In Final Teaching of Tour, Karmapa Advocates Understanding Emptiness As a Means to Compassion
(May 9, 2015 – Seattle, Washington) His Holiness the Karmapa today delivered the last public teaching of his epic, two-month journey around the United States of America. The Karmapa resumed the topic of enacting compassion, drawing links from it to the topic that had been scheduled for this evening session, that of emptiness. The teaching formed the second session in a two-session event entitled “A Call to Compassionate Action,” organized by the Nalandabodhi community, headed by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, and translated by Mitra Tyler Dewar.
The Karmapa opened by discussing the conditions that are conducive to the enhancement of our compassion, starting with exposing children to compassion as a value and moving on to having opportunities to exercise our compassion as we develop.
Detailing the opportunities he has had during this trip to interact with leaders of the various movements that apply Buddhist tools of meditation and compassion in secular contexts, His Holiness described the ways that a growing awareness of its benefits has encouraged many people to engage in practices of meditation and compassion.
“Understanding emptiness,” he suggested, “can become our fundamental reason for engaging in meditation on loving-kindness and compassion.”
His Holiness the Karmapa noted a mistaken tendency to view emptiness in a negative way, as a form of nihilism, and underscored the importance of seeing emptiness in a more positive way. He then went on to present emptiness as the ground of all possibility.
“Emptiness can be seen as the inherent space of possibility that exists for all of us,” he said. “Emptiness is freedom from bias of any kind. It is the space of innate freedom. Since all phenomena are by nature empty, it is possible for anything to manifest, for anything to arise. In this way emptiness is the source or origination of everything. It is really not the case that emptiness is the place everything goes to become nonexistent. It is more the case that emptiness is the source from which everything arises.”
The Karmapa then traced the intimate connection between the philosophical view of emptiness and that of interdependence. Beginning with the cosmos and ending with the combination of atomic particles, His Holiness described the way that everything that exists has arisen only through the coming together of multiple interrelated causes and conditions.
“If everything existed independently on its own without relying on other things, it would be impossible for new things to arise,” he said. This shows us that things lack their own independent or separate identity, and therefore can be said to be interdependent, or empty of any independent essence. Thus emptiness and interdependence are two ways of approaching the same fundamental reality.
However, he suggested that contenting ourselves with understanding emptiness as a philosophical presentation misses the point. “It is very important that we continually explore how emptiness can benefit us in our daily lives and particularly how it can benefit our practice of compassion,” the Karmapa stated.
He then directed his comments to the persistent sense of ourselves as something apart or independent from others as being a major obstacle to compassion that can be eliminated by applying our understanding of emptiness to our experiences in life. We can begin the important work of dismantling this dualistic sense by simply observing the countless ways in which who we are—from our physical bodies to our very identity—is dependent upon what we call “other.”
He struck a cautionary note, adding that: “When we say the self does not exist in this way or is empty in its nature, we are saying that the self does not exist as we imagine it to exist. We are not saying that there is no such thing as a self whatsoever. This is a crucial point. Learning about emptiness means learning about the totality of who we are.”
Grounding the presentation of emptiness firmly in the previous session’s concern to put compassion into action, the Karmapa continued, “I think this is the first step in developing compassion: understanding the full reality of who we are. Then we can take the second step, which is to try to benefit and extend our compassion to others. If we take that second step, without understanding emptiness or without knowing what this ‘I’ is or who we are, then it is truly difficult to take that second step of compassion in a genuine way.”
His Holiness offered the analogy of an extremely sharp sword that can cut through metal, likening the sharpness of the sword to our understanding of emptiness and its implications for how we actually exist, inseparable from others. “If we make the sword of emptiness, or of knowing interdependence, very sharp, then we will be able to completely cut and break through the entire iron web enmeshing us in self-grasping and selfishness.”
Likening the firm walls we create around ourselves through our self-centeredness and self-fixation to a prison, His Holiness urged his audience to add the power of compassion to the sharpness of the sword. Since the power with which he must wield our sword to cut through our chains is so great, the Karmapa joked that it would be better to use the analogy of a chainsaw, plugged into the high voltage of intense compassion.
As his teaching began to wind to a close, His Holiness evoked the model of an activist of compassion—someone who does not simply feel compassion but rather someone who does compassion. Understanding emptiness and interdependence can serve as a clear path that leads us to enact our compassion. Likewise, we might imagine what the world would be like if there were no compassion at all. Already we can observe the effects of a deficit of compassion, and realizing the extreme danger of a lack of compassion can also motivate us to take the path to acting on compassion.
“In general,” he said, “there seems to be too much distance between what we say and what we do. The way I personally view this is that it is important not to just content oneself with saying things or to satisfy oneself with understanding things. Rather, we should take this and apply it as meaningfully as we can to our mind, and bring it into our experience and practice.”
On that note, he turned to his final remarks expressing appreciation for the opportunity to spend two months in the United States, and left his audience with a final exhortation to “seize opportunities to develop lovingkindness and compassion.”