Mandala review: “Insight into Emptiness”

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This review by Daryl Dunigan was originally published in Mandala, October-December 2012.

For lovers of wisdom who explore Buddhist perspectives on the nature of reality, another exemplary resource is now available in print: the teachings on emptiness offered by Khensur Jampa Tegchok at Land of Medicine Buddha between October 2006 and December 2007 as Wisdom Publications’ Insight into Emptiness. Khensur Jampa Tegchok is amply qualified to teach this subject, having studied both at Sera Je Monastic University in Tibet before 1959 (he eventually was appointed abbot in the reestablished monastery in India) and in Varanasi where he obtained an Archarya degree. In addition to an extensive education, his teaching experience, particularly with Westerners, is similarly robust.

Translated into English by Ven. Steve Carlier and edited by Ven. Thubten Chodren, Khensur Rinpoche’s delivers an accessible and extensive instruction on Buddhist perspectives on emptiness. The teachings in Insight into Emptiness are well organized and carefully direct the reader to a thoroughgoing examination of the way the self and phenomena exist. While this presentation is articulated clearly, the sophisticated nature of the philosophy of emptiness requires the reader to become familiar with intricate concepts and technical vocabulary. Since the explanation of terms and concepts is supported with excellent examples, those who persevere in reading and contemplating the teachings will be rewarded as their familiarity with emptiness will certainly develop. Additionally, the suggestions for further reading at the end of the Insight direct readers to a trove of excellent resources to facilitate deeper understanding of the terminology and concepts present in this work.

Based in the Gelug tradition, Khensur Rinpoche’s teachings are scholastic without relying on the conventions of contemporary academic writing. Arguments and reasonings are distilled to their essential points. Citation of scripture and supporting works is present, but not overdone. Editorial notes are sparse, which helps the reader stay connected with the flow of Khensur Rinpoche’s teaching instead of experiencing the staccato rhythm of highly annotated works. In this way, Insight is a rare, highly sophisticated teaching on emptiness that is particularly well suited for practitioners who find the peripheral commentary of the modern academy cumbersome.

Khensur Rinpoche generally follows the Prasangika-Madhyamaka perspective on emptiness and dependent arising as presented by Je Tsongkhapa Lobsang Dragpa. He skillfully juxtaposes this view with that of alternate Buddhist and non-Buddhist philosophical schools in order to help students fill out their understanding. Central to this endeavor are Khensur Jampa Tegchok’s explanation of both the object of negation and the compatibility of emptiness and dependent arising. These structural threads taken from Tsongkhapa’s teachings are woven through a range of arguments to help readers attain a conceptual understanding of the conventional and ultimate truth.

Although the focus of Insight is philosophical analysis intended to help readers eliminate ignorance from their mental continuum, guided meditations are absent. Yet in addition to presenting the reasonings which form the basis of Gelug analytical meditation on emptiness, Khensur Rinpoche offers advice regarding ways to approach and engage those meditations. For example, he describes the sequence for meditating on the selflessness of persons and the selflessness of phenomena as well as the reasons for this sequence. Such practice instructions are interspersed throughout the text and could be gathered as a succinct set of teachings in their own right. In this way, Khensur Rinpoche supports students who engage emptiness through the wisdom of contemplation and the wisdom of meditation.

Khensur Jampa Tegchok’s teachings in Insight into Emptiness are an invaluable resource for students of the Buddhadharma who wish to develop a clear conceptual understanding of emptiness on the way to a direct realization of the same. Perhaps most interestingly, the quality of this book signals another step in the development of Buddhism in the West: when a highly respected Tibetan teacher is able to transmit to English speakers clearly the essential points of the Gelug presentation of emptiness, aided by serious and respected Western students who themselves have many decades of study and practice.

Original post on Mandala website.

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