As our life becomes increasingly infused with an altruistic outlook, our path and life begin to intersect and eventually become one. Then there is little distinction between what we call our spiritual path and our ordinary life. When our neighbors see us, they don’t see a religious figure or even, necessarily, a spiritual one. They simply see a good neighbour.
– Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
Metta. Generosity. Loving kindness. Patience. Empathetic joy. Warm-heartedness. Boundless friendliness. Forgiveness. Non-judgement. Compassion. Equanimity. Non-harming. Peace. Compassionate intent to relieve the suffering of all beings. All of these are forms of love. Each is an action with specific qualities, but every one of them is some form of love. If you don’t get it by now that the Buddhist path is about love, then you don’t get Buddhism.
It’s not about how well you practice mediation; perfect stillness, perfect concentration, non-discursiveness, discipline, perfect breathing technique, one-pointedness, marathon four-hour meditation sessions, realizing emptiness, and so on.
It’s about love. As Noah Levine proclaimed in the title of his book, The Heart of the Revolution: Buddha’s Radical Teachings on Forgiveness, Compassion and Kindness, that’s what this is really all about, Charlie Brown.
All this Mahayana emphasis on emptiness, realizing total, perfect complete emptiness and non-self, are meant, if anything, to help you go beyond just taking care of your own small self and opening up your heart to love, caring and compassion for the entire world.
There’s a way in which the Mahayana obsession with shunyata, emptiness, realizing understanding emptiness, is just another philosophical escape from the real problems of this world, and the real solutions to those problems, which must proceed with love and boundless compassion.
Emptiness. But everyday, one billion people on this planet are starving, according to the World Health Organization.
Emptiness. But the climate is warming faster than any time in last million years, climate disruption is causing mass damage and death in the form of storms, floods, fires and drought; the cause of climate disruption is human activity; and if we don’t change how we live, use energy, grow food, and use forested land, we will have a climate that is completely hostile and unviable for humans and most species in less than a hundred years.
Emptiness. But every week thousands of species are going extinct in the sixth mass extinction on the planet, and the majority of extinctions are caused by human disruption of their habitats. Every day, millions of animals suffer cruel living conditions and abuse because of human exploitation.
Emptiness. But there are multiple wars on nearly every continent on the planet.
Emptiness. But there are over 5 million people in prisons around the world, 2.2 million in the US, 1.5 million in China.
Emptiness. But every second a woman or child is raped or beaten.
So as a Bodhisattva, what’s more important to you? Realizing perfect emptiness? Or the fact that over a billion people are starving on this planet?
And answer this question for me: what does realizing perfect emptiness have to do with solving the problem of the one billion starving people? And how does realizing perfect emptiness help with stopping wars on every continent, slowing climate disruption, ending the mass extinction, releasing the 5 million prisoners, or ending the abuse of women, children and animals?
How does “emptiness” help us solve these problems? The point is that I don’t think “realizing perfect emptiness” helps us solve anything, not even our own personal problems. Rather, it is a philosophical escape from dealing with the real, brutal, global, complex and intractable problems the world faces today.
And yet, my Bodhisattva vow tells me, as I interpret it, that I must be concerned about the one billion people, about climate disruption, about the 6th mass extinction, about the wars on every continent, about the 5 million in prisons, about the homeless, the drug-addicted, the insane, the racially oppressed, the brutal treatment of women, children, animals, and workers everywhere. Even if there is virtually nothing I can do about them but sign a petition or bring a meal to a sick neighbour, I must be concerned with the suffering of all beings.
My Bodhisattva vow didn’t say, as I recall from the ceremony, that I must realize perfect emptiness, or help all beings realize perfect emptiness. My Bodhisattva vow said that I will not achieve true, perfect and complete enlightenment until every one of these beings is liberated from suffering. And I vow to liberate all beings.