The San-lun, or Three Treatise, School, is the Chinese transmission of the Indian Madhyamaka, the most important philosophical school of Mahayana Buddhism.
The San-lun criticises as insupportable the common-sense understanding of the world as made up of discrete and independent subjects and objects. All things are in fact causally dependent upon one another for their existence, and thus no thing can really be separated from any other thing. For example, one cannot have fire without the wood the fire burns on, nor wood without the earth the wood grew in, and so on. All things, therefore, are ‘empty’ of any independent existence or exclusive nature or their own, while their true nature is said to be precisely this emptiness (Skt. sunyata; Ch. kung).
If things cannot be separated physically, then one must also draw the conclusion that they cannot be discriminated conceptually in words. For, again, one cannot even think or speak of fire without necessarily implying and including the wood that it burns on, and the earth that the wood grew in, and so on. Thus the San-lun denounces all speech, all conceptualisation, and all philosophy, including the philosophy of other Buddhist schools, as inappropriate and inapplicable to reality. They are all designated as “relative truth”, although they are admitted as having limited worth for the use and instruction of the unenlightened. The emptiness doctrine, meanwhile, although it functions as the ultimate truth in relation to the relative truth, should not be clung to as another truth, philosophy, or view, about reality. It is merely the denial of all such views. However, this denial is not negativistic or nihilistic, for it is intended, ideally, to promote a state of non-conceptualisation where one’s own innate prajna or wisdom can perceive reality as it actually is, and not how one thinks it to be.
The Madhyamaka School was founded in India when the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (ca. 100-200 CE) systematised the teaching of the Prajnaparamita, or Perfection of Wisdom, Scriptures. Chinese thinkers were fascinated by these texts when they began to read them in translation at the end of the second century, resulting in first the Prajna School or movement, and then the so called “Six Schools and Seven Sects”. However, because they translated and interpreted these texts using Taoist terms and concepts, they had difficulty in grasping their true meaning.
In 405-9 Kumarajiva (344-413) produced faithful translations of three Madhyamaka treatises, two by Nagarjuna and one by his follower Aryadeva. These works became the basis of the San-lun School, founded by Kumarajiva’s follower Seng-chao (374-414). Seng-chao brought the San-lun to a brief period of philosophical prominence, before it was overshadowed by the Ch’eng-shih scholastic sect, which advocated an alternative interpretation of emptiness based on a Hinayana text, the Satyasiddhi Sastra. This sect enjoyed considerable influence, until, toward the end of the sixth century, the efforts of Fa-lang (507-581) and his pupil Chi-tsang (549-623) succeeded in re-establishing the San-lun understanding of emptiness as the dominant one.
In Chi-tsang’s capable hands the San-lun reached its zenith, both philosophically and materially. His reputation as a great exponent of Buddhist philosophy spread, and he was invited to lecture at the Sui capital Ch’ang-an by Emperor Yang. But again the School’s success was short-lived. By the end of the seventh century the San-lun teaching lineage had come to an end with its last master, Yuan-k’ang, and the School did not survive the persecution of 845.
The San-lun failed ultimately because Chi-tsang was too faithful to his Indian sources. He gave the Madhyamaka philosophy in its full deconstructive glory, and made no concessions to the Chinese world view. Nevertheless, with the San-lun the Chinese came to clearly understand the central philosophical motif of Mahayana Buddhism, and its doctrines were studied by, and influenced, all the major Schools of Chinese Buddhism, especially the T’ien-t’ai, Hua-yen, and Ch’an.