The Text of the Month No 3

By Jos Slabbert

Do you understand?

The courage
to show compassion
comes from
the acceptance of
emptiness.

(The Tao is Tao, 15)

 

Explanation and comment

Many people have empathy. They would understand suffering when they see it, and feel sorry for whomever is suffering. Few people, however, have enough courage to do something about it, and compassion only starts where you become active.

You have probably often read about it, or you might even have witnessed it yourself. Someone would collapse with a heart attack somewhere in public, and people would pass by, choosing to ignore the suffering person. People are just too busy, too involved with their own lives to help someone else. They are afraid someone might come and destroy their comfort zones. Many people would watch the suffering of people on distant continents with great interest on television, but they would be selectively blind to the suffering in their own neighbourhood.

The lack of compassion is often based on fear. Particularly in modern cities, the fear of being mugged or conned or intruded upon would close people’s eyes and minds to real suffering around them. It is sad but true that you need a great deal of courage to be compassionate in what has become a very hostile and often dangerous environment today. The brutal coldness of our society is often the result of fear.

How do you acquire the courage to become compassionate? The poem is clear and unequivocal about this: you must accept emptiness.

What does this mean? To understand this profound truth, an explanation of emptiness in this context is necessary.

Emptiness has a profound meaning in Ch'an or Zen. What it does mean in a nutshell is that apart from the various aggregates functioning interdependently in you, you are completely empty. There is no permanent, unchangeable core in you. You are nothing but a continuous flow of interdependent faculties. You are as transient as all other beings around you.

The word "emptiness" is an unsatisfactory word to describe its counterpart "Sunyata", which is often used in Buddhism. Sunyata does not mean the absence of something, as "emptiness" suggests. The only absence that it refers to is the absence of illusion - the kind of inventions of the mind we take as reality, like for instance the idea that an "I" really exists. Its meaning is more profound than the absence of illusion. It is closely linked to the word "Li", which means the real "basis" or "core" or "substance" of everything. The emptiness in you is therefore not so much the absence of something, as it is the very "substance" of all existence. The word "substance" used here is however a woefully inappropriate word, for "Sunyata" or emptiness is wholly insubstantial.

When you accept the emptiness within you, you accept that you carry in you the same "substance" as all beings around you. The emptiness in you is universal, it is your link with everything else. It is what unites you with everything else. It is the only "real thing" in you. Your body, senses, perceptions, decision-making processes and consciousness are in perpetual flux and unreal. The only reality in you is "Sunyata", "Li" - emptiness.

Emptiness is also your "true self". Language is again totally inadequate here. The "self" in "true self" has actually little if nothing to do with the traditional concept of "self", for in this context "self" does not really exist, except as part of the universal. It is probably preferable, to avoid confusion, to speak of "true being" instead of "true self", but the latter has become the more popular expression. In a way, the "true self" only exists when you have destroyed your "false self" or ego, that is your own invention of what you are supposed to be. The moment you have stripped yourself of your "false self" or your ego, only emptiness, Sunyata, Li, your "true self" remains. You come face to face with "reality", your "true self", which is in fact complete emptiness, where no self exists. This is a moment of enlightenment. It is when you realize on a spiritual level that you are completely empty, that "self" does not exist, and that you are an indivisible part of the totality of things.

When you move in harmony with your "true self", you move in harmony with the Tao.

The emptiness in you is part of the Tao. It is the closest you will ever come to the Tao.

Once you are in contact with your true self or emptiness, you will live in total harmony with the Tao. You will have conquered all fear, for if you are empty, you have nothing to lose. You will be truly compassionate. You will be truly liberated.