Resurrecting Candrakīrti - Introduction

Disputes in the Tibetan Creation of Prāsaṅgika


304 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861715206

Add to Cart »


eBook Bundle (PDF, epub, mobi)


ISBN 9780861717583

Add to Cart »


Among the most commonly held tenets of the Buddhist religion is the view that human suffering, indeed, the suffering of all sentient beings, arises due to delusion. A great deal of Buddhist training, then, is aimed at refining one’s mind to overcome the fundamental misconceptions concerning ourselves, others, and the world around us that, in this view, characterize existence in saṃsāra. The centrality of human intellect in both suffering and liberation poses several crucial questions that many Buddhists across time and place have attempted to resolve: If fundamentally flawed, what value can the mind have in freeing us from suffering? Can the mind, imbued with delusion, have any knowledge of that state beyond suffering, nirvāṇa? Does enlightened mind bear any resemblance to our present delusional mind? How does nirvāṇa relate to the world of suffering in which we now live?

While competing camps of Buddhist philosophies have construed these issues variously, two Indian schools of thought came to dominate Tibetan Buddhist presentations of knowledge, transformation, and enlightenment. The Epistemological tradition stemming from Dignāga and Dharmakīrti provided Tibetans with a system of distinguishing falsehood from “valid cognition” (pramāṇa, tshad ma), a system that privileged direct experience over conceptual thought as the pre-eminent means to know reality. Various types of perception ( pratyakṣa, mngon sum) and inference (anumāna, rjes dpag) produced valid knowledge of both the mundane world and its final nature. While Tibetans utilized Dharmakīrti’s work to differentiate knowledge from delusion, the ultimate object of transformative knowledge came from a very different source. From the early introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way School championed emptiness (śūnyatā, stong pa nyid) as the final nature of reality, knowledge of which alone overcomes our ignorant belief in an existing self and yields liberation from suffering. While for many English readers, “emptiness” would seem to connote a vacuous eradication of all that exists, many Tibetan scholars understood Nāgārjuna’s emptiness to be fully compatible with Dharmakīrti’s “foundationalist” epistemology. Wedding these two approaches became the formula for transformation, as one rode “the yoked necks of the lions of the Middle Way and Epistemology” in order to make the passage out of ignorance and suffering to wisdom and nirvāṇa.

Of foremost importance in Tibetan presentations of emptiness is the seventh-century Indian Candrakīrti, whose writings form the basis for studying the Middle Way in many Tibetan monasteries. Candrakīrti is celebrated as offering the most thorough and accurate vision of Nāgārjuna’s emptiness, which, in turn, most fully represents the final truth of the Buddha’s teaching. Candrakīrti’s idea of emptiness denies any existence to “nature” (svabhāva, rang bzhin), rejecting any enduring essence in ourselves or anywhere in the phenomenal world. In this view, our false belief in natures is at the root of our ignorance and the basis for all manner of emotional turbulence. For many Tibetan scholars, only Candrakīrti’s Middle Way entirely overcomes our false belief in natures and, consequently, alone overcomes ignorance and proffers freedom from cyclic existence.

Candrakīrti frequently appears in Tibetan presentations of the Middle Way alongside Bhāvaviveka (c. 500–570), whose own version of emptiness followed Nāgārjuna’s insights on the whole but, some maintain, failed to overcome all traces of belief in natures. Bhāvaviveka, according to some interpretations, held that no nature could be found anywhere, ultimately, but that conventionally the notion of natures proved quite useful in explaining the everyday world. Candrakīrti argued in his Clear Words (Prasannapadā) against Bhāvaviveka, despite their many commonalities as followers of Nāgārjuna. Candrakīrti’s argument served as proof for many in Tibet that Candrakīrti’s emptiness was the final explanation of reality, uniquely complete, and singularly capable of yielding liberation.

Candrakīrti’s critique of Bhāvaviveka also formed the locus classicus for dividing the Middle Way into two camps, based on allegiance to or thematic similarity with the views of Candrakīrti and Bhāvaviveka. From an early period of the transmission of Buddhism, Tibetan scholars developed the genre of doxography ( grub mtha’, siddhānta) that, similar to Latinate compilations of Greek philosophers, organized important figures into perceived systems of thought. While Indian Buddhist authors composed similar texts, Tibetan doxographies uniquely divided the Middle Way into subschools centered round Candrakīrti and Bhāvaviveka. In Tibetan estimations, Candrakīrti’s subschool, Prāsaṅgika, consistently ranks ahead of Bhāvaviveka’s Svātantrika subschool at the pinnacle of all Buddhist viewpoints. Candrakīrti’s unique view of emptiness accounts, in some interpretations, for his top ranking.

Additionally, Candrakīrti is lauded for his method of proving or ascertaining emptiness. Indeed, Prāsaṅgika takes its name from a logical method employed by Candrakīrti, that of prasaṅga, “consequence,” in which one points out absurd and unwanted consequences of an opposing view in order to demonstrate that the view is untenable. While the precise rationale for the compatibility of prasaṅga reasoning with the ontology of emptiness has frequently been debated, Tibetan scholars nearly unanimously agreed that the Prāsaṅgika (“Consequentialist”) method was ideally suited to a world that was, in the end, empty.

In contradistinction, Bhāvaviveka favored proving the validity of his own Middle Way position by means of formal inferences accepted in “one’s own [mental] continuum” (svatantra), a position indebted to the logic of Dignāga and that warranted his brand of the Middle Way the appellation Svātantrika (“one who uses svatantra inference,” or “Own Continuumist”). Despite Bhāvaviveka’s overt courting of the Buddhist Epistemological tradition, many Tibetans believed that Candrakīrti and his Prāsaṅgika followers offered a more refined presentation of the processes by which one gains a reasoned understanding of emptiness than Svātantrika. Bhāvaviveka’s reliance on formal inference reveals, at best, an “addiction to logic” (as Candrakīrti put it) or, at worst, a false belief in essences. Candrakīrti’s superiority lies, in some presentations, in both his understanding of emptiness and in his method of moving beyond ignorance to realize it. Implicit in Tibetan doxography, and in a wealth of Tibetan doctrinal literature, is the generative and authoritative position of Buddhist India. For Tibetans, India remains the hallmark of authenticity for both literature and doctrine. Inclusion of a text in the Tibetan Buddhist canon, for example, was allowed only for Tibetan translations for which an Indian original could be accounted. The reach of Buddhist India’s authority extends to presentations of the Middle Way such that Tibetan scholars maintain that Candrakīrti’s superiority was affected in his own lifetime, in India, where he vanquished all competing Buddhist schools. Tibetan estimates of Candrakīrti’s supremacy could be seen as a simple reflection of Indian Buddhists’ own preferences.

However, the Indian textual record complicates Tibetan presentations of the Middle Way. The very notion that Candrakīrti and Bhāvaviveka formed separate schools of the Middle Way is dubious. While it is beyond doubt that Candrakīrti took exception with Bhāvaviveka’s insistence on formal inference, the superiority of Candrakīrti’s views was not at all apparent to Buddhists of his day. As I argue in chapter 1, Indians took little notice of Candrakīrti’s texts during his lifetime and in the three centuries following his death. Meanwhile, the mainstream of Middle Way thinking grew even closer to the logical program of Dignāga and Dharmakīrti than Bhāvaviveka’s thought had been. The most successful Middle Way scholars of the eighth century were Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, whose blend of the Epistemological and Middle Way traditions strongly diverge from Candrakīrti’s work. The discrepancy between Indian evidence and later Tibetan presentations becomes more pronounced when we recognize that Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla were instrumental in establishing Middle Way scholarship in Tibet during the first promulgation of Buddhism across the Himalayas in the eighth century. Their brand of the Middle Way held pride of place in Tibetan doxographies of the eighth through eleventh centuries.

The question, then, is how did Candrakīrti come to be the Buddhist paragon of Tibet? And how did his views on emptiness come to be “yoked” with the Buddhist Epistemological tradition in order to form the dominant soteriological model for Tibetan monasticism? This book examines the rise and transfiguration of Candrakīrti, centuries after his death, from a marginally known, conservative commentator on Nāgārjuna to the darling of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. Chapters 1 and 2 trace the historical ascent of Candrakīrti first in eleventh-century India and then in twelfth-century Tibet, showing that the shifting currents of late Indian Buddhism offered him his first glimpse of renown while the fractious and competitive world of the Tibetan “renaissance” provided him for the first time with a school of thought. The remaining chapters explore the philosophical issues that Candrakīrti’s writings illuminated in this formative period of Tibetan Buddhism. By examining Candrakīrti’s rise—over three hundred years after his death—this book takes strides toward explaining how and why Indian and Tibetan Buddhists revived Candrakīrti’s major texts and reworked them over the centuries into Tibet’s doctrine of choice. In short, this is an investigation into how Tibetan Buddhist doctrine took the shape that we recognize today.

The Twelfth-Century Candrakīrti
One of the central themes of this book is the difference in Candrakīrti’s appearance upon his resurrection in the eleventh and twelfth centuries from his refined image in later Tibetan scholarship, an image that continues to appear in monastic curricula today. This early Tibetan portrait of Candrakīrti comes into focus through recent discoveries of Tibetan Middle Way texts from this period, previously believed to have been lost over time. The twelfth-century portrait suggests the divergent concerns of Tibetan authors, and sometimes their Indian teachers and dialogue partners, from those of Tibetan authors in the fourteenth century and beyond. These later authors’ texts have long been in scholarly circulation and have frequently served as sources of information about earlier, less documented times. Now that earlier Tibetan authors can speak for themselves, we find that the later authors were not always faithful to their predecessors, exhibiting a strong tendency to “restate” earlier authors’ positions in the terms of their own philosophical concerns. In some cases, sectarian polemics may be at work in these misrepresentations; in other cases, it is likely that the later authors simply did not possess copies of the earlier materials, which had already fallen out of circulation. In any case, the newly available literature warrants our reconsideration of the now accessible earlier period.

We additionally see that previous scholarly tendencies to trace direct lines from seventh- and eighth-century Indian authors to fourteenth-century Tibetan authors must be regarded with suspicion. In the portrayal of most Tibetan doctrinalists, the foundational figures of Indian Middle Way thought flourished between the second and eighth centuries of the Common Era. While many Tibetan sources value later Indian authors, aside from Atiśa (c. 982–1054) these figures are rarely accorded authoritative status. The importance that many Tibetan scholars attach to Nāgārjuna, Bhāvaviveka, Candrakīrti, and Śāntarakṣita, combined with the absence of early Tibetan literature, can subtly influence our approach to Indian and Tibetan Middle Way philosophy. At worst, we can be led into the view that nothing interesting happened between the eighth and fourteenth centuries. Only slightly better, we can read fourteenth-century Tibetan interpretations of seventh and eighth-century Indian authors as the necessary or logical trajectory of the Indian authors, without appreciating the intervening centuries of development. Newly available Tibetan sources and a renewed appreciation for long-available late Indian sources allow us to get a better sense of the development of Buddhist philosophy, of the creativity of these neglected periods, and of the importance of these authors for the better-known Tibetan works of the fourteenth century and beyond. Central to this present investigation into the historical rise of Candrakīrti is Helmut Tauscher’s edition of a new-found manuscript of Chapa Chokyi Sengé’s (1109–69) Compilation of the Three Mādhyamikas from the East. While Candrakīrti’s major texts have long been available to scholarly access, as have later Tibetan treatises that valorize Candrakīrti, missing from view have been extended critiques of his central ideas. Criticism is surely an important marker of success; it is difficult to imagine that Candrakīrti slipped silently into the role of philosophical pre-eminence without a dissenting voice raised. Chapa’s text provides this missing piece, taking to task Candrakīrti’s most important concerns (as his eleventh- and twelfth-century champions presented them). Chapa’s twelfth-century critique tells us when Candrakīrti’s views gained sufficient acclaim to warrant rebuttal and gives us a good sense of the philosophical issues on which Candrakīrti’s works were brought to bear in this period, issues that amounted to a litmus test for accepting or rejecting the authority of his works. By providing this critical perspective, Chapa testifies to when and how Candrakīrti became the dominant figure of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Another significant piece of evidence for tracing the rise of Candrakīrti is the only known Indian commentary to any of his works, Jayānanda’s massive exegesis of Candrakīrti’s Entrance to the Middle. Jayānanda’s twelfth-century text was included in the Tibetan canon of “treatises” and consequently has long been available to scholarly access. However, the size of the text (365 folios) and the somewhat hostile attitude of later Tibetan authors toward it have kept researchers at bay. While we may debate Jayānanda’s fidelity to Candrakīrti’s views, his text is of undeniable importance for understanding how Candrakīrti’s ideas gained prominence in the twelfth century. Jayānanda traveled from his native Kashmir, where his partisan support of Candrakīrti’s Middle Way may have formed part of a broader Candrakīrti revival, to Central Tibet, where he and his writings were among the keys to Tibetans’ development of a Prāsaṅgika school. He and Chapa represent the primary interlocutors in this study. While they vehemently dispute the validity of Candrakīrti, the issues that each chooses to highlight from within his corpus align remarkably well. Taken together, they show us what that corpus meant to some of the first Buddhists to take a strong interest in it.

While Chapa’s and Jayānanda’s works offer the most extensive discussions of Candrakīrti in this period, a host of works from both sides of the Himalayas offer glimpses into the impact his views made in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In India, we see citations of Candrakīrti’s texts in both philosophical and tantric literature; we find two authors writing under Candrakīrti’s name (one composing tantric works and the other a brief Middle Way treatise); and we see some muted criticism from Abhayākaragupta (c. 1025–1125) and Ratnākaraśānti (eleventh century). In twelfth-century Tibet, we see for the first time discussions of two schools of the Middle Way, one formed around Candrakīrti’s views and the other formed in opposition. Unlike later presentations, we find no widespread agreement on which school was preferable. Tibetan discussions appear in works by the second and third Sakya hierarchs, Sonam Tsemo (1142–82) and Drakpa Gyeltsen (1147–1216), and by Mabja Jangchub Tsondru (d. 1185); the former and latter were students of Chapa. While these Indian and Tibetan texts have long been available, Chapa’s and Jayānanda’s more thorough treatments help us to recognize less developed themes in the broader literature. Chapa’s protracted critique of Candrakīrti casts light on more muted criticism of Candrakīrti’s views, while Jayānanda’s lengthy defense sets the stage for the Tibetan formation of a Prāsaṅgika school. When we appreciate the philosophical issues at play in Candrakīrti’s ascension, we can see these issues in a range of contexts.

A text such as Chapa Chokyi Sengé’s, then, contributes greatly to our understanding of a formative period in Tibetan Buddhism both for what it says and for what it can reveal in related literature. Many texts in the recent thirty-volume publication of early Kadampa (bka’ gdams pa) masters’ works are likely to have a similar impact on our understanding of early Tibetan Middle Way thinking. Chapa’s text utilized in the present work is of the “compilation” (stong thun) genre, in which Chapa extracts a number (stong, literally “one thousand”) of key points (thun, literally “doses”) from the Indian texts that Tibetans refer to as “the Three Mādhyamikas from the East,” Madhyamaka treatises from Śāntarakṣita, Kamalaśīla, and Jñānagarbha. Included in the thirty-volume collection are Chapa’s commentaries on each of these three texts, as well as his brief doxography. The collection also included a host of early commentaries (including Chapa’s) on Śāntideva’s (eighth century) Engaging in the Bodhisattva’s Practice, a crucial text in the development of Tibetan Middle Way philosophy, and Patsab nyimadrak’s commentary on the foundational Middle Way treatise, Nāgārjuna’s Fundamental Treatise on the Middle. As discussed in chapter 2, Patsab was the primary Tibetan translator of Candrakīrti’s works; his would seem to be the earliest Tibetan commentary on Nāgārjuna and promises to increase our understanding of the creation of a Candrakīrti-centered school of Madhyamaka exegesis.

This wealth of newly available material from a formative era of Tibetan Middle Way philosophy reads very differently from better-known literature of later centuries, both in style and in substance. While a given author’s arguments may at first (and, sometimes, at last) be impenetrable, as more early literature becomes known we can begin to glimpse the shared concerns of the day. A documentary impulse (What did these scholars write? What were their positions?) yields a broader appreciation of the common assumptions behind an author’s discussion of particular arguments and issues. In Buddhist doctrinal literature, positions are stated as sparsely as possible with the presumption of a common background out of which a listener or reader could draw meaning. As our knowledge of eleventhand twelfth-century issues grows, we will begin to share in these common assumptions. Already, the texts utilized herein reveal fundamental tensions in Buddhist trajectories of thought that either were not a concern for or were understood very differently by fourteenth-century authors.

The primary tensions that brought Candrakīrti to life in the eleventh and twelfth centuries centered on the validity of human knowledge in the pursuit of awakening. By the fourteenth century, Tibetan scholars nearly unanimously took Candrakīrti’s views to be the superior interpretation of the Middle Way. As noted above, reconciling his philosophy with Dharmakīrti’s Epistemological tradition became accepted either broadly (by Tsongkhapa and his Gelukpa followers) or reservedly (by most Sakya authors). In sharp contrast, in twelfth-century Tibet Candrakīrti’s Middle Way connoted a radical rejection of Buddhist Epistemology, particularly of the validity of human consciousness. I suggest that for many Indian Buddhist scholars Candrakīrti represented such a rejection of epistemological norms that his views could not be taken seriously until new configurations of philosophy and practice—in the form of the final developments of Indian Buddhist tantra—gave him voice around the beginning of the second millennium. Twelfth-century Tibetans heatedly debated Candrakīrti’s Middle Way under a shared assumption that his views opposed the Buddhist Epistemological tradition. Part of Candrakīrti’s broad acceptance in Tibet consisted of a softening of his radical twelfth-century portrait, a process that began in the generation following Chapa.

The importance of coming to terms with Candrakīrti’s twelfth-century portrait becomes acute when we appreciate the vibrancy and far-reaching importance of this formative period, which Ronald Davidson refers to as the “Tibetan Renaissance.” Davidson’s valuable mapping of the resurgence of Tibetan Buddhism that began in the closing years of the first millennium mainly charts the role of tantric literature and practice, which would become the signature pursuits of most Tibetan orders. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, new tantras flooded into Tibet; however, these were accompanied by new philosophical materials, most importantly newly composed Indian commentaries on Dharmakīrti’s treatises and the major works of Candrakīrti, translated into Tibetan for the first time around the year 1100.

Dharmakīrti and Candrakīrti would become the twin foci of Tibetan scholasticism, elliptical though their union may be. Tibetan scholasticism—the textual, philosophical, and pedagogical practices developed around Indian texts—surely played as large a role as tantra in the success of Tibet’s monastic Buddhism and took shape during this period. In the twelfth century, the canonical status of Candrakīrti’s texts and philosophy was very much in dispute, as was his place in the monastic curricula of the day. While we have only a rough sense of which Indian texts circulated and were taught in particular monastic academies in twelfth-century Tibet (as discussed in chapter 2), the recently available materials noted above allow us to examine philosophical aspects of early scholastic practice. In these materials, we can see the importance of harmonizing Buddhist Epistemology with the Middle Way, either by defending the venerable Indian union of these traditions embodied in Śāntarakṣita’s and Kamalaśīla’s work—Chapa’s approach—or by developing strategies to harmonize the views of Dharmakīrti and Candrakīrti, as we see in the work of Mabja Jangchub Tsondru. Mabja’s approach, novel in his day, of uniting the two kīrtis’ seemingly antithetical philosophies would become a hallmark of Tibetan scholasticism. Examining how this enduring, if problematic, union formed and developed furthers our insight into the success of scholastic Buddhism in Tibet.

The twelfth-century Candrakīrti, then, has much to say both to the seventhand fourteenth-century Candrakīrtis. When we appreciate his belated popularity in India, we are in a better position to appreciate the obstinately conservative position he held in his own lifetime, which undoubtedly contributed to his marginal status for hundreds of years afterward. Removing the yoke that—centuries later—Tibetans used to join Candrakīrti to Dharmakīrti’s epistemology, we can see that the most straightforward reading of Candrakīrti shows him critiquing and rejecting Dharmakīrtian philosophy. So dominant was the epistemological turn in Indian intellectual life that Candrakīrti’s philosophy would not be influential until constellations of thought and praxis realigned centuries after his death. Our appreciation for Candrakīrti’s philosophy allows us to see how his champions, from the eleventh through twenty-first centuries, recast his views, sometimes faithfully and often times creatively. The portrait of Candrakīrti’s seamless integration with Dharmakīrtian epistemology, familiar to us in Gelukpa sources from Tsongkhapa into the present, took shape gradually; it was sketched first in the twelfth century in the writings of Chapa’s “lost student,” Mabja Jangchub Tsondru, who abandoned Chapa’s positions to embrace (and alter) Candrakīrti. Placing together the many images of Candrakīrti developed over the centuries in India and Tibet prevents us from flattening out the intellectual history, the making and remaking, of one of Buddhism’s most influential figures.

School, Movement, Doxographical Category
Candrakīrti is often identified with the “school” of the Middle Way that he “founded,” Prāsaṅgika. In view of his late success, his foundational role in a Prāsaṅgika school must be qualified in at least one of two ways. Either we can say that Candrakīrti’s major texts exhibit the doctrinal features that would form the touchstone for the doxographical category “Prāsaṅgika,” or we can say that Candrakīrti functions as the marker around whom a Prāsaṅgika school was—centuries after his death—created, refined, and debated. The first option provides us with a rather ahistorical category; when we notice strong similarities between a given author’s philosophical positions and those of Candrakīrti, we can align that author with Prāsaṅgika, regardless of any historical connection between the figures. In this approach, we would not say that Candrakīrti “founded” a Prāsaṅgika school to which others subscribed but instead would acknowledge his philosophical importance in staking out a unique doctrinal position that helps us to trace similarities in the thinking of others. This interpretation would not require us to attribute any great impact to Candrakīrti in his own lifetime. This option does, however, require us to offer a coherent interpretation of just what Candrakīrti’s views were, and thus bleeds into the latter approach.

When we take the second approach, our attention shifts to how historical individuals understood the works of Candrakīrti. We could examine finely nuanced doxographical works from Tsongkhapa and his important Gelukpa interpreters, or from Sakya, Kagyu, or nyingma authors of the fourteenth century into the present, and find how these authors portrayed Candrakīrti’s positions and the manner in which they aligned Middle Way thinkers either with or against those positions. While any of these authors could provide us with fresh insights into Candrakīrti’s work, in this approach we would of course be studying the author’s interpretation of that work, regardless of how we understand the accuracy of that interpretation and whatever claims the author might make for its veracity. In dealing with this literature, we are operating in a world in which Candrakīrti’s superiority is a given. The Tibetan “canonization” of doxographical categories that Cabezón discusses makes for a rigid hierarchy, and by the fourteenth century, Prāsaṅgika frequently received top billing. However, these categories allow a great deal of interpretive room in characterizing the works that fit into them. In Gelukpa and Sakyapa sources, for instance, authors identify their own positions as Prāsaṅgika but disagree heatedly over just what constitute Prāsaṅgika views. The mutual acceptance of Prāsaṅgika’s superiority creates the possibility of polemics: to call an opponent’s position “Svātantrika” is to denigrate that position’s soteriological utility as something other and lesser than Prāsaṅgika.

These two perspectives could yield very different interpretations of a given author’s work. One might be tempted to say that Tsongkhapa’s views, for instance, bear stronger resemblance to those of Śāntarakṣita than to Candrakīrti, and thus warrant his placement in the Yogācāra-Svātantrika subschool of Madhyamaka rather than in Prāsaṅgika. However, any consideration of Tsongkhapa’s Madhyamaka writings makes abundantly clear that he identifies as Prāsaṅgika and is intensely concerned with demonstrating the superiority of Prāsaṅgika. Our attention to Tsongkhapa’s construction of Prāsaṅgika again alerts us to the contested nature of these categories, which carry strong overtones of individual and institutional identity. Indeed, Tsongkhapa’s critics who wish to construct a Prāsaṅgika at odds with his vision claim that his views are actually Svātantrika in disguise.

Whether we examine Candrakīrti’s texts for their quintessential statement of “Prāsaṅgika,” to which we may align similar authors, or focus on how Tibetan authors understood Candrakīrti’s texts as demarcating a “Prāsaṅgika” category, we are operating within a doxographical framework—in the latter case, Tibetan doxography and in the former case, our own. Twelfth-century Tibetan authors certainly utilize a doxographic approach to Candrakīrti, probably for the first time in Buddhist history, tracing out central features in Candrakīrti’s writings that could define “Prāsaṅgika.” However, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, “Prāsaṅgika” does not possess the aura of superiority: Candrakīrti’s works certainly function as the marker of a doxographic category for twelfth-century authors, but without the presumption that Prāsaṅgika represents the highest and most correct view. That Prāsaṅgika was one option among many helps us to recognize that it acted as both doxographic category and burgeoning intellectual movement. Twelfth-century Tibetans did not argue (primarily) over whose Prāsaṅgika was most faithful to Candrakīrti, but argued over whether Candrakīrti should be taken as any kind of authoritative interpreter of Buddhist doctrine. This book attempts to tell the story of how the Prāsaṅgika movement grew in Central Tibet to where, perhaps within a century, it formed a nearly irreproachable standard of Tibetan Buddhism.

Conceiving of “Prāsaṅgika” in its earliest usage as an intellectual movement allows us to trace Candrakīrti’s resurrection, his introduction to Tibet, his gradual acceptance, and his triumphant ascendancy. It also points us to the institutional aspects in twelfth-century Tibet that accompanied his ascension: acceptance or rejection of Prāsaṅgika in some cases determined the monastic institute with which one affiliated. Just as “Prāsaṅgika” takes on more than doxographic meaning in this period, so too does its accompanying term, “school.” When we typically speak of “schools” of the Middle Way, we refer to doxographical subdivisions of it; we identify Prāsaṅgika and Svātantrika schools, and often divide the latter into further “subschools.” “School” here connotes an ahistorical category used to classify doctrinal positions. In reference to twelfth-century Tibet, we can speak of “schools” in a more basic sense as monasteries where particular texts and doctrinal interpretations were valorized and taught. A “Prāsaṅgika school” in this sense does not refer to a doctrinal position created by Candrakīrti to which others subscribed but to a monastic institute that, among other activities, advocated the new interpretation of the Middle Way created by Candrakīrti’s eleventhand twelfth-century champions. The number of monasteries adopting this doctrinal stance grew in the twelfth century as influential Tibetan scholars took up the Prāsaṅgika view.

In tracing the formation of these schools, chapter 2 examines important Tibetan translators, their work in creating Indian canonical bases for their Tibetan monastic academies, and the competition these translators engaged in when embedded within the wider networks of socio-political administration that their monasteries assumed. It is undeniable that Prāsaṅgika and Svātantrika are traditions invented by a few well-educated and creative individuals, standing amid the riptide of an Indian past quickly receding and a swell of translations sweeping into Central Tibet. However, the role of these individuals as abbots and important teachers in monastic academies requires our reflection on the communities in which these interpretations took root. A precise working out of the socio-political conflicts and patronage concerns that accompanied twelfth-century doctrinal disputes awaits a great deal of future research. A more modest attempt herein casts Middle Way debates in their monastic homes, suggesting how certain Tibetan monasteries became centers for the study of certain Indian Buddhist textual traditions and how the teaching and exegesis of these texts—when combined with tantric ritual and monastic behavioral codes—helped form early Tibetan monastic communities. That these communities were put into competition with other monasteries for legitimacy, patronage, and political control in this fractious and formative period implies that our attention to the development of doctrinal systems can yield insights into the development of religious institutions, and vice versa.

The uses of “Prāsaṅgika” and “school” that I suggest here move away from a strictly doxographic approach toward a historicist approach. While these two approaches are not mutually exclusive, we might identify a “doxographer’s impulse” and a “historian’s impulse” as the driving forces behind these approaches. As suggested above, the doxographer’s impulse primarily utilizes synchronic doctrinal categorization; it represents an attempt to trace out affinities between the views of past thinkers, regardless of when they lived, that would suggest a shared vision or common philosophical project, perhaps warranting attribution of a “school” of thought. The historian’s impulse attempts to trace the development of trends of thought, alternatively suggesting influence and opposition. To illustrate how these two approaches can take us in very different directions, we can look at two interpretations of the silent treatment that eighth-century Indian Middle Way authors gave to Candrakīrti.

As discussed in chapter 1, several prominent Middle Way authors— Avalokitavrata, Śāntarakṣita, and Kamalaśīla—had good reason to attack Candrakīrti’s views, as they lived after Candrakīrti and held viewpoints similar to those Candrakīrti assailed. Instead, they say nothing. Some Tibetan scholars see this silence as evidence for those authors’ recognition of the superiority of Candrakīrti’s view. The Gelukpa scholar ngawang Belden (Ngag dbang dpal ldan, b. 1797) ends a discussion of Candrakīrti’s superiority over Bhāvaviveka’s Svātantrika system by writing:

No one—such as followers of Bhāvaviveka and so forth—in the country of Superiors [India] refuted this master within mentioning his name, whereas this very master made refutations within mentioning the names of the master Bhāvaviveka, the master Dharmapāla, the master Dignāga, and so forth, but no Proponent of the Middle or Proponent of Mind-Only was able to do as he had done even though they disagreed with him.

Ngawang Belden notes that Candrakīrti named names; most importantly, he criticized Bhāvaviveka for his misappropriation of svatantra inference. Others whom doxographers categorically link to Bhāvaviveka—his Svātantrika “schoolmates”—could not single out Candrakīrti for critique, though they would have liked to. So stunning were Candrakīrti’s arguments, in this assessment, no Indian could think of a response. Their silence admits defeat.

I, on the other hand, interpret this silence as evidence for Candrakīrti’s marginal status during his life and in the ensuing centuries. Our differing conclusions point to differences between our two academic traditions. Tibetan doctrinal scholarship of the thirteenth century and onward sought to give order to a massive array of translated Indian texts, all claiming canonical authority. In creating order, Tibetans developed a ranked harmony between “systems” of Buddhist thought, categorizing lower and higher systems that less and more closely presented the “true thought” of the Buddha’s teaching. Later scholars inherited these systems. While they began (and continue to begin) with fixed ends (grub mtha’, siddha-anta), their training brings to attention myriad contradictions between the inherited system and the Indian texts it is based upon, as well as between the parts of the system itself. Rather than contradict the received system, or claim that the system contradicts itself, Tibetan scholars seek out new ways to interpret the texts and systems such that the original perceived order and harmony can be maintained. Scholars gain a deeper doctrinal knowledge by confronting contradiction and creatively endeavoring to resolve these conflicts.

In contrast, when presented with a model (the existence and superiority of Indian Prāsaṅgika) that does not quite seem to fit the facts (little Indian interest in Candrakīrti until around the year 1000, and a thriving Madhyamaka system of interpretation that ignored Candrakīrti), I have sought an explanation that better matches the newly available historical data and that allows us to recognize the importance of previously neglected data. Where Tibetan scholars search out harmony and coherence, I see historical development. This is not to cast a firm divide between “history” and “doxography.” Certainly, Tibetan doxographers have a strong sense of the chronology of important Indian authors; ngawang Belden’s point holds (for those who take it to hold) only in the acknowledgment that “Svātantrikas” like Śāntarakṣita post-date Candrakīrti. Also, my interpretation of Śāntarakṣita’s silence vis-àvis Candrakīrti assumes that the two authors belong to the same category; only because they both belong to the Middle Way is Śāntarakṣita’s silence interesting. In spelling out the divergent aims embedded in our varying uses of “Prāsaṅgika” and “school,” I suggest that our scholarly impetuses and goals play a significant role in generating our interpretations and, as such, deserve our consideration. In the present work, our attention to these impulses will help us to appreciate the evolving figure of Candrakīrti.

The construction of a Prāsaṅgika school out of the exhumed bones of Candrakīrti’s corpus and the continued reassembly of those bones to form the towering figure that Candrakīrti came to be constitutes the main drama of the present investigation. Rather than an Indian Prāsaṅgika lineage that passed unchanged for hundreds of years and a Tibetan Prāsaṅgika that accurately (or inaccurately) reflected that Indian lineage, a picture emerges of a dynamic Indian tradition still developing in its final period and a Tibetan tradition that recast Indian texts in a unique social milieu and continued to develop those texts for hundreds of years. Candrakīrti’s dominance must be seen as a peculiarly Tibetan development. However, from around the year 1000, we hear echoes of Candrakīrti’s rise in the writings of several important Indian authors, centuries after his death. It is to the evidence for this ascension that we now turn.


How to cite this document:
© Kevin Vose, Resurrecting Candrakīrti (Wisdom Publications, 2009)

Creative Commons License
Resurrecting Candrakīrti by Kevin Vose 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