Reply to Jeffrey Hopkins's response to review of "Meditation on Emptiness"

Kapstein, Matthew

Philosophy East and West

Philosophy East and West
37 No.4
October 198

Copyright by University of Hawaii Press




In his response (Philosophy East and West 37, no. 3 (July 1987)), to my review of his Meditation on Emptiness, Jeffrey Hopkins argues that my general criticisms are not supported by the examples which I have given. Because his remarks seem to me often to be misleading, some words of rebuttal are called for.

Countering my objection to the translation of avataaara as "supplement," Hopkins claims to "give considerable Indian and Tibetan evidence for translating avataara both as 'introduction' and as 'supplement' " in his note 545. However, so far as I am able to determine, Hopkins offers no Indian evidence whatsoever there to support his assertion. He does mention Jayaananda, it is true, but never refers to the work of that author directly; instead, he reads him through the interpretations of the same late Tibetan authors who suggest "supplement" as a gloss on the translation term 'jug-pa. The remarks in my review make it clear that I concur with Hopkins that some of the Dge-lugs-pa writers do indeed adopt such a gloss, but as to what bearing this should have on our understanding of a Sanskrit term used by an Indian author eight hundred years prior to the foundation of the Dge-lugs-pa school, Hopkins offers not the slightest argument. So my original point, which concerned the important role of Indological investigations for Tibetan Buddhist Studies, still stands.

It will not be possible in the limited space which is available to me here to examine adequately the many interesting issues that may be raised in connection with the analysis of the "diamond slivers" argument. Hopkins's disinterested stance with respect to the conventions of Western logic and philosophy is pretty well underscored by his vagueness regarding the distinction between logical contradiction and contrariety, misdescribing it as a point about what he terms "symmetry." Not to quibble about the proper use of the technical term "symmetry" in contemporary logic, I must nevertheless note that the formula, given on page 852 of his book, which Hopkins holds to be "the most symmetrical," still employs contrary terms (in this case "truly established existent" and "truly established non-existent") rather than contradictories (which here would be "truly established existent" and "not truly established existent"). Hence, my original misgivings about the argument remain unaltered. Hopkins's attempt to construe such misgivings as an expression of personal "preference" again misses the point: the issue is not one of taste, but of logical form.

I have not been successful in locating, in the text of my review, the passage in which I'm supposed to have argued that "DDzong-ka-bba's refreshing rescuing of common sense ... is seen ... to go against common sense." In fact, I am quite unable to see how Hopkins managed to extract such an affirmation from that review at all. What I did suggest, and still hold, is that Hopkins never clearly resolves the conflict which is created when one presents Tsong-kha-pa both as the lifeguard of common sense and as "not ... affirming one's accustomed conception of oneself." It would seem that if common sense is not finally grounded, but is a conventional construct (be it one that is linguistic, conceptual, social, cultural, or historical), then one's only motivation for "rescuing" it would be to




preserve the status quo. But if, instead, it is somehow foundational, then why not buy into some version of the essentialism that the Maadhyamika seems so determined to deny?

Hopkins attempts to resolve this difficulty by grounding the conceptual distinctions made by the Dge-lugs-pa philosopher in the sphere of meditation, a move which, in the present context, seems ill-considered; for, assuming that the relevant conceptual distinctions can be grasped only by adepts of a particular system of meditation, the following undesirable conclusions follow: (I) in the progressive path of study (Sanskrit 'srula, Tibetan thos-pa), critical reflection (Sanskrit cintaa, Tibetan bsam-pa), and meditation (Sanskrit bhaavanaa, Tibetan bsgom-pa), study and critical reflection now serve only the function of instilling in the novice the propositions approved by the tradition, without the novice being in any way capable of determining for himself their truth or falsehood. Thus, the whole apparatus of debate and argument is merely a sham, disguising an elaborate conditioning procedure. (2) The Dge-lugs-pa adept is to be regarded as a sort of privileged observer, whose affirmations can neither be verified nor falsified by more humble beings like ourselves. Thus, a tradition which spends much energy proclaiming the value of reason emerges as irreducibly authoritarian. (3) As I suggested by reference to haecceitas in my review, some Western philosophers have made distinctions remarkably like those upon which the Dge-lugs-pa arguments turn. Because many of these philosophers have not practiced meditation in the Dge-lugs-pa or any other tradition, we must, following Hopkins's line of argument, deny the possibility of such resemblance altogether, for we now know on Hopkins's authority that these philosophers "cannot make" the distinctions in question. (4) Only personal preference, therefore, could lead us to assign greater credibility to the dictates of a Dge-lugs-pa meditator than to, say, those of one who claims to be the instrument of Satan, for both are asking that we accept what they say without any possibility of testing their statements by means of natural reason.

Surely, neither the Dge-lugs-pa school nor Hopkins would seriously countenance any of this. The nonmeditator must be at least capable of grasping certain fundamental ontological and conceptual distinctions and of working out the relationships holding amongst them in the light of reason. This is not to say that there is nothing left for meditation to accomplish after reason has done its work, but simply that, in accord with the progression of the path, meditation may presuppose various reasoned conclusions, which, however, do not themselves presuppose advancement in meditation on the part of the reasoning agent.

Hopkins's comments concerning his treatment of Dge-'dun chos-'phel underscore the very problems to which I sought to draw attention, for Hopkins is clearly more interested in providing us with a Who's Who of learned Tibetans with whom he has discussed the topic than in conducting a systematic investigation of available historical evidence (including, of course, the testimony of knowledgeable individuals) and presenting that evidence to his readers in a




balanced and circumstantial manner. Dge-'dun chos-'phel's drinking habits, for instance, are of little more than anecdotal interest, whereas Hopkins's use of the term "renegade" to characterize him carries some very powerful connotations, which unfortunately are never clarified: one would like to know just what Hopkins means by "renegade" in this context, and why exactly Dge-'dun chos'phel merits such a loaded description. Moreover, while I myself do not doubt that this figure at least inspired the composition of the Klu sgrub dgongs rgyan, and that his views are indeed represented therein, this much does not absolve the scholar of the requirement that he provide a precise and thorough account, both of his own reasons for certainty and of the objections that might be raised to them. For Hopkins to see all of this in terms of contemporary Tibetan sectarianism and "gullibility" is evidence only of his own apathy with respect to historical methodology. (Note: Readers interested in Dge-'dun chos-'phel and his place in modern Tibetan history should be aware of the recently published study by Heather Stoddard: Le Mendiant de l'Amdo [Paris: Soci'et'e d'Ethnographie, 1985]. Ms. Stoddard promises also a study of the Klu sgrub dgongs rgyan.)

Finally, concerning Hopkins's style: here, at least, we are largely in agreement with one another; for, as he correctly notes, I admire his precise and regular usage, while he concedes a certain "woodenness of style." What I am astonished to see, however, coming from his pen, is his assertion that "supposedly 'cognate' issues in the philosophies of other cultures ... can never [italics added] fit the historical development of these issues in the original culture." Of course, one does not expect that there be strict correspondence between all aspects of Tibetan Buddhist philosophical thought and Western philosophy, but if one adopts a very strong cultural relativist thesis, such that these two philosophical cultures are thought to be utterly incommensurable, then Hopkins's own project must be discarded along with all other attempts in the contemporary West to understand Tibetan Buddhism: it now represents a completely alien life-form, of which for us no understanding is possible. On the other hand, should one opt for a more sensible middle-of-the-road position, which admits some resemblances between Tibetan and Western thought, then it becomes difficult to see why Hopkins wishes to exclude the comparative method out of hand.

Hopkins concludes his response with an affirmation of pluralism. Here, again, we find ourselves in agreement. However, pluralism must not become an uncritical tolerance for any and all approaches to the problem at hand. The differences between Hopkins and myself represent not so much haggling over Tibetological trivialities as they do substantive differences regarding basic methodological issues. These differences need to be brought into the open court of serious academic debate if the study of Tibetan religion and philosophy is to continue to progress and flourish.