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The Emptiness of Emptiness: An introduction to Early Indian Madhyamika
by C. W. Huntington, Jr.,
Reviewed by Frederivk J. Streng
Philosophy East and West, Volume 42, No.2, 1992:04, Pp.355-359© by University of Hawaii Press


For scholars who read Buddhist material, the title The Emptiness of Emptiness has a familiar ring; for others it is often, at best, a puzzling claim of the "mysterious East." For both types of readers, this book is of interest. For the latter it is a clear statement of the fact that Buddhist philosophy arises in a context of "transformative philosophy," whose goal is comprehensive freedom, and it is a warning against interpreting emptiness either as a nihilist or an essentialist concept. For the former it provides the first complete English translation of the Tibetan translation of Candrakiirti's Madhyamakaavataara, an introductory summary of the ten perfections of the Bodhisattva Path and an analysis of word usage in the Maadhyamika school from a Praasa^ngika perspective. The book is divided into two parts; added to this are extensive notes (pp. 199-267), bibliography, and index. Part 1 is entitled "Candrakiirti and Early Indian Maadhyamika," and book cover imagePart II is a translation of Candrakiirti's Madhyamakaavataara, as "The Entry into the Middle Way." The English translation is extracted from an eleventh-century c.e. Tibetan translation of Candrakiirti's autocommentary, as found in the edition by La Vallee Poussin (1907-1912). It is a joint effort of the author and Geshe Namgyal Wangchen. Part I (pp. 3-142) contains methodological considerations (chapter 1) , a philosophical analysis of the doctrinal context (chapter 2), a discussion of language usage in Maadhyamika (chapter 3), a description of the spiritual significance of the ten perfections of the Bodhisattva Path (chapter 4), and an interpretation of the relation between practice and wisdom in Mahaayaana Buddhist thought by way of comparison with some contemporary Western deconstructionist reflection (chapter 5) . This review will focus on the hermeneutical and philosophical discussion of Part I, since it poignantly raises the issue of understanding the meaning of philosophical claims made across temporal and cultural boundaries—a continuing topic of interest to readers of this journal.

Several hermeneutical concerns that inform this study are noted in the first chapter. One is the recognition of the soteriological aim of Candrakiirti's effort. Huntington states (p. 13): "Maadhyamika philosophy cannot be properly understood when extracted from the matrix of its soteriological aims. This is not a novel claim." He then quotes J. W. de Jong and D. S. Ruegg as scholars who have recognized this. What he does not say is that this has been recognized by many Western scholars, and has been a prominent perception about Buddhist claims for the past two decades, being found even in most general introductions to Buddhism during the past decade. A perusal of Western Buddhist Studies calls into question his claim in the first chapter that there are only two prevalent models for interpreting Buddhist thought: the philological model, and the "proselytic" model. At best, that discussion is an oversimplification of Western scholarship; at worst, it is an unfortunate distortion of the Western scholarly concern with Buddhist soteriology. Huntington's description does not wrestle with various scholarly positions both within and outside the Buddhist tradition for justifying and rejecting diverse claims of "right views," or for explicating different perceptions of the nature of existence as a necessary condition of achieving its soteriological aim, perfect liberation.

Another hermeneutical concern is to provide a "holistic interpretation" that requires a crossing "back and forth over the borders of several jealously guarded disciplines, each of them defended by a close-knit group of rigorously trained initiates" (p. 12) . Such an interpretation. Huntington claims, requires "an application of all aspects of the Maadhyamika: intellectual, ethical and practical" (ibid.). He recognizes "some initial, tentative steps already taken by others" (p. 13); however, several Western scholars—H. B. Aronson, P. J. Griffiths, and D. 5. Lopez, to name a few—have gone further than this study to show the relationship between intellectual, ethical, and experiential aspects of Buddhist life experiences. The failure to carry out a "holistic interpretation" was disappointing because the stages of the ten perfections of the Bodhisattva Path provide the occasion to describe and analyze the relation between areas of thought and practice, for example, how "pure qualities of most perfect morality" are related to "balanced concentration and cognition," or how "intensive meditative cultivation" is related to "completely pure intrinsic qualities of analytic knowledge." Indeed, morality is summarily discussed in the chapter on the ten perfections (pp. 70-72) as are generosity, patience, and meditation; but they remain isolated segments of teaching, the analysis repeating much of the comparable chapters of the translated text.

While the two previously indicated hermeneutical concerns are explicitly stated in the first chapter, they are, then, not the distinctive feature or this "introduction to early Indian Maadhyamika." Rather it is another hermeneutical concern, also introduced in that chapter and elaborated in the final chapter of Part I, "The Emptiness of Emptiness: Philosophy as Propaganda." In Huntington's words, "Recourse to the insights of post-Wittgensteinian pragmatism and deconstruction provides us with a new range of possibilities for interpreting The Entry into the Middle Way and other early Maadhyamika treatises, for what we learn in our encounter with these texts is in every way a function of the tools we bring to our study" (p. 9).

From the deconstructionist movement, Huntington selects Richard Rorty as his prime mentor. Huntington affirms Rorty's approach to the meaning of a text as "a preeminently Buddhist hermeneutic and therefore a preferred approach to studying Buddhist literature" (p. 8). This approach assumes that a hermeneut—according to a quote from Rorty—"asks neither the author nor the text about its intentions but simply beats the text into a shape which will serve his own purpose" (ibid.). The interpreter—again, quoting Rorty—"is in it for what he can get out of it, not for the satisfaction of getting something right" (ibid.). This stance is taken in order to avoid getting caught in either of the two hermeneutical models previously described, the "philological" and "proselytic" models, which, says Huntington, "rely on the proper application of an approved methodology supposed to insure access to [a presumed objectively present] tradition" (p. 7). The attempt to avoid a method (or methodology) is also informed by the pragmatist's rejection of any method that seeks an objective, value-free interpretation of data. This attempt to locate such a method for an objective interpretation in modern Western thought, says Huntington, is itself an expression of the presuppositions of neo- Kantian scientific rationalism-precisely the presuppositions rejected by Maadhyamika thought.

The major thrust of Huntington's hermeneutic is to show that for contemporary deconstructive or pragmatist philosophers and for Naagaarjuna as interpreted by Candrakiirti, truth is "a function of what can be put into practice" (p. 44). Throughout the analysis, two goals of the Maadhyamika "radically deconstructive, pragmatic philosophy" (p. 136) are portrayed: (1) dispelling the reifying tendencies in language, and (2) eliminating the fear, suffering, and hate that are produced by attachment to (false) essentialist notions. The truth of highest meaning is "the actualization of emptiness, the cessation of all fear and suffering." (p. 39).

Maadhyamika texts are quoted to justify these pragmatic soteriological goals as the stated purpose of Maadhyamika claims; however, Huntington then takes another step to assert that Maadhyamika reflection uses only a circular self-justifying procedure when making claims about the nature of existence—for example, no existent has a self-substantiated nature—namely, they are justified by experiencing freedom from fear and suffering. He asserts: "In the final analysis, the Mahaayana Buddhist conceptualization of the world, epitomized in such central notions as 'dependent origination' and 'emptiness,' must be called upon to provide its own justification through the freedom from fear and suffering which it is supposed to yield" (pp.136-37). This dogmatic assertation is not argued; but it is consistent with another generalized evaluation: "Any study of deconstructive philosophy is significant only to the extent that it contributes to formation of an attitude of nonclinging" (p. 40). It is not only deconstructionist philosophy, however, that should have a pragmatic existential verification procedure. This is suggested when Huntington asks: "Could it not be that the only legitimate philosophical work is over and done with when all problems are shown to be practical problems, and when the paradoxical nature of the everyday world has been shown to be entirely self-sufficient as revealed in all actual and possible states of affairs)" (pp. 42-44). The author recognizes that Maadhyamika and contemporary Western deconstructionist and pragmatist concerns and positions are not identical. He states: "I have not referred again and again to the writings of deconstructionist and pragmatic philosophers because I believe that these modern thinkers are saying the same thing as the ancient Maadhyamika" (pp. 133-134). The differences, however, are not systematically stated. Huntington does suggest that there is a "catch" in the pragmatist view of William James in that he did not see how deep his commitment to a substance ontology was (pp. 45-46). Likewise he criticizes Feuerabend's notion of a "natural interpretation" for understanding causality (p. 46).Nevertheless, Huntington sets his hermeneutical critique—by positively quoting from Rorty's deconstructionist position—in a frame-work that juxtaposes metaphysical concepts and meanings derived solely from a sociolinguistic context. His interpretation of Maadhyamika is based on a hypothetical epistemological dualism between an unconditioned metaphysical reality as a source of meaning, which is rejected, and a sociolinguistic matrix of meaning. Thus he concludes: "When its philosophical work is done, the concept of emptiness dematerializes along with every possible justification for belief in any reality beyond the sociolinguistic matrix of everyday experience" (p. 136). Any reality beyond the sociolinguistic matrix is identified with an essentialist transcendental substratum, leaving illusory, conventional truth as identical to enlightened insight into the nature of existence. He writes:'The soteriological truth of the highest meaning, as dependent origination and emptiness, is itself the illusory, conventional truth, because it necessarily appears in a self-contradictory, misleading form" (p.110). Such an interpretation, I fear, reduces Naagaarjuna's famous dictum that there is no difference between and sa.msaara (Muulamadhyamakakaarikas 25:19-20) to: there is only sa.msaara.

I find this aspect of Huntington's interpretation problematical because it confuses the highest meaning of truth in Maadhyamika with conventional truth. Certainly, both Naagaarjuna and Candrakiirti deny an essentialist meaning of and sa.msaara; these terms do not refer to entities-in-themselves. Likewise, both use conventional terms, like "emptiness" and "dependent origination," for the soteriological purpose of eliminating attachment to concepts, perceptions, and emotions. However, they also indicate the intrinsic nature of human experience without providing a description through a one-to-one correlation between words and reality. Huntington also seems to affirm this (p. 49), without recognizing that the reality of dependent origination makes possible illusion and what is other than illusion: enlightenment. The difference is suggested when he writes about different ways of responding to dependent origination, either in projecting a self-existent reality (in ignorance), or "without having to make an intervening inference" (p. 111) . The highest truth is—from the Maadhyamika perspective—known through conventional activity. Deconstructionist practice and pragmatist concerns may aid in avoiding metaphysical-absolutist-prone conventional activity; nevertheless, the reality in which both the highest truth and conventional truth function can hardly be reduced to sociolinguistic conditions described by contemporary deconstructionist and pragmatist philosophers.

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