is less of a trickster or fraud than Robinson and Hayes make him out to be.

It would be too involved and technical in the present context to undertake a blow-by- blow analysis of the passages that modern critics of the Madhyamaka cite. Nor fortunately do I think we need to do this, as we can get our points across with a reconstruction of some general strategies in this school’s argumentation. But before we delve into that, it is worthwhile to point out that the argumentation is not just what should make or break this philosophy, or other philosophies, for us. Even if certain of the different sorts of arguments that we find in these Madhyamaka texts might seem unconvincing to us, as they probably often do, it would nonetheless be a mistake to thereby dismiss Madhyamaka thought in general. To take a parallel, I think that many people, other than perhaps certain die-hard analytic philosophers, would think it strangely narrow to dismiss the philosophies of St. Thomas Aquinas or René Descartes purely because of the unconvincingness of the Five Ways or the ontological argument—it would be seen as narrow because somehow these philosophies are more than just those arguments; they involve a certain systematic vision, approach, and method of thinking that is of interest and can be developed further, even if many of the actual arguments that Aquinas and Descartes themselves gave might often leave us less than converted. It may be that someone formulates other arguments to arrive at essentially Thomistic or Cartesian conclusions. So I think it may be with Nāgārjuna and the Madhyamaka: even if some of the reasoning that he gave in the second century leaves us puzzled in the twenty-first, the philosophic vision is of interest and could well find support in arguments possibly quite different from those of Nāgārjuna himself. In the last chapter of this book, I suggest some ways in which this update could be pursued. In short, I think the Madhyamaka should be of interest to contemporary scholars, because the system and philosophic vision should be of interest. On the most general level the Madhyamaka is trenchantly asking the question “What is a thing?” This question, as well as the Mādhyamika thinker’s attempted answers, should be of interest to philosophers, be they analytic philosophers concerned with issues of realism, antirealism, and quietism, or so-called continental philosophers, such as the Heideggerians meditating on Die Frage nach dem Ding.