Sunday, February 10, 2008

Books & Movies: Madman and Angry Monk

If you would like some profound insights into the meaning of the Middle Way, Tibetan political history, and the challenges of the traditional East meeting the modern West, look into the life and teachings of the remarkable Gendun Chopel.

Donald S. Lopez Jr.’s The Madman’s Middle Way includes a fascinating biographical sketch, an elegant translation of Chopel’s Adornment for Nagarjuna’s Thought, and an excellent commentary that draws out the key points and provides much needed background information on the doctrinal conflicts that the text addresses.

The Adornment deals with core questions about the validity of knowledge in an experiential way, using ordinary language. Here is an example from the beginning of the text:
All of our decisions about what is and is not are just decisions made in ac¬cordance with how it appears to our mind; they have no other basis whatsoever. Therefore, when we ask, “Does it exist or not?” and the other person answers, “It exists,” in fact, we are asking, “Does this appear to your mind to exist or not exist?” and the answer is simply, “It appears to my mind to exist.” In the same way, everything that one asks about—better or worse, good or bad, beautiful or ugly—is in fact merely asked about for the sake of understanding how the other person thinks. That the other person makes a decision and answers is in fact just a decision made in accordance with how it appears to his or her own mind; there is no other reason whatsoever. Therefore, as long as the ideas of two people are in disagreement with each other, they will argue. When they agree, the very thing that they agree upon will be placed in the class of what is, what exists, what can be known, and what is valid, and so on. Thus, the more people there are who agree, the more the point they agree upon becomes of great significance and importance. Contrary views are taken to be wrong views, mistaken perceptions, and so on….

Therefore, our statements about what does and does not exist are in fact classifications of what appears before our mind. Our statements that something does not exist or is impossible are classifications of what cannot appear before our mind. The reality [dharmata] that is neither existent nor nonexistent does not belong to the former class, it belongs to the latter.

There is also a great documentary about Gendun Chopel called Angry Monk: Reflections on Tibet, that mostly describes political and social aspects of his life, and has some amazing interviews and archival footage of old Tibet. The film was an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival in 2006. You can watch the trailer on the film’s website, or order a copy of the DVD by writing to

1 comment:

George Free said...

This quote is reminiscent of what in Western social science is called the "social construction of reality." The sociologists Berger and Luckmann are perhaps the best known proponents of this view; but it is one that is widespread. In the social sciences, it forms the basis for the study of how reality is formed as a kind of "working consensus" of social groups.