On the Fundamental Transformation of Madhyamika.The Bodhisattva Path

by Andrew Baston (Author)

Essay 2016 7 Pages

Philosophy - Miscellaneous


On the Fundamental Transformation of Madhyamika: An Essay Surveying the Bodhisattva Path, Non-conceptual Wakefulness, Suchness and Buddhahood

In Mahayana Buddhism, the path isn’t just the way to nirvana through the extinguishing of desire; it’s much more complex. Buddhism has developed into many different forms; three main notable branches and numerous traditions within those branches. In this essay we will look at Mahayana Buddhism and the Madhyamika philosophical tradition. In Mahayana there are many traditions, ranging from the Tibetan and Newar traditions to Chinese and Japanese traditions such as Chan and Zen. Mahayana Buddhism is distinctly different from Theravada and Hinayana Buddhism by its unique feature of the bodhisattva path. The bodhisattva path takes the original Noble Eightfold Path and adds eons of something that can be viewed as a type of hero’s journey, where the practitioner takes vows, promising to bring all sentient beings out of samsara. The idea is based on compassion and bodhicitta – the spontaneous desire to attain Buddhahood motivated by compassion for all sentient beings. The person who sets out on this path generates bodhicitta and accumulates merit that eventually leads to the realization of emptiness on the first bhumi [1] and enlightenment at the eleventh bhumi. But this isn’t like normal nirvana, it’s full Buddhahood that at the outset gives up (Or postpones) one’s personal salvation for the salvation of the rest of sentient beings. Bodhicitta isn’t just a compassionate feeling towards other sentient beings; it’s much more elaborate than that. There are many different kinds of bodhicitta. Kunzang Pelden, in his commentary on the Bodhicharyavatara, cited twenty-two different kinds of bodhicitta; simplifying it as Manjushri did to “bodhicitta in intention (an aspiration for supreme enlightenment) and active bodhicitta (a practical engagement in the Bodhisattva activities).[2]

In this essay I would like to focus on the fundamental transformation, and I would like to argue that ultimately everything is the same thing. The fundamental transformation is a progressive graduation that occurs throughout an individual stream of consciousness[3] beginning at the first bhumi and ending at the eleventh bhumi. Through a series of realizations, beginning with the accumulation of merit, the practitioner, after generating in and engaging in bodhicitta, realizes emptiness, clears obscurations, enters non-conceptual wakefulness, and attains Buddhahood. As these obscurations[4] are removed, the ability to perceive suchness in its purest form increases. This requires the conscious decision to not pursue enlightenment for one’s self and to rather sacrifice one’s self for the sake of the rest of the world, postponing enlightenment until after everybody else, or at least all sentient beings, have also attained enlightenment at the eleventh bhumi. After arriving to the first bhumi through the path of accumulation the person is officially[5] a bodhisattva. From here the bodhisattva still has eons of lives to make all of this happen. In order to achieve this however, the bodhisattva must develop non-conceptual wakefulness by focusing on the scriptures of the Great Vehicle and clearing away obscurations. Gradually the bodhisattva will make progress in this way until the bodhisattva transitions through non-conceptual wakefulness into the realization of the two-fold emptiness of self and the eleventh bhumi, at which point Buddhahood is achieved.[6] Non-conceptual wakefulness is necessary in this process and is the cause of the attainment of Buddhahood. Depending on the tradition, the fundamental transformation, merit, meditation and the graduation through the bhumis varies. Robert Carter, a Zen scholar and practitioner has argued that meditation has taken a more predominant role – more important than the precepts. The fundamental significance over morality that Zen places meditation is characteristic of many traditions, and in Zen Buddhism even more so. The fundamental transformation seems much simpler or even over simplified in contrast (or from the perspective of a Tibetan Buddhist) to other traditions. Carter in his work Encounter with Enlightenment wrote:

In Zen, in particular, the practice of meditation has almost completely overridden the litany of the precepts. For the Japanese, the point of meditation and morality was to further one along the path of self-transformation, towards enlightenment.[7]

Comparing Zen to the more rigid and progressive fundamental transformation one might view Zen in comparison to Tibetan Buddhism as being two extremes, where in one case the ‘personal transformation,’ referred to by Carter makes meditation the most important part of the path, while in Tibetan Buddhism meditation it is only a part of it. Makransky in his work on Buddha nature and ‘non-abiding nirvana’ described the path as a broad-ranging (generally and textually), devotional effort of work in which through elaborate methods undergoes purification into Buddhahood, saying:

Reality discloses itself as a communicative and transformative power present to anyone whose vision becomes sufficiently purified through practice. For this reason devotional practices such as buddhanusmrti[8] were ensconced within collections of textual materials such as the Ratnakuta, Prajnaparamita, Avatamsaka, Samadhiraja, and Pratyutpanna sutras as one element within a wide framework of Mahayana practice: cultivation of bodhicitta and compassion, ritual practices, perfection of insight into emptiness, practice of perfections, etc.[9]

The ability to see reality for what it truly is comes through this transformation. The more pure we become or the more we clear away the adventitious stains, the better we can see. Maitreya defined suchness in the Dharmadharmatavibhanga as:

…the intrinsic nature is defined

As suchness, in which there is no distinction

Between apprehended and apprehender,

The expressed and that which expresses.[10]

Saying “that there is no distinction between apprehended and apprehender”[11] is how Maitreya taught the nature of suchness for the sake of conceptualization, even though there really is an apprehender and apprehended. It may be that understanding suchness[12] was his intention, and it’s in suchness or in the state of seeing reality as it is[13] that the distinction between apprehended and apprehender isn’t. In this state there is no distinction between apprehended and apprehender, nor is there the distinction between the expressed and that which does the expressing. Mipham argued in his commentary that both the apprehended and apprehender are illusory perceptions of reality, because “the apprehender is non-existent in relation to the apprehender.”[14] This is important to note because it describes for us the nature of suchness, the non-duality of suchness, and the two-fold absence of self. Not only are we of no-self, being ultimately empty, but so is the phenomena that we perceive. Everything is emptiness, including the apprehended and the apprehender. According to Mipham there are 16 types of emptiness,[15] and the Madhyamika believe all of phenomena to possess at least one of these kinds of emptiness.

It would seem from this point, after reviewing the scripture on suchness and Mipham’s commentary that nothing exists except for suchness and Buddha nature – the essence of consciousness. It’s by focusing one’s mind on this topic, suchness and luminosity of mind, that emptiness is realized at the first bhumi. And through the path of cultivation, the stains are removed, emptiness is habituated and everything appears as suchness, appearing the way things truly are. This is the final and complete fundamental transformation, seeing things free from adventitious stains as they truly are – as suchness.

The external universe that becomes apprehended becomes nothing more than suchness. The concepts, linguistics and labels become nothing more than suchness. The self and its mind-stream which has travelled through time in samsara become suchness. But which suchness do things become? If there are 16 different types of emptiness, to which of the sixteen do we ascribe which objects? It would almost seem as if we are engaging in a kind of reductionist ontology, beginning with everything (trillions upon trillions of objects) and then separating ourselves into two categories (the subject and object), and then dividing the objects into 16 categories of suchness. And eventually, upon complete and total purity we enter the realm of the Buddha, which is non-dual. But it doesn’t have to be viewed as a reductionist method, because the non-dual state of Buddhahood isn’t necessarily one. Or that is to say that non-duality isn’t necessarily singularity. The 16 types of emptiness may be somewhat of a reduction, but even more so, quite possibly, the framework for the locus of reality. There is also emptiness of emptiness, in which I would imagine by following the pattern is some sort of underlying skeleton upon which the 16 types of emptiness exist on. Madhyamaka terminology can be confusing at times, “It exists and doesn’t exist,” or “It’s not real but it is real at the same time.” I almost feel as if it is unnecessary to even mention anything being unreal or less real. The apprehended exist even if it only exists because we experience its existence. In Madhyamaka philosophy there is something that connects us all together, non-existing apprehender and apprehended. It isn’t just one thing, but many things, or at least 16 different types of things. It may be better to consider our reality as both dual and non-dual just for the sake of not misleading people. I believe that is the intention of Bodhisattvas like Maitreya and Manjushri – to communicate to us that our reality is virtually infinite in numbers of apprehended phenomena, and also united in this locus of oneness.[16]


Carter, Robert. Encounter with Enlightenment: A Study of Japanese Ethics, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001

Makransky, John J. Buddhahood Embodied: Sources of Controversy in India and Tibet, State University of New York Press: 1997

Pelden, Kunzang. The Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech, Padmakara translation Group, New Delhi: Shechen Publications, 2010

Maitreya, Distinguishing Phenomena from Their Intrinsic Nature, Translated by Dharmachakra Translation Committee, Boston & London: Snow Lion, 2013

[1] The first bhumi is reached on the path of seeing, the point at which emptiness is realized. Bhumi: ground, stage, level

[2] Kunzang Pelden, The Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech, Padmakara translation Group (Shechen Publications, New Delhi, 2010), Pg. 53

[3] The Conscious continuum of aggregates that reform to reproduce the individual from life to life, or life stream is a series of reoccurring lives made possible by the grasping of the manas-vijnana on alaya-vijnana

[4] Adventitious stains

[5] Or at least scripturally

[6] In Mahayana, the bodhisattva path is superior in that the buddhahood attained at the end of the bodhisattva path is full buddhahood. Compared to the arhats and self-realizers who will (or can) only attain partial buddhahood. They will attain full buddhahood at the 11th bhumi however, according to the will of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas

[7] Robert Carter, Encounter with Enlightenment: A Study of Japanese Ethics, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2001, 190

[8] B uddhanusmrti refers to the recollection of the Buddha

[9] John J. Makransky, Buddhahood Embodied: Sources of Controversy in India and Tibet, State University of New York Press, 1997, 333 7b Here I’m referring to the Mahayana Buddhism while comparing Tibetan Buddhism to Zen

[10] Maitreya, Distinguishing Phenomena from Their Intrinsic Nature, Translated by Dharmachakra Translation Committee, Snow Lion, Boston & London, 2013, 27

[11] The apprehended and the apprehender refers to the phenomenal subject and object

[12] R emptiness, or the different kinds of emptinesses

[13] As suchness

[14] Maitreya, Distinguishing Phenomena from Their Intrinsic Nature, Translated by Dharmachakra Translation Committee, Snow Lion, Boston & London, 2013, 27

[15] Maitreya, Distinguishing Phenomena from Their Intrinsic Nature, Translated by Dharmachakra Translation Committee, Snow Lion, Boston & London, 2013, 27

[16] Locus of oneness refers to the 16 types of emptiness, the emptiness of emptiness and all phenomena including self (or no-self)


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  • Andrew Baston (Author)



Title: On the Fundamental Transformation of Madhyamika.The Bodhisattva Path