Nagarjuna, the great Buddhist master of Nalanda, said two thousand years ago, “Voidness is the womb of compassion” – in sanskrit shunyata karuna garbham, it most elegantly encapsulates the most fundamental Buddhist teaching.
To anyone who is unfamiliar with Buddhism this statement can be either wildly misunderstood (due to a shallow, dualistic understanding of Buddhism), or can appear completely incomprehensible to the reader. After all, how can a void/nothingness/annihilation be a womb for anything, let alone compassion?
The voidness to which Nagarjuna refers is Sunyata – also called emptiness in English – the understanding or comprehension of which leads one to complete freedom from the suffering caused by ignorance of reality, or Nirvana’s, true nature.
As Obi Wan Kenobi says to the young Darth Vader in the Star Wars saga, “only the Sith see things in absolutes”. Good and bad, up and down, left and right, fast and slow, these are all relativistic due to one’s point of view, and one’s point of view is completely without immutable and independent foundation – they are all merely formations of the mind. Likewise, all form and phenomena are void (empty) of their own truly independent existence. Like our thoughts, there is nothing in the world that does not rely on an infinite network of causes and conditions in order to manifest.
There is no “Force” or “Mystic Law” with which we can hope to manipulate the world or live in harmony with – at least not as an independent external power. The Buddha’s core teachings did not include magic or parlour tricks. The only Mystic Law which can bring an end to our suffering is the Dharma of Sunyata – the understanding at the deepest level that nothing exists independently. From this wellspring of wisdom alone comes forth all of the 84’000 so called dharma doors. When, through concentration and insight, we are lucky enough to realise the equality of self and other, or even the practice of exchange of self and other, then we radiate the compassion of the bodhisattva. These practices all grow from an understanding of emptiness.
When the Dalai Lama was 35, he reflected on a passage by Tsongkhapa about how “I” does not exist within or separate from the mind-body complex, and is merely a mental concept. The passage reads:
A coiled rope’s speckled color and coiling are similar to those of a snake, and when the rope is perceived in a dim area, the thought arises, “This is a snake.” As for the rope, at that time when it is seen to be a snake, the collection and parts of the rope are not even in the slightest way a snake. Therefore, that snake is merely set up by conceptuality.
In the same way, when the thought “I” arises in dependence upon mind and body, nothing within mind and body—neither the collection which is a continuum of earlier and later moments, nor the collection of the parts at one time, nor the separate parts, nor the continuum of any of the separate parts—is in even the slightest way the “I.” Also there is not even the slightest something that is a different entity from mind and body that is apprehendable as the “I.” Consequently, the “I” is merely set up by conceptuality in dependence upon mind and body; it is not established by way of its own entity.
His Holiness goes on to describe how “Suddenly, it was as if lightning moved through my chest.” Powerful stuff, and while I suspect he understands emptiness better than many of us, many years later he still admits that he “cannot claim full understanding of emptiness”.
For myself, I’m still a long way from truly understanding emptiness. When I overcome my long term limitations then I’ll know I’m a step closer