Foundations of Dharmakīrti's Philosophy - Preface


496 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861711840

Add to Cart »


eBook Bundle (PDF, epub, mobi)


ISBN 9780861718559

Add to Cart »


When I first encountered Buddhist thought some twenty years ago, the Buddhist analysis of identity especially caught my attention, and this soon led me to a study of Nāgārjuna. As is perhaps common, my first attempts at reading Nāgārjuna were confused and confusing, but as is less common, I also was able to consult two fine Buddhist thinkers: Tara Tulku Rinpoche, a well-known scholar in the Tibetan Gelug (Dge lugs) tradition, and Robert Thurman, who had invited Tara Tulku to teach at Amherst College at the time. Both Thurman and Tara Tulku encouraged me to study the works of Je Tsongkhapa (Rje Tsong kha pa; 1357–1419), whose reading of Nāgārjuna forms the philosophical bedrock of the Gelug tradition.

On Tsongkhapa’s interpretation, the key to understanding Nāgārjuna lies largely in the proper use of a certain style of reasoning: namely, the system of inferential reasoning developed by Dharmakīrti, a renowned South Asian Buddhist of the seventh century (C.E.). Turning, to Dharmakīrti’s works, I soon encountered a host of competing—even incompatible—interpretations among the numerous commentators on Dharmakīrti’s thought in Tibet. An attempt to account for these differences, along with the sheer interest and difficulty of the material, soon drew me into an intense study of Dharmakīrti during my graduate work at Harvard University.

Under the guidance of Masatoshi Nagatomi and M. David Eckel, the focus of my research on Dharmakīrti moved to the South Asian interpretations that precede and inform the highly disparate readings of Tibetan exegetes. I must admit that, at first, I sought to determine which Tibetan reading was “the correct” interpretation in light of South Asian precedents, but it did not take long for this approach to strike me as hopelessly naïve and, in the end, entirely uninteresting. Instead, I sought to contextualize the divergence of Tibetan opinion by understanding the history of the interpretation of Dharmakīrti’s thought in South Asia itself—a shift encouraged by my graduate work with Charles Hallisey. A grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies enabled me to spend two years at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, where I read commentaries on Dharmakīrti’s works with Prof. Rām Śaṃkar Tripāṭhi, and this period in India was critical to my research. Even in the Sanskrit works of South Asia, however, the interpretation of Dharmakīrti’s thought develops and diverges to a wide extent; hence, with the concerted help of Tom Tillemans, I settled eventually on a focused account of the earliest South Asian interpretations of Dharmakīrti as the subject of my doctoral dissertation (1999), which is effectively the first draft of this book.

As I was completing my doctoral work, Georges Dreyfus’s Recognizing Reality, an extensive study of the Tibetan interpretations of Dharmakīrti, appeared in print. That work, along with numerous conversations with Dreyfus, aided me considerably in my research. While tremendously helpful, Dreyfus’s study of the Tibetan interpretations also highlighted the need for a similar, historical account that focuses on a specific South Asian interpretation. This book contributes to fulfilling that need.

My dissertation built on the work of numerous scholars, and in the course of the substantial revisions that led to this book, many responded with helpful comments and suggestions. Tom Tillemans continued to provide the sort of advice whose perspicuous practicality is matched by the keen philosophical insights on which it rests. Ernst Steinkellner, whose work figures prominently at crucial junctures of my argument, took the trouble to go through the entire text. His critiques, suggestions, and encouragement have added greatly to this book. Shßryū Katsura likewise provided a number of suggestions, some through an extended and entertaining debate about particulars. Brendan Gillon’s careful and detailed responses were especially helpful for clarifying my analysis of Dharmakīrti’s ontology. Eli Franco provided a comprehensive response to my discussion of justification or “instrumentality” (prāmāṇya) that helped me to clarify my interpretation. Helmut Krasser directed me to some important passages and provided welcome encouragement. And Richard Hayes’s pithy remarks proved especially helpful in reconceiving the overall context of my interpretation.

Many others who work on Dharmakīrti and related issues aided me in various ways. A few that come readily to mind are Takashi Iwata, Birgit Kellner, Horst Lasic, Parimal Patil, Ernst Prets, and Mark Siderits. In this regard, I must especially thank Marek Mejor and Piotr Balcerowicz of Warsaw University’s Oriental Institute for organizing in 2001 a most fruitful seminar where, amid the beauty of the Polish countryside, debates on Dharmakīrti (and much else besides) went on through the night. On that occasion, and on others as well, I am sure that some critical comment or quiet suggestion has proved helpful in ways that I have failed to notice. To all those that have gone unthanked, I apologize for my forgetfulness.

Having joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1999, I began to work intensively with students, and although various responsibilities made it difficult to begin any serious revisions before 2003, I managed to use the early version of my manuscript in a few of my seminars. Students, I have learned, are excellent teachers, and their questions and arguments added much to my thinking. As the manuscript moved more rapidly toward its final form, two graduate students assisted me as editors. Eddy Falls read the manuscript with an eye to the arguments, and his comments helped to sharpen my discussion on a number of points. Christian Haskett went through the whole work, including notably the Sanskrit and Tibetan citations, and his contribution was likewise welcome. Throughout all this time, my publisher Tim McNeill and editor David Kittelstrom— along with Tom Tillemans as series editor—exercised great patience. Let us hope that the delay was worthwhile.

Last and foremost, I must honor and thank the contributions of Sara McClintock, my chief editor, critic, supporter, and spouse: to her I owe more thanks than I could ever express. Despite being a new mother with an academic (i.e., overworked and somewhat erratic) husband, she somehow managed to complete her own dissertation, begin an academic career, maintain her equanimity and fundamental cheeriness, and still give me the most helpful comments on the manuscript. Perhaps I am spoiled by such excellent companionship, replete with the finest editorial advice and scholarly insight. But when in the care of a bodhisattva, how can one really be spoiled?

Madison, Wisconsin
May 19, 2004


How to cite this document:
© John D. Dunne, Foundations of Dharmakīrti's Philosophy (Wisdom Publications, 2004)

Creative Commons License
Foundations of Dharmakīrti's Philosophy by John D. Dunne is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at