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Introduction to the Middle Way

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Chandrakirti's Madhyamakavatara

The Madhyamakavatara is one of the major works of the Madhyamaka school of philosophy and the Word of Chandra: the Necklace of Spotless Crystal, is Jamgon Mipham`s explanation and interpretation of Chandrakirti`s seminal text, including the extensive textual outline (sabche).

A thorough introduction offers a guide to the Madhyamika school and the role Chandrakirti played in it, together with a discussion of Mipham`s particular approach to Madhyamika. Chandrakirti`s work is an introduction to the Madhyamika teachings of Nagarjuna, which are themselves a systematization of the Prajaparamita, or Perfection of Wisdom literature, the sutras on the crucial but elusive concept of emptiness.

Chandrakirti`s work has been accepted throughout all schools of Tibetan Buddhism as the highest expression of the Buddhist view of reality. This book will be a core study text for both academic and religious studies of Mahayana Buddhism.

THIS COMMENTARY on Chandrakirti's Madhyamakavatara was compiled from the notes and oral teachings of Kunkhyen Lama Mipham by Kathok Situ Rinpoche and Khenpo Kunzang Pelden at the request of Shechen Gyaltsap Rinpoche. Mipham Rinpoche was Mafijushri in person, and his disciples, the scholars who compiled this text, were themselves learned and accomplished masters. We can therefore be confident that the teachings contained in this book are not merely of academic interest; they have been transmitted to us by masters who perfectly understood and actualized their meaning. They are the expression of an authentic tradition that goes back to Chandrakirti and Nagarjuna themselves. It is interesting to recall that Kathok Situ Rinpoche recognized and brought up Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, the previous incarnation of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, while Shechen Gyaltsap Rinpoche was the root teacher of Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. It is therefore with great pleasure that we in the Padmakara Translation Group are able to present in translation these instructions, which are so closely associated with the lineage of our own teachers.

The Madhyamakavatara itself is a wonderful text, a product of the golden age of Buddhism in India, when the writings of learned masters were composed and assessed according to strict rules. In order to be acknowledged and proclaimed, these writings had to pass the stringent test of other qualified masters, who were appointed by the king, so that when they were finally published, their authority and reliability were guaranteed. Their ensuing celebrity was therefore well founded and was not merely the outcome of publicity and popular opinion. Why is this so important? It is important because, once we are sure that a writer is trustworthy, we know that we are in touch with the authentic tradition. Through Mipham Rinpoche we have access to Chandrakirti and through him to Nagarjuna. Through Nagarjuna, we may enter the Prajñaparamita and thus the very essence of the Buddha's teaching.

Of course, Madhyamika is challenging. It is not something that we can hope to understand in a single reading. It requires discipline, concentrationd repeated effort. It is good to remember that Chandrakirti and Shantideva did not become great panditas overnight. They and all the great scholars of the lineage studied the teachings with courage and perseverance. And if at times the study of Madhyamika seems arduous and difficult, we should remind ourselves that the fruit that we may reap from our endeavor is extremely worthwhile and will serve us well- far better perhaps than the relaxed and casual daydreaming that is so often a feature of our meditation!


We in Padmakara have attempted to translate these texts in accordance with the wishes and instructions of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, who, with immense kindness and in order to continue the tradition of teaching established here by Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, made visits to Dordogne over several years and gave a complete instruction on the Madbyamakavatara. In offering this translation to him, we would like to express our deep gratitude as well as our prayers for his long life and the continuous increase of his enlightened activities.

Jigme Khyentse Dordogne, 2001

Transtators Introduction

THIS BOOK is the result of a translation project that grew out of a series of teachings on Chandrakirti's Mad/rjamakavatara given by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche in Dordogne, France, in the course of four summer seminars in 1996 and from 1998 to 2000. Although the exposition was based on a commentary composed by the fifteenth-century Sakya master Gorampa Sonam Senge, when a translation of the root verses was called for, it was specified that it should be made according to the commentary of the nineteenth-century Nyingma master Jamgon Ju Mipham. Since the translation of Chandrakirti required constant reference to an authoritative source, we decided to make a complete translation of Mipham Rinpoche's commentary as well and to offer it here as a key to understanding the general meaning of the root text.

Madhyamika is challenging. It is many-faceted and, at first, hard to understand. Throughout its long history, it has been variously interpreted, and dissension has given rise to systems and subsystems. In India and Tibet, it has been the object of intensive study within an elaborate and sophisticated educational system redolent of the scholasticism of medieval Europe. Despite its apparent difficulty, it is nevertheless considered, at least in Tibet, to be central to the correct understanding of Mahayana Buddhism, and this importance is perhaps reflected in the fact that, down the centuries, it has been the focus of fierce debate between scholars and schools. The discussion has often turned on difficult points of logic and epistemology; and it is unfortunate that, especially in more recent centuries, this has not infrequently degenerated into acrimony and the hardening of positions along sectarian lines.

A first encounter with this material can prove disheartening, even worrying, given that Chandrakirti tells us that liberation from samsara is impossible without a correct understanding of Madhyamika. Its literary expression, whether in the translations of traditional texts or in the expositions of Western scholars, is dry and daunting and often presupposes a knowledge that the general reader and practitioner does not possess or have time to acquire. Perhaps one reason for the difficulties encountered is that, in the study of Madhyamika, the preliminary steps are often passed over too hastily, and one finds oneself provided with answers long before one has had time to get the questions clear. One may well turn for help to the latest doctoral thesis, for example, only to find oneself submerged in difficult and abstruse technicalities, the sense of which is not always evident. Philosophical reflection, on the other hand, is important and interesting only to the extent that its practical relevance is perceived. And in the case of Madhyamika, the essential points are easy to miss; one so often fails to see the wood for the trees.

The products of Western scholarship are, to be sure, impressive, and it is true that the academic establishment, especially in America, has seen an increase, over the last thirty years, in the numbers of students of Buddhist philosophy who are themselves committed and practicing Buddhists.3 Nevertheless it is still possible to find scholars, oblivious or indifferent to the living tradition, who are happy to repeat the age-old misconception that Madhyamika is a species of nihilism, some even going so far as to say that it is incompatible with the pursuit of spiritual values. In any case, the learned disquisitions of academics do not as a rule provide the kind of help most needed by aspirants on the path. So it is worth remembering that with Madhyamika, as with all other aspects of the Buddhist teachings, the key to understanding is not normally to be found in an unaided reading of texts. Experience shows, at least in the case of the group of people attending the summer teachings in Dordogne, that the easiest and most effective kind of introduction is to be found in the oral exposition of a qualified master.

Fortunately for us, we had in Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche a scholar as well as a talented and entertaining teacher. Perfectly qualified in the subject, he had studied for years at the feet of some of the greatest living exponents of Tibetan Buddhism. He was able to take us by the hand and show us the essential meaning of Madhyamika, pointing out its vital relevance to our lives and to our spiritual aspirations. He succeeded in drawing a large crowd of curious listeners, presented them with a difficult subject for which they had no preparation whatever, and transformed them into a class of enthusiastic students.

Perhaps the secret of his success was that, in slowly introducing his audience to a difficult text and the unusual, sometimes complicated ideas that it contained, he constantly reminded his listeners of the essential import and relevance of the Madhyamika teaching. He made the point on several occasions that, now that the period of Buddhism's introduction to the West is almost over, it is of great importance to consolidate and deepen the correct study and practice of the Doctrine according to an authentic tradition. Of first importance in this procedure must be the establishment of the view, the correct understanding of the nature of phenomena: the objects and situations that surround us in our daily lives and the thoughts and emotions that occupy and agitate our minds. The view, as presented in the Madhyamika texts, is the indispensable foundation of a stable and fruitful spiritual development. From the outset, it gives a clear idea of where the practice should lead and is a powerful tool for dealing with doubts and difficulties. Considerable intellectual effort is certainly required, but it leads to solid, tangible results. A correct understanding of the view imparts confidence and independence; it is like creating a suit of armor for oneself. It helps in the development of a clear-sighted, enduring devotion toward the teacher and the teachings, immune to whatever vagaries and difficulties may occur.

Another reason for studying the classic philosophical texts, we were told, is that they provide a firm criterion of doctrinal authenticity. There is a story that once when Atisha was in Tibet, he received news of the death of the master Maitripa. He was deeply grieved, and on being questioned about the reasons for his sorrow, he replied that Buddhism was in decline in India and that everywhere there was syncretism and confusion. Until then, Atisha continued, there had been only two masters in the whole of India, Maitripa and himself, capable of discerning the correct teaching from the doctrines and practices of the reviving Hindu schools. The time is sure to come, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche commented, and perhaps it is here already, when there will be an analogous situation in the West. Only the correct establishment of the view will enable one to find one's way through the religious confusion of the modern West and to distinguish authentic Buddhism from the New Age "self-help" versions that are already taking hold.

Furthermore, a correct understanding of Madhyamika provides an excellent foundation and brings into focus the entire range of Mahayana practice. The view is none other than the absolute aspect of bodhichitta, indissociable from compassion, its relative aspect. The one cannot be perfected without the other. Compassion can never be mastered without the view of emptiness; wisdom can never be brought to completion without the perfection of compassion. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche remarked significantly that just as the practice of guru yoga is said to be the life of the Vajrayana, lojong, the mind training, is the heart of Madhyamika.

Given the presence of Mipham Rinpoche's commentary, there is no need here for a detailed introduction to the Madhyamakavatara itself. The reader may, however, be interested by the following reflections, the aim of which is to give a general summary of Madhyamika in terms of its essential meaning and its historical development in India and Tibet.