The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
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Reviews the book `The Buddha Within,'by HookHam
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In The Buddha Within, Dr. S. K. Hookham reworks her dissertation (Oxford, 1986) outlining the Shentong tradition in Tibet and its view of ultimate reality.
"Shentong" (gzhan stong, other-empty) is a term used in Tibet to refer to a view of ultimate reality as a wisdom consciousness empty or free of the illusory phenomena of conditioned existence. Such a view owes heavily to the description of ultimate reality in the Tathaga-tagarbha Sutras and in the tantras.
One of the earliest proponents of this view was the Jo-nang-pa scholar, Dolpopa Shetab Gyaltsen ([[dol-po-pa [shes-rab rgyal-mtshan]], 1292-1361), whose massive study titled The Mountain Dharma:
An Ocean of Definitive Meaning (rl chos nges don rgya mtsho) outlined this doctrine, extensively citing from sutra and tantra in support of his position.
The Shentong position advanced by Dolpopa and later by such figures as the seventh Karmapa (1454-1506), the Sakya scholar, Sakya Chogden (gser-mdog-pan-chen Sakya mchog-ldan, 14281507), and most recently by one of the founders of the Rimay (ris med,
nonsectarian) movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? amgon Kontrol Lodro Thayay (jam-mgon kong-sprul blo-gros mtha'-yas, 1813-1899), was the object of sustained critique by scholars of other schools-notably those of the Geluk-pa traditions who advanced what is called a "rangtong" (rang stong, self-empty) view of ultimate reality.
These scholars held the ultimate truth to be an existent object of knowledge cognized by a wisdom consciousness.
Such an object of a wisdom consciousness is held to be a nonaffirming negative--the absence of the inherent existence of any given phenomena, most importantly the self. Shentong advocates argue that this view of ultimate reality fails to account adequately for the qualities associated with a Buddha's wisdom, although it does account for the nature of illusory phenomena.
The political upheaval in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that led to the ascendency of the Geluk-pa tradition and to the establishment of the Fifth Dalai Lama's government also brought with it the eventual censoring of the Shentong position. The literature of Shentong advocates was banned, and wood blocks and extant texts were seized and destroyed or sequestered.
While these actions seem to have been politically motivated, the effect was the partial silencing of an important and vital stream of interpretation and thought. Dr. Hookham expressly indicates that she has published her work in order to bring this tradition to light, noting that, until now, most Western academic works on Tibetan Buddhist views of ultimate reality have used Geluk-pa sources and hence have not presented a fair account of this alternate tradition. Dr. Hookham's book is broken into three sections.
Using a doxo-graphical outline provided her by a modern Kagyu lama, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso,  Hookham first outlines the particulars of the debate between the Rangtong and Shentong traditions on several key issues:
(1) the meaning of emptiness,
(2) the nature of the Buddha's wisdom,
(3) the necessity to determine ultimate reality through faith and direct experience rather than reason,
(4) how to interpret Tathagatagarbha Sutra teachings on the presence of Buddha Nature in all beings, and (5) how to determine definitive and interpretable passages in the sutras (the neyartha-nitartha controversy) .
Following this largely philosophical discussion, Hookham then presents a brief history of the Shentong tradition and an outline of the textual history of the Ratnagotravibhaga and its commentary, the Vakhya. This text has become the focus of many of the debates concerning the final nature of reality; indeed, it is generally held to be a pivotal text linking together sutra and tantra views on this matter.
The final section of Hookham's work presents a Shentong interpretation of this text and a brief translation of the introduction to Jamgon Kontrul's nineteenth-century commentary.
Hookham's approach is broad and covers a wealth of issues ranging from textual histories to features of doctrine such as the tathagatagarbha, gotra, and Buddhajnana.
In the course of her discussion she frequently makes interesting asides. One such was a subtle distinction offered by Dolpopa who emphasized that despite the tantric teaching that conventional and ultimate truths were inseparable, "what the practitioner thinks he experiences is mostly false (samvrti).
His/her task is to gain confidence in the true essence of his/her experience... so that samvrti (false) appearances fall away" (p. 87). She feels that many modern practitioners err in believing they should meditate on the illusory apparent world as inseparable with the ultimate truth, rather than meditate on their true self-nature.
While these issues are important and her discussion of each point interesting, Hookham was not effective in linking different topics together or in summarizing individual sections. This is partly due to the fact that her discussion calls on the arguments of a wide range of scholars.
She generally does not supply information about the context for a given remark, and yet the implicit content of a remark often leads her to bring up secondary or subsidiary issues that, while interesting, require more detail or background, and draw us away from the thrust of her point. Hence, while it is clear that she is aware of many interesting issues, such as the relationship of the language of tantric accounts of ultimate reality to that of sutra, we do not always get a clear sense of how this relates to the issue at hand.
A related problem comes from ;;Hookham's decision to present philosophical material first and then to outline the history of the figures of the Shentong tradition. We are introduced to figures haphazardly, and the historical background does not inform her discussion of the philosophical issues.
Nor are we given sufficient insight into the philosophical contexts of certain remarks. Rather, scholars tend to be collapsed as either Rangtong or Shentong adherents, while the contexts that informed their respective remarks and the intuitions to which they respond remain unexplored.
Not surprisingly, given Hookham's use of doxography and her stated aim, her treatment of the Rangtong position, and in particular the Geluk-pa tradition, is not always extensive enough, but rather are "served up" in counterpoint to the Shentong position.
See, for instance, her extremely general assessment of the Rangtong view about truth as "a truth about something else" (p. 79).
Hookham indicates that she worked with a number of contemporary Tibetan scholars, and her discussion reflects "inhouse" assessments of Tibetan history and thought.
One such is the rather general distinction drawn between "religious" and "rational" approaches to Buddhism, a distinction often made by modern Shentong teachers to valorize their tradition's emphasis on direct experience and faith.
Similar objections are often--fairly--directed at Geluk-pa presentations and doxographical accounts. Hence, I do not mean to single Hookham out on this score. Scholarship on Tibetan Buddhism seems to reflect the views of one's sources, and these sources usually invoke heuristic distinctions that do not do justice to the positions of their opponents,! would argue that we should strive to find ways to discuss these systemic differences so as to explore key moves and the intuitions for which they account, rather than to promote uncritically and perhaps unconsciously the polemics of the figures we study. Hookham's work also suffers from her use of "conventions."
Throughout the book she uses a set of Sanskrit and Tibetan terms without italicizing these and without diacritics (save in the index) and, in the case of the Tibetan terms, in an unconventional phoneticized form. Some of these are fairly standard, such as "bodhisattva," or "tantra." Others, such as nisprapanca (non-elaborated, pure), would have been handled better either as a foreign word, or with a translation equivalent. While she does offer a glossary for these terms, the respective glosses are brief and not particularly informative.
For instance, for dhatu, she states, "element: often in the sense of an open expanse or the expanse of emptiness and wisdom inseparable" (p. 364). These terms are inconsistently used, sometimes standing on their own, sometimes offered in brackets following an English equivalent, and sometimes followed by an English gloss. See above, where within the space of one sentence we have both "false (samvrti)" and "samvrti (false)."
Some terms appear as either adjectives of nouns, the most egregious instance of this tendency being the use of nisprapanca--for which she gives an extensive gloss and then a provisional translation--as both noun and adjective: she speaks of "the nisprapanca object of nisprapanca awareness," but also speaks of "an important discussion of nisprapanca" (pp. 69 and 77). In addition, her attempt to coin certain Tibetan terms such as "mayingag" (ma yin dgag, affirming negation) , was disturbing.
Her first use of such a term--that of "gagshi" (dgag gzhi, basis of refutation)--went unglossed and lacked any direction to the glossary. I found the use of these "conventions" distracting and disorganized, often making her point opaque. In addition, it would have been helpful to have all her conventions explained at one place at the beginning of the book rather than in appendixes and scattered throughout the text. Dr. Hookham's book is to be celebrated for its presentation of a previously censored view of ultimate reality in Tibetan Buddhism, one that has a long tradition and many advocates. Her treatment of the many themes shows considerable familiarity with the key issues in the Tibetan debates. Still, the scope and organization undermine her effort. This is too bad, for the material she hopes to share with us raises important questions as to Buddhist views on practice and liberation. One hopes that her work will spark further studies.
1. Throughout this review, I follow Hookham's
phoneticization for the terms Shentong and rangtong, as
well as for the names of figures in the Shentong
2. For an outline of the history of the Rimay movement, see
Gene Smith, Introduction to the Index of Kong sprul's
Encyclopedia of Indo-Tibetan Culture, ed. Lokesh Chandra
(New Delhi, 1970).
3. For these comments, I thank Matthew Kapstein, who has
recently brought back a copy of the complete works of
Dolpopa from a journey into Amdo and is preparing an
introduction and catalog for that set.
4. See Tsultrim Gyamtso, Khenpo, Progressive Stages of
Meditation on Emptiness, trans. Shenpen Zangmo (Oxford:
Longchen Foundation, 1986).