Emptiness And Compassion Go Hand In Hand

Norman Fischer

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Awakin FeatureThe word “emptiness” is a fair translation of shunyata, but it has the drawback of sounding negative, even despairing.  The Chinese, searching for a word that might translate shunyata, used the character for “sky.” All dharmas are empty like the sky -- blue, beautiful, expansive, and always ready to receive a bird, a wind, a cloud, the sun, the moon, or an airplane.  It’s the emptiness of all limitation and boundary. It is open, released.

When I am bound inside my own skin and others are bound inside theirs, I have to defend and protect myself from them. And when I do place myself among them, I must do it carefully, which is hard work, because I am often hurt, opposed, and thwarted by others. But when there’s openness, no boundary between myself and others -- when it turns out that I literally am others and others literally are me -- then love and connection is easy and natural.

Emptiness and compassion go hand in hand. Compassion as transaction -- me over here, being compassionate to you over there -- is simply too clunky and difficult. If I am going to be responsible to receive your suffering and do something about it, and if I am going to make this kind of compassion the cornerstone of my religious life, I will soon be exhausted. But if I see the boundaryless-ness of me and you, and recognize that my suffering and your suffering are one suffering, and that that suffering is empty of any separation, weightiness, or ultimate tragedy, then I can do it. I can be boundlessly compassionate and loving, without limit. To be sure, living this teaching takes time and effort, and maybe we never entirely arrive at it. But it’s a joyful, heartfelt path worth treading.

In Mahayana Buddhism, compassion is often discussed in terms of absolute and relative compassion. Absolute compassion is compassion in the light of emptiness: all beings are empty; all beings are, by virtue of their empty nature, already liberated and pure. As the sutra says, suffering is empty, and relief from suffering is also empty.

But this would be one-sided and distorted. Relative compassion—human warmth and practical emotional support—completes the picture. Absolute compassion makes it possible for us to sustain, joyfully, the endless work of supporting and helping; relative compassion grounds our broad view of life’s empty nature in heart connection and engagement. Either view by itself would be impossible, but both together make for a wonderfully connected and sustainable life.

Excerpted from an article in Lion's Roar.

Seed questions for reflection: What does emptiness and compassion going hand in hand mean to you? Can you share a personal story of a time you felt the interplay between human warmth and emptiness? What helps you stay engaged while being rooted in emptiness?

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16 Previous Reflections:

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    On Mar 28, 2018 Naamkaran wrote:

     Kithi acha site he ye.


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    On Sep 26, 2017 Dr Naznin wrote:

     Could the word emptiness be replaced with expansiveness??
    it is a more wholesome word with the same characteristics explained here.
    more full than empty...


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    On Sep 12, 2017 Maryanne wrote:

     What a healing integration of the two aspects of compassion, absolute and relative.  I have often felt torn between, and thus lacking.  This is a gift for meditation.


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    On Sep 11, 2017 Rashmi Sinha wrote:

     Emptiness and compassion do go hand in hand for me... any presence of emotion, be it anger or joy brings in elevated sense of response whereas when there is shunyata there is uniform sense of compassion towards all.


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    On Sep 11, 2017 David Doane wrote:

     Emptiness of preconceived judgments and agendas fosters feeling compassion and human warmth.  Being rooted in emptiness helps me stay truly engaged with the other rather than with my thinking or goals regarding the other.


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    On Sep 11, 2017 Kristin Pedemonti wrote:
     I think compassion and emptiness go hand in hand is about not having attachment to the situation or person, but to see a blank canvas onto which you can simply love and be present. I experienced this in a deep profound way the other weekend at a healing arts festival of workshops in tantra where we were called to be silent and deeply present with numerous partners as we explored things like:" look at the person standing in front of you, see their beauty. See their entirety. Now picture that person as you at 6 years old, what message does your 6 year old have for you?" At this time the woman I was partnered with melted into sobbing, her shoulders hunched forward, a hand over her eyes and she looked away. Instinctively, I held out my hand and gently placed it on her other hand that was at her side. I looked into her eyes until she looked in mine and all I did was hold space in silence thinking the words, "compassion, love it is ok" into her. She held my hand. Soon her crying eased... [View Full Comment]

     I think compassion and emptiness go hand in hand is about not having attachment to the situation or person, but to see a blank canvas onto which you can simply love and be present. I experienced this in a deep profound way the other weekend at a healing arts festival of workshops in tantra where we were called to be silent and deeply present with numerous partners as we explored things like:" look at the person standing in front of you, see their beauty. See their entirety. Now picture that person as you at 6 years old, what message does your 6 year old have for you?" At this time the woman I was partnered with melted into sobbing, her shoulders hunched forward, a hand over her eyes and she looked away. Instinctively, I held out my hand and gently placed it on her other hand that was at her side. I looked into her eyes until she looked in mine and all I did was hold space in silence thinking the words, "compassion, love it is ok" into her. She held my hand. Soon her crying eased and she nodded she was OK. It as a moving moment of being both empty and compassionate. I hope it makes sense. <3 

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    On Sep 9, 2017 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
     A long time ago, in  1950, I went to a World View exposition at Tagore's Hall in Ahmedabad, India. I will never forget what I read at the entrance.  Everyman is All Man, Every woman is All Woman, Every child is All Child. -Carl Sandburg All wisdom traditions teach us the underlying truth of oneness in many-ness. Oneness has no limits or boundary. Living this universal teaching or Dharma talk makes daily living joyful, abundant and peaceful. I am sure all of us in varying degrees have tasted this nectar and have had glimpses of enlightenment. I am convinced that this teaching is not an ideal to worship. It is something we experience, we realize in our daily life. When my consciousness is not bound and limited by my egoic mind, I sense and feel the underlying connectedness with nature and people I run into. This happens. I do not make it happen. When I am empty of my ego, I feel oneness and fullness-shunyata and purnata- emptiness and fullness. I do not experience t... [View Full Comment]

     A long time ago, in  1950, I went to a World View exposition at Tagore's Hall in Ahmedabad, India. I will never forget what I read at the entrance. 

    Everyman is All Man,
    Every woman is All Woman,
    Every child is All Child.
    -Carl Sandburg

    All wisdom traditions teach us the underlying truth of oneness in many-ness. Oneness has no limits or boundary.
    Living this universal teaching or Dharma talk makes daily living joyful, abundant and peaceful. I am sure all of us in varying degrees have tasted this nectar and have had glimpses of enlightenment. I am convinced that this teaching is not an ideal to worship. It is something we experience, we realize in our daily life.

    When my consciousness is not bound and limited by my egoic mind, I sense and feel the underlying connectedness with nature and people I run into. This happens. I do not make it happen. When I am empty of my ego, I feel oneness and fullness-shunyata and purnata- emptiness and fullness. I do not experience them as separate or opposite.

    Compassion creates a bridge between me and the other. When I see a person suffering, I feel suffering in me and my heart reaches out for him or her.It may be a short meeting of two hearts but it enriches and nourishes our hearts. It is an organic experience bringing a deep feeling of joy and fullness.

    Yesterday, I was eating my lunch with a bunch of children at Desert Garden Montessori in Phoenix where I teach Peace Education. I saw a four- year old girl crying and a six-year old girl comforting the little girl compassionately, softly holding her hands  without saying a word. She held her until she stopped crying.There is something in human heart that makes us feel compassionate and connected with the other being.It is by liberating my self from my ego, I become one with the other. It is by emptying myself I fill myself. It is like the author says,"It is a joyful, heartfelt path worth treading."

    May we cultivate compassion for others to tread the path of joyful and heartfelt living!

    Namaste!
    Jagdish P dave








    Namaste.
    Jagdish P 

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    On Sep 8, 2017 Rajesh wrote:

    Very nice articulation of what compassion might mean in our daily lives. From my reading of the article, it seems to me that seeing the boundryless-ness of me and you is the pre-condition for us to be able to practice relative compassion. Since relative compassion goes hand in hand with emptiness. The difficulty for me then is in treading the path. I guess 'Equanimity' or 'inner immobility' is in order. -:)


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