Reviews the book `Nagarjuna's `Seventy Stanzas :

A Buddhist Psychology of Emptiness

David Ross Komito

Lang, Karen

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

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.