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Madhyamaka (Also known as Śunyavada) is a Buddhist Mahayāna tradition popularized by Nāgārjuna and Aśvaghoṣa. The school of thought and its subsidiaries are called "Madhyamaka"; those who follow it are called "Mādhyamikas."

According to the Mādhyamikas, all phenomena are empty of "self nature" or "essence" (Sanskrit: Svabhāva), meaning that they have no intrinsic, independent reality apart from the causes and conditions from which they arise.

Madhyamaka is the rejection of two extreme philosophies, and therefore represents the "middle way" between eternalism (the view that something is eternal and unchanging) and nihilism (the assertion that all things are intrinsically already destroyed or rendered nonexistent. This is nihilism in the sense of Indian philosophy, and may differ somewhat from Western philosophical nihilism).

According to Tibetan sources, Indian Madhyamaka schools were eventually divided into

  • The Svātantrika Madhyamaka, who differed from the Prāsaṅgika in that they believed conventional phenomena could exist for themselves without existing ultimately. Thus they felt that positive assertions in logical debate served a useful purpose, and did not restrict themselves to using only prasaṅga methods.
  • The Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka, whose sole avowed technique is to show by prasaṅga (or Reductio Ad Absurdum) that any positive assertion (such as "asti" or "nāsti", "it is", or "it is not") made about, or view proclaimed of, phenomena must be regarded as merely conventional (saṃvṛti or lokavyavahāra). Therefore there is no position that constitutes the ultimate truth (paramārtha), including the views and statements made by the Prāsaṅgikas themselves, which are held to be solely for the purpose of defeating all views. The Prāsaṅgikas also identify this to be the message of the Buddha who, as Nāgārjuna put it, taught the Dharma for the purpose of refuting all views.
  • The Yogācāra Madhyamaka, which asserts that all phenomena are nothing but the 'play of mind' and hence empty of concrete existence, and that mind, in its turn, is empty of defining characteristics. This philosophy is thus a synthesis of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra.

Madhyamaka, Interdependence and Emptiness
The immediate implication of the essenceless of self is one of universal interdependence -- for even causes and conditions are empty of inherent existence or essence, as stated by Nagarjuna in the very first chapter of the Mulmadhyamakakarika. This means there is no first or ultimate cause for anything that occurs, essentially, all things are causally indeterminate, dependent on innumerable causes and conditions which are themselves dependent on innumerable causes and conditions. The interdependence of all phenomena, including self, is fundamental to Mahayana Buddhism, for it is the metaphysical justification for the ethic of bodhicitta (enlightenment or awakening mind) -- the selfless inclination to work for the benefit of all sentient beings for as long as time and space abide (see Santideva's bodhicaryavatara, a key work on Mahayana ethics, which explains this connection in the 9th chapter). This is the meaning of the expression prajnaparamita, or "perfection of wisdom", the sixth of the Six Perfections of the bodhisattva path, and the collective title of the key Mahayana sutras that Nagarjuna is interpreting in his works. This is also often explained as the teaching on emptiness that occurred at Vulture Peak, Raj Gir, and has been categorized as the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. Thus when, for example, The Heart Sutra states "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form" -- the question "empty of what?" can be answered by saying "empty of inherent existence or essence." Thich Nhat Hahn, in The Heart of Understanding, explains in great detail the connections between Madhyamaka, emptiness and interdependence as related to the Heart Sutra. This is an important exegesis, as it also explores the connection between Madhyamaka philosophy and environmental ethics, an area still very much under-explored, East and West.

See also

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