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Nothingness and Emptiness

A Buddhist Engagement with the Ontology of Jean-Paul Sartre

Steven W. Laycock

Publication Year: 2001

Using Buddhist thought, explores and challenges the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. This sustained and distinctively Buddhist challenge to the ontology of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness resolves the incoherence implicit in the Sartrean conception of nothingness by opening to a Buddhist vision of emptiness. Rooted in the insights of Madhyamika dialectic and an articulated meditative (zen) phenomenology, Nothingness and Emptiness uncovers and examines the assumptions that sustain Sartre’s early phenomenological ontology and questions his theoretical elaboration of consciousness as “nothingness.” Laycock demonstrates that, in addition to a “relative” nothingness (the for-itself) defined against the positivity and plenitude of the in-itself, Sartre’s ontology requires, but also repudiates, a conception of “absolute” nothingness (the Buddhist “emptiness”), and is thus, as it stands, logically unstable, perhaps incoherent. The author is not simply critical; he reveals the junctures at which Sartrean ontology appeals for a Buddhist conception of emptiness and offers the needed supplement.

Published by: State University of New York Press


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pp. vii

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The Radiance of the Lotus

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pp. 1-8

The lotus, resplendent symbol of the awakened mind, exfoliates in enigma. Is it an explosion, a cosmic detonation, flinging its energy outward? Toward what? From what center? Do we rather see, not dynamism, but quiescent serenity, loveliness eternally distilled, a vision disturbed only...

1. Dancing with the Light

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pp. 9-33

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2. Light Upon Light

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pp. 35-64

The Great Way (magga) of the Buddha is marked by the dialectical astonishment of finding ourselves abruptly delivered to our very starting point. The marvel of the Other Shore is that it is not “other,” that the alterity of the alter is its seamless identity with the same. Having navigated the turbulent...

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3. Questioning Sartrean Questions

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pp. 65-82

Sartre’s explication of the nature of nothingness commences, not with consciousness, not with nihilation, not with decompression, but with the question. The present chapter seeks to uncover the source of Sartre’s theory of nothingness in ontological interrogation. Much as...

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4. Nothingness

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pp. 83-105

Standing aside from direct engagement with the object, at right angles to our live perceptual proflux, Sartre offers the guileless, but vitally ramifying observation—indeed, the fundamental conception of his ontology—that consciousness is not its object. The “is not” does not, however, mark the...

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5. Emptiness

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pp. 107-130

The aporias of Sartre’s early theory of nothingness stand forth, for us, not as the levers of dismissal, not as so many excuses for turning our backs upon a vision of immeasurable depth and subtlety, but as the faults and quagmires, the unexpected sinkholes and pitfalls, of an ontological terrain of luxuriant...

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6. Making Nothing of Something

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pp. 131-154

Nihilation—the repudiation of coincidence, the opening of an “impalpable fissure” in being (Sartre 1971, 124) which renders the “total plenitude,” the “perfect equivalence of content to container” (120), porous and lacunary— is, to risk indelicacy, an ontological fantasy. As Flynn confirms, it is “revealed...

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7. The Myth of Repletion

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pp. 155-174

A hole invites repletion. Or rather, as Sartre would amend, this invitation is issued, not of itself, but in virtue of transcendence. “An incomplete circle does not call for completion unless it is surpassed by human transcendence. In itself it is complete and perfectly positive as an open curve” (1971, 136). ...

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8. The Possibility of the Possible

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pp. 175-195

The hole needs only to have been dug. With one exception, its pluperfection, assuming the closure of a prior event of excavation, posits no further advent. Were the world flash frozen after the excavation, were all occurrence quelled, were all to lapse into breathless stillness, there would still be holes. ...


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pp. 197-209


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pp. 211-223

E-ISBN-13: 9780791490969
E-ISBN-10: 0791490963
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791449097
Print-ISBN-10: 0791449092

Page Count: 223
Publication Year: 2001