You are on page 1of 3

The Maha- Vairocana- Abhisambodhi Tantra with Buddhaguhya' s Commentary.

. The Maha- Vairocana- Abhisambodhi Tantra with Buddhaguhya' s Commentary.


The Journal of the American Oriental Society | October 01, 2007 | Wedemeyer, Christian K.
The Maha-Vairocana-Abhisambodhi Tantra Tantra with Buddhaguhya's Commentary. Translated by STEPHEN
HODGE. New York: ROUTLEDGECURZON, 2003. Pp. 572. $150.
This book is devoted to translating and briefly commenting on not two (as suggested by the title), but four very important
works of esoteric Buddhi st Buddhi st literature: the Enlightenment of Vairocana Tantra Tantra, its appendix tantra tantra (uttara-tantra tantra: what
Hodge calls a "continuation tantra tantra"), and two commentaries by the eighth-century author Buddhaguhya. The bulk of the
work (pp. 43-392) is a translation of the large commentary of Buddhaguhya, with the scripture it comments upon set off in
bold face. This is supplemented by a brief introduction (pp. 3-40) and translations of the appendix tantra tantra (pp. 393-443)
and of Buddhaguhya's shorter commentary (pp. 445-537). These translations are based largely upon the Tibetan
translations found in four Kangyur and three Tengyur redactions, with occasional reference to significant variant readings
in a Chinese translation of the mulasutra and an independent Chinese commentary. While the translation into English is, in
general, very competently done, the book as a whole has not been produced in a manner that would make for the most
effective contribution to scholarship on esoteric Buddhism.
lndeed, evaluating this work in this context is challenging, since it is not clear at all that it was meant primarily as a
contribution to academic scholarship. (1) The lack of any substantial scholarly apparatus is perhaps the most striking thing
about the book in this regard. Twenty-five pages of rather uneven endnotes (for a work of 572 pages) and a thirty-eight-
page introduction are all the readers has to fall back upon in attempting to situate and interpret the work translated. The
introductory material is cursory and thinly argued; no edition of the work translated has been provided (nor is systematic
editorial work in evidence "behind the scenes"); there is no bibliography and no index; and the glossary is inadequate. To
be charitable, the sheer magnitude of the translation may be largely to blame for these lacunae, considering that an
edition alone would practically double the size of the (already large) book. However, given the challenges of research on
esoteric Buddhism, to provide such a translation without more substantial interpretative writing and apparatus renders the
work of limited--and almost entirely pedagogical --utility.
First and foremost, given the highly technical nature of Buddhi st Buddhi st tantric literature, a stand-alone translation is arguably of
little benefit as a contribution to scholarship. Those without substantial prior exposure to the traditions of esoteric
Buddhism will likely find such a translation impenetrable, without an extensive introduction interpreting the work and
explaining its rituals and its special terminology. Even those with such a background will inevitably face further difficulties
due to the idiosyncrasies of any particular translator's chosen terminological choices. As such, a translation of an esoteric
Buddhi st Buddhi st scripture of this sort requires either (and preferably both) an edition of the original text(s), suitable for cross-
referencing, or a much more substantial glossary of equivalent terms in the applicable languages (English, Sanskrit,
Tibetan, Chinese, etc.). Neither has been provided in this case. Hodge has made note of the folio breaks of the Tibetan
blockprints from which he worked, which somewhat increases its utility for scholars with access to these collections, and
he provides some editorial comments in the footnotes to the translation (largely readings from the Chinese), which are
helpful, but thorough editorial work of the sort that a scholarly audience would expect is not in evidence. (2) Hodge has
also somewhat abbreviated the text, eliminating about ten percent that he felt was "either repetitious or merely duplicates
the words of the MVT itself" (p. 27). These elisions, however, are not properly marked, and the reader is merely
counseled that "these can be detected by a close scrutiny of the page numbers" of the source text found in the translation.
The lack of a bibliography is also striking. The introduction is brief and the notes scanty, yet neither is annotated in
anything remotely approaching even a minimal scholarly standard. This is problematical for at least two reasons. For one,
due credit is not given for many ideas that are clearly derived from or based upon the prior work of others. Furthermore,
one would assume that an audience interested enough to read a five-hundred-page translation would benefit from
pursuing further reading in Hodge's sources. Yet they are prevented from doing so by the lack of proper apparatus. Most
frustrating are references in the notes such as "Rolf Giebel (1995)" (which, the attentive reader may infer, contains a
translation of an important work by Amoghavajra), which are not further clarified by proper bibliographic citations. (3)
The introduction to the translation is also of very uneven quality. One finds there some useful (if abbreviated) summary of
the state of our knowledge about the MVT, its transmission to East and lnner Asia, and some observations on its contents.
ln particular, Hodge's brief discussions of Subha-karasimha (pp. 18-21) and Buddhaguhya (pp. 22-24) give helpful
information and speculation about these important figures. However, his general comments on the nature of Buddhi st Buddhi st
tantrism leave rather much to be desired. For instance, Hodge claims that the early tantras were "for the benefit of
unsophisticated ordinary people beyond the confines of the great monasteries" (p. 7), the aims of the practices being
"quite modest" and not entailing a "radical course of self-development." Hodge here rather remarkably oversimplifies
(and/or romanticizes) the nature of the monastic vocation and uncritically replicates an outmoded and misleading model of
the role of ritual and "mundane aims" in Buddhi st Buddhi st communities. ln this regard, one may consider that much the same as
Hodge claims of early tantrism has been said of other widespread Buddhi st Buddhi st rites, such as the practice of making sealings
(saccha)--i.e., that they were the province of the common folk, rather than the monastic elite--a scholarly prejudice that
has been effectively debunked by a number of scholars, as seen in many works of Gregory Schopen and (more recently)
Peter Skilling. (4) Hodge later makes the unsubstantiated claim that the MVT "seems to have been written with lay
devotees in mind" (p. 17), presumably based on the same problematical presumption. Noteworthy in this regard is the fact
that Hodge's remarks on the "Themes and Significance of the MVT" (pp. 29-40) are for all intents and purposes entirely
doctrinal, rather than ritual.
On a more positive note, however, the translations are quite sound. Hodge sensibly seeks a middle path between extreme
literalism (presumably he has Jeffrey Hopkins and his "foe destroyers" in mind here) and over-interpretation ("using the
terminology of the latest philosophical fashions" [p. 25]--Guenther et al.?). He appropriately observes that these works are
difficult in the original, assuming a high-level educational background, such that an "accurate" translation will not be
universally accessible. His style succeeds admirably in finding an articulate voice in which to communicate the contents of
the works he translates. lt thus can be useful as a convenient resource for those already familiar with tantric materials and
/ or a source for course readings that can be "unpacked" for students in class.
There are, of course, a few problems here and there. For instance, the use of "awareness" as an equivalent for jnana (like
others' use of "knowledge" for the same term) would seems an unfortunate under-translation of this important term of art.
There are also numerous inconsistencies throughout: e.g., vikalpa is translated as "selective concepts," yet nirvikalpa is
rendered "without deliberation" (p. 51). Translating anuttara as "supreme"--though common in popular translations--not
only fails to capture the negative sense of the original term, but (not surprisingly perhaps) loses the sense of the gloss of
this term given in Buddhaguhya's own commentary (p. 55). Also, the overly literal (and/or Tibetanesque) translation of
santika (as in santika-homa) as "making calm/tranquil" rather misses the point. This ritual is not meant to mellow demons
out, but to "purify" or--more to the point--"eliminate" them. Similarly, the Buddha does not "manifest his tongue faculty" (p.
149), he sticks out his tongue [organ].
These (admittedly significant) cavils aside, Hodge's translation of this extremely important esoteric Buddhi st Buddhi st scripture with
valuable ancillary materials marks a major advance over previously available English translations (many partial) such as
those by R. Tajima (1936), A. Wayman (1992), and C. Yamamoto (1990). (5) Hodge provides lucid translations that can
be of great value as reading assignments for courses that touch on tantric traditions and literature. ln particular--though
Hodge has little to say on this topic--the materials he translates are quite useful for courses on ritual and its analysis (the
homa sections of the uttara tantra tantra are especially excellent in this regard). The fact that the chief utility of the work is in
the classroom, however, makes its prohibitive price all the more regrettable. lt is a rare student who can come up with
$150 for a humanities course book. Responsibility for this latter shortcoming, however, rests squarely with the publisher,
not the author.
CHRlSTlAN K. WEDEMEYER
UNlVERSlTY OF CHlCAGO
(1.) The introduction suggests (p. 3) that it was (at least in part) intended for "the growing band of Western Buddhists
following the Tibetan tradition."
(2.) Hodge actually is aware of these issues, as he writes (p. 26): "ln contrast to the present work, which can be seen as
a kind of 'critical translation'. l now think it would be highly desirable to first compile a fully collated edition of the Tibetan
version using the much larger range of Tibetan Kanjur editions now available, possibly also linking this with the various
divergent readings that exist in the Chinese MVT and its commentaries."
(3.) ln fact, this reference would appear not only incomplete, but incorrect: it should probably read "Giebel (1996)," as the
work referenced seems to be Rolf W. Giebel, "The Chin-kang-ting ching yii-ch' ieh shih-pa-hui chih-kuei: An Annotated
Translation," Journal of the Naritasan lnstitute for Buddhi st Buddhi st Studies 19 (1996): 107-201.
(4.) See Skilling, "' Buddhi st Buddhi st Sealings': Reflections on Terminology, Motivation, Donors' Status, School-Affiliation, and Print
Technology," in South Asian Archaeology 2001, ed. C. J. a. V. Lefevre (Paris: Editions Recherches sur les Civilisations,
2005), vol. 2, pp. 677-85.
(5.) The aforementioned Rolf Giebel has recently published a (similarly unannotated) translation of the mulasutra from the
Chinese (Numata Center, 2006), though l have not seen this publication.
COPYRlGHT 1999 American Oriental Society. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills,
Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group.
2010 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning. All rights reserved. www.accessmylibrary.com
The AccessMyLibrary advertising network includes: