Who was Buddhapalita?

Arya Buddhapalita

“I call to mind the esteemed Buddhapalita,
Who clarified the ultimate meaning of dependent arising, the thought of the Superior,
The essential point of the profound, (existence as) mere designation and name
And who has ascended to the utmost state of accomplishment.¹”

Buddhapalita (470-540) was a great master and exponent of the Prasangika system of Mahayana Buddhism. It is said that he was born in Hamsakrida, South India and from an early age took a deep interest in the teaching of the Buddha. He received novice and full ordination and entered Nalanda monastery where he studied under acharya Sangharaksita, himself a disciple of Nagamitra. Buddhapalita quickly mastered the teachings of arya Nagarjuna and later while resident at Dantapuri monastery in South India he composed many commentaries to the works of Nagarjuna and Aryadeva.

In the sixth Century CE Buddhapalita composed his famous commentary to Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom (Mulasastra) called Buddhapalitavrtti, a work of great clarity and insight. As a true Prasangika treatise it extensively employed consequences to elaborate Madhyamaka view. His younger contemporary Bhavaviveka also composed a commentary to Nagarjuna’s work called Lamp of Wisdom (Prajñapradipa) in which he criticized Buddhapalita’s position.

It is the way that Bhavaviveka criticizes Buddhapalita that belies Bhavaviveka's belief in autonomous inference (svatantranumana; rang rgyud rjes dpag). Bhavaviveka asserted that stating consequences was insufficient to generate valid conception of emptiness in another, one must state autonomously established syllogisms. Candrakirti (Seventh Century CE) a great exponent of Madhyamaka and abbot of Nalanda, composed the treatise called Clear Words (Prasannpada) as a commentary to the Fundamental Wisdom based on Buddhapalita’s work. In his work Candrakirti defends Buddhapalita’s position and refutes Bhavaviveka’s assertion of autonomous syllogisms.

Since Bhavaviveka was the first person to clearly distinguish the Svatantrika view from the Prasangika view he is regarded as the founder of the Svatantrika system. Similarly since Candrakirti was the first person to clearly distinguish Prasañgika view from the Svatantrika he is regarded by Tibetan scholars as the founder or path breaker (shing rta rsol ‘byed) of the Prasangika system. But Tibetans recognize that Candrakirti’s explanation arises within the commentarial lineage of Buddhapalita, and for that reason some assert Buddhapalita to be the founder of Prasangika. In general though Nagarjuna and Buddhapalita clearly taught the Prasangika view neither is regarded as the founder of the Prasangika system because historically they did not clearly set forth this view in contradistinction to the Svatantrika view.

Jé Tsongkhapa relied heavily on Buddhapalita’s commentary to realize the meaning of reality. Moreover it is also said that be attained actual insight into emptiness while reading Buddhapalita’s commentary to Chapter 18 on Self and Dharma.

¹His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama from his composition ‘Illuminating the Threefold Faith - An Invocation of the Seventeen Great Scholarly Adepts of Glorious Nalanda’ where he acknowledges the great contribution made by Acharya Buddhapalita in clarifying the essence of the teachings of Arya Nagarjuna.