Emptiness. A Practical Guide for Meditators. A book review

Emptiness. A Practical Guide for Meditators

Guy Armstrong

Wisdom Publications

310 Pages.


ISBN 978-1-61429-363-7

(Support your local bookshop. Simply provide the ISBN number to order or go to online bookshops)

What on earth does Emptiness mean?

Dedicated Buddhist practitioners often find themselves struggling to make sense of Emptiness. It would seem like an indispensable concept, if one is to understand the ultimate truth of the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha certainly gave teachings on Emptiness, but he certainly never made Emptiness the essence of the teachings. He pointed out in various ways that everything arises, changes and passes, due to causes and conditions. Every ‘thing’ is empty of its own existence. empty of any substance, essence or soul. Emptiness does not have its own existence.

Frankly, it is unarguable.

I assume the Buddha appreciated the challenge for meditators to arrive at a deep understanding of Emptiness. Amidst the 10,000 discourses of the Buddha, ranging from a few lines to several pages of text, readers will only find around 20 discourses which directly mention Emptiness (sunyatta).

The word ‘Emptiness’ gained a major significance in the Buddhist tradition through the in-depth analysis of Nagarjuna, the second century Buddhist monk-sage who explored dependent arising. He showed the emptiness of clinging to any standpoint whatsoever. He surmised that that the reification of views about any ‘thing’ generated problems, whether views were held tightly or lightly.

The teachings of Emptiness can fly over the head for many. Such teachings can appear incomprehensible. Others arrive at a mental grasping of ’emptiness’ but simply cannot perceive its relevance and application into the daily life.

The book will have an appeal for those who attend regularly intensive silent retreats lasting a week or longer. As a senior Dharma teacher in the West, Guy Armstrong employs a language of explanation regularly adopted in his much-loved retreats. This means that the book adopts a pragmatic approach with experience and insight as a priority on the nature of Emptiness.  Occasionally, he draws on the wisdom of Buddhist teachers, past and present.

Titles of the chapters include: the world is empty of self, what is real?, the five aggregates are not self, bearing emptiness, abiding in emptiness, the middle way, sunlight and empty space, compassion comes from emptiness.

There are meditators who love to enquire into Emptiness. They love such teachings and reflections; they find immense benefits in various realisations of Emptiness in their daily life. These find themselves growing into an understanding of emptiness, whether sudden or gradual. They may start off bemused, lost in an abstract analysis and treat emptiness as metaphysics, theoretical and exceptionally abstract. Yet their patience with the ability to listen, reflect and explore emptiness deepens the understanding. This approach can transform the so-called theoretical viewpoint into a meaningful wisdom.

This book makes an important contribution to the understanding of Emptiness.

Wisely, the Buddha pointed to a full range of concepts that may trigger a deep response liberating and insightful. These concepts include truth, the infinite, liberation, the immeasurable and the cessation of suffering. We do not have to rely upon realisation of Emptiness for liberation and enlightened life. If we had to, it would give Emptiness a substantial self-importance.

A genuinely liberated, happy and conscious human being may have no comprehension of emptiness. Such people prefer a different language or an absence of language.

Emptiness is written with dedicated meditators in mind, who are familiar with classical retreats emphasising calm and insight. Drawing upon his wealth of experience, Guy explores the theme to bring readers to a much deeper appreciation of the application of emptiness.

Guy offers from the very beginning reminders of the challenge of the enquiry into emptiness. He takes a statement of the Buddha at the beginning of the book. The Buddha stated that the teachings of emptiness are “deep, deep in meaning, supermundane,” which need to be “studied and mastered. You should train yourselves.” The book stays true to this principle offering a skilled communication to readers from one chapter to the next.

Guy introduces each chapter with a quotation from a spiritual master. For example, chapter 3 quotes Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, the 20th century teacher from Mumbai, India, who stated: “The world is in you, not you in the world.”

From the standpoint of emptiness, it is not the truth that the world is in us but another way of looking at reality. Such different views born from experience show the relativity of our usual conditioned way of looking,such as ‘I live in the world. ‘We are not in the world. The world is not in us. We are not separate from the world. We are not one with the world. No perception, no view is ultimately true. It is a view.

Guy’s book encourages us to expand our whole sense of everything, so that there is a knowing of the emptiness of clinging to a experience, standpoint, issue, or identity.

A solid and very worthwhile read.

Guy kindly acknowledges on the opening page

the Buddha, Joseph Goldstein, Tsoknyi Rimpoche

and this wallah for pointing him towards Emptiness.

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