The Buddha Within: Tathagatagarbha Doctrine according to the Shentong Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga-Review by Gimello

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The Buddha Within: Tathagatagarbha Doctrine according to the Shentong Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga-Review by Gimello
Citation: Gimello, Robert M. Review of The Buddha Within: Tathagatagarbha Doctrine According to the Shentong Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhaga, by S. K. Hookham. Journal of Asian Studies 51, no. 3 (1992): 624–26.

Among modern European, American, Indian, and Japanese scholars, it has long been the common assumption, if not always the explicitly advanced thesis, that Mahāyāna Buddhist thought reached a kind of philosophical pinnacle in the expostulation of Mādhyamika. The doctrine of emptiness (śūnyatā), as it was formulated by Nāgārjuna and interpreted by those among his intellectual heirs such as Candrakīrti who adhered to the strategy of argument known as prasaṅga (roughly, the reductio ad absurdum method), has been widely held to be Buddhism's paramount insight, its "central" and culminant philosophy. Moreover, those who have accorded paramountcy to the doctrine of emptiness and to the prāsaṅgika method of argument have often interpreted both simply as adamant abjurations of all constructive thought. Śūnyatā and prāsaṅgika have been understood to mean, in other words, that no constructed "view" (dṛṣṭi) of the nature of things-be they things mundane or supramundane-can possibly be true in any ultimate sense because any such view must surely entail one or the other of two antithetical errors. Those who take this approach insist that it is in the nature of views either that they imply the error of "eternalism" (śāśvatavāda), i.e., the assertion of permanently existing entities, or that they partake of the opposite error of "nihilism" (ucchedavāda), i.e., the assertion of the utter inexistence of entities. Neither of these two options can be admitted as legitimate, it is said, because each can be shown to lead to self-contradiction.

      Now if Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamika were truly the summit of Mahāyāna thought, and if that summit were, as has been alleged, no philosophical view in itself but only a rigorously negative dialectic by which all false views-meaning, all views-are deconstructed and shown to be null, then one might well wonder what to do with those many teachings in Buddhism (not to mention its broad array of practices) that seem to presuppose philosophical or soteriological affirmations of some absolute order of reality. What is to be done, for example, with the characteristic Mahāyāna assertion that all sentient beings possess the Buddha nature? How can this be so, or what can this mean, if all sentient beings are also empty and if no conceivable theory of sentient beings can be credited with ultimate truth? By what immanent or transcendent agency is the feat of enlightenment accomplished? As more and more attention has recently been paid to questions of this sort, and to the true diversity of pan-Asian Mahāyāna thought-as scholars have lately begun to resist the nti-Buddhist compulsion to identify a single "essence" of Buddhism-the assumption that the emptiness doctrine is Buddhism's ultimate truth, or that it means only what it is said to mean in the most prevalent modern interpretation of Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamika, has been called variously into question. S. K. Hookham's book is a kind of contribution to that questioning.

      Following the lead of present-day scholars like David Seyfort Ruegg and Takasaki Jikidō, Hookham has focused on the Tathāgatagarbha (Embryo/Womb of Buddhahood) tradition, and she has found therein a vigorous strain of Mahāyāna thought that, unlike Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamika as represented in the reigning modern interpretation, has been consistently intent to affirm a virtually hypostatic absolute reality that is at once transcendent and immanent. More specifically, Hookham offers us the first sustained treatment in a western language of "Emptiness of Other" tradition of Tibetan Buddhist thought. (I will use the author's own idiosyncratic romanization system throughout; in that system, the Tibetan term rendered as "emptiness of other" is "shentong.") This tradition, which she shows to have its roots in classical Indian Tathagatagarbha texts and which she suggests may have close analogues in East Asian Buddhism (e.g., Hua-yen), took sectarian shape in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, particularly in the thought of Yumo Mikyo Dorje and Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. These two men were the progenitors of a school whose members came to be known, after the name of their chief monastery, as the Jonangpas. No Jonangpa lineage survives today, but the Shentong tradition of thought has continued into the present under the auspices of other schools, lineages, or movements. The most notable of these is the Rimay or "ecumenical" movement, which began in the nineteenth century and which, in turn, has had profound influence on modern Kagyu and Nyingma. The central teaching of this tradition is that there is an absolute reality (called "Buddha Nature," "Tathāgatagarbha," "Dhātu," etc.). This absolute somehow dwells within every sentient being; indeed it comprises the core of each being's sentience and is the power which enables all beings to achieve Buddhahood. Yet, for all its immanence and universality, this absolute is also quite distinct from all things relative; indeed, it is so thoroughly autonomous and self-sustaining as to be "empty" of anything and everything "other than itself" (thus, the name "emptiness of other").

      Drawing especially on later Tibetan interpretations of one of the most important Indian Tathāgatagarbha texts, the Ratnagotravibhāga (a.k.a., Uttaratantra), and including a translation of the introduction to a commentary thereon by the nineteenth century Shentongpa, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrol Thaye (d. 1901), Hookham's study begins with a series of theoretical statements of what she takes to be the central issues surrounding the notion of shentong. Particularly emphasized are the difference between shentong and rantong (self-emptiness), the Shentong view of absolute reality, the role of faith and direct experience in the apprehension of the absolute, the implications of shentong for our understanding of the nature of sentient beings, the hermeneutics of shentong, etc. Especially noteworthy here is Hookham's consistent adherence to the Shentong point of view itself, which she distinguishes from the Gelugpa perspective on Tathāgatagarbha that informs the work of Ruegg, Takasaki, and others. These theoretical discussions are followed by an account of the history of the Shentong tradition, which is, in turn, followed by a summary of the Shentong interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga and the translation mentioned above. Following the surprisingly brief conclusion, several lengthy appendixes are devoted to a number of technical issues.

      Both the historical tradition and the theoretical issues that Hookham treats in this work are quite worthy of sustained attention. They reveal important aspects of Mahāyāna Buddhism that have too long been neglected by modern scholars, or too often and quite arbitrarily relegated to the status of the marginal and the "heterodox." There should be no doubt that further study of the Tathāgatagarbha tradition, along with its various historical and theoretical ramifications, will lead to a revisioning not only of Tibetan Buddhist thought (which would be shown to be a more various thing than the dominant Gelugpa "orthodoxy" would have us believe) but also of whole Mahāyāna intellectual heritage.

      It is all the more regrettable, then, that this particular work should prove so unsatisfactory, that it should fall so short of its own laudable aims. Written in a peculiarly dense and labored prose, The Buddha Within is frustratingly unfocused. Its structure of exposition is so unnecessarily complex that the thread of its argument becomes a skein as early as the opening chapters and the tangle is only made worse in subsequent chapters by the wearying repetition of certain stock formulae. But the problem is not merely one of style; Hookham, with many of her colleagues in the study of Tibetan Buddhism, seems to share either an inability or an unwillingness to extricate her argument from the cumbersome and obscure categories of the Tibetan schoolmen. As Ruegg and a few others have shown, such extrication is by no means impossible or ill-advised. Perhaps it is her strongly professed personal commitment to the tradition under study that has inhibited the author. She may feel that scholarly distance, or the adoption of a comparative perspective broad enough to include forms of Buddhist discourse other than those peculiar to Tibetan scholasticism, or the translation of Buddhist categories into those of modern Western religious and philosophical thought are all forms of impiety. In any case, what she has given us is an exercise more in intramural apologetics than in scholarship. The work is learned, to be sure, but it is also unwarrantedly arcane and intellectually agoraphobic, as though it were meant to be simply a contribution to the esoteric debates that continue apace in the still viable but very closed and traditional world of the Tibetan Buddhist academy. Also, one cannot help but feel that in this work, as in so many other works by contemporary students of Tibetan Buddhism, some law of chronological sequence has been broken. The Tathāgatagarbha tradition has a very long history. Some say, not unreasonably, that it is coeval with Mahāyāna itself. Knowing as little as we do about its early and classical formulations, should we not worry about premature exploration of the latest of its scholastic rarefactions? This book suggests that we should.

ROBERT M. GIMELLO, University of Arizona