Saturday, April 9, 2011

Introduction to Emptiness

by Guy Newland. Subtitle: As Taught in Tsong-kha-pa's Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path. From the ad at Snow Lion Publications:

"Readers are hard-pressed to find books that can help them understand the central concept in Mahayana Buddhism—the idea that ultimate reality is "emptiness." In clear language, Introduction to Emptiness explains that emptiness is not a mystical sort of "nothingness," but a specific truth that can and must be understood through calm and careful reflection.

"Newland's contemporary examples and vivid anecdotes will help readers understand this core concept as presented in one of the great classic texts of the Tibetan Tradition, Tsong-kha-pa's Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. This new edition includes quintessential points for each chapter.

"Guy Newland is Professor of Religion and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University, where he has taught since 1988. He is a translator and co-editor of the three-volume translation Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, and is the author of several books on Tibetan Buddhism, including Appearance and Reality. "

From an interview with Newland on the book:

"Some traditions focus on the idea that emptiness is the absolute reality, the fundamental thing that exists, and that other things that appear are illusions. The practices involve allowing the fundamental purity that is the nature of things to shine out. I think that's a common way to practice in Tibetan Buddhism; you can find parallels to it in other Mahayana traditions outside of Tibet as well.

"And then there is another way of looking at things. It doesn't disagree with that, exactly, but it shifts the focus a little and says, well, nothing absolutely exists. Nothing, including emptiness, exists in and of itself. Everything exists only conventionally because everything exists only interdependently. This is fundamentally true of even emptiness itself. That's what Nagarjuna said; that's what he meant when he said not to take dogmatic views of emptiness. He meant not to reify emptiness as an absolute essence. Therefore, in this view, emptiness is another conventionally existing thing. All things exist conventionally. Emptiness is the name that we give to one particular existing thing: the fact that nothing exists ultimately. And that's a very different way of talking about things.

"This latter way of talking about things predominates in Nagarjuna's Fundamental Treatise and in Chandrakirti and in Tsong-kha-pa's Great Treatise. These texts are not opposed to the idea of saying that emptiness is the fundamental reality. They do believe that emptiness is the final nature of things. But they want to avoid having that be understood as an absolute essence.

"I could probably boil it down: Do you think of emptiness as a kind of absolute essence of pure mind? Or do you think of it as the lack or absence of any essence? Anywhere? At all? Which way do you want to approach this? They're really different, I think. Both of these views have scriptural basis in the Mahayana. Both of them have strong practice lineages in Tibet. I think H.H. the Dalai Lama has made a large effort in some of his teachings, such as in Kindness, Clarity, and Insight, to try to bridge these and show that they are both legitimate aspects of the Mahayana tradition and that people should see that these are both medicines that are in the Buddhist pharmacy, not distortions of the dharma."

Newland is being diplomatic here. I've referenced The Two Truths Debate by Sonam Thakchoe in various threads which demonstrates vividly and accurately the arguments of the above two approaches via Tsongkhapa and Gorampa; for example the Batchelor thread and the prior Gaia thread "letting daylight into magic." I offer those threads as context for this one, since Newland has usually been associated with the Tsongkhapa camp and in this book of course focuses on that view.

I also appreciate this from the interview:

CC: In Great Treatise, on which your book is based, Tsong-kha-pa puts forward the idea that conceptual thought is not the root cause of our problems, but rather a tool for liberation.

GN: Of course that's an absolutely core idea in the book. People sometimes have the idea that if they would simply stop thinking about things—sort of bury their heads in the sand—that problems would go away. They think that all that's needed is to practice a deep kind of concentration—very, very focused and one-pointed. It could be a very peaceful state of mind that relieves us of all our ordinary troubles.

The wish to do this is deeply in us—kids will go on a merry-go-round until they're dizzy just to stop their ordinary experience, or roll down a hill—which is what I did as a kid. Something within just wants a break from the constant talking in our heads—which can lead to sex or drugs or drumming, for example. The problem, of course, is that it doesn't get at the root of our problems. If we don't strengthen our thinking and analyze more carefully, then we don't get at what's really causing our suffering. Then as soon as the non-conceptual vacation is over, we come back to the same problems that we had before. They haven't changed at all.

If the suffering world is only a thought-construction, then stopping thought does seem to be the most liberating move. Yet as Tsong-kha-pa famously argues, another step beyond this, seeing that not thinking is not enough, is at the very heart of what it means to be a Buddhist. Other religions have profound ethics, and techniques for accessing amazing non-conceptual states, but Buddhism claims the distinction of a penetrating analysis of how the world exists. Only by engaging this analysis, and engaging it conceptually, does one create the basis for real liberation from unnecessary misery. As Ch'an master Sheng Yen teaches, practice is not about stopping thought, for if it were, your teacher could just whack you in the head with a hammer.

Once you have this understanding of how things exist, developed through careful analysis, you use the power of mental focus, developed in concentration and meditation, and make this understanding of empti­ness the focus of your practice. That way you combine these two kinds of Buddhist meditation—the kind that involves focusing your mind and making it a powerful instrument, and the analytical power, discriminating and discerning and working out exactly how things exist. This is the path of preparation, preparing yourself to go into nirvana.

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