Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds

Emptiness, Suffering, Beauty and Truth

Emptiness, emptiness, emptiness. It just goes round and round, like a dog chasing it’s tail. There’s no end of thinking about what it means, even though lately I’ve gotten ever clearer on exactly what it does mean. (See http://www.thezensite.com/ZenEssays/Nagarjuna/Dependent_Arising.htm for the sharpest explanation I have come across yet). But so what? What does this all amount to? I already know the answer.

What I want to know is, why are we asking the question? Why do we keep asking this same question over and over again? It’s like solving a Rubic’s cube, a puzzle that we are addicted to solving over and over again, even though ultimately we know that it always works out basically the same way every time. And every time we anticipate this question, the obsessive-compulsive itch wants to be scratched yet again. Because our sensory perceptions always want to be assured of the solidness of the physical world. And our minds always want to have some sense of resolution to questions that we can’t answer. But with this question, our sensory perceptions and our mental perceptions aren’t having the same experience;. They have contradictory experiences, which leads us to feeling that we can’t resolve the dilemma. So off we go again, trying to solve the puzzle.

But why are we asking the question? Even if we precisely and completely answer the question, and we become sure of it, what does that do for us? Does it anything change? Does it change anything about our perception of the world? And how does knowing the answer to this question in any way increase our capacity for compassion? What does emptiness have to do with compassion anyway? That’s the question I keep asking myself.

I’ve listened to two series of talks on emptiness and compassion, one an excellent series of five talks on ‘emptiness and compassion’ by Gil Fronsdal at Spirit Rock (http://www.audiodharma.org/talks/?search=emptiness). But it didn’t really change my understanding of either emptiness or compassion. Because my sense of compassion comes out of what Joanna Macy teaches on pratitysamutpada (dependent co-origination, which she calls “mutual causality” and I call “co-generation”). It comes out of a deep sense of interconnectedness, more like Thich Nhat Hanh’s exquisite interbeing than Nargarjuna’s tricky philosophical “emptiness.”

I know one thing for sure: answering the question wrongly can really screw up one’s sense of compassion. If you see emptiness as “the ultimate reality that is behind this relative reality,” not only do you have it all wrong (see link at The Zen Site above) but you will end up not giving a shit about anything, as many of my Buddhist compatriots do. If it’s all total emptiness, as they believe, then there’s nothing to give a shit about, much less feel any responsibility or compassion for.

But if you understand that emptiness and form are mutually constitutive, that they both exist because of and define each other, that there is only one reality and one truth, that this ordinary reality is ultimate reality, then you might start to give a damn about what happens here.


For myself lately, meditating on emptiness and compassion has manifested as the ability to love the tragic beauty of this fragile world. I have a sense of the poetic beauty that can be found in the ugly, sad, painful, dissonant, violent world. I not only see the brutality of this world, I see the farce, the tragicomedy. I can even appreciate the beauty in it. I can make art out of madness, out of pain, out of the intense and gritty stuff that this world is made of.

I no longer have to fix the world; I no longer need to make it go away, or stop it from ever happening again. I see the beauty in the tragedy, even in the hurtful things that people do to me and other people. So I stopped judging the world and I started loving it, loving the ugliness, the brutality, the tragedy. I started loving it, and instead of avoiding it, ignoring it, rejecting it, running away from it. Instead of always searching for some other perfect place, I started moving toward it, not with pity or gritted teeth, but by embracing it’s tragic ugliness with love, with compassion. I started seeing its basic goodness, not as some “ultimate truth” or reality behind the suffering, but the beauty and truth of the suffering itself, the basic goodness of the suffering world as it is. And when I began to see samsara as nirvana, samara is transformed.

That is not to say that I have lost the desire to relieve suffering. Indeed, I still have an intense desire to stop the massive cruelty and injustice in the world. I still want to do all that; but I’m doing it differently. There’s a kind of ‘fixing’ that is hateful and violent toward what it tries to fix, sees it as disgusting or worthless, that tries to erase suffering. Instead of trying to make it all go away and substituting a perfect world (enlightened society, nirvana, utopia) rather, I transform what is into a site of liberation. I transform it, not through judgement, but through love and compassion.

And you know what I hate most about western Buddhism? It’s a kind of Buddhism that makes suffering an embarrassment, something you have to hide. On the first weekthun retreat I went on at Dorje Denma Ling, the retreat leader shouted at us (literally shouted) “NO SUFFERING ALLOWED!” I’m not kidding. I thought to myself, what the fuck is he saying? Everybody suffers! How can it not be allowed?

In western culture, suffering is a high art. Michelangelo turned the the crucifixion of Jesus into suffering on a grand scale as a fresco on the Sistine Chapel, while Jesus Christ Superstar set it to the beat of 70s soul music. Greek tragedy, Puccini operas, Shakespearean death scenes, punk rock, it’s all tragedy as high art. Vincent Van Gogh, Jean Paul Sartre, French film, and just about every novel ever written, all glorious renditions of suffering.

But there is a certain kind of western Buddhism that cannot permit this. For them, suffering is an embarrassment, a lack of wisdom, idiocy. Have you ever seen Buddhist tragic art? No, we have to be “happy” all the time, or at least content. This is not only the hoped for liberation; it’s demanded as a present state of mind. To be unhappy is a sign of total failure as a Buddhist. To be sad or needy or angry, and especially to dramatically act out your attachments or aversions in any way borders on pornography. Who could possibly live with this? Where is the redeeming power of suffering? Where is the glory of facing the worst suffering about yourself, the worst suffering of humanity, and turning that encounter into a moment of profound beauty and truth?

Have I arrived at this state by meditating on emptiness? or by meditating on compassion? This is another question I keep asking myself. Why not spend as much or more time meditating on compassion as emptiness? In “The dawn of the Bodhisattva path : studies in a religious ideal of ancient Indian Buddhists with particular emphasis on the earliest extant perfection of wisdom sutra”, (1998) Gil Fronsdal argues that originally the primary focus of the Bodhisattva was to meditate on compassion, less so on emptiness.

My pith guidance is this: do the opposite of whatever they tell you to do. If Buddhism teaches you to escape from samsara through meditation or awakening, then do the opposite: embrace samsara, stop running away from your life. Do that and see what it feels like, what you learn from it. If Buddhism is right, you will learn that. If not, then you have discovered your own wisdom.


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This entry was posted on 2015/06/23 by and tagged .


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