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Reviewed by:
  • Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation
  • Edward R. Falls
Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation. By Jay L. Garfield. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 306 + xi pp.

Jay L. Garfield's Empty Words is a collection of (mostly) previously published essays bearing on the interpretation of Buddhist thought. Emphasizing the Indo-Tibetan tradition while indebted to Euro-American philosophy, Empty Words belongs in a class with books such as Tom Tillemans's Scripture, Logic and Language: Essays on Dharmakīrti and His Tibetan Successors (1999) and Matthew Kapstein's Reason's Traces: Identity and Interpretation in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist Thought (2001). Below is a précis of Empty Words, followed by remarks on some points that especially caught this reviewer's interest.

The essays in Empty Words are gathered into three sections according to subject matter: (1) Madhyamaka, (2) Yogācāra, and (3) Ethics and Hermeneutics. There are five essays in section 1, clustered around three themes: Nāgārjuna's theory of causality (ch. 2, 4), parallels between Madhyamaka and the European skeptical tradition (ch. 1), and paradox in Madhyamaka (ch. 3, 5).

Section 2 begins with an essay interpreting Vasubandhu on the three natures and three naturelessnesses, arguing that "Vasubandhu subordinates the naturelessnesses [End Page 196] to the natures pedagogically and describes them as characteristics of, but not (with the exception of the third) identical to the three natures" (p. 121). As for the other three essays in section 2, chapter 7 consists of a translation of and commentary on Vasubandhu's Trisvabhāvanirdes´a, chapter 8 presents an interesting experiment in cross-cultural interpretation in which the history of European idealism is viewed through a Buddhist idealist lens, and chapter 9 (one of the two previously unpublished essays in Empty Words—ch. 14 is the other) attempts to bring together Garfield's views on the limits of expressibility in Madhyamaka and his interpretation of the three natures in Yogācāra.

Section 3 includes three essays concerning issues in ethics or political philosophy and two essays discussing the hermeneutical issues involved when Euro-American and Tibetan philosophers attempt to understand each other's traditions. The topics of the former essays are as follows. Is the Dalai Lama's advocacy of human rights (which are grounded in liberal moral theory) compatible with Buddhist ethics, which emphasizes a compassion-based morality (ch. 10)? Are Buddhist values and democracy incompatible (ch. 11)? How does Samdhong Rinpoche's approach to nonviolence relate to Gandhi's (ch. 12)? In the final two essays of the book, Garfield advocates a strategy of cross-cultural interpretation which would avoid the pitfall of orientalism, drawing heavily on Gadamerian-Heideggerian hermeneutics.

The remarks that follow bear exclusively on points from essays in section 1 on Madhyamaka. In chapter 4, Garfield critiques the claim, attributed to Dharmakīrti (by rGyal tshab in his commentary on the pramānasiddhi chapter of Pramānavarttika) that belief in rebirth is necessary for the cultivation of bodhicitta. Garfield argues that if this claim is correct, then the "I" in the bodhisattva vow is doing real metaphysical work, functioning as the basis for a real causal relation, contra Nāgārjuna's analysis of causality (which is supposed to involve the rejection of real causal powers). Otherwise, a simpler account of bodhicitta would suffice, in which striving for personal enlightenment could be replaced by striving for someone's attaining enlightenment some time in the future. On this account, practitioners would resolve to contribute to the accumulation of causes of someone's eventually attaining enlightenment, where this accumulation of causes turns out to be something like "universal moral improvement."

But what if practitioners just do not know how to bring about universal moral improvement? Garfield acknowledges that buddhas sometimes act counter to the "moral" good, and this suggests an important cognitive difference between buddhas and ordinary beings: ordinary beings can only (fallibly) infer what the best thing to do is, whereas buddhas simply know. Hence, the importance, from a practitioner's standpoint, of the Buddha's teaching, which is a path of personal attainment (and who knows whether it is incidentally a...


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