Emptiness and Unknowing

An Essay in Comparative Mysticism


  • Rupert Gethin University of Bristol




mysticism, meditation, emptiness, Buddhism, apophaticism, Cūḷa-Suññata-sutta, The Cloud of Unknowing, perennialism, constructivism


Over the last fifty years the study of mysticism has been shaped by the debate between ‘perennialists’, who claim that mystical experiences are the same across different cultures, and ‘constructivists’, who claim that mystical experiences are shaped by, and hence specific to, particular religious traditions. The constructivist view is associated with the ‘discursive turn’ that has dominated the humanities for the last half century, emphasising cultural relativism. Nonetheless, the constructivist position is not without problems. Inspired in part by Lance Cousins’ 1989 comparison of Buddhaghosa’s Path of Purification and Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle, the present article seeks to bring out parallels in the contemplative exercises and the progress of the ‘spiritual life’ found in Buddhist accounts of meditation (such as the Cula-Suññata-sutta) and Christian apophaticism (as presented in The Cloud of Unknowing). The article seeks to establish specific parallels in the techniques of and approaches to contemplative practice in both traditions, as well as in the phenomenology of the experiences of the meditator (yogavacara) or contemplative at different stages in the work of meditation and contemplation.

Author Biography

  • Rupert Gethin, University of Bristol
    Rupert Gethin is Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol, where he has taught since 1987. His primary research interest is in the history and development of Indian Buddhist thought in the Pali Nikāyas and exegetical literature. He is the author of The Buddhist Path to Awakening (Brill 1992; Oneworld 2001), The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford University Press 1998), Sayings of the Buddha: A selection of suttas from the Pali Nikāyas (Oxford University Press 2008) and, with R.P. Wijeratne, Summary of the Topics of Abhidhamma and Exposition of the Topics of Abhidhamma (Pali Text Society 2002). He has also published a number of scholarly articles especially on the theory of Buddhist meditation and Abhidharma. He has been President of the Pali Text Society since 2003.


Almond, Philip C. 1990. ‘Mysticism and Its Contexts’. In The Problem of Pure Consciousness, edited by Robert K. C. Forman, 211–219. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Analayo. 2011. A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-Nikaya. 2 vols. Taipei: Dharma Drum.

Beall, Anne E. and Robert J. Sternberg. 1995. ‘The social construction of love’. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 12: 417–438. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407595123006

Cousins, L. S. 1973. ‘Buddhist Jhana: Its Nature and Attainment according to the Pali Sources’. Religion 3: 115–131. https://doi.org/10.1016/0048-721X(73)90003-1

———. 1983. ‘Pali Oral Literature’. In Buddhist Studies: Ancient and Modern, edited by P. Denwood, and A. Piatigorsky, 1–11. London: Curzon Press.

———. 1989, ‘The Stages of Christian Mysticism and Buddhist Purification: Interior Castle of St. Teresa of Ávila and the Path of Purification of Buddhaghosa’. In The Yogi and the Mystic: Studies in Indian and Comparative Mysticism, edited by Karel Werner, 103–120. London: Curzon.

Forman, Robert K. C., ed. 1990a. The Problem of Pure Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 1990b. ‘Introduction: Mysticism, Constructivism, and Forgetting’. In The Problem of Pure Consciousness, edited by Robert K. C. Forman, 3–49. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gellman, Jerome. 2017. ‘Mysticism’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/mysticism/

Hardy, Friedhelm. 1983. Viraha-Bhakti: The Early History of Krsna Devotionalism in South India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hodgson, Phyllis, ed. 1944. The Cloud of Unknowing, and The Book of Privy Counselling. London: Early English Text Society.

James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co. https://doi.org/10.1037/10004-000

Katz, Steven T., ed. 1978a. Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis. London: Sheldon Press.

———. 1978b. ‘Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism’. In Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, edited by Steven T. Katz, 22–74. London: Sheldon Press.

Marshall, Paul. 2005. Mystical Encounters with the Natural World: experiences and explanations. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/0199279438.001.0001

Palihawadana, Mahinda. 1978. ‘Is There a Theravada Buddhist Idea of Grace?’ In Christian Faith in a Religiously Plural World, edited by Donald G. Dawe, and John B. Carman, 181–195. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Ramanujan, A. K. 2014. The Interior Landscape: Classical Tamil Love Poems. New York: New York Review of Books.

Sinkewicz, Robert E. 2003. The Greek Ascetic Corpus: Evagrius of Pontus: Translation, Introduction, and Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199259939.001.0001

Smart, Ninian. 1992. ‘What Would Buddhaghosa Have Made of The Cloud of Unknowing?’ In Mysticism and Language, edited by Steven T. Katz, 103–121. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stace, W. T. 1960. Mysticism and Philosophy. London: Macmillan.

Taves, Ann. 2009. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Turner, Denys. 1995. The Darkness of God: Negativity in Early Christian Mysticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Underhill, Evelyn, ed. 1922. A Book of Contemplation the Which is Called the Cloud of Unknowing, in the Which a Soul is Oned With God. London: J. M. Watkins.

Vajirañana, Paravahera Mahathera. 1975. Buddhist Meditation in Theory and Practice: A General Exposition According to the Pali Canon of the Theravada School. Kuala Lumpur: Buddhist Missionary Society.

Wolters, Clifton. 1978. The Cloud of Unknowing, and Other Works. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Zaehner, R. C. 1957. Mysticism Sacred and Profane: An Inquiry Into Some Varieties of Praeter-Natural Experience. Oxford: Clarendon Press.




How to Cite

Gethin, R. (2018). Emptiness and Unknowing: An Essay in Comparative Mysticism. Buddhist Studies Review, 35(1-2), 81-96. https://doi.org/10.1558/bsrv.36754