Āryanāgārjuna, Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, and the Dispensation of the EBTs

Pretty much?

I haven’t studied it in detail, although I have read the text in Sanskrit and English, and some studies such as Kalupahana, but as far as I can see it is a philosophically acute and interesting response to certain tendencies in middle-period Abhidhamma, with a main foundation on the EBTs, especially the Kaccayanagotta Sutta. I believe the MMK makes a valid and important critique of Abhidhamma which is, to this day, misunderstood and largely ignored in modern Theravada.

Contra Kalupahana, however, subsequent scholarship has, I believe, revealed that the MMK does, in fact, refer to Mahayana sutras. Which doesn’t affect the philosophy, but it does help inform the background.

You beat me to the punch, Bhante, I was going to put an example up. I will do it all the same, in light of your comments nonetheless.

A passage that may be congruent to the theory underlying the practice of those here:

Some say that whatever is involved in seeing, hearing etc. and feeling etc. exists prior to them.

If [that] thing is not evident, how can there be seeing etc? Therefore, the presence [of that] thing [must] exist before them.

What configures/makes known that thing which is present before seeing and hearing etc. and feeling etc.?

If it were present even without seeing etc., there would be no doubt that they would exist even without it.

It is illuminated by them; they are illuminated by it. How could it exist without them? How could they exist without it?

It is not evident prior to the totality of seeing etc. From among seeing etc. a different one illuminates [it] at different times.

If it is not evident prior to the totality of seeing etc., how can it be evident prior to [each of them] seeing etc. individually?

If the seer itself [were] the hearer and the feeler [were] it too, if it existed prior to each, in that way it would not make sense.

If the seer were different, the hearer different, the feeler different, at the time the seer exists, there would be a hearer.

Many selves would come about.
(T1564 Āryanāgārjunasya Mūlamadhyamakakārikāyām Pūrvaparīkṣā)

A more problematic passage:

All is real, all is unreal,
all is both real and unreal
all is neither real nor unreal,
this is called all Buddhas’ dharma
(T1564 Āryanāgārjunasya Mūlamadhyamakakārikāyām Ātmaparīkṣā)

Could you give us the Sanskrit for these?

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More more astute and present will always punish the tardy for posting too soon, I was in the process of supplying more context while you posted.

A fuller rendering of T1564.23c16 Āryanāgārjunasya Mūlamadhyamakakārikāyām Ātmaparīkṣā is

All Buddhas either speak of self or speak of no self.
All dharmas’ true aspect, within this, there is neither self nor no self.
All dharmas’ true aspect is defined as mental activity’s and spoken language’s ending.
There is no arising and no cessation, there is calm extinction, such is nirvāṇa.
All is real, all is unreal, all is both real and unreal,
all is neither real nor unreal: this is called all Buddhas’ dharma.

Example 1:
darśanaśravaṇādīni vedanādīni cāpyatha |
bhavanti yasya prāg ebhyaḥ so’stītyeke vadantyuta ||
kathaṃ hyavidyamānasya darśanādi bhaviṣyati |
bhāvasya tasmāt prāg ebhyaḥ so’sti bhāvo vyavasthitaḥ ||
darśanaśravaṇādibhyo vedanādibhya eva ca |
yaḥ prāg vyavasthito bhāvaḥ kena prajñapyate’tha saḥ ||
vināpi darśanādīni yadi cāsau vyavasthitaḥ |
amūnyapi bhaviṣyanti vinā tena na saṃśayaḥ ||
ajyate kenacit kaścit kiṃcit kena cid ajyate |
kutaḥ kiṃcid vinā kaścit kiṃcit kiṃcid vinā kutaḥ ||
sarvebhyo darśanādibhyaḥ kaścit pūrvo na vidyate |
ajyate darśanādinām anyena punar anyadā ||
sarvebhyo darśanādibhyo yadi pūrvo na vidyate |
ekaikasmāt kathaṃ pūrvo darśanādeḥ sa vidyate ||
draṣṭā sa eva sa śrotā sa eva yadi vedakaḥ |
ekaikasmād bhavet pūrvam evaṃ caitan na yujyate ||
draṣṭānya eva śrotānyo vedako’nyaḥ punar yadi |
sati syād draṣṭari śrotā bahutvaṃ cātmanāṃ bhavet |

Example 2:
ātmetyapiprajñapitam anātmetyapideśitam |
buddhair nātmā nacānātmā kaścid ityapi deśitam ||
nivṛttam abhidhātavyaṃ nivṛttaś cittagocaraḥ |
anutpannāniruddhā hi nirvāṇam iva dharmatā ||
sarvaṃ tathyaṃ na vā tathyaṃ tathyaṃ cātathyam eva ca |
naivātathyaṃ naiva tathyam etad buddhānuśāsanam ||

Ven Candrakīrti (hopefully I can write this before you respond bhante!) does a wonderful job of contextualizing the latter more allusive passage, but it will take me a second to get his commentary. Also there is no guarantee it will hold water when put up against the EBTs as a metric.

MMK is so subtle and employs paradox so joyfully, I’m never really sure I get it. But just to take the shorter second passage.

I’m not sure about the translation; the text says nothing of this, it doesn’t even have the word dharma (just dharmatā).

Let me try to translate it. Here be dragons, I am just messing around!

ātmety api prajñapitam anātmety api deśitam |
“Self” is just a designation, and even “not-self” is just a teaching. [1]
buddhair nātmā na cānātmā kaścid ity api deśitam ||
The Buddha taught that there’s not even such a thing as self nor not-self.
nivṛttam abhidhātavyaṃ nivṛttaś cittagocaraḥ |
What is nameable has ceased, the scope of consciousness (or thought?) has ceased
anutpannāniruddhā hi nirvāṇam iva dharmatā ||
For the nature of extinguishment (nirvāṇa) is like the cessation of what has never arisen.
sarvaṃ tathyaṃ na vā tathyaṃ tathyaṃ cātathyam eva ca |
All is real, and not real, and both real and not real [2]
naivātathyaṃ naiva tathyam etad buddhānuśāsanam ||
and all is neither real nor not-real: this is the teaching of the Buddhas.

  • [1] I think the use of api as connector here rather than ca or is significant; it has the nuance of “even if”, “so little as”.
  • [2] Note the text uses both the disjunctive and conjunctive, I assume the conjunctive sense is meant.

Just to focus on the last lines, in the EBTs, the “all” means the six senses. Persumably this is the case here (unless Nagarjuna uses it otherwise).

So he is saying that the six senses can be looked upon as “real”, as truly existing. This, by itself, would seem to endorse the Abhidharma doctrine of svabhāva. But, he goes on, it can also be seen as non-existing, presumably because it ceases. Remember that in Indian philosophy “exists” means “exists eternally and absolutely”. The verse deals with impermanence, so that is presumably what is meant here.

Things can also be seen as both existing and non-existing. In Indian logic, this is not meant to be a paradox, but an acknowledgement of the complexity of reality that cannot be reduced to binaries. I would think that here this refers to “change while persisting”, an idea found in the suttas that was much debated in the Abhidhamma system. A house, for example, lasts for many years, yet it is nevertheless constantly changing.

Finally, the neither -nor construction points to the fact that our language, being based on our limited experience, falters when it comes to things on the borders. This category could include, for example, concepts such as “number”, “Time” or “being”, which do not exist as such, but which are not entirely imaginary either. This would hark back to the lines that refer to concepts and language.


Indeed, this is from the Chinese 諸法實相. 實相 = “true aspect” = dharmatā.

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I haven’t fully digested all of it but the four fold negation is a way of countering philosophical inquiry to not confuse the questioner - vacchagotta being an example- he even tells Ven Ananda this much in that sutta. This means any further philosophical development shouldn’t be based on the four fold negation but where he tells ordained monks that the existence of impermanence and suffering leads to a conclusion of not-self. SuttaCentral

Anything can be named including Nibbāna. It’s more acurately expressed if we say conceptual thoughts (including naming) has ceased in Cessation. This makes sense.

Okay, but there’s still nothing corresponding to “all dharmas”.

Yes, I’m not sure exactly the sense of this line. Grammatically it is, or seems to be, a future passive participle (abhidhātavyaṃ), hence “nameable”. But I may well be wrong, so please don’t blame Nagarjuna for my poor Sanskrit!


Indeed, in the Sanskrit there is not. I am citing a parallel recension, which is sometimes called the Madhyamakaśāstra to differentiate it.

(all)(dharmas’)(real)(characteristic)(within this)

諸佛或說我 或說於無我
諸法實相中 無我無非我
諸法實相者 心行言語斷
無生亦無滅 寂滅如涅槃
一切實非實 亦實亦非實
非實非非實 是名諸佛法

Oh, okay, thanks for clarifying. I guess that version expands the text based on a commentary? A problematic procedure, but in the case of the MMK, an understandable one!

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Yes, but, it seems that T1564 is either very free with the text, or was in a different recension before entering Chinese.

Hopefully I can get this link to work. It compares the various commentaries off one another.

Hmm… this sounds tricky- maybe with expert Sanskrit translation we could review it? No slight on your prodigious skills Bhanthe @sujato!

How “kosher” Nāgārjuna is from an EBT standpoint depends on how one interprets what he’s doing in the MMK.

If you take the Kalupahana route and just see him as a return to the middle way of the Buddha, he’s pretty kosher. I think his anti-foundationalist views and critiques of svabhava are pretty compatible.

But I’m not sure if all his ideas are sourced in EBTs or can be supported by them, I’m especially thinking about his idea that nirvana and samsara are not different (at least “ultimately”):

na saṁsārasya nirvāṇāt kiṁ cid asti viśeṣaṇaṁ

There is nothing whatsoever of samsara distinguishing (it) from nirvana.

na nirvāṇasya saṁsārāt kiṁ cid asti viśeṣaṇaṁ | 19

There is nothing whatsoever of nirvana distinguishing it from samsara.

nirvāṇasya ca yā koṭiḥ koṭiḥ

(That?) is the limit which is the limit of nirvana and the limit of samsara;

na tayor antaraṁ kiñcit susūkśmam api vidyate | 20

Even a very subtle interval is not found of (between) them.

Needless to say, a lot of ink has been spilled and much yarn has been spun from this doctrine in Mahayana schools, but I am not sure if it’s “kosher” as per EBTs. From an EBT perspective, there is certainly a difference between the two and this is important, it is dukkha. If I recall, at least one explanation of this doctrine is that what Nagarjuna means here is that “ultimately” there is not difference between the two (since they are both empty).

Of course, this doctrine relies on the further theory of the two truths (which Nagarjuna and Abhidharmikas identified with samsara and nirvana, another innovation not in the EBTs). Nagarjuna was involved in working with this theory, which was invented by the Abhidharmikas (according to Karunadasa in his Theravada Version of the Two Truths). But IMO I think that the “two truths” model is not one which the Buddha taught, it was a later Abhidharma elaboration based on the idea of statements which are nītattha (explicit, definitive) and neyyattha (requiring further explanation). But for me, this teaching of the EBTs is not an epistemic or metaphysical theory, its one of hermeneutics. According to Karunadasa, sammuti (linguistic conventions) are not analyzed down into existents called paramattha (ultimate) in the EBTs. It seems like Abhidharma made up an epistemic and metaphysical theory which tied certain EBT ideas of hermeneutics and knowledge with a person’s understanding (arhats see the ultimate truth, paramattha).

This theory got all weird and essentialist in Sarvastivada, and Nagarjuna came along and critiqued it. But he failed to see that the entire theory is unnecessary and retained the “two truths” model, only modifying it. IMO from an EBT perspective, the best thing to do probably is to chuck this model, which is based on a misunderstanding of the Abhidharma. I know this is heresy to some Abhidharma people and to Mahayanists who worship Nagarjuna as a second Buddha, but this is just my own opinion. Another option is to just see this model as one possible interpretation of Buddhist epistemology, but not necessarily the only possible way of reading the texts.

So I would say the very idea of the “two truths” which is such an important and foundational doctrine in Madhyamaka, is somewhat problematic and definitely not the only way to read the EBTs. I don’t think we should be hamstrung by this doctrine to divide everything into “ultimate” vs “conventional” and so on when reading the EBTs. Especially since, the Sanskrit term samvrti means to conceal and hide, while it doesn’t seem like this term had the same connotation in the Buddha’s time. But at the same time I can see a lot of sophistication in the work of Nagarjuna, so I think he should still be read today (but not slavishly of course).


I agree completely, I think the two truths idea is alien to the EBTs.

I’m not so sure, however, how important it is to the MMK. If I recall correctly, Kalupahana addressed this issue, and argued that it was mentioned only once in the MMK, and there it was justifiable. I am afraid I can’t recall any more details.

Be that as it may, I don’t think the two truths doctrine is needed to explain this verse. Nagarjuna was addressing people who are familiar with the suttas, and they would have known that samsara has no first point (koṭi)—a famous doctrine of the early texts.

The first lines of this verse set up an apparent paradox, intended to provoke a response from his audience—“Nibbana and samara are opposites, any newbie knows this!” “How can he say such a thing!?” “WTF!!” By this time, even the laziest students at the back of the class are sitting up. It’s a stock rhetorical device, I do it all the time.

The second half resolves the apparent paradox. By “distinction” (viśeṣa) he means extent in time, or the presence of a first point. Samsara has no first point. And since nirvana can only be realized by a being in samsara, it too has no defined first point; or else, it has no first point because it is outside of consciousness and time.

The point he is trying to make is that there is a limit on how far our conceptual analysis can go. The Abhidharmists think they can get it all sorted out. They make their fine and subtle distinctions, differentiating this from that, putting everything neatly in columns and categories. Yet they can’t even make a coherent conceptual case to distinguish nirvana and samsara, the two things that are most distinct in the whole world! The verse is not about samsara or nirvana, it’s about the limits of concepts.


Nagarjuna was addressing people who are familiar with the suttas, and they would have known that samsara has no first point ( koṭi )—a famous doctrine of the early texts.

Can you say more about this? I don’t much about verses in the Nikayas which talk about this.

Regarding statements about the two truths in Nagarjuna, Kalupahana cites these:

The teaching of the doctrine by the Buddhas is based upon two truths:
truth relating to worldly convention and truth in terms of ultimate fruit.
MKV§ p.492; MKV(fl) lp.214.

Those who do not understand the distinction between these two truths do
not understand the profound truth embodied in the Buddha’s message.
MKV§ p.494: MKV(V) p.215 .

Without relying upon convention, the ultimate fruit is not taught.
Without understanding the ultimate fruit, freedom is not attained.
MKV§ p.494; MKV(V) p.216.

Here’s the Siderits trans with the Sanskrit:

dve satye samupāśritya buddhānāṃ dharmadeśanā |

lokasaṃvṛtisatyaṃ ca satyaṃ ca paramārthataḥ || 8 ||

  1. The Dharma teaching of the Buddha rests on two truths: conventional truth and ultimate truth.

ye ’nayor na vijānanti vibhāgaṃ satyayor dvayoḥ |

te tattvaṃ na vijānanti gambhīre buddhaśāsane || 9 ||

  1. Who do not know the distinction between the two truths, they do not understand reality in accordance with the profound teachings of the Buddha.

vyavahāram anāśritya paramārtho na deśyate |

paramārtham anāgamya nirvāṇaṃ nādhigamyate || 10 ||

  1. The ultimate truth is not taught independently of customary ways of talking and thinking. Not having acquired the ultimate truth, nirvāṇa is not attained.

Thanks for the refs! I have to go now, but I’ll look more closely later.

As for the “first point”, there’s a whole Samyutta on the topic:


Here’s the commentary by Siderits and Katsura:

The term we translate as “conventional” is a compound made of the two words loka and saṃvṛti . Candrakīrti gives three distinct etymologies for saṃvṛti . On one etymology, the root meaning is that of “concealing,” so conventional truth would be all those ways of thinking and speaking that conceal the real state of affairs from ordinary people ( loka ). The second explains the term to mean “mutual dependency.” On the third etymology, the term refers to conventions involved in customary practices of the world, the customs governing the daily conduct of ordinary people ( loka ). He adds that this saṃvṛti is of the nature of (the relation between) term and referent, cognition and the cognized, and the like. So on this understanding, conventional truth is a set of beliefs that ordinary people ( loka ) use in their daily conduct, and it is conventional ( saṃvṛti ) because of its reliance on conventions concerning semantic and cognitive relations. It may be worth noting that when Indian commentators give multiple explanations of a term, it is often the last one given that they favor.

The Akutobhayā explains that the ultimate truth is the faultless realization of the noble ones ( āryas ), namely that no dharmas whatsoever arise. There are two ways that this might be understood. The first is that according to Madhyamaka, ultimate reality does not contain anything that arises. (And since Buddhists generally agree that there are no eternal entities, this would mean that ultimate reality contains no entities whatsoever.) The realization of emptiness would then be insight into the true character of reality: that it is utterly devoid of existing entities. According to the second possible interpretation, the ultimate truth according to Madhyamaka is just that there is no such thing as the way that reality ultimately is. Or to put this in a somewhat paradoxical way, the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth. On this reading, what the āryas realize is that the very idea of how things really are, independently of our (useful) semantic and cognitive conventions, is incoherent.

Needless to say that there is thousands of pages on this stuff in Indian and Tibetan texts.

But I’ve always found this kind of stuff to be pretty pointless to the actual practice of the Dhamma. Not that I think its somehow wrong, but it seems like it wouldn’t really help me much in practicing the path.


The stock phrase in EBTs is:

“Anamataggoyaṃ, bhikkhave, saṃsāro. Pubbā koṭi na paññāyati …”

If you search for it in SuttaCentral you find thousands of occurrences of it.



This is how Ven Candrakīrti comments on the passage:

To quote: “Whatever is most familiar to one is most effective for him naturally. If one is bewildered how can one receive the truth? As it is not possible to make a foreigner understand by a language not his own, so the unenlightened person (loka) cannot be made to comprehend except by means of the everyday.”

As the illustrious one said: “The unenlightened person is at variance with me; I am not at variance with the unenlightened person. What is accepted by the unenlightened is accepted by me; what is not accepted by the unenlightened is not accepted by me.” Thus the scripture. The illustrious one always treated the elements of personal existence, the senses and their objects, and the types of consciousness as “real” (tathyam). These are thought to be real when perceived by those who are to be guided - those suffering from the optical defect of primal ignorance — in whom has been aroused the desire to learn about the various natures of the things generally accepted as real. And this with an eye on the higher truth and with a view to arousing the faith of the ordinary man in himself.

“This holy man is aware of every last happening in the world, he is omniscient and all-seeing; he possesses the knowledge of the inanimate world from the infinity of space to the coursing of the winds and he knows the uttermost limits of the world of beings; he knows incontrovertibly the many kinds of origin, existence and end, what is cause, what is effect, what is pleasurable, what is painful.”

So, after those who are to be guided have realized the omniscience of the illustrious one, at a later time it is explained that everything is not real (na tathyam) as naively taken. At this point what is real is what does not change. But all compounded things change in fact because they perish by the moment. Therefore, because of this fact of change, they are not real either. The word “or” means “and”; it is to be taken as joining the two views. That is: “Everything in this world can be taken as real and as not real.”

For some it is explained that everything in the world is both real and not real at the same time. For the unenlightened everything in the world is real; for those who have started on the way everything is false because not perceived in its naive reality (evam anupalambha).

There are those however who, from long practice, see things the way they really are, who have eradicated the obstructions (avarana) virtually completely like the roots of a tree; for them it is explained that everything in the world is neither real nor not real. In order to remove what remains of the obstructions, both alternatives are rejected even as one rejects predicates like black and white for the son of a barren woman.

This is the teaching of the illustrious Buddhas. It leads men from byways and establishes them on the right way. In the interests of gradual instruction and of adapting to those who are to be led, the teaching is flexible.

All the teachings of the illustrious Buddhas, who are possessed of universal compassion, ultimate insight and practical wisdom, are intended to be a means of penetrating (avatara) to the eternal way of things (tattvamrta). The perfectly realized ones have not uttered one word which was not in fact a means of penetrating to the eternal way of things. They administer medicine suited to the illness. They have the urge to succour those who need guidance and they teach the truth accordingly. To quote from the Four Hundred Verses: “Things are real, things are not real, things are both real and not real: all this is said variously. Indeed all cures as such are cures for a specific desire.”

But, you ask, what is the nature of “the way things really are” which the teachings of the revered ones are intended to penetrate to? This is explained in the verse “When the object of thought is no more, there is nothing for language to refer to.” When this obtains what further questions can there be? Though this is so, none the less the way things are really must be spoken of. This is done by speaking in a second sense (samaropatah). One accepts the everyday (laukika) terms “real”, “not real” and so on which are drawn from the world of transactional discourse (vyavaharasatya).

Nagarjuna expresses it this way.

(Mūlamadhyamakavṛttiprasannapadā, Darbhaga 1960, Buddhist Sanskrit Texts, 10: tatra - yadyadyasya priyaṃ pūrvaṃ tattattasya samācaret na hi pratihataḥ pātraṃ saddharmasya kathaṃcana iti tathā ca bhagavatoktam - loko mayā sārdhaṃ vivadati nāhaṃ lokena sārdhaṃ vivadāmi yalloke’sti saṃmatam, tanmamāpyasti saṃmatam yalloke nāsti saṃmatam, mamāpi tannāsti saṃmatam [etc.], translation Mervyn Sprung)

Something we might find interesting is how Ven Candrakīrti presents the Pupphasutta in the above example, which we can find at SN 22.94 in the Pāli Canon:

Pāli: nāhaṃ, bhikkhave, lokena vivadāmi, lokova mayā vivadati
Candrakīrti: loko mayā sārdhaṃ vivadati nāhaṃ lokena sārdhaṃ vivadāmi
English (after Ven Sujāto): I don’t argue with the world; it’s the world that argues with me.

Next it might be interesting to look at how the relatively anonymous Venerable Vimalākṣa’s nested commentary on the Chinese recension of the text treats the passage. This is the commentary that accompanies the above Chinese recension of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (interestingly enough, the MMK enters into Chinese Buddhist discourse with this embedded commentary. It is not until quite later that the MMK circulates without this commentary.)

This commentary is interesting because there are elements of it that seem very agreable, but one can’t help find the choice of words, “true characteristic”,

Odd. It is ultimately a Madhyamaka treatise, the paper linked to earlier supplies different theories as to its origins, second to fourth century, either in India or Central Asia, but all this talk about penetrating to the “true characteristic” of dharmāḥ, no matter how caveated by admissions of that that characteristic as “calm extinction”, is likely to set off small dharmātmavāda alarms.

Some people teach that there is a soul, in which case it must be of two kinds. Either the five skandhas are themselves the soul, or the soul exists apart from the five skandhas.

If the five skandhas are the soul, then the soul will have the characteristics of arising and ceasing. Thus it says in the verse ‘if the soul is the five skandhas it will have the characteristics of arising and ceasing’, and why? Becuase once arisen, it will perish. Because they have the characteristics of arising and ceasing, the five skandhas have no permanence, and just as the five skandhas have no permanence, the two dharmas of arising and ceasing likewise have no permanence. Why is this? Because arising and ceasing also perish after they have arisen and hence are impermanent. If the soul were the five skandhas, then, since the five skandhas are impermanent, the soul would also be impermanent and would have the characteristics of arising and ceasing, but this is not correct

If the soul existed apart from the five skandhas, the soul would not have the characteristics of the five skandhas. As it says in the verse: ‘if the soul is different from the five skandhas, then it will not have the characteristics of the five skandhas’. Yet no other dharma exists apart from the five skandhas. If there were any such dharma apart from the five skandhas, by virtue of what characteristics, or what dharmas, would it exist? If you say that the soul is like empty space, separate from the five skandhas yet existent, this is also wrong, and why? We have already refuted empty space in the chapter on refuting the six elements. No dhama called ‘empty space’ exists.

If you assert that a soul exists because belief in it exists, this is not correct, and why? Belief is of four kinds; the first is belief in a manifest thing, the second is belief in something known through this manifest thing as when seeing smoke, we know that there is a fire. The third is belief by analogy as when, in a country with no copper, one uses the example of it being like gold. The fourth is belief in what is taught by saints and sages, as when they say that there are hells, heavens and uttarakuru. Without seeing anything, we believe the words of the holy men and thus know about them.

Such a ‘soul’ cannot be found amongst these beliefs. It is not found in belief in manifest things, nor in inferential belief, and why? Inferential knowledge means that having previously seen something, you thenceforth know (about) this kind of thing, as for example a man who has previously seen that where there is fire there is smoke, subsequently, seeing only smoke, knows that there is fire. The concept of ‘soul’ is not like this, for who could first have seen the soul in the combination of the five skandhas, such that afterwards, seeing the five skandhas, he knows that there is a soul?

Suppose you say that there are three kinds of inferential knowledge, the first being ‘like the original’, the second being ‘like the remainder’, the third ‘seeing together’. ‘Like the original’ means previously having seen that fire has smoke, seeing smoke now, you know that it is like the original which had fire. ‘Like the remainder’ means, for example, that when one grain of rice is cooked, you know that the remaining ones are all cooked. ‘Seeing together’ means, for example, that when you see with your eyes a person going from hereto another place, you also see his going. The sun is like this. It emerges from the east and goes to the west. Although you do not see it going, because a man has the characteristic of going, you know that the sun also has going. In the same way suffering, pleasure, hate, desire, and insight, etc. must also have whatever goes with them. For example, seeing subjects you know that they must rely on some king. But these are all incorrect, and why?

In belief through the characteristic of together-ness, having first seen a person combined with a dharma of ‘going’ who reaches some other place, when you subsequently see the sun reach another place you know that there is the dharma of ‘going’. But there is no prior seeing of the five skandhas combined with a soul, such that subsequently seeing the five skandhas you know that there is a soul. Therefore, no existence of a soul can be established by inferential knowledge of ‘together-ness’.

There is no soul to be found within the teachings of the saints either, and why? In the teaching of the saints, what they first see with their eyes, they subsequently expound. And since the saints teach other things which can be believed, we should know that when they speak of the hells, etc., these can be believed in, but it is not so with the soul, for there is no-one who, having previously seen a soul, subsequently speaks of it.

Therefore, you may seek for a soul within all beliefs such as these four types of belief, but you will not be able to find it. Since you cannot find a soul even though you seek for it, no distinct soul exists separate from the five skandhas.

Further, because of the refutation of seeing, seer and seen in the chapter refuting the six sense faculties, the soul is to be refuted in the same way. For if even an eye seeing coarse dharmas cannot be found, how much less can we find a soul by empty delusions, imagination and so forth? For these reasons, we know that there is no self.

‘Mine’ exists because ‘I’ exists. If there is no I, then there is no mine. Through putting into practice the holy eight-fold path and extinguishing the causes of I and mine, one attains the firm insight of no I and no mine.

Question: Even though non-self is the truth, what is wrong with teaching, merely as a convention, that there is a self?

Reply: Non-self exists by virtue of the negation of the dharma of self. No fixed self can be found, so how could there be non-self? If there were a fixed non-self, then annihilation of if would give rise to attachment and craving. As it says in the Prajñāpāramitā, if a bodhisattva has a self, he cannot act, and if he has no self, he cannot act.

Question: If it teaches neither self nor non-self, neither emptiness nor non-emptiness, what does the Buddha-dharma teach?

Reply: The Buddha teaches the true character of all dharmas, and within that true character there is no path for verbal expressions, for it extinguishes all mental activity. Mind arises because of the characteristic of grasping, exists because of the rewards and retribution of karma in a previous world, and cannot therefore see the true character of dharmas. The Buddha teaches the cessation of mental activities.

Question: Even though an unenlightened person’s mind cannot see the reality, surely a saint’s mind can see the reality? Why does he teach the cessation of all mental activities?

Reply: The true character of dharmas is nirvana, and cessation means nirvana. It is in order to point towards nirvana, that cessation is also termed cessation. If one’s mind were real, what use would be such ways to liberation as emptiness, etc? Why, amongst all the samadhis would the samadhi of cessation be regarded as the highest, and why ultimately reach nirvana without residue?

Therefore we should know that all mental activities are empty deceptions, and as empty deceptions, should cease. The true character of all dharmas surpasses all dharmas of mental phenomena, has no arising and no ceasing, and has the characteristic of calming and extinction solely.

Question: In the sutras it says that all dharmas, having from the beginning the characteristic of calm extinction are themselves nirvana. Why do you say that they are like nirvana?

Reply: Those who are attached to dharmas classify dharmas into two kinds, some being worldly, some being of nirvana. They say that the nirvana dharmas are calm and extinct, but do not say that the worldly dharmas are calm and extinct. In this treatise it is taught that all dharmas are empty in nature and have the characteristic of calm extinction. Since those who are attached to dharmas do not understand this, nirvana is used as an example. Just as with your assertion that the characteristic of nirvana is emptiness, with no characteristics, calm extinction, and no vain thoughts, so it is with all worldly dharmas.

Question: If the Buddhas do not teach self, non-self, and the cessation of all mental activities and the cutting-off of ways of verbal expression, how do they make people understand the real character of dharmas?

Reply: All the Buddhas have unlimited powers of skilful means, and dharmas have no fixed characteristics. In order to save all living beings, they may teach that everything is real, or they may teach that everything is unreal, or that everything is both real and unreal or that everything is neither unreal nor not unreal. If you search for a real nature of dharmas, you will find that they all enter into the ultimate meaning and become equal, with identical characteristics, which is to say no characteristics, just like streams of different colour and different tastes entering into a great ocean of one colour and one taste, which is to say no taste. At the time when one has not yet penetrated into the true character of dharmas, each one can be contemplated separately as unreal, existing merely by the combinations of conditions. There are three levels of living beings; superior, average and inferior. The superior person sees that the characteristic of dharmas is that they are neither real nor unreal. The average person sees the characteristics of dharmas as either all real, or all unreal. The inferior man, since his powers of perception are limited, sees the characteristics of dharmas as a little real, and a little unreal, regarding nirvana, because it is an inactive dharma and does not perish as real, and regarding samsara, because it is an active dharma, empty and false, as unreal. Neither unreal nor not unreal is taught in order to negate ‘both real and unreal’.

(中論 T1564.24a15, translator Brian Christopher Bocking)

I feel like a comparison between these two commentaries could be an entire thread of its own. What subschool of Madhyamaka does Ven Vimalākṣa belong to I wonder? Fascinating.