Lecture by Michel Bitbol

Date: 15th September 2021

Speaker of the day: Michel Bitbol

Article: Varela, “The phenomenology of Śūnyatā. I.”

Keywords: śūnyatā, openness, practice, phenomenological reduction, non-findability, other



In the beginning of the lecture Michel Bitbol illustrates the background and development of the article which shares many similarities (and some differences) with Natalie Depraz’s book On Becoming Aware: A Pragmatics of Experiencing. Depraz played a key role in making of this article, especially when it comes to Husserl’s terminology. Article itself shows us that academic works of Varela were never separated from his spiritual research.

In the beginning of the paper Varela addresses the problematic translation of the word śūnyatā, which is broadly translated as emptiness. Deriving from etymology, Varela much prefers using the word openness. Correct understanding or rendering of the meaning of śūnyatā comes from experience, it acts as a dimension of openness. Bitbol emphasizes that śūnyatā can be understood only in practice and qua practice.

Next, Bitbol presents how Varela wants to articulate the phenomenology of śūnyatā: how its manifestation relates to practice. For śūnyatā must always be understood as mode of being. If one does not engage in its practice, no evidence will follow, and all further investigation will turn into speculation. Bitbol emphasises that one simply cannot just read about śūnyatā or put differently: the analysis of the bottom of the experience is not situated outside the fact of experiencing it.

In effort to obtain these results, one needs phenomenological categories. Without them, any practice would be blind, inexpressible. This is based on Kant’s model: “thoughts without content are vacuous, intuitions without concepts are blind”. If one does not do that, then one is left with experience of wild mystics. It is necessary to enter into dialogue with phenomenology, to awaken instability of our position. That way one puts oneself to the path of śūnyatā. Therefore, we can say that phenomenological reduction is equivalent to śūnyatā.

Furthermore, Bitbol stresses the most important aspect of śūnyatā, that is the lack of own-being of the self (or even things). The key point is realization that nature of the self is precisely its non-findability. Once this stage is successfully established/reached (through three steps of śamatha, vipaśyanā and prajñā), one examines the status of the other. From this we can recognize notions of intersubjectivity, engagement in society and therefore teachings on ethical attitude.

Experience must be understood as the common ground of all appearances. The ground is neither private (personal) nor it is external. It contains intersubjectivity and all the traits of materiality. This is what Varela emphasises the most: cittamatrins and Husserl’s transcendental turn should not be interpreted as an adherence to idealism.

Bitbol also explains why there is number one in the title of Varela’s article. Varela wanted to write a second part in which he would present different angles of śūnyatā. In part one the meaning of śūnyatā is understood as the absence of substantial identity, a via negativa. It’s about losing the illusion of one’s being of the self. In the second part Varela would have considered via positiva – a manifestation of śūnyatā as such.

Towards the end of the presentation, Bitbol discusses a recent paper by Odysseus Stone and Dan Zahavi Phenomenology and Mindfulness. The authors criticise Varela’s efforts to introduce Buddhism into phenomenology (and science). They offer two arguments against it. (1) Mindfulness qua central practice or qua component of meditation is ill-defined and can hardly bear the comparison with phenomenology. (2) Phenomenology is a philosophical/theoretical discipline uniquely concerned with the ‘mind-world’ correlation, thereby differing from any Buddhist-inspired practice. Bitbol disagrees with them and points out that their paper is based on a very narrow conception of phenomenology and misapprehension of the latest development of it; especially considering latest developments related to Husserl’s unpublished thoughts.

In conclusion Bitbol once again emphasises on the importance of practice, which Varela vehemently advocated for in this paper. He displays a quote from Eugen Fink (student of Husserl): ‘’The foundation of a philosophy is the original beginning of the philosopher.’’ One cannot do philosophy without following its path.


1) Sebastjan Vörös: Evan, could you jump in some of these reflections on science, phenomenology and Buddhism, and maybe say a bit more about why you are not a Buddhist and how this might tie to our today’s talk?

Evan Thompson: It would be interesting to know how much Varela would have changed up to this day – 20, 30 years later. I want to distinguish between the time Varela wrote this paper and where we are now. My own thinking has changed a lot from the time we wrote The Embodied Mind. I see several questions/problems that reading this paper now raises. One of these is the particular way that Francisco is rendering Buddhism; that is through a particular lineage of Tibetan Buddhism – to the philosophical interpretation (emptiness being absolute ground of phenomena – which many Buddhists might reject). If Varela was here today, I would want to raise a question of fetishization of practice. Practice has this special status that can decide these issues for us apart from a larger philosophical context and that is something that this paper is not particularly sensitive to.

Michel Bitbol: On Varela’s persistence on his sunyata II description – the ground of being. It is not really in our past, it is part of a debate that has been present in Tibetan Buddhism for centuries. I do not think one side has the final word. Varela’s decision for a certain standpoint could as well be taken today. Our historical standpoint does not change much.

Evan: I think that is a very important point. It’s clearly a very difficult aporia in the evolution of Buddhism. We cannot just say, let’s leave it at that, because Varela was also a scientist. A statement like this makes very strong metaphysical assumptions. We need to keep that in our sight.

Sebastjan: For me, it is very interesting to see how there are many spin offs of Varela’s works. Evan, you distanced yourself from this at a certain level – I understand that and I am curious how these different constellations are compatible.

Andreas Weber: This is related to my constant surprise on what I discovered many years after working with Francisco. Now I see that his work, to a much greater extent, contains a spiritual dimension. And, in the opposite direction of yours, Evan, I find it to be more revolutionary. His emphasis on practice was actually working on that part of ourselves, constantly being in the openness. It ia something more profound than practice – it is almost mystical. He knew this and was fascinated by Husserl because of the connecting points of this source of being. I find it really refreshing how he incorporated this in the scientific process.

Natalie Depraz: I would say that this paper was written in a very special context. He was really speaking from his guts, it was the core of what he wrote at that time. Maybe this paper would have been written differently if he was not in this specific personal situation. What we can learn from this is that we are not always aware, and maybe this paper shows us a way to write in a truly embodied way, something that we do not do in our everyday life.

[In reply to Evan]: Does it have to be opposed to another view? Do we have to think about things in opposing matters? Could we understand philosophy in another way, as cooperation instead of opposition? I think Varela did that in this text.

Sebastjan: In my PhD, I was writing on mystical experience. And of course, a reaction to that are two opposing sides. One claims that there is such a thing as a mystical experience, while the other claims that this is false and says that the context in which experience develops is crucial. I get the impression that some people who have a ‘’preferred’’ way of thinking have issues when they hear that the phenomenologists are about to explore experience.

Michel: It is important to understand the mode of communication used by the mystics. The words in mystical texts are meant to favour recognition of someone else who had a similar experience – recognition that indeed they are speaking of something similar. This recognition cannot be formalized. It is a singular meeting between two minds through words. If Master Eckhart immediately recognized the words from Dionysius, it is valid what he discovered, because there is no other criteria.

Sebastjan: The mystical saying is the art of unsaying. The Buddhist non-self.

2) Timotej Prosen: There seems to be some tension between the emphasis Varela makes here on the mutability or unfindability of the self, and his notions of autonomy and sense-making. These earlier notions remain committed to some degree to the identity of cognitive selves – it is the maintenance of such a bounded identity that defines living beings and their cognitive milieu. Is this position incompatible with the processual nature of selfhood that Varela adopts from Buddhism, or can we look for a more fundamental congeniality beyond the alleged difference in orientation?

Michel: It seems to me that Varela did not see any discrepancies. There is a conception of self that is not substantial; this self-production and dependent arising are in formal agreement in Buddhist traditions.

Timotej: Where Varela speaks about letting go of any kind of stability, it sounds as if he is going in another direction. You could argue that both his previous notions and this approach abandoned substantial account of the self. But I think that there is a discrepancy in adopting any kind of stable identity, even if it is constructed by the processual inter-dynamics, or whether one goes in the direction of process of open-ended transformation.

Michel: I do not think that there is a discrepancy. Sartre, for example, insists that in order to maintain our ego, and to maintain that our ego is dealing with the external world, we have to take permanent effort, and sometimes this effort collapses; it is then when you realize that the ego was constructed, and that the world that is deemed to be external is constituted in the continuum of experience. Besides these spontaneous realizations, Sartre advocates for us to practice on this kind of insight.

Natalie: I think that there are two different levels of this practice. If you are situated on the level of concepts, you might encounter some contradictions. But if you dwell on the experiential level, you will gradually see these oppositions from more than one perspective. One step into the practice, your mind will be made of oppositions; on the next step, experience will become porous – it will not disappear completely, but will become more fluid. You will be able to see the process. Both levels are okay.

3) Annika Lübbert: I want to know more about the reasons for practicing what you preach in the context of contemporary science. What are the arguments for cooperation and synergy, and what are the inhibitors of these in your (Natalie’s) research? Also, on the matter of dividing the conceptual level from the spiritual/experiential one, I think that we need some concepts that do not create this difference.

Natalie: Concepts are indeed very useful – it is important to keep them. [On the cooperation]: I know that Amy (Varela) very often refers to the work of Hanna de Jaegher on participatory sense-making; I understand it as a take on the way of philosophizing, centering on the interaction that takes place in our debates.

4) Evan: Participatory sense-making is an umbrella concept for how we, through a range of practices and discourses make sense with and through each other. This connects back to Antoine Lutz’s presentation; Francisco saw neurophenomenology as the pragmatics of 4E cognitive science to investigate into consciousness; it is also an attempt to create new cooperative and synergistic concepts (and methods and practices). There are, however, some impediments to it that I’ve mentioned last time. If you are trying to work with it in an institutional framework of science, it will be a massively difficult undertake. Impediment is deeper, still: the ethics of knowledge. Given that knowledge is infinite and we’re finite, what is it that is really important for us to know? Phenomenology of śūnyatā is all about different modes of knowing. But you can arrive at that idea through many different paths.

5) John Protevi: As we are all faced with publish-and-perish, what is it that we are using our time for in our research? Can we ever hope to make a contribution? [The question I wanted to ask the group]: There seems to be a phenomenological, conceptual (subject, object) way of reaching experience – or absolute experience. Francisco also talks about reaching a stage in which spontaneous compassion can accompany your everyday life. I wonder what the connection is between conceptual and affective tone?

Michel: What I can gather from all the works of Francisco – the general logic when it comes to relation between knowledge and ethics: In order to reach an ethical level, you have to get past the passion for dualities and the attempts to conceptualize the domain of objects which is typical for scientific research. Also, there might be hints within scientific research itself to release standard frameworks of concepts that prevent you from letting go. There is this wonderful balance between the catalytic power of certain scientific or philosophical research and the end result that is beyond such research.