Five Buddhist Books on Emptiness

Five Buddhist Books on Emptiness

This is a short list of books that I’ve found extremely helpful in studying emptiness. The books by the Dalai Lama and Guy Newland begin at the beginning and show you the road map through the direct realization of emptiness. The book by Jeffrey Hopkins is a very practical and astute guide to doing the emptiness meditations. The book by Jay Garfield is currently the most authoritative translation of Nagarjuna’s great treatise on the Middle Way. And C.W. Huntington’s book is an inspiring guide to some of the most profound and subtle work that the emptiness teachings can do.

This list could have been ten or twenty in number. There are more books by these writers (including Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti and Tsong-kha-pa), as well as books and articles by Karl Brunnholzl, Daniel Cozort, Mario D’Amato, Georges Dreyfus, Anne C. Klein, Elizabeth Napper, Pabongka Rinpoche, Mark Siderits, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso, Jan Westerhoff, Dogen Zenji, and many others.

This list is given in order from 1 to 5. You can depart from this exact order, but I would recommend going through either (1) or (2) before tackling (3). Books (1) and (3) are experiential. I would recommend working your way closely through either one of them before reading either (4) or (5), as these latter two books require more familiarity with the emptiness teachings. But all of these books are extremely rewarding, and potentially life-changing.

1. How to See Yourself As You Really Are

How to See Yourself As You Really Are. By H.H. the Dalai Lama. Translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins. New York. Atria Books (A Division of Simon & Schuster), 2006.

This is the easiest book to understand of the five on our list.  Even though it is by the Dalai Lama, this book is less doctrinaire, less filled with Buddhist details than the other four books.  It also has meditative exercises for emptiness realization, as well as instructions for calming the mind.  In the emptiness teachings, a calm mind is very helpful in realizing emptiness.

According to Buddhist psychology, most of our troubles stem from attachment to things that we mistakenly see as permanent.   — The Dalai Lama

This book is written from the broad perspective of one of the world’s religious leaders, a leader whose goal is to promote world peace. But it is also remarkably accessible and pragmatic. It contains guidelines on how to get started meditating on emptiness, even including how to sit and how to avoid being too lax or too agitated during meditation. The book also discusses how to understand the relationship between emptiness and interdependence, how to understand the way things are set up by conceptualization, and what realizing emptiness tastes and feels like.

One note: if you do use this book, be aware that the “Oneness” discussed and deconstructed in Chapter 13 is referring to the logical category of “sameness” or “identity,” in other words the opposite of “difference.” This chapter isn’t trying to refute the “togetherness” sense of “oneness,” the sense that people talk about when they wish that all people could get along together. This sense of the word is being left in place. This kind of oneness is an important goal of the emptiness teachings!

Overall, this is maybe the best single book to start with if you are new to a path of self-inquiry and wish to proceed with emptiness meditation. If you cannot find a teacher for this emptiness approach, then this book is even better because it takes you every step of the way.

2. Introduction to Emptiness

Introduction to Emptiness: As Taught in Tsong-kha-pa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path. By Guy Newland. Ithaca, New York. Snow Lion Publications, 2008; Revised edition 2009.

This clear, concise (126-page) book is a very good one to start with. It is an introduction to Nagarjuna’s emptiness teachings as interpreted by Tsong-kha-pa (1357–1419), the founder of the Gelug-ba tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The Gelug-ba tradition (which is also the current Dalai Lama’s tradition) puts great emphasis on the emptiness teachings. There are many helpful, well-written books in print from this tradition.

Our utter lack of a self-existent self, an independently existing self, an ultimately real self, does not mean that we do not exist at all. Persons and other phenomena do exist interdependently.  — Guy Newland

This book is such a good first book on the emptiness teachings because it is written in everyday language, and it covers all the important points that one would need to get started, while not diminishing the transformational power of the emptiness teachings. The book does a particularly good job of showing how emptiness is not the same as utter nothingness, and how emptiness is not at all antithetical to conventional existence. In addition, this book discusses:

  • why we would study emptiness teachings
  • what the emptiness teachings eliminate and what they keep
  • conventional vs. ultimate existence
  • how to know if you are eliminating too much, or not enough
  • why quieting the mind is important, but is not enough
  • the importance of analysis for insight
  • how to meditate on the emptiness of your self

3. Emptiness Yoga

Emptiness Yoga: The Tibetan Middle Way. By Jeffrey Hopkins. Ithaca, New York. Snow Lion Publications, 1995.

This is another very accessible introduction to the Nagarjunian-style emptiness meditation, and follows Tsong-kha-pa’s Tibetan presentation. It presumes the reader to possess a little more background information about spirituality than the Dalai Lama’s How to See Yourself as You Really Are does. I have read and worked with this book over and over for many years until the pages wrinkled, crinkled and began to fall apart. I’ve also used this book as the principal text for introductory classes on the emptiness teachings.

…the imagistic, conceptual part of the cognition gradually disappears, resulting in non-conceptual direct cognition of emptiness.   — Jeffrey Hopkins

The first chapters are about Tibetan Buddhist history and doctrine, which will not interest every student. The more practical material begins on page 55. This book is particularly strong on why the realization of emptiness requires more than just quieting the mind. It explains why inference, analysis and insight are needed, but makes them easy. It also discusses a little about other paths, including Vedanta.

Maybe the best thing about this book is Hopkins’s practical knowledge of how it all works. He talks about the pivotal importance of identifying the “target of refutation,” which is the thing that the emptiness meditations are designed to deconstruct. This is related to the “razor’s edge” Middle Way point of not refuting too much and not refuting too little. Hopkins provides lots of guidance about clarifying the target.

Overall, Hopkins is a friendly guide, showing you the thoroughly modern dodges, excuses, rationalizations and evasions that the mind can make when one goes through this profound inquiry. For the inquirer who wishes a more detailed presentation of this approach, Hopkins’s exhaustive, 1017-page Meditation on Emptiness is an excellent choice.

4. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way

The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika. By Jay L. Garfield. Translation and commentary on Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Nagarjuna, who lived in South India in approximately the second century C.E., is undoubtedly the most important, influential, and widely studied Mahayana Buddhist philosopher.   — Jay Garfield

This has become the standard translation of Nagarjuna’s greatly influential treatise on the Middle Way, originally entitled Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. The translation and commentary are written in a way to help someone familiar either with Madhyamika or with the Western philosophical tradition to benefit from Nagarjuna’s profound insights. Garfield’s commentary is invaluable. It is helpful in three major ways.

  • One, the commentary helps clarify when Nagarjuna is speaking in his own voice, and when he is quoting his opponent, summarizing an essentialist view he is about to refute. It would be very confusing not to know “who” is speaking, Nagarjuna or his opponent.
  • Two, it helps see that nihilism and essentialism actually entail each other.
  • Three, it explains how Nagarjuna’s teaching requires that emptiness itself must be empty and how it cannot serve as a new, improved ground or foundation.

There was one chapter, one verse actually, which became very important to me. It was verse IX:4 (p. 26) from “Examination of the Prior Entity.”

If it can abide
Without the seen, etc.,
Then, without a doubt,
They can abide without it.   — Nagarjuna

This single verse revolutionized my understanding of emptiness, which I had been interpreting along the lines of Brahman/consciousness/awareness. When I began to study the emptiness teachings, I knew I wasn’t really understanding them. I tended to interpret “emptiness” as another word for “awareness,” which is an English characterization for Advaita-Vedanta’s Brahman. In Advaita, Brahman is the nature, essence and substance of all that is. It is being, knowledge, and happiness (sat, chit, and ananda). It became natural for me to read emptiness in the same way, as an essence that makes up everything else. I had a strong feeling that something was standing in the way of my understanding the emptiness teachings. For example, with my Advaitic presuppositions, I had not been able to understand the stanza from the Heart Sutra which said that emptiness is form. After all, awareness can’t be form, since it can abide beyond all form.

So when I read verse IX:4, I had a flash! I read this “prior entity” as awareness itself. Here is verse IX:4 positing a two way dependence! If the prior entity can abide without things seen, then they can abide without it. But things seen cannot abide without the prior entity. Therefore, this prior entity cannot abide without them! The dependence was two-way, not just one-way, as I was assuming. This was a huge paradigm shift, and opened up a way for me to understand the emptiness teachings, including the Heart Sutra.

I also recommend Garfield’s book of essays Empty Words which has several lively articles on cross-cultural understanding. Garfield is passionate about people in Western and Eastern traditions trying to understand the approach of the other. He has had lots of experience trying to explain each approach to those involved in the other approach. This kind of engagement with cross-cultural understanding is a down-to-earth, real-life demonstration of the emptiness of views, and can reduce our attachment to views.

5. The Emptiness of Emptiness

The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamika. By C.W. Huntington. With Geshe Namgyal Wangchen. Honolulu: The University of Hawaii Press, 1989.

I must admit that this is one of my very favorite books on liberation. It is a beautiful translation and influential commentary on Chandrakirti’s great Entry into the Middle Way. Madhyamika claims to be a self-deconstructing path, a path which leaves you without attachments and without views. How can this be? Can one really be without any views at all? Isn’t that itself a view? There are various ways to come to peace about this. Huntington reads Chandrakirti as saying that this is not a matter of settling on a better new view. Rather, it involves a transformation in how we engage life; it involves a radical change in our relationship to these sorts of issues.

I suggest that Madhyamika philosophers can best be understood by entirely disposing of the idea that they are presenting a series of arguments against one set of claims and in favor of another. Rather, as Rorty has said about the pragmatists, “They would simply like to change the subject.”   — C.W. Huntington

What I like very much about this book is that it links the Madhyamika approach to the anti-essentialism of Western thinkers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty. This link gives the student a cross-cultural way to understand the emptiness teachings, and thereby broadens them significantly.

There are two more benefits to this influential and inspiring book. One benefit is the sustained insight that emptiness itself must be empty for it to do the soteriological work it is asked to do. The other benefit is the poetic, inspirational descriptions of the effects of emptiness meditation. It is almost as if you can savor the taste of emptiness from reading the text.

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