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Asian Philosophy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


see Tibetan Religion, Tibetan Culture, Yoga,   Buddhism

Tsong-kha-pa is best compared to a Thomas Aquinas in their encyclopedic grasp of their respective traditions and in mysticism; Tsong-kha-pa is closer to Meister Eckhart. The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path of Enlightenment (Lam Rim Chen Mo) has long been recognized as a summa of practical Buddhism as it evolved in Tibet.

Almost all expositions of Tibetan Buddhism that are current in the west, logical studies of mahdyamika, ethical studies of prajanaparamita, mantra and tankha practice from the Tantric or Varjayana presume upon an intimate knowledge of the arguments, psychology and metaphysics of a Buddhism as described in this work. Even Madame Blavatksy wrote in Key to Theosophy, a popular introduction to the context of her theosophy embodied in her magnum opus The Secret Doctrine, recommended that the Buddhism of Tsong-kha-pa would be an explanation to her own occultism. It took many years before any attempt was made to summarize or introduce even parts of this work. Not because the text was scarce but that the technical command of Tibetan scholastic language, logic, hermeneutics, and exegeses of Buddhist scripture were needed to approach this powerful work.
The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path of Enlightenment is the first of a series of three projected volumes. In this first volume the reader is brought into basic Buddhist teachings as characterized in a Buddhist monastic setting, for people of little or middling capacity in religion to cultivate the awakening of Bodhichitta. The work is being expedited by a committee of exceptional Buddhist scholars and is being translated in a straightforward manner without commentary or cumbersome notes. It is hoped that the next two volumes will quickly follow However there is currently two  provisional translations of these sections by Alex Wayman. The second volume describes the path of the Bodhisattva path. This work is available in part in Ethics of Tibet: Bodhisattva Section of Tsong-kha-pa's Lam Rim Chen Mo translated by Alex Wayman (SUNY Series in Buddhist Studies; State University of New York Press).

Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy: Tsongkhapa’s Quest for the Middle Way by Thupten Jinpa (Routledge Curzon) It is said that when Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), Tibet's foremost religious reformer and one of its greatest philosophers, finally arrived at the perfect “middle view,” he experienced a powerful surge of admiration and devotion for the Buddha. This combination of deep reverence and insight, together with a profound sense of joy, that followed this breakthrough in Tsongkhapa's philosophical thinking inspired him to compose one of the most eloquent praises to the Buddha ever written in Tibetan? In perfectly metered poetry, Tsongkhapa celebrates the Buddha's teachings on the principle of dependent origination and expresses his deep appreciation to the Buddha for having taught this profound truth. At the heart of Tsongkhapa's inner exultation is also a sense of wonder and amazement at the convergence between what appear to be two contradictory natures of things ‑ their lack of intrinsic existence on the one hand, and their coming into being by means of dependent origination on the other. This study seeks to articulate, as far as is possible in contemporary language, Tsongkhapa's insight into this profound Middle Way .

Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy offers an astounding clear summation of Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka ( Middle Way ) philosophy. Jinpa began this study during his monastic years at Ganden Monastery , South India . Having received an early education in the classical Tibetan system of learning, he was privileged to encounter Tsongkhapa's thought as a living tradition enriched by a vast collection of secondary commentarial literature and an associated oral tradition. In the monastic colleges, only after years of preparation studying the basics of epistemology and various other philosophical themes are students introduced to what may be called the great classics of Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka philosophy. Several principal elements constitute a student monk's study of a text. He first memorizes the root verses (where these exist); he then receives a reading with commentary from a learned scholar; he subsequently studies the text himself; and finally, he debates with colleagues the various philosophical and exegetical issues related to the text. Given Tsongkhapa's towering stature within the history of Madhyamaka philosophy in Tibet , and perhaps more importantly, given that his writings have assumed an almost canonical status within the dominant Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism , an extensive exegetical tradition has evolved with respect to reading Tsongkhapa's thought. Thus, for a Tibetan monk, reading a text by Tsongkhapa is a living experience, not at all akin to encountering, as a contemporary writer puts it, `strings of written symbols representing a dead language for which only a limited corpus of texts now exists.'

In addition to the above, years of training in the fundamental theories and practices of Tibetan Buddhism, including studying the major Buddhist philosophical schools and, especially, initiation into the central debates of the continuing, living tradition, provide a monk with a unique context. For example, he learns to be aware of (a) the key passages that are traditionally seen as problematic for an exegesis of Tsongkhapa, (b) areas of thought that point to a need for deeper philosophical enquiry, and (c) issues that are of central importance in understanding the points of divergence between Tsongkhapa and his predecessors. Perhaps most importantly, a classical monastic approach encourages a monk to cultivate an appreciation for Tsongkhapa's philosophy as part of a continuing lineage of thought. This ensures that, psychologically at least, a student's approach to studying Tsongkhapa's thought does not become such that `the lineaments of his masks [are] discernible imperfectly, but the mental events that accompanied the composition of the text are even more inscrutable.

Given this background, it should not come as a surprise that a significant perspective that Jinpa brings to bear upon his study of Tsongkhapa is what might be called in anthropological terms “a native's point of view.” This means to read Tsongkhapa, as it were, from within his own writings and inherited philosophical and intellectual legacies. This approach results in a more sympathetic reading of the material at hand than that generally employed by traditional Western academic scholars. Furthermore, contrary to what many textual theorists of the post‑modern age recommends, Jinpa  has accorded greater priority to the place of the author when determining the meaning of his works. For example, Jinpa  gives priority to Tsongkhapa's own intended meaning and the stated motivations that underlie his philosophical enterprise.  We are encouraged to listen to him when he says that he is arguing for a specific thesis. More importantly, as the traditional Geluk exegesis of Tsongkhapa suggests, Jinpa makes the fundamental assumption that there is a systematic approach in Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka thought and that it contains a high degree of cohesion and completeness. This does not mean that one rules out a priori any inconsistencies, gaps, and so on in his thinking. It does mean, however, that Jinpa invites us to believe there is an overall framework of intended coherence in Tsongkhapa's thought and to take it seriously.

The second perspective that Jinpa brings to Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy is what we can call the “contemporary philosopher's point of view.” The significance and merits of this have been made more than evident to Jinpa as a result of his studies at Cambridge University , England . Vital to applying this perspective is to read Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka writings as primarily philosophical, even by contemporary Western philosophical standards. It also entails making sense of Tsongkhapa's views within the language and conceptual frameworks familiar to contemporary Western thought. Thus, Jinpa engages in this study of Tsongkhapa's thought from the standpoint of “comparative horizons” by showing that his views can have significance across boundaries of language, culture, and era. In this regard, especially given that this study was undertaken in English, as a key methodological approach Jinpa has appropriated contemporary Western philosophical language to articulate Tsongkhapa's views on a number of key issues, such as questions of personal identity. Underlying this approach is the principal assumption that general philosophical discourse is, in fact, possible. Jinpa makes the additional assumption that there are definitely some issues, concerns, and questions that are universal to all traditions of philosophical thinking. For example, many of the questions that pertain to the self ‑- such as its existence (or lack of it), its identity, its relation with the external world, and so on ‑- appear in the philosophical discourse of many traditions. Although the language and conceptual framework within which these issues are raised may be specific to that particular intellectual tradition, many of the underlying concerns that are being addressed remain universal.

In practical terms, approaching Tsongkhapa's thought from the perspective of comparative horizons primarily involves bearing in mind two key methodological questions:

(1) Does Tsongkhapa's thought suggest answers to perennial  philosophical questions that continue to vex us even in our time? (2) Does it push us to extend the horizons of current Western  intellectual and philosophical paradigms?

Even with these questions in mind Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy is not a comparative study.  Rather it is a reconstruction Tsongkhapa's thought, articulating it in contemporary language in the most coherent way. This activity of reconstruction must, in fact, precede any process of systematic comparison, for a genuine comparative study involves (to borrow Richard Robinson's term) “multi‑system” comparisons – that is, comparisons between systems of thought that are purported to be complete in themselves. Thus, Jinpa avoids comparing specific aspects of Tsongkhapa's thought with specific aspects of Western thought in order to maintain a clear focus on elucidating and understanding the basic material of Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka thought.

Once again, in the context of how to avoid obscuring Tsongkhapa's text with heavily laden interpretations, Jinpa also addresses the question of how the works of Tsongkhapa's Tibetan critics should appropriately be treated. Here, Jinpa chose not to go into the details of these Tibetan polemics, apart from addressing a few specific objections that seem to require serious discussion. Delving too deeply into this critical literature would divert attention from the development of the main line of thought. This is again a methodological choice adopted in order not to clutter this study with peripheral details that are irrelevant to our main purpose. Nevertheless, where he sees that these critical views may help sharpen our understanding of the distinctiveness of Tsongkhapa's reading of Madhyamaka, he does not hesitate to bring them into the debate.

Similar methodological considerations have also informed my treatment of the enormous Geluk commentarial literature on Tsongkhapa, especially the large corpus of yig cha (textbooks) of the individual colleges of the Geluk monasteries. As a graduate of Ganden Monastic University , Jinpa is intimately familiar with much of the scholastic literature on Tsongkhapa‑exegesis within the Geluk school. Because the main concern here is to present Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka philosophy in a manner uncluttered by scholastic or contemporary representations, Jinpa chose not to go into the specifics of the variances and divergences to be found in scholastic interpretations of Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka.

One further consideration relates to the current historical coincidence of Tibetan Madhyamaka studies. Given that a great deal of modern Western scholarship on Tibetan Madhyamaka has been based on the writings of later Geluk thinkers, there is often the danger of reading Tsongkhapa's philosophy as articulated in contemporary Western language almost exclusively through the lens of the later Geluk presentation of Madhyamaka. In fact, there may be the danger of committing the methodological error of assuming that Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka equals Geluk Madhyamaka. The simple reason why the two cannot be equated is that the latter includes an enormous body of diverse commentarial literature that, although rich and illuminating in its own right, is distinct from Tsongkhapa's writings. Tsongkhapa belongs to what Ruegg describes as the “classical period” of Tibetan Buddhism, a high point in Tibet 's intellectual history that was characterized by penetrating philosophical thought, systematic hermeneutics, and thorough exegetical writings. In contrast, many subsequent Geluk Madhyamaka writers belong to the “scholastic period,” which was “dominated by `interpretation' (often epigonal) comprising continued exegetical and hermeneutical activity largely within the bounds of the different chos lugs.”

In Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy, Jinpa endeavors to ground all interpretations in Tsongkhapa's own works so that, to the extent possible, the story of Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka philosophy is told through Tsongkhapa's own voice, albeit in a contemporary idiom. Jinpa also seeks to arrive at an understanding of Tsongkhapa's thought through reading and cross‑referencing all of Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka writings, a basic requirement when one reads the thought of any philosopher, Western or Tibetan. From the standpoint of critical Western scholarship, a significant consequence of reading Tsongkhapa's own words free of later scholastic interpretations is that it allows us to remain more sensitive to issues of development and change in Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka thoughts Jinpa indicates places where he sees such a developmental process taking place, by comparing Tsongkhapa's earlier and later writings on the same themes. This developmental approach may surprise some of Jinpa’s fellow Tibetan Madhyamikas and even to some Western scholars of Geluk Madhyamaka as well, who tend to accept the traditional Geluk scholastic view that Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka thought emerged en bloc rather than gradually, over time. In that this direct (that is, free of later scholastic interpretation) reading of Tsongkhapa represents a crucial methodological principle here, the present study can be regarded as based almost exclusively on primary literature, and is likely to contribute substantially to a normative reading of Tsongkhapa's own Madhyamaka.

Tsongkhapa was one of the most careful of all Tibetan writers; in particular, the philosophical works of his so‑called `later period' reflect a tremendous sophistication and subtlety in his use of language. Elegance, clarity, and economy of words are the hallmarks of Tsongkhapa's philosophical writing. Furthermore, as a noted poet, Tsongkhapa was also sensitive to the poetic dimensions of the written word. For example, the prose of his masterpiece Essence of Eloquence is endowed with a natural rhythm that allows it to be easily read aloud as a recited literary piece.

Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy is likely to appeal principally to three groups of readers: Western‑trained philosophers, both professionals and students who may or may not have a background in Buddhist studies; specialists in Tibetan Buddhist studies, both professionals and students; and general readers who are interested in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, including, of course, practicing Buddhists.

Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy consists of five parts.  The introduction, deals with issues of method and context. Most of the various methodological considerations that underlie this study of Tsongkhapa's thought were addressed in this review. In exploring the historical and intellectual context of Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka, Jinpa endeavors to discern the various points of divergence between Tsongkhapa and his Tibetan predecessors. An important aspect of this task has been to identify Tsongkhapa's key qualms with respect to early Tibetan views of the Madhyamaka philosophy of emptiness. Given that many of these qualms pertain to issues and debates that are central to Tibetan philosophy as a whole, this task can be seen as providing a brief overview of Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka view itself.

Next Jinpa describes Tsongkhapa's philosophical method, his Tsongkhapa's attempt to define the scope of dialectical analysis in Madhyamaka reasoning.  It demonstrates that underlying his extensive explication of Madhyamaka philosophical analysis is Tsongkhapa's deep concern with delineating clearly the parameters of Madhyamaka reasoning, in a way that such reasoning could not be mistakenly used to negate everything, especially not ethics and religious activity. In examining Tsongkhapa's understanding and application of the Madhyamaka dialectic, this study attempts to remain sensitive to his forms of argumentation and logical analysis, as well as to his use of rhetoric, all of which are so crucial to Tsongkhapa's style of philosophizing. For Tsongkhapa methodology is an integral part of his philosophy.

Following this summary of Tsongkhapa's philosophical method, Jinpa explores Tsongkhapa's critique of the self and his assertion that the final meaning of the Buddha's teaching on “no‑self” needs to be understood in terms of the Madhyamaka's rejection of intrinsic existence. Following the steps of Buddhist argumentation against selfhood, central to the thought of Tsongkhapa is the analysis of the concept of intrinsic existence, a concept that is categorically and vehemently rejected by Tsongkhapa. Jinpa presents Tsongkhapa's actual application of Madhyamaka reasoning to questions pertaining to the existence and identity of the self. Together, Tsongkhapa's philosophical methodology and rejection of the self offer an in‑depth presentation of what can be called the “deconstructive” aspect of Tsongkhapa's philosophy.

Jinpa goes on to make a systematic presentation of Tsongkhapa's “constructive” theory of persons as it is understood in contemporary Western philosophical discourse. By addressing such issues as personal identity, individuation, continuity, I‑consciousness, memory, and so on, Jinpa explores Tsongkhapa's answers to the basic question of who or what is a person. This second dimension of Tsongkhapa's thought is critical, if he is to be regarded as consistent with his fundamental concern of ensuring that Madhyamaka reasoning does not result in nihilism. Thus, Jinpa shows how Tsongkhapa accords a meaningful level of reality to the self and the world while at the same time adhering to the deconstructive reasoning of the Madhyamikas. Together, these considerations demonstrate that, unlike many other Buddhist thinkers, Tsongkhapa maintains a non‑reductionist model of personal identity.

Finally, Jinpa concludes by addressing the ontological question. In what sense, according to Tsongkhapa, can persons and the world be said to exist? In addressing this question, Jinpa presents the framework of Tsongkhapa's nominalist ontology and explores the concept of reality that emerges from Tsongkhapa's deconstructive and reconstructive approaches to self and persons. The various conclusions pertaining to the epistemological and ontological questions of self are reviewed within the context of Buddhist soteriology. In this way, Jinpa deals with the central issues concerning the relationship between critical reasoning, no-self, and religious experience as perceived by Tsongkhapa. The study concludes with comments on some key areas of Tsongkhapa's philosophy that require further research. Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy is a first-rate monograph on the philosophy of Tsongkhapa's Madhyamaka, that is both introductory and substantive enough to subtly reorients all future Tsongkhapa interpretations and studies in English language. Highly recommended.

Asanga's Chapter on Ethics With the Commentary of Tsong-kha-pa: The Basic Path to Awakening, the Complete Bodhisattva translated by Mark Tatz (Edwin Mellen Press) also addresses stages of the path and basic Buddhist morality but draws upon another commentary by Tsong-kha-pa.

Alex Wayman’s Calming the Mind and Discerning the Real (Columbia, 1978) provided a pioneering translation of the third part focuses on the practical integration of quieting techniques with spiritual discernment that leads to wisdom. It is true that Wayman’s translations have been held up to censure by the Lama trained cadre of scholars who are now making this new edition. It is also true that some of their reservations are deserved but I still find much of value in the Wayman editions and until the next two volumes of The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path of Enlightenment are available I suggest they be consulted.

All told  The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path of Enlightenment is one of the masterpieces of world religion, a non parallel introduction to the fundamentals of Buddhist`practice in all its subtlety and powerful psychological insight. The work will repay close study for anyone drawn to the salvific motive of religion, anyone who wishes to engage in-depth the nature of life and the way to knowing through meditation. By setting the conditions for practical reason, Tsong-kha-pa opens up the vast possibility of what we can approach and achieve as human beings. Do not pass up this most powerful work.

Thee other works by and about Tsong-kha-pa are currently available:

The Cental Philosophy of Tibet by Robert A. F. Thurman (Princeton) is by far the most innovative and key texts to Tsong-kha-pa's teachings and life experience as it  purports to reveal Tsong-kha-pa's own account of his experience of Enlightenment and his answer to many of the intellectual muddles, hyperintllectualisms, antirationalisms that befuddled and continues to perplex many contemporary monks and Buddhist practitioners. It is a demanding read but well worth the effort.

Ocean of Eloquence: Tsong Kha Pa's Commentary on the Yogacara Doctrine of Mind   translated by Gareth Sparham (SUNY Series in Buddhist Studies; State University of New York Press)

 Yoga of Tibet: The Great Exposition of Secret Mantra 2 and 3 (Wisdom of Tibet Series, No 4)
by Tsong-Kha-Pa, Jeffrey

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