First-Year Studies: The Buddhist Philosophy of Emptiness


The concept of a “thing”—a distinct entity that exists in and of itself whether or not human beings attach a name to it—is nothing but a useful fiction. In the final analysis, there are no such things as “things.” This, in a nutshell, is the startling proposition advanced by the Buddhist doctrine of sunyata  or “emptiness,” as the Sanskrit term is usually translated. Often misconstrued by critics as a form of nihilism (“nothing exists”), idealism (“it is all in the mind”), or skepticism (“we cannot know anything with certainty”), the emptiness doctrine is better interpreted as a radical critique of the fundamental conceptual categories that we habitually use to talk about and make sense of the world. This course has several specific aims. The first is to impart a clear, accurate understanding of the emptiness doctrine, as it developed in the context of Buddhist intellectual history and found expression in various genres of classical Buddhist literature. The second is to engage in serious criticism and debate concerning the “truth” of the doctrine: Is it merely an article of Buddhist faith, or does it also stand up to the standards of logical consistency and empirical verification that have been established in Western traditions of philosophy and science? The third aim of the course is to explore ways in which the emptiness doctrine, if taken seriously as a critique of the mechanisms and inherent limitations of human knowledge, might impact a variety of contemporary academic disciplines. More generally, the course is designed to help first-year students gain the kind of advanced analytical, research, and writing skills that will serve them well in whatever areas of academic study they may pursue in the future. Both in class and in conference work, students will be encouraged to apply the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness in creative ways to whatever fields in the humanities, social sciences, or sciences that interest them.