Svatantrika-Prasaṅgika distinction

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The Svatantrika–Prasaṅgika distinction is a doctrinal distinction made within Tibetan Buddhism between two stances regarding the use of logic and the meaning of conventional truth within the presentation of Madhyamaka.

Svātantrika is a category of Madhyamaka viewpoints attributed primarily to the 6th-century Indian scholar Bhāviveka. Bhāviveka criticised Buddhapalitas abstinence from syllogistic reasoning in his commentary on Nagarjuna.[1] Following the example of the influential logician Dignāga, Bhāviveka used autonomous syllogistic reasoning (svātantra) syllogisms in the explanantion of Madhyamaka. To have a common ground with essentialist opponents, and make it possible to use syllogistic reasoning in discussion with those essentialists, Bhāviveka argued that things can be said to exist conventionally 'according to characteristics'. This makes it possible to take the mere object as the point of departure for the discussion on inherent existence. From there, it is possible to explain how these things are ultimately empty of inherent existence.[2]

Prasaṅgika views are based on Candrakīrti's critique of Bhāviveka, arguing for a sole reliance on prasaṅga, "logic consequence," a method of reductio ad absurdum which is used by all Madhyamikas, using syllogisms to point out the absurd and impossible logical consequences of holding essentialist views.[3] According to Candrakīrti, the mere object can only be discussed if both parties perceive it in the same way.[4] As a consequence (according to Candrakirti) svatantrika reasoning is impossible in a debate, since the opponents argue from two irreconcilable points of view, namely a mistaken essentialist perception, and a correct non-essentialist perception. This leaves no ground for a discussion starting from a similarly perceived object of discussion, and also makes impossible the use of syllogistic reasoning to convince the opponent.

Candrakīrti's works had no influence on Indian and early Tibetan Madhayamaka, but started to rise to prominence in Tibet in the 12th century. Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), the founder of the Gelugpa school and the most outspoken proponent of the distinction, followed Candrakīrti in his rejection of Bhavaviveka's arguments.[5] According to Tsongkhapa, the Svātantrikas do negate intrinsic nature ultimately, but "accept that things conventionally have intrinsic character or intrinsic nature."[6] Tsongkhapa, commenting on Candrakirti, says that he "refute[s] essential or intrinsic nature even conventionally."[7] For Tsongkhapa, as well as for the Karma Kagyu school, the differences with Bhavaviveka are of major importance.[8][page needed]

Established by Lama Tsongkhapa, Candrakīrti's view replaced the Yogācāra-Mādhyamika approach of Śāntarakṣita (725–788), who synthesized Madhyamaka, Yogacara and Buddhist logic in a powerful and influential synthesis called Yogācāra-Mādhyamika. Śāntarakṣita established Buddhism in Tibet, and his Yogācāra-Mādhyamika was the primary philosophic viewpoint until the 12th century, when the works of Candrakīrti were first translated into Tibetan.[3] In this synthesis, conventional truth or reality is explained and analysed in terms of the Yogacara system, while the ultimate truth is presented in terms of the Madhyamaka system.[9] While Śāntarakṣita's synthesis reflects the final development of Indian Madhyamaka and post-dates Candrakīrti, Tibetan doxographers ignored the nuances of Śāntarakṣita's synthesis, grouping his approach together with Bhāviveka's, due to their usage of syllogistic reasonings to explain and defend Madhyamaka.[3]

After the 17th century civil war in Tibet and the Mongol intervention which put the Gelugpa school in the center of power, Tsongkhapa's views dominated Tibetan Buddhism until the 20th century.[3] The Rimé movement revived alternate teachings, providing alternatives to Tsongkhapa's interpretation, and reintroducing Śāntarakṣita's nuances. For the Sakya and Nyingma schools, which participated in the Rimé movement, the Svatantrika–Prasaṅgika distinction is generally viewed to be of lesser importance.[10][11][8][page needed] For these schools, the key distinction between these viewpoints is whether one works with assertions about the ultimate nature of reality, or if one refrains completely from doing so. If one works with assertions, then that is a Svātantrika approach. Refraining from doing so is a Prāsangika approach.



  1. Padmakara Translation Group 2005, p. 386, note 12.
  2. Tsong Khapa 2002, p. 251-257.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Padmakara Translation Group 2005.
  4. TsongKhapa 2002, p. 253.
  5. Tsong Khapa 2002, p. 251-259.
  6. Tsong Khapa 2002, p. 255.
  7. Tsong Khapa 2002, p. 274.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Cornu 2001.
  9. Padmakara Translation Group, p. "Shantarakshita's importance [...] Dharmakirti".
  10. Dreyfus & McClintock 2015, p. 4.
  11. Cabezon & Lobsang Dargyay 2007, p. 278n8.


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