Self, Reality and Reason by Jinpa

Thupten Jinpa. Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy: Tsongkhapa’s Quest for the Middle Way. Milton Park, England: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002. Hardcover, xvi + 248 pp.

Thupten Jinpa holds a Geshe Lharam degree from Ganden Monastic University in India and also earned a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Cambridge in England. For the past 20 years, he has been a principal English translator to H.H. the Dalai Lama and has translated and edited many of the Dalai Lama’s works. He is thus more than qualified to tackle a book such as this, which illustrates the incredible philosophical sophistication of Tibetan Buddhism.

Many regard the fourteenth-to-fifteenth-century reformer and scholar Je Tsongkhapa, who founded the Gelugpa school, as Tibet’s greatest philosophical genius. Certainly his erudition and intellectual creativity were prodigious, and his contribution to the revival of Tantra is unparalleled. He studied with more than 100 teachers and composed hundreds of texts, which fill eighteen substantial volumes.

Based on his own spiritual realization as an adept, he lucidly taught and wrote about Nagarjuna’s Middle Way ( Madhyamaka) philosophy, which defines the fundamental orientation of Tibetan Buddhism. Je Tsongkhapa, who combined spiritual virtuosity with philosophical genius, offered innovative interpretations, which did not always sit well with his contemporaries and subsequent generations of Buddhist thinkers. In particular, he sought to demonstrate that Madhyamaka does not entail a negation of our everyday experiential reality, as present in the Shentong Madhyamaka interpretation of the Chinese Jonang school, which had been widely accepted in Tibet. Je Tsongkhapa also rejected the then popular view that Madhyamaka philosophy does not take a position on anything. Thus he argued against both agnostic and nihilistic versions of Nagarjuna’s great teaching.

The present book helps us appreciate the subtleties involved in Madhyamaka thought and in Je Tsongkhapa’s detailed expositions of it. One of the central concerns of his philosophical work—and of the present book—is the nature of selfhood. If, as already the Buddha made clear, the “I” is not a substantive entity, how can we explain the fact that everyone experiences such an inner unity, which allows us to use the personal pronouns “I” and “me”? Je Tsongkhapa interpreted the Madhyamaka position on this as saying that personal identity is simply a (convenient) construct dependent on other interdependent factors, which sounds rather modern. He felt that there was absolutely no need to find a real or substantive referent and that one should rest content with the existential label “I,” which has a certain practical usefulness. When we read Je Tsongkhapa’s own words—which Thupten Jinpa often quotes—what was previously a veritable jungle of concepts suddenly begins to make perfect sense.

This is a much-needed lucid exposition of key notions within Tibetan Buddhism (and Mahayana Buddhism in general), with the added advantage of the author’s twofold ability to dig deep into the Tibetan texts and to relate traditional Tibetan concepts to contemporary philosophical discourse. A wonderful scholarly accomplishment.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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