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Nargarjuna's Twelve Gate Treatise: translated, with Introductory Essays, Comments, and Notes by Hsueh-Li Cheng

Reviewed by Alan Fox
Journal of Chinese Philosophy 1985.12, pp. 449-452
© Copyright 1985 by Dialogue Publishing Company,
Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A.



The Shih Erh Men Lun, or Twelve Gate Treatise, attributed to Nagarjuna, is an important piece of the puzzle which constitutes the development and evolution of Chinese Buddhism. As Dr. Cheng points out, the style and approach of the text run extremely parallel to the more popular Mulamadhyamaka Karika, or Doctrine of the Middle Way (Chung Lun). As the latter is generally recognized to be from the pen of the pivotal Buddhism thinker Nagarjuna, there is no reason to doubt that the Twelve Gate is also a product of this important figure. However, while the similarities between the two texts are striking, the differences are also significant.

book cover imageIn Chapter 3 of his introductory essay, Cheng discusses four major distinctions between the Twelve Gate and the Chung Lun, which justify the former's individual importance as one of the three central texts of the San Lun or 'Three Doctrine" School, the Chinese counterpart of the original Indian Madhyamika School.

The first is that the Twelve Gate serves as a concise crystallization of the thought of Nagarjuna as expressed in the Chung Lun. Secondly, while the Chung Lun was written primarily for monks of the Hinayana schools of Buddhism, the Twelve Gate was written to be understood by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Thirdly, the Twelve Gate does deal with some issues not covered in the Chung Lun, such as the notion of the Creator; and finally that the Twelve Gate goes into more detail on certain topics which are not completely or clearly handled in the Chung Lun.

As one of the three central texts, along with the Chung Lun (also by Nagarjuna), and the Hundred Treatise (by Aryadeva), recognized by the San Lun school, the text is significant for its role as a transitional link between Indian Madhyamika thought and Chinese Mahayana thought in general. Translated by Kumarajiva from the no longer extant Sanskrit text, the text represents a period of scholarship in which Buddhist ideas came to be filtered through traditional Chinese terminology, arriving at an expression of Buddhist thought which, although not altogether consistently faithful to the Sanskrit, nevertheless provided roots for an indigenous, particularly Chinese approach to Buddhism in general, and Madhyamika's negative dialectics in particular.

Aside from the historical importance of the text, it also deals with several key concepts in Mahayana Buddhism. Central to the exposition is the idea of Emptiness. Dr. Cheng outlines four understandings of Emptiness that he finds within the San Lun tradition: a) the absence of definite nature, characteristic, or function;b) that concepts are unintelligible by nature; c) a means by which the notion of "things" is devalued;and d) a soteriorogical or pedagogical device (upaya). Basically, in order to avoid the extreme positions of Being and Non-Being, the follows the Middle Way of Emptiness, which is non-propositional. As Cheng quotes the great San Lun master Chi Tsang, "Right View is called 'Right' because all views have been abandoned. if it were accepted as a view, it would become a wrong view which ought to be rejected." (p.21) When, on the same page Cheng adds, 'Wisdom is not the attainment of a theory, but an absence of it," he could almost be quoting from the Lao Tzu, chapter 48:

In the pursuit of learning, one knows more every day, in the pursuit of the way one does less every day. One does less and less until one does nothing at all, and when one does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone.(1)

Here we can again see clearly how fertile a garden was already present in China to receive the seeds planted by the early Buddhist pioneers from India, resulting in a distinctly Chinese variety of Buddhist thought.

Some confusion does seem to arise from consideration of several specific aspects of the translation itself. Most significantly, Dr. Cheng chooses to render you wei(a) and wu wei(b) as "created things" and "noncreated things". In keeping with the spirit of Buddhist philosophy and its emphasis on Causality, these terms would probably be more correctly translated as equivalent to the Sanskrit samskrta and asamskrta, meaning "conditioned things" and "unconditioned things", retaining the implications of causality present in the Sankrit term.

In addition, Dr. Cheng uses the English "formed" when translating the Chinese cheng(c) when Nagarjuna's emphasis on the propositional nature of truth might rather suggest the word "established", for its connotations of intention.

Another element of the translation which also proves confusing is when the two Chinese terms Wo (d) (atman, self) and Shen(e) (spirit, soul) are both rendered as "Self". The text here is very difficult to penetrate, and the arbitrary and inconsistent use of the word "Self' serves only to further confuse the issue.

Moreover, Cheng seems to miss the point when he translates Xiang Wei(f) on page 60 as "opposite" and on page 69 as "contradictory". The distinction he fails to grasp is between contradiction and opposition. Whereas contradiction implies a relationship between two terms A and B such that B=~A, allowing for no third possibility, opposition allows for a third term C such that C is also equal to A. For example, the two terms "human" and "non-human" are contradictory: there is nothing which fits in both categories, and everything fits into one category or the other. On the other hand, the terms "human" and "dog" are merely contradictory, because we can posit a third term "cat" which is also not human, but which is furthermore not "dog". So we see that contradiction is a more encompassing concept than opposition, a distinction which is disregarded in Dr. Cheng's translation.

In general, the problem with the translation seems to be its lack of emphasis on this linguistic, conventional aspect of Nagarjuna's thought. Since Nirvana, for Nagarjuna, is prapanca pasasama, the annihilation of the manifold of named things, the nature of so-called "samsara" is linguistic/ conceptual, and therefore empty of meaning. This emphasis on the dispositional as opposed to the propositional nature of truth is not easily found in Dr. Cheng's translation. However, the work, which includes several splendid glossaries of Chinese and Sanskrit terms, is generally extremely useful and fills a critical deficiency in the exposure to the West of pivotal Buddhist texts.

1. from D.C. Lau's translation of the Tao Te Ching, Penguin Books, NY. 1963. P.452

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