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Acquiring the Notion of a Dependent Designation: A Response to Douglas L. Berger

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 61, Number 2, April 2011
pp. 365-367 | 10.1353/pew.2011.0028

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In a recent issue of Philosophy East and West Douglas Berger defends a new reading of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā XXIV : 18, arguing that most contemporary translators mistranslate the important term prajñaptir upādāya, misreading it as a compound indicating "dependent designation" or something of the sort, instead of taking it simply to mean "this notion, once acquired." He attributes this alleged error, pervasive in modern scholarship, to Candrakīrti, who, Berger correctly notes, argues for the interpretation he rejects.

Berger's analysis, and the reading of the text he suggests is grounded on that analysis, is insightful and fascinating, and certainly generates an understanding of Nāgārjuna's enterprise that is welcome amid the profusion of such understandings. We have learned much from it. The central argument, nonetheless, is vitiated by two significant fallacies, to which we draw attention, not in order to refute Berger's reading, but to indicate that the more generally accepted reading should not be discarded on the strength of this argument.

First, in arguing for his new translation of prajñaptir upādāya, Berger adduces many other occurrences of the term prajñapti in the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, occurrences in which it indeed has the ordinary sense of "concept," or "idea," "notion." He argues (pp. 48–49) on this basis that we should not take it to mean any more than this in XXIV : 18. Fair enough. But in none of those occurrences does prajñapti occur in the context of the phrase at issue, namely prajñaptir upādāya, and it is this unusual occurrence that concerns us. The lexical argument is thus at least a non sequitur.

Furthermore, all canonical Tibetan translations of prajñaptir upādāya render it brten nas gdags pa, which can only be glossed as a noun derived from two terms connected by an ablative particle, that is, "dependence [abl] designation," and should be translated as "dependent designation" (or as one of the many rough equivalents chosen by the many Western translators whom Berger criticizes).

Of course, Berger might reply that all of these Tibetan translators, like their Western successors, were in thrall to Candrakīrti. But that would be a desperate argument for at least two reasons. First, at the time of the translation of the text into Tibetan, Candrakīrti's star had not yet risen to the zenith it would occupy in Tibet, and there is little evidence of his thought having substantial impact in India during this period. Now, to be sure, Tibetan translations circa the ninth century do not by any means clinch the case, but the fact that these translations were all produced by teams of eminent Indian pandits and eminent Tibetan scholars and that they are unanimous should carry some weight.

The second reason takes us to Berger's second fallacy. Berger charges that Candrakīrti is to blame (pp. 51–56). But this can't be right. It is very hard to make sense of Buddhapālita's fifth-century commentary following Berger's interpretation. Indeed Pandeya (2 : 202) reconstructs Buddhapālita's phrase brten nas gdags pa as pratītyaveditavyaḥ ("to be understood as dependent"). Bhāvaviveka also writes before Candrakīrti, and indeed Candrakīrti takes issue with much of Bhāvaviveka's reading of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. But Candrakīrti agrees with Bhāvaviveka about how to read XXIV : 18. In Prajñāpradīpa, glossing the term in question in the context of the verse in question, he writes: "Here, brten nas gdags pa(prajñaptir upādāya) means 'mundane and transcendental conventional expressions.' Thus, it means 'designation on the basis of the aggregates' (brten nas gdags pa ste/ 'jig rten pa dang 'jig rten las 'das pa'i tha snyad 'dod pas nye bas len pa dag la brten nas gdags pa yin no//)" (230b).

The fact that Candrakīrti and Bhāvaviveka disagree about so much lends force to their agreement on this point. The fact that such great Indian pandits, including both of these figures as well as Buddhapālita, and, as we shall now see, Piṅgala, writing in a cultural milieu so much closer to...



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