Chandrakīrti: Madhyamakavatara, Collection of Reasoning

Madhyamakavatara | Collection of Reasoning

by Chandrakīrti with commentary by Khen Rinpoche Namdrol


Please listen to this explanation with the supreme motivation of bodhichitta, wishing to attain perfect awakening for the sake of all sentient beings.

Introduction to the Text

The Collection of Middle Way Reasoning

The great master Arya Nagarjuna was prophesied by the Buddha himself in the Root Tantra of Manjushri (Manjushrimula Tantra):

Four hundred years after I,

The Tathagata, have passed away,

A monk called Naga will appear

Who will benefit my teachings.

Reaching the bhumi of Perfect Joy

And living for six hundred years,

This great being will perfect

The science of the great peacock, [i]

And will understand the meaning of various shastras

And the meaning of the absence of reality.

When he leaves behind his mortal body,

He will be reborn in Sukhavati.

And ultimately, he will certainly gain

The perfect fruit of buddhahood itself.

He was also prophesied in the Great Cloud Sutra (Mahamegha-sutra) and the Sutra of the Great Drum (Mahabheriharakaparivarta-sutra).

Arya Nagarjuna’s two main treatises—the so-called ‘body’ treatises¾ are Root Verses on the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika) and Sixty Verses on Reasoning. The text we are concerned with here is the Introduction to the Middle Wayor Madhyamakavatara by Chandrakirti, which is a commentary on the meaning of the Root Verses.

Generally speaking, Nagarjuna composed treatises on all five sciences. Those on the science of the inner meaning, i.e., the Buddhadharma, primarily teach the aspects of view and conduct. In describing the view and the conduct of the Dharma, Nagarjuna employs both scriptural quotations and reasoning. The treatise that mostly uses quotations from the scriptures is the Compendium of Sutras (Sutrasamuccaya). It draws from the sutras in order to explain and clarify the aspects of view and conduct.

There are three collections that mainly employ reasoning in order to clarify the view and the conduct of the buddhist teachings. They are the Collection of Reasoning, the Collection of Praises and the Collection of Advice.

The Collection of Praises relates mainly to the final turning of the Wheel of Dharma. It includes eulogies in praise of the ground, the path and the fruition.

The Collection of Advice relates mainly to the first turning. It includes the advice to the king known as the Precious Garland [ii]as well as the Letter to a Friend. [iii]

According to some past scholars the Collection of Reasoning was originally referred to simply as ‘the collection’ or ‘the teachings’ of logical reasoning and the number of texts it contained was not specified. Others, such as Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü [iv]and the omniscient Gowo Rabjampa, [v]insist that the Collection of Reasoning contains a specific number of texts. They differ in the texts they identify; yet they agree on the principle that the number of texts in the collection is fixed.

Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü said that the Collection of Reasoning contains six texts. Among these, he said, two texts are likened to the body, and this is clear because it is stated so in Chandrakirti’s commentary to Sixty Verses on Reasoning. The two body-like texts are Root Verses on the Middle Way and Sixty Verses on Reasoning. In addition, Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü goes on, there are four branch or limb-like treatises. He claims that this derives from Chandrakirti’s Commentary to the Sixty Verses on Reasoning, where it is explained how these four texts are elaborations upon the two fundamental treatises. However, this text only describes Refutation of Objections [vi]and Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness[vii] as extensions of the main two treatises. It does not mention Crushing to Fine Powder [viii]or Conventional Existence, [ix]which are the other texts Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü includes among the collection.

Gorampa disagrees with Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü because of this very point. It is clear, he says, that Refutation of Objections and Seventy Verses on Emptiness are branch-like treatises, because the way in which they are extensions of the main two treatises is clearly explained. As for Crushing to Fine Powder, Gorampa believes that it too may be counted as a branch-like treatise, and in this it seems he is in agreement with many past scholars. He also agrees that the main topic of Crushing to Fine Powder is the refutation of the so-called ‘sixteen categories of words and meaning (Skt. padartha) of the dialecticians.’ As it says in the text itself:

With the pride of intellectual knowledge,

They seek to engage in debate.

In order that they might relinquish such pride,

I shall explain the Crushing to Fine Powder. [x]

So, Crushing to a Fine Powder is included among the branch-like treatises.

Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü includes Conventional Existence among the branch-like treatises. This is because the teachings of the Root Verses of the Middle Way on how all phenomena are naturally beyond arising and empty might cause one to doubt whether all phenomena are non-existent even at the conventional level, rather like the horns of a rabbit or the horns of a donkey. Therefore Conventional Existence was taught, it is said, in order to dispel this misunderstanding, and to show how at the conventional level all phenomena are illusory and dream-like. So Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü claims that there are six texts in the Collection of Reasoning, and that one of them is Conventional Existence.

The Omniscient Longchenpa also states that there are six texts in the Collection of Reasoning, the sixth being Conventional Existence.

Gorampa disputes the inclusion of Conventional Existence. In the first place, he objects to this on the grounds that it was not translated into Tibetan. He goes on to say that it probably did not exist even in India because Chandrakirti fails to mention it at the end of his Clear Words [xi]commentary upon the Root Verses on the Middle Way when listing all the Madhyamaka texts that he had studied. If Conventional Existence really was the work of Nagarjuna, Gorampa argues, then Chandrakirti would certainly have studied it. This is the relevant section of Clear Words:

What I have shown here is based on my study of the Compendium of Sutras, the Advice of the Precious Garlandand In Praise of the Authentic, and also, for a long time and with great effort, the Karikas from the treatise of Arya [Nagarjuna], and the Sixty Verses on Reasoning, Crushing to Fine Powder and Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness as well as Refutation of Objections too. I also looked into the [Four] Hundred Verses and so on, and many profound sutras, as well as the commentary composed by Buddhapalita and that which was well explained by Bhavaviveka—all these texts one after another—and I have also included what I have discovered through my own investigations, bringing everything together in order to delight all those with intelligence. [xii]

It is because it is not among the works listed here that Gorampa felt Conventional Existence was unknown in India.

As stated earlier, Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü was amongst those earlier scholars who believed that Conventional Existence should be included in the Collection of Reasoning. Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü’s main teacher was Lotsawa Patsab Nyima Drakpa [xiii]who actually translated the Introduction to the Middle Way from Sanskrit into Tibetan, as it says clearly in the translator’s colophon at the end of the text:

by the Indian abbot Tilaka Kalasha and the Tibetan translator, the monk Patsab Nyima Drak….

And, what is more, Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü was not just an average student; he was one of the four great disciples of Patsab Nyima Drakpa, the so-called ‘four sons’ of Patsab , i.e., Geshe Putowa from Central Tibet, Sokpa Yeshe Jungne from Changthang, and Tsangpa Sarbö and Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü from Tsang. [xiv]

So it seems strange that one of the principal students of this great Tibetan translator who worked in collaboration with an Indian scholar to translate Chandrakirti’s text would consider a non-existent text to exist, and, not only that, but also for it to be the work of Nagarjuna, and to be included within his Collection of Reasoning. If there were a reason to doubt the existence of the text in India or its authorship, Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü would surely have been aware of it. There is no obvious reason why he would endorse a spurious text, or its subject matter, or why he might wish to see it included in the Collection of Reasoning. Lotsawa Patsab Nyima Drakpa was one of the great translators and Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü was his direct disciple. They would certainly have known whether or not there was a text by Arya Nagarjuna called Conventional Existence. And they would certainly not have attributed existence to such a text if there were no grounds for doing so. This must be our conclusion too, if we investigate the matter. Hence, Gyalse Shenpen Tayé, the Omniscient Longchenpa and others include Conventional Existence in the Collection of Reasoning and the reasons for its exclusion provided by Gorampa may be considered insufficient.

The Treasury of Secret Mantra Scripture [xv]is a text belonging to the category of terma related to the cycle of Deshek Düpa, and it includes statements by Vimalamitra, Guru Rinpoche, Namkhé Nyingpo and Vairotsana. This text also refers to a six-fold Collection of Reasoning, but it gives the sixth text as Beyond All Fear. [xvi]According to Indian scholars and the earlier Tibetan commentators Beyond All Fearis a work of Arya Nagarjuna. Nevertheless, it is a commentary on the Root Verses on the Middle Way, and therefore differs from the other body-lilke or branch-like treatises of the collection. All the same, earlier scholars considered it an ‘auto-commentary’ to the Root Versescomposed by Nagarjuna himself. More recently however, Gorampa and others have expressed doubts about this, primarily because the text includes a citation from Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses. [xvii]Aryadeva was Nagarjuna’s pupil, and it seems unlikely that in commenting upon a text that he himself had written, Nagarjuna would quote his own student. So there are those who doubt the attribution of Beyond All Fear to Nagarjuna.

Gorampa and others who have questioned its attribution to Nagarjuna have also expressed further misgivings about Beyond All Fear. Why, they ask, would Chandrakirti have composed his Clear Words commentary to the Root Verses if Nagarjuna himself had already composed an auto-commentary? And, furthermore, why is it that there are no quotations drawn from Beyond All Fear in the writings of Buddhapalita? The answer can only be, Gorampa and the others claim, that the text in question is not in fact a genuine work of Nagarjuna.

Whether or not Nagarjuna wrote Beyond All Fear, it is perhaps best not to include it in the Collection of Reasoning. It is preferable to classify it as a commentary on the Root Verses. If all the commentaries composed by Nagarjuna were to be included in the Collection of Reasoning we would have to include his commentary on Refutation of Objections and other texts and we might end up with something more like an eight-fold collection!

There are eight commentaries on the Root Versesin the Tengyur, one of which is Beyond All Fear. There are also those by Devasharma, Gunamati, Gunashri, Sthiramati, Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka and Chandrakirti. Although there is some controversy over whether or not Beyond All Fear is an auto-commentary (i.e. by Nagarjuna himself), the fact that it is a commentary is beyond dispute. And according to the Treasury of Secret Mantra Quotations it is one of the six treatises in the Collection of Reasoning.

According to Gorampa, there are only five texts in the Collection of Reasoning. [xviii]Among these, the two likened to the body are Root Verses on the Middle Way and Sixty Verses on Reasoning. Although they are both body-like texts we can draw a distinction between the two. Some past scholars explained that the Root Verses teach a freedom from the eight extremes of elaboration, i.e., ceasing and arising, non-existence and eternalism, coming and going, multiplicity and singularity, whereas the Sixty Verses on Reasoning teaches a freedom from four extremes, i.e., arising, ceasing, existence and non-existence. Others have explained that the Root Verses refute the assertions of true existence made by both Buddhist proponents of true entities and non-Buddhist tirthika philosophers; whereas the Sixty Verses on Reasoning refutes only the assertions of true existence made by proponents of entities within the Buddhist tradition. Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü explained the difference between the two texts in the following way. He said that the Root Verses teaches emptiness of inherent nature by means of elimination and negation; whereas the Sixty Verses on Reasoning teaches emptiness of inherent nature by exclusively establishing the illusory nature of the conventional.

In any case, these are the two ‘body-like treatises’ and the so-called ‘branch-like treatises’ extend from these.

According to Gorampa, the first ‘branch-like treatise’ is the ‘treatise refuting the views imputed by others’. The ‘views imputed by others’ are the sixteen categories of words and meanings of the dialecticians, and the treatise that refutes these is Crushing to Fine Powder.

According to our own tradition, once again the two body-like treatises are the Root Verses on the Middle Way and the Sixty Verses on Reasoning. Then, among the branch-like treatises, Refutation of Objections is said to be an expansion of the first section of the Root Verseson ‘Examining Conditions’. The Root Verses teaches how there can be no arising of something from itself or from something other than itself, and therefore brings certainty in the non-arising of all phenomena. The proponents of entities respond by saying that if this were the case, then even Madhyamika reasoning is without true nature. And since this reasoning is without true nature then it is not able to refute the claims made in favour of true existence. It is therefore unreasonable, they say, to claim that all phenomena are ultimately beyond arising, or beyond the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism. It is said that Refutation of Objections was composed in order to refute such arguments. In the text, it is stated that from the point of view of reality itself, the Madhyamikas have nothing to refute, and have no reasoning by which they might do so. From the conventional perspective however, even though reasoning is not truly existent, the Madhyamikas are still able to refute the assertions made by the proponents of entities, rather like a magically-created, illusory army warding off attack. For example, in the first verse of the Refutation of Objections, it is said: [xix]

If all entities are non-existent

By their very nature, then

Your words also lack reality

And can not refute true existence.”

In his response, Nagarjuna makes such statements as: [xx]

Since there is nothing whatsoever to refute

I do not refute anything.

Therefore when you say that I refute

That itself is incorrect.

Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness is an expansion of the section of the Root Verses on ‘Examining the Conditioned’, which includes a discussion of how arising, dwelling and ceasing cannot be established. The proponents of true entities respond to this by pointing out that in many profound sutras taught by the Buddha, it is stated that conditioned phenomena are subject to arising, dwelling and ceasing. The Madhyamika replies that this is true only from the mistaken viewpoint of the conventional. This is the essence of the discussion found in the Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness.

So Refutation of Objections and Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness are direct extensions from the body-like treatises.

Gorampa, as it was said earlier, identifies only five texts in the Collection of Reasoning. The omniscient Longchenpa identifies six texts, and his list accords with that of Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü.

Among the New Translation schools, the Gelugpas claim that the Precious Garland is the sixth text in the collection. Gorampa opposed this by pointing out that the Precious Garlandis classified as advice, and therefore belongs to the Collection of Advice, not the Collection of Reasoning. In Chandrakirti’s Clear Words, for instance, which I quoted earlier, it is referred to as “the Advice of the Precious Garland.”

In any case, whether five or six texts are included, this is what is known as Arya Nagarjuna’s Collection of Reasoning.

[i]i.e., alchemy.

[ii] Ratnavali (Tib. rin chen phreng ba) see Nagarjuna, Buddhist Advice for Living and Liberation: Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, trans. Jeffrey Hopkins, Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1998.

[iii] Suhrlekha (Tib. spring yig), see Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend with Commentary by Kyabje Kangyur Rinpoche, trans. Padmakara Translation Group, Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2006.

[iv]rma bya byang chub brtson ‘grus (?-1185).

[v]go ram pa bsod nams seng ge, the famous Sakyapa scholar (1429-1489).

[vi] Vigrahavya-vartani-karika (Tib. rtsod pa bzlog pa’i le’ur byas pa). See The Dialectical Method of Nagarjuna, trans. K. Bhattacharya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1978.

[vii] Shunyata-saptatikarika (Tib. stong pa nyid bdun cu pa’i tshig le’ur byas pa). See Nagarjuna’s Seventy Stanzas: A Buddhist Psychology of Emptiness, David Ross Komito, Snow Lion, 1999

[viii] Vaidalya-sutra (Tib. zhib mo rnam par ‘thag pa)

[ix] Vyavaharasiddhi (Tib. tha snyad grub pa)

[x]rtog ge shes pa’i nga rgyal gyis// gang zhig rtsod par mngon ‘dod pa// de yi nga rgyal spang ba’i phyir// zhib mo rnam ‘thag bshad par bya//

[xi] Prasannapada (Tib. tshig gsal),see Lucid Exposition of the Middle Way, trans. M. Sprung, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.

[xii]mdo sde kun las btus dang gtam bya rin chen phreng dang yang dag bstod pa dang/ ‘bad pas shin tu yun ring ‘phags pa’i bstan bcos las bstan tsig ler byas de dang/ rigs pa drug cu zhes bya rnam par ‘thag bcas stong nyid bdun cu pa de dang/ gang yang rtsod pa rnam par bzlog pa bkod pa de dag kyang ni mthong gyur zhing/ brgya pa la sogs de dag dang ni de bzhin mdo sde zab mo rnam mang dang/ sangs rgyas bskyangs kyis mdzad pa’i ‘grel pa mthong nas legs ldan byed kyis legs bshad gang/ gcig nas gcig tu brgyud las ‘ongs dang bdag gis rnam par phye las rnyed pa gang/ de dag bsdams te blo chen ldan rnams mgu bar bya phyir yang dag bstan pa yin//

[xiii]pa tshab nyi ma grags pa (1055-1145?).

[xiv]There so-called ‘Four Sons of Patsab’ are referred to in a verse of Taktsang Lotsawa:

As regards the Great Middle Way, the supreme tradition of Nagarjuna,

The excellent clarifications made by Chandra[kirti], translated by Nyima [Drak],

Came down to the four sons….

There are different ways of listing them. According to one, they were: (1) Gangpa She’u, who was learned in the words, (2) Tsangpa Dregur (gtsang pa ‘bre sgur/skur), who was learned in the meaning, (3) Mabja Changchub Tsöndrü, who was learned in both words and meaning, and (4) Shangthang Sakpa Yeshe Jungne, who was learned in neither words nor meaning. Shakya Chokden names Tsangpa Sarbö (gtsang pa sar sbos) as the son who was learned in the words and Daryulwa Rinchen Drak as the son learned in the meaning. See Tashi Tsering, Madhyamakavatara of Acarya Candrakirti, Sarnath: Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, 2005, p. 48 and Shakya Chokden, Three Texts on Madhyamaka, trans. Komarovski Iaroslav, Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 2002. p. 23.

[xv]gsang sngags lung gi bang mdzod

[xvi] Mulamadhyamakavrittyakutobhaya (Tib. dbu ma rtsa ba’i ‘grel pa ga las ‘jigs med)

[xvii] Chatuhshataka-shastrika (Tib. bzhi brgya pa) See Sonam, R. (trans.) Yogic Deeds of Bodhisattvas, Gyel-tsap on Aryadeva’s Four Hundred, Snow Lion, 1994.

[xviii]This is also the assertion of Khenpo Namdrol’s teacher, Khenpo Tsöndrü. See Preliminaries to the Explanation of the Prajñaparamita

[xix]gal te dngos po thams cad kyi// rang bzhin kun la yod min na// khyod kyi tsig kyang rang bzhin med// rang bzhin bzlog par mi nus so//

[xx]Verse 64: dgag bya ci yang med pas na// nga ni ci yang mi ‘gog go// de phyir ‘gog pa byed do zhes// yang dag min te khyod kyis smras//