Sacred geometry

Compassion and Emptiness

Date22nd November 2005
Retreat/SeriesNovember Solitary 2005


So I'd like to talk this evening about compassion and emptiness. If we have just a simple sort of working definition of what compassion is -- I think we all have a sense of what it is, but it might be, we could say something like, compassion is the natural response of the heart to suffering when the heart is not preoccupied with self-interest. It's just what naturally flows out of the heart when we're not closed in on ourselves. Or if it's to our own suffering, it's the natural response of the heart when we're not entangled in some kind of negative self-view, negative self-belief. And that natural response of the heart, when it comes into contact with the pain of the world, it wants to heal, it wants to alleviate, to soothe, to ease that suffering.

In a way, compassion rests on loving-kindness, this quality of mettā that we talk about -- so that quality of well-wishing, wishing for the happiness of all beings, of deep friendliness towards all beings. When that quality is in the heart, and it meets suffering, and that comes into contact with suffering, compassion flows. It's the natural outgrowth of a heart that has that friendliness in it.

That might be okay, and that is okay as a definition. But all these things that we talk about in the Dharma, they're just words. So we use the word 'compassion,' and it's a beautiful word. But the words -- it's just a word, in the final analysis. Actually, compassion is something that's very rich. It has a lot of different aspects to it. It has a lot of different dimensions to it.

So we use words like 'compassion' or these other Dharma words, and really, they're just a label for something that's helpful, that's hopefully helpful to orient the heart in a certain way. If we look a bit more fully at what compassion is, we see it's kind of a composite. It's something that's made up of a lot of different things.

[3:20] So if we think, "Well, what goes into compassion?", it includes the quality of empathy, the quality that when we see someone suffering, our heart somehow trembles with that, almost like we take it in through the air. And our heart moves with that suffering. That's what we call 'empathy,' 'suffering with.' Compassion includes empathy. It includes this giving. There's a giving aspect of compassion.

It includes equanimity, a kind of steadiness in the face of suffering. That has to be something that's an essential aspect of compassion. It can't be blown over by suffering. So equanimity is a factor of compassion.

Wisdom and understanding -- we have to actually understand suffering in order to help alleviate it. Kindness, the quality of acceptance, of listening, of holding -- all these are part of compassion. Opening. Joy, too, is a part of compassion. Humour.

And with all that, it's also important to realize that compassion is actually not just a feeling. Lovely as that feeling may be, when it's there, that we feel with another, we feel with another being, and how beautiful that is -- but actually, compassion cannot just be a feeling. It has to be more than that. And if we just reflect on times when we've been involved in helping people or doing some kind of service work, whatever, it's never this complete, endless, and uninterrupted flow of lovely feeling. There are going to be times when you're just doing the work because that's what needs to be done. You don't particularly feel anything in the heart, may be even irritated at something. But compassion has to be bigger than the feeling.

[5:38] And as human beings, I think we really love and appreciate compassion. I think we have a sense, even if it's a dim sense, somewhere deep in our hearts, of the possibilities of our heart. And we, I think, all yearn for that, for living a life that's really touched deeply and often by compassion. Something very deep in us -- we know there's something about that that we hunger for.

Some of the reasons that we hunger are because, when we're feeling compassionate, there's actually a real connection going on. We're literally 'feeling with' another. And so we feel connected, and human beings like to feel connected. We love to feel connected. We don't like feeling isolated. So that is an aspect of compassion, one of the reasons why we love it.

And similarly, connected to that, when compassion is in the heart, it actually dissolves the kind of prison of self-interest that is so much a factor in our lives. So much of the time, we're enclosed in self-interest, in being concerned for ourselves. And when the heart moves out to hold, to touch, to support, to heal another, we're breaking out of that prison of self-interest. And it's a huge relief, a huge relief.

Just energetically, the factor, the quality of compassion feels very lovely. It has a good feeling, a pleasant feeling. There's warmth with it. We like that warmth. The Buddha says, "Know where to find pleasure, and take it there."[1] Just know what's a good kind of pleasure. It has a sweetness to it. And I think that the deeper, the longer we practise, the further we go with all of this, one of the things that happens in a very real way is that something changes in the heart, and we find ourselves making a deeper and deeper commitment to compassion in our lives. That somehow, of all the things in our lives that might have a stake, you know, to seem important, more and more, it's qualities like compassion that just really rise up to the fore and say, "This is really important to me." That's something very strong running out of my heart and in my life.

[8:47] Commitment to compassion, commitment to kindness -- these things really come to the fore. And so someone like the Dalai Lama, nowadays, he just says, "My religion is kindness." Someone who has devoted his whole life to the spiritual path, and actually it's kind of boiled down to that in the end.

So we might see, we might feel the importance of the quality of compassion. But perhaps that alone is not enough. For the Buddha, asking the right questions in life is something he put great emphasis on. It's very important. I'm often struck when I read the suttas, his original discourses. When he's describing his practice before enlightenment, how often it's filled with him asking himself questions: "Why does this happen when this happens? How does suffering arise? It's because of this. Why does that happen?" And tracing things back, constantly wanting to penetrate, wanting to ask questions, very deep questions of life, of himself.[2] And similarly, when he was teaching, he would often ask questions of people. And then if they couldn't answer, he would give the answer himself. There's always asking questions.

Is that spirit of questioning really strong and alive in our hearts? One of my teachers used to say, "In a way, our life depends on what questions we ask." That questioning is really, really alive.

So in terms of compassion, the questions are, "How -- what helps this quality? What encourages this quality? And what blocks this quality?" Those are the questions that the Buddha would ask of compassion.

About asking questions: I only know two things about the writer Gertrude Stein. But one of them was apparently, she was on her deathbed, in and out of a coma, and there was this sort of entourage of people around. And one of them, I think her name was Mavis something-or-other. Gertrude Stein would come in and out of the coma, and oftentimes have this sense of a person sort of stepping over into the other side, and maybe getting a glimpse of something that normal human beings don't see. And she would come back and regain consciousness, and this person Mavis asked, "Gertrude, what's the answer?" And Gertrude Stein said, "Mavis, what's the question?"[3] [laughter]

So it's just, sometimes we have a sense that there's something we're asking, but we're not actually quite specific, quite driving enough in the questioning. So really to be very specific and alive in the questioning that we have. And there are many techniques that we can use to develop compassion. In the Theravādan tradition, we use the phrases that we repeat. In other traditions, there's the practice of tonglen, of giving and receiving compassion. A person may use an image of a bodhisattva or reflections on a bodhisattva, some being of great compassion, whether it's Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, whether it's Jesus, it doesn't matter. All these techniques are available. These approaches are available. Doesn't matter. Just actually developing insight tends to lead to compassion if one goes about it a certain way.

But it's not just formally asking the question, "How can I develop it? What techniques can I use?" It's more, "How really can this quality be a very deep current in my life? How can the quality of compassion be something that's really, really a major force in my life?"

So, again, the Buddha would ask, "What is it that nurtures compassion? What is it that allows compassion to grow?" This is what I'd like to explore tonight a little bit. And one of the most basic and obvious conditions that allows compassion to grow is actually very simple: it's just the willingness, the openness to let ourselves come close to suffering, to let ourselves touch suffering, look at suffering. And this often means starting with our own suffering. Do we have that willingness to just open and just be with, and be intimate with our suffering? Because it's part of being alive.

Actually, that's not that obvious. I mean, you could say that to a lot of people who maybe don't come to places like these, and they may not -- "What do you want to do that for?" It's not actually that obvious. But it's only through coming close and opening that we can begin to understand and begin to do something about suffering, which is the movement of compassion.

And even if we've been hanging around these kind of places for years, we actually need reminding of that. It's something that is very easy to forget. [laughs] We need to, in a way, just remind ourselves, re-find that willingness to open to our suffering. There's this willingness to open, to touch suffering, and it's also just the progress of insight, if we could call it that. Just the more we begin to look into these questions that we've been talking about over the days -- questions of impermanence, questions of suffering itself, questions of how suffering arises -- the more insight grows, the more compassion grows with it. It's something that should grow naturally out of compassion. The more we open to and have an understanding of what I was talking about in the last talk, of this emptiness of self -- again, if I'm not so enclosed in my self, it has to flow out in compassion. It has to. The borders, the barriers are not so strong, and it has to move that way.

So if we think about developing compassion, it's not just that it develops here on the cushion in the meditation hall. I mean, of course not. These qualities, like compassion, like kindness, like patience and all that -- they develop very much through action as well as through reflection and through meditation. That means, are we choosing actions in our life, are we putting ourselves in situations that will develop compassion because they are compassionate actions? So if we engage in compassionate actions, it builds compassion as a quality of the heart. It's not just on the cushion.

And there are countless opportunities -- I mean, little ones through the day with the people that we know and we come across, but also the world is full of places to go and work and help. And there are all those cheap airlines now, and ... [laughs] It's great, you know? It's just unfortunate a lot of them just get used to go and lie on a beach somewhere. And we can actually make choices, engage in actions that really do cultivate our heart.

[17:33] Similarly, there are people in the world who, for different reasons, have very strong compassion in their hearts, very open hearts, very dedicated to the service in the world, the welfare of others. And somehow, for myself, I've found that being around those people has a way of -- it kind of rubs off a little bit, just a little bit. And maybe we need to sometimes think about actually seeking these people out and spending some time with them if we can. Association with the wise -- the Buddha highly recommended association with the compassionate.[4]

There are many factors that feed compassion. One of the less obvious ones is actually happiness. Our capacity for compassion, our capacity for care is actually dependent on us being happy, that we have a feeling of enough, that we're not feeling deprived in some way. So to take care of our happiness is actually building the foundations for our capacity for compassion as well.

And I have a very good friend who's -- she doesn't practise at all, and she's not even interested in that. But just naturally, her heart, it seems to me, is one of the most -- I don't know, compassionate and empathic I've ever come across. At the same time, she's also quite prey to attacks of self-judging thoughts and a lot of negative self-belief, sometimes for quite prolonged periods of time, and you can just see her ability and her willingness to help others is just completely shot by that. [19:40] So to take care of our happiness is a gift to other people.

We might also ask, "What is it that is blocking compassion? What is it that's not helpful?" There are some obvious things. I'd like to look at some of the maybe less obvious things that get in the way a little bit. And it's not that any of these are wrong, or that we should judge them if these kind of blocks or distortions are happening. It's actually natural, and it's to be expected that if we're endeavouring to cultivate compassion that we're going to run into qualities of mind and heart that are not quite it. They may be a little bit off. So that's all to be expected in this movement towards greater compassion.

(1) The first one is actually fear, that we're afraid of suffering, which is completely understandable, because it's suffering, and it hurts, especially if it's ours. When there's pain in the body, when there's pain in the heart, we tend to retract from it. And there's fear going on -- that shrinkage of fear blocks the flow of love, blocks the flow of compassion. But it not only does that, it actually adds to the suffering. That contraction of the heart is another -- a whole other level, a whole other layer of suffering. So just, again, not to judge all this. Just to see, "Ah, there's suffering. Is there fear in relationship to it?" And then maybe we need to work with the fear.

When we're confronted with the suffering of others, fear can also be a factor that kind of derails the movement of compassion. There's a lot of suffering in the world. There's actually probably an unimaginable, immeasurable amount of suffering in the world. And just in all its forms and all its degrees, it's actually probably immeasurable. When we come into contact with that suffering, it can be very common and very normal for a sense of, "This little self -- how can I do anything?" And the little self feels overwhelmed, feels unable to hold it, to encompass it, to embrace it. It's too much for the little sense of self, and there's fear.

[22:37] Again, this has everything to do with this emptiness of self that we've been talking a little bit about. Is it really me, the little self, holding the suffering? In a way, either there's fear or love. Either there's fear or there's love. When there's fear, there's that constriction. When there's love, there's the opening. So to work with fear is also to work on our love. This aspect of fear -- the first way that it might get derailed a little bit.

(2) The second one is anger. This is quite interesting because, in a way, it's as if we come into contact with suffering, and our natural movement of compassion actually gets diverted into anger. We tend to start blaming: "It's their fault. They shouldn't have done this." Or: "It's my fault. I shouldn't be suffering." Blaming or judging or getting a sense of self-righteousness. What's going on there? We're not actually understanding the causes of suffering. It might be a bit of a defence reaction; we're taking ourselves away from being in contact with the suffering, and getting into anger, which is like one step removed and a bit more defensive. It's a bit easier sometimes to blame, to get into judgment. Might actually be using that in an unconscious way to step back from the suffering, because it's too much.

But it may also be -- and it probably is -- that we're not understanding the causes of the suffering. What's contributed to this suffering? We're not understanding all the different causes, all the 'dependent arising,' in the Dharma language, how all the factors come together to create the suffering. We just start pointing the fingers: "It's their fault," or "It's my fault." It's not that simple.

I remember the last two years I lived in Boston, in the States, and I had moved to a suburb on the outskirts of Boston. It was quite a -- well, it's quite -- just a sort of American Dream suburb sort of thing, and I rented a small room there. And it was sort of second- and third-generation immigrants who very much -- well, this was my perception at the time -- they very much believed in the American Dream and having their house that was very well guarded and well kept, and a swimming pool if they could afford it, and then cars. And it seemed to me that almost everyone had these SUV vehicles, the big sports utility vehicles, which, at that time, they were huge gas-guzzlers. They used up an enormous amount of petrol. And also, in America at that time, they had no (what do you call?) emission control, so their exhaust was extremely polluting. And I would walk around my neighbourhood and feel a bit ... [laughs] irate at this, and quite judgmental.

And then 9/11 happened, you know, September 11^th^, and all the SUVs and everything. And to me it seemed quite clear that there was a connection between American oil interests and their presence in the Gulf and what happened on 9/11. Seemed to me that there was a connection. And I asked my teacher about this, and I felt angry, and she said, "Oh, give them mettā, and wish them more SUVs. Wish them more." [laughter] Which I said, "Right, okay." And I dutifully went and tried, and I found it very difficult. [laughter] And after a while I gave up. [laughter]

But what was helpful, actually, was somehow, I -- probably wasn't my idea -- but somehow realizing that actually, all this was coming out of ignorance. The connection wasn't seen between oil consumption, the car you drive, the world politics, all that -- it just wasn't seen. And this ignorance, we could say "they're ignorant," but actually, ignorance doesn't belong to anyone. It's just ignorance. I'm ignorant in different ways, they're ignorant in different ways -- it doesn't matter. It's just ignorance, and it's part of the human condition. It doesn't belong to self. And somehow, seeing it in that way helped to bring a softening and free some compassion for me.

[27:55] Anyway, I would have had to ask, "Where was the compassion?" I was getting very self-righteously angry. But where was the compassion? So we can use anger, as I said, as a way of distorting and diverting the movement of compassion.

When it's our own suffering that we're talking about, it's not the case that compassion is -- it doesn't push away suffering through anger, through aversion. That's not what compassion does. It's more a quality of actually holding the suffering and adding the ingredients, adding the qualities of healing, of understanding. So it's holding and understanding and healing rather than pushing away.

(3) So there's fear, there's anger or aversion. There's also a quality of what we might call pity. Pity is something that happens when -- if it's in relation to another -- we're not kind of seeing them as equals. We're a little bit, "Oh you poor, poor little thing, suffering there." There's a separation and a distance, and it also can be used as a defence. We don't want to come too close, and so we put people in another category or down a bit. And then from up here, we pity them.

[29:37] Pity -- and especially if it's self-pity -- it's quite easy to see, it has the effect of being disempowering. It has the effect of being debilitating and disempowering and keeping the suffering there. In that way it's different from compassion, which empowers ourselves or empowers another, and helps to alleviate it. They're quite different. Compassion is not debilitating. It's energizing when we move more towards the pure manifestation of compassion. And again, just to reiterate, none of this is wrong if there's pity or anger or fear. It's all part of what's normal, what's to be expected. But just to be aware: "When am I drifting? And can I redress the situation?"

What's common to all those -- to fear, to anger, pity -- is actually that too much of a self-view has gotten involved. If there's pity, we're looking down. If there's anger, we're blaming: "Me and them -- different. They do that. I don't. They suffer. I don't. I don't have that kind of suffering." Or self-pity. It's just got completely wrapped up in the whole self-story and the whole self-view. Fear, too -- again, the fear of the little self being overwhelmed. The self has got too much in the picture. Part of the movement towards greater compassion is this understanding, this loosening of the constriction of self and the belief in self.

We need to begin to -- sometimes very deliberately -- start to try and see the commonality that we have, the common humanity that we have. Suffering is suffering. Doesn't matter who or even why. Suffering is suffering, whether it's out of ignorance, out of greed, out of selfishness, out of cruelty. Suffering is suffering. And the delusion that gives rise to it, that is a factor in suffering -- delusion is delusion.

(4) There's fear, anger, pity. The last one is grief, this quality of grief, which is, in a way, quite tricky too. It's common that we come into contact with suffering, and we do open to the suffering, but then we find ourselves very tired and very burdened and weighed down by it, and feeling quite overwhelmed by it, and debilitated. This is an extremely common human reaction.

Again, compassion in its pure form is something that's quite bright. It's quite strong and energized, quite empowering. We'll talk a bit more about this. If we think about a couple of aspects of compassion, two of the most central aspects of compassion are the -- already talked about it earlier -- (1) this quality of empathy. So almost deliberately drinking in someone's pain, feeling our heart trembling with that, feeling our heart moving, resonating with that. This quality of taking in the suffering is very central to what compassion is -- empathy.

(2) But that empathy has to be balanced with another quality: it has be balanced with this quality of giving -- that there is, as I said, a movement within compassion to want to heal, to want to soothe, to want to ease. It's an energy going out. The quality of empathy, of taking in, of receiving suffering, might have a sweetness to it, a sweetness to the sadness of it. And it can very well. But if things are too much on that side of the balance, it will end up being quite tiring, and a lot of grief, and actually quite difficult to sustain the compassion and not feel overwhelmed. So that empathy has to be balanced with this quality of giving. It has to be balanced by this quality of something coming out of the being that either actively, physically is healing, or wants to heal or just gives that energy of healing, of easing, of soothing. That quality of giving is, in itself, quite bright, quite enjoyable, quite happiness-inducing.

Now, if it was all that, then we'll get a bit out of contact with the suffering of other people. So these two qualities actually need to be balanced. And it's not that we find one still point and stay there for the rest of our lives. It's something that moves back and forth. But to be aware of that balance as the heart is wanting to open this way.

As compassion deepens in our being, either through formal practice or just through practice in general, we can actually talk about, in a way, a third aspect of it. And it can seem, at first, that the self is doing all this. The self is doing this compassion. It's 'me' taking in. It's 'me' giving. It's 'me' doing the holding. But as the compassion deepens, as the sense of that deepens and the heart opens, in a way, and as more stillness comes, it's quite common to have the beginnings of a sense of "This actually isn't 'me' being compassionate." It's not something the self is doing. It's not 'me' holding it. It's not 'me' holding the suffering.

As compassion deepens, it can be that there's a sense of a space opening, as if compassion has a quality of spaciousness to it that can accommodate suffering, that can embrace suffering, and that there's no suffering, no pain in the world that can be outside of this space. So whatever pain arises, it arises in this space. And it's held in that space. That's the space of compassion. And that space, just by its nature, because of its spaciousness, because of its stillness, actually has equanimity as well in it. It has a vast steadiness in it, and also because it's not something of the self. Self is little and wobbly. Space is vast and steady.

And it's not uncommon for people to feel, either through practice or quite spontaneously in their life, not doing any compassion practice, that actually, love and compassion are -- one can almost have a sense that they're, in a way, qualities of the universe. Somehow they're just aspects of the universe that are available to us, somehow, in the vastness of things. And sometimes people have just reported this, just a sense of this coming out of the blue. It didn't seem to have any history of anything like this at all, maybe none or very little practice history, and there's just this sense. And then of course it fades. But this is quite common. If or when that happens, people may want to, may feel drawn to using the language of 'God,' that there's a sense of touching something really awesome in vastness, and something you can't even begin to fathom. And I think that's fine. I think that's lovely. One may use the language of 'bodhisattvas,' or the 'energy of a bodhisattva' -- it doesn't matter. It's just something that's available to human consciousness, to tap into, to feel as a support.

And begin to get a sense of compassion and love being something really unfathomably deep, something very mysterious. All the great mystics talk in that -- one common theme is always love and compassion. Julian of Norwich, one of the English mystics, said, "Love is without beginning."[5] It's almost like getting a sense that we start with the idea of, "Yeah, it's me doing, me being compassionate, me doing this." And as it deepens, you get a sense, maybe that's not really the whole truth of this. There's something unfathomably deep and mysterious about what love is.

[39:59] Of course, in all of this, we're talking about love and compassion -- it's absolutely necessary not to be excluding ourselves. Sometimes we can have this aspiration to compassion, and just to make sure that that compassion, in its boundlessness, includes ourselves. So often we're too quick to leave ourselves out of that. The Buddha said we could search the entire universe for someone more deserving of love and compassion than we are, and we wouldn't find that person.[6] Having a basis in love for ourselves is really the basis, then, for giving to others.

When we feel hurt by another person, again, it can be quite a sort of normal initial impulse to want to just, "Oh, I should fix this anger I feel with -- at them. So I should send them love, I should send them compassion." It might actually be quite skilful to turn that love and compassion on ourselves at that point. After all, we're the ones that are hurting, and we need that.

Apart from being just a skilful response, something very interesting can happen then. We can open to the beginnings of another dimension of emptiness. So we talk about the emptiness of selves and people, but actually the emptiness of everything. If I'm angry, if I'm hurt, and I give compassion and love to myself, slowly, hopefully, or maybe quickly, the presence of love in the mind is not a neutral factor, begins to change my perception. So the other person or the world or the thing or the event begins to look differently. Why? Because there's love now in the mind and in the heart.

So the way we see things is dependent. We're beginning to understand, the way we see things is dependent on what's in the mind. And we can see this by giving love to ourselves. See how perception changes when we give kindness and compassion to ourselves. This is not a small thing. It's the beginnings of understanding -- a deeper understanding of emptiness.

We can reflect, too, the ways that we share, that we are one with other beings. This reflection on oneness is something that will open the flow of compassion. So if we deliberately take the time to bring this into our meditations, to bring this into our consciousness -- we are all one. All beings are one in the sense that we are vulnerable. Our bodies are vulnerable -- vulnerable to injury, vulnerable to sickness, vulnerable to ageing, to death. We share that. We share that vulnerability. And we can deliberately reflect on this.

[44:16] And we also share the vulnerability of living in what is basically an uncertain world. We live with this quality of anicca, of uncertainty. And we must all know someone -- certainly know of someone -- who just, in the course of a few moments or a few hours, their life has just been changed drastically. We don't know, when we get up in the morning, what will happen that day. And we all share that uncertainty, living in an uncertain world. All share that vulnerability. To reflect on this deliberately, consciously, frequently.

But not only that, we share on top of that a bewilderment with all of this. That's part of the human condition too: that we actually don't yet clearly understand fully the causes of suffering, how we're making ourselves suffer. And we also don't yet fully understand where to look for happiness. We all share that. [45:31, audio cuts out] And to reflect on -- compassion has to come out of that. The main thing that's blocking the flow of compassion is the sense of separation. So we need to have the willingness to touch our suffering, to open to it, but also to really reflect on the commonality, on the humanity, the common humanity, the oneness that we share. We incline the mind that way, and we encourage the mind to see that oneness, instead of to see separation all the time.

There's a poem. It's actually called "Kindness," but it's really talking about the quality of compassion.[7]

[46:34 -- 48:14, poem]

To reflect a little bit more on this oneness, and seeing oneness, seeing this emptiness, we talk about -- we can talk about the emptiness of the self. We can also talk about, in a way, the fullness of the self, or perhaps the infinite nature of a person. We are infinite. Every person, every being, is infinite. What does that mean? It means that, actually, astronomy tells us now that the elements that make up the skin, the nails, the teeth, the eyes, the lungs, everything -- these were all manufactured in stars. And probably one star exploded, and the elements that make up all -- the same atoms that make up all our bodies, everyone in this room was actually at some point in one star together, and manufactured there. The star exploded, and all the elements travelled vast interstellar distances, caught by the Earth's gravitational field, and became our bodies.

So at one point, we were one like that. And actually, way longer before that, we were one because of the Big Bang, you know. It was all this tiny oneness. And out of that, everything that we call now separate was really one. Even now, we're all breathing. We're exchanging our bodies, our molecules with the environment, and through food. Walt Whitman said:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.[8]

In 1850 or something, he already had a sense of this somehow, intuitively, mystically.

It doesn't stop there at the physical. Our perceptions, too -- our perceptions depend on things to perceive, depend on all this [taps on something], which was all one before. So our perceptions depend on the things of the universe. Our mind depends on that. Without things to perceive, what is a human -- is there a human being there? Our selves depend, are not separate. We depend on our perceptions. We have a sense that we're somehow different from our perceptions, but actually without our perceptions there's no human being. So all this is bound up in the oneness too.

Emptiness is fullness. So we talk about an empty being, but it's actually that we're not separate things in the way that we think we are. We are the whole universe, really. We're not separate. We're interpenetrating. Our atoms, our minds -- all this is interpenetrating.

And this isn't a nice ... It's not, it shouldn't (hopefully not) be just a nice idea or something intellectual, but we can really sit down and begin to reflect this way, think about stars and stellar explosions and all that, and really let that into the heart, and reflect on what a human being is, and their infinite nature. And when we do that, the heart has to open that way. And it needs practice. It's not just an idea.

We talk about emptiness, and it seems a bit -- it's not an easy thing to understand. And we could go on -- I won't, but we could go on talking about emptiness. But one of the things to realize is that, if emptiness, if seeing emptiness is not resulting in compassion, something's a bit off. There's not a real understanding there. There's not a real understanding of emptiness, and we need to actually look again, and look in a way of seeing that brings compassion, that brings love. That's actually one of the signs of seeing deeply.

When we see, when we understand emptiness -- the emptiness of ourselves, the emptiness of others, the emptiness of everything -- it brings compassion, because there isn't this sense of separation, because there are no beliefs then in barriers. There's no fault-finding. There's no inflating of the self or deflating of the self, or inflating others or deflating others. With the absence of that, the natural state, the natural condition will be love.

We can actually see very deeply that not only selves are empty, but things are empty. In the end, everything is empty. Even suffering is empty, actually. But somehow, mysteriously, even seeing that suffering is empty still brings -- it should bring compassion. It does bring compassion. There's a mysterious paradox there.

And all of this is possible for us. I mean, it's just sort of laying out a long, big path, but all of this is possible. It's very real. It's very possible to, as I said, ask the right questions, and move that way, and open the heart that way. Of all the journeys that we as human beings can take, there can't be any more worthwhile or more beautiful ones than to really inquire and open in compassion.

Shall we sit quietly for a few moments?

  1. E.g. at DN 21, the Buddha describes two kinds of joy: to be pursued and not to be pursued. Any given joy should be pursued only if its pursuit would lead to the increase of skilful qualities and the decline of unskilful qualities; otherwise it should not be pursued. ↩︎

  2. E.g. MN 36, MN 128, SN 12:65, AN 9:41. ↩︎

  3. Cf. James R. Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company (New York: Praeger, 1974), 468 ↩︎

  4. E.g. SN 46:3, SN 55:5. ↩︎

  5. Cf. Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins, eds., The Writings of Julian of Norwich: A Vision Showed to a Devout Woman and A Revelation of Love (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 2006), 197. ↩︎

  6. A quote along these lines is attributed to the Buddha in Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (Boston: Shambhala, 1995), 31. For the canonical passage, see Ud 5:1.\ ↩︎

  7. Naomi Shihab Nye, Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland: Eighth Mountain Press, 1995). Archived at, accessed 31 Oct. 2020. ↩︎

  8. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1902), 70. ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry