Once Buddhaghosa consolidated non-Mahayana teaching in Sri Lanka and the followers of Nagarjuna elaborated Mahayana doctrines and methodology, the luminous burst of creativity which marked the birth and growth of the Indian Buddhist tradition began to wane. The tradition remained robust, and its focus shifted from discovering hidden dimensions of Buddhadharma to transmitting the Teaching to others. During those centuries Nalanda became the undisputed centre of Buddhist education and scholarship, so dominating Indian Buddhist life that when it was destroyed in the Muslim invasion of India, Buddhist thought virtually disappeared from the subcontinent. But if India looked back to its ancient Vedic heritage, the doctrines of Buddha followed the Silk Road and other routes of commerce north and east, dominating Tibet and Mongolia, Southeast Asia, China, Korea and Japan, where it remains to the present day. Several Indian Buddhists exercised far greater influence outside than within India.
Chandrakirti was born in Samanta (or Samana) in southern India sometime in the seventh century. He quickly mastered the knowledge taught in his day and was ordained a monk in the Sangha. After learning the texts revered by various schools, he concentrated on the works of Nagarjuna and attained such pre-eminence as a scholar that he was installed as Upadhyaya of Nalanda. Whilst he governed this great monastic university, a lay follower of the Bodhisattva ideal called Chandragomin arrived in the area. When Chandrakirti learnt of his presence, he requested that Chandragomin enter Nalanda with public honours. Since such a reception was technically impossible because Chandragomin was not an ordained monk, Chandrakirti arranged instead for a ceremonial procession in honour of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva who wields the sword of wisdom. It is said that when Chandragomin sang the praises of Manjushri, the statue turned to listen. Later writers mark this moment as the beginning of a seven-year contest of wits between "the two Chandras", but Chandrakirti and Chandragomin treated one another with the greatest respect and enjoyed a deep friendship. Chandrakirti represented the monastic ideal and the fullest control of the mind, "the great Slayer of the Real", whilst Chandragomin represented the generosity of heart which arises from devotion to the Bodhisattva vow, though both men mingled profound intelligence and selfless service.
Even though Chandrakirti assumed the onerous burden of overseeing Nalanda, he acquired remarkable powers associated with deep meditation. Taranatha wrote that he could milk a picture of a cow to give others nourishment, and many saw him put his hand through a stone pillar. Nonetheless, after many years of teaching and tending to the welfare of monks, he retired to a life of intense contemplation. Journeying south to Konkuna, he spread Buddhist teachings through discourse and debate. When he reached a hill known as Manubhanga, he withdrew into a long period of meditation. According to a tradition associated with those proficient in mantras, Chandrakirti gained the highest siddhis and attained the rainbow body, passing from this world into self-conscious immortality. Philosophically, Chandrakirti returned to the teachings of Nagarjuna and attempted to restate the Madhyamika or Middle Way standpoint.
Sometime in the fifth century Buddhapalita and Bhavaviveka formulated opposing views of the nature of Madhyamika philosophy. Whilst Buddhapalita held that Madhyamika methodology wholly consisted in prasanga, reducing the assertions of others to contradictions or absurdities, Bhavaviveka contended that Madhyamika dialecticians should propound and defend positive doctrines. Chandrakirti understood that Nagarjuna's dialectic could lead the intellectually unwary into philosophical nihilism, but he believed that the fundamental insight of Nagarjuna's approach was the recognition that no formulation could be true, and that any affirmation of doctrine is ultimately misleading and a hindrance on the path to Enlightenment. For Chandrakirti, the Yogachara system was unsatisfactory, as its concept of vijnana, consciousness without an object, was actually the idea of an Atman in disguise. The difference between Yogachara and Prasangika Madhyanilka is found in their responses to astitva and nastitva, 'is' and 'is not'. Whilst the Yogachara accepts 'is' and 'is not', Prasangika Madhyamika, as formulated by Chandrakirti, rejects both. Chandrakirti shunned every positive formulation of Truth not because he denied its reality, but rather because he doubted the possibility of providing any formulation of it.
If formulations of the Truth mislead, however, nihilism is even more in error. The first invites the delusion that belief brings one closer to Enlightenment. The other encourages the delusion that demonstrating the lack of independent existence of phenomena is the same as proving the non-existence of existence, implying that nothing need be done to attain Enlightenment. For Chandrakirti, the denial of the reality of phenomena is not the denial of phenomena, just as the recognition that some collective activity is only a game is not the discovery that there is no activity at all. Rather, discerning things for what they are is part of the process of freeing oneself from their grip on consciousness. Understanding the illusory nature of the world is part of emancipation from illusion, though a number of steps are required to achieve it. Since Buddhas arise from Bodhisattvas, one who would be truly free of the endless round of Samsara must ascend the ten grounds (dashabhumi) of the Bodhisattva Path. Such an effort depends less on belief, which can at best offer only provisional and temporary support, than on cultivating three practices which radically reorient consciousness and perception: compassion (karuna), non-dual understanding (gnyis med kyi blo) and the mind of Enlightenment (bodhichitta).
Of these three, compassion is the cause of the other two. In compassion one comes to identify with others at a level distinctly beyond the opposites of attraction and repulsion (which make others mere mirrors of the likes and dislikes of one's own false ego), and this identification aids in the integration of understanding. Compassion is the basis of the awakening of bodhichitta, for in wanting to be of true service to others, one yearns to know the Truth. Thus Chandrakirti began his Madhyamakavatara (Supplement to the Middle Way) by paying homage to compassion, the signature of the Bodhisattva and the Archimedean lever which moves one from stage to stage along the Bodhisattva Path. He likened the ignorant individual to a bucket in the well of Samsara. The bucket falls easily, clattering against the sides of the well and crashing on the rocks below. Thus it descends, damaging itself, from the realm of the gods at the top of the well to the region of hellish beings at the bottom. The uncontrolled mind gives the windlass free reign to drop the bucket, and the gravity effect of desire, hatred and ignorance pulls it downward. Without compassion, one is indifferent to this state insofar as it describes the condition of others, but one feels it intensely when it results in harm to someone with whom one is intimate. Compassion involves engendering this sense of intimacy with all sentient beings, devoid of mere sentiment which tinctures personal relationships, so that the condition of every living being affects one's own consciousness and impels one to seek to rectify it. Only meditation will stimulate a selfless sense of solidarity with all beings.
If an individual is determined to tread the Bodhisattva Path through each of its ten stages, he will necessarily develop compassion. As karuna arises from deep meditation upon the condition of living beings, compassion can assume three aspects corresponding to three levels of Samsara. The first type, sattvalambana karuna, is compassion in observing nothing but sentient beings. In this phase there is no concern with the transience of every being or with ultimate Reality. Rather, one realizes at this level that all beings share one common characteristic – suffering, dukha. Like buckets in a well, beings rise and fall according to the whim of the windlass, the uncontrolled mind. Dharmalambana karuna, compassion in observing beings as phenomena, is the realization that beings have no independent nature but are only phenomena, aggregates (skandhas) temporarily gathered together into the mind-generated illusion of entities. Analambanalambana karuna is compassion in recognizing the inapprehensible, through which one realizes that shunyata, voidness or emptiness, is the distinguishing characteristic of all beings.
Two practical means of arousing threefold compassion are preserved in the Tibetan tradition. One, taken from Maitreya, is to contemplate the possibility that, over myriad lives and countless millennia, every person one encounters could have been one's mother. This is to think of having once been nurtured in the womb of every other human being. The second means, inspired by Manjushri and taught by the present Dalai Lama, is to equalize and switch oneself with others. Think honestly of oneself and one's deep longings for happiness, and then think of the fact that others desire the same. In this fundamental respect, all beings are equal. In addition, one contemplates the fact that those who are 'other' to oneself are 'self' to themselves. Each individual is both 'self' and 'other' in senses which are symmetrical from a standpoint outside of humanity but which seem to be asymmetrical from any and every individual's perspective. When these two means are adopted, one's longing for Enlightenment can be transmuted into an aspiration on behalf of all beings. True meditation and study are marked by the conviction they produce, for conviction alone can nurture the mental and moral action essential to treading the Bodhisattva Path.
Though the Path of Renunciation has ten stages or grounds (and eleven if Buddhahood is included), the first five are perhaps the most critical, since without an understanding of them, the remaining stages are beyond comprehension.
The mind of a jinaputra, filled
The mind of a child of the Conqueror, a spiritual son or daughter of Buddha, is overwhelmed with compassion for gatis, those caught in the cycle of reincarnation. It dedicates itself to Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva associated with kindness and auspiciousness, and it is the first supramundane mind, consciousness corresponding to the first stage of the Bodhisattva Path. The continuity of consciousness (samtana) of this stage is characterized primarily as joy (pramudita).
As the fledgling Bodhisattva directly recognizes selflessness, he sees through the three links: false views of transience, doubt which pollutes and distorted ethics. They will not affect him again.
Any being who attains the first level of this road to emancipation finds that his growing compassion is naturally translated into dana, giving. He may have little to give, but he knows what others have yet to discover:
Even if a person thought of nothing but his own happiness, if he were also intent on dana he would in time encounter a true Arya, a superior being, who could show him how to cut the continuum of cyclic existence and achieve the emancipation of Nirvana. For the Bodhisattva, giving opens the way to hitherto unimagined possibilities for effective service. Therefore, Chandrakirti taught, dana is profoundly important alike to those with compassion and those without it. For a jinaputra, however, the very thought of giving brings happiness. In time, such a being will recognize the levels of giving.
The joyous mind which arises from giving is secured in the second stage, which is called stainless (vimala) and is marked by proper ethics (shila). The Bodhisattva who purifies ethics does not think in lesser terms even in dreams. Shila involves the renunciation of seven actions: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, harsh words and senseless chatter. These seven impediments to harmonious conduct, four of which have to do with speech and therefore directly with thought, are eradicated through the motivating influence of desirelessness, harmlessness and freedom from wrong views. Speaking of the Bodhisattva who has attained the shila stage, Chandrakirti wrote:
But at the same time, he pointed to the problem of unconscious self-righteousness, the false sense of having completed a task which remains unfinished.
For Chandrakirti, the problem of ethics is not that people have no ethical sense, but rather that they tend to absolutize a faulty, insufficient, or distorted ethical sense. The Bodhisattva realizes that any perception stained with so much as a minute remnant of ignorance or attachment throws a cloud upon ethical clarity, and so he strives to perfect shila far beyond the moral demands of the world. Thus his actions assist all beings in ways hardly comprehensible to those who have yet to follow in his footsteps.
The third stage of the ten-stepped Bodhisattva Path is prabhakari, the luminous, whose sigil is kshanti, patience. It is called luminous because here the fire of wisdom consumes the objects of knowledge in an orange light, a coppery conflagration that consumes discursive thought like the dawn light dispels darkness. In using this analogy, Chandrakirti also made a veiled allusion to the pervasive orange light that appears to the contemplative when he has attained meditative equipoise. Its seal is patience because the Bodhisattva sees that every form of impatience, all of which are aspects of resentment, are useless to his self-assumed task and an obstacle to its fuffilment.
The cultivation of kshanti removes the inversions of virtue, gives one a luminous beauty, makes the holy dear, nurtures skill in discerning right from wrong, and leads to exalted future births. The Bodhisattva who secures himself at this stage discovers that the eradication of desire and hatred allows mastery in concentration and the natural development of clairvoyance.
Archishmati, the radiant, is the fourth bhumi, whose hallmark is virya, effort. This effort, "dauntless energy that fights its way to the supernal TRUTH", is the gateway to every conceivable attainment, for it brings the whole being into harmony or resonance with Enlightenment. Tsong-Kha-Pa listed thirty-seven ways in which the Bodhisattva is brought into harmony with Enlightenment through virya, including mindfulness in respect to body, feeling, mind and phenomena; renunciation of both vice and virtue; manifestation of aspiration, effort, thought and meditation; emergence of faculties and powers; harmonization of the branches of Enlightenment, including joy, pliancy and equanimity; and perfection in the Noble Eightfold Path. All this is possible, Chandrakirti wrote, because "what is related to the view of a self is extinguished".
The fifth bhumi is called sudurjaya, difficult to overcome, because the dhyana or concentration which distinguishes this level is so powerful that neither earthly distractions nor the hosts of demons from the astral plane can affect it.
Since, according to Chandrakirti, Nirvana is not different from ultimate Truth and extinction of conditionality and falsehood, including false conceptions of the self, perfection in dhyana is the threshold of Nirvana. A person who seeks Enlightenment for himself alone has no farther to go. The next step is into the refulgent presence of utterly transcendental prajna, the Flame of which cannot be touched because the seeker becomes it. The Bodhisattva refuses to take that final step, however, because he has consecrated himself to enter the Flame only after all sentient beings have been helped to do so. For him, the Path continues through four more stages, whose names can hardly suggest the states to which they point, culminating in the eleventh stage, which is no stage at all but rather is the mystery of the Buddha, He who stands beyond space and time yet can enter into both for the welfare of all beings.
For Chandrakirti, the Path begins and ends in compassion. Compassion is a point drawn out into a line by the effort of the aspirant who eventually realizes that he is the Path himself. Chandrakirti's views, together with the writings of Nagarjuna which he did much to preserve, survived the fall of Nalanda and the dispersion of its schools of thought, and when Tsong-Kha-Pa revitalized the Buddhist tradition in Tibet and founded the Gelukpa or Yellow Hat order, he made the works of Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti the heart of his spiritual philosophy. If Nagarjuna was the progenitor of the Madhyamika, Chandrakirti was the undisputed scion of Prasangika Madhyamika, the Middle Way's most rigorous and sublime expression.