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David Reigle's Review of THE NATURE OF THINGS by William Magee

Jan 22, 2001 03:11 PM
by Blavatsky Archives

SUBJECT: David Reigle's Review of THE NATURE OF THINGS 

Here is David Reigle's review of the following book:

The Nature of Things: Emptiness and Essence in the Geluk World, by
William Magee, Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1999.

>From the title, this book promises to address a question of great
interest to students of Theosophy. The words "nature" and "essence"
refer to svabhava, a word that is used seven times in the Stanzas of
Dzyan. The question is, then: Do the Gelugpas accept a svabhava such as
is found in the Stanzas of Dzyan, or is it denied by their teaching of

Several months ago Daniel Caldwell kindly sent me a copy of this book,
hot off the press. Since then I have picked it up again and again, but
never knowing what to say about it. The author, William Magee, has taken
up a topic of basic importance; he has identified the key texts that
treat it; he has translated all those texts; and his work has been
published and thus made available. For this we must all be grateful. The
hesitation I felt is due to the circumstance that his translations seem
to be largely unintelligible, primarily due to his choice of translation
terminology. Such is the consensus I got from more than one
well-educated native English speaker.

Nonetheless, Magee's statements of Tsong-kha-pa's position which he
makes in Part One of the book are sufficient to show that the Gelugpas
do not accept a svabhava such as is found in the Stanzas of Dzyan. In
particular, this may be seen in his chapter four, "Natures that Do Not
Exist," in its concluding three sections, "The Independent and Positive
Nature," "Dol-bo's Synthesis" (referring to Dol-po-pa, founder of the
Jonangpa school), and "Refuting the Independent and Positive Nature."

In Part Two are found translated the basic texts dealing with svabhava.
These are, first and foremost, the svabhava chapter of Nagarjuna's
magnum opus, the Mula-madhyamaka-karika. This chapter consists of a mere
eleven verses. Then we have the commentary on it by Candrakirti, the
primary Indian teacher of the Prasangika school of Madhyamaka, which was
adopted by the Gelugpas. This is followed by the sub-commentary on both
these works by Tsong-kha-pa, founder of the Gelugpa order. Next comes
the section of Tsong-kha-pa's Lam-rim-chen-mo dealing with the same
topic. Finally there is the "Four Interwoven Annotations" on this
section of Tsong-kha-pa's text by four leading Gelugpa teachers.

The texts by Nagarjuna and Candrakirti were written in Sanskrit, and
later translated into Tibetan. Since both texts survive in the original
Sanskrit, this translation was made from these originals. Candrakirti's
commentary is entitled, Prasanna-pada, which title is here translated
(perhaps rather euphemistically) as "Clear Words." As stated above, to a
number of well-educated native English speakers, these words are
anything but clear in this translation. The translation reads like the
work of a student done for a class exercise; that is, the syntax is
often wrong. Indeed, we are told that it "was originally prepared at the
University of Virginia in 1987 under the Sanskrit tutelage of Karen
Lang" (p. 141). Unfortunately, the tutelage of a university professor is
not always enought to avoid serious translation mistakes.

There are at present four complete English translations of Nagarjuna's
Mula-madhyamaka-karika, done by Frederick Streng (1967), Kenneth Inada
(1970), David Kalupahana (1986), and Jay Garfield (1995). There is also
a partial translation (17 of 27 chapters) that includes Candrakirti's
commentary, done by Mervyn Sprung (1979). All five of these translators
are university professors. Yet we still do not have a reliable
translation of Nagarjuna's fundamental text. As stated by Nagarjuna
specialist Chr. Lindtner, reviewing Kalupahana's translation: "The
previous attempts of Inada, Streng and Sprung to render Nagarjuna's MK
into English were, to say the least, not successful and though I am only
too happy to say that Prof. Kalupahana's translations are seldom as bad
as any of theirs, it is still bad--real bad" (Journal of the American
Oriental Society, vol. 108, 1988, p. 178).

Prof. Garfield's translation, published by Oxford University Press in
1995, was supposed to have avoided the problems of his predecessors,
since he drew on Tibetan Gelugpa scholars to provide the traditional
understanding of this text. This is also what Magee did in the book
under review. As valuable as this is, it cannot entirely make up for
less than adequate language preparation on the part of the translator. I
will give one example for each of these two translators, though
translation mistakes can be found on virtually every page.

Chapter 17 of Nagarjuna's book is on karma, or action. After confusing
the subject and its adjectives in verse 1, Garfield translates in verse
3 that the kind of action called intention "is mental desire." The text
actually says that this kind of action "is held to be mental," as
opposed to the physical and verbal kind that follows. The introduction
of "desire" here is a serious translation mistake that could have been
avoided by even an elementary knowledge of Sanskrit. Garfield, however,
purposely translated from the Tibetan, where the word in question is
"'dod." This word literally means "desire," but anyone familiar with
this literature, even in Tibetan translation, knows that it is routinely
used there at the end of a line to mean "is held to be." The Tibetan
'dod here translates the Sanskrit smrtam, "is remembered," and in other
places translates the Sanskrit istam, "is desired," "is wished," that
is, "is held to be." It is used to mean that such and such is held to be
the case.

Garfield dedicates his book to Samdhong Rinpoche, director of the
Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, and thanks two
Gelugpa Geshes from the Institute, one for reading this text with him,
and the other for a close criticism of it. He gives us the impression
that his translation can be relied upon to faithfully represent the
Tibetan understanding of this text. Seeing the type of error just shown,
I found this hard to believe. While on a break from other work, I
brought this particular passage to the attention of Samdhong Rinpoche.
He agreed that no Tibetan Geshe would make this kind of error.

This is exactly the situation we have with Magee's book. We get the
impression that this is a reliable presentation because of his following
traditional Tibetan scholarship, and that we can therefore rely on his
translations as accurately following this traditional understanding. But
here, as with Garfield, this is not always the case. 

When Candrakirti sums up his explanation of svabhava, he uses a key
phrase translated by Magee as "aspects of things" (p. 147). This phrase
was also used by Candrakirti twice earlier (p. 143). The first usage
gives us his context. Magee translates: "Because of following the error
of ignorance, the world conceives aspects of things that do not have
nature [svabhava] as having nature." The phrase actually means "the
whole class of existing things." Thus this sentence could be translated:
"Because of following the error of ignorance, the world conceives the
whole class of existing things that do not have nature as having
nature." Candrakirti is not saying that only aspects of things are
without svabhava, he is saying that all things are without svabhava.
Clearly, this is a serious translation mistake.

The phrase in question is given by Magee in a list of technical terms
(p. 221) in Sanskrit, "bhavajatam," and in Tibetan, "dngos po'i rnam
pa." Magee's error here, like Garfield's above, is due to inadequate
familiarity with the language. Sanskrit is perhaps the world's richest
language in terms of vocabulary and grammar. In this regard, Tibetan is
relatively poor. Thus a single Tibetan word must do duty for many
different Sanskrit words in translation. Here, the Tibetan "rnam pa"
does duty for the Sanskrit "jata." The most common meaning of Tibetan
rnam pa is indeed "aspect," as Magee has translated it, where it does
duty for such Sanskrit words as "akara." A related meaning is "kind,"
which is also one of the meanings of Sanskrit jata. In this meaning,
jata refers to genus or class. When put at the end of a compound, it
means the whole class of something, as it does here. In brief, stock
translations simply do not suffice.

Thus, because of serious errors such as the one just described, it is
difficult to have confidence in any of the translations in this book for
accurately representing the Gelugpa view of svabhava. And this is quite
independent of the question of the translation's intelligibility. Alas,
I can only offer my condolences to the many good people who must rely
solely on English translations of material such as this.

These good people need not, however, fall into blank despair over this
situation. It is, after all, possible to translate this material
accurately and intelligibly. Indeed, some of this same material was so
translated in an apparently similar situation. William Ames published a
paper entitled, "The Notion of Svabhava in the Thought of Candrakirti,"
in Journal of Indian Philosophy, vol. 10, 1982, pp. 161-177. Like
Magee's work, this appears to have first been written while Ames was a
university student. The translations it includes are accurate and

To return to the initial question which this book held promise to
address, of great interest to students of Theosophy, we have already
said that Magee's statements of Tsong-kha-pa's position are sufficient
to show that the Gelugpas do not accept a svabhava such as is found in
the Stanzas of Dzyan. Rather, they hold that all things are empty of any
svabhava. But since what Blavatsky gave out was avowedly a secret
doctrine, can we read anything between the lines in support of it?

Nagarjuna defines svabhava with two adjectives: (1) "not made," that is,
"not created," or as Magee translates, "not fabricated," and (2) "not
dependent on another." This latter has reference to the well-known
Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination, the chain of causation;
i.e., that all things depend for their coming into existence on other
things, on preceding causes and conditions. Nagarjuna later adds that
svabhava, now called prakrti, is "without change," or in other words is
immutable. So far, so good. Svabhava, as an aspect of the "omnipresent,
eternal, boundless, and immutable principle," postulated as the first
fundamental proposition of The Secret Doctrine, matches these
descriptions given by Nagarjuna.

Nagarjuna further says in regard to this question that there is
ultimately neither being nor non-being. Again, Blavatsky says that the
omnipresent, eternal, boundless, and immutable principle cannot be
described as being, so she used for it the term "Be-ness." Those hostile
writers who have ridiculed Blavatsky for her "Be-ness" should be
referred to this chapter of Nagarjuna's.

But here the way seems to diverge. For Nagarjuna, this fact that there
is neither being nor non-being is proof that one cannot speak of any
existing thing as having svabhava. Nor does he speak of any svabhava as
the origin of existing things. Neither in Candrakirti's explanation of
Nagarjuna's brief words, nor in Tsong-kha-pa's explanation of both, do
we find anything even remotely pertaining to svabhava as the
"father-mother" or root of the universe, like it is described in the
Stanzas of Dzyan.

One thing should be noted here. We do not have Nagarjuna's own
commentary on his verses. The one attributed to him found in the Tengyur
is said by the Gelugpas to be spurious. We therefore do not know for
sure how he understood svabhava. Candrakirti, writing hundreds of years
later, purposely employed a Prasangika line of interpretation to explain
Nagarjuna's text. In this approach, reasoning is used to show that
conceptions such as "svabhava exists" are untenable. This approach was
followed by the Gelugpas. According to another approach, followed by the
"Great Madhyamakas" such as Dolpopa and the Jonangpas, Nagarjuna held
that there is something beyond what can be conceptualized. But as
discussed by Magee (pp. 103-115), this is exactly what Tsong-kha-pa and
the Gelugpas deny.

Candrakirti, however, may have given us who wish to trace the
Theosophical understanding of svabhava a major clue, tucked innocuously
among a string of definitions of svabhava. Here is an excerpt from this
string (Magee's translation of it is on p. 147): "What is this svabhava?
Prakrti. And what is this prakrti? That which is emptiness (sunyata).
What is this emptiness? Lack of svabhava." The possible clue is that
svabhava or prakriti is here also equated with emptiness.

Even though there is in Buddhism no explicit cosmogonical teaching
regarding any of these terms, it is a fact that every day, thousands of
Buddhists who perform tantric sadhana (meditation practice based on the
Buddhist tantras, Blavatsky's Books of Kiu-te) begin by dissolving the
universe into emptiness, and then generate their meditational universe
out of emptiness. Emptiness thus becomes, in this practice, the origin
of the (at least imagined) universe. Though emptiness is certainly not
conceived of here as an ultimate essence or substance like Blavatsky's
svabhava, but rather as empty space, we are reminded of a statement from
a secret commentary found in The Secret Doctrine that I have had
occasion to quote elsewhere (Blavatsky's Secret Books, p. 120):

. . . As its substance is of a different kind from that known on earth,
the inhabitants of the latter, seeing through it, believe in their
illusion and ignorance that it is empty space. There is not one finger's
breadth (angula) of void Space in the whole Boundless (Universe) . . . .
(The Secret Doctrine, vol. I, p. 289)

The explicit equation of svabhava and emptiness (sunyata) by Candrakirti
may provide an important clue to Theosophical researchers working with
Buddhist texts, which otherwise seem to disprove rather than support
Theosophical teachings. Books such as The Nature of Things can be used
in this research, at least in their general conclusions, although no
deductions can safely be made based on their translations. Nonetheless,
we can be grateful to William Magee for accurately providing us with the
general drift of Gelugpa thought on the question of svabhava.

Daniel H. Caldwell

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