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Buddhadharma : Winter 2006
buddhadharma| 77 |winter 2006 discourse on our luminous buddhanature, was at least in part a reaction to the per- ceived negativity of the Fundamental Verses. Even among those who claimed to be Madhyamika followers of Nagarjuna, opinion was divided on such questions as whether emptiness should be established only through reducing opponents’ state- ments to absurdity or had to be proven by independent syllogistic reasoning. They also debated whether entities and concepts shown to be ultimately empty might still be said to exist convention- ally through their own characteristics or perhaps as “mind only.” Those who held to a more uncompromisingly negative interpretation (including Buddhapalita, Chandrakirti, and Shantideva) later were dubbed Prasangikas (those who favor reductive arguments), and those who emphasized a more “positive” approach (including Bhavaviveka, Shantarakshita, and Kamalashila) came to be known as Svatantrikas (those who favor indepen- dent argumentation). Writings from both perspectives were introduced into Tibet as early as the ninth century, but Svatantrika views pre- dominated at first, perhaps because two crucial figures in the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet were Shantarakshita and Kamalashila, both Svatantrikas with a predilection toward Yogacara. During the Tibetan “Renaissance” after 1000 ce, most thinkers came to regard themselves as Madhyamikas but were far from unan- imous on what Nagarjuna had really taught. Starting in the eleventh century, Sakyapa thinkers selected the Prasangika (especially that of Chandrakirti) as the preferred approach, and the rigor of their scholarship influenced members of other traditions as well. At the same time, think- ers in the Nyingma, Kagyu, and Jonang traditions often stressed a more “positive” approach that went by the name of Great Madhyamaka, insisting that while conven- tional entities and concepts are inherently empty, a buddha’s awareness is empty only of what is other than it, namely, the conventional – itself being replete with all enlightened qualities. Tsongkhapa studied Madhyamaka with a great Sakyapa master, Rendawa, and an unclassifiable mystic, Umapa, who conveyed to him the pronounce- ments of the wisdom Buddha, Manjushri. Through textual study and his own visionary encounters with Manjushri, Tsongkhapa determined that Madhya- maka in his time had become skewed toward precisely the extremes Nagarjuna had tried to avoid, tending to either dep- recation of the conventional or reification of the ultimate – and sometimes both at once. He therefore set out to restore what he believed to be the true purport of Nagarjuna, especially as interpreted by Chandrakirti. In a series of brilliant treatises and commentaries, Tsongkhapa emphasized the importance of clearly identifying the object of negation of Madhyamaka analy- sis, so that one neither exaggerated nor understated the target of deconstructive reasoning. He stressed repeatedly that Nagarjuna’s central insight was the har- mony of emptiness and dependent origi- nation. Indeed, each served as a proof of the other, and so Madhyamaka analy- sis, far from negating the conventional world, actually assured its viability. He also insisted that while in the end empti- ness had to be realized nonconceptually, a philosophical understanding of it was a necessary prerequisite to direct realiza- tion, and that philosophical understanding required sustained and careful investiga- tion. Tsongkhapa’s discussion did not end the development of Madhyamaka in Tibet, but it did serve as a point of departure for much of what came afterward, both in the Geluk school and in other tradi- tions as well – for even philosophers who disagreed with Tsongkhapa (and there were many) had nevertheless to consider his arguments. In Ocean of Reasoning, Tsongkhapa comments on Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses in great detail. Like many Tibetan scholastics, he provides a full outline of the text that lays bare its structure. In com- menting on individual verses, he draws widely on other works by Nagarjuna and his commentators, especially Chandra- kirti’s Clear Words (Prasannapada). Occa- sionally, he will take fifteen or more pages to explain a single verse, as in the case of the verses of homage, such as verse I:1 (on causation) and XXIV:8 (on the two truths). He repeatedly cautions the reader that the bald negations of so many of Nagarjuna’s passages must be understood to be pref- aced by an implicit qualification; hence, it’s not that causation, the aggregates, time, or nirvana do not exist at all, it’s that they do not inherently exist. Fittingly, he ends nearly every chapter with a summary of the arguments presented and an assurance that the negation of the chapter’s topic from an ultimate standpoint does nothing to undermine its conventional acceptabil- ity, which can be established through the standard means of knowing: perception and inference. Tsongkhapa’s Tibetan prose style is immensely complex and difficult to translate, and Samten and Garfield have achieved a small miracle by making it as clear and accessible in English as they have. This should come as no surprise. Samten, who directs the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, has a long acquaintance with Nagarjuna’s work, native fluency in Tibetan, and an excellent command of English; Garfield is the author of the most widely used and clearest translation-cum-explanation of the Fundamental Verses in English (the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Wa y , Oxford University Press, 1995) and has written much besides that makes Nagarjuna comprehensible to modern readers. That said, it must be admitted that Ocean Reasoning is anything but easy reading. Indeed, it requires the same deliberate pace and intense concentration as do the works of Aristotle, Aquinas, or Kant. Only if one accepts the definition of philosophy as “slow reading” will the marvels of Tsongkhapa’s text, and Samten and Garfield’s translation, begin to reveal themselves. For a Gelukpa, of course, to read Tsongkhapa’s commentary is to have a clear window into the very thought of Nagarjuna himself. Tsongkhapa’s inter- pretation of the Fundamental Verses is consistent and compelling, but we need to remember that it is not the only one possible. We also need to recall that com- mentary, like any interpretive act, both reveals and obscures at the same time. Nagarjuna’s gnomic verses may cry out for elaboration, yet their uncompromis- ing radicalism makes it unlikely that any single reading of them ever will be fully persuasive. Nevertheless, to read Ocean of Reasoning – slowly! – is to put yourself in the presence of a great mind wrestling with a seminal Mahayana text and to begin to understand why Nagarjuna’s empty verses have resounded so loudly through the corridors of Buddhist intel- lectual history, and perhaps to get a glim- mer of what he was saying.