When I was staying at the Khadiravana Center someone I had known before came to visit the Center and talked with me for a while. He was a student of Buddhism and used to translate a number of Tibetan Buddhist books. He had an interesting question which he told me many monks and scholars could not answer. It has to do with compassion and emptiness. Since everything is empty, that is, lacking in their inherent existence, when we have compassion, what exactly are we having the compassion for? If everything is empty, isn’t the thing for which we have compassion empty too? If it is empty, then wouldn’t our compassion be directed to an empty object, a compassion to nothing?
This is clearly a clever question, and it shows that someone who does not understand the Buddha’s teaching thoroughly could get mired in these conceptual web. Not that the Buddha himself planted these webs, but it seems that some of his followers created these webs for themselves because of their attachment and preconceptions.
In any case this question needs to be fully answered, and the answer is not an easy one. The question rests on a very fundamental tension in the Buddha’s own teaching – the tension between taking things as they appear, on the one hand, and seeing their ultimate nature as being empty through and through on the other. This tension lies at the heart of Buddhist teaching.
On the side of taking things as they appear, there certainly are beings who need compassion. They are suffering; there are innumerably many of them. They are beings in samsara. Clearly they are there as objects of the Buddha’s and bodhisattva’s and our own compassion.
On the other hand, things are empty of their inherent character. What this means is that things do not stay the same forever, and even at a moment when they are what they are, they are what they are only because of their being dependence of causes and conditions. These causes and conditions are no exception either; they depend on other causes and conditions too, and so on ad infinitum. In the end everything is what it is because of their dependent nature, which for Buddhists means that they are empty of their inherent character which would make them truly what they are without such dependency. Since this has no exception, any object of compassion, any suffering being, is ultimately empty too. So when we feel compassionate toward them, what exactly are we compassionate toward?
One way out of this is to treat things at two levels – that of ‘conventional’ truth and of ‘ultimate’ truth. This is the path Nagarjuna takes. In fact talking about levels is rather misleading, for in fact things do not present themselves in levels. They are one and the same things, but described differently. According to one way of describing, they are there as objects of reference and certainly of compassion, but according to the other description, they are empty. Since all things do not possess any essential properties from the beginning, there is no contradiction in the two descriptions.
However, there is another way of looking at this which is perhaps less philosophical. According to Deshung Rinpoche in The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception, when we practice compassion, we should do it with the realization that there are three types of compassion. We should always take into account all these three types whenever we feel compassionate toward other beings and practice compassion. The first type is the ordinary compassion we have toward other beings. The second type is the realization that these beings suffer because they are mired in avidya or fundamental ignorance. The third and most refined type is the realization that in ultimate reality there is no one to be compassionate to, no one who is being compassionate, and no such thing as compassion.
The trick is that the third type is classified as a kind of compassion. This neatly solves the problem that my friend asked me before. The tension between compassion and emptiness is only apparent and arises only if the first type is understood to be the only type. But when one takes into account the second and third types, then the tension dissolves, because the realization of emptiness is a kind of compassion too.
This needs to be unpacked. Buddhist teachers usually say that compassion and emptiness (or wisdom) are the two wings that enable a bird to fly. A bird cannot fly with only one wing, so one cannot attain Buddhahood with realization of either compassion or emptiness only. One needs both to attain Buddhahood. And a way to achieve this is suggested in Deshung Rinpoche’s teaching that the third type of compassion is just this realization of the wisdom of emptiness itself.
How is this so? It arises from the understanding that the truly genuine way for true compassion to arise in one’s mindstream is for one to achieve the wisdom of emptiness – the realization that ultimately all beings are of one nature. Furthermore, it also arises from the understanding that the only way the wisdom of emptiness to arise in one’s mindstream is for one to have genuine compassion toward other beings. When one has genuine compassion, the apparent boundary separating oneself from the world and every being breaks down, but that is just emptiness in action.
So in the end the two, compassion and emptiness, are one and the same. Thus the question I mentioned earlier arose only out of some misconception. But it is a very strong misconception. This is why the practice of compassion is so crucial in Mahayana Buddhism. Without it there will absolutely be no way toward Buddhahood.