Madhyamaka (T. dbu ma pa; C. san lun zong/zhongguan; J. sanronshū/chūgan 中觀) is one of the two main philosophical schools of the Sanskrit Mahayana tradition; the other school is Yogacara. Both of these schools developed in India beginning around 200 CE, and both had a significant impact on the development of Buddhism in China and Tibet.
The Madhyamaka school is based on the writings of the Indian scholar Nagarjuna (150 CE to 250 CE), as well as commentaries on of Nagarjuna's works that were written over the next several centuries. The Sanskrit term madhyamaka translates as "middle way." In the context of the Madhyamaka school, it refers to the middle way between the extremes of eternalism and nihilism.
The term "middle way" was used in multiple contexts in early Buddhism. One of these contexts was expressed in the Kaccayanagotta Sutta, in which the Buddha used the term middle way to describe a view that is free from the extremes of eternalism (or existence) and nihilism (or non-existence).
The Madhyamaka school refined the meaning of the middle way within this context. While earlier Buddhist schools of thought accepted the middle way view that the self is neither existent nor non-existent, some schools still believed that there were truly existent small particles (called dharmas) that were the building blocks of the self. This theory was very similar to the early theories of the atom in Western science (the belief that material objects were composed of small indivisible particles).
Nagarjuna's great contribution to Buddhist thought was that he rejected the existence of any type of permanently indivisible objects. He asserted that all phenomena were empty of inherent existence.
'Everything exists': That is one extreme.
'Everything doesn't exist': That is a second extreme.
Avoiding these two extremes,
The Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle...."
Nagarjuna clarified the above statement to a more subtle degree than previous Buddhist philosophers. "He used the traditional concept of the ‘middle way’ in a sophisticated dialectical manner, and in so doing pushed the implications of certain of the early teachings to their logical conclusion."
The Madhyamaka system also asserts that dependent arising is a corollary of emptiness. In this view, because all phenomena are dependently co-arisen, they are empty of "inherent existence." A classic expression of this view was provided by Nagarjuna in the twenty-fourth chapter of his Verses on the Middle Way. Nagarjuna stated:
Whatever arises dependently
Is explained as empty.
Thus dependent attribution
Is the middle way.
Since there is nothing whatever
That is not dependently existent,
For that reason there is nothing
Whatsoever that is not empty.
Geshe Sonam Rinchen explains the above quote as follows: "Here Nagarjuna states the Madhyamika or middle way position. Everything that exists does so dependently and everything that is dependently existent necessarily lacks independent objective existence."
This view is also often expressed within the Mahayana tradition as the 'freedom from extremes'. For example, it is said in the Samadhiraja Sutra:
Existence and non-existence are extremes,
Purity and impurity are extremes as well,
Thus, having relinquished both extremes,
The wise do not dwell even in the middle.
Transmission to East Asia
From Encyclopeia Britannica:
- The basic Mādhyamika texts were translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva in the 5th century, and the teachings were further systematized (as the San-lun, or Three Treatises, school) in the 6th–7th century by Chi-tsang. The school spread to Korea and was first transmitted to Japan, as Sanron, in 625 by the Korean monk Ekwan.
- Damian Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 2000) Kindle Locations 1208-1212
- Thanissaro (1997), Translation of Kaccayanagotta Sutta, SN 12.15
- Geshe Sonam Rinchen 2006, p. 21.
- Geshe Sonam Rinchen (2006), How Karma Works: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising, Snow Lion