Candrakiirti's critique of Vij~naanavaada 

Olson, Robert F. 

Philosophy East and West
Vol.24 No.4(1977)
Copyright by University of Hawaii Press




Candrakiirti's Madhyamakaauataara[1] provides, in part, an extensive critique of various schools of thought, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, contemporaneous with the author (seventh century), the great exponent of the Praasa^ngika Maadhyamika school and author of the Prassannapadaa, the most well-known commentary on the Madhyamakakaarikaas of Naagaarjuna. Candrakiirti devotes a large section of his work to a critique of certain Vij~naanavaada doctrines, a critique which may have played a significant role in the establishing of the Maadhyamika as the "official" doctrinal position of Tibetan Buddhism.

          Kamala`siila (late eighth century), who helped give direction to the early formation of Buddhism in Tibet, seems to have held a position vis-`s-vis Vij~naanavaada which conforms to that of Candrakiirti; consciousness-only (cittamaatra) is a useful doctrine during the course of meditation, but it is ultimately to be transcended (atikramya),[2] for "the entering into ideation-only is not the entering into truth."[3] The later history of Dpa.h-bo-gtsug-lag-hphreri-ba (1565) associates the giving of official sanction to the Maadhyamika with the defeat by Kamala`siila and his allies of the Subitist (ston min pa) faction at the famous Council of Lhasa, which King Khri-sroli-lde-btsan concludes by commanding everyone present as well as the rest of the Tibetans henceforth to adhere to the system of Naagaarjuna.[4] Whatever the historicity of this proclamation, the position it reflects shows up clearly and succinctly in the statements by Tsoli-kha-pa's disciple Mkhas-grup-rje that only the Maadhyamika doctrine has final meaning (niitaartha) while the cittamaatra doctrine is of provisional meaning (rteyaartha),[5] and that the "doctrine of all sections of the tantras is Praasa^ngika."[6]

          This article is an attempt to present the major features of Candraklrti's critique in order to help clarify the basic Maadhyamika attitude toward Vij~naanavaada. Judging from Candrakiirti's statements, the opposition of Praasa^ngika Maadhyamika to the Vij~naanavaada was quite intense. Indeed, there is little doubt that for Candrakiirti the Vij~naanavaada, because of its insistence upon a "store-consciousness" (aalayauijaana) and upon the ultimate-truth status of mind-only (cittamaatra), departs from the Dharma and can only be grouped with the rest of the non-Buddhist (tiirthika) opinionizers (d.r.s.tikaara): "For those who have departed from the path of the feet of AAcarya Naagaarjuna there is no means to peace; they have fallen from the conventional (sa^mu.rti) and the real (tattua) truths, and because of that fall there is no attainment of release."[7] This fallen Vij~naanavaada "through false discrimination (vikalpa) travels a wrong path,"[8] and thus "the Vij~naanavaadins are only to be condemned, having no skill in the use of wisdom (praj~naa) because they have not looked into the intention of the doctrine of emptiness."[9] Even though they claim to be partisans of the Maadhyamika system they do not accept it as it was taught but have instead a system of their own fabrication which makes use of the Maadhyamika but superimposes a different meaning upon it.[l0] Hence,




"in a sense they are not [followers] of this Dharma, because they, like the non-Buddhists, do not correctly understand the meaning of the teaching."[11]

          Candrakiirti's chastening words are largely brought on by what he regards as an erroneous conception of the nature and function of pragmatic (uyauahaara) truth in relation to ultimate truth: the Vij~naanavaada goes astray by giving absolute validity to conceptions which have their place, if any, only on the level of expedient pragmatic truth. The basic Maadhyamika doctrine of pragmatic truth is well known.[l2] Conventional truth is necessary, both to worldly life and to Buddhist teaching, but its status as truth is solely a function of the relative coherence and pragmatic utility of its various component notions; from the standpoint of ultimate truth all conventional truth, including Buddhist doctrine, becomes fictive: "What hearing and what teaching [can there be] of the syllableless Dharma? Nevertheless the syllableless (artak.sara) is heard and taught by means of superimposition (samaaropa)"[13]--a superimposition of conventional truth upon what ultimately cannot be expressed. Candrakiirti says of himself, "For the sake of the results I conform to the world and say [of things that] do not exist, they do . . . . Imitating (rjes su brjod pa) [the world] is the means of converting it."[14] Conforming to the usage of the world means not entering into dispute with it, as the Buddha had said, "The world disputes with me, I do not dispute with the world. What in the world is claimed exists, I also say it exists; what in the world is claimed does not exist, I also say does not exist."[15] Of course, what is meant by the term "the world" is ambiguous: the world is the range of conventional truth, and that includes truths of the Dharma as well as what is normally meant by "worldly truth." From a Maadhyamika standpoint, the fact that the Buddha does not dispute with the world means ultimately that he does not dispute with those articulations of the Dharma which provide the only means of attaining ultimate truth; for once disputation begins, all conventional truth breaks down, as the Madhyamakakaarikaas had long before demonstrated. The point of view of the ordinary world "need not   be overly criticized because the transactions (uyauahaara) of the world are due to having false ends."[l6] It is because of the simultaneous indispensability and fragility of conventional truth that the Maadhyamika refuses to dispute with it for the sake of higher, "meta-conventional'' truths. All truth which is capable of verbal articulation is conventional truth, and the conventional truth available in the suutras is adequate and sufficient to provide a means to ultimate truth, the Dharma which is not articulated.

          Candrakiirti can thus taunt the Vij~nanavaadins with the following:

          As for us, we are in a very diffrcult position to attack the convention of the world. So you attack the convention of the world. If the world does not oppose you, we too will go along with you. And if there is opposition from the world, just for that reason we shall stay neutral. Let the world and you dispute; then if you win (since we do desire that) we will follow you. But if you are defeated by the world, then we will follow the world, which has the greater power.[l7]




The implication here is that although the denial of conventional truth is indeed ultimately desirable, a dispute on the level of conventional truth by the Vij~naanavldins is as likely as not to lead to the defeat of their own doctrines at the hands of a superior force: the pragmatically successful coherence of conventional truth.

          On the other hand the notions of a store-consciousness and of consciousnessonly (uij~naanamaatra or cittamaatra) are justifiable if they are merely part of the repertory of provisional (neyaartha) language, aids in teaching those easily frightened by the strictly negative means of explicit (niitaartha) language:

          [Such statements as] "there is an aalaya; the person (pudgala) exists; only the aggregates (skandha) exist"--these teachings are for those who do not know the deeper meaning.... Hearing the Dharma taught as "there is no I; there is no origination," they become frightened right at the beginning; conceiving of the teaching of emptiness as an abyss they will turn their backs on it and will get no advantage [from it]. By being taught at the very beginning the aalayauij~Naana and other [doctrines], they draw great advantage from them through the dispelling of the systems of the non-Buddhists. And later rightly knowing the meaning of the scripture, by themselves they will reject those [provisional doctrines], and thus only advantage comes of them and no harm. As AAryadeva says, "One should ascertain at first whatever is pleasing to each; shattered, one is in no way a fit vessel for the true Dharma."[18]

The aalaya doctrine, then, has the same pragmatic status as does the Buddha's use of the terms "'I" and "mine":[19] they are provisional only and eventually to be dispensed with, just as ultimately the frightening negative terms of explicit meaning are to be passed beyond: the bedhisattuas "teach non-elcistence (d^nos med), having entered into the Buddha-nature (sa^ns rgyas ra^n b`zin), [though] there is no nonexistence there at all--this is called being in agreement with the world,"[20] the "world," in this case, of negational or paradoxic Mahaayaana teaching.

          Candrakiirti's task in criticizing the Vij~naanavaada then is separable into two phases: first, demonstrating the incoherence of its basic doctrines, and then showing the justifiable provisional meaning of the notion of consciousness-only. For Candrakiirti the most vulnerable point in the Vij~naanavaada position is precisely the notion of a consciousness without external objects, apparent objects being the result of the beginningless fabricative activity of the aalaya. That consciousness exists apart from an object, they maintain, is seen in the example of a dream of a herd of charging elephants. Clearly there is no external visual object involved and hence no visual consciousness; manouij~naana alone is present, producing forms with apparent externality. Furthermore, upon awaking, there is a recollection both of having dreamed and of the illusory nature of the elephants; by extension, the waking state is seen as only consciousness upon which is superimposed the self-sustaining series of vision, forms, visual consciousness, and the rest, in mutual dependence (paratantrataa). Candrakiirti responds to this in two ways. From the standpoint of ultimate truth the very concept of a "consciousness" will not stand up under the dialectic of the refutation by emptiness (parihaara^m `suunyatayaa)[21]--




the existence of consciousness cannot be proved.[22] From the standpoint of pragmatic truth the correlativity of vision, forms, and visual consciousness invalidates the illustration of the dream, for if I remember having been a dreamer, I must have experienced a dream; faculties, their objects, and perceptual events are relative to each other, and if one is fictive the others are equally so. Upon one's awakening, the triad in the dream vanishes simultaneously, just as, analogously, in the waking state such a triad is seen as fictive, fabricated, from the standpoint of ultimate truth. Similarly, a man suffering from ophthalmia (a taimirika) does not have a real visual perception of unreal hairs or spots; both the hairs and the visual perception of the hairs are "true (bden Pa) relative to his [visual] consciousness; to him who sees objects clearly, both are false[23].... Relative to the vision of the taimirika the form (rnam pa, aakaara) of hairs exists as well [as the visual consciousness of it]."[24]

          It does no good to bring to bear a doctrine of uaasanas, the continuing influence of a prior perception, the ripening of whose potentiality will result in a new perception. Again the correlativity problem arises: potentiality is relative to its own actualization (a new perception); if there is no existing actuality, the "potentiality" for it is a notion empty of meaning, since the potentiality is defined (as vi`se.sya) by the actuality (as the ui` If the actuality is already present, the potentiality for it is obviated. A future effect of a past cause is ultimately a meaningless notion; the cause is defined by the effect; if the effect does not yet exist, a cause of it is fictive; if the effect exists, its cause is a superfluity. And if the notion of cause is invalidated, the correlative notion of effect falls with it: "What is proved dependent on reciprocal meanings (phan tshun dan la brten pa.hi grub pa) just is not proved, so say the saints."[25] This is the reason why Candrakiirti says that the Maadhyamika does not contend with pragmatic, or better, perhaps, "transactional" (uyaauahaarika) truth. All such truth, relative to ultimate truth, is false, fictive, because its terms are all dependently originated: the meaning of the term "J~naana" depends on that of "j~neya," just as"j~neya" depends upon "j~naana"--this is the transactional value of the terms, a value which becomes void in the absence of one or the other term. The terms are always correlative, never absolute: "consciousness" in itself is an empty, that is, meaningless, idea, as Candrakirti shows both on these semantic grounds and on the grounds that any attempt to demonstrate the fact of a perceived self-consciousness (suasa^muitti) is bound to fail, as it will lead to contradiction (a knife cannot cut itself not a fingertip touch itself) or to an infinite regress of one sort or another.[26] In the realm of transactional language, which means all articulate language, the only absolute is, indeed, relativity.

          Once the Vij~naanavaada appeals to scriptural authority for the doctrines of consciousness-only and of no external objects, Candrakiirti changes his tactics and shows the justifiable provisional meaning of such doctrines. Particular reference is made to chapter 6 of the Da`sabhuumikasuutra where it is said that "what the triple




world is, is consciousness only (cittamaatra).... the twelve factors of existence (bhauaa^nga) ... are all based on thought."[27] The purpose of such statements, says Candrakiirti, is to turn one away from the various notions of a permanent self as agent (kart.r). It is the adherence to the notion of an agent that results in Farman. Ultimately there is no "agent-and-act"; the adherence is to a discriminative fabrication (uikalpa). Hence, conventionally speaking (sa^murtyaa), thought alone is "responsible," that is, is the agent or cause of fabrication and dependency (upaadaana). "The person, continuity, aggregates, casual conditions, atoms, primal matter, I`svara, a maker--I say they are thought alone."

          The point of this quote from the La^nkaauataarasuutra[28] is not to add citta, thought, to the list of causes Buddhist and non-Buddhist, but simply to deny the whole list of conventional causes. The force of the word "alone" in the term "thought-alone" (or "consciousness-only") is to be understood in this light: "Since by denying all other agents its meaning is exhausted (dan byas zin pa), the word 'alone' does not have the force of denying cognizable [objects] (j~neya)."[29] To say that the triple world is thought alone is to say that thought is of primary importance (mukhya), and that form and so forth lack such primacy; but this is not an assertion that"just thought alone exists, and form does not exist; it is not a denial of existence (yod pa ~nid hgog pa ni ma yin no)."[30] Nor, conversely, are such scriptural statements to be taken as an assertion in any ultimate sense of the existence of thought alone. The fact that in the context of the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination uij~naana has auidyaa and sa^mskaaras as its cause, means that it cannot be self-existent (, suaatmanaasiddha, svabhaauena naasti), but only dependently originated. "What sensible person...having seen the scripture will fabricate a substantially existing consciousness? This fabricating is sheer speculation (d.r.s.t.ik.rtam eua bhauati)," not founded on the Dharma.[31]

          Similarly to be taken in a provisional sense are those scriptural statements that deny the existence of external objects and say that the various appearances of such objects are thought alone. The purpose in such teaching is to help those who are overly attached to forms to relinquish them. The assertion that external objects are only thought is similar to the contemplation of the human body as a horrifying skeleton, in order to overcome a passionate attachment to human bodies, not in order to arrive at ultimately valid assertions about the nature of human bodies. The La^nkaauataara itself is cited to this effect: "Just as a physician gives medicines to his various patients, so likewise the Buddhas teach consciousness-only to beings."[32] In the same way, the doctrine of the tathaagatagarbha as being permanent, firm external, existing in the bodies of all beings, etc., sounds rather like the aatman doctrine of the Vedaanta, but it is so characterized in order to convert "fools who are terrified by nairaatmya," that is, they are taught what is comforting to them, at least initially.[33]

          Once adherence to objects of cognition is overcome through emphasis on the subject (j~naat.r), overcoming adherence to the subject quickly follows. Those who




have come to know the absence of own-being of the object, through the analytic method of the Maadhyamika, will either by themselves recognize the absence of own-being of the subject, or they will after "only a little instruction."[34] In the same way, as Candrakiirti says, both forms and consciousness equally are taught in the Abhidharma, while both are denied in the Praj~naapaaramitaa.[35]

          In conclusion, it might be said that for Praasa^ngika Maadhyamika all terms of justifiable provisional meaning, whether aalaya or cittamaatra, skandhas or tathaagatagarbha, can be defended as pragmatically useful conventional truth; but the terms of final, explicit meaning are always negational: emptiness, non-origination, nonduality, no own-being, and the like. No positive statement whatsoever can have final meaning; the Dharma, from the standpoint of ultimate truth, is after all incapable of any expression in verbal terms. As Naagaarjuna had said: "[it being] the stilling of all concepts, the benign stilling of verbal-expression (prapa~nca), no Dharma was taught by the Buddha to anyone anywhere."[36] If we consider the Maadhyamika dialectic to reflect primarily a meditational technique designed to condition the mind away from conceptualization by forcing it to disassemble its fabricated products-notions-then clearly the Vij~naanavaada (or any other theoretically constructive point of view) can be considered to be at best pragmatically true, having provisional meaning, and ultimately to be left behind. It is finally a question of pragmatic utility: What conventional truth does have transactional value in gaining enlightenment? Candrakiirti's conclusion is that while the suutras and the Abhidharma are indeed worth something in the economics of enlightenment, systematic Vij~naanavaada is inflationary, its specific doctrines as without value as counterfeit coins.



1.The Tibetan translation (Dbu ma la .hjug pa) of a now-lost Sanskrit original was edited by Louis de la Vall`ee Poussin, Bibliotheca Buddhica, vol. 9 (St. Petersburg, 1912). A partial translation, also by de la Vall`ee Poussin, is to be found in Le Mus`eon, vols. 8 (1907), 11 (1910), and 12 (1911). Present quotations from the Madhyamakaauataara (MA) cite Sanskrit equivalents where there are clear equivalences between Tibetan and Sanskrit terms.

2.Giuseppi Tucci, Minor Buddhist Texts, part II, Serie Orientale Roma,vol.9, Part 2 (Rome 1958), p. 211.

3.Tucci,Minor Buddhist Texts,p.217: na tu vij~naptimaatrataaprave`sa eva tattvaprave`sa.h. (From the First Bhaauanaakrama.)

4.Tucci, Minor Buddhist Texts, p. 39.

5.F.D.Lessing and Alex Wayman,trans.,Mkhas-grub-rje's Fundamentals of the Buddhist Tantras (The Hague: Mouton, 1968), p. 53.

6.Lessing and Wayman, p. 93.

7.MA, vs. 79, p. 174. (de la Vall`ee Poussin's ed.)

8.MA, vs. 80, p. 175.

9.MA, p. 163.

10.MA, p. 135.

11.MA,p.184.On this debate see also Louis de la Vall`ee Poussin's "Madhyamaka" in M`elanges Chinois et Bouddhiques 2 (1932-1933): 47-59.




12.Cf. Madhyamakakaarikaas xxiv, 10ff.

13.MA,p.178:yi ge med pahi chos la ni/~nan pa ga^n da^n ston pa ga^n/.hgyur ba med la sgro btags pas/.hon kya^n ~nan `zi^n ston pa yin /. Cited by Candrakiirti as a scriptural verse here as at Madhyamakau.rtti, p. 265 (de la Vall`ee Poussin ed.).

14.MA, p. 179.

15.MA,p.179. Cited by Candrakiirti also at Madhyamakau.rtti, p. 370. The parallel passage at Sa^myuttanikaaya iii.138 (in agreement with the Chinese Sa^myuktaagama, Taishoo, vol. 2, p. 8b) would read: "What in the world of wise men (pa.n.dita) is claimed exists, I also say it exists; what in the world of wise men is claimed does not exist, I also say does not exist."

16.MA,p.172:hjig rten tshul lugs yin gyi `sin tu dpyad par bya ba ni ma yin.

17.MA, pp. 180f.

18.MA,pp.132f.I have not located the verse by AAryadeva: ga^n `za^n ga^n ga^n la dga ba/de yi de de s^nar dpyad bya / ~nams par gyur pa dam chos kyi /snod ni cis kya^n ma yin no /.

19.MA, p. 133, vs. 44.

20.Cited by Candrakiirti,p.134,as a verse from the Stanzas in Accordance with hePuurua`saila Sect (`Sar gyi ri bo.hi sde pa da^n mthun pa.hi tshigs su bead pa dag): d^nos med ~ne bar ston mdzad cin / sa^ns rgyas ra^n b`zin la b`zugs pas / d^nos med .hga.h ya^n .hdir med pa / .hdi ni .hjig rten mthun .hjug yin /.

21.Cf. Madhyamakakarikaas, iv.8.

22.MA, vss. 48, 51f.

23.MA, vs. 54, p. 145.

24.MA, pp. 145f.

25.MA, vs. 58, p. 150.

26.MA, pp. 166ff.

27.Cited at MA, p. 182.

28.MA,p.183.The last paada retlects a variant reading: sems tsam du ni ^nas b`sad do /. Cf. Nanjio's edition of the La^nkaauataarasuutra, p. 79: cittamaatra^m vikalpyate.

29.MA, p. 185.

30.MA, p. 185.

31.MA, p. 190.

32.Cf. La^nkaauataarasuutra, p. 49.

33.MA, p. 196.

34.MA, p. 199.

35.MA, vs. 92, p. 193.

36.Madhyamakakaarikaas, xxv.24.