- Paul B. DonnellyPaul B. DonnellyNorthern Arizona University
Along with Yogācāra, Madhyamaka (Middle Way) is one of the two foundational doctrinal systems of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, which flourished from the 3rd century ce to the final disappearance of Buddhism from the subcontinent in the 12th–13th centuries. Beginning in the 4th century, it spread to East Asia, where it became the foundation of an independent school of thought and influenced the other major Chinese Buddhist schools. It took root in Tibet beginning in the 7th century, where it served as the cornerstone of all the scholastically inclined Buddhist sects. Throughout the Mahāyāna Buddhist world, Madhyamaka has occupied a foundational position in doctrinal formulations and practices. Madhyamaka has tended to be regarded as either the supreme formulation of Mahāyāna thought, as was often the case in Tibet, or as complementary to Yogācāra, which was more commonly held in China and Japan.
The name “Middle Way” references a fundamental assumption in Buddhism that stakes a middle position between the idea that the self is an irreducible, enduring entity and one in which it is wholly reducible to the physical body and perishes after death. Though central Madhyamaka ideas, such as the doctrine of the Two Truths, Dependent Origination, and Emptiness, can be found in Nikāya Buddhism and in Mahāyāna sutras, it is in the treatises of Nāgārjuna (2nd–3rd centuries ce) that we have a fully formed and distinct system of thought that can be called Madhyamaka. In earlier canonical works, and more explicitly in the Abhidharma, this notion of middle way applied exclusively to the self (Skt ātman/Pali atta) and conceptually constructed phenomena. In Mahāyāna sutras and in Nāgārjuna works, the assertion is extended to the fundamental component parts of all existents, which are declared to be empty of intrinsic nature. In Abhidharma works, the self and other composite phenomena are said to be reducible to their fundamental parts, the dharmas (Pali dhamma), which, being irreducible, must have their own identifiable intrinsic mode of existence even if they exist dependently. According to Madhyamaka, a dharma cannot possess an intrinsic nature precisely because it exists dependently. Denying any intrinsic nature, Madhyamaka asserts that things exist only dependently, and this only in terms of conventional truth, and that ultimately, emptiness of intrinsic nature is the truth and reality of all things. Not surprisingly, such a position was contentious, and numerous interpreters attempted to elucidate this rather radical position. The question of which commentator or commentators are definitive has occupied many generations of Indian, East Asian, and Tibetan Buddhists, and the issue remains very much alive in modern scholarship on Madhyamaka. Though much of this scholarship has come from a philosophical perspective, the intent of Madhyamaka, like all Buddhist thought, is primarily soteriological in nature.