The Madhyamika School (Ch’en)

The Madhyamika School (from Buddhism in China, by Prof. Kenneth K. S. Ch’en, Princeton 1964) The Hinayana doctrine of dependent origination, that all things depend on causes and conditions for their origination, provides the starting point for the Madhyamika viewpoint that ‘what is produced by causes is not produced in itself, and does not exist in itself’. Because all things are produced by causes and conditions, they do not have any independent reality; they do not possess any self-nature. When these causes and conditions disappear, these things also disappear. Hence they are said to be shunya or empty..

Thorough comprehension of the empty, unreal, or relative nature of all phenomena leads to prajña (intuitive wisdom or non-dual knowledge). When we achieve prajña, we reach the state of absolute truth which is beyond thought and conception, unconditioned, indeterminate. This absolute truth cannot be preached in words, but, in order to indicate it, it is called shunyata. “Shunyata is the synonym of that which has no cause, that which is beyond thought or conception, that which is not produced, that which is not born, that which is without measure” (Zimmer). This absolute truth contains nothing concrete or individual that can make it an object of particularization.

Nagarjuna is careful to point out, however, that this absolute truth can be realized only by going through the relative or worldly level of truth. Here we have the double level of truth of the Madhyamika. The relative level consists of man’s reasoning and its products. It causes man to see the universe and its manifold phenomena, and to consider them as real. He cannot dispose of this relative truth by his arguments, just as a person in a dream cannot deny his dream by any argument. Only when he wakens can he prove the falsity of the objects in the dream. In this relative level one sees the distinctions between subject and object, truth and error, Samsara and Nirvana. This relative level is necessary, according to Nagarjuna, because the absolute level can be understood and realized only negatively by the removal of relative truths. The removal of the relative truths must therefore precede the realization of the absolute truth. The truths attained through reasoning and the intellect are not to be discarded even though they are not final. Acceptance of the doctrine of shunyata, or the unreality of all phenomena, does not mean that we have to devaluate all human experience..