Tibetan philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F003-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 04, 2020, from

1. Issues in Mādhyamika philosophy

Tibetan Buddhist thinkers, being generally adherents of some form of the Mādhyamika, had to provide answers to the question as to what was the correct and highest interpretation of Nāgārjuna’s thought and what were the erroneous interpretations and traps into which thinkers might fall when dealing with this difficult and often maddeningly ambiguous Indian philosopher (see Nāgārjuna; Buddhism, Mādhyamika: India and Tibet). Thus, for example, the Sa-skya-pa (Sagyaba) thinker Go ram pa bSod nams seng ge (Goramba Sönam sengge, 1429–89), in a text called lTa ba’i shan’byed (Differentiation of the Views), polemically described three types of Mādhyamika philosophy in Tibet: (1) those which took the extreme of permanence to be the middle way; (2) those which took the extreme of annihilation to be the middle way; (3) the Mādhyamika free from extremes. The first two views are those of mistaken interpreters, while the latter is supposedly Go ram pa’s own. The dGe-lugs-pa (Gelukba) thinker ’Jam dbyangs bzhad pa (Jamyang shayba, 1648–1722), in his Grub mtha’ chen mo (Great Systems of Tenets), speaks of three sorts of erroneous view: (1) the theory of the Chinese monk Hva-shang and certain bKa’-brgyud-pa (Gagyuba) philosophers that nothing exists (ci yang med); (2) the voidness-of-what-is-other (gzhan stong) theory of the Jo-nang-pa (Jonangba); (3) the view that the Mādhyamika does not accept means of valid cognition (pramāṇas), does not accept anything himself on either of the two levels of truth and does not have a system of his own (rang lugs).

To take the first view mentioned by Go ram pa (the second one mentioned by ’Jam dbyangs bzhad pa), much of Tibetan thought was indeed strongly influenced by an indigenous version of the Mādhyamika which attempted to integrate Nāgārjuna’s thought with Yogācāra and with the principal ideas in Indian texts such as the Ratnagotravibhāga (Differentiation of the Lineage of the [Three] Jewels), an early fifth-century text which notoriously speaks of a permanent (nitya), stable (dhruva) and eternal (śāśvata) Buddha-nature present in sentient beings. This Tibetan synthesis was initially put forward by the Jo-nang-pa school, founded by Dol bu pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan (Dolbuba Shayrap gyeltsen, 1292–1361); for reasons that will become clear, the Jo-nang-pas and their successors came to be known as gZhan-stong-pas (Shendongbas), ‘those who accept voidness-of-what-is-other’. The gZhan-stong-pa position had adherents in three of the four major traditions of Tibet – namely the Sa-skya, the bKa’-brgyud and the rNying-ma (Nyingma) traditions – and was championed by such major Tibetan thinkers as gSer mdog Paṇ chen Śākya mchog ldan (Serdok Paṇchen Shākya chokden, 1428–1507), Tāranātha (b. 1575) and many others (see Mi bskyod rdo rje); in the nineteenth century, with the ‘rediscovery’ of the Jo-nang-pa texts, it became the philosophical underpinning of the ‘nonsectarian movement’ (ris med), founded by the syncretic thinker ’Jam mgon kong sprul (Jamgön gongtrul, 1813–99). Only the dGe-lugs-pa school rejected it completely and unanimously, the Jo-nang-pas being for them a sort of bête noire both politically and philosophically, against which Tsong kha pa Blo bzang grags pa (Dzongkaba Losang dragba, 1357–1419) and his school repeatedly directed their ire.

The Jo-nang-pas and other gZhan-stong-pas relied on an adaptation of the Yogācāra theory of voidness that one finds in the Tattvārtha chapter of Asaṅga’s Bodhisattvabhūmi. This they combined with the three-nature theory found in the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra (Discourse on the Interpretation of the [Buddha’s] Thought; possibly second–fourth centuries ad), the theory that things have falsely imagined natures (parikalpitasvabhāva) invented by thought and language, causally dependent natures (paratantrasvabhāva) and an absolute or a perfected nature (pariniṣpannasvabhāva) (see Buddhism, Yogācāra school of). The combination of Yogācāra with the Ratnagotravibhāga yields the key Tibetan distinction between ‘void-of-oneself’ (rang stong) and ‘void-of-what-is-other’ (gzhan stong) that has inspired enormous debates in Tibetan Mādhyamika up to the present day. In brief, the fundamental gZhan-stong-pa ideas go like this for a Jo-nang-pa: the Absolute, pariniṣpannasvabhāva, whose existence enables us to avoid the nihilistic view that everything is just a complete illusion, is only void of the imagined and dependent natures: it is void of what is other than it, but is not void of itself. The imagined and dependent natures, on the other hand, are nonexistent and are void of themselves. This key stance is then fleshed out to include most of the other major currents in Indian Mādhyamika, Yogācāra, Tathāgatagarbha and even Tantric systems: for example, Nāgārjuna’s arguments in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā show only that conventional truths (saṃvṛtisatya) are void of themselves; the Absolute is an existent, truly established gnosis (ye shes); as in Yogācāra thought, this gnosis admits of no distinction between subject (grāhaka) and object (grāhya) and is suchness (tathatā) and the bhūtakoṭi (‘limit of the real’); it is identifiable with the Buddha-nature spoken of in the Ratnagotravibhāga; Tantric principles such as the union of voidness and bliss (bde stong zung ’jug) are said to be inexplicable without this version of voidness.

Not surprisingly, the Jo-nang-pas were often criticized, especially by the dGe-lugs-pas, but also by Sa-skya-pas such as Go ram pa, as reifying the Absolute and thus transforming Buddhism into a substantialist philosophy. This is what was behind Go ram pa’s charge that this school ‘took the extreme of permanence as the Middle Way’. (The Mongolian dGe-lugs-pa writer Thu’u bkwan Chos kyi nyi ma (Tugen Chögyi nyima, 1737–1802) went so far as to say that the Jo-nang-pas were in effect like partisans of a type of Brahmanism.) The Jo-nang-pas thus supposedly went badly astray from Indian Mādhyamika by adopting positive descriptions which hypostasized a permanent Absolute, although, in all fairness, it has to be said that this criticism largely depends on which Indian texts one emphasizes and what literature one takes as authoritative. It can be intelligently argued in defence of the Jo-nang-pas that there were Indian Mādhyamika texts, like the hymns attributed to Nāgārjuna, which did exhibit a positive, cataphatic approach not far from that of the Ratnagotravibhāga, and that Indian Mādhyamika did not consist exclusively in the negative apophatic dialectic or the insistence upon dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) that one finds in Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.

Citing this article:
Tillemans, Tom J.F.. Issues in Mādhyamika philosophy. Tibetan philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F003-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

Related Searches



Related Articles