In the history of Buddhism two important philosophers developed competing perspectives on the teachings of the Buddha. The first, Nagarjuna, advanced the view that all speculative theories of reality were false and that the ultimate truth was only knowable through a direct intuition attained during meditation. Reality as we normally think of it was "empty." His philosophy came to be known as Madhyamaka or "the Middle Way" as he rejected what he considered the extremes of speculative theories of reality. The second, Asanga, advanced the "Mind Only" school of Buddhism which rejected the materialism of early Buddhism and asserted a form of idealism. Ultimate reality was constituted only by the mind. Everything else was its product or projection. The school came to be known as Yogachara Buddhism. Madhyamaka and Yogachara Buddhism constitute the two largest currents of Indian Mahayana Buddhism.
In the eighth century, a third philosopher, Shantarakshita, attempted to resolve the disagreement between these two traditions. Perhaps his most important work was the Madhyamakalankara, translated by the Padmakara Translation Group as The Adornment of the Middle Way. In it, Shantarakshita argued that there are two forms of truth: conventional and ultimate. By recognizing this distinction, the Madhyamaka and Yogachara tendencies can be brought together into a single, combined theory of reality in which ultimate truth is approximated by the accounts found in the Madhyamaka tradition and conventional truth is captured by the Yogachara tradition.
The Madhyamakalankara is composed of 97 stanzas of four lines each. The great bulk of the work (66 stanzas) explains the doctrine of "the two truths," i.e., that we can distinguish conventional truth from ultimate truth. Conventional truth is adequately described in language and adequately understood through observation and reason. It is what post-Kantian Western philosophers might describe as truth about the phenomenal world. Ultimate truth reaches beyond the phenomenal world and characterizes reality as it is in itself, unclouded by the limitations and delusions of human experience and cognition. Much of these first 66 stanzas employ the Madhyamaka method of refuting speculative theories about ultimate truth. Shantarkshita systematically refutes the views of all of the main schools of Buddhism of his day along with a number of non-Buddhist schools of thought. According to the Madhyamika, these views completely exhaust all possible views of ultimate reality, and so one can draw the conclusion that no discursive account of ultimate reality is correct. This conclusion is described by the Madhyamika as asserting the "emptiness" of all things.
In the later (nearly last) stanzas of the work, Shantarakshika asserts that the preceding stanza establish that things described by conventional truth have no ultimate existence, and that they are most adequately explained by the Yogachara view. This view holds that phenomenal things are not material. Phenomenal reality is "consciousness only."
Shantarakshita's view is designed, as most Buddhist philosophy is, to assist the student toward salvation from suffering. Simply adopting the Madhyamaka view that all things are empty requires the student to accept a deep and difficult concept. It requires one to reject common sense and the evidence of one's senses. On one view, meditation and reflection are adequate to reach this conclusion, but an enormous effort is required. Alternatively, and following Shantarakshita, the student might first entertain the Yogachara view. One might first recognize that the distinction between subject and object is an illusion, that all phenomenal objects exist only in relation to all other phenomenal objects, and that phenomenal experience is the product of consciousness creating experience. Having arrived at this understanding, the student is better positioned to take the Madhyamaka critique to its final conclusion about conventional truth. One can recognize that the consciousness only explanation of experience is itself a discursive account that remains within the boundaries of human experience and reason. It's object, consciousness, is just as vulnerable to the same critique that showed material objects to be illusory. Consciousness must also be empty. When one is able to do this, one is prepared to have a direct, transcendental "experience" of the ultimate through meditation.
The volume under review includes not only Shantarakshita's work, but also a commentary on the work by Jamgon Mipham, entitled A Teaching to Delight My Master Manjughosha. Mipham composed his commentary in 1877 amid a movement to establish a more open-minded approach to the various schools of Buddhism. His commentary is said to rank among the most important explanations of the Shantarakshita's masterpiece. Despite its reputation, the explanations of the Madhyamaka critiques of various speculative metaphysics are labored; however, once Mipham begins to describe the "benefits" of Shantarakshita's synthesis, the work becomes quite enjoyable and enlightening.