‘Emptiness and Joyful Freedom’ by Greg Goode and Tomas Sander (Non-duality Press, 2013): A review by Robert M. Ellis (link to publisher’s page)
This book is an attempt to take the emptiness teachings in Mahayana Buddhism, and make them available in a much more universal way that does not appeal to the Buddhist tradition. In some respects it does recognise and mention the Middle Way (though with a small ‘m’ and ‘w’). It draws widely on Western philosophy, and tries to articulate what it sees as the key practical insights of Buddhism within those entirely Western terms.
I find much to be welcomed in this book, based just on the kind of book that it is. Just to be using philosophy in such a practical way, challenging the false distinctions between over-specialised theory and under-specified practice, is a rare enough achievement today. However, the problem lies in its interpretation of the key insights of Buddhism. I find some deep flaws in this book that are not just a matter of presentation, but rather in the underlying assumptions that have been made. In particular, its authors have evidently not grasped one of the most important principles of the Middle Way – even-handedness – and thus end up offering an account of it that is entirely inadequate where ethics is concerned, despite bland assurances to the contrary.
I will, in the end, have more to say about my criticisms of this book, particularly because for those used to the ‘emptiness’ discourse, they may be unfamiliar and require some explanation. But let me start with the positives. The authors have taken the ‘emptiness’ traditions of Mahayana Buddhism (particularly of the Madhyamika school as reflected in Tibetan Buddhism) and recognised a key point that I have also been arguing for some time: that is, that if they are as universal and independent of tradition as Buddhists commonly claim they are, then they should be presented and taught in a way that is actually independent of Buddhist tradition. Goode and Sander do attempt to do this in a fairly thorough way, not only avoiding dependency on the specific authority and terminology of a particular Buddhist school, but even managing to avoid any appeal to enlightenment. At the same time, they do not commit the opposite error of pretending that emptiness has nothing to do with Buddhism, rather fully acknowledging their debt to it and presenting it as one option amongst others by which one could approach emptiness.
Another helpful approach in this book is its ‘toolkit’ approach to Western philosophy: that is, seeing Western philosophers as offering stimulating resources and arguments that can be used selectively to practical ends without necessarily embracing the totality of their teachings. The thinkers drawn on include Sextus Empiricus, Heidegger, Quine, Wittgenstein and Derrida. Their use here might well help to break down barriers for those without any philosophical background, and help them recognise some of the ways that these philosophers do actually address practical issues. My reservation here, though (which I will expand on later) is that the treatment of these philosophers is uncritical.
This Western material is presented in the context of chapters of ‘meditations’ on themes such as the self, meaning, truth and ethics, all of which are intended to help the reader reflect systematically on their habitual assumptions about these topics, with discussion of the practical effects that might follow from challenging such assumptions. The goal in each case is to reach an agnostic perspective described as a recognition of emptiness. Although I have reservations about the likely effectiveness of ‘meditations’ presented in this way, I nevertheless applaud the intention to help people question assumptions, and the way that questioning philosophical assumptions is seen to be of direct practical relevance.
This book also shows an understanding of the great variety of ways in which recognition of the limitations of our understanding can be applied: in other words, that there is a great variety of paths, and that the Middle Way can be applied within a variety of traditions, whether these are religious, scientific, social, philosophical, or cultural. There is not even a cloaked Buddhist triumphalism here, but rather an application of the theoretical openness that one can often find in Buddhism at its best.
My criticisms of this book, on the other hand, do not necessarily rest on features that are unique to it. Rather I think that its weaknesses tend to replicate ones found in the emptiness tradition of Mahayana Buddhism more generally. It is faithful to this tradition at points when it needs to re-assess it for a wider context. This uncritical attitude to various assumptions in the Mahayana tradition will not do, precisely because the authors are presenting their work as universal and independent of that tradition. To take the benefits of insights found in a particular tradition beyond that tradition also requires that one be prepared to sharpen them in response to the critical perspectives that can be offered by a wider world. In the place of critical discussion of many of the difficulties that are raised, this book far too often offers bland and repetitious assurances that practising emptiness teachings will make you feel good and help you live your life happily. The authors’ personal experience of this is then invoked, and there the discussion stops.
My most basic issue with this approach is the emphasis on emptiness itself. At first sight, emptiness teachings have a lot in common with the Middle Way, offering a balanced type of critical perspective on any type of ultimate claim or its denial. This approach is self-critical in the sense that it accepts no claim whatsoever as ultimately true, including claims about the truth of emptiness – hence the much-vaunted emptiness of emptiness. Experiences of objects, the self, the world etc, are explained as being the result of conditioned dependency rather than the inherent existence of those objects. However, the value of such teachings needs to be understood in practical terms, and the anti-metaphysical metaphysics of the emptiness discourse can too often descend into a scholarly quagmire in which the traditional claim that emptiness is not nihilistic is defended against the incredulity of those who do not interpret it in a practical context. The practical value of the emptiness discourse appears to come down to its effect in supporting provisionality.
Once one identifies metaphysical claims as being the central problem in our inadequate responses to conditions, I can see no way in which it is helpful to offer further metaphysical positions instead, however self-critical and attenuated those positions may be. To do so underestimates our capacity for absolutising any position that is abstracted enough to be beyond the critical perspective offered by experience. Given that ‘conditioned arising’ and ‘emptiness’ consist in yet more metaphysical claims (that must be asserted as absolutely, not incrementally, true) it is not enough to blandly assert that they are ultimately empty, for it is not the lack of theoretically self-critical caveats added to metaphysics that makes it practically problematic – it is the mere fact that it is metaphysical and thus beyond experience. Given that the usefulness of the language of emptiness seems to rest entirely on its ability to create provisionality in us, there is no usefulness in continuing with that language, which at best may be a proxy for provisionality for some, whilst for others it provides an easy basis for further absolutisation. There is after all a better alternative: provisionality itself.
That’s why I myself make no use of ‘emptiness’ discourse, but base my approach to philosophy and practice on the Middle Way as a principle of judgement. To hang onto the emptiness discourse seems to be a product of the very thing that it criticises – the obsession with metaphysical ‘truths’ to which we are prone. It’s not that we need to see how things really are – or are not – in any sense, but rather than we need to change the way in which we judge and apply our understanding of the world so that we make more provisional judgements. We just need to have a thoroughly agnostic view of these metaphysical issues, rather than an ‘empty’ one. The Middle Way is thus epistemological and moral rather than metaphysical, but these authors, despite their use of the idea of the ‘middle way’, seem unwilling to take this final step in letting go of the unhelpful assumptions to be found in the traditional Buddhist treatment.
Their attachment to emptiness and failure to really get to grips with the Middle Way seems to result in a number of other inadequacies in the book. If one puts the Middle Way first and recognises its practical implications, then even-handedness becomes a key feature of one’s approach. This will mean that negative dogmas are avoided just as much, and subjected to the same type and weight of criticism, as positive ones, because it is recognised that they are just as damaging. Not only can people become just as rigidly attached to negative metaphysical positions as positive ones, but they will usually adopt positive dogmas that are interdependent with their negative ones (for example, Marxists adopting materialism and socio-economic determinism as a positive claim along with their rejection of idealism). The very way in which our bodies process meaning implies that the mere addition of a negative prefix to a positive statement makes little difference to its meaning (try not thinking of a polar bear), so that it can be just as obsessively held in negative form.
However, this book only goes through the motions of being even-handed. It gives brief, bland assurances that emptiness is not nihilistic or relativistic, and then devotes at least 95% of its attention to deconstructing positive metaphysics. Hardly any critical attention at all is given to the equally damaging negative forms of metaphysics that involve saying that there is no self, no moral objectivity, no representational meaning, no truth, and no choice. Emptiness doctrines, interpreted with care and in accordance with the Middle Way, say none of these things, but the hasty reader may very well go away with that impression from this book.
It is hard not to link this lack of even-handedness to the strong bias evident in the selection of philosophers whose critical perspectives are used for practical effect. Apart from the ancient sceptics, these philosophers are almost without exception from the Anglo-American and Continental schools of modern philosophy that assert conventionalist forms of relativism, whether these are broadly existentialist, postmodernist, analytic or Wittgensteinian. There are just as many critical perspectives offered in older forms of philosophy against the assumption of relativism – but there is no use of say Plato, Aristotle, Kant or Schopenhauer to balance this. Nor is there any kind of critical perspective offered on the modern philosophers used, even in the form of a brief acknowledgement of their limiting assumptions. This creates a big danger that readers without much philosophical sophistication (of the kind this book is, indeed, largely aimed at) will just adopt these philosophers and all their assumptions wholesale. Even if readers do not do this, they are most unlikely to appreciate that the sceptical arguments against the negative metaphysics assumed by analytic and postmodernist philosophers are just as strong as those against better-worn targets like Descartes.
The authors talk of ‘non-essentialism’ and ‘non-substantialism’ as though these doctrines by themselves offered solutions (rather than just isolated useful arguments against the converse), even though the denial of these doctrines is just as dogmatic as the assertion. Emptiness, or the Middle Way, simply points out that we do not know whether or not there is essence or substance. Most modern philosophers are thus no more and no less the allies of emptiness than traditionalist ones, but this book offers no acknowledgement of that point. In the case of ethics, there is at least an unconvincing attempt to assure us that this brand of emptiness is not relativist, but in the case of the discussion of the self, for example, where the emptiness perspective crucially tells us not that there is no self, but that we do not know whether or not there is a self, there is not even a mention of the possibility of people getting attached to a negative idea of no-self.
The conventionalism and relativism in this book reflects not just a lack of even-handedness in the authors’ philosophical attitudes, but also an apparent uncritical adoption of traditional Buddhist doctrine. Here the doctrine assumed is the ‘two truths’ of Nagarjuna, which assumes that the alternative to absolute beliefs is the mere acceptance of the conventional. This doctrine is based on a false dichotomy that constantly threatens to undermine what positive benefits can be found in emptiness practices, as it leaves us with no justifiable critical perspective whatsoever on the conventional. This book constantly gives the impression that its goal is just to help us be relaxed in our relationship with the conventional – apparently with an equal degree of acceptance whether your conventions happen to be those of Nazi Germany, the Taliban, or a hippy commune.
Together with the failure of even-handedness, then, goes a failure of incrementality and a massive failure of ethics. If we assume, as both Nagarjuna and most modern Western philosophers do, that the conventional is the only alternative to the absolute, then every type of convention must have the same practical value, and our task appears to be to just avoid the sufferings that might result by being out of step with it. In response to this type of point, Goode and Sander offer only bland assurances that emptiness is not relativist because it makes us feel ‘joyful irony’ and compassion, and we are free to act on this compassion. They even raise the issue of female genital mutilation (pp.348-350) and seem to think that just feeling compassion and thus rejecting cruelty is an adequate response to this practice when conventionalist relativism otherwise gives us no basis to criticise it. People believe they are being compassionate almost as often as they believe they are being good, and it is not difficult to imagine parents in, say, Mali, or some other country where female genital mutilation is common, reasoning that it would be the most compassionate thing to do for their daughter. It is the need to face up to conditions, rather than just compassion alone, that will adequately challenge this practice. This book’s apparent doe-eyed faith that the emptiness practice will put us in a pleasantly relaxed state that makes judgement unnecessary is just completely inadequate in this, as in many other ethical cases.
Perhaps the problem is that the authors just don’t recognise the possibility of an alternative here: that we could have clear reasons for rejecting female genital mutilation without appealing to some absolute metaphysical belief. However, if they don’t recognise that, it surely can’t because traditional Buddhism hasn’t offered them some resources for doing so. Traditional Buddhism does offer the Middle Way, and indeed uses it in a way that is not relativist. The very story of the early life of the Buddha, as recounted in both Theravada and Mahayana traditions, offers a model both of the Buddha trying out different approaches and principles, and of him justifying the successful one that helps him to finally make progress (the Middle Way) on pragmatic criteria that rejected the absolutism of the two extremes. The Buddha did not fall back on convention when he found the Middle Way – indeed he had clearly left convention behind in the luxurious palace that he had gone forth from. He used his own judgement decisively in judging both the facts and the values of his situation, and justified that judgement because it was adequate to experience in a way that the previous extreme assumptions had not been. We can do exactly the same thing in the case of female genital mutilation, working with the value of principles like human rights, the avoidance of patriarchal oppression, and the avoidance of completely unnecessary suffering, all based on the judgement of our experience, even though none of these principles is absolute or independent. My judgement that female genital mutilation is overwhelmingly wrong will be all the more justified the more I can base it on experience and the less on absolute abstractions. A woolly appeal to compassion, when faced with such issues, is just not good enough.
So, I don’t think that the authors here have any particular excuse for interpreting the insights offered by their tradition in ways that are so thoroughly inadequate, especially given their laudable motives and acuteness in other respects. My guess is that actually it is relativistic modern philosophies that have been allowed to dominate their interpretation of the insights of Buddhism here, rather than that Buddhism did not offer them alternative perspectives.
Their attitude to the effects of meditation on emptiness does also seem to betray an idealisation bordering on a sort of magical belief. If you just go over and over these anti-essentialist points and keep applying them to different examples, we are told over and over again, this is bound to have a good effect, leading to an arising the ‘joyful freedom’ of the title and to spontaneous feelings of lightness and compassion. Though I don’t doubt the sincerity of the authors’ assurances that this has been their experience, I do doubt the rigour with which they have interpreted that experience. Could their experience of joyful freedom have something to do simply with the fact that they were meditating, presumably practising samatha to integrate their desires as well as reflections on emptiness? I doubt whether it was the actual intellectual content of the meditations that necessarily led to the feelings they describe – though of course one cannot rule this out either. I am also doubtful about whether the uncritical tone of these structured reflections, which do not so much enquire whether all things are empty as expect us to keep re-affirming that they are, does not reintroduce by the back door new dogmas to replace the ones that have been shown out at the front.
There is a big danger of confirmation bias, by which we set out expecting emptiness meditation to make us feel good, and then it does – and only then in rather restricted circumstances and rather sheltered conditions. This is a danger that could be reduced with a wider range of practices, just as a mixture of crops makes a farm more robust in the face of varied conditions than a monoculture. Again, even if the core teachings of Buddhism are looked to for inspiration, we find three elements to the path: morality, meditation and wisdom. These elements have been cultivated in quite a variety of ways. In this book, though, there is far too much emphasis on the effects of one specific type of practice, without consideration of the wider context of living conditions, relationships, and above all ethics. Politics and political conditions are not even mentioned. The dependency seems to be on the magical effects of one practice, and when we are shown magic, the first thing we do is to expect a trick.
As opposed to these authors’ experiential appeal to only one type of practice, my experience suggests instead that integrative practice is far more complex than this, and that it requires several kinds of practice interacting and working at the levels of desire, meaning and belief together. Simply adopting metaphysical beliefs and trying to din them into oneself, however subtle and self-critical those metaphysical beliefs may be, will probably result in rather limited and contextually-limited development when compared to a wider process that probably includes balanced critical thinking, the arts and samatha meditation – or other practices with similar effects in different areas of our experience.
Like the postmodernists, and like some Buddhists (e.g. Stephen Batchelor), these authors also claim that irony is our best response to the beliefs and values that surround us. This goes along with the assumption of the two truths and that if we don’t accept the absolute, the only alternative is the conventional. Not having a critical perspective on the conventional (because there is nowhere else to go, under this philosophy), the best we can do is to hold it lightly, to distance ourselves from it a bit. Goode even offers a story (pp.344-5) of two “ironic” Christian evangelicals whom he encountered in his youth, who went along with the fundamentalist tenets of their church but seemed to have a deeper wisdom which led them to treat this dogma more lightly. Lightness and humour can indeed be a component of provisionality, but if this is the best we can do, this postmodernist doctrine seems to me a counsel of despair. The ‘irony’ of these evangelicals presumably not just made them wiser than their peers, but also stopped them from challenging the dogmas of their church and helping to change it so that it played a more constructive wider role in society. Irony is not the goal of life, but, as David Foster Wallace put it “the song of a bird that loves its cage”. Surely we have both more positive and more critical ways of interacting with the world, that indeed involve taking it as seriously as it needs to be taken? Provisionality is important to judgement just because we take our values seriously enough to want them to be adequate, not because one possible style of provisionality is an end in itself.
Goode and Sander are also greatly out of step both with scientific method and experiential ethics in not appreciating the importance of incrementality. Because we cannot justify our beliefs absolutely, they assume, we should hold those beliefs lightly and ironically as the best alternative – when this is far from the best alternative. All we need to do is match the strength of our belief to the degree of justification we can provide for it. The recognition of our fallibility does indeed provide a crucial component of that justification, along with the coherence and evidence of our beliefs, but in that we allow the sceptical reflections that form the basis of emptiness practice to modify our beliefs in a direct way. Goode and Sander’s approach, like that of Nagarjuna, is just too discontinuous, with the absolute separated from the relative. Instead, we need to avoid adopting the polarised assumptions of absolute and relative in the first place, developing experientially justified beliefs and values that we can have a degree of confidence in. There is an alternative. We do not need to seek refuge in the gilded cage of mere irony.
Finally, it also strikes me that Goode and Sander lack a positive appreciation of the value of desires. I suggest this because they clearly see a kind of contentment as sufficient. Our desires are troublesome to us, it seems, because they are attached to absolute beliefs, so the best we can do is to contain those desires in a sort of ironic limitation that stops us taking them too seriously. Again, there is an alternative that does not seem to be appreciated, this time in the integration model. Our desires don’t just need to be held in ironic contentment, but positively channelled so that they work together to progressively better ends, as understood in the terms of progressively more integrated beliefs. Contentment is just not enough – for one thing it creates political quietism, and for another it suggests that our desires are not each valuable. It is precisely in not absolutising the beliefs attached to each desire that we are able to channel them in ways that work together and overcome conflict, whether that conflict is internal or external.
Perhaps I am slipping too frequently here into the refrain ‘there is an alternative’. But it is hard to do otherwise when the Middle Way just doesn’t seem to be properly on the agenda even of people like Goode and Sander, who obviously have such a strong appreciation of the sceptical starting point on which the Middle Way depends, and the motive of making the Middle Way universal. This book is a great opportunity lost, like much of Buddhism before it. It needs to raise its sights and address, not just a few devotees of emptiness practices, but also the wider audience of people who need to recognise that absolute beliefs cannot be justified and do not help them, in every judgement of every day of their lives. It can’t do that without taking ethics seriously, and keeping faith with the ethical motives in Buddhism, which are just as important as the ‘emptiness’ critique.