A Feast of Nectar of the Supreme Vehicle

An Explanation of the Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras

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Asanga, Jamgön Mipham
Translator(s): 
Padmakara Translation Group
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala Publications, Inc.
    , October
     2018.
     976 pages.
     $69.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781611804676.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

It is difficult to chart precisely the contemporaneous influences of specific Indian Buddhist materials outside of their reception in Chinese or Tibetan circles or, perhaps, by later Indian scholars.  Among those to whom significant influence has been attributed, within Indian Buddhist circles, are the half-brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu, who are both considered pioneers of the Yogācāra school in the 4th and 5th centuries. Academic certainty stops there, leaving questions surrounding Yogācāra, such as the identity of Maitreya/Maitreyanātha—to whom five of its seminal treatises are attributed. Of course, in terms of philosophical view, what is specifically Yogācāra and distinct from Cittamātra is another debate, and just what separates the former from the latter, yet another. According to the Tibetan tradition, these treatises were dictated by the future buddha Maitreya to Asanga—serving as mental scribe—in a heavenly realm, and serve as mature foundations for the bodhisattva ideal. The Ornament of the Mahāyāna Sūtras (Mahāyānasūtrālamkara) wears its philosophical commitments lightly, and hence, transcends Tibetan debates regarding its value relative to Madhyamaka thought.  

The influences on Chinese and Tibetan traditions of the Ornament of the Mahāyāna Sūtras—as well as the other four Maitreya treatises—coupled with the related works of Asanga, Vasubandhu, and Sthiramati—cannot be overstated. As the pioneering work of Eugene Obermiller and Edward Conze showed, Ornament for Clear Realizations is foundational for Perfection of Wisdom study. The Sublime Continuum (Uttaratantra)—also known as Distinguishing the Jewel Lineage Ratnagotravibhāga)—has affinities with the tathāgatagarbha literature that is so influential in East Asia, and features prominently in the hotly contested other-emptiness teachings in Tibet. This has recently received significant scholarly attention.  Ornament of the Mahāyāna Sūtras was among the handful that Atisha—the Indian abbot whose arrival in Tibet marks, at least symbolically, the Later Diffusion of Buddhism—recommended for bodhisattva training. Another of these texts is Asanga’s own Bodhisattva Levels (Bodhisattvabhūmi), whose structural similarity to the Ornament (xxii-xxiii) is noted in the American Institute for Buddhist Studies (AIBS) translation—which includes Vasubandhu’s commentary (Maitreyanātha/Āryāsaṅga, The Universal Vehicle Discourse Literature, American Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2004). Its influence flowed from Atisha’s Kadampa tradition—similar to Shantideva’s famed Bodhisattva Guide (Bodhicaryāvatara)to all Tibetan Buddhist communities. This explains why A Feast of the Nectar of the Supreme Vehicle is the third English translation from a Tibetan Buddhist committee in a dozen years. In fact, it is the second to include Ju Mipham’s voluminous commentary—the other published some four years ago. While this begs the question of translation committee priorities, it also begs the question of which translation to use. 

Given the importance of the root text, the volume is a must-read for students of Mahāyāna Buddhism.  Mipham’s commentary relies heavily on the commentary of Sthiramati, the eminent disciple of Vasubandhu. To what extent Mipham’s Tibetan scholasticism may repurpose Sthiramati’s own interpretation (and, for that matter, to what extent Sthiramati reinterprets Vasubandhu) is a project for another day. Two features recommend A Feast of the Nectar of the Supreme Vehicle over its recent counterpart—Dharmachakra Translation Committee’s  Ornament of the Great Vehicle (Snow Lion, 2014). With each weighing in at approximately a thousand pages, both are massive tomes; you may impress airline security screeners by packing it, but you might want to reconsider carrying it for a short flight. First, A Feast of the Nectar of the Supreme Vehicle offers the root verses entirely separate from commentary, which allows for pondering those alone just as the Tibetan monks who memorize them prior to delving into commentarial interpretation did. Second, it provides a more substantial introduction to the materials, though both translation committees assume that Mipham’s commentary provides all one needs from a practitioner’s perspective. In that respect, the AIBS translation offers an introduction that contextualizes the Ornament more fully. In any case, given the importance of the Maitreya treatises—as well as the Yogācāra works of Asanga, Vasubandhu, and Sthiramati derived, at least in part, therefrom—A Feast of the Nectar of the Supreme Vehicle is a worthwhile addition to the bookshelf or reading list of any student of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Edward Arnold is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University.

Date of Review: 
April 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Asanga is the fourth-century CE exponent of the Yogacara tradition in India, also called Vijñānavāda. Traditionally, he and his half-brother Vasubandhu are regarded as the founders of this school.

Jamgön Mipham (1846–1912) is one of the great luminaries of Tibetan Buddhism in modern times. He has had a dominant and vitalizing influence on the Nyingma School and was an important member of the Rimé tradition. A scholar of outstanding brilliance and versatility, his translated works are eagerly anticipated by English-language readers.
 
Padmakara Translation Group, based in France, has a distinguished reputation for all its translations of Tibetan texts and teachings. Its work has been published in several languages and is renowned for its clear and accurate literary style.

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