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Buddhadharma : Summer 2006
summer 2006| 74 |buddhadharma Unlike many of his contemporaries in other Buddhist countries, Gendün Chöpel didn’t systematically pursue a modernist agenda, but the critical and fiercely inde- pendent approach he brought to perennial Buddhist and Tibetan issues is unmistak- ably modern in its empiricism, eclecti- cism, and intense dislike of conformity. Gendün Chöpel’s oeuvre includes: translations of the Hindu Bhagavadgita and the Theravadin Dhammapada into Tibetan, and of the Mahayana classic, Bodhicaryavatara, into English; a pains- takingly researched pilgrimage guide- book, which gives directions on how to make use of the Indian railway system to reach ancient charnel grounds and other places described in the Buddhist tantras; a manual of sex (still popular with dis- cerning householder yogis and yoginis) based on a thorough study of the Sanskrit literature on the topic, as well as appli- cation of the aforementioned empirical approach; political tracts advocating the abandonment of Tibet’s feudal system and monastic land ownership; travel journals describing his encounter with foreign cultures and “the new reasoning” (science); and the first attempt at writing a political history of Tibet using text-criti- cal methods. Compared to these works, Gendün Chöpel’s Adornment for Nagarjuna’s Thought seems a rather traditional text. The topic, Madhyamaka philosophy, is one that Tibetan scholars have written more treatises about than anyone can hope, or wish, to read in one lifetime, and the Adornment doesn’t bring anything essentially new to the picnic. Nagarjuna, the Indian scholar who founded the Madhyamaka tradition at some point in the first centuries C.E., set out to reformulate the message of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) sutras in the form of logical arguments. The whole project was self-contradictory from the outset, since the Perfection of Wisdom literature is concerned precisely with the impossibility of framing reality in language, thought, or logic. Nagarjuna therefore turned logic against itself and constructed arguments intended to show how rational thought always runs into contradictions when it tries to grasp the true nature of reality. Many Mahayana traditions consider the contemplation of these arguments a powerful method for realizing the view of prajnaparamita. Over the centuries, controversies arose over the correct way of constructing Madh- yamaka arguments and exactly what it was they pointed to. It is this debate, in one of its Tibetan bifurcations, that Gen- dün Chöpel takes up in the Adornment: the quarrel many philosophers had (and have) with the Geluk sect’s interpreta- tion of Madhyamaka. In the Adornment, Gendün Chöpel joins a long procession of scholars who have taken the Geluk philosophers to task, claiming that they ruined Nagarjuna’s philosophy. But what is remarkable about the Adornment is its unusual style, not its philosophical content. Most Tibetan philosophy is written in an extremely formalized prose that often bears more resemblance to computer code than to anything meant to be processed by the human cognitive apparatus. The Adornment, by contrast, consists of some 250 loosely connected paragraphs, some of which can be read as self-contained aphorisms, dealing in a freeform way with a number of controversial issues in Madhyamaka exegesis. (Lopez compares the structure of the Adornment to Witt- genstein’s Philosophical Investigations.) It is not always easy for the reader to see where the discussion is going or how vari- ous topics are related to each other, but the risk of disorientation is outweighed by the freshness of Gendün Chöpel’s rhetoric as he has his say in philosophical debates that have lasted for centuries. Many of the points discussed in the Adornment – the conventional status of phenomena, the so-called object of refutation, the distinction between the Consequentialist and Autonomist inter- pretations – are ones that Tibetans consider to be among the most subtle and difficult to penetrate in all of Buddhist philosophy. Gendün Chöpel invokes a great deal of specialized terminology, but usually only to declare it redundant and deceptive. His standard maneuver is to bring the issue at hand down to the level of common sense, where the hairsplitting he accuses others of indulging in is made to look ridiculous. Here, for example, is how he approaches the hotly contested issue of whether any- thing can be known for certain about the experiences of unenlightened beings: Sometimes this mind of ours seems mistaken, sometimes it seems correct. It is established by experience that it is always deceptive, like a bad soothsayer. Who can trust it ... Things that 100,000 Muslims decide are true are decided to be false by 100,000 Buddhists. Each is firmly based in their own scripture and reasoning, which are as immutable as a diamond. Each of them asserts that their teacher is the infallible refuge. With such simple examples, the Adorn- ment again and again argues that there is nothing that is even slightly real or trustworthy in samsara, the realm of conceptuality. Many Buddhist modernists, from before Gendün Chöpel’s time up to the present, have tried to reconcile Buddhism with science by claiming that modern sci- ence is only rediscovering what Buddhists have known all along, or alternatively, that Buddhists should not make claims about anything that cannot be demon- strated by the natural sciences. Gendün Chöpel doesn’t seem to feel any need for such stratagems; his is an inverted modernism, based on the conviction that rationality always fails. For him, there can be no serious conflict between Buddhism and science, because science explores the realm of confusion, whereas the realm of enlightenment is what matters for Bud- dhists. “Please pray,” he writes, “that the two, this modern reasoning of science and the ancient teachings of the Buddha, may abide together for tens of thousands of years.” The style of the Adornment may be informal by the standards of Tibetan scholasticism, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an easy read. Without a rather solid foundation in Madhyamaka philosophy and its Tibetan developments, it is vir- tually impossible to follow its winding arguments, which are made even more confusing by Gendün Chöpel’s frequent deployment of irony. The thorough com- mentary provided by Lopez will therefore be greatly appreciated by many readers. Lopez patiently provides the philosophi- cal and historical background necessary to appreciate each of the Adornment’s paragraphs, and he has the courtesy to adapt his explanations to readers with vir- tually no background in the subject mat- ter. It is all the more incomprehensible, therefore, that the editors have decided to print Tibetan names and expressions in transliterated rather than phonetic form. Tibetan transliterations are disruptive to