The differences and similarities between the Svātantrikas and Prāsaṅgikas, or, as these terms are translated in The Karmapa's Middle Way, the Autonomists and Consequentialists, form a de rigeur topic of philosophical exploration in most of the extensive commentaries on the Entrance to the Middle Way authored in Tibet. As has been thoroughly observed, in volumes such as the one compiled by Dreyfus and McClintock, these two terms, despite the veneer of their appearance in Sanskrit, were coined in Tibet, by Tibetan scholars, long after the Indian masters whose views formed the network of reference points for the distinction had lived and composed texts.
The Eighth and Ninth Karmapas' views on the distinction are presented largely in the context of refuting the views on this topic of the "later Followers of the Middle Way," i.e. Tsongkapa and his followers. Before summarizing the debate between the Karmapa and Tsongkapa, along with the case laid out by the Karmapa in The Karmapa's Middle Way, let's take a high-speed look at the key players on this topic from Indian Buddhadharma.
As many folks will know, the "Middle Way" began in earnest as a "philosophical" system with Nāgārjuna, who used logic to dismantle all the assertions of Buddhist and non-Buddhist philosophers concerning the inherent existence of phenomena. One of Nāgārjuna's earliest commentators was Buddhapālita, who wrote a commentary aptly entitled the Buddhapālita.
In commenting on Nāgārjuna's Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Buddhapālita adopted an approach that did not add any logical methods that had not come directly from Nāgārjuna's repertoire. The main method he used for refuting those who asserted true existence was the absurd consequence: statements that reveal the inherent flaw in the logic of the Follower of the Middle Way's counterpart but do not commit the Follower of the Middle Way who voices the statements to a philosophical stance of his or her own. In essence, therefore, the aim of using "consequences" is to use philosophy to undermine and go beyond philosophy. For a practice tradition such as the Kagyü lineage, which holds as paramount the ability to rest within meditative equipoise free from elaborations, this approach to logic is particularly harmonious.
Enter Bhāvaviveka, a contemporary of Buddhapālita who wrote a commentary to Nāgārjuna's works that refuted Buddhapālita's style of commentary. Bhāvaviveka disagreed with Buddhapālita's disinterest in adding more methods as a commentator to the logical repertoire of Nāgārjuna. This disagreement was partially founded in Bhāvaviveka's core views of what it was to comment upon a root text. To Bhāvaviveka, a commentator's responsibility was to offer something more in a commentary than what was made literally available by a root text. To defend Nāgārjuna's statements concerning the nature of things, one must employ further logic, otherwise one's commentary does not truly become illuminating; it rather becomes a prose-form rehash of the root text itself in substance. It seems that Bhāvaviveka has a reasonable argument.
After both Buddhapālita and Bhāvaviveka had split the scene, Chandrakīrti entered the philosophical fray by composing Lucid Words, his own commentary to Nāgārjuna's Fundamental Wisdom in which he explicitly took Bhāvaviveka's criticism's of Buddhapālita's commentarial logic to task.
He didn't leave the spice in the cupboard, either.
Chandrakīrti said that, in insisting on adding a slew of additional and complex logical arguments to the "defense" of Nāgārjuna's view, Bhāvaviveka was simply displaying his own (one tends to read the adjective "immature" into the tone of Chandrakīrti's remarks) fondness for logic and debate, his own desire to show that he's a real smarty pants. For Chandkrakīrti, the most troubling thing about Bhāvaviveka's logic is not that it attempts to uphold the way of emptiness of Nāgārjuna using a wide variety of methods. Rather, it is that, in attempting to help the counterpart of the Followers of the Middle Way understand emptiness by letting go of their misperceptions, Chandkrakīrti felt that Bhāvaviveka had created a wholly new philosophy which attempted to make Nāgārjuna's system logically watertight, whereas the real import of Nāgārjuna's Middle Way approach is that it uses philosophy to overcome philosophy, logic to undermine logic. According to the vast majority of Tibetan interpreters, it was this insight of Chandkrakīrti's that made him the preeminent heir of Nāgārjuna among Nāgārjuna's Indian commentators.
When the above-mentioned masters' streams of explanation were passed down in Tibet, those who preferred Chandkrakīrti's emphasis on absurd consequences camed to be known as Prāsaṅgikas or "proponents of consequences," i.e. Consequentialists. Bhāvaviveka's followers were given the name Svātantrikas or "those who propound autonomous reasonings," i.e. Autonomists.
The debate between Bhāvaviveka and Chandkrakīrti (although the term "debate" must be used metaphorically, since Bhāvaviveka and Chandkrakīrti never met and were not even alive at the same time) rippled through the rigorous tradition of inquiry that took root in Tibet. In "The Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika Distinction, Pt. II," a future post, we will look briefly at how Tibetan masters treated this issue. In particular, we will examine the Eighth and Ninth Karmapas' approach to the distinction, and how they highlighted differences in aspects of their approach with the approach of the Later Followers of the Middle Way, i.e. Tsongkapa and his heirs.