The Middle Way-A Study of Svatantrika

Written by Donald S. Lopez,Jr. (p. 45)
The fact the non-Madhyamika systems fall to the two extremes does not negate their heuristic value. Mahayana tenet systems believe that Buddha telepathically knew the minds and capacities of his listeners and through his skillful means (upayakausala, thabs shes) taught what was most appropriate for each. To those who could not accept or understand the view that the self does not exist, he taught that a self does exist. In that way he was able to inspire faith in his teachings and eventually lead these disciples to the more subtle view. Nagarjuna describes Buddha’s approach in this Precious Garland (Ratnavali):

Just as grammarians
Begin with reading the alphabet
So the Buddha teaches doctrines
That students can bear.

To some, he teaches doctrines
For reversal of sins.
To some, for sake of achieving merit;
To some, doctrines based on duality;

To some, [he teaches doctrines] based on non-duality.
To some, the profound, frightening to the fearful,
Having an essence of emptiness and compassion,
The means of achieving highest enlightenment.

The first stanza indicates that just as a grammar teacher begins by teaching children the individual letters of the alphabet before teaching how the letters are put together to form words, the Buddha teaches doctrines which are suitable to the level of awareness of his followers.

The first three lines of the second stanza identify the doctrine of the cause and effect of actions whereby non-virtues may be abandoned and virtuous actions whereby non-virtues may be abandoned and virtuous actions practiced, resulting in the accumulation of merit that will bring rebirth in a good realm. The last line of the second stanza refers to the doctrine taught to followers of the Vaibhaskika and Sauntrantika lineages to whom the Buddha teaches that a self of persons (pudgalatman, gang zag gi bdag) does not exist but that objects and subjects do truly exist as separate entities.

The first line of the third stanza identifies the doctrines taught to those Mahayanist who are temporarily incapable of understanding the Madhyamika view and therefore are taught the existence of an emptiness of duality of subject and object. The last three lines refer to the teachings of non-true existence and compassion that the Buddha gives to Mahayana disciples of greatest awareness; the teachings of emptiness would frighten those who believe strongly in true existence because they would mistake it for utter non existence.

In the beginning non-merit is overcome.
In the middle self is overcome.
In the end all [bad] views are overcome.
Those who understand this are wise