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Mahayana Buddhism



The Madhyamaka school is one of the two major philosophical schools prominent within the Mahayana. It offers a systematization of the Perfection of Wisdom literature. The most important doctrine of this school is that of sunyata which is that all dharmas are `empty', (sunya) of permanent own-nature or inherent existence. Nothing exists of itself but only in relation to other things. Nothing exists which has not been caused. This analysis extends to the Buddha, his teachings, both samsara and nirvna and also to emptiness itself. An important part of Madhyamaka doctrine is that Buddhas use two levels of truth (conventional and ultimate) when teaching sentient beings. At the conventional level things, including sentient beings and Buddhist teachings, exist as we observe them but at an ultimate level nothing is independent of causes. Since most individuals live without full knowledge of ultimate truth, the conventional level is necessary to explain the Buddhist path. Critics of the school argued that it devalued Buddhist teachings by claiming they were empty of inherent existence. Nagarjuna, the school's founder, replied that his critics had misunderstood emptiness and the two levels of truth, for if everything were not empty there could be no possibility for change, including change from incorrect to correct understanding. 


Nagarjuna (c.150-250 CE) was born in the south of India but received his monastic training at Nalanda, in the North, and later lived in Andhra. He was such an important figure in the development of Buddhism that he is often regarded as a second Buddha and he figures, in a variety of forms, in the lineages of most schools of Mahayana Buddhism. Nagarjuna's teachings did not introduce new material but were an attempt to systematize the Perfection of Wisdom literature which developed from the Abhidharma of the non-Mahayana schools. The earliest Perfection of Wisdom literature is usually dated to the first century CE. Later scholars developed Madhyamaka doctrines further although Nagarjuna insisted that he had no argument or view of his own to put forward. One of the main subschools which followed was the Prasanghika Madhyamaka. This was developed in the fifth century CE by Buddhapalita and in the late sixth century by Candrakirti. The Prasanghika used a technique of logical reasoning which aimed to show that the view of an opponent to Madhyamaka thinking always entailed undesirable consequences or inconsistencies when carried to its fullest extent. The other major subschool, the Svatantrika, was developed by Bhavaviveka in the fifth century CE. It developed a new interpretation of Madhyamaka with improved logical methods and in the eighth century it formed the basis of a new school, the Yogacara-Madhyamaka, which was a synthesis of Yogacara and Madhyamaka teachings which Santaraksita (c.680-740CE) and his disciple Kamalasila regarded as superior to either school on its own.


There is no inscriptional or textual evidence to suggest that the school had its own distinctive symbol system.


The Madhyamaka school survives as part of the philosophical basis of some schools of Mahayana Buddhism. For example the Prasanghika Madhyamaka is represented in both the dGe-lugs and the bKa'rgyud schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Main Centre

It is not possible to talk of a headquarters or main centre for the Madhyamaka school. At its height the school was represented in different regions of India and southern China.