Bhavaviveka and Candrakirti

Those who study Mahayana Buddhism perhaps know about Bhavaviveka as one who espouses the position known as “Svatantrika Madhyamika”, and that this is opposed by Candrakirti, whose position is “Prasangika Madhayamika”. All schools of Tibetan Buddhism follow Candrakirti, and the Svatantrika school is kind of denigrated by the Tibetan schools as being incomplete or as having been soundly refuted by Candrakirti.

This is an arcane issue. At the heart of the dispute is the nature of argumentation leading to the conclusion of the doctrine of Emptiness. According to Nagarjuna, no views are tenable. That is, the correct “view” of the Madhayamika is the “extinguishing of all views.” This is deeply ironic, but the intent of Nagarjuna is that the correct view is not describable through language. Since it is language itself, together with conceptualization and mental fabrication that accompany it, that is the culprit, then any view that is expressible through language in propositional or logical form is ultimately misguided.


Bhavaviveka was known as one of the greatest exponents of Nagarjuna’s teaching. He was a Madhyamika after all. He tried to found Nagarjuna’s teaching on a sound logical basis by constructing a system of argument purporting to show, as logical conclusion, the truth of the Emptiness doctrine. By doing this, it is necessary to posit an existence of some referents of the statements used in the argument. Without it, no logical argumentation would be possible because if you do not posit anything as putatively real (perhaps only for the purpose of the argument), then you don’t have any fixed point at which to tie up the argument, so to speak.

So this is Bhavaviveka’s strategy. He is known to criticize the work of Buddhapalita, who claimed, on the contrary, that it was actually impossible to found Nagarjuna’s teaching on any logical argumentation because no fixture was possible. Then Candrakirti came about after Bhavaviveka’s time and defended Buddhapalita, thereby refuting Bhavaviveka in his celebrated works, Madhyamakavatara and Prasannapada.

We don’t have all the time and space to deal adequately with this dispute here. Works abound on this topic. My goal here in this post is to point out that perhaps Bhavaviveka has been unjustly portrayed in the scholarly literature, and perhaps the distinction between the Prasangika and the Svatantrika might not be as great as sometimes mentioned.

The strategy of Buddhapalita and Candrakirti was different from that of Bhavaviveka. Instead of attempting to formulate an argument aiming to establish as logical conclusion the truth of Nagarjuna’s Emptiness Doctrine, they employ the strategy of reductio ad absurdum. No positive statement is made. Any posited statement at all is deduced to get at their conclusions and these conclusions would be shown to be contradictory, thereby refuting the posited statement. This is the standard method of the reductio. The idea is that, since according to Nagarjuna no statement can be defended (“extinguishing of all views”), no posited statement can be allowed which is necessary to construct a positive argument purporting to prove the Doctrine. So no positive argument. Everything that is asserted of anything is refuted completely.


In fact both sides can’t avoid their own paradoxes. Bhavaviveka has to answer how it is possible to posit fixed statement in order just to argue that no fixed statement is possible. Candrakirti, on the other hand, also has to say how it is possible that understanding anything through language is possible at all. No fixed category, no fixed meaning. Furthermore, the reductio itself is a form of an argument, so in order for even the reductio to work, some fixed categories have to be presupposed too.

The typical answer is that one has to bear in mind the distinction between the conventional truth (samvrtti-satya) and the ultimate truth (paramartha-satya). But this is equally applicable both to Bhavaviveka and Candrakirti. So it appears that their disagreement is only superficial and deep down they completely agree on the import of Nagarjuna’s and in fact the Buddha’s teaching. Since emptiness is very difficult to spell out through language, one either has to remain silent, or if one ventures out loud, one has to be willing to accept the paradoxes.


One thought on “Bhavaviveka and Candrakirti

  1. Bruce Heavenor December 25, 2017 / 3:37 am

    I think the presentation of either of the authors goes beyond the paradoxes you illustrate. You conclude your work saying: Since emptiness is very difficult to spell out through language, one either has to remain silent, or if one ventures out loud, one has to be willing to accept the paradoxes. Consider the audience and intent of the work. Nowadays scholastic works are written for certain educated audiences. Scientific, Medical, Astronomical works all have their own audience. Here the audience is the afflicted in the world of Samsara as defined by the Buddha. The intent is to alleviate the mental afflictions of Samsara. If the intent to alleviate afflictions is reached in the audience of those concerened about their own samsara, the works of both authors are very relevant to those who find it addresses afflictions in their own continuum.
    I attended teachings on Tsong Khapa’s Lam Rim Chenmo from Geshe Ngawang Dhargye at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives Dharamsala H.P. India in the late 1970’s. I still remember parts of his lecture on how to meditate on emptiness. The meditative process on emptiness brings about paradoxes one must forcefully face to be successful. When one meditates on emptiness, one can have an experience that in seeing there is no truly existent self, therefore nothing really exists. One can experience great fear and give up meditation completely. Nihilism can be a big problem: Intense conflicting projections bring confusion and suffering to our minds. Dependent arising here becomes one’s saving grace to dissolve that fear. Nagarjunas attempt to establish a middle ground of emptiness and dependent arising being complimentary is a practical down to earth process we must try to work with. Regardless of the paradoxes, if the arguments of Bhavaviveka or Buddhapalita assist a person to elevate themselves to a more wholesome experience in life, the intent of their teachings has been achieved relative to that person’s experience. To that degree, silence is not an option.

    It is my present understanding that these commentaries were not only meant to help people more clearly understand the Buddha’s teachings of emptiness, but more important to mirror the process of our own tendencies of asserting/labeling . Only by seeing and addressing the process of our own labeling will we come to address the direction we are setting for ourself and then choose to relinquish what we see as unhealthy to the continuum of our experience.
    For People who are inclined in the direction of Prasangika, Candrakirti’s and Buddapalita’s attempts to defeat all assertions and avoid any of their own mirrors the process a meditator will take integrating and familiarizing the workings of their own unhealthy labellings. Conceptual understanding points the direction towards the direct experience. The relinquishment of all of our tendencies to assert/label helps to get at the direct experience of our continuum of existence lacking a truly existent self. This direct experience helps fulfill the intent of the author.

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