Nagarjuna and the Madhyamika school (from A History of Religion East and West, by Prof. Trevor Ling, 1968, Basingstoke 1988)
We have seen that one of the earliest developments in Buddhist thought in the Mahayana direction was the idea that even dhammas (regarded by the Theravadins as the indivisible ultimate events of which all existence is composed) are in fact substanceless; all things, even dhammas, are void of substance, or shunya. This idea is first found in a Mahayana text which was translated into Chinese at the end of the second century C.E. and which may therefore be regarded as having had its origin somewhere in north-west India in the first century C.E.
Those who assert (vadin) this doctrine of the voidness of substance (shunya) even in dhammas, are called shunyavadins. Another name for this school of thought is the Madhyamika school, or school of the ‘middle position’ (madhya is cognate with Latin media). The middle position referred to was not that of the earlier period of Buddhism, when the Buddha’s teaching was known as ‘the Middle Way’, that is, between self-mortification and sensuality, but between the complete realism of the Sarvastivadins who asserted that all dhammas, past, present and future, were real; and the absolute idealism of the Yogacharin school.
The Madhyamika school is generally regarded as having been founded by Nagarjuna in the second century C.E. It is significant that Nagarjuna was a brahman from south central India (Andhra) who had thrown in his lot with Buddhism. The school of thought which he developed certainly has affinities with brahman philosophical thought; although it was developed in opposition to certain of the orthodox brahman philosophies (Sankhya and Vaishesika), it was generally more akin to these schools than to the early Abhidhamma of Pali Buddhism. An excellent account of the Madhyamika school has been provided by T.R.V. Murti (1955). His view of the development of this school is that it may be described in terms of a dialectic. The original thesis was the atma-affirming doctrine of the Upanishads; the antithesis to this was the denial of any enduring atta (atma) in early Buddhism, formalised in the Abhidhamma; the synthesis is found in the Madhyamika.
According to Murti is was the inadequacy and inconsistency of the Abhidhamma system, especially the Sarvastivadin Abhidhamma, which led to the development of the Madhyamika. The essential concern of the Madhyamika is with the relation between the empirical world of the senses, which in Buddhist thought generally is known as Samsara (the continued round of existence), and the transcendental reality Nirvana. According to the Madhyamika, Nirvana is present in Samsara, but men are prevented from recognising this and entering into it because of the false constructions they put upon the world. The removal of these false constructions (the negation of the negation) and the attainment of Nirvana is the religious goal, in the Madhyamika Buddhist view. The way to do this is by cultivating a view of the substanceless nature of things. To accomplish this, they hold, needs a long course of meditational training.