Unique Tenets of the Middle Way Consequence School

The following article is from the Winter, 1998 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.


by Daniel Cozort, Ph.D 632pp., Tibetan text, glossaries, bibliography, index, 6 x 9 #UNTEMI $29.95 paper, #UNTEC $45 cloth, February

According to Tibetan traditions, the Indian Buddhist Prasangika-Madhyamika school is the one that represents the final, literally true thought of the Buddha. Unique Tenets of the Middle Way Consequence School presents and analyzes the issues that separate that school from the other principal schools of Buddhismissues such as the existence (or non-existence) of an external world, the way in which karma and reincarnation operate, the nature of consciousness, the nature of time, and the status of Arhats (enlightened, but not omniscient, beings). Parts Two and Three of the book are annotated translations of Tibetan texts that are used as sourcebooks in monastic education. Also included are a trilingual glossary and an extensive bibliography.

Daniel Cozort is associate professor and chair of religion at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he teaches about the religions of India and Native America and lives with his wife and two children. He has published two books on Buddhist tantra and a video documentary on sand mandalas. A native of <North Dakota, he earned degrees from Brown University and the University of Virginia. His previous works include: Highest Yoga Tantra, The SandMandala ofVajrabhairava, and Mandala: The Sacred Circle of Vajrabhairava (video).

Here is an excerpt from the book:

This is a book about certain implications of the philosophy of emptiness (stong pa nyid, sunyata). It is, in several ways, a continuation of the work that Jeffrey Hopkins began in Meditation on Emptiness (1983) and Emptiness Yoga (1987). It too introduces and analyzes interpretations of the Prasangika-Madhyamika school of Indian Buddhism by prominent scholars, past and present, of the Gelukba (dge lugs pa.) monastic order of Tibetan Buddhism; it also uses as a textual base the encyclopedic works of Jamyang Shayba {jam dbyangs bzhad pa, 1648-1721), Ngawang Belden (ngag dbang dpal Idan, b. 1797) and Janggya (Icang skya, 1717-1786).

Hopkins' pioneering work brought to English-speaking readers the worldview of what might be call Gelukba Buddhism, including much of the material that a monk would absorb in many years of study. In particular, he explored in great detail the system for meditation on emptiness that Gelukbas have constructed out of terse and ambiguous Indian sutras and siislras. Hopkins showed that for Gelukbas, the enigma of Nagarjuna's first-century Treatise on the Middle Way (dbu ma'i bstan bcos, madhyamakasastra) has been solved. Emptiness means something quite precise; therefore, that of which things are empty can be described finely enough to enable the construction of specific practices to isolate and destroy harmful misconceptions. In short, Gelukbas have systematized a highly unsystematic philosophy, and Hopkins' important work has revealed this intricate and ingenious system.

Compared to Meditation on Emptiness, the present study is far more modest in scope and execution. It focuses upon certain implications of the Madhyamika view which are well known among Gelukbas as the unique tenets of the Prasangika-Madhyamika School. Prasangika is the Tibetan appellation for the tradition based primarily on Candrakirti's seventh-century exegesis of the works of Nagarjuna. The unique tenets are a list of positions that Gelukbas link to Nagarjuna himself and which mainly comprise careful refutations of the tenets of non-Prasangikas, prominently those who are identified as Cittamatrins (=Yogacarins) or Svatantrika Madhyamikas.

The unique tenets are a kind of miscellany of topics, ranging from a qualified realism (in this case, a defense of the idea that there is an externa] world) to propositions about perception, nirvana, the extremes of annihilation and permanence, etc. Some topics concern central issues in Buddhism; others merely clarify the way in which certain terms (e.g, pratyaksa) are used by Prasangikas. All of them are difficult and controversial, even those that do not seem particularly crucial.

The unique tenets hinge upon a principle that Gelukbas regard as a kind of key that opens all philosophical doors. This key is called ultimate analysis and is discussed generally in the first chapter and specifically in every subsequent chapter. It is what Gelukbas say non-Prasangikas do, prompting those schools to invent things that don't exist and to deny the existence of things that do exist. The ultimate analysis key is a unique contribution of Gelukbas to Prasangika thought, although of course Gelukbas claim that it is a direct derivation of Nagarjuna's own criticisms of the metaphysical entities propounded by others.

As a corollary to rejecting ultimate analysis, Gelukbas (in this case with much explicit support in Indian texts) maintain that the unique tenets are founded upon a respect for the way in which ordinary people see the world. Indeed, ultimate analysis and worldly conceptions are virtual antonyms. Thus, in the unique tenets, Gelukbas claim that the Prasangikas perform a graceful philosophical pirouette that returns them to common sense, the place where all philosophy begins.

The attribution of particular tenets to schools is not well grounded in historical realities. There were no schools of Indian Buddhism as such; Indian Buddhism was never so organized! Monk-scholars did not identify themselves as belonging to this or that school (and certainly not to the many subschools identified in Gelukba literature), and it is hazardous and, I think, unhelpful to guess now at their affiliations. It is a mistake, we know, even to presume that the commentator of a text agrees with its positions. Then, as now, traditional Buddhist scholars have played roles in order to understand better the perspectives of their opponents. Moreover, the way in which these purported schools are fit into a hierarchy (see the table in chapter 1) is nothing that was self-evident in the Indian context, but is something done in a purely speculative way by Gelukbas who are looking at Indian Buddhist treatises through the lens of their own constructed version of Prasangika-Madhyamika. It may not even be appropriate, for instance, to place the Sautrantikas in the Hinayana camp; they may have been Mahayanists who did noffelearly identify themselves as such.


In the unique tenets, Gelukbas claim that the Prasangikas perform a graceful philosophical pirouette that returns them to common sense, the place where all philosophy begins.

Nevertheless, the Gelukba view on the merits of tenets study, as pithily expressed by Losang Gonchok, is that understanding the views of the lower systems is also a platform or method of coming to understand the views of the higher systems. The fiction of four schools is a heuristic device that allows a student to come gradually to the Prasangika view by way of absorbing, analyzing, and finally rejecting other points of view. (This rejection, it should be noted, is only of selected aspects; the schools do not disagree on most issues.) Implicitly, this teaches tlje student hoiv to be a Prasangika, since the Prasangika method is precisely one of beginning with the assertions of others and revealing the absurd or at least awkward consequences (prasahga) that they entail. The study of tenets is thought to sharpen the intellect and to give the student an exposure to coherent points of view that challenge his or her presuppositions.

The particular sections of the tenets books translated here are one means for Gelukba monks, particularly those of Drebung Monastery's Gomarig College, to understand the implications of the works of Indian Madhyamikas. It might be objected that they, and for that matter, we, ought not to try to understand the views of Nagarjuna and Candrakirti through the lens of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works and twentieth-century interpreters. In the case of this book, such an objection would be misplaced, since I make no claim to have understood Nagarjuna, et al. Rather, what is presented here is a particular interpretation of the thought of these figures. It might be seen as a piece of the puzzle of Tibetan Buddhism rather than a piece of the Indian puzzle. However, I would argue that this particular interpretation is interesting, plausible, and for the most part well argued and supported. It deserves the light of day more, I think, than, for instance, yet another speculative study of Nagarjuna. a

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