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.
Newland is writing here for readers “with some background in Buddhism but without specialized expertise in Buddhist philosophy,” and he has found a very welcoming voice. Rather than repeatedly quoting passages from the source material, in much of the book Newland simply restates the teachings in straightforward language, effectively taking the tone of a teaching book written by a contemporary Buddhist teacher rather than a bookabout a teaching, written by a contemporary academic. The result is a very readable and informative hybrid of personally relevant exposition and scholarly contextualization. By noting at the beginning of each chapter which sections of the Great Treatise he is drawing upon, he cuts out the middle man, dispensing with the need to say again and again “Tsongkhapa taught that….” Instead, the reader simply assumes what is written is expressive of Tsongkhapa’s views.
This tack is complemented by references to or quotes from related texts by Tsongkhapa or others when appropriate, as well as ample historical context for the teachings. The technical complexity of the finer points of Tsongkhapa’s teachings on emptiness, which Newland never shies away from, preclude oversimplification, not because the concepts are beyond any reader willing to put in a bit of effort, but because the reasoning that supports emptiness is so extensive and thorough, and because, practically speaking, the reasoning is almost as important as the point.
In order to find freedom, we absolutely must have meditative insight discerning—and, eventually, directly perceiving—emptiness, which is the ultimate nature of reality. And in order to have such meditative insight, we must first use reason and analysis to understand and to know the nature of reality. In other words, before we can hope to attain a profound and nondualistic enlightenment, we must first use logical thinking to reach an unshakeable mental certainty about the nature of reality.
This isn’t a matter of just accepting an idea or letting go of one. Understanding emptiness is a process of convincing the rational mind with its own logic that the way we see the world is false—a delusion to which we’ve been habituated through “beginningless rebirth,” “a profound addiction” that is at the root of our suffering. Tsongkhapa and his peers and forebears left no logical stone unturned in their efforts to establish an irrefutable logical basis for emptiness, and Newland dutifully takes us into the denser, more technical material. It’s not always easy going—autonomous syllogisms, anyone?—but he generally manages to explain some concepts clearly and concisely, and includes a helpful glossary should we lose track of any of them as we go. And even if some of this is too much to take in on the first read, Newland keeps the reader engaged by frequently reiterating the importance of emptiness on the path and referring back to our most fundamental misconceptions about emptiness, particularly those leaning toward nihilism:
Many of us—like many of Tsongkhapa’s contemporaries—need to be reminded of how, in the face of utter emptiness, it is possible, reasonable, and necessary to make moral choices. “In dependence on this, that arises,” means that while nothing exists in and of itself, our choices matter enormously because they give shape to the future of the world.
In restating Tsongkhapa’s case, Newland has written a guide that furnishes the tools and motivation for further exploration, and even the confidence to take the next step, whatever that might be. Introduction to Emptiness is an open-armed invitation into an important and all-too-often forbidding realm of study.
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