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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.