Distillations from Stephen Jenkins’ “Circle of Compassion”

by Shaun Bartone

I read through Stephen Jenkins’ Ph.D. dissertation, “The Circle of Compassion: An Interpretive Study of Karuna in Indian Buddhist Literature.” It was his thesis for a Ph.D. in Religion from Harvard University. Dr. Jenkins is Chair of the Dept. of Religion at Humboldt State University in California. His dissertation is available online through any university library that has access to dissertations.

I’d like to share with you some of what I learned from this marvellous work of scholarship. What I am posting here is not primarily what the dissertation was about, which was about the role of compassion on the path of the Bodhisattva. But it’s what I gleaned from his discussion of the early sutras and commentaries, and his description of religious thought at the time of the Buddha. It’s mostly unedited, so expect it to be rough.

Following that is one of my frequent meditations on “emptiness”. This one is called Einstein’s Shunyata

Distillations from Jenkins’ “Circle of Compassion.”

Attaining nirvana through the path of the Buddha is described in the sutras as another way to attain Brahma, to dwell forever in the Bramha viharas, or temples or abodes of Brahma. The path of the Buddha is another way to attain Brahma.

In the sutras, the story is that Brahma had to supplicate Buddha to teach (three times) because once the Buddha began teaching, people would ‘take refuge in the Buddha’ instead taking refuge in Brahma, as they normally did in Vedic religion.

What the Buddha discovered was a way to achieve Brahma without the Brahmins, without the priestly caste who performed the rituals. This undercut the power of the Brahmins. This was as much political, in the ecclesial sense, as it was spiritual. And it was revolutionary.

The Bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings and then achieve full enlightenment as a Buddha, is essentially a vow to become a god, a saviour god, a man-become-god.

The cult of buddhas and bodhisattvas, even arhats, is part of a larger cult of the “god-man”; of which Jesus of Nazareth would be a later example.

It is replacing the older nature and creator-gods, and the later transcendent heaven gods of Vedic and Greco-Roman religion, with a new form of god, the man-become-god.

Man-become-god is just one step removed from Man as the centre of his world, the Universal Man of the Renaissance and the Subject of the modern world.

Buddhism is not a “science of mind”; it’s a religion of mind. In it’s quest for enlightenment, it’s just a mytho-poetic as monkey-gods and baby elephant gods.

We keep reading the practice of achieving enlightenment as a way to understand empirical reality or lived experience. It’s not about empirical reality at all. It’s not science in another form, i.e. it’s not metaphysics.

It’s mytho-poetic religion; it’s a form of religion that came later than the ritual forms of the Vedas. In the Vedas, one performs the necessary rituals to appease the gods, to be worthy of good fortune, and ultimately to attain Brahma.

One attained Brahma after eons of reincarnations by distilling one’s essence to pure Atman, which is able to unite with Brahman and is the same as Brahman.

In Buddhism, one attains supreme enlightenment after many eons of rebirths to become a Bodhisattva, i.e. a man-become-god, man-saviour-god, who saves all sentient beings from suffering.

To ‘save all beings from suffering’ is to take on the function of a god. This is what Brahma did, and Krishna did, and all the Vedic and tantric gods. They saved human beings from suffering; they protected all beings.

To become a Bodhisattva is to become ‘a god who saves all beings’. That’s why in tantra, one practices becoming a god and one is supposed to view all other beings as gods.

The Mahayana teaching that “there are no beings to save” is another way of saying “all beings are already god, already have buddhanature or brahma.” All we are doing is helping them realize their god-nature. This is the view of “sacred-world.”

Philosophy and religion both served the function that would later be replaced by empirical science; they gave people an intuitive narrative for explaining reality and the vicissitudes of fortune.

To attain perfect, complete enlightenment is beyond being “saved” in the Christian sense. In Christian salvation, humans are purified enough as spirits after death to reside with God in heaven forever.

The Vedic aspiration of becoming Atman, who is one and the same as Brahman, is an even more lofty aspiration than just being ‘saved’ as a human and dwelling with God.

Enlightenment is not empirically verifiable nor empirically possible. Enlightenment is a mytho-poetic state of god-head. To become enlightened is to achieve the state of god-head, the mind of god.

The more empirical, humanistic Buddhism is Theravada or early Buddhism. It’s much more ‘down to earth’, much more about living our lives in a humanistic and ethical manner. It is Buddha as ‘man’, as an ordinary human.

The Buddha of the Mahayana is Buddha as man-become-god, as god-man, man-equal-to-brahma. Buddha becomes Brahma. Buddha, or buddhanature, replaces Brahma.

To become a Bodhisattva is to aspire to man-become-god, man-god-who-saves-beings from suffering. By becoming man-god-who-saves-beings from suffering, one is on the path to attain buddha-hood, which is god-head, man-become-Brahma.

In order to become Brahma, one must dissolve the duality between god and man, and say that all phenomenon are empty of conditioned reality; therefore, all is brahma or buddhanature.

This is just another way of stating non-duality from the Upanishads.

Non-self: instead of saying that Atman (self-existing self) unites with and becomes Brahman, it’s saying there is no separate self, therefore we have never been a separate entity from Brahman or Buddhanature.

Non-self is saying “you are Brahman, you are Buddhanature, right now.”

Therefore, you are unconditioned, unarising, unceasing.

Einstein’s Shunyata

Energy is neither created nor destroyed—It merely changes form. This is the same thing as saying “energy is unconditioned”.

Energy is neither created nor destroyed—it does not arise or cease. It does not birth or die.

It merely changes form—it appears to be born, then die; it appears to arise, then cease, but in its pure form, it is unarising, unceasing, therefore, unconditioned.

The ‘changing form’ is the conditioned appearance of primordial energy in all its infinite diversity of forms.

Forms are conditioned, but the energy that makes that form is unconditioned; it is empty of conditioned nature.

But the form and the energy are the same thing. Form is unconditioned energy; unconditioned energy always takes a conditioned form.

Conditioned forms are information; when energy takes a particular pattern, or form, that is information; it signifies something, it is significant, or meaningful. (Bohm) It is wisdom and compassion (information and connection).

Therefore, though we are conditioned form, we are also unconditioned energy, unarising, unceasing, or Buddahnature.

Since this is the way it is, the ultimate nature of the universe, there’s nothing we can do except relax and accept it.

All ‘rebirths’ are merely energy changing it’s conditioned form.

But just because energy is unconditioned, doesn’t mean that forms aren’t real. They are real forms. Unconditioned energy is capable of becoming real forms, because unconditioned energy is itself real. If unconditioned energy is real, then all the conditioned forms it takes are just as real.

That’s the same as saying that if buddhanature is real, then all the forms buddhanature takes are just as real. There are not two realities, but one.

The emptiness, the shunyata, is the capacity for change, for form to change from one thing to another infinitely. Ultimate reality is shunyata because it is able to change forms infinitely, yet it remains unconditioned.

Conditioned reality is ultimate unconditioned reality; they are the same, there is only one reality.

Energy is neither created nor destroyed; it merely changes form” is another way to state the Heart Sutra and the teachings on shunyata and Buddhanature. Pratityasamutpada.

And it’s all real. You are real, I am real, everything is real; it’s just forever changing.

Unconditioned energy always takes a conditioned form: rupa, body.

The “dark energy” that fills the most pure “voids” or vacuums of space is “energy without form”, which is the ultimate emptiness or ultimate shunyata, [unconditioned] energy-empty-of-form. 

Energy-empty-of-form is perfect entropy. It’s energy completely dissipated.

The energy that is empty of form still relates through entanglement. It still has information (wisdom) and compassion (connection or relationship).

Unconditioned energy is in form all around us as ordinary, everyday reality, the way we normally experience it.

Enlightenment is ordinary. It is realized from none other than your ordinary mind.

And we have lots of problems to solve and people to take care of in the ordinary world of conditioned forms.

They are real people and real problems, and their suffering is real suffering. And their joy is real joy.

You have a conditioned “self” that feels, that loves, that hurts, and that must be treated with kindness, compassion and respect.

Even though your conditioned “self” is the form taken by unconditioned energy, it is still real and needs to be treated with love and compassion and respect.

We can make distinctions between things in the ordinary conditioned world of forms. We can do science and understand those processes.

And we can also make ethical choices between actions that are beneficial and actions that are harmful.

Ethics is based on reality, not “voidness.” It’s based on the necessity of having to make distinctions and choices between real things, acts and their real consequences.

Actions have consequences; “because this, that”, or karma.

Thus we have free will. We can decide how we will act, either to create harm or to create benefit for ourselves and others.

Therefore, the 8-fold path is a path of ethical choice, based on the reality of the unconditioned nature of conditioned forms.

Does that change my perception of reality? Yes, because the real world of forms emerges out of the real substrata of pure energy.

The more empirical, humanistic Buddhism is Theravada or early Buddhism. It’s much more ‘down to earth’, much more about living our lives in a humanistic and ethical manner. It is Buddha as ‘man’, as an ordinary human.

The Theravada assigns reality to the “partless particles” which forms the substrate of the universe, what we would call “dark energy”, virtual particles and quasi-particles, the pure energy of that fills all the universe.

Joanna Macy used systems theory to build up the reality of complex forms from the real substrata of “partless particles” of the Theravada, or energy.

Particles are linked together and react to one another as patterns, or complex thermodynamic  systems that built complexity against the gradient of entropy.

The Twelve Nidanas are a primitive model of systems theory, how more complex forms arise out of simpler forms. It is also a model of emergence, as Joanna Macy explained.

Feedbacks shape the system as it evolves.

We have to work with that system of feedback and evolution. We are that feedback, we are part of that feedback and that evolution.

“Empty” does’t mean it’s not real. Middle-way between existence and non-existence doesn’t mean it’s not real. It IS reality: emptiness is reality, middle-way is reality. That’s what Buddha said: the middle way IS reality.

Therefore, we have an ethical choice and a real effect on the world; we shape our human-nature world.

We can shape it to be of benefit to all beings, or selfishly, in such a way as to harm others.

Therefore, even though conditioned forms are made of unconditioned energy, they still suffer and we have an ethical responsibility to relieve suffering and create a better world.

I call this “better-world cittamatra.” It is cittamatra stated as an ethical choice.

We have the capacity and the ethical responsibility to shape our world in a way that benefits all beings.

I have already realized all three bases of compassion: compassion for sentient beings, based on conventional wisdom; compassion for phenomenon [dharma], based on knowledge of how things arise interdependently (emergence of compounded phenomenon); and compassion for existence without any basis (emptiness). I have already realized the third when I understood that the fabric of the universe itself is primordial wisdom and compassion.

When I practice maitri bhavana, I am tapping into and practicing with the ultimate wisdom/compassion of the universe.

I have the power to wish well-being to all beings because all beings are made up of the substrate of information/connection—wisdom/compassion.

Actually, everyone has that power; they’re just not aware of how it works. But you don’t have to know how it works, you just have to practice maitri bhavana.

I can realize emptiness and still practice compassion because I understand how they are all related, from the fundamental substrate of unconditioned energy up through the most complex compounded systems.

I can practice compassion with unconditioned energy, the substrate of the universe, and that affects all phenomena, and all sentient beings that arise from it.

According to Stephen Jenkins analysis, this means that I am a Bodhisattva.


Yogacara or ‘mind only’ is trying to account for consciousness.

We know from quantum experiments that observation collapses the wave form and allows wave forms to become particles.

Observation is consciousness, but it is consciousness with an object (the wave form), not pure consciousness without stimuli or object.

But entanglement means that energy “observes” itself; all quanta of energy affect all other quanta.

The primordial wisdom/compassion of the universe, information( significance-meaning)—connection—communication—observation, collapses wave forms into particles.

The universe is thus self-observing and self-aware. That is primordial consciousness.

Plant, animal (including single-cell) and human consciousness are just particular forms of consciousness that evolved on this planet.

The planet, the universe, doesn’t need us to exist and create conscious observation for the planet/universe to exist. It existed for millions, billions of years before we evolved.

But, we are a part of the primordial consciousness of the universe, which evolved from that primordial consciousness, that is self-aware and all-aware. Our consciousness is part of that continuum of primordial consciousness and all evolved levels of consciousness.


We do not bring the world into being by our own consciousness alone, but with the primordial consciousness and all the evolved levels of consciousness—working together.

That is the ultimate collective consciousness that brings the universe into being—cittamatra. yogacara, mind-only.

Primordial information(significance-meaning)/connection—wisdom/compassion—is also primordial consciousness that evolves being-level consciousness (particles to complex systems), that collectively collapses all the wave forms and holds the universe in being. cittamatra. yogacara, mind-only.

In this way, too, all beings are real, even as a product of primordial consciousness that collapses wave forms. They really exist and we have to make real choices for compassionate and ethical action for their benefit; we must create a better world

Language is just a more evolved form of information(significance-meaning) connection—wisdom/compassion.

Communication links us together as people in community, as a society.

Society is basically good: it is information(significance-meaning)-connection—wisdom-compassion.

That’s why language CAN be used to communicate the dharma; because language itself is a form of wisdom/compassion (information (significance-meaning)-connection)

One does not have to be thoughtless or wordless. Thought is the “form” of the substrate consciousness; human consciousness is the “form” of the substrate primordial consciousness.

We don’t have to get rid of thought or consciousness; they are forms of wisdom-compassion—information (significance-meaning)—connection.


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