Collett Cox has given us one of those books that every specialist in Indian Buddhism will need to possess but seldom will read, by virtue of the subject matter's inherent opacity. A reworking of her 1982 doctoral dissertation from Columbia University, Disputed Dharmas is a fine piece of philological scholarship which investigates the questions and controversies of phenomena dissociated from thought (viprayukta-samskara-dharmah). This category of events (dharmas, which Cox calls factors) was developed by the Abhidharma doctors partly in response to philosophical challenges from their Brahmanical antagonists, partly to gloss over internal doctrinal difficulties. Incredibly, this category was at one time among the sexiest of topics within the Abhidharma schools of Buddhist intellectuals in monastic India.
As an arena of disputation, the category brought into fine focus the disparity between the two leading factions of Abhidharma advocates in north India. Cox has done yeoman's service by patiently outlining the circumstances and ideas of the two major disputants - Vasubandhu for the Sautrantikas and Sanghabhadra for the Vaibhasikas - and translating relevant portions from Xuanzang's Chinese rendering (T.29.1562) of the lost Sanskrit of Sanghabhadra's Nyayanusara. Executing this strategy, Disputed Dharmas is divided into three principal sections: "Historical Introduction" (pp. 1-63), "Introductory Commentaries" (pp. 65-171), and "Translation" (pp. 173-411), followed by an abbreviated list of Chinese characters, bibliography, and a very useful index (pp. 413-79).(1)
The "Historical Introduction" is an excellent summation of the received wisdom of philological enquiry on the corpus of Abhidharma literature, although modern Abhidharmikas will inevitably quibble over some of the representations given. Cox presents the two standard hermeneutical etymologies of the term abhidharma and discusses the methods of exegesis found in this variety of literature, including differences of opinion on how the form began. Moving to the background of the controversy at hand, she delineates the circumstances surrounding the formation of the orthodox Kashmiri Vaibhasika tradition from the larger corpus of Sarvastivada texts and the challenges to the Vaibhasika doctrines by the Sautrantikas. She finally specifies the debate in the related works of Vasubandhu - the most notorious Sautrantika, whose Abhidharmakosa and Bhasya are the most important surviving Sanskrit representatives of the massive Abhidharma corpus - and Sanghabhadra, who both imitated and attacked the Abhidharmakosa and Bhasya.
Part II, "Introductory Commentaries," is a necessary attempt to explain to the uninitiated the nature of the "factors dissociated from thought" and something of the background. Quickly the reader finds himself in a world in which the nomenclature and jargon are at war with normative English comprehension. Thus, "Ontological Perspective Underlying Possession and Nonpossession" (pp. 87-88) is not a rigorous analysis of the nature of shamanic states and of healing from the action of spirits by exorcists on behalf of the possessed, but an examination of the ideas concerning "acquisition/obtainment," or however the term prapti is translated. Cox's introduction of the nomenclature is essential, because it dominates the entire second half of the book, part III, which is devoted to the translation of an extended refutation of Vasubandhu's section on the dissociated phenomena in Sanghabhadra's Nyayanusara.
I have found myself occasionally quibbling with Cox's interpretations of specific items, such as her attempt to extend the identity of lists (matrka) to both the Vinaya as well as the Abhidharma, thereby calling it into question as one of the important mnemonic methods feeding the movement that was to become Abhidharma. Certainly, the term matrka was applied to Vinaya summaries - and even infrequently extended to other summaries, as well. Yet the identity of those who memorize these lists as different from those who memorize the Vinaya or the Sutras is too well established to admit of such an interpretation. In all likelihood, the "upholders of the lists" (matrkadhara) represented the class of monks from whom the Abhidharma developed as an institutionalization of mnemonics, their standardization and exegesis. She is certainly right in pointing out that these lists were far more important to the genre among Theravada authors, but that does not preclude their contribution to Sanskrit literature.
This brings me to more substantive qualms. I continue to find myself uneasy with the historical or philosophical representations of those wedded exclusively to philological methodology. For example, Cox's historical introduction could have been markedly improved by a broader representation of Adhidharma within the culture of the Iranian language speakers (Kusana, Sassanian) who dominated the Gandhara area and continually threatened Indian orthodoxy in Kashmir. The reality of such threats was ultimately to materialize with the Ephthalite invasion of the upper Jhelum around 520 C.E. However, in Buddhist studies today, those who account themselves exclusively philologists seldom venture into issues proposed by mainstream historians. The unfortunate consequence of this proclivity is for specialists in sastras to operate in a curiously sealed environment in which "historical" discussions unaccountably avoid much of the stuff of history.
For example, the quantity of Abhidharma literature combined with its very arcaneness simply begs the obvious question: why on earth did otherwise presumably sane Buddhist monks dispense extraordinary amounts of their time in pursuit of this material? We might observe that questions of authority and authenticity seem to come into play in selected areas, but Cox's allusions to these issues leave the reader less than satisfied. Similarly, the topical treatment in part II is an accurate philological statement of the material. It requires, though, extended initiation into the arcane literature of the Abhidharma to be of value and, even then, leaves the reader wandering in a dimly lit field. Part of the problem, to be sure, simply comes from the materials' lack of wider treatment - were we more frequently presented with Abhidharma texts, familiarity would offset some of the opacity. Yet such facts simply indicate that a more thorough philosophical treatment of Abhidharma doctrines would be in everyone's best interests.
Traditionally, philologists have done spade work in translation and representation, while philosophically inclined specialists have taken the material thus rendered and unpacked it for a wider reading audience. This method, however, frequently ensures that the philosophers questioning the material in some depth do so with blind spots as to ramifications within other areas of the doctrinal corpus. When the received language of the material remains its original Sanskrit (whatever the textual vicissitudes), then the process is to some degree justifiable, or at least comprehensible. When the language, though, is as specialized as Chinese translations of Abhidharma, then the onus of interpretation bears more heavily on the specialist.
For example, chapter 10, "Name, Phrase, and Syllable," begins and ends with the suggestion that Abhidharmikas participated in the larger discourse of the Grammarians and may have contributed to the discussion on sphota. This is an intriguing suggestion, but it is dropped almost as soon as it is broached, disposed of with a few references to some older literature on the Grammarians instead of granting it the treatment Cox evidently believes it deserves. So, while Cox employs the diction approved in the sphere of philological enterprise, she could have extended her discussion of the central topics in clearer language for the benefit of all her readers.
These qualms need not detract from the fine quality of the fundamental text, and it remains true that any book that tries to be all things to all people does little for anyone. Cox treads a well-worn path in her method, and if some Indologists might wish philologists to pursue a more thorough historical treatment of their authors, few could question the excellence of her philological work per se. While stiff going, Disputed Dharmas will reward those with the courage and time to read it - it reveals some of the more important discussion of late Gupta Buddhist scholasticism. Professor Cox must be admired for her own fortitude in bringing this valuable material before us.
1 Without being obsessive, I must call attention to the privileging of German and Japanese authors in the bibliography. Cox's list of English language contributions to Buddhist studies seldom climbs out of the immediate post-World-War-II period - unless done by German or Japanese authors - and are not an entirely accurate reflection of more recent activity. On a lighter note, Etienne Lamotte's corpus has been inadvertently merged with that of Louis de La Vallee Poussin (p. 432).