The women in my head

Emptiness is a big thing for many Buddhists.  I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek because the title for the essay I’m working on is “disengaging things.”  It’s about how Buddhist philosophers say that we live in a world of constant change in which no entity exists on its own, permanently and separately; yet, they talk about mindfulness, emptiness, and buddhanature, to name a few, as if they were such things.

Nāgārjuna was an Indian philosopher and Buddhist monk who lived in the second century of the Common Era.  His influence on the development of Buddhism is comparable to that of St. Augustine on Western Christianity, or Ibn Sīnā on Islamic philosophy.  Many Buddhists associate Nāgārjuna with the idea of emptiness.  Nāgārjuna wrote in cryptic verses and I’m still trying to figure him out. I am fairly confident, however, that he would disown most of the ways “emptiness” is used today as prapañca, the Sanskrit word for reification, i.e., thing-making.

As long time readers of this blog may remember, I am exploring the dynamic of open-close-open.  One idea I’ve wanted to develop is that a better word for “empty” in the Buddhist context is “open.”  Imagine my surprise, then, when I recently found out that I am not the first person to think of this.  Nancy McCagney explores this idea in her book Nāgārjuna and the Philosophy of Openness.  Not only did I want to read it, I was excited by the prospect of communicating with her and learning more about her approach.  Much to my disappointment a Google search revealed that she had died in 2013.

For some reason my inability to communicate with Nancy McCagney started me thinking about the fact that much of the reading that has gone into my scribbling since Laura’s death has been written by women.  Carol Newsom’s works on selfhood and the Book of Job introduced me to Elaine Scarry’s study of pain, the theologies of Simone Weil and Dorothee Soelle, and the philosophy of Martha Nussbaum.  My disagreements with Scarry led me to study how she misrepresents Virginia Woolf’s magnificent essay “On Being Ill.” Nussbaum’s inquiry into Aristotle brought me back to Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on the same subject of the role of imagining in how we learn and how we feel.

On a different track, Caroline Moorehead’s story of the women in the French Resistance shipped to Auschwitz led me to the writings of Charlotte Delbo, with her profound meditations on pain, suffering, and sisterhood.  Barbara Ehrenreich and Gayle Sulik provided an intellectual framework for me better to appreciate Laura’s instinctive resistance to phony pink hope.

In the early months after Laura died, Joan Halifax defined grief for me as being “pregnant with an absence.”  Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel used the image of hanging off a rock cliff to bring all my fear of heights into facing the abyss that had opened in my life.  Joan Didion helped me look into my own magical thinking about Laura’s death, which became a pursuit of the journey of Orpheus to bring back Eurydice.  Later Joan Didion helped me understand what I was doing when I wrote about the experience of Laura’s illness.

Two scholars with whose works I am engaging in my current project to “disengage things” are Sue Hamilton, who unfortunately seems to have stopped writing after the death of her husband, and Laura P. Guerrero, who fortunately is just getting started on her academic career.

I didn’t pick all these writers and thinkers because they were women.  There was no program I was following.  It just happened this way.  I did read a lot of men, too.  It just struck me as I thought about the bad fortune of Nancy McCagney’s untimely death that I had been fortunate in having all these other mentors.


Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition: A Study of the Central Dilemmas Facing Modern Man. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1959.

Delbo, Charlotte. “Who Will Carry the Word?” Translated by Cynthia Haft. In Robert Skloot, ed., The Theatre of the Holocaust, Volume 1: Four Plays. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

_____________. Auschwitz and After. Translated by Rosette C. Lamont. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

_____________. Convoy to Auschwitz: Women of the French Resistance. Translated by Carol Cosman. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.

_____________. Une scène jouée dans la memoire; Qui rapportera ces paroles? Aigues-Vives: HB Éditions, 2001.

Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Vintage International, 2007.

__________. Blue Nights. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009.

Guerrero, Laura P. “Truth for the Rest of Us: Conventional Truth in the Work of Dharmakīrti.” Ph.D. Dissertation. Alburquerque, NM: University of New Mexico, 2013.

Halifax, Joan, “On Grief and Buddhism,” Podcast of talk recorded on May 26, 2010.

Hamilton, Sue. “Anattā: A Different Approach,” The Middle Way 70, no. 1 (May 1995): 47-60.

___________.   Identity and Experience: The Constitution of the Human Being According to Early Buddhism. Oxford, UK: Luzac Oriental, 1996.

___________.   Early Buddhism: A New Approach. The I of the Beholder. London: Routledge, 2000.

___________. Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction.   New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Mattis-Namgyel, Elizabeth. “Open Stillness,” Tricycle 20, no. 2 (Winter 2010): 36-38.

Moorehead, Caroline. A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Newsom, Carol A. The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

______________. The Self as Symbolic Space: Constructing Identity and Community at Qumran. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Aristotle’s De Motu Animalium. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

_________________. Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Soelle, Dorothee. Suffering. Translated by Everett R. Kalin. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1975.

_____________. Beyond Mere Obedience. Translated by Lawrence W. Denef. New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1982.

_____________. The Mystery of Death. Translated by Nancy and Martin Lukens-Rumscheidt. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

Sulik, Gayle A. Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Weil, Simone. Waiting for God. Translated by Emma Crawford. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

___________. Gravity and Grace. Translated by Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr. New York: Routledge Classics, 2002.

___________. The Notebooks of Simone Weil. Translated by Arthur Wills. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Woolf, Virginia. On Being Ill: with Notes from Sick Rooms by Julia Stephen. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 2012.



  1. Yes, I share Karen’s response. I value following the track of your reading, so thank you for both the bibliography and the reflection.

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