A Buddhist Psychology of Emptiness
Philosophy East & West
Vol. 40 No.2
Copyright by University of Hawaii Press
BOOK REVIEWS Nagarjuna's "Seventy Stanzas": A Buddhist Psychology of Emptiness. By David Ross Komito. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1987. Pp. 226. $14.95. David Ross Komito, in his preface to this new translation of Najarjuna's Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness (Sunyatasptati), credits Geshe Sonam Rinchen and Tenzin Dorjee with improving his understanding of the text, which he first translated as part of his 1979 dissertation at Indiana University. This book contains their collaborative translation of Nagarjuna's text, along with Geshe Rinchen's commentary on each of the seventy-three verses. Komito organizes the book into three chapters. The first chapter is his own commentary on the text from the perspective of psychology. This chapter introduces the basic Buddhist doctrines that have influenced Nagarjuna's works and the later teachings on epistemology and logic incorporated into the Tibetan monastic curricula, which have influenced contemporary Dge-lugs-pa scholars' interpretations of Nagarjuna's works. The second chapter contains the heart of the book: a translation of the stanzas alone and the translated stanzas along with Geshe Rinchen's commentary. In the third chapter Komito discusses the authenticity of the Seventy Stanzas and of the "autocommentary" attributed to Nagarjuna, and traces the history of the text's transmission into Tibet. This short work of the great Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (circa 150-250 CE) presents the Mahayana teaching of the emptiness (Sanskrit, sunyata; Tibetan, stong pa nyid) of all phenomena against the backdrop of the early Buddhist formula of the twelve limbs of dependent origination (Sanskrit, pratityasamutpada; Tibetan, rten 'brel). Komito explains that people's habitual perception of phenomena as "independent, self-sufficient entities which bear their own characteristics independently of the perceiving subject" is the fundamental distortion in the cognitive process that generates attraction and revulsion and "sets the samsaric cycle of the twelve limbs in motion" (p. 73). He devotes much of the first chapter to summarizing the contemporary Dge-lugs-pa scholars' explanations of sections of Asanga's Compendium of Abhidharma (Abhidharmasamuccaya) and Dharmakirti's Commentary to Ideal Mind (Pramanavarttika) on cognition. Since these works constitute an important part of the monastic curriculum, this summary provides the reader with a context for understanding Geshe Sonam Rinchen's commentary on the Seventy Stanzas. But the methodological problems of explaining Nagarjuna's thought in terms of epistemological theories developed centuries later in India and refined further in the monastic colleges of Tibet are obvious. Curiously, in a chapter in which Komito proposes to use psychology as "a context for translating Nagarjuna's conceptions and intentions into a form which will be meaningful to the modern person" (p. 15), there is little mention of Western psychological theories on the cognitive process. The Seventy Stanzas is not the sort of text of which one can expect a translation with much literary merit. The verse format of the text and its abundant use of technical Buddhist vocabulary make it a difficult work to render well in English. Komito says that since previous translations of Nagarjuna's treatises "were prone to being inaccurately read, though translated correctly, simply because they were so terse," they have chosen to "interpolate English words into our translation of the stanzas which are not found in the original text but which do reflect the meaning of Nagarjuna, at least as the Tibetans interpret Nagarjuna" (p. 13). But in many cases, their translation amounts to a paraphrase of the text with commentarial material added. The translators place in italics all the words which correspond to the Tibetan text. Occasionally some words appear in italics that are not in the text; for example, the text of 11cd (phan tshun rgyu phyir de gnyis ni / rang bzhin gyis ni ma grub yin/ )is translated: "Because ignorance and karmic formations are interrelated as cause and effect so these two are known by a valid cognizer not to exist inherently" (pp. 115-116). The text reads: "Since they are caused by one another, these two are not established as inherently existent." The phrase "known by a valid cognizer" is a commentarial gloss. There are also some odd translations of Buddhist technical terms, for example, the translation of rnam rtog (Sanskrit, vikalpa) as "preconception" in verses 34 and 60 instead of the more usual "conception" or "discrimination." This creates some confusion when the same English word is used to translate another term phyin ci log (Sanskrit, viparyasa) in verse 62ab: de nyid rtogs pas phyin ci log / bzhi las byung ba'i ma rig med/--which is translated as "The mind which directly understands emptiness is an unmistaken mind which eliminates the ignorance that arises from the four evil preconceptions." This inconsistent rendering of Buddhist terms should have been eliminated in the final draft of the translation. In the passage cited above, the key expression de nyid appears to be missing from the translation. A more literal translation of 62ab would be: "By understanding reality (de nyid), the ignorance that arises from the four errors no longer exists." The English style of the translation of Nagarjuna's verses and Geshe Sonam Rinchen's oral commentary follows the practice of developing a specialized vocabulary to deal with philosophical concepts that have no direct parallels in the West. The introductory remarks in chapter one offer some help to the reader unacquainted with this specialized vocabulary. Nonetheless, the reader would have been better served if the translators had made a vigorous effort to paraphrase in readable English statements such as the following comment on verse 2: "he will never take rebirths through actions and grasping at self-existence of self, the object of elimination" (p. 101)--which is instead reproducing a literal translation of the Tibetan. The commentary then goes on to say that, in contrast to "Svatantrika Madhyamika and the schools below," the Pra sangika Madhyamika school holds that "one attains the state of nirvana without remainder before attaining the state of nirvana with remainder" (p. 101). Unfortunately, there is no explanation in the endnotes to this chapter either of the distinction between the Prasangika and Svatantrika schools or of the distinction between "nirvana with remainder" and "nirvana without remainder." The translators set themselves a difficult task in trying "to serve both the needs of the scholar and the nonscholar." In doing so, neither audience is well served. Nonscholars require more explanation of unfamiliar terms and concepts than is usually provided; scholars' needs are better served by F. Tola's and C. Dragonetti's copiously annotated translation of the Sunyatasaptati (Journal of Indian Philosophy 15 (1987): 1-55). The merit of Nagarjuna's "Seventy Stanzas".' A Buddhist Psychology of Emptiness lies in its faithful reproduction of a fine contemporary Tibetan scholar's commentary on this difficult text. On virtually every verse Geshe Sonam Rinchen provides much needed clarification. Komito's book is a useful addition to the growing library of works reflecting modern Dge-lugs-pa interpretations of Madhyamika thought.