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  • The Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika Distinction: What Difference Does a Difference Make?
  • William Edelglass
The Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika Distinction: What Difference Does a Difference Make? Edited by Georges B. J. Dreyfus and Sara L. McClintock. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003. Pp. viii + 398.

As early as Bhāvaviveka (sixth century), Indian Buddhist doxographers situated important philosophers in schools and sub-schools characterized by adherence to distinct views, thereby providing a coherent, hierarchical presentation of the Buddha's teaching. In Tibet this practice continued and gained considerable importance: the pedagogical and hermeneutical significance of ordering texts occasioned widespread doxographical literary production.1 The doxographical projects, in which the systematic understanding of unchanging 'tenets' was privileged over the singular views of individual authors, were highly contested. Much of the disagreement was due to the multiplicity of interpretations bound to arise during a millennium of intellectual exchange. Doxographical hierarchy set the parameters of intellectual discourse, and thus the classification of tenets was not simply a matter of historical interest. Traditions were constructed in such a way that one's own thought would conform to an acceptable view, to say nothing of the complex relationship between political power and religious doctrine in Tibet. Despite the contested status of Tibetan doxographical categories, the classifications and distinctions that order much contemporary Western scholarship on Mahāyāna Buddhism in India were inherited from Tibet. Until recently, even the best research often uncritically employed dominant Tibetan classifications as basic interpretive categories and was thus able to bring order to an enormous body of literature.

The most philosophically significant and vigorously contested classification in Tibetan doxography is the distinction between the Rang rgyud pa and the Thal 'gyur ba (sanskritized by modern scholars as 'Svātantrika' and 'Prāsaṅgika', respectively). The original locus of the discussion is three Indian commentaries on Nāgārjuna's (second century) Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. Buddhapālita (fifth-sixth centuries), in what is the oldest extant commentary on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā by a known author, followed Nāgārjuna's reductio ad absurdam form of argumentation, leading from the opponent's premise to an untenable consequence (prasaṅga, thal 'gyur). Shortly thereafter Bhāvaviveka claimed that for every prasan .ga argument in Nāgārjuna's text there is an unstated positive argument, and he criticized Buddhapālita for not utilizing the new methods of Buddhist logic to demonstrate the validity of Madhyamaka thought. Bhāvaviveka argued that Mādhyamikas ought to present formal probative (prayoga; sbyor ba) and autonomous (svatantraprayoga; rang rgyud kyi sbyor ba) arguments and argued that inferential reasoning was necessary to establish the Madhyamaka view of emptiness. Candrakīrti (seventh century) then defended Buddhapālita, insisting that prasaṅga arguments were the only fitting method for a Mādhyamika because they do not require the affirmation of inherent nature. Roughly five centuries later, although Madhyamaka had already been divided according to a variety of classifications in India and Tibet, some Tibetan scholars retroactively characterized Bhāvaviveka as the founder of the Svātantrikas and Candrakīrti as the [End Page 415] founder of the Prāsaṅgikas. Tsong kha pa (1357-1419), the most famous proponent of the Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika distinction, believed this debate was about more than methodological or epistemological questions: because autonomous argumentation requires inherently existing objects, even if only conventionally, he claimed that Svātantrikas were crypto-realists who deviated from Nāgārjuna's radical understanding of emptiness.

Tsong kha pa's analysis of the Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika distinction, and therefore Madhyamaka philosophy in general, came to dominate Western scholarly research. However, in the last few decades there has been considerable exploration of the forces and influences that contributed to the emergence of conflicting Tibetan doxographical systems.2 This research program has been significantly furthered with the publication of The Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika Distinction: What Difference Does a Difference Make? Because the Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika distinction is a Tibetan conceptual construction based on Indian commentaries, an understanding of the issues involved requires a careful analysis of the Indian sources, an investigation of the growth of the various doxographies in Tibet...


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