Introduction to Emptiness by Guy Newland – What is a Book or a Reader, Really?

Introduction to emptinessTitle notwithstanding, Introduction to Emptiness is a weighty book. In just over a hundred pages, Guy Newland provides a coherent description of the Buddhist concept of emptiness. According to Buddhists, the cause of suffering in life is rooted is our illusion of the permanence of things, especially our idea that we possess an essential self. Through meditation we come to see that there is no permanent core in self or any other thing; ultimately, they are empty. Emptiness may sound undesirable, but this insight is key to achieving peace and happiness for ourselves and others.

The book is an exposition of the writings by Tsong-kha-pa, a fourteenth century Tibetan Buddhist leader. He cautioned against mistaking emptiness for nihilism, a view that claims no objective morality or meaning. Ultimately things have no permanence, but from a conventional perspective, self and the world of phenomena do seem to exist and make a difference to living beings. An entity such as a school does not come into being on its own. It is a product of interests and people and labour. It serves a purpose for a time then later is closed and dismantled. Conventional reality is called dependent-arising, always in flux, but it is also where Buddhist compassion and service is most applicable. Newland suggests the metaphor of a radio with two channels, ultimate and conventional, neither more valid than the other. Philosophers may be concerned about dualism, but no ontological claim is being made about ultimate existence. Existence is a conventional concept; there is no ultimate nature to things.

Tsong-kha-pas recommends rational analysis as a meditative practice on the path to enlightenment. The meditator can employ the logical principle of the excluded middle to dispel the illusion of an intrinsic self. According to this principle, a thing cannot both have a particular property and its opposite at once. He asks whether self is the same as one’s mind and body or different from them. If they are the same it is redundant to refer to a self and would imply there are many selves. If the self is different from the body, it should be locatable. The belief in an intrinsic self is like a person who suffers from the delusion that there is an elephant in the house. To dispel this illusion, one can take the person searching through all possible places the elephant might hide. With no results, it is difficult to maintain the delusion. Logical proofs like these can provide insight, but I do not find them any more convincing than Christian “proofs” of God. What is compelling about Buddhism is that they agree on this, cautioning against reification; emptiness is the core of their philosophy. Rational analysis need to be paired with concentrative meditation practices for nirvana, a direct, non-dualistic experience of reality.

I read this particular book at this time because I am trying to understand the fundamental role of permanence or fixity in information theory and cognition. The common view is that digital technology is freeing information from its history of fixity in print, presumably making us smarter. It is tempting to think of this process in Buddhist terms. What is a book or a reader, really? It is an ontological question, and Buddhists would agree that there is no essential book or reader, so it makes sense that book forms and reading styles will change over time. We know more information than before, and we know how to access it on demand. We feel enlightened. As the above discussion shows, however, the better part of Buddhism is rooted in conventional reality where fixed forms are pervasive. Newland states it can be dangerous for a seeker to detach from his or her sense of self. Print books persist, and I suspect a key reason is their quality of fixity, valuable for comprehending rich and complex ideas.

I add that Buddhism and the role of fixity are also reflected in Western physics. According to the second law of thermodynamics, energy moves from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration. This is what has been happening to the universe since the big bang, so everything changes, just like the Buddhists are saying. There is no essence. The second law also states that in local systems, energy patterns in equilibrium will remain stable. Intelligence evolves in local habitations like earth while the larger universe moves toward chaos; see Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines. Local context and fixity is required for the intelligent use of information.

Readers should not be misdirected into thinking Newland’s book is about information theory. It is an advanced inquiry into the Buddhist concept of emptiness. When I read books like this on Buddhism, I sometimes think their talk of permanence and change is too obvious, then I turn a page and experience vertigo at their depth. I find it easy to agree that self is an illusion, until I am in a real-world stressful situation. I am making an effort to be more conscious of this idea under pressure. It helps.

5 Replies to “Introduction to Emptiness by Guy Newland – What is a Book or a Reader, Really?”

  1. Pingback: Via Negativa
  2. Have you ever read Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler? I read it last summer — a super self-referential and experimental novel about reading and the fluid relationship among a reader, the writer, and the other readers. (It doesn’t probe book forms, but it sure examines reading styles.)

  3. In the ballpark of Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach? I was fascinated by self-reference some years ago, as a tool in the philosophy of mind, but it didn’t seem to lead anywhere in the long run. Maybe that was the point. Thanks for the reference. I will check it out.

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful review!
    As for experiences of vertigo, I got that by reading if on a winter’s night a traveler! the narrative homologue of Escher.

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