Chandrakirti: Entering the middle way

Geshe-la’s new philosophy course starting next month is based on Chandrakirti’s teachings on the Middle Way. But who is Chandrakirti, what is the Middle Way and why are his teachings important?

Who is Chandrakirti?

Chandrakirti was a sixth and seventh century Indian Buddhist scholar of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka, “Middle Way”, philosophy who studied at the renowned Nalanda University. His name literally means Glory or splendour (kirti) of the Moon (chandra) in Sanskrit.

Why is Chandrakirti important?

Chandrakirti is most revered for his contributions to the doctrine of emptiness in works such as “Entering the Middle Way”, an introduction to Nagarjuna’s seminal text Mulamadhyamaka Karika, “Root Text on the Middle Way”.

Chandrakirti’s popularity began to grow in the eleventh century and his teachings became integral in the study of the Middle Way in Tibet. His growing importance was thanks, in part, to monks such as Rendawa Zhonnu Lodro and his student Tsongkhapa, both instrumental in restoring the teachings of the Middle Way.  

What is the Middle Way?

Nagarjuna’s Middle Way rejects the two extremes which the belief in an inherently existing nature implies: eternalism and nihilism. Eternalism argues that all things have an inherent and unchanging essence, whereas nihilism says that nothing can be said to exist.

The denial of an inherent essence (eternalism) suggests that it ceases to exist (nihilism). Nagarjuna argued that saying all phenomena fundamentally lack an inherent nature does not mean that nothing exists, but that they exist co-dependently. For example, a tree needs water, sunlight, roots, leaves, branches and a trunk.

This is known as dependent origination and is summarised by the Buddha as, ‘This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises.’ This is true of the nature of suffering and its cessation. Because we cling to a permanent idea of a self, there is suffering. By realising that the self is empty of any inherent or separate existence, there is its cessation.

What did Chandrakirti teach?

In Entering the Middle Way, Chandrakirti summarises Nagarjuna’s teachings on emptiness, clearly defining it, giving examples and highlighting its practical value. He explains the purpose of the philosophy of the Middle Way and the role it plays in the path of the bodhisattva. It is Chandrakirti’s bridging of the Middle Way with the path of the bodhisattva which ultimately makes him such an instrumental figure and his works foundational in understanding emptiness.

Geshe-la’s course starts Wednesday June 12th and will run for the next two years on a weekly basis. If you want to find out more about the course, Chandrakirti, Entering the Middle Way, or wish to attend and book your place, all the information is available here.