Madhyamaka and Yogacara

Allies or Rivals?

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Jay L. Garfield, Jan Westerhoff
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Madhyamaka and Yogācāra are often superficially glossed as ontological nihilism and subjective idealism respectively. Perhaps one of the most important contributions of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra: Allies or Rivals? is its complication of this reduction. The majority of the essays broach the question of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra’s philosophical compatibility through two central concepts: the two truths (satyadvaya) proposed by Madhyamaka and the three natures (trisvabhāva) proposed by Yogācāra. Both concepts could be considered ontological taxonomies. The two truths describe two levels of reality: conventional (samvṛti) and ultimate (paramārtha). Take the Buddhist axiom of no-self (anātman) as an example: though in everyday use the convention of a “self” is pragmatically cogent, ultimately the self has no enduring reality. The three natures refine this taxonomy. While the designation of “self” as a (1) concept (parikalpita) is unreal—mistaking self as an enduring, permanent entity—“self” still has a real designatum. This extra-linguistic basis for designations must itself be inexpressible, an undifferentiated (2) causal nexus (paratantra) arbitrarily parsed by concepts. The ultimate non-duality between concepts and this nexus, designation and designatum, denotes (3) absolute reality (pariniṣpanna).

The two truths and the three natures are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They can imbricate and form permutations. For example, if we say (1) conceptual designations are conventionally real, but ultimately unreal, while their designata, (2) the causal nexus, is ultimately real, this effectively describes a type of nominalism. That is, language employs false universals on real particulars. If we say, on the other hand, that (1) conceptualizations and (2) the causal nexus are both ultimately unreal, this could be considered a type of Kantian transcendentalism: the interaction of (1) intuitions and (2) sensations constitute phenomena, neither of which denote (3) ultimate noumena.

Whether Madhyamaka and Yogācāra are compatible thus depends on how each school characterizes the relationship between the two truths and three natures. Each author in this volume describes these characterizations differently. Mattia Salvini’s essay discusses how the Yogācārin Sthiramati (sixth century CE) pins Madhyamaka as nihilist. Sthiramati argues that Madhyamaka posits (1) designations as real, but their (2) bases as unreal. Sthiramati rightly argues that the notion of free-floating designations with no designata is incoherent (46). Sonam Thakchöe’s essay, however, demonstrates this is a strawman of Madhyamaka, at least the Prāsaṅgika branch, which argues that the designatum is as conventionally real as the designation itself. It is only that neither has ultimate existence (89). In other words, the ultimate unreality of a designatum does not deny that designatum’s conventional reality, which is sufficient for the purposes of designation. Jonathan C. Gold’s essay demonstrates that the polemic against free-floating conceptual designations, originally mounted by Asaṅga (fourth century CE), may not have been aimed at Madhyamaka at all, but rather at nihilist interpretations of the Perfection of Wisdom (prajñāpāramitā) Sūtras (221). Eviatar Shulman, however, doubles down on this antirealist interpretation of Madhyamaka (206), bemoaning Tsongkhapa-inspired realist interpretations favored by modern scholars (189). Shulman calls for a recuperation of the defunct Madhyamaka illusionist school (Māyopamavaāda), which argues that even conventionally phenomena are illusory. This school avoids nihilism by claiming phenomena are equally not non-existent and non-existent (195-6). We could say that on Shulman’s understanding, all three natures are conventionally irreal, illusion-like in their appearance and therefore neither dichotomously unreal nor real.

Mark Siderits and David Eckel both analyze the position of the Mādhyamika Bhāviveka (sixth century CE), who argues for his school’s incompatibility with Yogācāra. Siderits interprets Bhāviveka to argue against one of Yogācāra’s central tenets that the causal nexus exists inexpressibly, retorting that existence and inexpressibility are mutually exclusive (120-21). Eckel demonstrates that Bhāviveka also takes issue with Yogācāra’s denial of concepts being conventionally real (134). In other words, Bhāviveka rejects both Yogācāra’s positing of the causal nexus ultimately and denial of conceptual designations conventionally. Dan Lusthaus’s essay, however, gives Kuji’s account of Yogācāra, wherein “the three natures are neither empty nor non-empty” (160). For Kuji, Bhāviveka misunderstands Yogācāra, which does not argue for the conventional non-existence of concepts nor the ultimate existence of the causal nexus. Both exist and do not exist, or perhaps neither exist nor do not exist, much in the same fashion that Shulman articulated the irreality of illusion.

In an attempt at compatibility, Jan Westerhoff and James Blumenthal recount gradualist interpretations of the intersection between Madhyamaka and Yogācāra. Westerhoff demonstrates that Nāgārjuna (second century CE) saw Yogācāra as a necessary but penultimate step to realizing the ultimate truth of Madhyamaka (178). Blumenthal demonstrates the same trend in Śāntarakṣita (eighth century CE) (249-50). We could say that both understand Yogācāra as offering a conventional analysis of conceptual designation and the causal nexus, while Madhyamaka reveals the ultimate nature of their absolute unreality. Chaisit Suwanvarangkul interestingly inverts the stages in his essay, arguing that Madhyamaka-like deconstructions of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) lead to a final yogic realization of the pure nature of all phenomena, the dharmadhatu (27).

These authors collectively demonstrate that both Madhyamaka and Yogācāra can be construed under myriad permutations of the two truths and the three natures, dissolving any possible monolithic characterization of either school, along with any coherent answer to whether they are allies or rivals. Jay L. Garfield’s article cleverly uses Nāgārjuna’s tetralemma (catuṣkoṭi) as a lens on the three natures. These four lemmas cover all possible answers to any binary question, such as whether Madhyamaka and Yogācāra are allies or rivals: allies, rivals, both, or neither. The volume as a whole gives ample support to the third lemma, since both schools construe the two truths and three natures in ways that could support either alliance or rivalry. However, because this stance is self-contradictory, it may be more felicitous to opt for the fourth lemma, that they are neither. This lemma, as Garfield notes, reveals that “the hypothesis cannot, as we have seen, even be asserted coherently” (266). Therefore, whether Madhyamaka and Yogācāra are allies or rivals may, in the end, be an ill-formed question. However, it is an undeniably powerful heuristic, producing profound insights into both schools in this work that is its namesake.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jed Forman is a doctoral student in Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
February 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jay L. Garfield is Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Professor of Humanities and Head of Studies in Philosophy at Yale-NUS College, Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore, Recurrent Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at Smith College, Professor of Philosophy at Melbourne University, and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the Central University of Tibetan Studies. He teaches and pursues research in the philosophy of mind, foundations of cognitive science, logic, philosophy of language, Buddhist philosophy, cross-cultural hermeneutics, theoretical and applied ethics, and epistemology. 

Jan Westerhoff is University Lecturer in Religious Ethics at the University of Oxford, a Fellow and Tutor in Theology and Religion at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, and a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His research concentrates on systematic aspects of ancient Indian philosophy, especially on Madhyamaka.


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