Reviews the book `The Buddha Within,'by HookHam, S.K.

Reviewed by David Need
Philosophy East & West
Vol.43 No.3
Jul. 1993
Copyright by University of Hawaii Press

In  The  Buddha  Within,  Dr.   S.  K.  Hookham  reworks  her
dissertation   (Oxford,  1986)  outlining   the   Shentong[1]
tradition   in  Tibet  and  its  view  of  ultimate  reality.
"Shentong" (gzhan stong, other-empty) is a term used in Tibet
to  refer  to  a  view  of  ultimate   reality  as  a  wisdom
consciousness  empty  or free  of the illusory  phenomena  of
conditioned  existence.  Such  a view  owes  heavily  to  the
description  of  ultimate  reality  in  the  Tathaga-tagarbha
Sutras and in the tantras.  One of the earliest proponents of
this view was the Jo-nang-pa scholar, Dolpopa Shetab Gyaltsen
(dol-po-pa  shes-rab  rgyal-mtshan, 1292-1361), whose massive
study  titled  The  Mountain  Dharma: An Ocean  of Definitive
Meaning (rl chos nges don rgya mtsho) outlined this doctrine,
extensively  citing  from sutra and tantra in support  of his
position. The Shentong position advanced by Dolpopa and later
by such figures as the seventh Karmapa (1454-1506), the Sakya
scholar, Sakya Chogden (gser-mdog-pan-chen  Sakya mchog-ldan,
14281507), and most  recently  by one of the founders  of the
Rimay (ris med, nonsectarian) movement of the nineteenth  and
twentieth  centuries? ]amgon Kontrol  Lodro Thayay  (jam-mgon
kong-sprul  blo-gros mtha'-yas, 1813-1899), was the object of
sustained critique by scholars of other schools-notably those
of the Geluk-pa  traditions  who advanced  what  is called  a
"rangtong" (rang stong, self-empty) view of ultimate reality.
These  scholars  held  the ultimate  truth  to be an existent
object of knowledge cognized by a wisdom consciousness.  Such
an  object  of  a  wisdom  consciousness  is  held  to  be  a
nonaffirming negative--the  absence of the inherent existence
of any given phenomena, most importantly  the self.  Shentong
advocates  argue that this view of ultimate  reality fails to
account  adequately  for  the  qualities  associated  with  a
Buddha's  wisdom, although  it does account for the nature of
illusory phenomena.

The  political  upheaval  in the  sixteenth  and  seventeenth
centuries  that  led  to  the  ascendency   of  the  Geluk-pa
tradition and to the establishment  of the Fifth Dalai Lama's
government also brought with it the eventual censoring of the
Shentong position.  The literature  of Shentong advocates was
banned, and wood  blocks  and extant  texts  were seized  and
destroyed  or sequestered.  While these actions  seem to have
been  politically  motivated,[3] the effect  was  the partial
silencing  of an important and vital stream of interpretation
and thought.  Dr.  Hookham expressly  indicates  that she has
published her work in order to bring this tradition to light,
noting  that, until  now,  most  Western  academic  works  on
Tibetan Buddhist views of ultimate reality have used Geluk-pa
sources  and hence have not presented  a fair account of this
alternate tradition.

Dr.  Hookham's  book is broken  into three sections.  Using a
doxo-graphical  outline provided  her by a modern Kagyu lama,
Khenpo  Tsultrim  Gyamtso, [4]  Hookham  first  outlines  the
particulars  of the debate between the Rangtong  and Shentong
traditions   on  several  key  issues:  (1)  the  meaning  of
emptiness, (2) the  nature  of the  Buddha's  wisdom, (3) the
necessity  to determine  ultimate  reality  through faith and
direct  experience  rather  than reason, (4) how to interpret
Tathagatagarbha  Sutra  teachings  on the presence  of Buddha
Nature in all beings, and (5) how to determine definitive and
interpretable  passages  in the sutras (the neyartha-nitartha
controversy)  .    Following   this   largely   philosophical
discussion, Hook-ham  then presents  a brief  history  of the
Shentong  tradition  and an outline of the textual history of
the  Ratnagotravibhaga  and its commentary, the Vakhya.  This
text has become  the focus of many of the debates  concerning
the final nature of reality;  indeed, it is generally held to
be a pivotal text linking together  sutra and tantra views on
this matter.  The final section of Hookham's  work presents a
Shentong interpretation  of this text and a brief translation
of the introduction  to Jamgon  Kontrul's  nineteenth-century

Hookham's  approach  is broad and covers  a wealth  of issues
ranging from textual histories  to features  of doctrine such
as the tathagatagarbha, gotra, and Buddhajnana. In the course
of her discussion  she frequently  makes interesting  asides.
One such  was a subtle  distinction  offered  by Dolpopa  who
emphasized   that   despite   the   tantric   teaching   that
conventional  and ultimate truths were inseparable, "what the
practitioner thinks he experiences is mostly false (samvrti).
His/her  task is to gain confidence  in the true  essence  of
his/her  experience...  so that  samvrti  (false) appearances
fall away" (p. 87).  She feels that many modern practitioners
err  in  believing  they  should  meditate  on  the  illusory
apparent world as inseparable with the ultimate truth, rather
than meditate on their true self-nature.

While these issues are important  and her discussion  of each
point  interesting, Hookham  was  not  effective  in  linking
different  topics  together  or  in  summarizing   individual
sections.  This is partly due to the fact that her discussion
calls  on the  arguments  of a wide  range  of scholars.  She
generally does not supply information about the context for a
given remark, and yet the implicit  content of a remark often
leads her to bring up secondary  or subsidiary  issues  that,
while  interesting, require  more  detail  or background, and
draw us away from the thrust of her point. Hence, while it is
clear  that she is aware of many interesting  issues, such as
the  relationship  of the  language  of tantric  accounts  of
ultimate  reality  to that  of sutra, we do not always  get a
clear  sense  of how this  relates  to the issue  at hand.  A
related  problem  comes  from Hookham's  decision  to present
philosophical  material first and then to outline the history
of the figures of the Shentong  tradition.  We are introduced
to figures  haphazardly, and the historical  background  does
not inform her discussion of the philosophical issues.

Nor are we given  sufficient  insight  into the philosophical
contexts  of certain  remarks.  Rather, scholars  tend  to be
collapsed as either Rangtong or Shentong adherents, while the
contexts  that  informed  their  respective  remarks  and the
intuitions  to which  they  respond  remain  unexplored.  Not
surprisingly, given  Hookham's  use  of  doxography  and  her
stated  aim, her treatment  of the Rangtong  position, and in
particular  the Geluk-pa  tradition, is not always  extensive
enough, but  rather  are "served  up" in counterpoint  to the
Shentong position.  See, for instance, her extremely  general
assessment of the Rangtong view about truth as "a truth about
something  else" (p.  79).  Hookham indicates that she worked
with  a number  of  contemporary  Tibetan  scholars, and  her
discussion reflects "inhouse" assessments  of Tibetan history
and thought. One such is the rather general distinction drawn
between "religious"  and "rational" approaches to Buddhism, a
distinction   often  made  by  modern  Shentong  teachers  to
valorize their tradition's  emphasis on direct experience and

Similar  objections  are often--fairly--directed  at Geluk-pa
presentations  and  doxographical  accounts.  Hence, I do not
mean  to single  Hookham  out on this score.  Scholarship  on
Tibetan Buddhism seems to reflect the views of one's sources,
and these sources usually invoke heuristic distinctions  that
do not do justice to the positions of their opponents,! would
argue  that we should  strive  to find ways to discuss  these
systemic  differences  so as to explore  key  moves  and  the
intuitions  for which  they account, rather  than  to promote
uncritically  and perhaps unconsciously  the polemics  of the
figures we study.

Hookham's  work  also suffers  from her use of "conventions."
Throughout  the book she uses  a set of Sanskrit  and Tibetan
terms without italicizing  these and without diacritics (save
in the index) and, in the  case  of the Tibetan  terms, in an
unconventional  phoneticized  form.  Some of these are fairly
standard, such as "bodhisattva," or "tantra." Others, such as
nisprapanca  (non-elaborated, pure), would  have been handled
better  either  as  a  foreign  word, or  with  a translation
equivalent.  While she does offer a glossary for these terms,
the  respective   glosses  are  brief  and  not  particularly
informative.  For instance, for dhatu, she  states, "element:
often  in the sense  of an open  expanse  or the  expanse  of
emptiness and wisdom inseparable" (p.  364).  These terms are
inconsistently   used,  sometimes   standing  on  their  own,
sometimes   offered   in  brackets   following   an   English
equivalent, and sometimes  followed by an English gloss.  See
above, where within  the space  of one sentence  we have both
"false (samvrti)" and "samvrti (false)." Some terms appear as
either adjectives  of nouns, the most egregious  instance  of
this tendency  being  the use of nisprapanca--for  which  she
gives   an   extensive   gloss   and   then   a   provisional
translation--as  both noun and adjective: she speaks  of "the
nisprapanca object of nisprapanca awareness," but also speaks
of "an important discussion of nisprapanca" (pp.  69 and 77).
In addition, her attempt  to coin certain  Tibetan terms such
as  "mayingag"   (ma  yin  dgag,  affirming  negation) ,  was
disturbing.  Her first  use of such a term--that  of "gagshi"
(dgag gzhi, basis of refutation)--went  unglossed  and lacked
any  direction  to the glossary.  I found  the  use  of these
"conventions"  distracting and disorganized, often making her
point opaque. In addition, it would have been helpful to have
all her conventions  explained  at one place at the beginning
of  the  book  rather   than  in  appendixes   and  scattered
throughout the text.

Dr.  Hookham's book is to be celebrated  for its presentation
of a previously  censored view of ultimate reality in Tibetan
Buddhism, one that has a long tradition  and many  advocates.
Her  treatment   of  the  many  themes   shows   considerable
familiarity  with  the  key issues  in the  Tibetan  debates.
Still, the scope and organization undermine her effort.  This
is too  bad, for the material  she  hopes  to share  with  us
raises important  questions  as to Buddhist views on practice
and liberation.  One hopes  that her work will spark  further


1.  Throughout    this    review,   I    follow    Hookham's
    phoneticization  for the terms Shentong  and rangtong, as
    well  as  for  the  names  of  figures  in  the  Shentong

2.  For an outline of the history of the Rimay movement, see
    Gene  Smith, Introduction  to the Index  of Kong  sprul's
    Encyclopedia of Indo-Tibetan Culture, ed.  Lokesh Chandra
    (New Delhi, 1970).

3.  For   these  comments, I thank  Matthew  Kapstein, who has
    recently  brought  back a copy of the complete  works  of
    Dolpopa  from  a journey  into Amdo  and is preparing  an
    introduction and catalog for that set.

4.  See  Tsultrim  Gyamtso,  Khenpo,  Progressive  Stages  of
    Meditation  on Emptiness, trans.  Shenpen Zangmo (Oxford:
    Longchen Foundation, 1986).