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.


Malcolm David Eckel on “Learning from Bhavaviveka”

The Center for Ethics of Science and Technology, Chulalongkorn University, will organize a public talk by Malcolm David Eckel from Boston University on “Learning from Bhavaviveka: A Sixth-Century Buddhist Rationalist” at Room 608, Boromratchakumari Bldg., Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, 1 – 3 pm, Friday, December 26, 2008.

All are welcome.


The following is some biodata of David Eckel from Wikipedia:

Malcolm David Eckel is the current Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University. He earned two bachelors degrees: one in English at Harvard University and another in Theology at Oxford University. Eckel received his masters in Theology at Oxford and his PhD at Harvard in Comparative Religion.

Eckel has held positions at Ohio Wesleyan University, Middlebury College in Vermont, and later at the Harvard Divinity School as the Acting Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions. He now teaches courses specializing in eastern religions. Eckel is also the head of Boston University’s Core Curriculum, a groundbreaking program for the development of the humanities. The Core Curriculum challenges its students with a rigorous course load while allowing students to explore the multifarious concepts of worldly philosophies.

The Metcalf Award for Teaching Excellence, Boston University’s highest award for teaching, was awarded to Eckel in 1998.

He is currently the director of The Institute for Philosophy and Religion Lecture Series, an educational forum on various philosophical and religious ideas and their application in contemporary society.

Among his publications are To See the Buddha: A Philosopher’s Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness (1994); Buddhism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places (2002); and Jnanagarbha’s Commentary on the Distinction Between the Two Truths (1987).


Here is the abstract of the talk on the 26th:

Bhavaviveka (ca 500-560 CE) lived in a time of unusual ferment in the history of Indian Buddhist thought.  The Mahayana was developing as a vigorous and self-conscious intellectual force, while the traditions of the eighteen schools (nikaya) continued to resist the innovations of the Mahayana.  Bhaviveka’s “Verses on the Heart of the Middle Way,” along with their commentary, give a detailed and lively account of the controversies that shaped Buddhist thought in this period.  They illuminate aspects of Buddhist thought that, until now, have been poorly understood, and they challenge us to think of Buddhist philosophy in innovative ways.

(For further info about his book on “To See the Buddha” please visit the following blog post – )

Malcolm David Eckel and “To See the Buddha”

This December Malcome David Eckel, noted scholar of Mahayana Buddhism, will travel to Thailand and give a lecture at the Department of Philosophy, Chulalongkorn University. This is a very welcome occasion as Buddhist scholars in Thailand do not have much chance to listen to and interact with scholars who work in other traditions of Buddhism. Eckel is known for his work on lesser known Indian masters. His book, To See the Buddha: A Philosopher’s Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness, is a study of the work of Bhavaviveka, one of the greatest masters of Indian Mahayana Buddhism. This is a translation and study of Bhavaviveka’s main work, Tarkajvāla (The Flame of Reason), and is filled with his interpretations. The theme of the book is on the various dimensions of “seeing the Buddha.” By doing so one gains an insight into the nature of the Dharma and thereby moving further along in the path toward Liberation.

“Seeing the Buddha” has been a problem for Buddhists ever since the Buddha himself entered parinirvana. What does it actually mean for one to “see the Buddha”? Surely just seeing the Buddha himself before he entered parinirvana (before he died) was not enough, because that would mean seeing him is not different from seeing any normal, sentient being in samsara. But there is something very special in seeing the Buddha. Is it the same as seeing a statue of the Buddha, as in Buddhist temples? That will come back to the same question. Seeing the Buddha is not the same as seeing you or me. But then what is so special with seeing the Buddha?

Eckel subtitled the book “A Philosopher’s Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness.” The ‘philosopher’ in question could be Bhavaviveka, who is after all the subject matter of the study in the book. Or it could mean Eckel himself. So by reflecting on what it means by seeing the Buddha, one enters on a quest for the maning of emptiness. But how are the two related? Is seeing the Buddha the sme as seeing emptiness?

Many Buddhists, Theravada and Mahayana alike, know the famous sentence from one of the Sutras where the Buddha said, “Those who see the Dharma, see me; those who see me, see the Dharma.” This is considered to be the standard way of the Buddha’s own idea about seeing him. Stricken with terminal illness and lying on his bed, the Buddha was asked who should succeed him as the Teacher and Leader of the Order. The Buddha, as is well known, did not name any successor. Instead he enjoined his students to take up the teaching itself, the Dharma, as their guide and their leader. The important thing is not that there be any leader of the Order, or any living supreme teacher or authority, but the Dharma itself. It is the task of the Buddha’s students to study, understand and take up the Dharma in their practices to eliminate suffering. So those who really see the Dharma see the Buddha because they really follow the Buddhist path.

To see the dharma comes in very different levels. It also includes seeing what Emptiness is, seeing Emptiness directly, coming face to face with it. So in a way the Buddha himself and Emptiness is one and the same. That is why Eckel’s and Bhavaviveka’s quest to see the Buddha is also their quest to “see” the nature of Emptiness.


Now let us consider some passages from Bhavaviveka himself as translated by Eckel in the book. The interpretations given here are entirely my own, not Eckel’s or Bhavaviveka’s. This is my own engagement with the text. You call it my own personal meditation of the meanings of the text — perhaps my own quest for the meaning of “Emptiness”:

269-270. Without apprehending [equality as an object], [the Buddha] understands the equality of different dharmas, because [dharmas] are equal in the sense that they do not arise or cease. Or [the Buddha] understands the equality of self and other. Therefore [the Buddha] is called Sambuddha among gods and human beings because [the Buddha] understands the equality without understanding equality.

Thoroughly understanding the ultimate nature of things as empty of their inherent characteristics, the Buddha sees everything to be the same. This is seeing without any conceptualization. The Buddha just “sees”. He sees everything as equal; none has any special feature that sets it apart from any other thing. In fact the word “thing” itself is inappropriate because the Buddha’s seeing does not differentiate one thing from another at all. This is why he does not see any differences in self and others. There is no self; there is no other. However, he sees all this without engaging in the conception of “being equal” for that would be just another conceptualization. Hence he “understands the equality without understanding equality.”

So this is how the Buddha sees the world. With neither self nor other, the Buddha does not distinguish himself (or herself) from what he (or she) sees. Hence the Buddha and reality is one and the same. So in the context what does it mean to see the Buddha? It is to see him or her as he or she sees the world. So in a way we become a Buddha ourselves. The dichotomy between subject (one who sees) and object (things seen) completely break down. To see the Buddha is to see things as the Buddha himself sees them.

Bhavaviveka goes on:

273. [The Buddha] is immeasurable because he understands the immeasurable. [The Buddha] is incalculable because he cannot be grasped. [The Buddha] is unthinkable because he cannot be an object of thought. [The Buddha] is incomparable because he cannot be compared.

The Buddha cannot be measured because any act of measurement presupposes dividing reality into parts, but since the Buddha does not see things to be composed of parts, and since there is nothing that divides subject from object, any act of measuring the Buddha fails to see the Buddha from the beginning. Likewise, he is not able to be calculated or thought of. The Buddha cannot be an object of thought, because being an object of though requires one to be engaged in a system of linguistic categorization and conceptualization. But the Buddha does not see things divided into concepts. He just “sees.”

So the Buddha herself is coextensive with the whole of reality. All that is, is the Buddha, and the Buddha is all that is. I am a Buddha; you are a Buddha. And in the same vein Bhavaviveka goes on:

274ab. [The Buddha] is indefinable because it is utterly impossible to specify that he is one thing rather than another.

Eckel emphasizes that Buddhist texts such as Bhavaviveka’s exists primarily to facilitate meditation of the meaning of reality as a means toward gaining Liberation. These are religious texts and one fails to grasp their true meanings if one overlooks these practical purposes for which the texts were written. So one practicies the Dharma by closely reading these texts and reflect on the meaning. One also does this in the context of meditation.


I will give the details of Eckel’s talk at Chulalongkorn University later on here in this blog. Please stay tuned.