The Doctrine of Karman in Candrakirti (by Ulrich T. Kragh, in an email presentation, 2001)
In Buddhist texts, one finds detailed debates on the problem of continuity and change. As the Buddhists generally rejected the concept of a self, there arose certain difficulties in explaining the link between stages in a causal process. If A is the cause of B, and there is no continuous entity, such as a self, that binds them together, what is then the link between them?
The Abhidharma schools came up with a number of different explanations for this question, which were strongly opposed by Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamaka tradition. His critique is found in its most concentrated form in chapter seventeen of the Madhyamakakarika and verses 33-44 of the Shunyatasaptati. Among the various Madhyamaka commentaries to these passages, those of Candrakirti are the most interesting in relation to the above-mentioned problematic, since Candrakirti presents the most radical interpretation of the matter. I have therefore selected the seventeenth chapter of Candrakirti’s commentary (entitled Prasannapada), which comments on the seventeenth chapter of Madhyamakakarika, as one of the main sources for this study. A study and French translation of this chapter was published by Lamotte in MCB 1935-36.
In this chapter, Candrakirti, along with Nagarjuna, first briefly presents the Abhidharma theories of karman along with a critique of these models. Thereafter, their own Madhyamaka presentation of karman is given. It is, of course, important to notice at this point that the Madhyamikas indeed accept the theory of karman. In the view of Candrakirti, causality is possible in the manner of [inter]dependent arising, which is understood as a causal process involving no independently existing elements and which is therefore empty of self-existence. In other words, unlike the Abhidharma models, Candrakirti presents an understanding of causality that involves no concrete basis linking cause and effect. This is done based on the argument that cause and effect do not exist as separate entities in need of being linked. It is a profound process-oriented way of thinking that allows causality to function without introducing any existential ground for it.
At the end of the chapter, Candrakirti refers the reader for further details to the Madhyamakavatara, another of his Madhyamaka-related works. Although Candrakirti does not directly cite a particular passage, this general reference must be taken as indicating verse 14-97 (and its auto-commentary) of the sixth chapter of this text. In this section, Candrakirti criticises the concept that an effect arises from a cause which is different from itself. This in turn has strong bearing on the general Buddhist understanding of causality or karman-theories.
Candrakirti here focuses his polemic against the Yogacarin’s understanding of the karman-theory, in which alayavijnana is posited as the necessary base for causality; i.e. it is consciousness that binds cause and effect together and ensures the individual continuity of the process. Candrakirti’s critique further underlines his understanding of causality as being [inter]dependent arising, involving no individually existing elements and requiring no existential basis for it to function. The Madhyamakavatara thus adds this critique of the Yogacara position on the debate.