Four tenet systems

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Four tenet systems (Tib. གྲུབ་མཐའ་བཞི་, drubta shyi, Wyl. grub mtha' bzhi) are a framework used by Tibetan Buddhist scholars to categorize and study the tenets of Indian Mahayana Buddhism. These tenet systems are:

  1. Vaibhashika (the Great Exposition school)
  2. Sautrantika (the Sutra school)
  3. Chittamatra (the Mind-Only school)
  4. Madhyamaka (the Middle Way school)

The tenet systems are studied by students at Tibetan Buddhist monastic universities in order to develop an experiential understanding of the true nature of reality. These systems present a graduated path of study, leading to a more and more subtle understanding of ultimate reality.

John Powers writes:

Each of these is associated with particular teaching lineages, texts, doctrines, and practices, and all are thought to have value for particular people and in particular contexts. Moreover, although the classification scheme is a hierarchical one, none of the practices and doctrines is disparaged, since all are thought to have been taught by Buddha and to be conducive to spiritual progress.[1]

These four tenet systems were studied in the the Indian Mahayana Buddhist monasteries, such as Nalanda.

The Tibetan Buddhists have followed this custom, but have made further subdivisions within these four systems. For example, within Madhyamaka, they have differentiated Svatantrika Madhyamaka from Prasangika Madhyamaka. Within Svatantrika Madhyamaka, the Gelug school has further classified Indian authors as Yogachara Svatantrika or Sautrantika Svatantrika. The various non-Gelug schools have subdivided Madhyamaka in yet other ways.

Major Authors and Texts



Chittamatra (or Yogachara)


Two Divisions of Madhyamaka

Svatantrika-Madhyamaka is studied in general in the context of far-reaching discriminating awareness (Wyl. phar-phyin, Skt. prajnaparamita, perfection of wisdom), as formulated by Maitreya.

Prasangika-Madhyamaka is studied primarily through the works of Chandrakirti (Zla-ba grags-pa), Aryadeva (‘Phags-pa lha), Shantideva (Zhi-ba lha), and Buddhapalita (Sang-rgyas bskyangs).

  • Madhyamakavatara – A supplement to Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamaka-karika
  • Prasannapada – A detailed commentary on Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamaka-karika

Other proponents of this tenet system are:

  • Patsab Nyima Drak (1055-1145) – translated Chandrakirti into Tibetan
  • Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) – wrote a commentary on the Madhyamakavatara

The Two Divisions of Svatantrika-Madhyamaka

Yogachara-Svatantrika is studied through the works of Shantarakshita and his disciples, Kamalashila and Haribhadra.

  • Sphutartha – a commentary to Maitreya’s “Ornament of Realizations”

Other proponents of this tenet system are:



  1. Powers, tbd

Further Reading

  • Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, translated and arranged by Shenpen Hookham (Ithaca NY: Snow Lion Publications 2000).
  • Andy Karr, Contemplating Reality: A Practitioner's Guide to the View in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (Boston: Shambhala, 2007).
  • For a short, easy-to-understand explanation of the views of the four schools see: Appendix 11. The Four Schools of Buddhist Philosophy, pp.197-200 in The Light of Wisdom Volume 1. Root text by Padmasambhava and commentary by Jamgön Kongtrül the Great. Published by Shambhala Publications ISBN 0-87773-566-2

External Links

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