By Tim Eyes
The realization of selflessness is said to simultaneously naturally engender compassion for others. I personally find this to be the case, that when meditating on the emptiness of self, that all the natural self-cherishing I possess is automatically extended to others. This is very much intentional in terms of the purpose of the teachings and practices of Buddhism, and is considered an essential aspect of spiritual development on the path to Buddhahood. However, I can speak from personal experience saying that the idea of ‘other’ can just as much be an obscuration as can the idea of a self. When I experience some degree of personal liberation, however minute and momentary, and compassion arises for others, the tendency to get hung up on my idea of ‘others’ is common. This might lead to neglecting oneself out of so-called selfless service. In my experience, it mostly leads to becoming hopeless, frustrated, and actually isolated in the never ending effort to remedy an inexhaustible ocean of suffering.
Although in Buddhism one never-ever forsakes the aspiration to benefit others on the relative level, it is also emphasized (especially in this context), that on the ultimate level, all beings are empty of self-nature – the same emptiness discovered within oneself. This might seem counterproductive, or to somehow dismiss others, but in my understanding and experience it is precisely what leads to unfathomable compassion and wisdom, to a state of being that is of the utmost service and benefit to all being without discrimination. As the wrathful deity Vajrapani said to Dudjom Lingpa in a vision, “You might think that Buddhas give spiritual teachings to others, but if Buddhas conceived of themselves as teachers, the spiritual teachings as something to be taught, and ordinary beings as recipients of the teachings, there would not be even a sesame seed’s worth of difference between Buddhas and ordinary beings. They would all be ordinary beings.”6 This is indeed a profound principle to fathom, but in more simple terms it is trying to describe the most selfless being possible. And after all, if there is no self, there is no other either! Yet such a being naturally manifests in spontaneous compassion endowed with really unfathomable equanimity.
It might seem redundant to point out that this whole emptiness thing applies to all phenomena. This can be done in many ways. I find it helpful to reflect on the subjective nature of our so-called reality. Isn’t everything we’ve ever known or seen or experienced subjective, in that ‘I’ am the one experiencing it? It is somewhat contrary to the scientific model, which usually tries to take the scientist out of the equation in order to be objective. That model obviously works if we want to see how certain things work, but in the end we cannot take ourselves out of any equation.
As discussed, there is no ultimate self that we can find. Therefore, since all phenomena can only be known or perceived by a self, it follows suit that we have no reason to believe they exist as concrete or even objective entities. It’s really quite simple. I don’t think this point is so much meant to negate the validity of science or even the way we function in daily life, but rather it is meant to address the way we cling to our surroundings as real and solid on a very fundamental level, which actually inhibits us from relaxing or being free.
I hope I haven’t been too nihilistic. Buddhists generally always refute a nihilistic view (i.e. that nothing exists), but emptiness still seems to usually comes across as such to some extent. The teachings of emptiness are in no way meant to deny or criticize our experience of things. On the contrary, they are meant to help us clear away our false conceptions and projections about everything so that we can experience the world, other people, and ourselves with unclouded, refreshed senses. What happens when we do that is that we discover a magical, ineffable world of unlimited appearances and possibilities, which are actually primordially suffused with great bliss. To put it in other words, if we can manage to let go of our ideas and projections about what we are experiencing, and just let go in general, we will definitely enjoy it. Traditionally, there are different descriptions like the inseparable unity of appearance and emptiness, luminosity and emptiness, clarity and emptiness, bliss and emptiness, and awareness and emptiness.7 These examples are actually different for specific, graduated reasons within the Vajrayana, but they are all essentially referring to the same unity that the Heart Sutra, the most famous and shortest Prajñāpāramitā text, speaks of like so, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not other than form, form too is not other than emptiness.”8 Sometimes I think of it as the inseparability of relaxation and enjoyment. If you think about it, you can’t really do one without the other.
Ultimately, this is not a conceptual matter. But in terms of gradually understanding it, we should try to conceive of these two principles of emptiness and form as two characteristics or qualities of the same thing. That is, they are two qualities of one experience, indeed of all experience. Although we can speak of them as two distinct qualities, in actuality it is creating a duality out of a unity.
In Buddhism, dualistic metaphors are often employed, such as the two aspects of the path being wisdom and compassion, or merit and wisdom – sometimes referred to as the two wings that you use to fly to Buddhahood. Although such metaphor is appropriate, it is always stressed that although one may be emphasized more than the other, ultimately one cannot distinguish. In the Vajrayana, the two are generally cultivated by the development and completion stages of tantric yoga, “To attain stability in the manifest, cognizant aspect we need the development stage. To attain stability in the empty aspect, we need the completion stage, Samadhi.”9 Again, although they are conceived of as distinct and cultivation usually emphasizes one or the other, ultimately both occur at once, and the emphasis is nothing other than a skillful way of describing and discovering awakening.
Mara and the Buddha’s Enlightenment
In Buddhism, this solidification of phenomena is said to be the root of all confusion and suffering. That’s why Buddhism is so closely associated with impermanence, detachment, and relaxation. This solidification comes from ignoring the basic nature of reality, which in contrast is totally open, spacious, not fixed, and without reference point. Therefore ignorance, or ego-grasping, is actually sometimes deemed the ultimate demon. By this logic, it is quite true, because it causes all of our suffering. When we have a tense, solid, fixed sense of things, we suffer when they change, when we lose what we love, when we don’t get what we want, when ‘I’ have problems. Not only that, but this solidity is suffering in itself, like a tension or stress. It really isn’t an exaggeration to draw a parallel between ignorance in Buddhism and the devil.
An essential quality of Buddhism is the lack of aggression directed towards the inner forces of ignorance and illusion, which are actually demonized. For example, in the life story of the Buddha, a key figure is Mara. Mara is like the personified form of the Buddha’s own ‘shadow’, or dark side. Mara represents all the doubts and delusions within the Buddha prior to his enlightenment, and also within all beings for as long as they remain unenlightened.
Although this principle of illusion and doubt is personified as Mara, it is explicitly an inner force or tendency. In other words, it is not completely externalized. On the eve of the Buddha’s enlightenment, according to the story which is still very much a part of the oral tradition, the closer he got to full illumination the more Mara made himself known and attempted to dissuade the Buddha from his search. He sent forth his beautiful daughters to seduce the Buddha, who remained still and silent under a tree meditating, undistracted by these beautiful maidens. Then Mara sent forth a great army to intimidate the Buddha, hoping fear would put him off his path. But as the army approached, and arrows began to descend towards the Buddha, it is said that the Buddha shone with selfless love, and that the arrows were transformed into flowers. Mara’s final attempt was to take advantage of the Buddha’s doubt. He came to the Buddha, inciting him with words like, “Who do you think you are? You think you can become enlightened? I am supreme in this world, who are you to be so ambitious?” The Buddha then performed a famous act. He felt confident, and knew that for many lifetimes he had striven for this moment. He had all of that accumulated merit of striving for the welfare of all beings. With his right hand he gently touched the ground, calling upon the earth itself to be his witness. It is said the earth shook three times, and he became enlightened.
Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, does contain its fair share of miracles and magic, but I have never heard of a literal interpretation of this story. The oral teachings I’ve received point to an inner interpretation. Basically, the daughters of Mara are the embodiments of the Buddha’s passion or craving. The huge army sent to kill or intimidate the Buddha embodies his aggression. Mara’s questioning was a fundamental doubt. Because the Buddha was able to see these inner forces so clearly, he managed to overcome them with compassion, love, and wisdom. Touching the earth, he was able to overcome his own projections, and let them go.
6. Lingpa, Dudjom. Buddhahood Without Meditation: A Visionary Account Known as Refining One’s Perception (Nang-jang). Junction City, CA: Padma Publishing, 2002. Purchase
7, 9. Rinpoche, Tulku Ugyen. Rainbow Painting: A Collection of Miscellaneous Aspects of Development and Completion. Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1995. Purchase
8. Gyatso, Tenzin. Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005. Purchase
Tim Eyes is from Santa Cruz, California. He's been studying Buddadharma since he was 16 there and at Naropa University where he earned a B.A. in Religious Studies and Visual Arts. He now lives in Santa Cruz where he meditates and enjoys life.
Artwork on the homepage
We are dedicated to our mission of helping to awaken the collective consciousness.
If you appreciate this post, please consider donating. Everything helps!