Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Freedom from Extremes - Preface

Gorampa’s “Distinguishing the Views” and the Polemics of Emptiness

By José Ignacio Cabezón

In the early 1980s, I lived and studied at Sera Monastery in India while I was preparing my translation of Khedrub Jé’s (Mkhas grub rje) classic of Middle Way (Madhyamaka) philosophy, the Stong thun chen mo. One of the great challenges I faced in my research involved identifying Khedrub Jé’s unnamed opponents. This led me to read more broadly in the field of Tibetan Madhyamaka, and this, in turn, eventually led me to the work of the great Sakya scholar Gorampa Sönam Sengé (Go rams pa Bsod nams seng ge, 1429–89). In the course of reading Gorampa’s writings, I came upon his Distinguishing the Views (Lta ba’i shan ’byed), the work translated in these pages. It immediately became clear to me why the text was considered by many scholars, both classical and contemporary, to be a work of tremendous power and, among other things, to be one of the most important critiques of Tsongkhapa’s Madhyamaka views. Concise, clear, elegant in style, and powerful in its argumentation, Distinguishing the Views is one of Gorampa’s most famous works. I had not yet finished reading the text when I decided to translate it. By the early 1990s I had a draft in hand.

I was not then aware that Geshe Lobsang Dargyay (Dge bshes Blo bzang dar rgyas), working in Hamburg, had already completed his own draft translation of Gorampa’s text several years earlier. From 1994 to 1995, I had the good fortune to be a visiting research scholar at the Institut für Kultur und Geschichte Indiens und Tibets at the University of Hamburg. I first learned of Geshe Dargyay’s work from my colleague in Hamburg, Prof. David Jackson. While in Hamburg, Prof. Lambert Schmithausen urged me to contact Geshe Dargyay about possibly collaborating on the translation, a suggestion that I welcomed. I soon learned, much to my regret, that Geshe-la had passed away just a short time earlier, a great loss to the field, and particularly sad news for me since I never had the opportunity to meet this fine scholar. My query, however, was answered by Prof. Eva Neumaier, the executor of Geshe Dargyay’s estate, who was enthusiastic about my proposal to combine our work—mine and Geshe Dargyay’s—to publish a translation of Gorampa’s text under both our names. Over the many years since I first got her approval to proceed with this joint venture, Prof. Neumaier has been a model of supportiveness and patience. I also wish to thank her for contributing the brief life story of Geshe Dargyay found in these pages.

The work that you have before you is truly collaborative. While it fell on me to make the final decisions about the manuscript, I consulted Geshe Dargyay’s text at every turn. In several instances, Geshe-la’s translation allowed me to correct my own, and I consider myself fortunate to have had his text as a conversation partner and sounding board. Geshe Dargyay, in turn, had earlier benefited from the comments and guidance of Prof. Schmithausen. Prof. Schmithausen should therefore be seen not only as the impetus behind this cooperative undertaking but also as a contributor. However, the final responsibility for decisions fell upon me. Therefore, as the last (if not the only) scholar to work on this translation, I take responsibility for any faults and shortcomings.

Geshe Dargyay wished to thank the following individuals and institutions, the acknowledgement of which I take verbatim from his manuscript. “My deepest gratitude is due to Prof. Dr. L. Schmithausen for his readiness to take responsibility vis-à-vis the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), for checking and correcting my translation item by item, and for his many suggestions. Words of thanks to Prof. Dr. Eva Dargyay, too, are inadequate for her unfailing support of this work. I also wish to thank Prof. Dr. Leslie Kawamura for his support. Among institutions, thanks are due to the DFG, to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and also to the Calgary Institute for the Humanities. My gratitude also goes out to Mrs. Gerry Dyer for typing the first draft of the translation, and is also extended to my students who contributed to this project: Susan Hutchison, Kay Wong, Windsor Viney, and especially Donald Hamilton for his patience and readiness to spend many hours correcting my English and proofreading the text. Without their support, this work would never have been completed.”

From my side, over the last decade I have had the good fortune to reread portions of Gorampa’s text with students in Hamburg, Denver, and Santa Barbara. Dan Arnold helped with research on the first chapter. Most recently, two students, Michael Cox and Zoran Lasovich, have spent many hours with the English and Tibetan texts, getting them ready for publication. Several colleagues have taken time out of busy schedules to offer me feedback on the introduction or portions of the translation, among them David Jackson, Dan Martin, Gene Smith, and Tom Tillemans. Finally, the work could never have been completed without the generous support given to me by the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung and by the Religious Studies Department of the University of California Santa Barbara. To the many individuals and institutions who have made this work possible, I express my sincere gratitude.

There is a certain irony that a work so critical of Tsongkhapa (Tsong kha pa)—the founder of the Gelug school—should have been translated and brought to the attention of a Western audience by two scholars trained in the great Gelug academies (Geshe Dargyay at Drepung and I at Sera). It is perhaps doubly ironic since the work translated here was, before 1959, actually banned by the Ganden Potrang (Dga’ ldan pho brang), the Gelugbacked Tibetan government. (More on this in the introduction.) A great deal has changed since 1959. Books like Distinguishing the Views are no longer banned (either in Tibet or in exile). They are readily accessible and are today widely read by monks of all of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, including Gelugpas. But the irony persists in large part because of how different things were just one generation ago.

There are many ways to engage a work like Gorampa’s Distinguishing the Views. Because Geshe Dargyay and I were trained as exegetes and philosophers, this has been our main mode of engaging the work. We have, first and foremost, sought to understand what Gorampa himself was saying and to present Gorampa’s views as accurately as possible. In the notes our goal has been to identify the works of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism that influenced our author, to find parallel passages and arguments in his other works, to find places in the works of his opponents where these same issues are addressed, and occasionally even to offer our own appraisals of Gorampa’s views.

Some might think it inappropriate for scholars to make normative evaluations of the text or author they are translating. We should remember, however, that Gorampa’s text is itself making normative evaluations of the texts and views of other authors. Rather than remaining aloof—as historians of religion are often wont to do, usually in the name of “objectivity”— aloof to the philosophical drama being played out in Distinguishing the Views, we have chosen to treat Gorampa’s text as a living text with an intellectual agenda that calls out for assessment on the part of readers, even to this day. For better or worse, it is usually difference rather than similarity that catches the eye of the philosophically minded scholar, and thus our normative assessments are usually critical. Gorampa himself does not celebrate the points of agreement between his own tradition and that of the two figures he chooses to critique. Rather, he homes in on the differences, on the points of disagreement. That is simply the way philosophers operate, and perhaps that is as it should be, since agreement is, after all, the end of dialogue. Once you agree with someone, not much more is left to be said.

For the record—and here I (Cabezón) speak only for myself—I agree with much, perhaps even with most of what Gorampa has to say in Distinguishing the Views. From his more natural (and less tortured) interpretation of the tetralemma to his critique of the notion of “real destruction” (zhig pa dngos po), I find Gorampa convincing. The occasional quip against Gorampa should be seen in the context of what is a broad sympathy for his views and methods. Our main goal, as we’ve said, is not to assess Gorampa’s views but rather to present his views as fairly and as accurately as possible, giving this great scholar the benefit of the doubt and allowing the subtlety and power of his arguments to shine through. Of course, it is up to the reader to decide whether we have succeeded in this task, just as it is up to the reader to decide whether Gorampa himself has succeeded in his.


How to cite this document:
© José Ignacio Cabezón, Freedom From Extremes (Wisdom Publications, 2007)

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