This book, a study of the Madhyamika tradition in China, covers the Indian background (chapter1), Seng-chao (chapter 2), Chi-tsang (chapter3), and T'ien-t'ai and Niu-t'ou Ch'an (chapter4). As such it is the most comprehensive overview in English to date of the key developments from the early fifth to the mid-seventh century. As with Dr. Liu's other published works, one can always count on a diligent reading of the classic texts in the original Chinese, new and selective translations therefrom, and a patient, point-by-point analysis of the relevant passages chosen.
Trained by the late Kenneth Ch'en, Dr. Liu is one of the two leading Buddhologists in Hong Kong. He keeps up a philosophical reading of the Chinese Buddhist tradition and does so in a style sufficiently different from American scholars trained in Japan such as Aaron Koseki (on Chi-tsang), Paul Swanson (especially on T'ien-t'ai), and John McRae (on Ch'an). They cover certain areas but not the full span as Liu does here. Some topics treated in this book, such as Chi-tsang's reaction to and criticism of his contemporaries (pp.82-135)are most revealing and are simply not easily available in English elsewhere.
As a study on Madhyamika, this book devotes only a scant ten pages to Nagarjuna (pp.26-35). Moreover, contrary to the usual appreciation of him as the philosopher most able to expose as self-defeating the premises of other thought systems, Liu judges a sample of Nagarjuna's argument to be "based on unstated and unproven premises" (p.34); this unsympathetic treatment is most unexpected. The abridgment here of the full Madhyamika system must be chalked up to a certain Chinese bias. For example, there is no discussion in chapter 1 on the whole rationale behind the abhidharmic postulation of svabhava. Without an accounting of how, by conflating logical discreteness and ontic self-sufficiency, Abhidharma only invited Nagarjuna's critique, the whole point of emptying the so-called "self-natures" would be lost to the reader.
This omission, however, is understandable given the way China acquired and developed the dialectics of Emptiness. Prior to mastering fully the subtleties of abhidharma, China had already applied that negative dialectics to the Neo-Taoist fixation with the postulates of being and nonbeing ("existence"and "inexistence" in Liu). As Chinese shades of the Sanskrit sat and asat, this pair is not exactly the overriding concern in Nagarjuna's original critique. In keeping with the deeply rooted Chinese fixation with overcoming/incorporating existence and inexistence, Liu recapitulates the whole tradition with that telos in mind. Thus, in his conclusion (pp.258-261), we find an unbroken thread running from the Buddha's cessation of cravings through the early Mahayana praxis of nonattachment to Nagarjuna's denial of all stands. Abhidharma is shortchanged in the process; it is always presented in stereotype as being scholastic and amiss in praxis — as if Madhyamika has not at times been guilty of the same thing.
By making "nonattachment" the common thread and "overcoming existence/inexistence" the goal, this study simplifies the history of Madhyamika in China. Is this due to the nature of the Chinese reading of it or to the author's reading? The answer might have to be both. A fuller history of Madhyamika in China would show that it did not end with Niu-t'ou Ch'an. There is a claim by Fa-tsang of the Huayen school that he inherited another direct Madhyamika transmission. Truth or fiction, it turned out to be supportive of his reading of a sinicized dialectics found in the Awakening of Faith in Mahayana. After Tsung-mi abridged Fa-tsang's commentary of this text, Chinese Buddhists — when compared with Japanese Tendai scholastics — generally lost touch with the sharp edges of the original Indian four-cornered dialectics. And in one sense, the present book is heir to that simplification of Madhyamika since Tsung-mi and the Sung period.
This simplification shows up in the author's approach, which is more philosophical than historical. Perhaps because he works in isolation in Hong Kong, even when he keeps up with studies done elsewhere, he chooses not to engage himself actively in a disputation with other interpretations that are now current. He stays close to the Chinese text and offers his own philosophical exposition instead. Much of that is elucidating, but sometimes, by ignoring the larger context of debate, questionable interpretations are allowed to creep in. A few of these come up, for example, in the treatment of the much-studied Seng-chao.
Seng-chao's essay on Emptiness takes Chih Tun to task (pp. 53-59). But to allege that Chih Tun was talking about a "primary matter" and a "secondary matter" (p.55) is to base oneself on a set of words in the text, the English reading of which is dubious and not founded on a careful reconstruction of Chih Tun's argument from other sources. Seng-chao did not originate the reading that "the nature of things is neither existent nor inexistent"; that reading was already in Chih Tun, and thus their difference must be more finely tuned. Likewise (p.61), when Liu offers to explain Seng-chao's thesis on the "changelessness of things" by arguing that by "change" people usually meant partial and not total change — in other words, pien and not hua — that is Liu's own addendum.
Phrasing the problem thus is pushing the argument naively back to a Hindu satkaryavada position — that is, something never changes — that the Buddha had denied; trusting in asatkaryavada (noeffect pre-existing in the cause), the Sarvastivadins had tried to come up with a most rational account, both extremes of which were judged equally flawed by Nagarjuna, whose critique of temporality Seng-chao then tried to replicate in this essay. This shows that wherever there is a history of debate and prior studies thereof (by Robinson and Liebenthal), one cannot offer a new, personal exegesis without justifying such an exercise in light of interpretations past and current.
Likewise a philosophical exegesis of Seng-chao's essay on "Nirvana as Nameless" is inadequate. Only by working through the problems of the ideological debate behind this text can one see what was at stake — how unlike Chi-tsang Seng-chao was, why he was not counted as a San-lun master within the new San-lun lineage, and why Chi-tsang's version of that new lineage was an ideological creation. In this essay, Seng-chao sided with Yao Hsing, his patron, against the prince Yao Sung (p.68). Seng-chao defended gradual enlightenment by appealing, as Yao Hsing did, to the Triyana doctrine in the Wisdom Sutra. He thus opposed a theory of sudden enlightenment derived at the time by Tao-sheng — not from the Nirvana Sutra but from the Ekayana of the Lotus Sutra, as was also done by Yao Sung. This shows how Seng-chao was as yet unable to reconcile the Empty and the One (Vehicle).
Other early disciples of Kumarajiva specializing in Madhyamika could not reconcile the Empty (the absence of any essence)with the new Buddha-nature doctrine either. It took Chi-tsang, a century later, to reconcile these three teachings of the One, the Empty, and the Real — after the Ch'eng-shih masters had forged their own synthesis. It is in battling the latter school that Chi-tsang came up with a new history of the San-lun transmission, one that bypassed the mistaken Ch'eng-shih master and claimed to be directly inspired by the sutras themselves.
No discourse is ever objective; all writings, including this review, privilege certain views over other views. My disagreement with the author over some interpretations is minor; much of the work in this book is solid and sound. Overall, Madhyamika Thought in China is a valuable addition to the field. It offers a very sympathetic exposition of the Madhyamika tradition in China, and it is as much a book on as in the tradition of "Chinese Thoughts on Madhyamika." For that, it should be read with an equal amount of caution and appreciation.