The Two Truths in Indian Buddhism
Reality, Knowledge, and Freedom
- ISBN: 9781614297468
- Published By: Wisdom Publications
- Published: April 2023
Sonam Thakchoe’s The Two Truths in Indian Buddhism: Reality, Knowledge, and Freedom is a very welcome addition to the academic literature on Indian Buddhist philosophy written for the non-specialist. The concept of “two truths,” as Thakchoe observes in his introduction, is perhaps the central organizing principle of Indian Buddhist philosophy, and he takes the novel approach of unpacking the positions of its four main schools with respect to this principle. The idea of the two truths, or two realities, relies on the distinction between what is conventional and what is ultimate, largely in ontological terms but in epistemological terms as well. This concept emerged very early in Indian Buddhism, and the thematic approach of the book brings the great breadth of philosophical issues into coherent focus for scholars and readers not interested in the minutiae of Indian Buddhist intellectual history or the broader debates animating the South Asian philosophical traditions in which Buddhists participated.
Thakchoe takes as a starting point a late Indian Buddhist perspective that four distinct schools (Vaibhāṣika, Sautrāntika, Yogācāra, and Madhyamaka) could be identified, with certain meaningful differences leading to further subdivisions. The perspective, inherited by the Tibetan tradition, holds that the Buddha himself taught the general principles of each of the four as a way of accommodating the capacities of disciples who could fathom fully his unique teaching of selflessness. Understood in this way, Indian Buddhist philosophy is hierarchical, with each of the first three “lower” schools providing the scaffolding for the “higher,” and this avoids criticism of the Buddha himself by positing a useful purpose for the schools left behind. That the Madhyamaka school, rather than the Yogācāra, proves to be the highest is a conclusion that certain Indian (and Tibetan) Buddhists would dispute—as would most Chinese and Japanese Buddhists—so it is important to note that Thakchoe is working from an influential, but not universally shared, standpoint.
Thakchoe makes quick work of the first two schools, Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika, which are similar in terms of positing subjects and objects as discrete ultimate realities. Fittingly, the philosopher Vasubandhu looms large here, since his seminal Treasury of Higher Principles presents the Vaibhāṣika view and then critiques it from a Sautrāntika position. Treasury of Higher Principles serves as the primary source for these two schools, which in fact represent a diversity of positions distilled over hundreds of years. Sautrāntika also represents the home of the influential logicians of the Indian Buddhist tradition, and it would have been very helpful if Thakchoe could have fleshed out this tradition more fully, given the clarity with which he presents his material.
Thakchoe then moves to the Yogācāra school, whose presentation of the dynamics of subjectivity and conceptuality is exceptionally rich and complex. Here again, Vasubandhu is the primary representative of this school, and Thakchoe deftly explains how Vasubandhu’s own commitment to the logical analysis of what can be posited as real in terms of cognitive processes leads to the Yogācāra critique of extra-mental phenomena and the rejection of his own earlier Sautrāntika position. Thakchoe’s relatively brief presentation here is extremely clear, as is the following section on Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka. These early sections are excellent in providing an overview of the four schools as distinct entities prior to the period, from the 6th century say, at which point commentators began to weaken those sharp edges with hybrid subdivisions and novel interpretations. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with two such important subdivisions, Sautrāntika-Svātantrika Madhyamaka and Yogācāra-Svātantrika Madhyamaka, which develop the insights of the Buddhist Logicians to different conclusions regarding the two truths, in particular the status of the conventional.
Chapter 7, on Candrakīrti’s Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka subdivision, is the centerpiece of the book. As Thakchoe explains in the introduction, from the 11th century onward, most Tibetan scholars agreed that Candrakīrti’s non-foundationalist interpretation of Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka represented the most profound philosophical presentation—and, therefore, the actual understanding—of the Buddha. For Candrakīrti, any attempt to posit, however subtly, any essential reality to phenomena (even conventionally) entails the ontological and epistemological foundationalism that Nāgārjuna had shown to be absurd in his masterworks. Interpretations attempting to ground knowledge in some indubitable facticity, even on a conventional level, necessarily reify the subject as a discrete, independent knower. Such an independent knower, not relying on an object to be regarded as a “knower,” is necessarily a transcendent subject and hence could not know anything of the conventional world in which religious practice occurs.
Thakchoe succeeds brilliantly in bringing Candrakīrti’s critiques to bear on the different schools’ positions presented in the earlier chapters. In particular, soteriological issues become prominent here, for Thakchoe emphasizes Candrakīrti’s concerns regarding the mutual exclusivity of relationality and foundationalism. If subjects are posited in a foundationalist manner, ultimately reducible to an essence (usually consciousness of some sort), then they become unrelated and unrelatable, causing the Buddhist path to individual liberation or enlightenment to collapse. Thakchoe offers here something of a prequel to his earlier monograph The Two Truths Debate: Tsongkhapa and Gorampa on the Middle Way (Wisdom Publications, 2007), which charts the two primary interpretations of Candrakīrti’s Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka that evolved in Tibet. The interested reader would do well to refer to that book in order to delve into the details of the diverging interpretations of the authoritative religious literature in which they are grounded.
However, the final chapter, “Implications on Contemporary Studies,” fails to sustain this quality. Thakchoe discusses how certain scholars have engaged recently with some of the important figures of these schools, with a nod to certain trends in contemporary philosophy. The chapter reads like a forced afterthought, rather than a sustained defense, to demonstrate the relevance of the material to those already familiar with such trends. It adds little to the wonderfully clear explication of the material in its own developmental context throughout the prior chapters. This one misstep should not dissuade the reader interested in Buddhist philosophy, beginners in particular, from taking up this accessible and highly rewarding book.
Edward Arnold is assistant editor with the American Institute of Buddhist Studies, Columbia University Center for Buddhist Studies.Edward ArnoldDate Of Review:October 12, 2023