Friday, January 14, 2011

Book Club: Emptiness: Shunya and Shunyata by Christopher Key Chapple

Forgive me for not getting this out the next day; things got a bit 'hairy' here in Tucson on January 8th.

This is a fairly short section, but we mustn’t take that as indicative of the importance of this subject! The teaching on ‘emptiness’ is arguably the most important among the teachings of the Buddha. Chapple draws the similarities with Patanjali well, though other scholars argue that Patanjali’s use of “empty” is not the same as the Buddha’s meaning.

That aside, I think it important to keep in mind that the word most often used by the Buddha in the Pali Canon is “empty,” and that in time we find the use of the word “emptiness” growing in importance. However, when a word goes from adjective to noun, we can all too easily fall into the error of reification, and indeed this has happened repeatedly in the history of Buddhism.

So, here I’ll take a page from Thich Nhat Hanh. In his commentary on the Heart Sutra, which Chapple quotes in this section, Thay says we should not take the bodhisattva Avolokiteshvara at his word without asking first, “Empty of what?” All phenomena are empty of self-nature is the response. That is, no phenomena exists from it’s own side, independent, autonomous, persistent, unchanging. There is no ‘essence’ behind, above or below phenomena. However, many Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists have reified this description of phenomena as empty into the ‘emptiness’ of phenomena being their essence. So it is important to remember that not only form is empty, but also emptiness is empty!

As Chapple points out toward the end of this section, ultimately there is a major distinction between Patanjali and the Buddha, despite all their similarities. Chapple says Patanjali suggests that the realization of the empty nature of phenomena delivers one to a higher state of awareness, which the Buddha denies. I think this is both unclear and perhaps not fully accurate. The Buddha of the Pali Canon, at least seems to posit some kind of awareness that is present in the state of nibbana, but the Buddha strongly asserts that even nibbana is empty of ‘self.’ That is, while all phenomena are seen as impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self, nibanna is permanent and ultimate satisfaction, but remains ‘not-self.’ The state of liberation for Patanjali, kaivalya is said to be that which occurs when Purusha realizes its ‘self-nature.’

And though this is a small quibble, I do want to make clear that the Buddha did not proclaim that suffering results from desire. The word he used, tanha, meaning ‘thirst’ is more accurately understood to refer to the more urgent grasping and clinging to objects of desire than desire itself. In fact, the Buddha said desire for liberation was necessary for anyone to even consider yoga practice!


  1. I found reading this section quite hard going and not that helpful. This raises the question, Why am I reading this book? Well, I'm reading because I'm enjoying being part of this reading group but ultimately I"m reading to learn. I recognise that not everything I read is going to resonate with me, speak to me but the philosophical explorations of this chapter so far are beyond me!

    This brings me to the question who is the potential reader for this book? Is it for theologians, historians? As a lay practitioner of meditation/yoga I am looking for reading that can be applied to my life. Ok form is emptiness and emptiness is form I get that to some extent but how is this chapter helping me to realise this more deeply in my life? Well it's not.

    I found your comments on the chapter Frank, more interesting. Provoked memories of being on retreat with Greg Kramer who speaks of tanha quite a lot in his teaching. How in sitting with a partner in Insight Dialogue, I found myself emptying, phenomena were passing through awareness, thoughts, feelngs, sensations e.t.c. and passing and passing and there was a great sense of liberation in this, freedom.

    What practices, language can we use to support ourselves and others to realise this liberation rather than it being arcane information about something that happened to someone else, the Buddha, Patanjali.

  2. Rosie, you raise (as usual) some really good questions!

    Who is the potential reader for this book? I think Michael wanted this book to respond to the confusion many practitioners of 'yoga' and 'buddhism' have over the historical and philosophical relationship between these two traditions. I think having more clarity about the history and philosophy is intended to ground the practices.

    Georg Feuerstein would often emphasize that Yoga has always been a 'whole brain' project; that there should be an integration of praxis and theory. One feeds the other. Here in the States, around a decade ago, Kripalu tried having "East Meets East" conferences where it became evident that while Buddhist practitioners knew their history and understood the philosophical teachings, many practitioners of hatha-yoga were pretty much in the dark!

    However, an intellectual understanding of 'emptiness,' for instance, while shining a light on what to look for in terms of our practice, is not and most would argue cannot bring realization/awakening/liberation. Emptiness, as it is related to the core teaching of the Buddha -- anatta -- is difficult and challenging for most people exposed to it, and I know many students who have practiced for years and are still confused by it.

    My take: that's fine! I tell them read again and again AND, most importantly, check what you read against your practice. Sit and look for; see if you can find anything in your experience that is unchanging, persistent, independent, and autonomous. Keep looking until you are satisfied that there is 'no-thing!'

    Does this answer your final question?

  3. :0) Yes it does! That's really, very clear.

    And just to add. I respect the erudition of writers like Chapple and Hartfrant, and recognise the importance of this kind of writing and exploration for as you say 'grounding ' the practices. It would be great if it had some 'juice' in it too, something which spoke to a living experience of that to which the theory points. Just as you've done with your question to me.

  4. good questions rosie
    i so appreciate all of these layers which have been waiting for me for me unearth them, it all makes sense as i tie together things i have studied at other times with you frank, this chapter is very dense and
    one moment i understand something and see it from a different perspective and the next it is gone. i read each page, each paragraph a couple of times before i get it. which in the end i can appreciate.

    and frank then you make it seem so simple and weave in so much more...
    i am enjoying this new perspective on things...

  5. I appreciate your comments about empty vs emptiness (noun). As I reflect on empty more in my every day life, I find it helpful to let go of judgements and fears. As I look closure, these experiences are not permanent and independant. I also am glad you pointed out that "desire" is not the same as grasping and that some desire is needed to "consider yoga practice".