academic studies in Buddhism

The Prasaṅgika Madhyamaka Boat: Unique, Perfect & Self-Dismantling

This article is my reading of the Prasaṅgika Mādhyamaka school of thought, based on Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra with Ju Mipham’s commentary –the text which I studied in TSTD 401 & 402 Khenpo classes. Although the Prasaṅgika Mādhyamaka is not a fan of the word ‘truly’, this article might not truly represent the genuine Prasaṅgika Mādhyamika position. Generally, the dharma (teachings) is often explained with the analogy of a boat, which is supposed to take one to the final destination/goal. In the context of Mahayana, there are many schools of teaching/vehicle –the vehicles of Cittamātra, Svātantrika, and Prasaṅgika. However, amongst all the sūtric vehicles, I find the vehicle of Prasaṅgika fascinating for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, in the context of the discussion of relative truth, unlike other philosophical vehicles, Prasaṅgika Madhyamaka is quite unique in its approach. They neither propose a sophisticated understanding of the relative truth nor do they contest everyday experiences. In other words, for Prasaṅgikas, the relative truth is what the world takes it to be, and everyday experiences are accepted at face value. They would not engage in debate with a farmer about how a seed becomes a sprout.

Secondly, in the discussion of the basis for appearances, unlike other philosophical vehicles, Prasaṅgika Madhyamaka does not propose any substantial or truly-established basis like a partless particle or alaya (storehouse consciousness) for the explanation of the appearances. Because, as said above, on the conventional level, they simply accept ordinary people’s experiences as they are. Prasaṅgika Madhyamika rather deconstructs and points out faults in the presentation of other Buddhist and non-Buddhist philosophical vehicles to avoid people from clinging to any substantial entity or abstract concepts –which hinders the attainment of the final goal, free from all concepts.

Thirdly, in the context of the ultimate, unlike other philosophical vehicles, Prasaṅgika Madhyamika neither adopts affirming negation nor non-affirming negation to describe the ultimate. For Prasaṅgika Madhyamika, the ultimate is beyond all concepts and any attempts to articulate its meaning through the use of words and concepts are counterproductive, as it inevitably involves clinging to words and concepts themselves, thereby obscuring one to realize the abiding nature of phenomena as they truly are.

Finally, the vehicle of Prasaṅgika Madhyamika is perfect because they employ ultimate reasoning to refute all possible conceptual extremes and, in the end, the reasoning subverts itself. So, unlike other philosophical vehicles that leave out some kind of implicit or explicit truly established entity unrefuted, Prasaṅgika Madhyamika does not have to worry about the tendency of carrying the boat (re: the Buddha’s teaching about not carrying your boat around your back once you’ve reached the other shore) because their (non-truly established & illusory) boat based on such ultimate reasoning is designed in such a way that it dismantles itself automatically when the final destination is reached.

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