Working Emptiness: Toward a Third Reading of Emptiness in Buddhismand Postmodern Thought
by Newman Robert Glass
Reviewed by Roger Jackson
Philosophy East & West
Vol.48:2 July 1998
Copyrught @ 1998 by University of Hawai'i Press
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------.p.357Newman Robert Glass describes his ambitious and intriguingfirst book, Working Emptiness: Toward a Third Reading ofEmptiness in Buddhism and Postmodern Thought, as an exercisein "postmodern theology" whose ultimate purpose is to helpdevelop a "Buddhist constructive philosophy" out of a newreading of Buddhist discourse about emptiness (suunyataa)(pp. 4-5). In the service of this new reading, Class deploysa staggering array of thinkers, texts, and topics, bothWestern and Asian. Among Western figures, he draws, interalia, from Heidegger, Cadamer, Altizer, Derrida, Mark Taylor,and Deleuze and Guattari; Buddhist fiegures includeNaagaarjuna, the authors of the Tathaagatagarbha literatureand the tantras, the Sixth Chan Patriarch, Dogen, andNishitani Keiji, not to mention a large number of modernBuddhist scholars. Fields he considers include metaphysics,logic, psychology, aesthetics, physics, and ethics. Hisanalysis is condensed and complex: discussions of postmodernideas flow into discourses on Buddhism and back out again.There are more threads linking his various subjects than canpossibly be untied in a brief review, so what follows,focusing primarily on Glass' approach to Buddhism, must beseen as only one, partial approach to this multifaceted book. Glass' central argument is that there are two readings,or "workings," of emptiness that have dominated Buddhist andWestern scholarly analysis of the concept: the first, whichbears a striking resemblance to Heidegger's insistence thatrelease into unthought nothingness clears the ground for"presencing" Being, sees emptiness as "co-dependent arising"and therefore as moving beyond mere negation into a rhetoricof mutuality and interdependence; the second, which isclosely analogous to Mark Taylor's playful, endless Derrideandeferral of meaning in favor of "difference" or "nothing,"sees emptiness as "dependent arising, " a negation of allpresence and the denial of all possible positions. For Glass,each of these workings of emptiness proceeds from a "logic ofnegation" that reflects a preoccupation with issues of"thinking" and "not thinking, " often at the expense of theaffective and ethical dimensions of human existence. Theseareas, Glass believes, are addressed most fully in the "thirdworking of emptiness," (found, e.g., in the Tathaagatagarbhaliterature and the writings of Dogen), which proceeds,philosophically through a "logic of subtraction" andpractically through a meditative "burning off of outflowingtendencies" (p. 88), to reveal an original "essence" that,more than the presence or absence of thought, is a state ofpositive desire, compassionate engagement, and "fieldsensitivity, " like that described by Deleuze and Cuattari.p.358 Rhetorically, Glass' argument is classically Buddhist: heposits two "extreme" positions ("presence" and "difference"),analyzes the short-comings of each, then suggests a thirdapproach ("essence") that avoids the pitfalls of the twoinitial positions and thereby finds the "middle" ¢w thoughthe latter is not a metaphor invoked by Glass. If we believetradition, this style of rhetoric was originated by theBuddha himself in the seminal Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta,and has been echoed by countless Buddhists since, includingNaagaarjuna and the philosophers of the Indian Yogaacaara andChinese Tientai schools. In structure, therefore," Glass'analysis is indisputably an example of "Buddhist theology."Furthermore, his reading of emptiness from the "essence"perspective of the Tathaagatagarbha literature and Dogen isvaluable not only as a theological stance, but as animportant reminder that `suunyataa truly is "empty," an open,profoundly contested term among Buddhists, which cannot berestricted to a single, canonical meaning, and which is,furthermore, inseparable from Buddhist practice. Moreover,Glass' alignment of various Buddhist workings of emptinesswith a number of perspectives adopted in the modern andpostmodern West adds suggestive echoes to his arguments, andoften reflects an appreciation for the nuances of bothBuddhist and postmodern thought sometimes lacking incomparisons between the two. At the same time, there are anumber of problems raised by Glass' analysis. One of the mostbasic is that the stances he identifies as the three"workings" of emptiness appear to be rather arbitraryconstructions, based as much on Class' reading of modernscholars' interpretations of Buddhist texts as on the textsthemselves, and even when the texts themselves are cited,Glass seldom provides the ideas in them with any context.This rather ahistorical approach makes it simpler to "find"the three workings within the tradition, but leaves one lessthan fully confident that the categories are naturallyyielded by ¢w rather than projected into ¢w the texts.Especially problematic is the distinction between"co-dependent arising" and "dependent arising" (each apossible translation of the Sanskrit pratiitya-samutpaada)that Glass uses to separate the first and second workings.This distinction requires considerably stronger philologicaland historical justification than he has provided, and mighthave been more compelling philosophically if it had been setmore firmly within the context of traditional categories ofanalysis, such as the two truths or the major schoolsMadhyamaka. Glass never makes it entirely clear who, ifanyone, might actually exemplify one of these workings to theexclusion of the other. Does Nishitani represent the firstworking and Naagaarjuna the second? I am not certain thatGlass believes so, and if he does, I question whether eitherassignment can be easily justified. This, in turn, raisessuspicions about the validity of the distinction, other thanas an ideal construction that may actually be inspiredp.359by differences between Western thinkers (e.g., Heidegger andDerrida or Taylor) rather than among Buddhists themselves. Furthermore, while Glass' interweaving of Westernphilosophical terms with those of Buddhism is suggestive andinteresting, I wish he had kept the two more distinct. Forexample, his implication that the first working ofemptiness, as co-dependent arising, entails something likeHeidegger's notion of "presence" never is fully explained,and is especially puzzling whin one considersthat the affirmation of mutuality and interdependenceentailed by emptiness rarely seems to have connoted forBuddhists (especially Maadhyamikas) the "presence" ofanything like "Being" as Hediegger understands it. Also,Glass' equation of the aporeitic Naagaarjunian diatlectic ofthe second working with Derrida's or Taylor's notions of"difference" or "nothing" is unproblematic only if oneremoves the Maadhyamika texts from their religious milieu ¢wa move Glass himself, with his apprecation for "practice,"should be reluctant to make. Potentially confusing, too, ishis identification of the third working of emptiness with"essence" and the promotion of "desire," given that mostBuddhists, even theoreticians of Tathaagatagarbha, deny"essence" (aatman, svabhaava) and usually assert that"desire" (.t.rr.sna, raaga) is a major source of suffering.Glass apparently intends these words in a Deleuzian ratherthan a Buddhist sense (see pp.83 ff.) , but here, aselsewhere, the importation of crucial Western terms intoBuddhist discussions may raise more problems than it solves. Finally, Glass fails to show convincingly tha the "thirdworking" of emptiness uniquely address the affective andethical concerns he feels ae slighted to one degree oranother by the first two approaches. On the one hand, it ispossible to cite practitioners we might associate with thefirst two workings ¢w for example, Naagaarjuna, Candrakiirti,`Saantideva, Ati`sa, and Tsong kha pa ¢w for whom there is nocontradiction, but, rather, a profound harmony betweennegation and affirmation, analysis and faith, and wisdom andcompassion, leaving one to wonder whether the "logic ofnegation" of the first two workings is, in fact, as limitedas Glass suggests. On the other hand, the "essence" approachdoes not seem, ipso facto, to guarantee such virtues aspositive desire and compassionate engagement any more thanthe other workings; indeed, it often has been argued that aconcept like Tathaagatagarbha, misunderstood, may actuallylead to complacency, or even amorality, therebyshort-circuiting the "logic of subtraction" and inhibitingthe development (or, more properly, the discovery) of thepositive emotions and ethical values required forenlightenment. Like postmodern philosophers, Buddhists mayface very real conceptual and psychological problems intrying to reconcile deconstrucion with commitment, detachmentwith love, or nonfoundationalism with ethical judgment ¢w butthe claim that one perspective solves these problems whereothers do not is highly debatable.p.360 Although there are ways in which I find Glass' methodsproblematic and his argument undeveloped or unconvincing, itmust be reiterated that the perspective from which I amapproaching his analysis is essentially Buddhological, andopen to the counterargument that the standards of historicaland terminological fidelity that I am applying areinappropriate in evaluating a work of creative, postmoderntheology. There, it priate in evaluating a work of creative,postmodern theology. There, it might be argued, it is perhapsless important to adopt a reading of tradition "only if itcan be consistently supported through direct reference to thetext" than to search imaginatively for a reading that merely"does not... contradict the text" (p. 83) and opens for uspossiblities of interpretation that speak profoundly to ourown situation. The latter is the style of reading used bytheologians whom Glass admires. such as Mark Taylor, and itis, in general, Glass' style as well. To contrast these twoways of interpreting tradition, of course, implicates Glass¢w and all of us ¢w in the problem of deciding how modern (orpostmodern) Buddhist "theology"ought to be approached. Whatare its sources of authority? How are they determined? Howshould they be utilized? What should we make of differencesbetween ways in which we might use Buddhist texts and theways in which Asian Buddhists traditionally have used them?These are important a priori questions for any "Buddhistconstructive philosophy"; it is clear that Glass has thoughtabout them, but his analysis would have been more compellingif he had adddressed them more explicitly. Nevertheless, Working Emptiness remains a book well worthreading and attempting to understand. It is athought-provoking and highly creative contribution tocontemporary Buddhist thought, which, whether we agree ordisagree with Glass' methods and conclusions, stimulatesreflection on the ways in which scholars and philophersusually have understood Buddhist thought, the relationbetween Buddhist and Western ideas, and the affective andethical implications of the concept of emptiness. We only canhope that, in future works, Glass will extend, deepen, andrefine the fascinating line of analysis he has begun here.