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The Cult of Emptiness

The Cult of Emptiness – The Western Discovery of Buddhism and the Invention of Oriental Philosophy

by Urs App

The Cult of Emptiness
Wil (Switzerland) / Paris: UniversityMedia, 2012 / 2014. 304 pages. ISBN 978-3-906000-09-1 (hardcover); 
978-3-906000-12-1 (paperback).

Whereas the discovery by Europeans of the continents of our earth has been the subject of countless studies and its protagonists (such as Columbus) are universally known, research on the European discovery of our globe’s “spiritual continents” – its religions and philosophies – is still in its infancy.

The Christian West’s discovery of Asia’s largest religion and fount of philosophies, Buddhism, is a case in point: though it triggered one of the most significant and influential spiritual and cultural encounters in world history, even the most basic questions remain unanswered. What did Europeans first learn about Buddhist thought? When and where did this discovery take place and who was involved in it? What kind of Buddhism did they study, how did they understand or misunderstand it, and what were the repercussions of such discoveries in Europe?

Based on a wide range of sources in European and Asian languages, Urs App – the author of The Birth of Orientalism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010) – identifies the protagonists of the first Western encounter with Buddhism and shows how their interpretation of Buddhist doctrines led to the invention of a single “Oriental philosophy” reigning from Egypt to Japan: an atheist philosophy anchored in “nothingness” and “emptiness” that was revealed by the Buddha to his closest disciples on his deathbed. Leading thinkers of the Enlightenment came to regard this philosophy as the most ancient form of atheism, the ancestor of Greek philosophy, the precursor of Spinoza, and the fount of mysticism as well as countless heresies including monism, pantheism, quietism, and gnosticism.

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Encountering Buddhism

Based on sources in many languages, Urs App’s The Cult of Emptiness is the first extensive study of the earliest stage of the West’s encounter with Buddhist thought.

Around the middle of the sixteenth century, missionaries in Japan began to inform themselves systematically about Buddhism and showed particular interest in concepts such as “nothingness” and “emptiness.” Their writings, and subsequently those of missionaries in China and Vietnam, mark the beginning of a momentous encounter of Eastern and Western philosophies that, though almost five centuries old, has still barely begun.

Focusing on the crucial formative period from the mid-16th century to the beginning of the 18th century, this book shows how the Western discovery of Buddhism began in Japan. App describes and documents the impact of early Jesuit understandings of Zen Buddhist doctrine on the formation of Western ideas about Buddhism, some of which persist to this day.

“This book presents a completely new vision of Europe’s discovery of Buddhism and for the first time describes the protagonists and most influential sources of the early phase of this momentous encounter between East and West” Introduction

The Cult of Emptiness is a model of scholarly detective work… For all who have a serious interest in the intellectual history of the Western engagement with Asian religions it should be considered an essential text.”
Prof. Matthew Kapstein, Chicago U. and École Pratique des Hautes Études Paris, book review in History of Religions, May 2015

“A most fascinating book … App traces Western awareness of Buddhist doctrinal ideas to the 16th [sic!] century, when missionaries encountered Zen Buddhists in Japan, and demonstrates how over the next few centuries these encounters and others spawned an awareness of philosophical / doctrinal systems outside of the European tradition. The story of what indeed was known and how that knowledge was used and manipulated is absolutely amazing.” 
Prof. Jonathan Silk, Leiden University

“Invaluable for scholars who wish to understand the intellectual history behind the study of Asian religions in the West..” 
Stephen C. Berkwitz, Missouri State University, book review in Religion 43:3, 2013

“I just bought a copy of “The Cult of Emptiness”–it’s an absolutely fascinating book, a real gem. I am learning so much from it.” 
Stanley Weinstein, Prof. emeritus of Buddhist Studies, Yale

“Urs App’s The Cult of Emptiness is an exceptionally well-researched piece of historical scholarship, one which should be considered by all those interested in the history of the West’s encounter with Eastern ‘religions’, and indeed offers precious insight to those interested in the European philosophical debates of the seventeenth century.” 
Prof. Fabio Gironi, book review on