The Origins of the Madhyamaka Philosophy (Della Santina)

The Origins of the Madhyamaka Philosophy (from Madhyamaka Schools in India – A Study of the Madhyamaka Philosophy and of the Division of the System into the Prasangika and Svatantrika Schools, by Peter Della Santina, 1986, Delhi 1995)

We have suggested that the Madhyamaka philosophy is founded upon an interpretation of the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of interdependent origination. While the Abhidharmika schools, the Vaibhasikas and the Sautrantikas understood the doctrine of interdependent origination propounded by the Buddha Shakyamuni to mean the temporal succession of momentary and discrete existences which were in themselves real, the Madhyamika interpreted the doctrine of interdependent origination to signify the universal relativity and unreality of all phenomena. According to the Madhyamika, the doctrine of interdependent origination is meant to indicate the dependence of all entities upon other entities. This is equivalent to their lack of self-existence (svabhava) and emptiness (shunyata).

The interpretation advocated by the Madhyamika is in complete agreement with some of the utterances of the Buddha recorded in the Pali canon. The following passage from the Majjhima Nikaya may be offered as evidence of this fact. The Buddha declared that form, feeling and the like are illusory, mere bubbles: “Dependent on the oil and the wick does light in the lamp burn; it is neither in the one nor in the other, nor anything in itself; phenomena are, likewise, nothing in themselves. All things are unreal, they are deceptions; Nibbana is the only truth.”

In the Shunyatasaptati Nagarjuna writes: “Since the own-being of all entities is not in (the individual) causes and conditions, nor in the aggregation of causes and conditions, nor in any entity whatsoever, i.e. not in all (of these), therefore all entities are empty in their own being.” In the Ratnavali it is also stated: “When this exists that arises, like short when there is long. When this is produced, so is that, like light from a flame. When there is long there must be short; they exist not through their own nature, just as without a flame light too does not arise.” Again Nagarjuna points out that the Buddha declared that elements are deceptive and unreal. Therefore he says: “The Buddha simply expounded the significance of emptiness (shunyata).” He has also said in the Shunyatasaptati that whatever originates dependently as well as that upon which it depends for its origination does not exist. Nagarjuna precisely indicates the standpoint of the Madhyamika in the following stanza found in the Mulamadhyamakakarika: “We declare that whatever is interdependently originated is emptiness (shunyata). It is a conceptual designation of the relativity of existence and is indeed the middle path.” “No element can exist,” he writes, “which does not participate in interdependence. Therefore no element which is not of the nature of emptiness can exist.”