Illuminating the Intent
An Exposition of Candrakirti's Entering the Middle Way
Series: Library of Tibetan Classics
- ISBN: 9780861714582
- Published By: Wisdom Publications
- Published: April 2021
Illuminating the Intent: An Exposition of Candrakīrti’s Entering the Middle Way, edited and translated by Thupten Jinpa, brings to the English-speaking world the first full translation of the penultimate treatise composed by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), arguably history’s most influential Tibetan Buddhist philosopher. This is a major event, for Tsongkhapa’s explication of Candrakīrti’s interpretation of Middle Way (Madhyamaka) philosophy serves to chart the primary developments of Indian Buddhist metaphysics broadly, as well as the specific fault lines of Tibetan exegetical literature pertaining to those. Further, Tsongkhapa’s unique reading of Candrakīrti’s “intention,” begun nearly two decades earlier and culminating in this work set the terms for Tibetan presentations thereafter. Indeed, Candrakīrti’s treatise Entering the Middle Way, which is the subject of Tsongkhapa’s commentary (both translated here), would not have become the mainstay of Tibetan monastic curricula were it not for Tsongkhapa’s efforts. Given this context, it is difficult to overstate the importance of this book in the place of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist literature.
Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Geluk order (which is famed in particular for the successive incarnations of the Dalai Lamas that have emerged from it over the last half millennium), and his work are virtually synonymous with the Indian Middle Way philosophical lineage stemming from Nāgārjuna (ca. 2nd century), particularly as it is interpreted by Candrakīrti (7th century). Candrakīrti’s Entering the Middle Way incorporates the negative, deconstructive efforts typically associated with Nāgārjuna’s seminal works with the positive soteriology of the bodhisattva grounds, or levels, that had been the territory of the “rival” Yogic Practice (Yogacara) tradition. Tsongkhapa’s commentary, Illuminating the Intent, written just prior to his death, presents his final explication of Middle Way philosophy, a detailed explanation that challenged the prevailing interpretation of Candrakīrti’s Madhyamaka as a form of transcendental nihilism.
Tsongkhapa had argued stridently in several earlier works against that prevailing interpretation, holding that its understanding of Candrakīrti’s intention as one of complete ontological and epistemological skepticism slips, in fact, into nihilism. The bodhisattva grounds, which Candrakīrti uses to structure the text, are the ascending levels of spiritual progress that mark increased power across cognitive, affective, and conative domains. These provide the ideal framework, in turn, for Tsongkhapa to refute interpretations that accuse Candrakīrti of nihilism. Some modern readers, following certain traditional sources, hold the misconception that Buddhism necessarily rejects both positive and negative affective states in service of its metaphysics of selflessness. This book, particularly the opening section in which Tsongkhapa explicates Candrakīrti’s famed homage to compassion itself, provides extensive rationale for why that is mistaken.
Three sections of this book are particularly important. The first portion, “Preliminaries,” explains in great detail, and in technical Tibetan scholastic language, the scope of compassion as well as its typologies. This is especially relevant in relation to Middle Way philosophy, whose focus on personal and phenomenal selflessness can result in the notion that compassion is merely ornamental and to be discarded for the “real” philosophical concerns of metaphysics. This is a signal challenge for Western philosophy, which—even with no focus on selflessness—has relegated compassion to its fringes at best; it is no coincidence that the contemporary interest in compassion among psychologists and health care specialists has emerged from the current Dalai Lama’s concern for compassion as a critical element of baseline well-being, which in turn derives, in part, from Tsongkhapa’s Illuminating the Intent. In that regard, it is difficult to overstate the importance of this book in the place of contemporary sciences focused on mental and physical health.
The sixth chapter of Entering the Middle Way, together with Tsongkhapa’s exegesis, is also noteworthy. This wisdom chapter takes up the bulk of the book (Jinpa, the translator and editor of the volume, explains that he has broken this portion into several chapters for ease of reading), and in it Candrakīrti articulates the subtleties of Middle Way philosophy, with its refutation of epistemological foundationalism and metaphysical idealism. Tsongkhapa in turn articulates his understanding of Candrakīrti’s intention, which is neither the extreme epistemological skepticism nor the metaphysical nihilism with which Tsongkhapa charges his Tibetan opponents. Here, as in other chapters, Tsongkhapa incorporates a wealth of citations from discourses attributed to the Buddha and from treatises of later Indian Buddhist luminaries in order to buttress his positions. As such, his Illuminating the Intent is more than a simple commentary and can serve as something of a compendium of Indian Buddhist thought in its own right.
The third portion worth emphasizing is the eleventh chapter of Entering the Middle Way, which delineates the status of buddhahood itself. Prior to Tsongkhapa, the prevailing Tibetan interpretation of this chapter claimed that buddhahood is the cessation of knowledge of the phenomenal world, a sort of disappearance into an utterly transcendent state of nirvana. Since, according to traditional enumeration, attaining buddhahood can be possible only after traversing the bodhisattva grounds for three countless eons, it would be somewhat ironic if buddhahood resulted in complete disappearance. Indeed, the spontaneous vow to liberate all sentient beings, which is the entryway to those grounds, would be, instead, a lie. Tsongkhapa considers this a gross misinterpretation of both Candrakīrti’s intention and the corpus of Mahāyāna discourses. In particular, Tsongkhapa takes pains to note the causal links across the levels of spiritual development that result in buddhahood, thereby undermining mysterious, acausal, or mystical interpretations of the attainment of enlightenment. On his account—again, buttressed by voluminous citations from Indian Buddhist sources—both becoming and being a bodhisattva involve difficult work across cognitive, affective, and conative domains, and to suggest otherwise is a seriously flawed understanding that will preclude spiritual development from the outset. Hence, this book can be read fruitfully as a strong defense of the gradualist form of Buddhist practice against the sudden forms prevalent in both Tibetan and East Asian Buddhist traditions.
In recent years, Jinpa, known as the long-time English interpreter for the Dalai Lama, has proved himself to be the preeminent translator of Tsongkhapa, having produced the definitive synthetic biography of him to commemorate the six-hundredth anniversary of his death in 2019. Illuminating the Intent: An Exposition of Candrakīrti’s Entering the Middle Way, which is included in the Library of Tibetan Classics (of which Jinpa is the chief editor), is a testament to that status. The only possible criticism of the book is that Jinpa’s introduction is fairly brief. However, the intended audience of the book is likely somewhat versed in the topics and debates covered; moreover, since the book nears seven hundred pages, perhaps less is more. This a landmark publication that serious students of Buddhism should not miss.
Edward Arnold is assistant editor with the American Institute of Buddhist Studies, Columbia University Center for Buddhist Studies.Edward ArnoldDate Of Review:February 23, 2023