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Crowley, Vivianne. “Review: 'The Center of the Sunlit Sky: Madhyamaka in the Kagyü Tradition, by Karl Brunnhölzl.” The Middle Way: Journal of the Buddhist Society 80, no. 4 (February 2006): 246-247.
The Center of the Sunlit Sky is a weighty tome and Madhyamaka is not for beginners. For those familiar with Madhyamaka teaching, however, and for those following the Kagyü Tradition, The Center of the Sunlit Sky is a valuable contribution to scholarship and a book worthy of study. It provides a comprehensive presentation of the unique Kagyü view of Madhyamaka and, as the first volume of the Nitartha Institute Series, under the guidance of The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, forms part of a pioneering effort to make Kagyü scholarship more widely available to those not able to read Tibetan.
The Center of the Sunlit Sky is based on Pawo Rinpoche's sixteenth-century commentary on the ninth chapter of eighth century master Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara, ‘The Entrance to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life’, a guide for those wishing to actualise the practices of the six paramitas. The largest part of the book, Part One, ‘The General Presentation of Madhyamaka in the Kagyü Tradition’, gives Karl Brunnhölzl’s overview of the transmission of Madhyamaka from India to Tibet and its relation to Vajrayana and Mahamudra, followed by a general presentation of Madhyamaka in terms of ground, path, and fruition. Further chapters are devoted to the Autonomist-Consequentialist distinction, the issue of whether there is a ‘Shentong- Madhyamaka’, the distinction between expedient and definitive meaning, and a helpful explanation of the major differences between the Eighth Karmapa's and Tsongkhapa's interpretations of Madhyamaka. In Part Two, Karl Brunnhölzl gives a brief introduction to the Bodhicaryavatara and a translation of the Pawo Rinpoche's commentary on its ninth chapter, which focuses on the paramita of prajña, here translated as ‘knowledge’.
For those unfamiliar with Madhyamaka, Karl Brunnhölzl explains it by a series of negations. Madhyamaka is not a philosophy, religion, doctrine or a historical school of thought, belief system, linguistic theory or psychotherapy. It is not agnostic, nihilistic, existentialist or an intellectual mind game. Madhyamaka is direct and incontrovertible experience of ultimate reality within one’s own mind, not so much a ‘middle way’ as unobstructed, supple and relaxed openness.
By taking any standpoint whatsoever,
You will be snatched by the cunning snakes of the afflictions.
Those whose minds have no standpoint
Will not be caught.
Nagarjuna, Sixty Stanzas on Reasoning, quoted in The Center of the Sunlit Sky, p.34.
The Second Pawo Rinpoche, Tsugla Trengwa (1504-1566) received the majority of his education from the Eighth Karmapa and was a teacher to the Ninth Karmapa. The author and translator, Dr. Karl Brunnhölzl, studied Tibetology and received systematic training in Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy and practice at the Marpa Institute for Translators, founded by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. His approach to the text is therefore both intellectual and experiential, showing a clear understanding of how what can appear a dauntingly complex text can be used to deepen practice.