Sunday, May 13, 2007

Emptiness and compassion

So what is the root of compassion?

I recently ran across Budding Buddhist, a relatively new blog, and I was impressed by the sincerity and openness with which the author ponders some fairly important questions. In particular, there are two posts which inspired me to write my own thoughts on the topic of emptiness and compassion. It is one of those insights that is all at once profoundly simple yet amazingly difficult because of our accrued attachments - because of the barriers we create for ourselves and the problems we conjure to impede us. I imagine from the perspective of a realized Buddha we must look something like a mime in our imaginary boxes, banging and pressing against the walls as we go about our quest to be liberated from our self-made prisons.

From the post Sunyata we read:
I started my exploration of sunyata after reading an excerpt from Bodhi magazine (Vol. 8, No. 3) in Buddhadharma's Spring 2007 issue. There's an article there by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche called "Emptiness First, Then Compassion." He writes:

When we try to practice compassion without the view of egolessness, or emptiness, we are often not really helping because we ourselves are so confused. Our own lack of clarity only produces further confusion. If we have an idea that we think will help someone, it is usually based on our own interpretation of what we think they require or want. We are not looking at their situation from their point of view. Instead of giving them what they truly need, we give what we think they need. There is a difference between the two. Furthermore, we have value judgments about how they should accept our help, and so we "help"them further by imposing conditions and guidelines.

Compassion and loving-kindness that is free from ego clinging allows us to see the suffering of others from their own perspective. We can see beyond our own ideas and beliefs. We can see what they need from their point of view, and we can apply our own wisdom at the same time. with this more open and clear view, we can see more realistically what will meet their actual needs and be truly beneficial.

I do understand what he is saying. However, for myself, I come to the idea of egoless compassion and loving-kindness through my attempts to broaden my ability to be compassionate.

And from the post Form/Emptiness -
"Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form; form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form"
-Heart Sutra

I have been slowly studying the Heart Sutra. This (quote) I get. Still, I wonder at the idea of placing understanding emptiness before compassion. Can one not understand and practice ego-less compassion without having understood Sunyata?

{emphasis added}

I can relate. I also pondered that quote from the Heart Sutra early on in my practice and blogging and it really is still an unfolding lesson to this day. I do not write here presuming I am telling the author of Budding Buddha or anyone else something new or impressive. As always, this is just a record of a shared exploration. The "you" references are all generic unless one feels something speaks to them personally - in that case I am speaking directly to you.

If we still subconsciously or overtly think of people in terms of discrete entities, that even attempts to "help" will be rooted in those misconceptions. This can occur at many levels. Imagine, for example, if someone has a flat tire. You ask if you can lend a hand, and the person ignores you. Or flips you off. Or maybe the person accepts your offer but criticizes you and needles you about the poor job you are doing the whole time. When rooted in duality, you might get angry. How dare this person not appreciate the "help" you so kindly offered. You expect a reward, even if only an acknowledgment that you spoke at all, let alone offered assistance. The interaction is not truly selfless.

Nor does it matter if the interaction is a conventional offer of help. All sentient beings are suffering beings, and someone walking the path of a Bodhisattva must engage them all. The help they need isn’t just fixing a flat or a nutritious meal (though such things are not inconsequential), but awakening from the delusion of separation and loss. So, if we perceive emptiness, which is part and parcel of no-self, nirvana, dependent co-arising, and the other fundamental Buddhist principles, then we realize that all actions that are truly selfless (and hence recognize our fundamental unity) are beneficial. With no strings. No expectations or required results. An open and spacious heart with room for all – no discrimination – from that one can not help but give rise to boundless compassion.

To cite a previous elaboration on this concept –
I think this might be good for some folks who get tripped up by the whole self/no-self discussion. This can be further distinguished by attitude. There is a difference between "I ought to/have to be nice to this person" and "I get to be nice to this person." When compassion, generosity, loving-kindness, mindfulness, etc. seems like an obligation, that is the ego-centric view (i.e. self, selfish mind). When these things seem like an opportunity, that is the other-centric view (i.e. no-self, selfless). Nor does this mean that you must de-value yourself. You are included in the "other" of the other-centric view, you just aren't THE main focus.

Of course, if it still isn't clear, here is an example that I think really makes it clear. Imagine you are standing (or sitting) near a set of steps. Really imagine you are there and seeing what I describe. A very pretty, sweet young woman, who happens to be blind and pregnant, is walking down the steps with a large bag of groceries. Tick-tack-tack-tick-tick-tack-tack-tick goes her cane. Then she stumbles and the groceries go flying. She tumbles down the stairs and crashes to the bottom...

What would be your reaction? Do you pause or hesitate? Do you think about yourself? Do you consider whether or not to help her? I am going to bet that most of you would simply run (or wheel yourself) right over to her as fast as you could and ask if she is alright. You would offer to get some additional help if she needs it and would likely help gather up her groceries. No hesitation. You would just spring into action. Just like that. That is no-self, the selfless mind, the other-centered view. The difference between a regular person and a Buddha/Bodhisattva is this: They would have the same reaction if they saw the guy that just cut them off/flipped them off in rush hour traffic sitting by the side of the road with a blowout and no spare. They would have the same reaction if a convicted murderer was scared and alone before his execution. That is, I personally believe (and obviously take that for what it is or isn't worth), the expression of Bodhi mind.

Of course, as the original author of the comments that inspired this writing suggests, the eightfold path is not linear. By acting in a selfless way, even if we don’t feel like it, we open our hearts, and by opening our hearts we are motivated to act in a selfless way.

I'll close with a quote that speaks well to the issue -

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.
-Lilla Watson, aboriginal activist


  1. Wow. Some interesting stuff here. It took me a while to think, and some good conversation with my other half, but I think I may understand what you are saying. A Bodhisattva view requires no-mind, in the sense that the desire to engage, to help, to extend compassion, must spring to "mind" instinctually, without the "self," or the ego, getting in the way. "One" must avoid the desire for reward - with this I wholeheartedly agree, and attempt to put into daily practice. Similarly, placing arbitrary limitations on how to engage - or with whom - limits ourselves and our own growth.

  2. Hello. Thanks for actually reading my jumble of thoughts.

    Speaking of, another point I wasn't as explicit about was made clear by someone commenting on your blog, is that "understanding" emptiness isn't about the intellectual exercise (though there are many interesting philosophical implications) but about understanding with the heart. When someone talks of perceiving, knowing, etc, in Buddhism, that's generally how I take it/intend it. After all, Hui Neng, the 6th Ancestor of Chan ("Zen") was an illiterate bumpkin from the south, and one of the Buddha's successful students was mentally challenged.

    BTW, if you haven't read it, I really thought that the Dalai Lama's book on the Heart Sutra was very good.

  3. I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

    Actually, I curbed my comments because my other half thought he might comment. He is snowed under at the moment, but the gist of his ideas is interesting to me and echo what I did write. He brought up the Book of the Five Rings and in particular Miyamoto Musashi's counsel to swordsmen to practice constantly, the ideal end result of this being a state of no-mind when the swordsman is engaged. With ceaseless practice the sword will move itself, without hesitation. Perhaps a Bodhisattva mind would move in a similar fashion with all beings it interacts with - instantly and without the conscious mind's hesitation.

    I do wholly understand the concept of perceiving an understanding from the heart, I think. I appreciate what you have to say here.

    (Oh, and the Dalai Lama's book is actually going to end up in my hands soon. I look forward to reading it and thank you for the suggestion.)


Hello! Thanks for leaving a comment.

Everything but spam and abusive comments are welcome. Logging in isn't necessary but if you don't then please "sign" at the end of your comment. You can choose to receive email notifications of new replies to this post for your convenience, and if you find it interesting don't forget to share it. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...