The different philosophies of the Buddhist tradition are chiefly concerned
with the understanding of mind, consciousness, and mental states. In Buddhist
literature, the relative nature of mental phenomena are described in a rather
detailed manner, but more interestingly certain sections contain significant
hints pointing to the so-called true nature of the mind and, in particular, how
to access it. One of the terms referring to this true nature of mind is Buddha-nature, describing a quality of potential awakening inherent to the mind of everyone.
In Mipam on Buddha-Nature, Douglas S. Duckworth seeks to illustrate the Tibetan contexts in which this so-called Buddha-nature is variously described, conceptualized, and experienced. In doing so, he draws on approximately twenty-eight different Tibetan texts written by Mi pham ( 'jam mgon mi pham rgya mtsho, 1846–1912) that he quotes; translating and paraphrasing the quotes in order to discuss their purport in relation to a significant number of interpretations of the issue by earlier Tibetan Buddhist authors, all of which are based on the explanations found in the earlier Indian Buddhist literature. However, the main text selected and translated in full is Mi pham’s Bde gshegs snying po’i stong thun chen mo seng ge’i nga ro. Duckworth also cites later masters commenting on Mi pham’s writings, notably Bötrul (Bod sprul mdo sngags bstan pa’i nyi ma, 1898–1959).
His work primarily contributes insight into textual discussions taking place over centuries within the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition and, secondarily, attempts to position the issues discussed within a comparative philosophical dialogue. However, the aim of the book—in the words of its author—is “to provide a holistically-oriented account of Mipham’s view of Buddha-nature” (xvii). Duckworth’s book represents a valuable presentation that seeks to define and summarize the philosophical and ideological views of this significant and influential Tibetan Buddhist master.
It thereby joins the growing field of Mi pham studies, already represented by John W. Petit’s comprehensive Mipham’s Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, The Great Perfection (Wisdom 1999), followed by Karma Phuntsho’s magnificent Mipham’s Dialectics and the Debates on Emptiness: To Be, Not To Be or Neither (RoutledgeCurzon 2005) and Dorji Wangchuk’s short but excellent article “The rÑin˙-ma Interpretation of the Tathāgatagarbha Theory” (Vienna Journal of South Asian Studies 2004, 28: 171–213). While these publications have succeeded in positioning and contextualizing Mi pham both historically and philosophically, Duckworth has chosen to focus exclusively on elucidating the philosophical and soteriological discussions. As such, his book is an important in-depth study, but difficult to access from outside the field of Buddhist studies.
Duckworth illustrates how discussions of Buddha-nature in general are situated within the dialectical tension of pairs of seeming opposites such as svātantrika versus prāsangika Madhyamaka, rang stong versus gzhan stong, sūtra versus tantra, negation versus affirmation, rational logic versus subjective experience, the conceptual versus the non-conceptual, the relative versus the ultimate, etc. These parameters represent various interpretative strategies that all contribute a comprehensive presentation of the subject. However, since the ultimate nature of mind in the final analysis defies description, and consequently becomes inaccessible through language, a solution to the conundrum is to refer to it as a conceptual absence but an experienced presence. That which experiences this true nature is the so called self-reflexive awareness.
According to Duckworth, “Buddhist truth is immanently grounded in subjectivity” (xxxiii). Duckworth characterizes Mi pham as a postmodern interpreter balancing an emphasis on “participation in meaning” as evinced by his commentaries on yogācāra texts on the one hand and a so-called critical consciousness as displayed in his discourse in accordance with the Prasangika view on the other hand. This combination is presented as a necessary methodology and not a polarized dichotomy in the context of accessing Buddha-nature.
Mi pham’s own interpretative strategies apparently lean toward a conciliatory rather than a polemical approach, but as a dialectician he argues brilliantly from either side of the fence. He thereby exemplifies the true goal of the art of debate: the ability to illustrate a subject from various perspectives without necessarily identifying with a particular point of view, but rather understanding the relativity of any given position. This was one of the important characteristics of the so-called ri med movement, an eclectic, non-sectarian Tibetan Buddhist approach.
The ri med movement started by Mi pham’s teachers Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820–1892) and Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye (1813–1899) was already well under its way when Mi pham came into his prime. As their student, Mipham became a worthy heir and successor to the inception of the movement, and he certainly carried it forward into the twentieth century as its most central figure. Duckworth’s statement that a “primary architect of the era was Mipham” (xviii), however, strikes me as slightly inaccurate.
Duckworth’s undertaking is fraught with the challenges of extracting philosophical and soteriological meaning from a vast and complex field, situated in a historically and culturally remote area and presenting it in an accessible way. In this context, one may wonder what the necessary conditions are for a meaningful exchange of ideas, if Tibetan Buddhist philosophy is to enter into dialogue with the general field of philosophy of religion. A preliminary answer would be: well, for one thing, it will have to happen in a common language! So far, only a fraction of the vast Tibetan literature that contains surprisingly rich philosophical, epistemological, and metaphysical material of the Buddhist tradition has been translated into Western languages.
As such, Duckworth’s study has succeeded in making a significant intrareligious Buddhist dialogue available in English. It thereby represents a valuable piece of the puzzle in assembling a representative amount of material in English, thus contributing to the necessary conditions for future inter-disciplinary dialogue.
Much remains to be done in order to position Buddhist philosophy for serious dialogue with other fields. The central terminology should be clearly defined in a methodologically consistent way, perhaps in the form of an encyclopedia of terminology detailing the differing presentations by the different Buddhist philosophical schools and their interpretations by the various later Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and the individual interpretations of single masters within these traditions.
As more Tibetan Buddhist philosophical material becomes available in English, it seems to spark new interest from many other fields. This reflects back upon those already working in the growing field of Tibetan Buddhist studies and creates new enthusiasm but also new challenges.
University of Copenhagen