The Wisdom Chapter:

Jamgön Mipham's Commentary on the Ninth Chapter of The Way of the Bodhisattva

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Jamgön Mipham
Padmakara Translation Group
  • Boulder, CO: 
    , June
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Suspicions of breached objectivity arise around the scholar of religion cum religious scholar. Often these are spurious, but occasionally, drawing the distinction is necessary. This is the case with the The Wisdom Chapter. The book offers much more than a translation of Jamgön Mipham’s commentary on the famed chapter from Śāntideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva. The seventy-five-page introduction gives a lucid explanation of both the philosophical and historical context of Mipham’s oeuvre, which sought to reinvigorate Nyingma philosophy in the face of Gelug hegemony.The principal contention between those schools concerns whether emptiness negates a particular false conceptualization of reality—ontological essentialism—or all conceptualization with regard to ultimate reality. The former position argues that philosophical inquiry culminates in the realization of emptiness, while the latter argues that realization only arises with the disintegration of such discursion. Gelugpas, subscribing to the first, delineated eight tenets consequent to their view, with ramifications for everything from whether Arhats (who, while not Buddhas, are free from suffering) realize emptiness, to whether the mind is reflexively aware, cognizing itself in a single moment. Mipham’s commentary, following the second, largely aims to differentiate his school’s view from these eight, with greater focus on some over others. The third and last section of The Wisdom Chapter contains both a retort against Mipham’s position from the Gelug side by Lozang Pelden Nyendrak, the third Drakar Tulku, as well as Mipham’s further rebuttal. Though this section is often opaque, it serves as a helpful condensed exchange over the most salient Gelug-Nyingma disagreements.

By the time we have reached Drakar’s counter position, however, the introduction has stacked the deck against any hope of taking the Gelug view as felicitous. Take, for example, the introduction’s summation of Nāgārjuna, which argues, “When we are thus confronted with Nāgārjuna’s presentation of the Middle Way, two trajectories lie open to us”: either we “reach the limits of rational enquiry” and “attempt to step across the frontier and directly taste in meditation the state of wisdom,” or “instead of actually doing what Nāgārjuna is doing in the kārikās, we can talk about what he is doing” (15). The reader cannot help but associate these two “trajectories” with Mipham and Gelug respectively, the former the clear superior to the latter’s persistent engagement with rational inquiry, reminiscent of Gelug. This makes the Gelug position appear strangely rebellious against its Indian pedigree. Tom Tillemans, however, demonstrates in his 2013 essay on “Yogic Perception, Meditation, and Enlightenment” that the relationship between effable philosophy and ultimate reality was highly contested among Indian Buddhists interpreting Nāgārjuna up until at least the 8th century; the continuative theory—arguing that meditative realization is consistent with philosophy—was a matter of ongoing debate.

The Wisdom Chapter also focuses on examples that make the Gelug interpretation appear especially aberrant. The introduction gives a detailed account of Gelug’s idiosyncratic view that the Arhat realizes emptiness, concluding, “Certainly, nothing remotely resembling the Gelugpa interpretation ever seems to have occurred to the Indian commentators” (70). However, the authors give no analysis of Mipham’s equally questionable assertion of reflexive awareness, which attempts to qualify and soften Śāntideva’s argument against it (286-87). While Prajñākaramati (Śāntideva’s commentator) may have held a position similar to Mipham, it is clear that many Yogācārins—including Mokṣākaragupta in the 10th century (see Bauddha Tarkabhāṣā of Mokṣākaragupta vol. 1, Asha Prakashan 1985, § 13, 22-24)—saw Śāntideva as giving an unqualified refutation of reflexive awareness.

There are also historical biases. The introduction paints the Gelugpas as crusaders against the non-sectarian Rime movement with the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682), at the reins, citing Taktsang Lotsawa Sherab Rinchen—the famed Gelug opponent—as a victim of Gelug censorship, arguing “it is within the last decade that, under the auspices of Alak Zenkar Rinpoche, the works of Taktsang Lotsawa (b.1405) have again seen the light of day” (6). However, recent scholarship by Mayumi Kodani (forthcoming) demonstrates that the fifth Dalai Lama sponsored the expensive costs of printing Taktsang Lotsawa’s collected works. These not only contain Taktsang’s retort to Gelug, but also dedicatory verses composed by the fifth Dalai Lama prefacing Taktsang’s works. These are just a couple of the data points that complicate The Wisdom Chapter’s picture of Gelug as a concerted attempt to silence dissenting opinion against their own flimsy interpretation of scripture.

All this to say, it seems that a degree of apologetics has seeped subtly into the Padmakara Translation Group’s handling of the material. As inheritors of Mipham’s lineage, they seem invested in not only presenting, but also defending his position. This reverential spirit, I suspect, also explains some of the translation choices, which often preserve the syntactical structure of the Tibetan despite its stilted read in English. Such choices belie a suspicion of translation itself, fearing a type of violence to what this volume calls the “impenetrably intricate” (64) words of the original author. But, as Derrida notes, translation is violence, and a muted translation foregoes violence at the price of comprehension. This choice is not faulty out of hand. The danger enters, however, when decision making is no longer presented as such, but as transparent to “reality.” This is not to say that The Wisdom Chapter’s assessment is incorrect: Mipham may in fact have the better interpretation of emptiness and Gelugpa institutions were certainly oppressors in many regards. Rather, the hermeneutics around that assessment becomes murky under a veiled biased and the distinction between fact and interpretation difficult to sift. Nevertheless, The Wisdom Chapter is an incredibly valuable piece of scholarship, reflective of not only deep research but a keen analytical acumen. The comments herein therefore should be taken as additive and not a referendum of The Wisdom Chapter’s entire project. In short, when authors are not forthcoming about their role as theologians or religious studies scholars, the reader does well to read behind the text with this distinction in mind and to remember that a grain of salt is part of any critical reader’s healthy diet.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jed Forman is a doctoral candidate in Buddhist Studies at the Univeristy of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
October 4, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jamgön Mipham (1846–1912), one of the great luminaries of Tibetan Buddhism in modern times, has had a dominant and vitalizing influence on the Nyingma School and beyond. He was an important member of the Rimé, or nonsectarian movement, which did much to strengthen and preserve the entire tradition. A scholar of outstanding brilliance and versatility, his translated works are eagerly anticipated by English-language readers.


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