Herein Lies the Very Brief Exposition of the Views of the Four 
Indian Schools

Written by Todd Fenner, Ph.D.

This paper came from a series of posts made in the Buddhist area of 
America On-Line between 11/28/95 and 12/4/95. I made these posts 
under the name of Jamyang. It was initiated by a request to teach 
the view of dependent arising in the nine yanas. It has since been 
edited slightly. 

Subj:  The View
Date:  95-11-28 01:49:30 EST
From:  Jamyang         

With regard to the view in the nine yanas, the explanation of the 
Nyingma is a unique one in that it connects the views of the yanas 
with the philosophical schools so that sravakayana is connected with 
the view of the Vaibhasika and so on. A good summary is in the 
appendix to the book 'The Life of Shabkar'. An extensive explanation 
is in Dudjom Rinpoche's magnum opus on the Nyingma Lineage. 
Unfortunately it costs over $200. 

So I think it would be best to work through the classical tenet 
systems of Vaibhasika, Sautrantika, Yogacara and Madhyamika along 
with some of the subdivisions. I will also address the issue of 
Prasangika and Svatantrika that Namdrol rightly raised and try and 
explain both sides of the issue. Before doing that however, I want 
to make some comments. There are differences in Madhyamika, 
Mahamudra, Dzogchen etc. however the differences lay in method not 
view. In usage, that distinction is not usually made explicit, so it 
can sometimes be confusing. Thus each refers to certain meditation 
methods to attain the view as well as the view itself. Sometimes 
certain scholars, favoring certain techniques have thus rated one 
superior to the other but this is questionable as all of them are 
functional, that is they produce realization. Likewise with regard 
to tantra, the actual view in all tantra sets is identical between 
the sets and to that of sutrayana. The difference is in the 
consciousness cognizing the view. So I will try and go into the view 
irregardless of the consciousness cognizing it. This greatly 
simplifies the explanations. In samadhi, the distinction between 
consciousness and the object is like water poured into water. 

Subj:  The View II
Date:  95-11-28 10:48:55 EST
From:  Jamyang         

Tibetans generally classify tenet systems into four broad categories 
Vaibhasika, Sautrantika, Yogacara, and Madhyamika. In reality the 
systems are much more diverse. The source of the views of the 
Vaibhasika and Sautrantika come primarily from the Abhidharmakosa by 
Vasubandhu and commentaries. The Yogacara from Maitreya, Asanga and 
Vasubandhu (he changed his mind) and the Madhyamika from Nagarjuna 
and Aryadeva. There is a classification of Madhyamika into Svatantra 
and Prasanga. The former stems from Bhavaviveka, Santiraksita and 
Kamalashila and the latter from Buddhapalita and Chandrakirti. The 
Gelug and perhaps others, place Dignaga and Dharmakirti between 
Sautrantika and Yogacara. They call their writings which seem to 
affirm the true existence of external objects Sautrantika following 
reason and those writings which seem to deny the true existence of 
external objects Yogacara following reason.
The classifications are largely(not entirely by any means) Tibetan 
ways of organizing the varied teachings. For instance, Tibetans use 
the term Vaibhasika to refer to the original 18 schools which 
include Theravada. In reality the 18 schools often had very 
distinctive ideas and did not consider themselves as one. It should 
be pointed out that the Abhidharma teachings in Theravada are quite 
a bit different than those in the Abhidharmakosa. The term 
Vaibhasika as used by Vasubandhu is restricted to one of the 18 
schools which existed in Kasmir and produced a work called the 
Mahavibhasa (Great Commentary). This work exists now in Chinese but 
was never translated into Tibetan. For more information of this 
nature see Jeffrey Hopkin's chapter on Tibetan Doxography in 
'Tibetan Literature, Studies in Genre' newly published by Snow Lion. 
By the way I wrote chapter 27 (little plug). 

The Tibetans consider the study of the four systems to be like a 
progressive meditation because the definition of 'selflessness' 
becomes subtler and subtler and so the schools serve as a bridge or 
a ladder. The notion of doing it this way is reinforced by the 
Hevajra Tantra which explicitly advises one to progress in this 

It should also be pointed out that there are a number of differences 
in the systems regarding the path, the idea of a final vehicle etc. 
besides the view concerning selflessness and ultimate truth. For a 
run down on all these see Geshe Sopa and Jeffrey Hopkins 'Cutting 
Through Appearances'.

Subj:  View III
Date:  95-11-29 11:09:38 EST
From:  Jamyang         

The argument for selflessness is simple in structure and can be 
found in all the tenet systems. It is that if something truly exists 
or inherently exists it must be findable either through direct 
perception or by inference. The process is like the search in 
chemistry and physics for the basic units of matter. If something 
can be demonstrated to be capable of being broken down it isn't the 
basic unit. The tenet systems in regard to the analysis of self, all 
follow this basic approach. What sets them apart (other than a 
number of other issues) is the degree to which it is claimed that a 
basic unit is or is not established.

The purpose in performing this exercise is not the winning of 
debates or of playing intellectual games. That point is reiterated 
countless times by the Masters. Tsongkapa, whose reputation as a 
scholar is agreed by all, including opponents as being of the first 
order, said that if his work was taken in that way (being a game), 
he would have failed.

Rather, the exercise is meant to explore the minds way of grasping 
to the unreal as real. This grasping takes place at a level much 
deeper than that of verbalization and discursive thought. However we 
can use such thought nonetheless to gain a better insight. This is 
done by all systems and whether the system is very elaborate or 
rather simple it is still done. Even the instruction to 'just sit' 
says something and it used to get to something deeper.

Vaibhasika and Sautrantika:

That being said -- the Vaibhasika and Sautrantika will be classed 
together since their views on self and selflessness are essentially 
the same.

Both tenet systems assert a selflessness of person but not of 
dharmas. The self, they say is a mere designation imputed upon the 
skandhas. Vasubandhu says:

'How do we know that the word 'soul' is only a designation for a 
series of skandhas, and that no soul exists in and of itself? 

We know this because no proof establishes the existence of a soul 
apart from the skandhas, no proof by direct perception, nor any 
proof from inference. If the soul were a real entity, separate like 
other entities, it would be known.'

Basically, when we look for a self at any given time we only find 
something else, a part of the skandhas such as a feeling, or an 
individual thought or whatever. We do not find something totally 
apart from these units (dharmas) that constitutes what we generally 
call the self. If the self were different that the skandhas, we 
should be able to remove all the skandhas and find it. That hasn't 
happened. If the self were equivalent to the skandhas, then as soon 
as the skandhas changed a bit it would disappear but it doesn't. 
Ergo the self is imputed on the skandhas. 

Note that it is not said that the self doesn't exist at all, but 
rather that its mode of existence is not basic unit we generally 
take it to be.
An example: Take a pot (a favorite Buddhist example), there is a pot 
perceived sitting on a table. If we smash it to pieces, the pot no 
longer appears. What we had thought of as 'pot' was merely a 
designation imputed upon a collection of multiple units of matter. 

If we think of the terms 'general' and 'particular', in Sautrantika 
philosophy, 'generals', 'universals' etc. are like conventional 
truth  and the 'particular', the ultimate truth. In Vaibhasika and 
Sautrantika, the particulars are the basic units called dharmas. The 
Vaibhasikas divided the five skandhas into 72 such dharmas. Eleven 
made up the physical world, matter(rupa), one for feeling(vedana), 
one for ideation(samjna), one for pure consciousness(without 
content)(vijnana), and 58 for all the other mental elements not 
previously mentioned(samskara). There are different ways to further 
categorize these so one could argue that there were more or less 
than 72 and indeed many did so argue. 

(The book Ways of Enlightenment  put out by Dharma Publishing has a 
description of these dharmas plus much much more. I have used the 
book heavily in classes I've taught on Abhidharma. You could get the 
Abhidharmakosabhasyam by Vasubandhu and get the extensive 
explanation as well, it is now in English, however it costs $300.)

Subj:  View IV
Date:  95-12-01 00:49:08 EST
From:  Jamyang         

Before passing to Yogacara, a few words: Vaibhasika and Sautrantika 
are referred to as Hinayana schools, Yogacara and Madhyamika as 
Mahayana. However on examination, this is true mainly from the point 
of view of their main expositors. Vai/Sau recognized the path of the 
bodhisattva as does Theravada as a perfectly legitimate one and they 
outlined the path a bodhisattva would take to become a Buddha. 
However to them, a bodhisattva's wisdom took/takes the view of the 
respective philosophies. A bodhisattva basically just puts off 
nirvana and works for the benefit of beings and through merit 
acquires the 10 powers of a Buddha not held by Sravakas and 
Pratyekas. Similarly, within Yogacara and Madhyamika, there are 
Arhats and Pratyeka Buddhas who have the Yogacara and Madhyamika 
viewpoints but simply meditate on emptiness to the point where they 
do not cultivate the perfections and work up to Buddhahood i.e. they 
stop short. The Gelug call this a Mahayanist holding Hinayana tenets 
and vice versa. I think it might be better to say simply that tenet 
systems have a certain independence from the vehicle. That is,  they 
are not the defining characteristic. It is of course a little more 
complex than that but this is the short version.


There are a number of different subgroups like the true aspectarians 
and false aspectarians. There is also a spectrum as to the degree of 
idealism asserted. Also, although the alaya vijnana is held by many 
to be a key Yogacara tenet, there are those who are considered 
Yogacara who assert only the six conscioussnesses, denying the alaya 
and klista vijnana. For instance, Dharmakirti is held by the Gelug 
to be an example of the latter. (See 'Cutting Through Appearances' 
by Sopa and Hopkins for a run down on the different groupings for 
Yogacara as well as the other tenet systems.) 

For scope purposes, I am going to limit myself primarily to Asanga, 
using the Tatvartha chapter of his Bodhisattvabhumi  and his 
Mahayana Sangraha. 

Subj:  View V
Date:  95-12-02 11:20:24 EST
From:  Jamyang         


Madhyamika and Yogacara are said to be Mahayana tenet systems. The 
systems arose historically with the discovery of the Mahayana sutras 
of the second and third turning of the wheel. Nagarjuna is said to 
have discovered the Prajnaparamita texts on a visit to the naga 
realm. These texts are the main ones of the second turning. As most 
know, the texts are filled with descriptions of the ultimate which 
are negative in tone. The 100,000 versed version tones the rhetoric 
down a little by saying that things are ultimately empty, not just 
empty. Nagarjuna states in many places that emptiness was not 
nothingness but dependent origination/arising. Nonetheless many took 
it to be nihilistic.

 It is said that the third turning of the wheel is meant to correct 
this notion of nihilism. The main example of a sutra of this class 
is the Sandhinirmocana, (The Unraveling of the Intent).

(In Tibet, there are a number of views concerning the three turnings 
and what is definitive v. interpretive. The issue however is beyond 
my present scope.)

Asanga made use of the schema presented in the third turning to 
delineate what they consider to be the correct interpretation of the 
Prajnaparamita. They felt that the view of there being no basis at 
all was too extreme and that the correct view was a non-dual one 
wherein one did not hold that designations, names, constructs etc. 
were truly existent and that the support or basis of the names etc. 
were not truly absent. 

This particular point is made strongly by Asanga in the 
Bodhisattvabhumi in the chapter on reality. To Asanga, correct view 
meant knowing exactly how something existed and did not exist. The 
ordinary person, he says, just goes on and says 'this is that is'  
without thinking or analyzing. To discover the truth, he said one 
had to analyze and investigate. 

There are designations, expressions, etc. which are imaginary, and a 
real basis for the imputation of those designations. This basis had 
to be of necessity 'beyond expression and concepts'. This idea is 
presented by Asanga both directly as I just did, but most often, 
using the schema of the 3 natures so elaborately explained in the 

The 3 are: 

1. Parikalpita, imaginary nature
2. Paratantra, other-powered/dependent nature
3. Parinispana, perfected/reality

 There is a classic metaphor used to understand this.

Imagine a rope in a dark room which is mistaken for a snake. The 
snake is the imaginary, the rope is the basis on which the snake 
depends and the absence of the snake in the rope is how the rope 
actually is, i.e. in its real or perfected nature.

The 3 natures are neither the same nor different from each other. In 
the Mahayana Sangraha, in the chapter on the knowable, Asanga 
explicitly says that the dependent nature is both the cause for 
imagining as well as that which is imagined. It can be considered 
reality or perfected when it is seen that it does not really exist 
as it was imagined.

 Subj:  View VI
Date:  95-12-02 12:03:31 EST
From:  Jamyang         

Asanga said that the dependent nature consisted of all the 
constructed differentiation's that had arose from the 
foundation/store consciousness(alaya vijnana). the alaya consists of 
all the seeds resulting from action. To illustrate, if a person 
engages in acts of lust, that person becomes permeated (lit. 
perfumed, skt .vasana, tib. bag chag) with lust. As the mind 
repeatedly arises and passes away in tandem with lust it becomes the 
generative cause for the lustful evolutions of the mind.  The 
consciousness arises as a result of these permeation's. The 
differentiation's arising therefrom are said to be the construct of 
the body and the embodied, the construct of the experiencer and the 
experience, the constructs of validity, time, number place, 
language, difference and rebirth. Thus all of these have the same 
cause and the same nature.

Constructive thought arises for beings and eventually creates the 
worlds of those beings. The creation process consists of thought and 
support for the thought. The two are mutually caused. A previous 
thought is the cause of a present thing which becomes the support of 
another thought and so on. There is not independent external object 
apart from this process.

If one thinks about it, this is like the description of karma. 
Karma to the Vaibhasikas as well as to the others was linked if not 
equated with intent (cetana). Intent causes and forms the basis of 
action, action causes all the results we experience and it is the 
support for  our reactions which in turn cause more results. 

Sometimes persons mistake the phrase non-duality of subject and 
object for subject only. In fact, in means the two are not 
independent and have the same nature. As Vasubandhu pointed out 'if 
there is no object, there is no subject either'. 

Subj:  View VII
Date:  95-12-03 23:58:06 EST
From:  Jamyang         


Madhyamika traces back to Nagarjuna who discovered the 
Prajnaparamita texts hidden in the realm of the nagas. Its prime 
mark is the attack on the extremes of existence and non-existence 
along with the identification of emptiness with dependent arising.  
When Nagarjuna argued against cause and effect he argued against an 
independent cause and an independent effect. It seems to some that 
he totally denied cause and effect and therefore the path. In fact, 
he considered that only with dependent arising i.e.without 
inherent/independent could there be cause and effect, the path etc.

Sometime after Nagarjuna, Buddhapalita used a form of reasoning 
called a prasanga to demonstrate Nagarjuna's point. A prasanga is a 
consequence. That is, one takes the opposing thesis and demonstrate 
what its consequences are. Another Madhyamika, Bhavaviveka, 
criticized this technique saying in effect that anargument to be 
successful had to be a full syllogism and not just a consequence. 
Bhavaviveka's method is called a svatantra. 

To illustrate without giving a full lesson in Indian logic (I would 
lose everybody):

The sentence: 

Sound is impermanent because of being a product.

The word 'product' is called a sign. It is the basis on which an 
inferential valid cognition is created. The sign has 3 modes of 
relating to the other elements of the syllogism.
1. The property of the subject. Here 'sound is a product' that is 
product is a property of sound. 

2. Forward pervasion: product is a member of the set of impairment 

3. Counterpervasion: the negative of the product is pervaded by the 
negative of the sign. that is, permanent phenomena are non-products.

A svatantra contains all three modes. A prasanga contains only the 
last two. The argument, as the Indians saw it, was over a method 
best suitable to persuade someone. (It is important to keep in mind 
that in India the purpose of arguing was persuasion.)

Later, Chandrakirti defended Buddhapalita's method quite strongly. 
Those who follow Chandra's method are called Prasangikas.  
Bhavaviveka and those following his method are called Svatantrikas. 
The terms were developed later to apply to the two methods. The 
persons themselves just saw themselves as Madhyamika.

In Tibet, Madhyamika was first introduced by Shantiraksita who is 
considered a Svatantrika. He had a method which later persons called 
Yogacara-Madhyamika because he recommended meditating first on all 
things as mind using a method similar to the Yogacaras, and then 
meditate that the mind itself was empty of inherent existence. This 
method became extremely popular in Tibet.

Chandra's writings were introduced at a later time. In the next and 
final post, I will be presenting Tsongkapa's(1357-1419) 
interpretation of Prasangika Madhyamika as being superior to 
Svatantra while noting the arguments of those Tibetan scholars that 

Subj:  Final View
Date:  95-12-04 23:06:57 EST
From:  Jamyang         

First let me explain that I am trained in this as a Gelug. Obviously 
there is some interpretation. The lineages have some differing views 
on Madhyamika as it is so important. Some think the views differ 
greatly, some don't. I belong to the latter. I encourage with all my 
heart that persons who are stimulated and feel benefited by this 
series to study more. 

Tsongkhapa felt that the cause of being bound to samsara was a 
deeply rooted habit that grasped to the concept of inherent 
existence. To exist inherently means to have a basis independent of 
imputation. Tsongkhapa argued in essence, that all the tenet systems 
below prasangika asserted such a basis either explicitly (i.e. they 
said so and one can find it stated as such) or implicitly (it may be 
hard to find the passage and there is a question about it but such a 
conclusion might be drawn from other things). In the case of 
Vaibhasika and Sautrantika it was the dharmas. In Yogacara, it was 
paratantra and parinispanna or mind. The Madhyamikas argued that 
there was no such basis ultimately at all. The Svatantrikas, 
however, because they used syllogisms instead of consequences 
implicitly asserted a type of independence on the conventional level 
known as svalaksana or inherent characteristic. 

This is extremely subtle. The argument is that if a syllogism is 
used, there is an assumption that the two parties will see the first 
mode the property of a subject in the same way, implying some sort 
of independent existence. Seeing the property in the same way 
demands recognizing that the property has at minimum some sort of 
characteristic which is independent of the imputing mind. The use of 
a consequence does not do this, but merely takes the assumption of 
the opponent as a basis as opposed to making an assumption oneself. 
Therefore the Prasangika do not have the fault of asserting iherent 
existence/characteristic even conventionally.

Other scholars in Tibet hold that Tsongkhapa's differentiation is 
incorrect since the Sautrantikas do not assert svalaksana ultimately 
and only use it conventionally as a means to lead persons to the 
truth and do not hold it as a view. They further argue that the 
Indians did not view the Svatantrikas and Prasangikas in the way 
Tsongkhapa did and rather seemed to agree that the difference was 
pedagogical. They say svatantra is for converting non-buddhists, 
prasanga for converting buddhists.

Tsongkhapa's point though, however the intent or history of the 
issue, was that even grasping at something this subtle had to be 
done away with. Tsongkhapa agreed with Chandra that inherent 
existence didn't exist even conventionally. In the conventional 
world people just use words and agree on things in an unanalytic way.

I say I am Jamyang. I don't say I am inherent Jamyang. By negating 
inherent existence, one allows convention and there is no 
incompatibility between samsara and nirvana, between form and 
emptiness. Once inherent existence is negated then what is left is 
just dependent arising. Then everything is pure. The negation of 
inherent existence is intended as an arrow to shoot the root cause 
of defilement. It cuts out the core of that which is grasped. things 
appear then as mirage, a reflection, a plantain tree, a bubble etc. 
a play of stainless mind and wind.

Sarva Mangalam

Precious Bodhicitta, where it is not arisen, may it arise.
Where is has arisen, may it not decline but grow ever fuller.
By the merit of this presentation, may all beings obtain the state of 
Vajradhara. May the dharma take solid root in the West and may no 
obstacles arise to its practice and flourishing.