The Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school, along with the Yogācāra, is one of the two major schools of Indian Mahayana Buddhist thought, which flourished there from the 3rd century CE to the final destruction of Buddhism in India in about the 12th century. It was carried to East Asia and Tibet prior to this time and continues there to this day, surviving in scholastic Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, and even Pure Land, frequently regarded as the cornerstone of Mahayana thought. The name “middle way” refers to a fundamental claim in Buddhism that the teachings of the Buddha constitute a middle way between eternalism and annihilationism; that is, between the doctrine that things have a stable and eternal essence, and the doctrine that things pass utterly out of existence when they cease. “Mādhyamika” is the adjectival form, and refers to adherents of the Madhyamaka school. Though central Madhyamaka ideas such as the Two Truths and Emptiness can be found in Nikaya Buddhism and in Mahayana sutras, it is with the treatises of Nāgārjuna (2nd–3rd centuries CE) that we have a fully formed and distinct system of thought that we can call Madhyamaka. In Nāgārjuna’s texts, he subjects all phenomena, including the Abhidharma categories of dharmas and the structure of the Two Truths, to radical analysis, declaring all things, including the Four Noble Truths and the Buddha himself, to be empty of inherent nature. For the Abhidharmikas, dharmas possess their characteristics intrinsically, which make them uniquely what they are, despite accepting the paradigmatic Buddhist position that all things exist dependently. Nāgārjuna and the Mādhyamikas assert that dharmas cannot possess their own nature precisely because they exist dependently. In place of inherent nature, Nāgārjuna asserts that things exist only dependently, at least in conventional terms, and that ultimately, emptiness of inherent nature is the truth and reality of all things. Not surprisingly, numerous interpreters arose to elucidate this difficult philosophy. The question of which commentator is definitive has occupied many generations of Indian, East Asian, and Tibetan Buddhists, and the issue remains very much alive in modern scholarship. Much of the interest in Western scholarship has come, unsurprisingly, from philosophy, but it warrants noting that the intent of Madhyamaka, like all Buddhist thought, is primarily soteriological in nature.
Hamilton 2001 is an overview of Indian philosophy that contextualizes Madhyamaka in Buddhism and in the broader trends of Indian thought. Hayes 2010 is an excellent online overview of Madhyamaka. Ruegg 1981 covers the entire development of Madhyamaka in India, from the works of Nāgārjuna to those of the last Indian commentators. Nagao 1989 is significant in that it examines Madhyamaka in relation to Yogācāra, which is the other fundamental school of thought that informs Mahayana Buddhism in India and the regions to which it spread. Ruegg 2010 is a ground-breaking analysis of the argumentative method of Nāgārjuna by a great Madhyamaka scholar. Siderits 2007 surveys the philosophical positions of early Buddhists, and Mahayana thought, in order to assess the philosophical contributions of Madhyamaka. Westerhoff 2009 provides an overview of Madhyamaka and argues that the writings of Nāgārjuna constitute a coherent philosophical system. Carpenter 2014 explores Madhyamaka in its broader Buddhist context as well as interrogating it in terms of its metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical implications.
Carpenter, Amber. Indian Buddhist Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.
Chapter four deals with Nāgārjuna and Madhyamaka from a modern philosophical perspective.
Hamilton, Sue. Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
This wonderfully clear and concise book on Indian philosophy has an excellent discussion of Nāgārjuna’s thought as laid out in the Mūlamadhayamakakārikā, and situates it within the religious and philosophical context in India.
Hayes, Richard. “Madhyamaka.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2010.
A comprehensive and insightful overview of the Madhyamaka tradition, including the major figures in India and their works and contributions.
Nagao, Gadjin. The Foundational Standpoint of Mādhyamika Philosophy. Translated by John P. Keenan. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.
A seminal work of the great Japanese scholar; Nagao sees Madhayamaka as forming a coherent whole with Yogācāra, which is the foundation of all Mahayana thought and practice.
Ruegg, David Seyfort. The Literature of the Madhyamaka School of Philosophy in India. A History of Indian Literature 7. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1981.
A foundational work in Madhyamaka studies, this work covers all the important figures of the tradition with in-depth studies of some of the most influential texts.
Ruegg, David Seyfort. “The Uses of the Four Positions of the Catuṣkoti and the Problem of the Description of Reality in Mahāyāna Buddhism.” In The Buddhist Philosophy of the Middle: Essays on Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka. By David Seyfort Ruegg, 37–112. Boston: Wisdom, 2010.
A foundational article from one the greatest scholars of Madhyamaka studies. The volume also includes essays on other issues in Nāgārjuna’s texts, Tibetan interpretations, and the role of philosophy in the study of Buddhism.
Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Ashgate World Philosophies Series. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007.
A masterful overview of Buddhist thought from a philosophical perspective, by one of the foremost scholars of Madhyamaka. Chapter 9 specifically examines Madhyamaka as philosophy.
Westerhoff, Jan. Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
An excellent overview of Madhyamaka based on the works of Nāgārjuna. Westerhoff contextualizes Madhyamaka within Indian thought and Buddhism, highlighting central Buddhist philosophical issues such as the question of inherent nature and the Two Truths, and examines Madhyamaka assumptions about argumentation and epistemology.
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