The Emptiness of Emptiness: An introduction to Early Indian Madhyamika
 by C. W. Huntington, Jr.,
Reviewed by Frederivk J. Streng 
Philosophy East and West
Volume 42, No.2
( C )by University of Hawaii Press

For  scholars  who  read  Buddhist  material, the  title  The
Emptiness of Emptiness has a familiar ring;  for others it is
often, at best, a puzzling  claim  of the "mysterious  East."
For both types of readers  this book is of interest.  For the
latter  it is a clear  statement  of the fact  that  Buddhist
philosophy   arises   in   a   context   of   "transformative
philosophy," whose goal is comprehensive freedom, and it is a
warning against interpreting emptiness either
as a nihilist or an essentialist  concept.  For the former it
provides  the  first  complete  English  translation  of  the
Tibetan translation of Candrakiirti's  Madhyamakaavataara, an
introductory   summary   of  the   ten  perfections   of  the
Bodhisattva  Path  and  an  analysis  of  word  usage  in the
Maadhyamika school from a Praasa^ngika perspective.
    The book is divided into two parts; added to this are
extensive notes (pp.  199-267), bibliography, and index. Part
1 is entitled  "Candrakiirti  and Early Indian  Maadhyamika,"
and   Part   II   is   a   translation    of   Candrakiirti's
Madhyamakaavataara, as "The Entry into the Middle  Way."  The
English  translation  is extracted  from  an eleventh-century
c.E. Tibetan translation of Candrakiirti's autocommentary, as
found in the edition by La Vallee Poussin (1907-1912).  It is
a joint effort of the author and Geshe Namgyal Wangchen. Part
I (pp. 3-142) contains methodological considerations (chapter
1) ,  a  philosophical  analysis  of  the  doctrinal  context
(chapter  2), a discussion  of language  usage in Maadhyamika
(chapter 3), a description  of the spiritual significance  of
the ten perfections of the Bodhisattva  Path (chapter 4), and
an interpretation of the relation between practice and wisdom
in Mahaayaana Buddhist thought by way of comparison with some
contemporary  Western deconstructionist  reflection  (chapter
5) .   This  review  will  focus  on  the  hermeneutical  and
philosophical  discussion  of  Part  I, since  it  poignantly
raises   the   issue   of  understanding   the   meaning   of
philosophical   claims  made  across  temporal  and  cultural
boundaries--a continuing topic of interest to readers of this
    Several hermeneutical concerns that inform this study  are
noted  in the first  chapter.  One is the recognition  of the
soteriological  aim  of  Candrakiirti's  effort.   Huntington
states (p.  13): "Maadhyamika  philosophy  cannot be properly
understood   when   extracted   from   the   matrix   of  its
soteriological  aims.  This  is not a novel  claim."  He then
quotes J.  W.  de Jong and D.  S.  Ruegg as scholars who have
recognized  this.  What he does not say is that this has been
recognized by many Western scholars, and has been a prominent
perception  about Buddhist  claims  for the past two decades,
being  found even in most general  introductions  to Buddhism
during the past decade. A perusal of Western Buddhist Studies
calls into question his claim in the first chapter that there
are  only  two  prevalent  models  for interpreting  Buddhist
thought: the philological model, and the "proselytic"  model.
At best, that discussion is an oversimplification  of Western
scholarship; at worst, it is an unfortunate distortion of the
Western   scholarly   concern   with  Buddhist   soteriology.
Huntington's   description  does  not  wrestle  with  various
scholarly  positions  both  within  and outside  the Buddhist
tradition  for justifying  and rejecting  diverse  claims  of
"right views," or for explicating  different  perceptions  of
the nature of existence as a necessary condition of achieving
its soteriological aim, perfect liberation.
    Another hermeneutical concern is to provide a "holistic
tion"  that  requires  a crossing  "back  and forth  over the
borders  of several  jealously  guarded  disciplines, each of
them defended  by a close-knit  group  of rigorously  trained
initiates"  (p.  12) .  Such  an  interpretation.  Huntington
claims, requires  "an  application  of  all  aspects  of  the
Maadhyamika: intellectual, ethical and practical" (ibid.). He
recognizes  "some  initial,tentative  steps already  taken by
others"  (p.  13);  however, several Western scholars--H.  B.
Aronson,  P.  J.  Griffiths, and  D.  5.  Lopez,  to  name  a
few--have   gone  further   than  this  study   to  show  the
relationship  between intellectual, ethical, and experiential
aspects  of Buddhist  life experiences.  The failure to carry
out a "holistic interpretation" was disappointing because the
stages of the ten perfections of the Bodhisattva Path provide
the occasion  to describe  and analyze  the relation  between
areas  of  thought  and  practice,  for  example,  how  "pure
qualities  of most perfect morality" are related to "balanced
concentration  and  cognition," or how "intensive  meditative
cultivation"   is  related  to  "completely   pure  intrinsic
qualities   of  analytic  knowledge."   Indeed,  morality  is
summarily  discussed  in the chapter  on the  ten perfections
(pp.  70-72) as are generosity,patience, and meditation;  but
they  remain  isolated  segments  of  teaching, the  analysis
repeating  much of the comparable  chapters of the translated
    While the two previously indicated hermeneutical concerns
are explicitly  stated  in the first chapter, they are, then,
not the distinctive  feature  or this "introduction  to early
Indian  Maadhyamika."  Rather  it  is  another  hermeneutical
concern, also introduced  in that chapter  and elaborated  in
the final  chapter  of Part  I, "The Emptiness  of Emptiness:
Philosophy as Propaganda."  In Huntington's  words, "Recourse
to  the  insights  of  post-Wittgensteinian   pragmatism  and
deconstruction  provides us with a new range of possibilities
for  interpreting  The Entry  into  the Middle  Way and other
early  Maadhyamika  treatises,  for  what  we  learn  in  our
encounter  with these texts is in every way a function of the
tools we bring to our study" (p. 9).
    From the deconstructionist movement, Huntington selects
Richard Rorty as his prime mentor. Huntington affirms Rorty's
approach to the meaning of a text as "a preeminently Buddhist
hermeneutic  and therefore  a preferred  approach to studying
Buddhist literature"  (p.  8).  This approach  assumes that a
hermeneut--according to a quote from Rorty--"asks neither the
author nor the text about its intentions but simply beats the
text into a shape which will serve his own purpose"  (ibid.).
The interpreter--again, quoting Rorty--"is  in it for what he
can  get  out  of it, not  for  the  satisfaction  of getting
something  right" (ibid.).  This stance  is taken in order to
avoid  getting  caught  in either  of the  two  hermeneutical
models   previously   described,   the   "philological"   and
"proselytic"  models, which, says  Huntington, "rely  on  the
proper application  of an approved  methodology  supposed  to
insure access to [a presumed objectively present] tradition"
(p.  7).  The attempt  to avoid a method  (or methodology) is
also  informed  by the pragmatist's  rejection  of any method
that seeks an objective, value-free  interpretation  of data.
This  attempt  to  locate  such  a method  for  an  objective
interpretation in modern Western thought, says Huntington, is
itself an expression of the presuppositions  of neo-  Kantian
scientific rationalism-precisely the presuppositions rejected
by Maadhyamika thought.
    The major thrust of Huntington's hermeneutic is to show
that   for   contemporary   deconstructive    or   pragmatist
philosophers   and   for   Naagaarjuna   as  interpreted   by
Candrakiirti, truth  is "a function  of what  can be put into
practice" (p. 44).  Throughout the analysis, two goals of the
Maadhy-amika "radically deconstructive, pragmatic philosophy"
(p.   136)  are   portrayed:  (1)  dispelling   the  reifying
tendencies  in  language,  and  (2)  eliminating   the  fear,
suffering, and  hate  that  are  produced  by  attachment  to
(false)essentialist notions.  The truth of highest meaning is
"the  actualization  of emptiness, the cessation  of all fear
and suffering." (p. 39).
    Maadhyamika texts are quoted to justify these pragmatic
soteriological  goals  as the stated  purpose  of Maadhyamika
claims; however, Huntington then takes another step to assert
that   Maadhyamika    reflection   uses   only   a   circular
self-justifying procedure when making claims about the nature
of    existence--for    example,   no    existent    has    a
self-substantiated  nature--namely,  they  are  justified  by
experiencing freedom from fear and suffering. He asserts: "In
the  final  analysis,  the  Mahaayana   Buddhist  conceptual-
ization  of the  world, epitomized  in such  central  notions
as'dependent  origination'  and  'emptiness,' must  be called
upon  to provide  its own justification  through  the freedom
from fear and suffering  which it is supposed  to yield" (pp.
136-37).  This dogmatic assertation is not argued;  but it is
consistent with another generalized evaluation: "Any study of
deconstructive  philosophy is significant  only to the extent
that  it  contributes   to  formation   of  an  attitude   of
nonclinging"  (p.  40).  It  is  not  only  deconstructionist
philosophy, however, that should have a pragmatic existential
verification  procedure.  This  is suggested  when Huntington
asks: "Could it not be that the only legitimate philosophical
work is over and done with when all problems  are shown to be
practical  problems,and when  the paradoxical  nature  of the
everyday  world has been shown to be entirely self-sufficient
as revealed  in all actual and possible  states of affairs)"'
(pp. 42-44).
    The author recognizes that Maadhyamika and contemporary
Western  deconstructionist   and  pragmatist   concerns   and
positions are not identical.  He states: "I have not referred
again  and  again  to the writings  of deconstructionist  and
pragmatic  philosophers  because  I believe that these modern
thinkers  are saying  the same thing  as the ancient  Maadhy-
amika"  (pp.  133-134).  The  differences,  however, are  not
systematically stated.  Huntington does suggest that there is
a "catch" in the pragmatist
view of William  James  in that  he did not see how deep  his
commitment to a substance ontology was (pp.  45-46). Likewise
he   criticizes    Feuerabend's    notion   of   a   "natural
interpretation"   for  understanding   causality  (p.   46) .
Nevertheless, Huntington sets his hermeneutical  critique--by
positively    quoting    from    Rorty's    deconstructionist
position--in   a  frame-work  that  juxtaposes   metaphysical
concepts  and meanings  derived solely from a sociolinguistic
context.  His  interpretation  of Maadhyamika  is based  on a
hypothetical epistemological dualism between an unconditioned
metaphysical  reality  as  a  source  of  meaning,  which  is
rejected, and a sociolinguistic  matrix  of meaning.  Thus he
concludes: "When its philosophical  work is done, the concept
of  emptiness   dematerializes   along  with  every  possible
justification   for  belief   in  any  reality   beyond   the
sociolinguistic matrix of everyday experience" (p. 136).  Any
reality beyond the sociolinguistic  matrix is identified with
an essentialist transcendental  substratum, leaving illusory,
conventional  truth as identical to enlightened  insight into
the nature of existence.  He writes:'The soteriological truth
of  the  highest  meaning,  as  dependent   origination   and
emptiness,  is  itself  the  illusory,  conventional   truth,
because  it  necessarily  appears  in  a  self-contradictory,
misleading  form" (p.110).  Such an interpretation, I fear,
reduces   Naagaarjuna's   famous  dictum  that  there  is  no
difference between and sa.msaara (Muulamadhyamakakaarikas
25:19-20) to: there is only sa.msaara.
    I find this aspect of Huntington's interpretation
problematical  because  it confuses  the highest  meaning  of
truth in Maadhyamika with conventional truth. Certainly, both
Naagaarjuna and Candrakiirti  deny an essentialist meaning of  and  sa.msaara;   these  terms  do  not  refer  to
entities-in-themselves.   Likewise,  both   use  conventional
terms, like "emptiness"  and "dependent origination," for the
soteriological purpose of eliminating attachment to concepts,
perceptions, and emotions.  However, they also  indicate  the
intrinsic  nature  of human experience  without  providing  a
description  through a one-to-one  correlation  between words
and reality.  Huntington  also seems to affirm this (p.  49),
without recognizing that the reality of dependent origination
makes  possible  illusion  and what  is other  than illusion:
enlightenment.  The difference  is suggested  when  he writes
about different ways of responding  to dependent origination,
either in projecting a self- existent reality (in ignorance),
or "without  having  to make  an intervening  inference"  (p.
111) .   The   highest   truth   is--from   the   Maadhyamika
perspective--known     through     conventional     activity.
Deconstructionist practice and pragmatist concerns may aid in
avoiding    metaphysical-    absolutist-prone    conventional
activity; nevertheless, the reality in which both the highest
truth and conventional  truth function  can hardly be reduced
to  sociolinguistic   conditions  described  by  contemporary
deconstructionist and pragmatist philosophers.