Introduction To Emptiness As Taught In Tsong-Kha-Pa’s Great Treatise On The Stages Of The Path
By Guy Newland
Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2008
126 pp.; $14.95 (paper)
EMPTINESS, alongside “life is suffering,” the full-lotus position, and a seeming obsession with death, sits high on the list of misunderstood principles associated with Buddhism that bring the uninitiated to label it a “depressing” tradition. For many practitioners, emptiness can be a potent source of uncertainty, and not in the good Buddhist challenge-your assumptions kind of way. This shadowy tenet of the ultimate nonexistence of all things—that nothing has an intrinsic nature despite appearing that way—can seem to be the dark heart of an otherwise relatively warm and fuzzy religion. It’s something that many people, even if they can get their heads around the basic idea of emptiness, still have difficulty reconciling with some of Buddhism’s other central principles, such as compassion. Why care for other beings if they don’t even exist? And even if it does make sense to me, how do I explain it to my mother?
In his accessible (and, at 126 pages, appealingly slender) new book, Guy Newland, a professor of religion at Central Michigan University, sets his sights squarely on just these concerns. While his focus is emptiness as taught in the Lamrim Chenmo, or Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, by Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), the founder of the Gelug order of Tibetan Buddhism now headed by the Dalai Lama, this is no stodgy scriptural commentary, and the reader’s personal, practical relationship to emptiness is never far off. Newland, who has the task of teaching this topic to college undergrads, clearly understands how to keep his audience’s interest: make it relevant to their lives.
We can think of emptiness as like the clear, blue sky—a transparent space that is wide open. In that way, our empty natures mean that there is no limit to what we can become. We are not blocked, obstructed, or tied down. Right now, our powers to help others may be limited, but emptiness is the lack of chains preventing us from becoming more wise and loving.
Inevitably we face difficulties— sometimes great difficulties. The path demands time and effort. But the obstacles are not insurmountable because they are not intrinsic to the structure of reality. Fundamentally, all things are empty—and so we are empty—of any intrinsic nature. This is why the reality of emptiness, properly understood, is a tremendous wellspring of hope and inspiration. Only because we are empty, the possibilities for what we can become are wide open. The sky is the limit.
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