Many schools of Mahayana Buddhism have an inscrutable quality that can be both compelling and maddening to non-Buddhists. Indeed, sometimes Mahayana seems more Dadaist than religious. Phenomena are both real and not-real; things exist, yet nothing exists. No intellectual position is ever the correct one.
Much of this quality comes from Madhyamika, “school of the Middle Way,” that began about the 2nd century. Madhyamika profoundly influenced the development of Mahayana, especially in China and Tibet and, eventually, Japan.
Nagarjuna and the Wisdom Sutras
Nagarjuna (ca. 2nd or 3rd century) was a patriarch of Mahayana and the founder of Madhyamika. We know very little about Nagarjuna’s life. But where Nagarjuna’s biography is empty, it has been filled with myth. One of these is Nagarjuna’s discovery of the Wisdom Sutras.
The Wisdom Sutras are about 40 texts collected under the title Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutra. Of these, the best known in the West are the Heart Sutra (Mahaprajnaparamita-hridaya-sutra) and the Diamond (or Diamond Cutter) Sutra (Vajracchedika-sutra).
Historians believe the Wisdom Sutras were written about the 1st century. According to legend, however, they are the words of the Buddha that were lost to humankind for many centuries. The sutras had been guarded by magical beings called nagas, which looked like giant snakes. The nagas invited Nagarjuna to visit them, and they gave the scholar the Wisdom Sutras to take back to the human world.
Nagarjuna and the Doctrine of Shunyata
Whatever their provenance, the Wisdom Sutras focus on shunyata, “emptiness.” Nagarjuna’s principle contribution to Buddhism was his systematization of the sutras’ teachings.
Older schools of Buddhism maintained the Buddha’s teaching of anatman. According to this doctrine, there is no "self" in the sense of a permanent, integral, autonomous being within an individual existence. What we think of as our self, our personality and ego, are temporary creations of the skandhas.
Shunyata is a deepening of the doctrine of anatman. In explaining shunyata, Nagarjuna argued that phenomena have no intrinsic existence in themselves. Because all phenomena come into being because of conditions created by other phenomena, they have no existence of their own and are empty of a permanent self. Thus, there is neither reality not not-reality; only relativity.
Shunyata and Enlightenment
This emptiness is not nihilistic. All phenomena are void of self-essence, but it is incorrect to say that phenomena exist or don’t exist. Form and appearance create the world of myriad things, but the myriad things have identity only in relation to each other.
Related to shunyata are the teachings of another of the great Mahayana Sutras, the Avatamsaka or Flower Garland Sutra. The Flower Garland is a collection of smaller sutras that emphasize the interpenetration of all things. That is, all things and all beings not only reflect all other things and beings but also all existence in its totality. Put another way, we do not exist as discrete things; instead, as the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh says, we inter-are.
Relative and Absolute
Another related doctrine is that of the Two Truths, absolute and relative truth. Relative truth is the conventional way we perceive reality; absolute truth is shunyata. From the perspective of the relative, appearances and phenomena are real. From the perspective of the absolute, appearances and phenomena are not real. Both perspectives are true.
For an expression of absolute and relative in the Ch’an (Zen) school, see the Ts’an-t’ung-ch’i , also called the Sandokai, or in English “The Identity of Relative and Absolute,” by the 8th century Ch’an master Shih-t’ou His-ch’ien (Sekito Kisen).
Growth of Madhyamika
Along with Nagarjuna, other scholars important to Madhyamika were Aryadeva, Nagarjuna’s disciple, and Buddhapalita (5th century) who wrote influential commentaries on Nagarjuna’s work.
Yogachara was another philosophical school of Buddhism that emerged about the same time as Madhyamika. Yogachara is also called the “Mind Only” school because it teaches that things exist only as processes of knowing. Put another way, what we think of as reality is a creation of mind. Thus, the world of things and objects is Mind Only.
Over the next few centuries a rivalry grew between the two schools. In the 6th century a scholar named Bhavaviveka attempted a synthesis by adopting teachings from Yogachara into Madhyamika. In the 8th century, however, another scholar named Chandrakirti rejected what he was as Bhavaviveka’s corruptions of Madhyamika. Also in the 8th century, two scholars named Shantirakshita and Kamalashila argued for a Madhyamika-Yogachara synthesis.
In time, the synthesizers would prevail. By the 11th century the two philosophical movements had fused. Madhyamika-Yogachara and all variations were absorbed into Tibetan Buddhism as well as Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism and some other Chinese Mahayana schools.