Ludovic Viévard’s book, Vacuité (sûnyatâ) et compassion (karunâ) dans le bouddhisme madhyamaka (Collège de France, 2002), is a recent addition to what is perhaps the finest series of works on Indian religion and philosophy available today. The Publications de l’Institut de Civilisation Indienne include the seventeen volumes of Louis Renou’s Études védiques et pâninéennes, the researches on the Sivaism of Kashmir by Lilian Silburn and André Padoux, and important studies by Madeleine Biardeau, Guy Bugault, Katsumi Mimaki, Michel Hulin, Charles Malamoud, Lakshmi Kapani, Christian Bouy, David S. Ruegg, François Chenet and Michel Angot. It is deplorable that these works are so little known in the English-speaking world.
Viévard deals with the most central themes of Mahâyâna Buddhism, namely wisdom and compassion. He has steeped himself in the key texts of the Madhyamaka school, the writings of Nâgârjuna, Âryadeva, Bhâvaviveka, Candrakîrti, Sântideva, Prajnâkaramati, Kamalasîla, and he draws as well on the Pali Canon, the Mahâyâna sutras, and the Yogâcâra literature. He never lets the secondary literature come between him and these classic texts. The result is not only a piece of well-grounded scholarship, but also carries a powerful spiritual impact, as it makes the thought of the Madhyamaka school (‘the central philosophy of Buddhism’ as T.R.V. Murti called it) newly accessible in all its lucidity and force.
The three chapters of the book are devoted respectively to emptiness, compassion and their non-dual relationship. The most striking feature of Viévard’s account of emptiness is that he presents it not as a reality that is an end in itself, but as an instrument serving a soteriological purpose. Its first meaning is a lack of any ontological solidity in persons or things. Emptiness here functions as the slogan of a meditative exercise that detaches one from every variety of clinging to delusory substantiality or fixated identity. The lack itself must not be erected in turn into a hypostasis, as Madhyamaka accuses Yogâcâra of doing. That would be another form of clinging, which the medicine of emptiness-thinking can also heal, when it is applied to fixated notions of emptiness itself.
As Nâgârjuna deploys it, emptiness is sometimes the driving force of an argument, sometimes the conclusion argued to, and sometimes a vision that is not a matter of argument at all, but is intuitively realized. Truths about emptiness are formulated at the level of conventional truth (samvrti-satya), but the level of ultimate truth (paramârtha-satya) is paradoxically described as ‘beyond truth and non-truth’. The conventional truths have no value except as they serve to release worldly beings who can only rely on the flimsiness of convention.
The value of truth thus becomes subordinate to salvific efficacy: ‘Truth is not that which does not deceive, nor does it consist in being. Truth is the exclusive good done for another, and conversely the false is that which is not useful’ (Nâgârjuna, Ratnavâli II 35). This criterion of truth already ties the wisdom of emptiness to the compassion that seeks the welfare of suffering beings. The doctrine of emptiness itself has primarily a therapeutic value. It is a medicine to be eliminated when it has done its work and is no longer useful. Putting it paradoxically, ‘the illness is emptiness itself’ (Vimalakîrti Sûtra).
As a conventional truth, emptiness belongs to the fabricating activity of thought, even though it engineers the ‘quiescence of fabrications’ (Nâgârjuna, Stanzas of the Middle Path 25.24). In Madhyamaka, the fact that nothing non-empty exists ultimately implies that an empty does not exist either: ‘Because something is empty, it should be content with a relational, dependent existence. If a remnant of existence or non-existence attaches to sûnyatâ, it loses all its meaning. Emptiness has value only insofar as it is not an element of the world, but a linguistic element’ (p. 75). ‘A metalinguistic element, emptiness bears on language and erases its descriptive power without itself describing’ (p. 78).
This practical character of the notion of emptiness clarifies the enigmatic and much-discussed statement of Nâgârjuna: ‘Dependent co-origination is what we call emptiness. This is a designation-in-dependence (prajnaptir upâdâya), and is nothing other than the middle path (madhyamâ pratipad)’ (Stanzas 24.18). The thinker of emptiness navigates skillfully between the extremes of existence and non-existence, and between conventions and ultimacy. Talk of ‘emptiness’ arises in dependence on this task and on this ontological situation, and has no autonomous ‘objective’ status. It might look like a trivialization of emptiness to reduce it thus to a matter of linguistic therapy. But when one considers the role of language and conceptuality in creating the world of delusive substances and identities in which we remain trapped, such a therapy can be seen as going all the way down, to the very roots of our being and our desires.
If, like a Buddha, one had attained the ultimate level, it would not make sense to imagine a middle path, for such conceptions as existence and non-existence would not come into play at all. The Buddha uses them as teaching devices for those still unenlightened. Since the language of emptiness is a pedagogic device, belonging to the conventional level, it does not constitute a set of philosophical propositions enjoying absolute truth. Even at the conventional level, Madhyamaka offers no ‘views’ but only a functional method of suspending allegiance to delusive substantiality or identity and thus coming to taste the empty texture of things. The Madhyamaka dialectic does not construct anything, but merely dismantles obstacles to the perception of what it names more positively as the thusness (tathatâ) of things. It does not transcend samsâra for nirvana, but rather seeks to bring us to that state in which we can see samsâra as coextensive with nirvana.
When the negative dialectic that undoes spurious claims to solid identity and substance has done its work, what are we left with? ‘There is no real absolute, but rather an absolute absence of absolute, and then silence’ (p. 11). The positive language about ultimacy as thusness is again a pedagogic device, not the simple emergence of the ultimate after the conventional has been shown to be merely conventional. ‘The positive approach puts an end to the nihilistic view whereas the negative one tries to suppress the ontological view’ (p. 12). The dialectic and the notion of emptiness constantly recall the conventional to an awareness of its mere conventionality, and this in itself is the best way of allowing the ultimate to emerge at the very heart of the conventional. ‘Mistaking samvrti for paramârtha is a confusion (viparyâsa), and the impossibility of distinguishing between them is avidyâ (ignorance). On the other hand, since samvrti is a convention and is empty, it is paramârtha’ (p.11). To take conventions for the ultimate is a kind of idolatry that blinds one to reality; but to see conventions as merely conventional is to find the ultimate in their very emptiness.
At the ultimate level, ‘there is perfect coincidence between knowledge and its object, or rather between intuition and the non-grasp of any object’ (p. 111). The ‘quiescence of fabrications’ means a condition of non-grasping. This ultimate level eludes any stable definition: ‘In the theater of vyavahâra (the practical everyday), the only value that the drama acted by the Mâdhyamika has is a therapeutic one. The world is a décor and the absolute itself is only pasteboard. If these representations are kept up, it is only for their cathartic virtues. We conclude then with É. Lamotte: “thus vanishes in smoke the reality (tattva) imagined by the worldly, even by the saints, and which the Buddha himself, out of pity for beings and so as not to scare them, sometimes pretended to accept”’ (p. 113). The author may go too far here, but it remains true that the ultimate or the absolute is notoriously elusive in Madhyamaka, and that the practical lesson it inculcates is to cultivate sedulously the garden of the conventional, without fixations. The purpose of this cultivation is to attain final release, but there is another, and even more important purpose, which Viévard discusses in his second chapter.
I should like to consider the implications of this interpretation of Madhyamaka for Christian theologians who seek to rethink traditional discourse about God in terms of emptiness. Emptiness, it appears, is not a new ontological complexion that can be applied to God in place of older substantialist conceptions. Rather it is a discipline of speech, suspending the language that affirms a massive, substantial divine being, and equally suspending the language that denies the reality of the divine. The entire exercise of ‘emptying’ our language about God is a provisional one, preparing one for an insight into the thusness of the divine that will not need this language of emptiness any more. It reveals the impossibility of grasping God, and it is in this very impossibility that the nature of God is intuited. All the divine attributes, and the identification of God as Creator, would be subject to the same suspension of language. The same apophatic attitude can be applied to our language about the existence of the soul after death. To take conventions for the ultimate is a kind of idolatry that blinds one to reality; but to see conventions as merely conventional is to find the ultimate in their very emptiness. Yet we can hardly say that to see our language about God as merely conventional is ipso facto to intuit divine ultimacy and to transform the conventional itself into the ultimate. Rather we should see our flimsy, conventional language about God as iconic, pointing beyond itself to the transcendent mystery that it is unable to grasp.
The second purpose of dealing wisely with the realm of conventional reality is to help suffering beings. The conventional realm is primarily a field for the exercise of compassion. If one uses it selfishly as a springboard for one’s own liberation only, one will not attain full enlightenment. In Mahâyâna Buddhism, compassion is no longer an optional extra, which the monk bent on enlightenment may occasionally condescend to undertake. It is a basic foundation that assures the meaning and function of the entire path. Without it, the quest for the wisdom of emptiness becomes an idle game.
Western scholars are likely to be rather unsettled by what emerges from Viévard’s studies: the realization that compassion is just as important as emptiness in Mahâyâna thought, even in Madhyamaka. Compassion is the essential condition for the breakthrough to the full understanding of emptiness, and insight into emptiness is set at the service of compassion. Compassion is so evident and non-problematic an idea, as opposed to the dizzying paradoxes of emptiness, that it was not the subject of intense discussion. But it is a grave misconception to imagine that it is therefore secondary to wisdom, as merely a practical preparation for or application of it.
‘As defined in the Pali Canon, compassion is a feeling used to purify the mind and to help monks eliminate passions’ (p. 119). Karunâ, compassion, is a technical term, designating one of the four Brahma-abodes (brahmavihâra) meditation exercises. The virtue of compassion is developed in mental cultivation, which works on the initial raw emotion caused by the sight of the suffering of those nearest to us. Broadening their compassion, the srâvakas (hearers) of early Buddhism use it as a ladder of spiritual ascent, but are not really concerned with the suffering of beings. Compassion is surpassed by the last of the four brahmic states, equanimity. Equanimity actually brings a diminution of benevolence and compassion (and of the distinction between them), for equanimity no longer differentiates between happy and suffering beings. Equanimity is prized in early Buddhism not primarily because it is the condition for the effective practice of loving-kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy, but because it excels these as a realization of spiritual freedom. In Mahâyâna compassion is suffused by the quality of equanimity, but no longer subordinate to it.
Devoted to the cultivation of mahâ-karunâ, ‘great compassion’, the Mahâyânists look askance at the limited karunâ of the Brahma-abodes. Indeed, the Brahma-abodes were sometimes seen as an ‘impasse’ even in early Buddhism, for they do not lead to nirvana but only to rebirth in the Brahma-world (p. 142). In some Mahâyâna sources the exercise is denounced as a self-centered meditative elucubration without any real effect: ‘The Mahâ-prajnâ-pârimitâ-sâstra, while adopting this ancient practice, denies it any real efficacy and integrates it as a preparatory moment’ (p. 144). It is at a low level of attainment that compassion is practiced in view of a better rebirth, or even as a condition for attaining nirvana. The bodhisattva practices the four Brahma-abodes is a different spirit than the srâvaka. While still aiming to purify one’s mind from passions, one’s primary goal now becomes to accumulate merits that can be applied to the happiness of beings.
‘Compassion is Mahâyâna, Mahâyâna is Compassion’, proclaims the Mahâparinirvâna Sutra. Compassion is the foundation or root of the entire Mahâyâna edifice. Vimalakîrti’s goddess says she is a Mahâyânist because she never abandons great compassion (p. 170). It is the defining trait of the bodhisattva. The Abhidharmakosa-bhâsya tells us:
People without compassion and who think only of themselves find it hard to believe in the altruism of the bodhisattvas, but the compassionate believe in it easily. Do we not see that certain people, confirmed in the absence of pity, take pleasure in the suffering of others even when it is of no use to them? In the same way one must admit that the bodhisattvas, confirmed in compassion, take pleasure in doing good to others without any selfish design. (quoted, p. 172).
Compassion extends first to beings, then to all dharmas, then it becomes objectless. The Buddhas’ objectless compassion radiates spontaneously. It has become their very being. ‘Compassion is truly gratuitous and evident only for the Buddhas and the great bodhisattvas, when it no longer has an object. The others are still tainted with views of me and mine, and thus prisoners of an egocentric vision… The great bodhisattvas and the Buddhas practice a natural, “radiant” compassion without object (anâlambana-karunâ), which, says É. Lamotte, “acts mechanically”’ (p. 175).
Compassion is linked with giving, the first of the six perfections (pâramitâ): ‘Compassion is the motive of the gift when it arrives at its highest perfection, that is, when the giver, purified of every egoistic outlook and thus of the very idea of self, no longer distinguishes things given, nor givers, nor receivers’ (pp. 153-4). The perfections are not steps on a ladder, but develop together as they become more deeply founded in the wisdom of emptiness, which is the sixth perfection. Equally essential is their foundation in compassion: ‘“The perfections have compassion for cause” (Samdhi-nirmocana-sûtra). But if compassion is the mother of the perfections, it is also their daughter, for it is only after the slow maturation acquired in the course of the development of the other pâramitâ that it in turn attains its own perfection’ (p. 155). Karunâ is what motivates the perfections and mahâkarunâ is what they produce. To stress the importance of compassion, Nâgârjuna alludes to it as a seventh pâramitâ.
It is sometimes thought that Nâgârjuna was uniquely concerned with wisdom and emptiness, in contrast to another Madhyamaka thinker six centuries later, Sântideva, whose Bodhicaryâvatâra (Entry on the Bodhisattva Path) gives prominence to compassion and is written in a personal voice quite different from the philosophical impersonality of Nâgârjuna. Viévard argues that this impression is due to the poor preservation and scholarly neglect of Nâgârjuna’s more practical treatises in which compassion has a major role.
For all who have not attained the objectless compassion of a Buddha, compassion, in practice, involves a descent from the heights of wisdom and a compromise with the dodgy realm of conventionality. Compassion accepts a certain residual bondage to the fleshly samsaric world in order to work toward a greater enlightenment, surpassing mere individual liberation. Bodhisattvas advance not by eventually abandoning compassion, as an entanglement with merely conventional beings, but by deepening it and applying to it the wisdom of emptiness at every step.
Compassion is prompted by the suffering of others, and to be affected by that suffering, considering it as equal to one’s own, is not a sign of deludedness but of bodhisattva sensibility. According to a theory accepted in the Yogâcâra school, the person capable of such compassion has the good nature or lineage (gotra) of a bodhisattva. The Madhyamaka school rejects the gotra theory: ‘Far from owing their compassion to the gotra, it is on the contrary by compassion that the bodhisattva is made a bodhisattva, for “if someone produces toward beings a very deep thought of great compassion, he is born in the family of the Bodhisattva” (Mpps, trans. Lamotte, p. 1920)’ (p. 178). Curiously, something like the gotra theory is also found in St. John’s Gospel, where an innate seed predestines one to faith or unbelief. These relics of an archaic way of thinking do not prevent the emergence of the values of spirit and freedom that are at the heart of the Gospel message.
Buddhist thinking on the origin of compassion moves away from the gotra theory and also from the idea that the compassionate disposition is the fruit of merit in past lives, in order to focus more closely on the experience of the bodhisattva as one who ‘suffers with the suffering of others’. Compassion befalls him as undeniably as suffering does. ‘Suffering holds the same character of evidence and spontaneity as the compassion it defines’ (p. 180). ‘Though it has no redemptive value, suffering is an indispensable element in soteriology because it causes the arising of compassion, which is necessary for salvation as Mahâyâna understands it’ (p. 181). Paradoxically, the bodhisattva rejoices for this reason in the sensation of suffering, preferring his lot to ‘the sad fate of the gods, who because they do not know the sensation of suffering are incapable of taking themselves out of their condition and seeking nirvana’ (p. 182).
The Non-Duality of Wisdom and Compassion
Two mighty spiritual forces vie for the upper hand in Mahâyâna Buddhism. One is the wisdom that sees the emptiness of all dharmas. The other is the compassion that devotes itself to the liberation of suffering beings. Contrary to facile claims that wisdom and compassion automatically imply one another, Viévard shows that the harmonization of these two pillars of Buddhism was the result of a long struggle of thought. Their non-duality is proclaimed, but claims of non-duality are always directed against concrete targets, recurring oppositions that are a trap for the mind. ‘Non-duality is before all else the echo of an opposition, even if this in the end shows itself to be fictive. L’advaya presupposes a conflict between dharmas, since it seeks to reduce it. For the Madhyamaka, however, this conflict is merely illusory and has reality only for the ignorant and in convention’ (p. 195).
The last sentence here point to an ultimate non-duality that is likely to be a stumbling block to Western students of Madhyamaka. But the practical striving for the integration of emptiness and compassion at the conventional level is a much more accessible idea. It allows us to meet the Madhyamaka thinkers at the level of common sense and basic moral and spiritual values. The bodhisattva ideal may seen too sublime, even then, to fit comfortably with our everyday preoccupations, but as an ideal of sainthood it puts forth a challenge that genuinely affects us. It does not come from another planet. Long meditation on the non-duality of wisdom and compassion as a practical project can perhaps prepare us to make better sense of the loftier proclamations of an ultimate non-duality.
The sage seeks the wisdom of emptiness, whereas the saint is devoted to selfless compassion. The patron of the one is Manjusrî, bodhisattva of wisdom, and of the other, Avalokitesvara (Kannon), bodhisattva of compassion. One may say that ‘wisdom without compassion is empty, compassion without wisdom blind,’ but only rarely do Mahâyâna texts claim that compassion arises naturally from insight into emptiness. Compassion, directed actively to the welfare of all beings, seems to presuppose their real existence. It is based not on emptiness but on the ‘golden rule’ that treats the sufferings of others as equal to one’s own. Compassion gives a substantial presence to self and other, which wisdom would deny. There is no natural harmony between these two, for they go in opposite directions. Yet the essence of Mahâyâna lies in establishing the ultimate unity of compassion and wisdom. They are unified in practice in the figure of the bodhisattva, who moves upward in wisdom and downward in compassion at the same time. The path to that unity is a difficult balancing act. ‘If one begins a career through wisdom, one will have to develop compassion, and vice versa the one who begins through compassion will have to purify it by wisdom’ (p. 17).
The bodhisattva must invest skillfully in the opposing virtues of wisdom, which retreats to the forest, and compassion, which descends to the village. The opposition does not paralyze the bodhisattva, but spurs him or her on. ‘Such an opposition also remains as long as both emptiness and compassion have not attained perfection, and the perfection of one implies the perfection of the other. When one develops one of them, one must counterbalance it with the help of the other. Helping one another, they will arrive at non-duality that makes their perfection’ (pp. 15-16). Emptiness can be a preparation for compassion: ‘When – owing to emptiness – the bodhisattva feels in a village as if he were in a forest, then compassion is permitted. It is a preparatory medication that vaccinates him against the agitations of the world’ (p. 16). In turn, compassion lends emptiness a substantial enactment that it would otherwise lack. It roots the notion of non-self conveyed by emptiness in the field of experience. ‘If emptiness permits the exercising of compassion through knowledge of universal identity, in return compassion roots this absence of difference between me and others in the world, Compassion here is an external evidence of emptiness’ (p. 17).
We have already seen that emptiness is a practical discipline of language and thought leading to the attitude of non-clinging. Now we see the full implications of this practice. Emptiness is for the sake of compassion, and the practice of compassion is what fully secures and completes the attitude of emptiness. The compound sûnyatâ-karunâ-garbha shows that ‘not only are emptiness and compassion not contradictory, but they define purity when they are reunited. Each brings to the act a form of its perfection; emptiness is forgetfulness of the other while compassion is forgetfulness of self’ (p. 225). As in other pairs that apparently conflict, one can imagine two oxen bound by a yoke, the pace of the one conditioning the gait of the other.
There is much debate as to whether the warm attitudes of compassion and forgiveness are compatible with the vision of emptiness that would deny to the objects of these attitudes any substantial existence. Prajnâkaramati in his commentary on Sântideva (according to Lambert Schmithausen) suggests that the doctrine of non-self is compatible with compassion only if we see that compassion as directed not to the illusory self, but to the components, the five aggregrates (skandhas), to which this illusion reduces when it is analyzed. Unfortunately, this ingenious theory has no support in early Buddhism, which frankly sees compassion as concerned only with illusory beings. The Sarvâstivadins, for example, see the Buddha's compassion as a surface or screening (samvrti) idea, whose object is the illusory living beings. Moreover, the Mahâyâna doctrine that all things are empty applies to the skandhas too, so a compassion directed to them would equally subscribe to an illusory substantiality. Compassion is fully reconciled with emptiness only in the ideal of an objectless compassion, and of course this objectless compassion of a Buddha belongs only to the ultimate level. But on the way there, argues Viévard, ‘if worldly convention is not a veil for the bodhisattva, why oppose it to dialectical unveiling? The bodhisattva, having surpassed convention, chooses to assume it anew to be useful to others… Illusory to the eye of ultimate meaning, suffering is still quite real in the world of convention, for “if all things are indeed without self-nature on the ultimate level, they nonetheless subsist on the conventional level” (Kamalasîla)’ (p. 212). Whether or not Viévard, or his sources, succeed in ironing out all the wrinkles of apparent contradiction, his analysis of the practical upshot of the tensions between emptiness and compassion testifies to the constructive vitality of the tradition, to a degree that almost makes questions of ultimate consistency seem otiose.
The practical equilibrium of emptiness and compassion may remind one of discussions of action and contemplation in Christian spirituality. But the idea that each of the two acts as a foundation for the other suggests a radical ontological vision that goes beyond practical wisdom. The vision of an integral human existence that unites sagehood and sanctity may seem remote from the conditions of ordinary life, but it is an ideal that can fruitfully be consulted and that can guide from afar the efforts of ordinary mortals. Its very lucidity and comprehensiveness makes it more helpful than scattered, disjointed moral and spiritual imperatives that push us in various directions without offering a clear map of the path to follow. But can the path of human and spiritual growth really be mapped out in this systematic way? Perhaps all such paths are merely provisional constructions, skillful means for orienting oneself in a given historical and cultural horizon.
The interplay between wisdom that focuses on emptiness and compassion that enters the play of conventionally existing beings recalls the dynamic of the Incarnation, reflected in Christian existence as set forth, though not systematically mapped, in the New Testament. The transcendent God, witnessed to in the breakdown of our conventional language, makes himself known in the play of earthly forms, assuming compassionately the condition of the creature. The dependently co-arising world is no longer just an icon that points beyond itself but is the very place where the divine dwells. The rich affinities between bodhisattva compassion and Christian charity must imply a potential rapprochement between the underlying outlooks on reality as well. The Buddhist analyses can clarify and temper the biblical vision, freeing it from the appearance of being an arbitrary or even bullying set of expectations. In return, the Christian kerygma can recall the Buddhist ideals from the rarefied space of a monastic or philosophical laboratory to the broken, fleshly texture of historical human life.