Understanding Emptiness as a Means to Compassion by HH Karmapa


Excerpts from 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 2015.

Learning about the emptiness of the self is actually learning about the totality of who we are, because when we examine who we really are beyond our assumptions, we then begin to discover all of the other things that we depend on to be ourselves. And when we discover all those other things that we are depending on to be ourselves, we develop a further sense of gratitude towards the kindness that we were receiving from those things in order to exist. And when this understanding becomes complete, then I think we have full understanding of who we really are.

I think understanding emptiness in this way is really the first step in developing compassion, because it involves understanding the full reality of who we are. If we understand emptiness in this way, then we know who we really are, and then we take the second step, which is to try to benefit others, try to extend compassion to others. But if we didn’t understand emptiness and tried to take that second step saying: “I want to benefit others, I want to extend compassion to others”, without knowing who or what the “I” is, then it’s really difficult to take that step in a genuine way. 

So, when we break through our self-fixation in this way, then we are truly ready to take the second step of cultivating loving kindness and compassion. The reason why we say this is because once we understand the emptiness that is the true nature of reality, then we can truly understand the sentient beings, who haven’t realized that true nature yet. Previous to our realizing emptiness we can’t really understand other sentient beings, because we are trapped in the same wrong views that they are trapped in. 

This is the way in which we try to become an activist of compassion, otherwise known as a bodhisattva, or someone who does compassion by understanding the reality of emptiness or interdependence; the reality of how everything is connected to each other.

We can think of the heart breaking images that we sometimes learn about, the heart breaking stories of children being left alone... We can also witness the example of some countries that are beautiful countries filled with well being and joy and elegance, but then be set by the condition of intense warfare, and due to that intense warfare what was once a beautiful and abundant place becomes a place filled with suffering, as if it’s a city of the Lord of Death. This is a very clear example that we see quite a lot in the world today, of the result of having a lack of compassion.

Having a lack of compassion is actually a very frightening thing. Recently in the world we have seen very frightening events, such as the earthquake in Nepal. When we see these terrible images of destruction and harm, we become very frightened. But even more frightening than that, even more frightening than any natural disaster, is the situation of human beings lacking a heart of love.

We can just look at how many people died in World War II due to aggression, which was the result of lack of compassion on the part of individual human beings. How many millions of people died in that war? It seems that it’s very rare for a natural disaster to produce that many deaths.

So if lacking in love is as dangerous as has been described, then we can come to really appreciate having love in our hearts, having love in our minds.

Many people come to me and express their concern about not being able to help others. They say things like: “I’d really like to help others in a vast way, in a meaningful way, but I don’t have any power and ability to help others in this way. So, please, look upon me with compassion and pray for me that I will become a billionaire or a millionaire, and then I will be able to help many sentient beings.” Or they say: “Please pray for me that I gain a lot of power and authority and then I will be able to benefit many sentient beings.” But if I had the ability to turn someone into a millionaire I would turn myself into one! But it hasn’t worked so far.

But benefiting others really isn’t that simple. Someone might have a wish to become a billionaire or millionaire in order to benefit others, but there is actually no certainty that you will benefit others just through becoming a billionaire or millionaire. Some people might set out through the intention to benefit others through becoming a billionaire or millionaire, but once they have achieved that state then they forget about the aspiration they made! So, one can’t be so sure that that’s the way to benefit others.

On the contrary, I think the real genuine way to go about benefiting others is to dedicate one’s body, speech and mind toward the benefit of living beings. To increase our expressions of love and the positive qualities connected to love in our body, speech and mind, so that our activities of body, speech and mind become activities for the benefit of sentient beings. I think this is really the root of accomplishing vast benefit for others. If we don’t try to transform ourselves in this way and rather regard benefiting others as just getting something that is outside of ourselves, then that won’t become a genuine path of benefiting others.

I think in general there still seems to be a sense that there is too much distance between what we say and what we do.... in traditional language this means taking the separation away between the dharma and the person. We don’t want the dharma and the person to be two separate things, but we want them to merge together. And in another way you could describe this as lack of separation between the action and the performer of the action. So as short of a distance we can make between the action and the performer of the action, then I think to that degree we will truly come to understand reality and manifest genuinely positive results.

Read more: “Compassion Itself Is an Action”: Karmapa in Dialogue with Young Activists



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