The Tantric Distinction，By Jeffrey Hopkins
and Compassion: A Tibetan Analysis, By Guy Newland
Reviewed by U. Bernis
Philosophy East & West
V. 38 No. 4 (October 1988)
Copyright 1988 by University of Hawaii Press
U. Bernis is from the Philosophy Department, State University of New York at Stony Brook
The Tantric Distinction is a description of the path to enlightenment through tantric practice, without excluding an understanding of Mahaayaana Suutra and Hiinayaana practices. Since the book condenses many topics discussed in texts previously translated by the author, such as Meditation on Emptiness, Tantra in Tibet, Tantric Practice in Nyingma, and Practice and Theory of Tibetan Buddhism, and since most of the texts are of the Kadampa/Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, it mimics the style of that tradition. It specifies the basic conditions, attitudes, and actions to be cultivated for following bodhisattva and tantric practices, claimed to be necessary for achieving enlightenment. It attempts to follow the classical outlines of the path which consists of an understanding of the reversibility of cyclic existence through compassion, an intention to gain enlightenment for the sake of all beings, the wisdom of emptiness, and deity yoga--in other words, the "complete" path.
The Tantric Distinction is based on two series of lectures given at an interval of four years. It still reads very much like a transcript of spoken words, containing many repetitions normally found in lectures, and is organized according to criteria not explicitly stated in the text. What audience is addressed here is also not clear-undergraduates, initiates? One wonders while reading it, "Is he aware of a living, breathing audience at all?"
Hopkins is so knowledgeable about the mechanics of this tradition that the effortless use of his self-generated terminology comes across, precisely, as mechanical. This hides complexities open to debate even within one particular Buddhist tradition. A large number of fairly complex issues get covered with simple assertions for which very often no reasons at all are given (for example, the irreversibility of bodhisattvas on the middling path of accumulation, or why one cannot achieve enlightenment through the "Perfection Vehicle" alone, but must practice tantra (p. 146)). For other claims, the reasons sometimes get deferred without warning (for example, reasons explaining assertions of false sense impressions (p. 19) are deferred to pages 138 and 142). Since Professor Hopkins uses argument indicators, such as "therefore," "because," "hence," "thus," and so on profusely, invoking airs of rationality, one feels justified in pointing out their obscuring function, even though this is clearly primarily a religious, not a philosophical, book. On the whole, it seems that he simply tries to cover too much ground without "unpacking" difficult points and without explaining why these issues are important. This is
surprising in something that explicitly announces itself to be an introductory text.
For the sake of simplifying the internal critique of Hopkins's book I will employ largely his own terminology. Some of the specific issues obscured here are as follows:
1. What is the ontological status of the high/low and other such distinctions? What exactly is the tantric distinction? What does it distinguish? If it is the unity between method and wisdom which distinguishes it from Suutra and Hiinayaana practice, as Hopkins points out, then why is it called a distinction? Does he want to repeat Hegel's absolutes? This would be utterly inappropriate within the Praasa^ngika-Maadhyamika context within which he wants to situate himself.
The "distinction" is stated in the singular, and the single most discussed distinction in the book is that between Hiinayaana and Mahaayaana. It gets introduced in the first chapter and finds its way repeatedly into various discussions. The importance of this distinction for tantric practice which justifies a whole book on it is not explained. One reason, "that the aim of making this distinction is to develop a good mind," is mentioned finally on page 125. But when the distinction between Hiinayaana and Mahaayaana unreflectively turns into a normative one grounded ontologically in absolute truth, it becomes necessary to reexamine the meaning of "good mind." For to suspect sectarianism in this context is presumably to have misunderstood the meaning and depth of bodhisattva practice. Bodhisattvas do not think of themselves as higher or greater in contrast to those on a so-called lower path at any time, not even temporarily, as Hopkins seems to assert on page 55 and imply on page 93. On the contrary, in "Thought Transformation in Eight Stanzas" Langri Tangpa Dorje Senge says: "When accompanying anyone I shall view myself as the lowest of all and in the depth of my heart dearly shall hold others as supreme" (G. Mullin's translation). This is the basis for all Kadampa/Gelugpa bodhisattva practice. On this point I think Professor Hopkins differs from Tsong-ka-pa in his presentation of "only one path leading to Buddhahood" (p. 93), although he relies on and quotes Tsong-ka-pa repeatedly to justify what might be called a kind of "one-path-only" fundamentalism.
To assert that the Praasa^ngika-Maadhyamika is the only system which leads to enlightenment could be true only from the point of view of the path--that is, for someone engaged in it, for whom such an assertion would be understood as a skillful means, not as an absolute truth. Perhaps what is suggested here is that Professor Hopkins is a Praasa^ngika-Maadhyamika only "by tenet, not by path." But this is not the problem either. Even though it is clear whom he admires, he does not state his own position within the tradition explicitly; Rather, his presentation of the "complete" path, the one path, to Buddhahood assumes a quasi-neutral standpoint--a generalization which suppresses
the uniqueness of the individual practitioner--making possible a claim to perfect objectivity, called truth. The "God's-eye" view of all possibilities implied here is paradigmatic of Western enlightenment thinking.
This is a perfect example of how unquestioned presuppositions of one's own cultural matrix find their way into presentations of other cultures. It is this claim to complete objectivity--for example, including all paths in one's account of the one truly superior to all others, on the one hand, and the rhetorical use of second-person pronouns, as if addressing a congregation from a superior distance on the other--which lends to Hopkins's voice the one of a preacher preaching the truth. Our ears are too sensitive, trained as they are by twentieth-century fundamentalist challenges of various sorts, to feel comfortable with such a voice.
It is important to sort out the tradition Hopkins thinks he represents from his representation of that tradition in more detail to understand better what went wrong with this book. If a practice demands that an account of the complete path to enlightenment be given which does not exclude or even neglect an appropriate account of all other seemingly contradictory paths, as Gelugpa practice does, then it is important for the person giving that account to signal in which way it is also only a perspective. Fundamentalism, after all, is one of the extremes to be avoided in Maadhyamika philosophy. But this has to be the responsibility of the individual practitioner, since, presumably, a final account of a path cannot be given by a text alone. Rather, in addition to appropriate texts and intertextual analyses, it depends also upon a mind ascertaining emptiness of meanings of words and structures of arguments. In other words, completeness, oneness, or finality of a path cannot "inherently exist," that is, as characteristics of a path conceived of as separate from one's own engagement in it.
It is not sufficient to assert that the "Consequence School" teaches that through no other tenet system can you free yourself from cyclic existence" (p. 127), because every other system--Buddhist and non-Buddhist--makes effectively the same claim. "How can we make sense of such a claim in a nondogmatic way?" it seems to me, ought to be the question here--a question to be posed repeatedly by a sincere practitioner, because taking such statements literally only moves one to the edge of fundamentalism.
To see the path one has chosen to practice as final and exclusive on the basis of personal commitment is a very different issue from believing that path to be "objectively" one. The former is a matter of the unique individual's action in a unique context, the latter a generalization most likely based on an unreflective belief in "inherently existing" oneness. But such a move, probably easily overlooked by a Western-educated person, obscures the uniqueness and so, the authentic moments of that path--which includes teaching others, but which, without the insertion of the unique individual, becomes merely mechanically repetitive. Surely the mark of a spiritual person, what-
ever the tradition may be, is not to act on a generalized or merely theoretical basis called "path," but to take as a basis a repeated commitment while living in the authentic moment of a path--a path which.is not complete unless it recognizes its own perspectival nature and remains open to all others: that is, unless it is empty of deadly dogma.
Hopkins clearly means to point this out when he invokes Tsong-ka-pa but does not practice it: "Dzong ka-ba says that the refutation of mistaken systems of thought is a branch of the refutation of the innate conception of inherent existence" (p. 140). To call the objects refuted "errors" in other Buddhist and non-Buddhist systems when, as he himself points out, they are conceptions of inherent existence in one's own mind, is highly problematic. On his own terms, since it is a refutation of a conception of inherent existence of systems and not of systems per se, and since that refutation is a non-affirming negation, one cannot really declare the finality or exclusiveness of one's own system. It could be done legitimately only as an individual commitment to practice one path: a commitment understood to be part of skillful means--but not separately from emptiness--as part of the conditions for achieving enlightenment. This is precisely why some of the Maadhyamika arguments take the form of pointing out absurd consequences of the other's position. It is a methodological attempt to safeguard against absolutism.
2. The same criticism holds for Professor Hopkins's treatment of non-Buddhist systems of thought-specifically , Saa^mkhya. His comparison on page 96 is invalid because in the Buddhist context he speaks of a Buddha and in the Saa^mkhya context he speaks of a practitioner. He points out several times that a bodhisattva's wisdom consciousness does not function simultaneously with a consciousness that works in the world for others--something he holds against the practitioner of Saa^mkhya. Everything he says of practitioners in the Hindu traditions (pp. 143-144) he has said at various times about bodhisattvas. Embodiment is beginningless in Saa^mkhya, too; there is no creature in heaven or on earth who does not partake of prak.rti or embodiment (Bhagavad-Giitaa, 18:40). Yes, there are differences, but not of "truly existing" high and low. Again, this is not a simple matter that one can adequately deal with in a few paragraphs, as he tries to do.
3. Hopkins asserts several times that a bodhisattva's practice on the middling path of accumulation endowed with a conceptual understanding of emptiness is irreversible (pp. 116-117)--an assertion for which no reasons are given. Again, things are not that simple. What about the damage anger can do to a bodhisattva's practice? "One moment of hating a Conqueror Child destroys the virtues arising from giving and ethics accumulated for a hundred eons" (Candrakiirti, Hopkins's translation). It is not until the third ground, or "Perfection of Patience," according to Candrakiirti, that a bodhi-
sattva no longer can fall back, because only at this stage, Naagaarjuna would say, are desire and hatred extinguished completely.
4. Hopkins asserts several times that the main object for bodhisattva practice is the welfare of sentient beings and that Buddhahood is only secondary (pp. 43, 88, 92). What are we to make of Candrakiirti's comment, then, that "Bodhisattvas wish to attain fully even Buddhahood, which is the cause of the arising of the excellent taste of the nectar of the excellent doctrine, which has the character of reversing all perverse conceptions, and which has the nature of complete friendship for migrators" (G. Newland's translation)? If Buddhahood were not the main focus of bodhisattvas, then why do the multiple lines of reasoning that a bodhisattva is to master and apply aim first and foremost at overcoming the obstacles preventing enlightenment, as Hopkins correctly explains (p. 131), rather than at being understood primarily as compassionate teaching devices with which to lead others to enlightenment?
5. Another potentially obscuring claim is that one has to know how to rely on a teacher and maintain a sense of pure appearance of him before one can take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, Sa^ngha, when it is clearly stated in many texts, including Tsong-ka-pa's various lam.rim ("Stages of the Path") texts, that fear of different kinds of suffering and faith in the Triple Gem's power to help are sufficient causes for taking refuge.
There are other points; for example, there are the complex relations between great compassion, appearance, relative truth, and relative bodhicitta in tantra, which differ according to levels and stages of the path. I cannot deal with all of them here, but what I want to suggest is that perhaps it is better to do partial justice to one or two complex issues of a particular tradition than to do injustice to the whole.
I also had problems with Professor Hopkins's rhetorical strategies, style, examples, and metaphors. It seems he has so much to say that he is unable to find enough words to carry the meaning, and this results in serious gaps. But it is not clear whether this is not perhaps just a poor editing job. An example of a "gap" occurs on page 128, where he says that Candrakiirti came with the "express purpose of setting straight Naagaarjuna's teaching." Does that mean that it is seriously flawed, wrong, incomplete? We are not told. Several times he keeps insisting on tables being neither concrete nor findable. Well, tables are concrete and findable, even if not in the sense we think they are. Presumably, he is talking about a table believed to be an independently existing, concrete entity. Another strange, recurring expression is "sentient beings throughout space." Where else would sentient beings be but in space? Moreover, Hopkins claims there are those which do not exist in space, those with "mental bodies." It seems to be a literal translation of the Tibetan
nam.mkhai.mtha dang mnyam.pai sems.chen.tham.che, or roughly: "sentient beings equal to the limits of space''--in other words, limitless beings. Also, does a woman really ever consider her baby as having.been " part of her own basis of designation" (p. 66)? Is not the mind always "capable of being altered by practice'' (p. 127) according to this tradition, for how could all living beings otherwise live in the potentiality of becoming Buddhas? There are terms such as "lineage" (pp. 88-90) (how is this different from "path"?), "wish-granting jewel'' (p. 108), "bearing analysis" (p. 56), and "mere sport of emptiness" (p. 79) that one wishes he would explain for those not initiated into his language. Are "etymologize" and "quintessentialize'' really verbs?
As mentioned already, Professor Hopkins likes to use logical markers to give his discourse a tone of authority. Unfortunately, he uses a "therefore" so often when he has not yet given a reason--let alone presented an argument--that his mode of discourse becomes utterly unpersuasive. I am not merely being uncharitable; I realize that Buddhist arguments work differently from Western logic. But if one chooses to use such markers, one ought to attempt to present arguments. Instead he ends up with false dilemmas (p. 97, for example) and a number of highly dubious analogies, the most outrageous and offensive of which is about Hitler (pp. 71-72). Here he discusses the karmic connection between a great adept of Buddhism and his disciples and then moves on to Hitler as an analogue. But there is no comparison possible between the two. In the first case he is speaking of the negative relationships that the people around an adept might create, thereby establishing a karmic link with him or her, and in the second case he speaks of Hitler--clearly not a religious adept--who created negative relationships by having caused unimaginable suffering to countless beings.
Another, yet different, misuse of analogical reasoning is found on page 136, where the absence of a great Dane in this room is compared with an ascertainment of emptiness. Even though the analogy holds for the certainty of absence, it is misleading in this context because emptiness is a non-affirming negation and hence of a very different order from the simple absence of an object conceivably to be found some place else. This distinction plays an important role in Buddhist logic texts. Hopkins sometimes seems to make up the rules for inference as he goes along. For example, it does not obviously follow from the fact that the conception of the self concerning people and other phenomena is not something as meaningless as the mistake of thinking rabbits have horns, that the Consequence School's teaching of emptiness is subtler than that taught by other schools and hence uniquely qualified to teach the emptiness of all phenomena (p. 112). Is joy really experienced in a hierarchical manner expressed analogically (p. 62)? Perhaps it is, for someone who compares love and compassion to a mural, as being painted onto an even surface (p. 109).
Unless one has enough knowledge of the tradition not to need this book, one cannot fill in the gaps, and some of these terms and connections will
inevitably sound very strange. While one can appreciate Professor Hopkins's attempt to bring his discussion of highly complex intellectual issues down to earth, to the level of a beginning practitioner, one wonders whether his examples--such as: "mayonnaise smeared over a piece of bread," for the way we perceive the relation between whole and parts; or "marble in a piece of meat," as an analogue for an inherently existing object; or "a cloak made of turtle hair," for a fabricated network of beliefs in truly existing reality--really have the power to inspire anyone not already fully committed to Buddhist practice. I wish Professor Hopkins would listen to his own advice: "You need a playful attitude towards the teachings and a willingness to engage in it experimentally" (p. 29).
A cross-cultural translation, such as Hopkins's book, must make explicit the intellectual/historical context and the presuppositions at work, which show why the work is structured in the particular way it is, so that an outsider can find access to it. Hopkins does not do this. On the other hand, he does not participate in the embarrassingly late arrival in Buddhist scholarly circles of the cult of Wittgenstein and spares us clumsy comparisons between his and Maadhyamika philosophies. He does not encourage irresponsible scholarship by comparing superficial similarities between Eastern and Western systems of thought which, when analyzed properly, are found to have nothing whatsoever to do with each other because of entirely different aims, presuppositions, and systematic contexts within which each is inextricably embedded. To equate Humean "identitylessness,'' for example, with that of any Buddhist tradition, or to assume unquestionably that intertextual Maadhyamika analyses are the same as Western "hermeneutics," seems to me to reveal a naive belief in fixed decontextualizable surface meanings of terms, that is, naive linguistic realism. The same holds for Parfit's view of persons--based as it is on his particular version of utilitarian calculus--as approximating, or in any way resembling, the view of persons in Buddhist philosophy. I do not want to suggest that comparison is not possible or desirable, but that it is necessary to find a "middle way" between Hopkins's kind of literalism and his critics' brand of linguistic realism to gain meaningful access to texts of vastly different cultural contexts in a way which does them justice.
Guy Newland studied with Professor Hopkins, and his Compassion: A Tibetan Analysis uses Hopkins's language and culturally decontextualized style of translation. But, given that framework, it is an excellent translation with careful attention to important detail. Again, the task of writing a critique for Western academics of a text belonging to a tradition in which criticism means something very specific--namely, criticizing misconceptions about modes of being for the purpose of developing spiritual insight--seems a self-defeating task, without first examining what kind of critical method is appropriate here. Even though a book review is not the format within which to solve the problems of translation and cross-cultural criticism in general, raising these issues as problems is nevertheless appropriate in this instance.
Newland's translation is inaccessible to someone who has not extensively studied and practiced the methods of training in the great monastic universities of Tibet, such as Sera--for whose Seraje College this text (only parts of which are translated here) is a "textbook" for Maadhyamika debate. It is a discussion by Jetsun Chokyi Gyaltsen (fifteenth to sixteenth centuries), in classical Maadhyamika debate format, of the opening stanzas of Candrakiirti's Guide to the Middle Way, concerning the praise to great compassion. Taken through Tsong-ka-pa's commentary, Clear Illumination of the Intention, it aims at bringing about an understanding of emptiness in a dialogical fashion. Although Newland's summary of the arguments presented in the Tibetan original is very helpful to someone not familiar with this style of reasoning, he does not specify the complex context within which this form of thinking makes sense. For, to be able to do Maadhyamika reasoning depends on extensive training in forms of argumentation other than that of the Maadhyamika Consequence School. These include basic forms of inference (misleadingly called syllogisms in most Western literature) and arguments concerning the structure of understanding, or mind (blo.rigs), and of reasoning itself (rtags. rigs). But it is not until a footnote to page 77 that Newland gives basic inference rules for Buddhist forms of argumentation.
The role of reasoning, its importance, and its forms are not as clearly discussed in this book as need be for making the highly specialized original text accessible to Westerners not already thoroughly familiar with the necessary conditions for Maadhyamika styles of debate. Consider, for example, the following stanza by Candrakiirti:
Mercy alone is seen as the seed
of a Conqueror's rich harvest,
As water for development, and
as fruition in a state of long enjoyment.
Therefore, at the start I praise compassion. (p.102)
To call this metaphorical description a syllogism sounds at best naive to a Western-educated person. Far from legitimizing the genuinely important forms of reasoning in Buddhist contexts, it trivializes them. After all, reasonable and persuasive arguments almost never take the form of syllogisms.
Newland himself does not seem completely convinced of the importance of Maadhyamika debate in refuting linguistic idealism, naive linguistic realism, and logicism, or--to use his terminology--belief in the inherent existence of meanings and forms of inference. It is to make these specialized forms of refutation possible that Jetsun Chokyi Gyaltsen pays such attention to formulation of precise terminology, and not because of the view that "If one gets the right words in the right order at the hearing stage, one will be less prone to error in one's thinking" (p. 9), as Newland thinks. If this text were understood in its appropriate rational context and one were to experiment with the Maadhyamika style of reasoning, showing the absurd consequences of actually
held specific positions, this could be an incredibly exciting text. But, painful as it is to follow the details of the argumentation, for such an exercise to yield satisfaction would depend upon a prior understanding of what is to be refuted here.
One of the subjects to be refuted must be the belief in inherently existing continuity as the "foundation consciousness," if Newland is correct in claiming that Candrakiirti's treatment of great compassion as a cause-effect relation serves to refute a particular Cittamaatra ("Mind-Only" School) interpretation of Naagaarjuna's Fundamental Stanzas on the Middle Way (Muulamadhyamakakaarikaa). For the sake of experiencing the power of Maadhyamika analysis--that is, if one wants to see this text "in action," so to speak, and, moreover, is sympathetic to the view that emptiness has to be understood inferentially before it can be understood intuitively--then I highly recommend studying this text in conjunction with the Cittamaatra presentation in Paul Griffith's excellent book, On Being Mindless (LaSalle: Open Court, 1986). In studying these two texts together it becomes much clearer how great compassion is able to perform all the functions of continuity attributed to the foundation consciousness in Cittamaatra. Unlike any abstract notion of all-encompassing unity and oneness conceived of as separate from ongoing continuity--of which the foundation consciousness can be seen as one example--great compassion is an intentional consciousness, since it has all sentient beings as its object (where "all" means concrete "each'' and "every"). And, unlike the foundation consciousness, and so on, great compassion is internally complex because it goes through different stages of development and it arises in dependence upon living beings who are limitless and who have different needs at different times. This aims at explaining continuity and unity without sacrificing complexity and multiplicity.
I appreciate Newland's concern for wanting to emphasize the context of personal engagement that compassion provides for the Mahaayaana practice of critical inquiry. I agree that it is an extremely important point often neglected by Western academics, for the tremendously important role it plays within Mahaayaana Buddhism (and especially Praasa^ngika-Maadhyamika) can hardly be overlooked in the classical texts. Great compassion functions in the shift from the mirror stage of seeing others to acknowledging that, indeed, on all levels we do affect all others and vice versa. A failure to understand this function clearly or to engage in this shift (which parallels the one from perceptual to linguistic analyses) is likely to lead to a form of nihilism--one of the extremes to be avoided here.
It would be good if Newland were to apply his excellent translation skills to a text for which he can create the appropriate context and which has not already been preceded by a translation of a very similar kind and material, that is, Hopkins's Compassion in Tibetan Buddhism.