These childhood perceptions coupled with staring at the sky and now the river led me to realize that the stuff of ourselves is like the flame or the water. What existed a few moments ago is not somehow sitting on top of the present.
One day, floating down the river, I saw an old man sitting on the bank who looked as if he had died. I suddenly realized that his last perception in this lifetime was no fuller than any of his other perceptions. The accumulated perceptions of a lifetime did not go into the last perception to make it scintillating or rich and profound. Experiences are not like baggage; you don’t fill up a suitcase with experiences and carry them with you in palpable form. I began to recognize the ultimate futility of external activities and to turn my attention inward.
I came back for a second visit about a month later. I asked, "What is emptiness?" He replied, "You should know what sunyata [Sanskrit for emptiness] is," he teased, "you are going to Harvard." He taught me a Tibetan practice on how to develop compassion and altruism. It involves a series of meditations that build one on the other, culminating in a strong sense of empathy for all beings.
He talked about the foundational step of this series of meditations—the generation of equanimity, the practice of realizing on an intimate level how everyone has similar and basic aspirations to gain pleasure and get rid of pain. He spoke movingly about visualizing friends, enemies, and neutral people as equally wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. The realization of such equality is the foundation for cultivating compassion, which is the further wish that everyone be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.