Mipham’s Dialectics and the Debates on Emptiness by Phuntsho

Karma Phuntsho. Mipham’s Dialectics and the Debates on Emptiness: To Be, Not to Be or Neither. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005. Hardcover, 304 pages.

The concept of emptiness is central to Mahayana Buddhism and has been in the foreground of Buddhist philosophical discourse ever since Nagarjuna’s exposition of it. An important aspect of the fertile discussions within monastic circles has been the ontological status of emptiness: Is there something or nothing? Or is this question altogether inappropriate?

The controversy between the nineteenth-century Nyingma master Mipham and his Gelugpa dialog partners offers plenty of opportunity to investigate the logic of emptiness. Whereas for the Gelugpas the notion of emptiness suggests a negation of “thingness” (hypostatic existence) relative to an Ultimate, Mipham argued that the Ultimate is the ultimate nature of everything. He distinguished between a “notational ultimate” (paryaya-paramartha) and a “non-notational ultimate” (aparyaya-paramartha), applying emptiness as negation only to the former. Non-notational ultimacy cannot be grasped either by affirming its existence nor by denying it. Thus, to designate the ultimate Reality as “empty” represents, according to him, a gross reification.

This monograph captures all the myriad details of Tibetan Buddhism’s philosophical examination of emptiness. Mipham, a true polymath, displays extraordinary intellectual sophistication, basing himself not only on then current or preceding theories but also on the rich heritage of Tibet’s contemplative tradition.

Karma Phuntsho concludes his fine study saying about Mipham that his “works on Madhyamaka thus represent the crowning glory of his remarkable contribution to learning in Tibet and it will surely be for this legacy that Mipham will be best remembered and most studied for generations to come” (p. 212).

On another level, Mipham’s elaborations on emptiness offer an excellent counter balance to the negationist interpretation of the Gelugpa school, which has won over many Western scholars. Demonstrably, Mipham’s approach illustrates in a commendable fashion the middle path favored by the Buddha and Nagarjuna.

Copyright ©2007 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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