Four tenet systems

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Four tenet systems (Tib. grub mtha' bzhi གྲུབ་མཐའ་བཞི་) are a framework used by Tibetan Buddhist scholars to categorize and study the tenets (siddhānta) of Indian Mahayana Buddhism. The tenet systems studied in Tibet are:

  1. Vaibhashika tenet system - based on the tenets of the Vaibhashika, one of the Early Buddhist Schools of India
  2. Sautrantika tenet system - based on the tenets of the Sautrantika, another Early Buddhist School of India
  3. Chittamatra tenet system - a particular interpretation of the tenets of Yogacara school; in this context, for pedagogic purposes, in order to present a graduated path of study, the mind is asserted to be truly existing
  4. Madhyamaka tenet system - based on the tenets of the Madhyamaka 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.

Divisions of Madhyamaka

Tibetan Buddhists study the four tenet systems as first presented in India, but they have made further subdivisions within these four systems. For example, within Madhyamaka, the Tibetan system identifies two branches:


Svatantrika-Madhyamaka is studied in general in the teachings on the "perfection of wisdom" (Skt. prajnaparamita), as formulated by Maitreya.

The Abhisamayalankara is a key text in the branch.


Prasangika-Madhyamaka is studied primarily through the works of Chandrakirti, Aryadeva, Shantideva, and Buddhapalita (Sang-rgyas bskyangs).

The key works of Chandrakirti are:

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

Other key works are:

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


  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

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