By Ms. Terry Abbot

What exactly is the nature of the mythical Madhyamika argument, which pierces through philosophical proofs with its Prajna-sword of superior logic? The power of the Madhyamika argument lies in how it employs the dialectic to reveal that the nature of the Absolute--Sunyata (Emptiness) or Tathata (Thusness)--is that which is beyond all thought-constructed concepts. The dialectic frees the Madhyamikan from the dilemma of trying to prove that which is beyond any type of conceptually systematized proof.

The dialectic is also used to disprove the philosophical systems of those Hinayanists who were concerned with explaining the empirical world of conditioned dharmas. These Hinayanists elaborated speculative systems about the interrelationships and functions of conditioned dharmas. One basis of all their systematizations is their definition of dharma. This definition is that dharmas, the factors of our experience, have a nature which is defined as svabhava, own being. This means that each dharma exists in and of itself.

The Madhyamikan uses the method or prasanga--a method which shows his opponent that any philosophical argument about the nature of existent things leads only to an insolvable dilemma--against the definition that a dharma is svabhava. For the Madhyamikan, a dharma cannot possibly be involved in the causal fabric of existence, unless it is nihsvabhava, devoid of own being. If a dharma had own being, by definition, it would be entire and complete in and of itself. It would be utterly quiescent and unable to enter into causal relationships. Thus a dharma must be nihsvabhava, devoid of own being, in order to function in the causal interplay of our reality.

      The purpose of this article is to briefly describe the nature of the Madhyamika argument, specifically the dialectic. The sample argument, which is used to illustrate the process of the dialectic, is the Madhyamika refutation of a Hinayanist argument by analogy. This refutation is taken from the 14th chapter, "Samskrta Pariksa"--"Investigation into (the Nature of) Conditioned (Dharmas)"--, of Nagarjuna's Madhyamika Sastra, with the commentary Prasannapada, by Candrakirti.

There are two rules of logic employed in this argument. They are 1) if one member of a set of opposites is shown to exist, then its opposite must also exist. 2) in an argument by analogy, A and its characteristic x is said to be like B and its characteristic y. According to the rules of logic, if the opponent cannot prove that B actually has this characteristic y, then by analogy he cannot prove that A has the characteristic x.

The context of the argument is a debate, which is being held between the Madhyamikans and the Hinayanists about the nature of dharmas. More specifically, the opponents are debating about the nature of the three marks of a conditioned dharma. These marks are "birth" (jati), "aging" (jara), and "change of state" (sthitianyathatvam). Both parties in this debate agree that the Buddha has made a statement about these marks. What they disagree about is the context of the Buddha's statement. What was it that the Buddha said?

"Oh Monks, the threefold (marks), 'arising' etc. are the marks of conditionality for conditioned things. (The marks) 'production,' 'aging,' and 'change of state' are seen in regard to those things which are conditioned."1

For the Madhyamikan, the context of this statement is that the concept of marks is merely a description (prajnapti) about the conditionality of things. According to them, the Buddha did not imply that the marks themselves exist as svabhavic entities. They say...

"Just as the Buddha spoke about an illusion, dream, or city of the

Gandharvas, in that way as well, he spoke about (the marks) 'Production,' 'abiding,' and 'destruction.'"2

For the Hinayanist, the context of the Buddha's statement about the marks is that both the marks of the conditioned dharma and the dharma which they mark are existent, svabhavic entities. The Hinayanist strives to prove this position by asserting an argument by analogy. This argument is that the mark "production," produces itself and others just like the lamp illuminates itself and others. Thus A (the mark, "production") has the characteristic x (that it produces itself and others). It is like B (the lamp) which has the characteristic y (that it illuminates itself and others.)

A crucial point in this argument is the definition of contact. The Hinayanist has defined the lamp as having the characteristic of illumination. In order to prove that the lamp is illumination and that its characteristic is the illumination of itself and others, the Hinayanist postulates the existence of contact. He states that contact exists between opposite entities (light and dark) and between similar entities (light and light.) Without this contact there would be no illumination.

The Madhyamikan first disproves the existence of contact between opposite entities and between similar entities. He next disproves the svabhavic existence of illumination with or without the existence of contact. In this way he systematically eliminates all possible arguments for the existence of illumination and thereby nullifies the opponent's analogy. He proves that B (the lamp) does not have the characteristic y (illumination). Thus by analogy, A (the mark, "production") cannot have the characteristic x (that it produces). And even if one accepts the existence of the characteristics x and y, that still does not establish the existence of A and B.

The process of this argument can be schematized to reveal the use of the dialectic:


1. Let light and dark, which by definition are opposites, exist as svabhavic entities. Let light and light, which by definition are similar entities, exist as svabhavic entities.

2. Let the lamp be defined as having the characteristic of illumination, which illuminates itself (light) and others (darkness).

3. Let illumination be defined as an entity whose existence is dependent upon contact.

4. Let contact be defined as attraction between two entities.

These definitions are acceptable to both parties in the debate. The basis of the Madhyamikan method or argument is that the Madhyamikan accepts his opponent's position (the Givens 1-4) in order to use these definitions to disprove the opponent's argument. It is by this method that the Madhyamikan proves his own philosophical position.

Step One: The Madhyamikan disproves the existence of contact between opposite entities and between similar entities.

1. The case for opposite entities: Opposites, such as light and dark, are antithetical to each other. They cannot exist in the same place at the same time. Since contact is defined as attraction between two entities, there can be no contact between opposites because of their antithetical natures. Thus light cannot illuminate darkness because there can be no contact between light and dark. Since it has been established that there is no contact between opposites it is also established that the lamp cannot illuminate others (darkness). Thus by analogy, production cannot produce others as the lamp cannot illuminate others.

2. The case for similar entities: For similar entities having own being, there can be no contact simply because they are exactly alike. Similar things do not attract each other. Thus it is established that there can be no contact between any two identical quiescent svabhavic entities (light and light"). Therefore the light cannot illuminate itself just as, by analogy, production will not be able to produce itself.

Step Two: The Madhyamikan disproves the concept of illumination with or without the existence of contact.

The Madhyamikan is not content with disproving the dichotomy that there is no illumination because there is no contact between opposite or similar entities. The next step is to disprove another dichotomy: that there is illumination with or without contact. The Madhyamikan does this by reversing his position about the existence of contact, which he had previously proved to be non-existent. He now accepts his opponent's position that contact does exist. He then proceeds to disprove the existence of illumination even with the existence of contact. Thus he has established that 1) there is no contact between either opposite or similar entities, and 2) there is no illumination with or without contact. This is the efficiency of the Madhyamika argument.

This article has shown how the dialectic is elegantly effective against an argument by analogy, which is based on observation of the empirical worldólight does seem to illuminate. The problem with the empiricist is that he does base his philosophical arguments on his observations of the empirical world; it is these observations about the interrelationships and functions of svabhavic dharmas that are shown to be false.

Instead of being preoccupied with the functions of the empirical world, the Madhyamikan is concerned with that which is beyond illusionóthe ontological. The Absolute is revealed as being beyond words and philosophical proof, svabhava or nihsvabhava. It is sometimes alluded to by the descriptive terms Sunyata (Emptiness), or Tathata (Thusness) the essenceless essence which encompasses all.

1Madhyamaka Sastra of Nagarjuna with the commentary: Prasannapada by Candrakirti, from the seventh chapter "Samskrta Pariksa," pg. 59. 
2Ibid, Verse 34, pg. 73


Terry Abbot is a graduate student in Sanskrit, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley.


In this age, which is strong in fighting and strife, disasters and war increase daily. We must find a means to rescue mankind and prevent the annihilation of the entire world. Consequently, in order to protect the country, eliminate disasters, and seek peace and blessing for all peoples, the members of the Sino-American Buddhist Association have decided to transmit the Complete Precepts of the Thousand Buddhas on the 200th anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America. This Dharma Assembly will last for one hundred and eight days, beginning on July 4th, 1976, and ending on October 19th, 1976. Buddhist of all countries and nationalities throughout the world are cordially invited to attend and receive the Complete Precepts of Sramanera, Sramanerika, Bhiksu, Bhiksuni, and Bodhisattva. The merit thus established for mankind as well as the benefits accruing to those of the future are truly unlimited.

Please direct all correspondence to: Precept Transmitting Committee, Gold Mountain Monastery, 1731 15th St., San Francisco, California, 94103, U.S.A. (415) 621-5202.