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  • Metaphor and Literalism in Buddhism: The Doctrinal History of Nirvana
  • Warren Todd
Metaphor and Literalism in Buddhism: The Doctrinal History of Nirvana. By Soonil Hwang. London: Routledge, 2006. Pp. xv + 160.

The brevity of Metaphor and Literalism in Buddhism: The Doctrinal History of Nirvana seems to belie the potentially immense nature of the title. However, halfway through the brief Introduction to his first major-length publication, Soonil Hwang offers his rationale for limiting the scope of the work by opting to ignore (p. 3), or rather postpone (p. 4), the Mahāyāna interpretations of nirvana (nirvāṇa). This sets up the much less daunting challenge of tracing the history of nirvana by confining the study to non-Mahāyāna India. Thus, “Southern” is used to designate the Theravāda and “Northern” to refer to the two other major Indian non-Mahāyāna schools, the Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika and the Sautrāntika. The reader should also be warned that, while it adds intrigue to the history, the author’s insistence on calling Buddhaghosa a “northerner” (pp. 46, 74) often blurs the just-mentioned distinction.

There are those who might believe that lexicographers ought to stay well clear of ‘nirvana,’ a word to be left on the “indefinable” shelf along with its ineffable relatives, such as ‘satori’ and ‘God.’ But Soonil Hwang is convinced that his mentor, Richard Gombrich, is on to something in tracing the meaning back to the sacred fires of early Brahmanism, supplying the Buddha with an analogy for the ‘blowing out’ of the three ‘fires’: passion, hatred, and delusion. In classic Gombrich style, the hypothesis is at once historical and culturally embedded, and, at least from a Buddhological point of view, textually justifiable. However, in tracing the meaning of the word ‘nirvana,’ one cannot but sense a gaping omission in pre-Buddhist Indian history (p. 9), and though likely due to lack of data rather than lack of research, the omission restricts the scope of the analysis equally as much as the omission of the Mahāyāna.

Of course this book was originally a Ph.D. thesis at the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, so the author may well be forgiven if the scholarship here were found to be essentially Buddhology. And Richard Gombrich’s presence ensures that the scholarship follows a certain format, the approach being historical and linguistic. The aim is to trace concepts, not experiences. Allegiance to origin is to be found in the wording of texts, not in people. Hwang is thus true to his mentor when he begins by separating “scholars” from “Buddhists” (p. 9), as if they were mutually exclusive categories.

As one might expect, then, the analysis is immediately technical, and the first two chapters basically limit the readership to those with some grasp of Pali and/or Sanskrit. The author appears equally at home in Chinese, though less is expected of the reader here. And with a number of complex Buddhist terms left without explanation, this is a book for specialists only.

While chapter 1 focuses on the meaning of the word ‘nirvana,’ chapter 2 examines the implications of there being two types of nirvana: ‘with remainder’ and ‘without remainder.’ What this ‘remainder’ might be is shown to be a linguistic question, with the author tracing the ambiguity surrounding the etymology of the Sanskrit terms ‘upādi’ (with long ‘a’ and short ‘d’) and ‘upadhi’ (with short ‘a’ and long ‘dh’). [End Page 571] The argument revolves around interpreting the ‘remainder’ either as the ‘aggregates’ or else as ‘attachment’/‘clinging.’ Hwang seems to favor Gombrich’s position that ‘upādi’ refers to the concept of ‘fuel,’ which metaphorically denotes ‘the aggregates’ (pp. 6, 20). Hwang goes on to make the interesting point that, while Jainism focused on nirvana at death, Buddhism focused on nirvana in life (p. 23).

Hwang now turns to the question of whether nirvana with remainder might apply to a noble person other than an arahant. Scholars, including Hermann Oldenberg and Peter Masefield, had earlier argued that the term must refer to a nonreturner, for an arahant (by definition) could not have attachment. But Soonil Hwang sides...