The ideas of religion often seem vague and tenuous. But, as we have seen, the most apparently empty of all notions – namely the notion of emptiness itself – can function as a sword that cuts off what is unwholesome and establishes us in strength and freedom. The same is true of the notion of non-duality (advaya), a central theme of Mahayana Buddhist and Vedantic literature.
The language of non-duality, like that of emptiness, is often hard for a Westerner to stomach. Sometimes one is rebuffed by stark logical paradoxes: ‘The mountain is not a mountain; that is why it is a mountain’ (Diamond Sutra). Sometimes what is declared seems to fly in the face of experience. Sometimes the doctrine seems irresponsible, dissolving even the distinction between good and evil, as in the dictum so popular in Japanese Buddhism: ‘Passions themselves are enlightenment’. Zen is not, however, a deviation from the Buddhist mainstream. Though it declares its independence of words and letters, its paradoxes derive their point from long acquaintance with the discourse on emptiness and non-duality elaborated in the Mahayana Sutras and the Madhyamaka and Yogacara philosophies.
Non-duality is a central teaching of Buddhism, making its major entry in the Perfection of Wisdom texts which are the founding scriptures of Mahâyâna Buddhism and finding its subtlest and most sophisticated expression in the practice and paradoxes of Zen. The Madhyamaka school of Nâgârjuna and his commentators gave stark philosophical expression to this teaching (and influenced, beyond the Buddhist world, the Vedantic conception of non-duality).
Non-duality seems at first sight to combine logical madness with moral anarchy. It abolishes all differences, even the difference between good and evil. It insists over and over again that there can be no differences between things that have no real existence, and that nothing has any real existence. That might be a refreshing contrast to the Manichean rhetoric of Good against Evil, Us against Them, which foments so much violence. And indeed Buddhist non-duality is always directed against concrete targets, recurring oppositions that are a trap for the mind. Non-duality should be thought of as a struggle to overcome particular dualities that keep coming back. For example, Buddhism has been plagued by a duality between wisdom and compassion, and it is by working hard to construct a reconciliation between them, in a tight-rope act that avoids both the blindness of compassion without wisdom and the emptiness of wisdom without compassion, that one advances to the perfection of both, at which stage the two reveal their mutual implication, their non-duality.
Vimalakîrti: The Benevolent Eye of Wisdom
The ideal of non-duality is richly expressed in the Vimalakîrti-nirdesa-sûtra, a major Mahâyâna scripture, akin to the Perfection of Wisdom literature, and dating from the beginning of our era. Despite its proclivity to long lists it is perhaps the most satisfying of all Buddhist sutras from a literary point of view. Until recently it was extant only in Chinese and Tibetan versions, the most influential being that of Kumârajîva (5th century), but original Sanskrit surfaced in Tibet in 1999 and is being edited at Taisho University, Tokyo, who have made the text available.The French translation by Canon Étienne Lamotte is a masterpiece of elegant erudition, which has been rendered into English by Sara Boin. (I give page references to Boin, adding the corresponding page in Lamotte.) He follows the 9th century Tibetan translation in the Kanjur (Tibetan canon), adding in a facing column, or in smaller print within the text, the variants found in Hsüan-tsang (Xuanzang, 662-664); variants from the two earlier extant Chinese versions are given in the notes. The recovered Sanskrit only rarely substantiates Hsüan-tsang divergences from the Tibetan. Hsüang-tsang is closer than Kumârajîva to the original Indian character of the work.
The sutra concerns one of the most famous Buddhist sages, no doubt a fictional character, namely, the lay bodhisattva Vimalakîrti. The action of the twelve chapters concerns the visit of the Buddha’s leading disciples to the bedside of Vimalakîrti, who is ill (an illness which is a skilful means for teaching). In various witty jousts of wisdom, the conversations rehearse the fundamentals of Mahâyâna teaching. Lamotte claims that the sutra represents the pure state of Madhyamaka thought: ‘Like the Prajnâpâramita, the Avatamsaka, the Ratnakûta and the Mahâsamnipâta, it represents that Madhyamaka in the raw state which served as the foundation for Nâgârjuna's school’ (lxii; 40). The basic Madhyamaka theses defended on every page of the sutra are that all dharmas are (1) empty of self-nature or inherent existence; (2) unarisen and unextinguished; (3) originally calm and naturally nirvana-ized; (4) without marks and, in consequence, inexpressible and unthinkable; (5) the same and without duality; (6) that emptiness is not an entity; (7) that ‘the luminous thought or mind is, purely and simply, the inexistence of thought… the absence of all thought’ (lxxxi; 60). These ideas are familiar to all who have wrestled with Nâgârjuna; indeed, much distortion in recent readings of Nâgârjuna comes from divorcing him from his background in the sutras that teach emptiness and non-duality.
At the beginning of Chapter VI, Vimalakîrti's chief interlocutor, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Manjusrî, puts the question: ‘How should a Bodhisattva see all beings?’ (153; 263). If we meditate on this question, we can find in it a contemporary resonance. How should the Christian view beings and events? What eye do we bring to our fellow-creatures and their activities? If they seem threatening and hostile, that is no doubt a mirror of the hostility lodged in ourselves that we are projecting out on them. If they, and our daily world, seem drab and boring, the fault again lies in our unappreciative way of looking at them.
The cardinal Buddhist virtues of wisdom and compassion can dissolve hostility and fear, but it might be thought that they can do nothing to give us a loving appreciation of our fellow mortals, since they stress so much the emptiness of existence and the illusoriness of the ego. Vimalakîrti’s answer confirms our worst fears: ‘A Bodhisattva should see all beings as an intelligent man sees the moon in the water’. It looks as if Buddhist serenity is bought at the cost of seeing human life as just a flickering illusion, surely a formula for impregnable apathy. Thirty-one other images in the same vein follow. All beings are as the print of a bird on the ether, as the erection of an eunuch, as the giving birth of a sterile woman, as the taste for games in one about to die, as the visions of a dream on awakening. Some of the analogies point to higher spiritual states that are free of attachment to illusory beings: all beings are as the belief in personality in a stream-enterer, a third rebirth for a sakrdâgâmin, a descent to the womb for a twice-born, the presence of greed, hatred and delusion in an arahant, thoughts of avarice, immorality, malice and hostility in a bodhisattva, the passage of a nirvana-ized one to a new existence. The basis of all this is the doctrine of non-self, or rather of the non-existence, the lack of self-nature, of all dharmas whatsoever (as Hsüan-tsang glosses; this conclusion is not in the Sanskrit).
Manjusrî then asks a question that may mirror the readers’ unease: ‘If a Bodhisattva considers all beings in this way, how does he produce great goodwill (mahâmaitrî) towards them?’ (155; 265). Insight into emptiness seems to undercut any concern for suffering beings, since their suffering and their being itself are delusory, and it is only by clinging to the delusion of their substantial existence that they continue to suffer. The serenity of wisdom seems to lead directly to a disengagement from all concern with the plight of common mortals. Vimalakîrti offers the following reply: ‘A Bodhisattva who considers them thus, says to himself: “I am going to expound the Law to beings in the way that I have understood it”. Thus he produces towards all beings a goodwill which is truly protective’ (155; 265-6). The sage, it seems, engages with his fellow humans by teaching them, by sharing with them his wisdom. This is better than complete disengagement, but at first sight it seems coolly intellectualist.
The chief quality of this benevolence seems to be its detachment. It is described as pacified, because without attachment; as without heat, because without passion; as true to the real, because it is the same in the three times; as firm, because its resolution is indestructible like a diamond; as without gratuitous assertions, because it is exempt from affection and aversion; as without repugnance, because it is cognizant of emptiness and non-self. It exercises the six perfections of giving, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom. It has the power of an arhat, of a bodhisattva, of a Tathâgata, of a Buddha, as it brings beings to release and enlightenment. Each item on these lists is no doubt intended as a theme for meditation. The theme seems always the same, namely, empty wisdom poised in the attitude of compassionate benevolence. The meditation is calculated to produce just this spiritual posture.
The only concrete action here is the action of giving (the first of the six perfections):
‘What is the great compassion (mahâkaruna) of the Bodhisattva?’‘It is the abandoning to beings without retaining any of all good roots enacted or accumulated’.
‘What is the great joy (mahâmuditâ) of the Bodhisattva?’ ‘It is rejoicing in and not regretting giving’. ‘What is the great equanimity (mahopeksâ) of the Bodhisattva?’‘It is benefiting [doing good] impartially without hope of reward’. (158; 268-9)
This exchange alludes to the four Brahma-abodes, a well-known meditative exercise taken up in early Buddhism, whereby one sends forth the energies of benevolence (maitrî), compassion (karunâ), sympathetic joy (muditâ) and equanimity (upeksâ) to all beings; this is to reduce the opposite, unwholesome sentiments in each case. The bodhisattva is not simply a teacher. His communication of wisdom is a disinterested communication of the good qualities he possesses, and indeed of his very being. His giving is an expression of wisdom, not merely of sporadic and spontaneous reactions of pity or generosity, but conversely his wisdom seeks concrete expression in outgoing goodwill and compassion.
The reader in quest of philosophical pyrotechnics may be disappointed that the sutra falls into the Indian propensity for long lists and resumes such clichéd topics as the Brahma-abodes. But the insertion of the well-known material in the new dramatic context of the sutra is in itself a way of renewing the meditator’s appreciation of it. Faced with the blindness and persistence of the passions, we cannot invoke the antidotes to them often enough. The literary reworking of these tried and tested antidotes cannot bring anything new, but functions only as a kind of advertisement. We can be grateful that for each of the other three Brahma-abodes the text does not give a list of thirty descriptions (thirty-eight in Hsüan-tsang) as it does for benevolence! (The thirty descriptions amount to only sixty-three compound words in the transliterated Sanskrit text.)
Manjusrî asks: ‘A Bodhisattva beset by the fear of rebirth, to where should he withdraw?’ (158; 269). Vimalakîrti answers that he should ‘withdraw into the magnanimity of the Buddhas’ (159; 269). One establishes oneself in this magnanimity by abiding in the sameness of all beings, and one does this by seeking to deliver all beings. Here it is suggested that the wisdom that sees the sameness (samatâ) of dharmas is acquired by the practice of compassionate engagement with them. Wisdom and compassion are mutually supportive. This teaching offers a corrective to warlike rage, in that it views all beings compassionately, the aggressors as victims of passion, and those who are hurt by them as victims of this passion at a second remove.
In the Buddhist perspective the effort to overcome the destructive power of passions is based in a realization of the emptiness of these passions, uncovered by tracing them back to their root: ‘The bad [unwholesome, akusala] dharmas do not arise and good ones are not extinguished… They have “aggregation” [accumulation] as their root… The root of aggregration is craving… The root of craving is false imagination… The root of false imagination is distorted perception… The root of distorted perception is the absence of a basis… This absence of a basis has no root; that is why all dharmas rest on a baseless root’ (159-60; 270-1). The absence of basis means the absence of the imagined object of the passion, as when one discovers that a fearful scarecrow is not a man but only a pole. In thus conducting the passions back to the emptiness that underlies them, one uses the passions as a propaedeutic to wisdom. In a world over-heated by aggressiveness, rage, bitterness, vengefulness, such cool analysis can bring healing. It traces fear behind the aggressiveness, false imaginations behind the fear, a rigid substantializing habit of projection behind the imaginations, and behind this nothing at all, just an absence we transform into a substantial presence.
Is it basically a fear of absence and emptiness that launches the entire chain of delusion? Instead of taking refuge in the gracious freedom of emptiness, we clutch at somethingness, and end up enslaved to a passion. All the busy destructive activity that this passion produces suffers from an inherent want of reality, and thus bears unwilling witness to the truth of emptiness from which it is in full flight.
The Paradoxes of the Goddess
After so much pedagogy, a little dramatic relief is welcome, and it is provided by the entry of the Goddess. This goddess is not a spectacular apparition such as we meet in the Lotus Sutra, but has a quite domestic status, since she lives in Vimalakîrti's house. That is in keeping with the tenor of the entire sutra, which conveys a sense of the world of the lay householder and brings the grandiose figures of Buddhist mythology down to earth, in a humorous and sometimes irreverent way. The goddess, thrilled by Vimalakîrti's teaching, causes flowers to rain down on the hearers. The flowers cling to the Listeners (representing earlier Buddhism) but not to the Bodhisattvas (who have acquired the higher Mahâyâna wisdom). Sâriputra tries to shake off the flowers, claiming they are unfitting to a religious, but the goddess explains that the flowers are without concept or imagination, that it is the hearers alone who conceive and imagine them, and that it is just such fabrications and discrimination of fixated conceptual thought that are unfitting to a religious. They do not cling to the Bodhisattvas, because the latter have dropped concepts and discriminations.
One might say that the flowers are flowers of emptiness, and are to be discerned as such by the eye of wisdom; and that all phenomena, when viewed rightly, are flowers of emptiness. Even the phenomena that enrage and embitter us and even the most evil things, viewed rightly, can reveal their texture of emptiness. In this way, the flowers confirm what Vimalakîrti has just been saying about the passions and the absence of basis.
Sâriputra, not too upset at being used as an object-lesson, since it is his customary role in Mahâyâna scriptures, asks the goddess how long she has been living in the house. She replies: ‘I have been here since the instant that Sâriputra the Elder entered deliverance (vimukti)’ (162; 273). Sâriputra asks how long that is, and is told that he himself should know. This silences him, and the goddess notes his silence in an ironic comment. Sâriputra explains: ‘Deliverance being inexpressible, I do not know what to say concerning it.’ This is a pre-Mahâyâna attitude, and once again the goddess corrects the elder: ‘You must not speak at all of deliverance being apart from syllables. And why? Because the sameness of all dharmas constitutes holy deliverance… It is for the distracted that the Buddha said: “The exhaustion of craving, hatred and delusion, this is what is called deliverance.” But for those who are not at all distracted he has said that craving, hatred and delusion are in themselves deliverance’ (162-3; 273-4). Here we meet the central Mahâyâna paradox, the identity of samsara and nirvana, of passions and enlightenment. ‘For there is nirvâna only for someone who imagines a samsâra, and vice versa’. The three poisons themselves are flowers of emptiness, if we can see and handle them wisely.
Does it make any sense to say that the greed of conquerors, the stubbornness of patriotism, the hate directed against the stranger and the enemy, the foolishness of the countless projections that foment war and provide the stuff of propaganda, are themselves deliverance? The goddess does not address this question, as she develops a richly imaged discourse on the superiority of Mahâyâna to the less comprehensive vehicles of the Listeners and the solitary realizers. Perhaps out of mischief, Sâriputra asks her why she does not change her female nature. This betrays a monkish narrowness which Mahâyânists saw themselves as overcoming, though they, too, thought that a change of sex was a prerequisite for buddhahood. She replies: ‘For the twelve years that I have lived in this house, I have sought after womanhood, but without ever obtaining it. How then could I change it? Honourable Sâriputra, if a skilful illusionist created through transformation an illusionary woman, could you reasonably ask her why she does not change her womanhood?’ (170; 281). The point is that all dharmas are empty and illusory, and that Sâriputra has become fixated on an apparent substantial identity. Could we say that, in the same way, a moralistic demand that greed, hatred, pride and folly be transformed into correct attitudes is an inadequate response to these ills?
The goddess floors Sâriputra by a comic feat of magic: ‘Sâriputra the Elder appeared in every way like the Devî and she herself appeared in every way like Sâriputra the Elder. Then the Devî changed into Sâraputra asked Sâriputra changed into a goddess: “Why then, O Honourable Sir, do you not change your womanhood”’ (170; 282). Is there a similar magic that can transform the above-mentioned ills into their opposites (as in Wilfred Owen's touching line: ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’)? Forgiveness, understanding, wide and tolerant human sympathy, and a sense that one shares with others the evil passions that one deplores in them, can no doubt effect this magic to some extent. Buddhists do not confront the unwholesome attitudes from a position of moralistic judgment over against them, reifying them as substantial evil, but rather work on them as material for transformation. Or rather, since 'dharmas, all just as they are, are neither made, nor changed' (171; 283), the evils are considered to lack inherent existence and it is the understanding of this lack that liberates us from them. The chapter ends in the key of lofty paradox:
‘Devî, how long will it be before you reach supreme and perfect enlightenment?’
‘When you yourself, O Sthavira, return to being a worldly one with all the attributes of a worldly one, then I myself will reach supreme and perfect enlightenment’.
‘Devî, it is impossible and it cannot occur that I return to being a worldly one with all the attributes of a worldly one’.
‘Equally, Honourable Sâriputra, it is impossible and it cannot occur that I ever attain supreme and perfect enlightenment. And why? Because complete enlightenment rests on a non-base. Consequently, in the absence of any base, who could reach supreme and perfect enlightenment?… Tell me, O Sthavira, have you already attained the state of holiness?’
‘I have obtained it because there is nothing to obtain’.
‘It is the same with Bodhi: it is achieved because there is nothing to achieve’. (171-2; 283-4)
This exchange might prompt us to meditate on the humbler theme of achievement in general, on the goals we set ourselves and the way we pursue them. Authentic creativity is very much a matter of living in the present and of not being shackled by past failures or future ambitions. Many people live unnecessarily servile lives, struggling to prove themselves in their own or in others’ eyes, working under the lash of a competition taking place before the eyes of external judges, or more often before the eye of their own ego or superego, which they project onto others, or onto God imagined as a jealous taskmaster. Even when their achievement is massive, it does not savour of liberation, but bears the harsh marks of steely ambition.
‘I have obtained it because there is nothing to obtain’ is the declaration of a truly successful person. All that is to be attained is to live and breathe in the here and now, disembarrassed of the burden of ego. To engage the present one must practice the middle way between the strained drivenness that seeks to clutch it and the laxity that lets it slide away. But surely this does not apply to the great achievers, who lay out a massive architectural plan that takes decades to accomplish, and that pursue their goal with unremitting discipline – figures like Milton and Dante for example? No, even in their case, ‘if poetry does not come as naturally as leaves on a tree, it had better not come at all’ (Keats). The plan becomes the framework of their daily effort, but unless they live in the present moment it will not be blessed with the grace of inspiration, but remain a dead monument of forced labor. The best praise they could give their own work would be: ‘It is achieved because there is nothing to achieve’.
The Silence of Vimalakîrti
In the eighth chapter of the sutra Vimalakîrti asks the bodhisattvas present to expound 'the entry into the doctrine of non-duality' (188; 301). Insight into non-duality is variously located in the thirty-two replies he receives, all of them rather laconic, and some quite cryptic. Non-duality overcomes the dualism of (1) ‘arising’ and ‘destruction’ (bhanga, not nirodha, cessation, as Lamotte surmised), through the insight that what is not born or arisen cannot be destroyed; (2) ‘me’ and ‘mine’, through non-assertion of ‘me’, which cuts off ‘mine’ at its root; (3) ‘defilement’ and ‘purification’, by perceiving the true nature of ‘defilement’, and seeing that this notion does not arise; (4) ‘distraction’ and ‘attention’, by cutting off at the root the reflection and interest that gives rise to both of them; (5) ‘Bodhisattva mind’ and ‘Listener mind’, by seeing them both as empty and illusory, and therefore the same; (6) ‘grasping’ and ‘rejection’, by abstaining from affirmation and negation, and by non-action in regard to all dharmas; (7) ‘singleness of mark’ and ‘absence of mark’, by seeing that the single mark of dharmas is their absence of mark; (8) ‘wholesome’ and ‘unwholesome’, by not seeking one or the other, by neither grasping nor letting go, thus breaking through to a signlessness beyond such conceptions; (9) ‘blameable’ and ‘blameless’, by seeing their identity, and that there is neither bondage nor liberation; (10) ‘impure’ and ‘pure’, by seeing the sameness of all dharmas; (11) ‘happiness’ and ‘unhappiness’, by excluding all calculation through a pure knowing; (12) ‘worldly’ and ‘otherworldly’, by realizing that since the world is inherently empty there is no crossing or entering or going or stopping (so no movement from worldly to otherworldly?); (13) ‘samsâra’ and ‘nirvana’, by seeing that samsâra has no real existence (and thus attaining nirvana), or by seeing the nature of nirvana and that it is not a place to be reached; (14) ‘destructible’ and ‘indestructible’, by seeing that the destructible is instantaneous and already destroyed, and that since it thus does not exist, neither does the indestructible; (15) ‘self’ and ‘non-self’, by seeing that self lacks inherent existence, and a fortiori so does non-self; (16) ‘knowledge’ and ‘ignorance’, by seeing knowing as of the same nature as non-knowing, which is without substance or measure; (17) ‘form’ and ‘emptiness’, by insight into the emptiness of form and the other skandhas (as in the Heart Sutra); (18) ‘the four elements’ and ‘space’, by seeing that the true nature of the elements is space; (19) ‘eye’ and ‘colour’, by detachment from colour (and other sensibles) and penetration of the true nature of the eye (and other sense-organs); (20) ‘giving’ and ‘application (parinâmâna) of the gift to omniscience (sarvajnâna)’, by seeing that the true nature of giving (and the other five perfections) is omniscience and that the true nature of omniscience is application; (21) ‘emptiness’, ‘signlessness’ (ânimitta), and ‘non-attending’ (apranihita), by seeing that the latter two gates of delivery are contained in the first; (22) ‘Buddha’, ‘Dharma’, and ‘Sangha’, by seeing that the true nature of the Buddha is the Dharma and that the true nature of the Dharma is the Sangha, and that all are unconditioned, like space; (23) ‘accumulation of perishable things’ and ‘destruction of the accumulation’, by seeing that accumulation itself is destruction, in that it is a false imagining which brings with it the imagining of destruction; (24) the disciplines of ‘body’, ‘voice’, and ‘mind’, by seeing the inactive nature of these and of all dharmas; (25) ‘meritorious’, ‘unmeritorious’, and ‘neutral’ actions, by insight into their emptiness, to which no merit or demerit can attach. Non-duality overcomes (26) dualism rooted in ‘self’, by true insight into self; (27) dualism based on ‘objects’, by awareness of the absence of objects, which leaves nothing to be taken or rejected; (28) the duality of ‘darkness’ and ‘light’, by their disappearance in the meditative state of cessation; (29) ‘delight in nirvana’ and ‘non-delight in samsâra’, by not being bound by samsâra and thus no longer seeking release; (30) the duality of ‘path’ and ‘bad path’, by following the path alone, so that the very notions of path and bad path no longer arise; (31) the duality of ‘reality’ and ‘falsehood’, in that the one who sees reality cannot conceive its ungraspable nature, and a fortiori does not conceive its opposite.
Note that the bodhisattvas’ replies are a review of all the concepts in Buddhism that are likely to give rise to a dualistic understanding, and that usually are understood in a dualistic way, perhaps because of the dualistic-sounding rhetoric of earlier Buddhist texts. In many cases the duality on which one becomes fixated is overcome by identifying entirely with one side of the duality and discovering that one no longer needs to think of a duality, and that the very conceptions of ‘path’ and ‘bad path’, or ‘worldly’ and ‘otherworldly’ wither away. Or we may discover that the opposing concepts share a substantial identity, in emptiness (Buddha, dharma, and sangha, for instance). In our minds certain notions and oppositions loom large, and cast a deep shadow over us, paralyzing us. Bringing analytic mindfulness to bear on these notions, for instance, on such notions as wealth, security, reputation, we overcome them and discover a deeper way of life, one that is free from enslavement to any notions.
The last response comes from Manjusrî who says: ‘You have all spoken well; however, in my opinion, all that you have said still implies duality. Excluding all words and not saying anything, not expressing anything, not pronouncing anything, not teaching anything, not designating anything, this is entering into non-duality’ (202; 316-17). Then Manjusrî turns to Vimalakîrti and asks for his own answer. The climactic sentence of the chapter follows: ‘The Licchavi Vimalakîrti remained silent’ (tûsnim abhûd). His act confirms and illustrates Manjusrî's statement, while eliminating its residual performative contradiction. Vimalakîrti's silence would not carry its full weight without the context provided by Manjusrî’s pronouncement, and this in turn gains its weight from the exhaustive preceding discussion.
The language of the sutra is extremely lofty, but we can cash it in the small change of everyday life if we look out for occasions of overcoming dualisms that bind us in different ways. Many people feel that dualisms give them a strong identity. They cultivate strong attachments and strong aversions in order to bolster their sense of self. On the level of feelings, this leads to partiality, to blind loyalty to those one admires and contemptuous dismissal of others, or to patriotic or religious chauvinism. On the level of ideas, it leads to opiniatedness, a mental vice which fuels the bulk of the world's impassioned discussions. To refrain from excess in one's feelings and ideas seems a formula for 'playing dead,' but we should understand the Buddhist attitude not as one of prudent timidity, but as a freedom from affects and from views that allows one to live more fully and to act more effectively. When we observe prejudiced people from the outside, we pity their mental bondage, yet to them it seems like freedom, the freedom to be themselves. In the eyes of the Buddha we are all in the grip of such imprisoning distortions. The analysis and dismantling of extremes brings us back again and again to the middle path, which is free of delusion.
The Non-duality of Emptiness and Compassion
What most melts rage is compassion. But does compassion have a legitimate place in Buddhism? As a desire, compassion conflicts with the state of detached equanimity that Buddhism seeks, and the object of compassion, suffering living beings, is a delusory object that has no real existence for the sage who sees the emptiness of all things. ‘The logical necessity to admit that a compassionate Buddha could not be without the desire that living beings should not suffer may seem obvious, but it took the Buddhists many centuries to admit it, and even then only reluctantly’. Combining the two images of the Buddha, as utterly detached and as deeply compassionate, led to some paradoxical proposals: ‘When the Buddha is in a state of Great-Equanimity, one could burn all living beings like dry wood; even if he stood next to this burning, he would not perceive it (i.e. would not react to it). When he actualizes the Great-Compassion, then his body, which is so strong that no one can move it, trembles like a banana leaf shaken by the wind owing to the suffering of a single living being’.
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, that 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.
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.
In the Pâli Canon, compassion is a feeling generated in the Brahma-abode exercises, for the purpose of purifying the mind and eliminating the passions. 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. ‘Equanimity is downgraded to a preparatory exercise for benevolence and compassion, serving to dismantle one-sided emotion’. In early Buddhism the Buddha’s enlightenment does not necessitate his compassionate decision to bring his teaching to suffering beings. He remains free to refuse, and he assumes this duty only in response to a plea from the god Brahmâ. In the Mahâ-parinibbanâ-sutta, his beloved disciple Ânanda fails to plead with him not to enter nibbanâ, despite repeated promptings, so the Buddha leaves behind the world of suffering creatures. ‘Enlightenment takes the ground from under self-centred emotions and strivings, but does not yet thereby automatically constitute positively altruistic feelings or impulses’. In Mahâyâna the entire earthly career of the Buddha is seen as an illusion laid on as a skilful means. The Buddha is constantly present in the world, constantly emanating wisdom and compassion.
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. 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’. 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 in 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. 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.
Compassion extends first to beings, then to all dharmas, then it becomes objectless. The Buddha’s 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”’.
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’. 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’. 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)’. 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’. ‘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’.. 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’.
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, the texts frequently speak of the tension between them. Their harmonization 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. 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’.
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’.
The bodhisattva must invest skilfully 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’. 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’. 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’.
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’. 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 scholastic 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 Sarvâstivâdins, 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, ‘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)’. Whether or not one can iron out all the wrinkles of apparent contradiction, 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, skilful means for orienting oneself within a given historical and cultural horizon.
 Vimalakîrtinirdesa : Transliterated Sanskrit Text Collated with Tibetan and Chinese Translations (Tokyo: Taisho University Press, 2004).
 Étienne Lamotte, L'Enseignement de Vimalakîrti (Louvain-la-neuve: Institut Orientaliste, 1962); Étienne Lamotte with Sara Boin, The Teaching of Vimalakîrti (London: Pali Text Society, 1976).
 Ludovic Viévard, Vacuité (sûnyatâ) et compassion (karunâ) dans le bouddhisme madhyamaka (Collège de France, 2002), 210, referring to the Lânkavatâra Sûtra.
 Eli Franco, ‘Did the Buddha Have Desires?’, in: H.W. Bodewitz and Minoru Hara, ed., Gedenkschrift J.W. de Jong (Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 2004), 39-47; here 46.
 Mahâbhivâsâ, quoted, Mudagamuwe Maithrimurthi, Wohlwollen, Mitleid, Freude und Gleichmut (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1999), 149. In Middle Length Suttas, no. 149, the Buddha withdraws into meditation on emptiness at every break in his teaching.
 Lambert Schmithausen, ‘Mitleid und Leerheit’, in: Andreas Bsteh, ed. Der Buddhismus als Anfrage an christliche Theologie und Philosophie (Mödling: St. Gabriel, 2000), 437-55; here 442.
 L. Schmithausen, ‘Gleichmut und Mitgefühl’, ibid., 119-36; here 127.
 Viévard., 144.
 Quoted, ibid., 172.
 Ibid., 175.
 Ibid., 153-4.
 Ibid., 155.
 Ibid., 178.
 Ibid., 180.
 Ibid., 181.
 Ibid., 182.
 See Schmithausen, 444, n. 49.
 Viévard, 195.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 15-16.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 225.
 I draw here on a draft paper of L. Schmithausen.
 Viévard, 212.