Nagarjuna's  "Seventy  Stanzas": 
A  Buddhist  Psychology  of Emptiness

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By David Ross Komito.  Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 1987


Reviewed by Karen Lang
Philosophy East & West, Vol. 40 No.2, 1990 Apr., Pp.256-258
© University of Hawaii Press
original source

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 book coverCompendium    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.

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