This book is an annotated translation of one of the great Tibetan classics of Mahayana Buddhist thought, mKhas grub rje’s sTong thun chen mo. The text is a detailed critical exposition of the theory and practice of emptiness as expounded in the three major school of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy:
The Yogcara, Svatantrika, and Prasangika. Used as a supplement to the scholastic debating manuals in some of the greatest monasteries of ‘Tibet, the sTong thun chen mo is a veritable encyclopedia of Mahayana Buddhist philosophical, dealing with such topics as hermeneutics, the theory of non-duality, the linguistic interpretation of emptiness, the typology of ignorance, logic, the nature of time, and the perception of matter across world spheres. This book is an indispensable source for understanding the Tibetan dGe lugs pa school’s synthesis of the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) and Epistemological (Pramanika) traditions of Indian Buddhism. In addition, it is an unprecedented source for the philosophical polemics of fifteenth century Tibet.
“It is encyclopedic and covers the most important ideas in the whole fabric of Indian Mahayana-Tibetan Buddhism. It brings to sharp relief the many debates, controversies, and variant interpretations of the key issues. Some of the elucidations are only found in these Tibetan sources and thus increases the value of this work.”
With these words the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, begins his Metaphysics.’ Although history has been witness to a plethora of interpretations of these seven words. Ortega y Gasset’s must be one of the most interesting. In his Postscript to an essay in What Is Philosophy2 he states: “To know is to be not content with things as presented to us, but to seek beyond their appearance for their being. This ‘being’ of things is a strange condition:
It is not made clear in things; but on the contrary, it throbs hidden within them, beneath them, beyond them.’ There is a sense in Buddhism also in which we might say that it is natural for man or woman to know. Knowledge, and specifically knowledge of the true nature of things, of the “being” that lies throbbing within things, as Ortega y Gasset puts it, is our destiny as human beings. It is natural for human beings both to know and to want to know. Hence, it is not truth in and of itself that will set us free, but our appropriation of it, our knowledge of it.
Ortega y Gasset also recognizes, however, that the being of things “is not clear,” that it is “hidden.” Buddhists also believe that reality is not evident to us, that, while always present, it evades our attempts at apprehending it. The reason for this has to do with the condition of our own mind, with the fact that we have accustomed ourselves to constantly misperceiving the world. This continual misapprehension of ourselves, of others and the world around us is called ignorance, and it is said to be the cause of all of the pain and anguish in the cycle of rebirth, this world known as samsara. Hence, mKhas grub rje, the author of the text translated here, begins his polemical treatise on insight meditation called The Lamp for Eliminating the Darkness of Evil Paths3 with these words:
Apart from meditation on the correct view
There is no path that can destroy the root of samsara.
In Buddhism ignorance (skt. avidya; tib. ma rig pa) is said to be the most basic cause of suffering. In this context ignorance does not refer to a passive lack of factual knowledge but to an active misapprehension of the world. It is considered an innate, prelinguistic, psychological predisposition that, having found a niche in the minds of sentient beings, causes us to suffer. This ignorance, which is the active superimposition of a certain kind of ontological status onto entities that lack them, is believed to be at the very root of the trials and tribulations that affect not only human beings, but all sentient life forms that inhabit this universe of limited existence. Certainly, one of the most important of the Buddha’s insights was the fact that neither suffering nor its most fundamental cause, ignorance, is an adventitious thing. Instead, the tradition has consistently maintained that both suffering and its cause could be overcome through the application of an antidote.3 That antidote is called wisdom (ski. prajna; tib. sues rob), and it refers to the understanding of realty, the ultimate nature of all phenomena. Being the antidote to ignorance, it brings about the reversal of the normal misperception of the world to which living things are heir. The understanding of the true and final nature of our selves and of the world around us is said to be the force that brings an end to suffering, liberating the person to lead the life of an awakened one, a buddha. The object that wisdom perceives, the ultimate nature of phenomena, the reality that eludes sentient beings in their limited modes of thought, is (at least in Mahayana Buddhism’) called emptiness (skt. sunyata; tib. stong pa nyid). It is little wonder, therefore, that emptiness has been characterized as “the central philosophy of Buddhism.’
What follows is an annotated translation of one of the most important works on emptiness in the history of the scholastic tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the sTong thun chen mo (lit) of the fourteenth century scholar-saint, mKhas grub dGe legs dpal bzang po. It is an encyclopedic work that aims at synthesizing into a coherent whole the most important strands of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy around one central theme, that of emptiness. The dGe lugs pa, or, as it was known in its early days, the dGe’ ldan pa school of Tibetan Buddhism, of which mKhas grub ne is the third patriarch, is both historically and intellectually the culmination of a long tradition of scholasticism that began in the early centuries of the common era in India with such figures as Asaga and Nagarjuna. Following in the steps of his master, the founder of the dGe Jugs pa school, the great Tsong kba pa bLo bzang grags pa (l357—l419), mKbas grub rje attempts a synthesis of the different schools of Mahayana Buddhist thought (the idealist school, known as the Yogacara or Cittamatra, and the nominalist, the Madhyamaka—itself divided into two sub- schools, the Svatantrika and Prasangika).
His approach is to create an interpretive scheme that at once validates these different schools as soteriologically useful while maintaining a gradation in philosophical accuracy (truth) that allows him ultimately to declare the “bright rays of the logical methods of the glorious Candra, that is, the Prasangika school of the Madhyamaka as elucidated in the works of Candrakirti (seventh century) and his successors, to be the ultimate and final expression of truth, the Buddha’s ultimate purport (dgongs pa mthar thug pa).” Based on a hermeneutical framework that seeks to interpret and reconcile the different (and oftentimes contradictory) scriptures upon which these schools were based, he sets forth the doctrine of emptiness in the Mahayana, contrasting it to the doctrines of the Buddhist “realists,” and throughout relying very heavily on the methodology of the school of Buddhist ‘logicians,” the Pramanika. Indeed, the particular synthesis of Madhyamaka although and Dharmakirti’s pramana method is considered one of the striking (and most controversial) features of the dGe lugs pa approach to Mahayana.
The later dGe Tugs pa tradition goes to the extent of characterizing this synthesis of the Madhyamaka and pramanika traditions as ‘two lions hack to back” (dbu tshad seng ge rgyab sprod), implying that it is an invincible philosophical stance impervious to external attack.
Much of mKhas grub rje’s work therefore can be seen as the synthesis and reconciliation of the different scholastic traditions of India. However, synthesis is only half of mKhas grub rje’s task. This was to a great extent already accomplished in the works of his master, Tsong kha pa. Equally, if not more important to mKhas grub rje was the defense of the views of Tsong kha pa against the attacks, both real and imagined, of rival philosophical schools. Hence, the TIC is both a didactic text and a polemical text, something that is witnessed as much by the style as by the content of the work.
For those with a love of the scholastic mind set, alas an endangered species in this postmodern age, the scope and detail of the TTC will be found to be truly amazing. In a text of less than 500 folio sides mKhas grub rje manages to touch upon most of the major issues of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, from prophecy to hermeneutics to psychology and meditation. The table of contents of the work, an exquisite piece of scholastic precision in its own sight, is a veritable curriculum for an advanced course in Buddhist metaphysic a. However, the very ambitious nature of the enterprise oftentimes makes the work demanding on the part of readers. I have attempted to ease the reader’s burden by supplying the context of arguments. or expanding on them, in brief explanatory notes. In view of the length of the work, and the additional task of annotating the copious citations from scriptural and commentarial sources on which mKhas grub rje relies, I have tried to keep these to a bare minimum. Be dial as it may, I can assure the reader that perseverance in regard to these more difficult portions of the text will be well rewarded.
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