Being and Emptiness:
Buddhist Perspectives on Compassion

World religions scholar Ruben Habito traces the development of a key concept underlying Buddhist thought on the compassionate life: the ultimate emptiness of reality.
by Ruben L. F. Habito

When Gautama Siddhartha "woke up" beneath the bodhi tree one May night long ago, he set in motion a view of reality that for thousands of years has sustained the adherents of Buddhism in a life characterized by compassion. Here, Ruben Habito traces the development of a key concept underlying Buddhist thought on the compassionate life: the ultimate emptiness of reality.
The enlightenment experience of Gautama Siddhartha (463-383 BCE), who came to be known as the Buddha (the "Awakened One"), is the origin of the multiplicity of religious traditions classified under the heading of "Buddhism." The experience of enlightenment is said to have opened the Buddha to the wisdom of "seeing things just as they are." This awakening has also been described as a realization of the interconnectedness of all beings.
Gautama, the Awakened One, is also called "the Compassionate One," one "whose being is compassion itself." A significant question that arises in this regard concerns the connection between the experience of "awakening" and the mode of living characterized by compassion. Buddhists throughout the ages have sought to give expression to this wisdom of "seeing things as they are." These expressions are enshrined in their scriptures, which describe what constitutes an awakened view of reality. Here we will take three Buddhist texts, one each from India, China, and Japan, from different epochs, to give us a clue as to this view of reality, and how it relates to a life of compassion.
The Fair Tree
Sunyata, or "emptiness," is the key term used to describe ultimate reality, the truth of "things as they are." Below is a passage ascribed to the Indian thinker Saraha, written around the 11th or 12th century. It lays out the connection between a view of reality characterized by Emptiness, and the life of compassion that this view brings about. The passages below center on the false distinction between Nirvana, the extinguishing of all desire and individual consciousness, the final state beyond all suffering, and Samsara, the endless cycles of birth, suffering and death, ruled by karma, the force generated by our negative actions and lack of enlightenment.
As Nirvana, so is Samsara. Do not think there is any distinction. Yet it possesses no single nature, for I know it as quite pure.
Do not sit at home, do not go to the forest. But recognize mind wherever you are. When one abides in complete and Perfect Enlightenment, where is Samsara, and where is Nirvana?...
"This is my self, and this is another." Be free of this bond which encompasses you about, and your own self is thereby released....
The fair tree of Emptiness abounds with flowers, acts of compassion of many kinds. And fruit for others appearing spontaneously, for this joy has no actual thought of another...
Not to be helpful to others, not to give to those in need - this the fruit of Samsara. Better than this is to renounce the idea of a self.
One who clings to Emptiness and neglects Compassion does not reach the highest stage. But one who practices only Compassion does not gain release from the toils of existence.
However, one who is strong in the practice of both, remains neither in Samsara nor in Nirvana.
The above passages are a classic statement of a nondual view of reality. First, the statement, "As is Nirvana, so is Samsara," is a cornerstone of much Buddhist thought, negating the opposition between what is regarded as the ultimate reality and the everyday, mundane reality of this world. At the heart of this negation is the affirmation of the reality of Emptiness. From the standpoint of perfect enlightenment, Nirvana and Samsara are both empty: "Where is Samsara and where is Nirvana?" A correlation to Western religious thought might be: "Where is the Profane and where is the Sacred?" The distinction between the two realms disappears when the reality of Emptiness is apprehended.
Secondly, the realization of Emptiness frees one from the bonds imposed by the notion of "my self" as opposed to "another self." Thus released from this delusive notion of separation, one's life abounds in acts of compassion, "appearing spontaneously, for this joy has no actual thought of another."
Thirdly, however, if Emptiness becomes merely another notion or idea (that is, as opposed to "Somethingness," for example, or "being,") then it becomes, as Saraha notes elsewhere, a tree "without shoots or flowers or foliage," that is, without compassion.
Fourthly, to cling to one pole (nirvana) or the other (samsara) is to neglect compassion. In other words, attachment to the notion of Emptiness leads one to think that there is nobody suffering, nobody to save from suffering, and thus compassion is neglected. On the other hand, attachment to the notion of being, namely, thinking that there are suffering beings who need to be saved, hinders one's release from the toils of existence. Thus, "better than this is to renounce the idea of self" (as well as "non-self"), and be strengthened in the life grounded in Emptiness and Compassion.
In short, the realization of the truth of Emptiness is the renunciation of the deluded notion of "my self" as opposed to "other selves," and is what enables the cultivation of the "fair tree…that abounds with flowers" - a life that bears fruits in acts of compassion.
The Net of Jewels
This link between Emptiness and life in the phenomenal world is a question that occupied Chinese Buddhist thinkers, notably the Tiantai Great Master Zhi-yi (538-597), the Huayan master Fa zang (643-712), and their followers. The way that a view of reality as Emptiness gives rise to a life of compassion was addressed in the context of the grandiose metaphysical systems these schools developed, expounding a nondual view of reality. In their own distinctive ways, the Tiantai and the Huayan schools lay out a vision that can be described as "one-in-all, all-in-one." The Tiantai school offers an image of a mutual interpenetration of the realms of existence, whereas the Huyan makes use of the imagery of "Indra's net," wherein each eye of the net is a unique jewel that reflects all the other.
A short passage from the Mo ho zhi guan ("The Great Calming of the Mind"), gives us an idea of this approach:
Question: Why does the Bodhisattva, who has attained the realm of the Unborn, get born (again in this earthly realm)?
Answer: Truly, it is because there is no ceasing of the cycle of birth of all sentient beings caught in defilements, and because of this, in the Bodhisattva there arises great compassion, and manifesting oneself as being born out of one's own free will, strives to deliver them from this cycle.
The "realm of the unborn" is no other than the realm of Emptiness, the realization of which frees one from the cycle of birth and death, and assures entry into nirvana. And yet in this passage, the Bodhisattva, a Buddha-to-be, who has already attained this realm, is described as not remaining there, but rather, moved by great compassion, choosing to be born into this cycle of birth and death, in order to deliver sentient beings from it. In other words, the Bodhisattva is one who is born on this earth not out of "the desires of flesh and blood," but out of the power of great compassion, with a will toward the deliverance of sentient beings from their suffering.
One who has realized Emptiness then, is not one who thereby disappears from this world, nor one who ceases to be concerned with matters relating to the earthly realm. Such a person remains fully immersed in the world, but does so not because of any attachment to the lures of this phenomenal realm, but out of great compassion, to show sentient beings the way to deliverance from their sufferings in this realm.
Identity and Kinship
Dogen (1200-1253), the founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan, began his religious search early in life, spurred by the experience of the death of his parents. Led on to China to seek answers to the basic questions of life and death he was struggling with, he is said to have had a deep experience of enlightenment under the guidance of the Chinese Chan Master Ru jing (1163-1228). Dogen's teachings are enshrined in a collection of his sermons, entitled Shobogenzo ("The Eye of the Treasury of True Dharma"), originally addressed to practitioners who followed him in the monastic path. Two separate passages are quoted here:
To study and learn the way of the Buddha is to study and learn your own self. To study and learn your own self is to forget yourself. To forget yourself is to be enlightened by the myriad things of the universe. To be enlightened by the myriad things of the universe is to let go of your own body and mind as well as the body and mind of others. The enlightenment attained thus comes to rest, and though it appears to have stopped it precisely continues on.
I came to realize clearly, that mind is mountains, rivers, the great wide earth, the sun, the moon, the stars.
The passages quoted above give us a glimpse into Dogen's inner world, revealing his vision of what constitutes this true Self. In short, this true Self is manifested as one sees through the illusory barrier dividing "my" self from the rest of the universe. The term "myriad things of the universe," literally, "the ten thousand elements," refers to things immediately at hand - such as trees and rocks, rivers and mountains, animals, human beings - as well as those beyond immediate sensation, such as the sun, the moon, the stars, and all that there is. The character translated here as "enlightened" ("by the myriad things of the universe"), sho-seraruru, can be also translated as "authenticated," "made real," "proved," or "awakened."
And this true Self comes to be awakened, the passage suggests, as one lets go of that notion which divides, on one level, my "body" versus my "mind," and on a further level, "my body and mind" versus "other people's body and mind." In other words, awakening, enlightenment, the manifestation of the true Self, involves an overcoming of this separation. This overcoming enables me to identify with my neighbor, with every sentient being as well, seeing in these the very manifestation of who "I" am.
This identification with every sentient being is what grounds a mode of being characterized by a deeply-felt sense of kinship and compassion, identifying with the joys and sorrows of every sentient being, when I see them as they really are - namely, as my own true Self.
Further, one is able to exclaim, as the second passage puts forth, that "mind is no other than mountains and rivers, the great Earth, the sun, the moon, the stars." The term translated as "mind" here is kokoro in Japanese, and refers not just to the intellect, but to the core of one's being, a synonym thus for the true Self. A more direct translation would be: "I am (no other than) the mountains and rivers, the sun, the moon, the stars." The awakening to who I am, my true identity - my sense of kinship - does not limit itself to the human level, nor to the level of the sentient, for that matter, but extends to all things as well.
A Healing Vision
There is a "family resemblance" between the three texts we have examined. All describe a view of ultimate reality that is opened in an awakening experience. Variously termed "emptiness," "unborn," or "mind," ultimate reality is presented as overcoming the illusion of separation that our common-sense perception gives us.
This common-sense perception tells us of the existence of objects "out there," as opposed to myself as subject "within." In contrast, awakening to reality, in the Buddhist view, is the realization of the interconnectedness between all that there is. It is this interconnectedness that enables me to recognize everything as "kin," namely, as intimately part and parcel of who I am, overcoming the illusion of separation. It is this recognition that enables me to actually share the pain of those in suffering, and the joy of those who are rejoicing.
In short, to see things "as they truly are" is to be grounded in a mode of being and a way of life that is characterized by a "suffering with" - by compassion. Here is a vision of reality that complements and deepens the findings of modern science, instead of conflicting with them, as "religious" ideas are often thought to do. It is a vision that contains a prescription for healing that could be applied to many of the crises now facing our wounded Earth.
Further Reading:
Conze, E.(1954) Buddhist Texts Through the Ages. New York: Harper & Row.
Habito, R. (1993) Healing Breath: Zen Spirituality for a Wounded Earth. Maryknoll: Orbis.
Loy, D. (1988) Nonduality. A Study in Comparative Philosophy. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Cook, F. (1978) Hua Yen Philosophy. Los Angeles: UCLA Press.
Saraha, Dohaakosa, v. 102-ff. Tr. By D.S. Snellgrove, in E. Conze, Buddhist Texts Through the Ages, 1954.
Ruben L.F. Habito is Professor of World Religions and Spirituality at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. His books include Total Liberation: Zen Spirituality and the Social Dimension, and Healing Breath: Spirituality for a Wounded Earth.