The womb of compassion

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



2 Responses to The womb of compassion

  1. Eric June 20, 2015 at 7:48 pm #

    Steve, I’ve read through some of your other comments so I can appreciate that you are well versed in the Buddhist philosophy, both NIchiren and other Buddhist schools and teachings. Although I have ventured into the study of other teachings I remain squarely in the SGI Buddhist movement and practice now for over 35 years. In terms of my deepest inner heart of practice and fusion with faith in Gohonzon this is the place where I have established my connection with my living mentor Daisaku Ikeda. It is also within this same inner space that I can understand the connection between Sensei with his mentor;’s like Toda, Makiguchi and ultimately NIchiren. NIchiren also makes manifest the wisdom of the three kinds of Buddhas, which make appearance within the ceremony of the Lotus Sutra. These are the myriad devotees who have awakened to the Buddha Dharma throughout time and space on the basis of sincere practice.

    In terms of your comments above I simply wanted to offer my reaction. As a fellow Buddhist I of course agree with what you are saying. Sunyata is the universal aspect or that principle of wisdom and insight which all phenomena that make appearance within one’s mind have universally in common. All manifested phenomena throughout eternity are temporary and reflect the marks and signs of the emptiness that inherently exist at the core of all events. This itself is the mystic law at work. But since we ourselves are manifested entities of this law we must either suffer from the incessant change inherent in all things (due to undue attachment) or awaken and manifest wisdom such that we utilize our lives to create good fortune out of circumstance.

    Clearly more easier said then done. This is the challenge for all followers of the Buddha wisdom. Observing attachment to phenomena within ourselves and others is the first step in developing compassion. This high quality observation is first observed in front of Gohonzon while reciting the Law from one’s own life. Through continuous practice and assisting others to do the same in the spirit of one community or sangha we develop the wisdom to lead and guide others to the correct practice of observing and organizing one’s own life in concert with Buddha wisdom. This means leading all people to the wisdom of the Lotus Sutra which in practice means leading people to embrace the Gohonzon of the three laws.

    The other matter I wanted to respond to is the notion of “I” as it is interpreted in Buddhism. As I have come to understand it there are two interpretations of “I” in Buddhism. There is the pre Lotus Sutra interpretation elaborated in its most compelling form in the “Wisdom Sutras” and the there is the view of “I” as revealed in the Lotus Sutra. In the Wisdom Sutras there is the exposition of the utter emptiness of “I”. IN the Lotus Sutra there is the exposition of the utter fullness of “I”.

    Over the years as I have studied, I have read through accounts where any of certain even contemporary monks within the Tibetan order would find it shocking that the Lotus Sutra contains any references of “I” within its words and phrases, the non-Mahayana schools notwithstanding which in itself is anther subject. Having encountered such comments even within the world of the Mahayana I came away more knowledgeable yet quite intrigued at the state of affairs within even the current Buddhist world not to mention all preceding eras in Buddhist history. From this I learned many important insights concerning the world of historic and contemporary Buddhism. I also was able to understand better the state of Buddhist scholarship during Nichiren’s time, the basis of his knowledge as well as to better understand even the state of Buddhism in these so called modern times we currently live in.

    In the final analysis the spread of the wisdom of the Lotus Sutra throughout the human world still remains in its infancy. I personally found many answers to these issues within Nichiren’s expositions in the Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings, origin controversies notwithstanding.

    All the Best to all

  2. Adri December 27, 2017 at 11:24 pm #

    Please do cite your sources. For the purposes of clarity and correct attribution, but also so readers who are moved by the words you have copied and shared can have the opportunity to read them within the context of the full commentary as offered by the original author. The intro to this post was taken from Robert Thurman’s “The Jewel Tree of Tibet.” Perhaps he was quoting still another writer – I don’t have my copy close at hand and thus can’t check.

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