Thinking about emptiness might seem like a misguided approach to spiritual practice or perhaps just a poor use of one’s time. But that is exactly what was advocated by the Indian philosophers who developed Abhidharma, Madyamika, and Yogācāra. As Buddhist scholar William S. Waldron points out in his work, these developments were merely a further elaboration of the Buddha’s own logical schema in helping us to dissect and divest from our presumptions and delusions.
Waldron is a professor of religion at Middlebury College where he teaches courses on the various South Asian and Tibetan religious traditions, comparative psychologies and philosophies of mind, and theory and method in the study of religion. In his own writings, Waldron specializes in Yogācāra, a school of thought developed between the 3rd and 4th centuries CE which would go on to widely influence the development of Zen in China. Its source texts, in fact, are still required reading for anyone seeking to understand shunyata, or emptiness—a core concept in all Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhisms.
In February 2020, Waldron led a retreat on Yogācāra at Zen Mountain Monastery and sat down with us afterwards for this far-ranging conversation. The emphasis of the retreat was looking at Yogācāra as a rich and incisive means of excavating our conditioned biases. Although Waldron sees this aim echoed and validated by other fields—from depth psychology to evolutionary biology to the sociology of discrimination—he points out that the Buddhist tradition in which Yogācāra is situated, couples analytical tools with embodied practice, making it more holistic and therefore more effective in bringing about realization and transformation.
In the interview he talks about the relationship between insight and prajna, or non-dual wisdom, and how modern fields of study can be helpful in putting such insights to use. “This is the whole point of the Mahayana,” he says. “We step out of the experience of non-dualism or thusness… and we come back [due to] compassion and insight. With discernment we find ways to communicate compassionately in the dependently arising world. And this is what our commitment is: using our best practices, so to speak, to alleviate suffering. And I think this is the larger rationale for why in fact we need to engage with all the scientific findings in the social sciences. We need to find whatever alleviates suffering and ignorance. And these are the skillful means in this day and age.”
We hope you enjoy the conversation.
Music in this episode:
“Long Slide” by Paul Stokes
“Montreal” by Kaki King