Review of William Ames, The Lamp of Discernment

Published in the IBS’s Contemporary Issues in Buddhist Studies Series

A Translation of Chapters 1-12 of Bhāviveka’s Prajñāpradīpa

Translator(s): William L. Ames Contemporary Issues in Buddhist Studies

  • Honolulu, HI:  University of Hawai’i Press , September  2019.  486 pages.  $55.00.  Hardcover. ISBN 9781886439696.  For other formats: Link to Publisher’s Website.

The sixth-century Indian philosopher and commentator Bhāviveka played a central role in the development of the Madhyamaka tradition, one of the two great traditions of Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism. Perhaps hiss greatest and most influential work is his commentary on Nāgārjuna’s “Root Verses on the Middle Way” (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā), known by the title Prajñāpradīpa or “Lamp of Discernment.” As William L. Ames points out in the introduction to his superb new translation of portions of this text, Bhāviveka’s commentary marked a major shift in orientation not just for the Madhyamaka tradition but for Buddhist philosophy in India more generally.

Early in the 6th century, another influential Buddhist thinker, Dignāga, ushered in a revolution by advocating a formal, three-member inference for philosophical argument. This change in logical procedure seems to have been tied to a new emphasis on debate, in which representatives of different Indian schools were forced to defend themselves in a public setting against the criticism of their peers. Bhāviveka was steeped in this world. He reframed Nāgārjuna’s arguments with the three-member inference and used it to engage a wide variety of opposing positions, from his own Buddhist rivals to the Hindu and Jain schools that were his conversation partners in wider circles of Indian philosophy. The text is not only an innovative exercise in scholarly procedure, but also it is a mini-compendium that illustrates the intellectual diversity in one of the most creative periods in the history of Indian philosophy.

It is not, however, an easy text to study. It requires precise attention to the logical detail of Bhāviveka’s arguments, and it requires an almost-encyclopedic familiarity with the different schools addressed by Bhāviveka as he works out the implications of Nāgārjuna’s verses. To make matters worse, the original Sanskrit has been lost, and the text has to be studied in its Tibetan translation, with the help of subcommentary attributed to a figure named Avalokitavrata. This subcommentary makes it possible to work out the meaning of many passages that would otherwise be obscure, but it is an immense challenge in its own right. Occupying two whole volumes in the Tibetan canon, it is one of the most massive texts in the canon, and it presents many interpretive difficulties of its own.

Ames’s new translation and analysis of Prajñāpradīpa chapters 1–12 responds to these challenges with impressive thoroughness, sensitivity to nuance, and mastery of the wide range of options in Bhāviveka’s intellectual milieu. This translation is the product of more than thirty-five years of engagement with Bhāviveka’s text, dating back to Ames’s dissertation at the University of Washington in 1986. Chapters 1–7 have appeared previously elsewhere. Here the translations of those earlier chapters have been updated and expanded with the addition of chapters 8–12. Although this book covers only about half of Nāgārjuna’s own verses, it is by far the most important half. Nāgārjuna’s analysis of causation in chapter 1 (on arising from self, other, both self and other, and from no cause at all) sets the stage for many of the arguments that appear in later chapters, and Bhāviveka’s commentary on this chapter deals with many of the issues of logic and commentarial procedure that made his work such an innovation in its own time. Ames’ translation and analysis of these chapters will be both a model and an inspiration for future scholars as they tackle later chapters in the text.

For those interested in the Tibetan reception of the text, Ames’ introduction provides a concise explanation of the common designation of Bhāviveka as a “Sautrāntika-Svātantrika-Mādhyamika.” He advocated svatantra or “independent” inferences and took a Sautrāntika view of conventional reality. Ames points out a passage in the commentary on chapter 7 where Bhāviveka explicitly accepts a Sautrāntika position conventionally (11). The rest of the introduction is dedicated to a chapter-by-chapter summary of the contents of the Nāgārjuna’s verses. This summary gives a helpful overview of the major topics in Nāgārjuna’s thought. Unfortunately, it does not address one of the perennial puzzles about Nāgārjuna’s verses: Why did Nāgārjuna choose to take up topics in the order he did? Does the text have an inherent logic, or is closer to a random collection of topics? Bhāviveka gave an implicit response to this question when he rearranged the arguments of the text in a more trasnaparent structure in chapter 3 of his “Verses of the Heart of the Way” (madhyamakahṛdayakārikā). But it would be helpful to know if a logical sequence can be discerned in Nāgārjuna’s own text.

The greatest contribution of Ames’ book lies in the translation itself and in his copious notes. These will give scholars of Madhyamaka a rich treasury of potential topics for future study. I will mention only one example. In the commentary on the fourth option in the first verse of chapter 1 (origination from no cause), Bhāviveka first discusses the possibility that things arise without any cause. Naturally he rejects it, saying that “it is common knowledge that whatever exists in this world originates from causes” (34). Then he asks whether anything can arise from a “non-cause” (ahetu). What kind of thing might this be? He mentions five possibilities: intrinsic nature (svabhāva), God (īśvara), the spirit (puruṣa), primal matter (pradhāna), time (kāla), and the god Nārāyaṇa. He then goes to discuss various non-Buddhist claims about primal causes. Avalokitavrata adds six more, including a god associated with the Persians and one who seems connected to the Greeks. Bhāviveka argues, basically, that these entities may very well exist, but they do not have the characteristics to function as primal causes. The whole passage is a fascinating digression into an aspect of Indian philosophical diversity that is seldom, if ever associated with the tradition of the Madhyamaka. Many other fascinating digressions linger in the pages of Ames’s text.

In short, Ames has made an invaluable contribution to the study of Madhyamaka thought. We can applaud his accomplishment and look forward to all that lies ahead.   About the Reviewer(s): 

Malcolm David Eckel is professor of religion and director of the Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Boston University. Date of Review: October 19, 2021 About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William L. Ames did his graduate work in the Buddhist Studies program of the Department of Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of a number of scholarly papers, chiefly on the Madhyamaka school in India.

1 thought on “Review of William Ames, The Lamp of Discernment

  1. Wow. It looks as though you recognized a real contribution when you helped Ames to move forward with this! Good on you. 👍XO B

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