The MWS Podcast 52: Gay Watson on a Philosophy of Emptiness

Gay Watson has a PhD in Religious Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. She trained as a psychotherapist with the Karuna Institute in Core Process, a Buddhist inspired psychotherapy. She is very much concerned with the dialogue between Buddhist thought, psychotherapy and the Mind Sciences and is the author of Beyond Happiness, Deepening the Dialogue Between Buddhism, Psychotherapy and the Mind Sciences and she’s here to talk to us today about her latest book A Philosophy of Emptiness.


MWS Podcast 52: Gay Watson as audio only:
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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

11 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 52: Gay Watson on a Philosophy of Emptiness

  1. An interesting interview, and I’m glad that people may be able to engage with the Middle Way through Gay’s work. I’ve just been reading her book as well.

    The strength of the book is that it is obviously looking for a variety of ‘ways in’ that could form points of inspiration for people, experiential links with art and history. The weakness, I think, is that it is not a ‘philosophy’ in the sense of engaging in a critical discussion. It doesn’t really attempt to anticipate criticism, argue a case or offer a method of justification. I do see these elements as central to the practice of philosophy, rather than just exposition, and it is the critical process that differentiates ‘philosophy’ as effectively founded by Socrates in the West from the Pre-Socratics, who appeared to largely just expound metaphysical claims. As I’m a philosopher as well as a practitioner, I’m going to offer a few other critical points in this spirit about Gay’s approach – though I hope they’ll be interpreted in the context of a wider appreciation.

    The whole approach and vocabulary of ’emptiness’ is not really one that I’ve adopted in discussing the Middle Way, even though, as the discussion with Gay suggests, there are many points of contact. People can engage with the Middle Way via emptiness, but at the same time I’d suggest that a philosophy of emptiness is not necessary to engage with the Middle Way. That’s because the Middle Way is about how we judge and interpret what we experience, whereas the language of emptiness focuses, instead, on what may or may not be there. Mahayana Buddhism often seemed to me to be stuck in a broken record, going on and on about emptiness but never progressing to tell us much about what it implies. I’d suggest that’s because emptiness is still seen as the central thing rather than Middle Way judgement, and thus very little attention is given to how we judge. Another way of putting this would be that Mahayana Buddhism and Emptiness Philosophy focuses on metaphysics, and is thus in danger of getting submerged in the very metaphysical ways of talking it evidently seeks to avoid. To really avoid this, and to be able to argue a case rather than just make assertions, I think we need to focus much more on epistemology and ethics – how we judge what we assume to be the case or what we take to be of value. Gay’s book and interview thus leave me with the feeling – ‘OK, that seems fine as far as it goes, but what are the implications?’ In particular, what are the implications not just for people who may have refined aesthetic or noetic experiences of emptiness, but people making everyday judgements? How does this change anything for them?

    That’s where I think two crucial principles need bringing in to interpret the Middle Way – provisionality and incrementality. These are just not there in Nagarjuna, so relying on the emptiness discourse as such just doesn’t get you very far with them. But incrementality brings the Middle Way into every area of judgement to varying degrees, and provisionality makes much clearer what it might mean to ‘hold things lightly’.

    Another area where I’m often critical of Emptiness thinkers (such as Goode and Sander, whose book I reviewed on this site) is their uncritical attitude to negative metaphysics in modern thinkers. If Pyrrho and Nagarjuna are correct, then denying absolute metaphysical assertions is just as unjustifiable as asserting them. For the same reason, then, I’d disagree with what was said about indeterminacy in the interview. We don’t know anything to be indeterminate, and to claim that it is is just as much beyond experience is to claim that it is determinate. Indeterminism is just the opposite of determinism, and both are making absolute claims about causal relationships in the whole universe rather than just recognising our ignorance of them. Quantum physics may remind us of how little we really know, but we need to be very cautious in drawing any further conclusions about it.

    Similar points can be made about interdependence. Interdependence itself can very rapidly become a dogma simply because it is making claims about a metaphysical state of things. We really don’t know whether or not everything is interdependent, only that we don’t know. It is thus uncertainty that is the more basic condition. I don’t think it’s justifiable to appeal to Pyrrho recognition of uncertainty at the same time as a metaphysics of interdependence, because Pyrrho would not have made any assertions about interdependence of the kind that Mahayana Buddhists go in for.

    These may seem like arcane philosophical points, but I do think the underlying issue is of practical importance. In the end it’s a matter of whether we focus on aspects of the Middle Way that make a practical difference to people in all kinds of situations, or whether we inadvertently lead them into new forms of dogma. Mahayana Buddhism needs to be a cautionary tale, because despite the insights to be found in it, it is also full of power relationships and dogmatic institutions. Those power-based institutions would have been much harder to sustain had they not been able to appeal to claims about metaphysical insights inaccessible to others. It may be worth remembering that the feudal system of traditional Tibetan society was based on a Philosophy of Emptiness, and that philosophy did not effectively challenge those social structures.

    Finally, I’d also suggest that the ‘logic of respiration’, though it may express an insight about the structure of thought in Chinese culture, has nothing much to do with logic. Logic is the drawing of conclusions from assumptions, the processing of the left hemisphere. It has its place, so let’s allow it to have that place without vaguely over-extending it. There is really no need to challenge Aristotelian logic, especially when we are hypocritically using it. All we need to challenge is the adoption of assumptions that are unnecessarily narrow and thus result in misleading conclusions.

    1. Hi Robert,

      I read the book as a “review of the literature” rather than a development of a philosophy on emptiness. I found it a fascinating read as it follows threads through different times and contexts.
      “So what?”. Well, I am a little disappointed that Gay focused on the “artists eye” during the interview. It is a familiar view and I think there is an over focus on the artist, perhaps because they put emptiness “out there”.
      There is plenty more emptiness to get excited about. Cosmology has loads of it. Geometry seems to have some. Perhaps the other sciences do too.
      “So what?”. Well yes, there is possibility in emptiness. You have a space before and after thought and form. But, more importantly, YOU disappear. Your sense of what it means to be you is undercut and this is the point at which change can happen. And the reflex of this is the experience of interconnection – I am not as I thought, I am a part of. Earth’s relationship with the Universe.
      “So what?” – The mind opens enough to question everything. The danger is that
      we can get to this point and then go nowhere. Artists can become more artistic but what about the rest of us? Which is, I think, where your response to Gay starts, Robert!

    2. Hi Robert, Nina and Barry,
      I was just thinking up my reply to Robert, and then found that Nina and Barry had pretty much done it for me. Thank you both. I definitely intended my book as a ‘review of the literature’ or a curation of ideas of emptiness, rather than an attempt to propound a philosophy of emptiness. At the end of the book I very much try to discuss my understanding of emptiness as a view, a way and a path.

      I entirely agree that emptiness may be, and often is, taught and held in a way that is far from ’empty’. But to blame this on the philosophy surely muddles philosophy with psychology; the matter of the philosophy with the manner of how we hold or apply the content. Such mishandling comes from our psychological tendencies rather than from the philosophy itself. Any and every philosophy is at risk of being traduced by the psychological wish for certainty and grasping – a good Buddhist message! Hence the encouragement to ‘hold lightly’. As Nagarjuna said “Misconstruing emptiness injures you like mishandling a snake.

      A comment I would engage with is that the language of emptiness focuses on what may or may not be there. I think the intertwining of emptiness and interdependence is both more subtle and richer than a dualistic is or is not. Indeed there are subtle and endless arguments between Madhyamika Prasangika and Madhyamika Svatrantrika adherents as to whether anything may be postulated about emptiness at all. Nor do I agree that ‘Mahayana Buddhism and Emptiness Philosophy’ though I may be misunderstanding what you mean by the latter capitalized term) focuses on metaphysics. Buddhist thought is notoriously resistant to metaphysical arguments.The aim of Buddhist thought is liberation from suffering, ignorance, greed and hatred.

      As to the implications of views of emptiness, I would hope that they might cause a questioning of the hegemony of views of substance and presence, and open up possibilities of seeing freshly. I very much appreciated Nina’s comments about this and interconnection. As Ian McGilchrist writes ‘The kind of attention we pay actually alter the world’: maybe we can only hope.

      1. Hi Gay,
        Thanks for responding. I think you may have misunderstood my comment about the philosophy of emptiness focusing on what may or may not be there (perhaps it could have been better expressed). What I mean is not that the philosophy of emptiness doesn’t exert itself to find extremely subtle ways of talking about what lies between ‘is’ and ‘is not’, but that nevertheless it concerns itself with that basically metaphysical or ontological territory, rather than with the question of how we make judgements about it. It’s always surprised me that “Buddhist metaphysics” is not considered an oxymoron given the Buddha’s Middle Way teachings.

        As to philosophy and psychology, I’d consider it crucial to challenge the false distinctions that have been erected between them: not a matter of ‘muddling’, but of challenging false dichotomies with clarity and decisiveness. I would have thought that the philosophy of emptiness should imply the avoidance of such false dichotomies. Embodied meaning theory also makes it clear that there can be no such thing as a pure rational or representational position without an inextricable admixture of emotion and imagination. Similarly, the drives, motives, values and emotions investigated by psychology are inextricably laced with explicit or implicit beliefs. Cognitive biases are also indistinguishable from fallacies. What is the point of challenging Western philosophy with talk of emptiness if we fail to challenge such entrenched and unhelpful dualisms in the process?

        Besides, the avoidance of metaphysics does not take you solely into psychological territory. Epistemology and ethics are also parts of the Western philosophical tradition, and both of them are in some ways concerned with judgements. Both can be greatly informed by psychology. In both, there is much winnowing to be done to distinguish what is helpful from what is unhelpful. But thoughtful engagement with either epistemology or ethics is conspicuous by its absence, either in the traditional Mahayana or in its more modern interpreters. Instead, the ‘two truths’ approach seems to rule, leaving us either with conventionalist relativism or an absolutist appeal to tradition.

        1. Hi Everyone,

          I really appreciate this discussion and I wish I had the time to write a more complete post in response! Maybe in a few weeks time I will have the opportunity.

          I really understand Robert’s view that it is important that we use knowledge from as many fields as we are able to challenge dogmatic views.

          But – where I resonate with Gay’s view – is that I think it is important to let the philosophy do its work. ( I was very struck by the sense of emptiness in Taoism that she presented in the book which seemed to me to be the middleway (or a way of seeing the middleway)).

          What do I mean by let the philosophy do its work? Well, emptiness is an opportunity for change and that “space beyond words” that psychoanalysis sometimes attempts to describe. For me it has been invaluable in finding my way into feminist readings, expressing “yearning” for equality rather than grasping at political advantage, imagining language and structures that are not patriarchal, undercutting “the all seeing eye” of objectivity and returning subjectivity and experience to a position of power. Postmodernism gives us great opportunities to try to cut our structures away, question the binary relationships but then also to begin to define the unstable space between them. This is working in emptiness, defining and recognising the resistance to definition. It is alive, always active, never fixed.
          This is what emptiness can give us Robert.

          1. Hi Nina, It sounds like you might be talking about the quality of attention – perhaps mindful or integrated as well as concentrated attention – in which we can hold ideas in a still context. Perhaps you’re also talking about critical awareness.

            Philosophies of emptiness, like postmodernism, can indeed create critical awareness, or help to create it along with other helpful conditions (such as, say, a meditation practice). But the same can also be said for many other philosophies. Hume can inspire critical awareness of the limitations of rationalism, and Plato of the limitations of the Pre-Socratics and Sophists. Richard Dawkins can inspire critical awareness of the limitations of theism, and theologians can inspire critical awareness of the limitations of Richard Dawkins. But I would caution against getting too dependent on one such school of thought, because all also have their dogmas. In the case of postmodernism, that dogma seems to be relativism. Such schools of thought can all provide inspiration, and also be associated with cultural developments that can be inspiring (as in the case of Daoism), but they need to be seen in each others’ light and treated even-handedly. I think the same applies to the philosophy of emptiness, even if it is one of the subtler metaphysical philosophies that tries to get closer to the Middle Way. Let the philosophy do its work, yes, but don’t claim special dispensation for it.

  2. Emptiness is not an end in itself. It is a moment of possibility. Interesting that in a teaching about impermanence the focus has been on achieving a permanent state of enlightenment. So what?

  3. Hi Robert & Nina
    I pretty much interpreted the book as a review of the literature too. As Gay stressed at the beginning of the interview, she sees herself very much as a ‘curator’ with regard to the sources and avenues she explored. I thought she was very consistent in the book as well about the importance of not viewing emptiness in dogmatic terms. However, that’s a fair point from Robert that in many people’s eyes, there’s an expectation that a book about a philosophy would be as much about a method of justification as about exposition. Nevertheless I found the book very interesting, as a history lesson about the idea of emptiness and what has meant in various time periods and contexts and I also found it beautifully written and a pleasure to read and to some extent she does talk about how you put it into practice towards the end of the book. I still find the idea of the East having a focus on the breath rather than the sight perception focus of the West which to me resonates to a degree with how Iain McGilchrist suggests ‘geographically’ we attend to the world. However, to call it logic is indeed perhaps a bit woolly. It’s also important to talk about indeterminacy in provisional terms too but I suppose I was assuming we were doing that anyway. I agree with you Nina when you say ‘What about the rest of us?’ and that’s where as you suggest MWP can come in to use uncertainty as the ground for making better judgements.

    Overall I thought it was a book that could indeed get people interested in the Middle Way. Gay certainly appears to see herself as a Middle Way practitioner.

  4. Hi Robert,

    I am talking about critical thinking and I am talking about holding attention in a place of stillness. But I am also talking about an experience of working in a place which is not limited by our usual structures. I need to think about this more and explain what it is that “emptiness” has given me and write something clearer. I certainly do not feel attached to a “dogma” because it is an experience, not a set of beliefs.
    I understand the criticism of Postmodernism as “relativism”. However, I do not believe this to be the case. There are very clear ethical agendas in play in the fields of post-colonialism and in the critic of science, for example. The problem is that post-modern writing is working on the edge of language and is necessarily experimental. For me, this “working on the edge” is a very similar experience to that of emptiness.
    I accept entirely that Buddhism has transformed “emptiness” into dogma. Again and again it is talked of in terms of enlightenment and inseparable from ritual and a whole host of beliefs and preconceptions.
    BUT what if you take “emptiness” as an experience of a moment? The enlargement of an experience of contentment/ non-separateness/ non-distinctness – a womb-like/ beginning of life type experience – into a philosophy with the usual philosophical bells on?

    1. Hi Everyone,
      I was delighted Robert with your reply to Nina re ‘quality of attention’. At the end of writing emptiness, I found that a philosophy of emptiness (and I stress ‘a’ and not ‘the’) is inseparable from a practice of attention, which is the book I am currently working on.
      I very much like the way you say philosophies of emptiness can create critical awareness and include postmodernism and meditation as other means of access to this. And I entirely agree about the dangers of becoming too dependent on any one such school or practice, which is what I was referring to as a psychological trait in my earlier reply.
      I also agree as to the importance of epistemology and ethics – and their inseparability from psychology. I do, however, hugely disagree with the statement that ‘thoughtful engagement with either epistemology or ethics is conspicuous by its absence, either in traditional Mahayana or its more modern interpreters’ – unless by this you were referring obliquely to their ubiquity in Early Buddhism which you do not mention. I am away from my library and unable to provide specific references, but Buddhist teachings ancient and contemporary about epistemology and ethics are endless, while those about ontology are rare.

      Nina, I love the concept of emptiness as a moment of possibility.

  5. Hi Gay,
    Doubtless this is a matter of interpretation and of what criteria we choose to apply. Perhaps I should have said, a little less sweepingly, that I haven’t found much thoughtful engagement with epistemology or ethics in those places. But of course I’m applying a standard for ‘thoughtful engagement’ that you probably don’t share. What I find more exciting, and positive, is how much recent psychology and cognitive science do offer now when interpreted in the light of the Middle Way, and any reference to Buddhist texts now is unlikely to attract me back to all the endless scholarly arguments and cultural opaqueness – by contrast with those much more interesting recent developments. If the Mahayana does turn out to have more than I think it does, that will be good, but it will need to have a great deal for me to give it any priority of study these days.

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