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Books on emptiness

Best Books on Emptiness / No-Self doctrine in Buddhism

I have studied Sunyata (emptiness) for over a decade. I have received teachings, read transcripts and meditated on the topic. Emptiness is a topic that I find deepens with time. Each time I look at the topic, I find new levels, new nuances and more application to my daily life. The books that follow are the ones that I would recommend to get a full view of the topic from various perspectives. Amazon will help find related books within the tradition of each. 

Appearance And Reality: The Two Truths In The Four Buddhist Tenet Systems by Guy Newland.

I have a Dutch translation of this book and I have returned to it again and again as I studied the Gelugpa interpretation of the ‘Four Schools’ of Buddhist philosophy. 

Unlike traditional teachers on the topic, Guy Newland doesn’t let metaphysics or visions on the path distract him from the main philosophical meat. This book is a great introduction.

When I studied for the FPMT Basics Program Tenets course final exam a few months ago, I found that while Guy Newland was great to get me started, he does leave out a lot of the details I was expected to know. 

However, in a way that is a recommendation. Most people aren’t ready for that kind of detail. 

The Essentials Of Buddhist Philosophy

Junjiro Takakusu follows the outlines of a 13th century Japanese text on the same topic. The book is aimed at beginners, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple.

In fact, I don’t know how much of it I got on my first read more than a decade ago. However, judging by my notes, I did go through it all. I am sure it helped me read Guy Newland’s book from the perspective of general Mahayana Buddhism, instead of from a more culturally naive perspective. 

For me, as a Western Buddhist, I think it is very important to find the essence of topics like this. It is too easy to let the details of the way it is taught in a particular tradition get in the way of the gist of the topic. This book definitely helped me avoid that problem. 

The Power of an Open Question: A Buddhist Approach to Abiding in Uncertainty

As you can perhaps tell from the books I started with, my approach to emptiness was originally very intellectual. From reading the above books I had no idea that it could become personal and transformative. I had in fact no idea that it should. 

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel changed that. 

Perhaps that is enough to recommend it. Read my original review. Although at the time my review was tentative at best, in this list it is the most easily legible for an ordinary reader. 

Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogacara Buddhism and the Ch’eng Wei-shih Lun

I read Dan Lusthaus’ book in an illegal version on Scribd. 

Like the next book it is primarily aimed at scholars and very expensive. 

However, it helped me understand the Chittamatra philosophy more easily and has made that philosophy one of the schools of Buddhist philosophy that I most identify with. 

The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism

Peter Harvey was recently recommended to me by one of my teachers at Leiden University. His book takes a fresh and well argued look at the Pali Sutras and the early Theravada commentaries. 

However, he doesn’t draw from those sources to give a classic Theravada view. Instead he uses it as a window into early Buddhism and tries to answer the question: what did the Buddha actually mean? 

This is the only book on my list that I first read recently as well as the only book that is non-Mahayana. However, in terms of content it is surprisingly familiar. My main conclusion from the first half is that many of the themes that became prominent in the later Mahayana interpretations of Buddhism, were already present in the Hinayana sutras. 

This is a stronger claim than the one the Mahayana tradition itself usually makes! Of course the tradition claims that Mahayana Buddhism is real Buddhism. And of course it goes back to the Buddha, but mostly the difference between the two traditions is stressed and that starts with the Mahayana sutras. 

For me, and I suspect many modern Buddhists, the similarities are really more interesting. It turns out that the main perspectives of both Chittamatra and Madhyamaka are already present in the Pali sutras! I will let the reader decide on the differences. 

In the Selfless Mind Peter Harvey gives a convincing view of Buddhist psychology and the anatta (no-self, anatma) doctrine. He helps clarify the 5 aggregates (skandhas, personality factors), citta, vijnana etc. 

I think this book will prove to be a major force in Buddhist philosophy of the 21st century. Claims (as made by one reader on Amazon) that the book uses The Magic of the Mind: An Exposition of the Kalakarama Sutta by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda more than acknowledged makes the author less respected, but only strengthens its conclusions. 

Dependent-Arising and Emptiness: A Tibetan Buddhist Interpretation of Madhyamika Philosophy, Elizabeth Napper

Emptiness has all kinds of interpretations. In order to understand how they link together – where the differences are, and how those differences came to be – a historical perspective is often useful. In Dependent-Arising and Emptiness Elizabeth Napper gives us just such an overview, explaining the context of Lama Tsong Khapa’s interpretation of the Madhyamika philosophy. However, she does more. She has also provided a translation of the first part of Lama Tsong Khapa’s chapter on emptiness in his Lam Rim Chenmo and of the commentatory literature around that book in the Gelugpa tradition. 

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When I started reading the introduction it felt like coming home. Finally someone who gives the Indian and Tibetan context of these ideas. Finally someone who gives both the transliterated Tibetan and Sanskrit terminology. Finally someone who stays close enough to the teachings as the geshes give them, to make them actually accessible on paper. And yet, through all that, Elizabeth Napper also helps with the cross-cultural divide that is the eternal backdrop to such studies. 

This is not a book for everybody. However, if you want to understand how emptiness and nihilism are mutually exclusive, this may just be the book for you. 

Conclusion

The Buddhist philosophy of emptiness is not for the intellectually fainthearted. These books are listed in the order in which I read them. Depending on the intelligence and inclination of the reader, the order may work for them as well.

For those without my philosophical bent, I definitely recommend starting with The Power of an Open Question by Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel. It is the only book on the list that deals with emptiness as a living reality in our lives. As such, it is perhaps the most important one. After all, it may change your life, if you let it. 

However, if philosophy doesn’t scare you, do start with Guy Newland’s Appearance And Reality. He does a good job of summarizing traditional views of emptiness without getting history involved. 

Ultimately, I recommend not only reading books, but also attending classes and meditating on the topic. This is the traditional approach and does help to make the topic more real as well as relevant. 

About the author: Having studied Buddhism and other religions and spiritual traditions since 1995, Katinka Hesselink became a Buddhist formally in 2011. She has studied world religions at Leiden University where she focused on religious anthropology, philosophy and psychology. She has written online since 1999 and started this blog to share her Buddhist knowledge, insight and opinions. Katinka is best known for her common sense approach to Buddhism.

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