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The Prasaṅgika and Svātantrika methods, of introducing and understanding 'emptiness', and its impact on the Gelugpa Tibetan school
April 8th, 2013 (May 9th, 2013)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

The Prasaṅgika and Svātantrika methods, of introducing and understanding 'emptiness', and its impact on the Gelugpa Tibetan school.

The Prasaṅgika school relies on the 'prasanga' or "reductio ad absurdum" of the views of the opponent. Fundamentally, it takes the views and uses logic (from the same views) to reach contradictions and show that the view is not consistent hence not valid.

It may be noted that "why should 'consistency' be a requirement of a 'valid' view?" is not much debated. It seems this would be one of the most persistent clingings of the mind, to want to 'consistently' explain the world.

Nāgārjuna 's point on the "emptiness of emptiness" should challenge this though: any narrative is empty of self-nature (since it trivially is dependent on the phenomena it describes)! Consistency is a requirement only for whoever has a view that the world follows some 'order', some 'rule'. The Gelugpa school became quite clear early on about that fact that, since things do no inherently exist, it is un-necessary to posit a way to bridge apparent differences (between conventional and ultimate views); the conventions of the world should be taken at face value (as 'conventions', of course).

The Svātantrika school, retrospectively 'founded' by Bhāvaviveka with his criticism of Buddhapālita, relies on 'positive' argumentation of emptiness, also known as "autonomous syllogism". The main point of Bhāvaviveka was that, as a commentator of Nāgārjuna, he was not there only to repeat prasangas but to convince opponents. Hence he needed views to agree upon. It would seem that Bhāvaviveka understood that conventional assertions about ultimate reality were… merely conventional. But if words were good enough for Nāgārjuna to present emptiness, why should words be rejected a priori?

One of the tendency of 'ignorant' people is to cling to certainties, which means creating new certainties when old certainties are destroyed. A classic example would be the belief that the Earth was the center of the Universe. When astronomers reached the conclusion that the Earth orbited around the Sun, many people clung to the Earth-centric view for a while. But most importantly, when they finally abandoned the wrong view, they just 'acquired' a new view: that the Sun is the center of the Universe! And later it became the galaxy is… A new view is created every time an old view is destroyed (with some 'view' being stable all along, e.g. that there 'is' a center, that the universe cannot possibly be without a center…). So Bhāvaviveka wanted a 'view' that his opponent could rally around, and which would be closer to the truth than yet another 'average' wrong view.

The contribution of Bhāvaviveka and his followers was quite key in the debate about 'valid' cognition.
His point was about using reasoning means which would be recognised as 'valid' by his opponents… Some logical method was more formalised than previously, in order to rely on logic acceptable to Hindu philosophers for example. But then he also debated how a Madhyamika (i.e. a follower of Nāgārjuna) could reason 'with' his opponent: a priori, this requires the Madhyamika and his opponent to agree on an initial view, then to reason together… But since the Madhyamika would reject the view of the opponent, how could one 'establish' any conclusion if no starting point was shared?

Candrakīrti took the defence of Buddhapālita (i.e. the Prasaṅgika school), but this defence itself showed a significant impact of the Svātantrika, for Candrakīrti basically argue that ultimate truth could only be attained in a form of 'silence' (which can be seen as an approach quite different from the argumentative perspective of the average Madhyamika).

Tsong-kha-pa (the founder of the Gelugpa school) critiqued the Svātantrika taste for conventionally establishing things by their own characteristics (from the views of their opponents, for which they'll then show the absence of self-nature). He argued that they do not arrive at a complete understanding of emptiness.

An interesting point though is that Tsong-kha-pa insisted on the "object of negation" and he also wrote about "Eight Great Difficult Points (...)" later described as the unique 'tenets' of his school.

This "object of negation" had very much to do with clarifying that emptiness is first seen as the negation of the (ultimate) existence of things as they (conventionally) appear to. This tackled first and foremost that question of the double-negation in the tetralemma. However, one may note that to negate the (ultimate) existence of things as they (conventionally) appear to, it would seem that it is necessarily to accept the conventional existence… And indeed Tsong-kha-pa argued that external objects exist. The difference with the Svātantrika becomes very subtle indeed.

Prasaṅgikas would say that their opponents are deluded thus see conventional existence as ultimate, and that conventional existence does not inherently exist, so they (Prasaṅgikas) are not accepting conventional existence because they still see it as an illusion (even when talking of their opponents' views). But don't they accept that that opponents' views 'are' deluded and 'need' refutation?

Not everyone (out of the Gelugpa school, but even within) agreed with Tsong-kha-pa 's critic of the Svātantrika, because the Svātantrika might be seen simply as a "clever means", a first stage toward the Madhyamika understanding (the basis of the Prasaṅgika). It comes back to Nāgārjuna 's warning about "believers in emptiness being lost". If the Svātantrika is clear that the positive conventional syllogisms about ultimate reality are merely a teaching device and are conventional, it seems they avoided the trap. If they start believing in their positive assertions about the ultimate, then it seems they fell for the trap Nāgārjuna warned against.

Seeing the Prasaṅgika / Svātantrika debate in light of different presentations of the same understanding (Madhyamika) is also strengthened by the Lam-rim Chen-mo itself (the main text of Tsong-kha-pa)! When Tsong-kha-pa describes the teachings to "persons of lower capacity", karma and abodes and even individuals are presented as certain. It is clear to Tsong-kha-pa that this is merely a clever means appropriate to the capacity of the students, not ultimate truths. If Tsong-kha-pa himself uses such methods, why refuse it to Bhāvaviveka (unless it is established that Bhāvaviveka did not understand emptiness or established that his method leads to confusion regardless of the wholesomeness of his intention)?

It is not impossible that the debate was polluted by political reasons, which then incentivised Tsong-kha-pa to 'order' the different schools (obviously describing his school as having a 'higher' or "more refined" understanding).

One may note that this Svātantrika / Prasaṅgika distinction is still debated by modern scholars:

In some sense, the debate is about the Prasaṅgika tradition and its reliance on the "reductio ad absurdum": should the fact that conventional views always lead to contradictions vis-a-vis inherent existence be seen as the failure of logic, or as the very conclusion of logic properly used?
We're still enquiring into what constitutes 'valid' cognition!

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image: © Wang Zi Won