The Three-Treatise School (from The Philosophy of Emptiness: Chi-tsang of the Three-Treatise School, in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, by Wing-tsit Chan, Princeton 1963, 1969, 1973)
The Three-Treatise School and the Consciousness-Only School [Vijñanavada] represented the two major developments of Mahayana or Great Vehicle philosophy in India. The former insists that dharmas (elements of existence) and their causes are unreal and has therefore been known as the School of Non-being, while the latter insists that they are real and has therefore been known as the School of Being. Both were introduced into China by outstanding philosophers. Both had something profound and subtle to offer which China had never known. Both lasted for several centuries. But both failed to exert lasting influence on Chinese thought. It is important to understand why this has been the case.
The Three-Treatise School, called Madhyamika (Middle Doctrine) in Sanskrit, was founded in India by Nagarjuna (c.100-200 A.D.). Kumarajiva (344-413) introduced it into China by translating Nagarjuna’s two most important treatises, the Madhyamika sastra (Treatise on the Middle Doctrine) and the Dvadasanikaya sastra (Twelve Gates Treatise) and his disciple Aryadeva’s Sata sastra (One Hundred Verses Treatise). Hence the school is called the Three-Treatise School.
The central concept of the school is Emptiness (Sunyata) in the sense that the nature and characters of all dharmas, together with their causation, are devoid of reality. Thus all differentiations, whether being or non-being, cause or effect, or coming-into-existence or going-out-of-existence are only ‘temporary names’ and are empty in nature. The only reality is Emptiness itself, which is the absolute, Ultimate Void, the Original Substance, or in Chinese terminology, the correct principle (cheng-li). As such it is equivalent to Nirvana and the Dharma-body.
The doctrine was transmitted in China through Kumarajiva’s pupil Seng-chao (384-414) and played a dominant role there from the fourth to the seventh century. It had a tremendous attraction for the Chinese because its philosophy of Emptiness suited the temper of Chinese intellectuals of Wei-Chin times (220-420), who were then propagating the Taoist doctrine of non-being. Its highly developed and systematic method of reasoning was a stimulating novelty to the Chinese. Its spirit of criticism and refutation gave the rebellious Chinese philosophers, including the Neo-Taoists, a sense of emancipation. Its nominalism reinforced the Chinese opposition to the Confucian doctrine of ranks and names, especially in the sixth century. In addition to all this, it had the great fortune [sic] of having as its systematiser the outstanding figure, Chi-tsang (549-623). […]
Ironically, Chi-tsang’s success was at the same time the failure of his school, for it became less and less Chinese. As mentioned before, Seng-chao was still a bridge between Taoism and Buddhism. He combined the typical Chinese concept of identity of substance and function, for example, with the Buddhist concepts of temporary names and Emptiness. In Chi-tsang, substance and function are sharply contrasted instead. In that, he was completely Indian in viewpoint, although he quoted Taoists. As a systematiser and transmitter of Indian philosophy, he brought about no cross-fertilization between Buddhist and Chinese thought. And it happened that the Indian thought which he promoted was so utterly unacceptable to the Chinese that the school declined in the ninth century. […]
To this [the Middle Doctrine] school, refutation of erroneous views is essential for and indeed identical with the elucidation of right views. But when a right view is held in place of a wrong one, the right view itself becomes one-sided and has to be refuted. It is only through this dialectic process that Emptiness can be arrived at, which alone is free from names and character and is ‘inexplicable in speech and unrealizable in thought’. The specific method in this dialectic process is Nagarjuna’s Middle Path of Eightfold Negations, which denies that dharmas come into existence or go out of existence, that they are permanent or come to an end, that they are the same or different, and that they come or go away. The basis of all arguments is the so-called Four Points of Argumentation. By the use of this method of argument, a dharma as being, as non-being, as both being and non-being, and as neither being nor non-being are all refuted and proved to be untrue. Chi-tsang illustrates this method fully in his refutation of causation.
It is obvious that this approach is as nihilistic as it is destructive. The school had little new substance to offer and nothing constructive. It is true that Emptiness as the Absolute is as pure and perfect as anything conceivable, but being devoid of specific characters and divorced from mundane reality, it becomes too abstract for the Chinese. It might be hoped that its novel and radical method of reasoning at least aroused the Chinese mind and led to a new approach to life and reality, but it did not. That opportunity was left to the Zen (Meditation, Ch’an) School.