“Compassion moves the practitioner beyond a merely memorized or intellectual understanding of the emptiness teachings. Compassion helps one’s realization become global and holistic.” ~ Greg Goode

Compassion, emptiness

In Part 7, Greg continues his overview of emptiness with an exploration of Compassion and Emptiness. In case you missed reading the earlier parts of Greg’s series, read Part 1Part 2Part 3,  Part 4,  Part 5, and Part 6.

Compassion and Emptiness

Compassion facilitates the realization of emptiness

Although realizing emptiness is said by Buddhist Consequentialists to be the key to the end of suffering, it nevertheless occurs in context. It is not the first thing one learns. In many Buddhist contexts, there is a teaching emphasis on the importance of developing compassion before learning the emptiness teachings. Compassion in these contexts is explained as the spontaneous and sincere wish to help other beings alleviate suffering. Having this wish not only increases one’s own joy, but also the depth of one’s insight. Emphasizing compassion early on serves as a preventive measure against two ways to go wrong with the emptiness teachings.

Compassion moves the practitioner beyond a merely memorized or intellectual understanding of the emptiness teachings. Compassion helps one’s realization become global and holistic.

compassion, emptiness

Compassion is an antidote to learning the emptiness teachings for selfish, egocentric reasons. When one engages in a difficult dialectic like the emptiness teaching for selfish reasons, the result is counterproductive. Emptiness teachings are very subtle. The most common side-effect of misunderstanding emptiness is a crippling sense of nihilism. A nihilistic outlook makes joy, compassion and emptiness very difficult to realize. One doesn’t experience an increase in joy and a decrease in suffering. Instead, one experiences a stiffening of the mind and a closure of the heart. But compassion opens the mind and heart. It allows one to “get out of the way.” It makes the emptiness teachings easier to understand, easier to realize holistically, and easier to integrate into one’s life. Compassion enables the realization of emptiness.

Realizing emptiness facilitates compassion

The effects run the other direction too. A greater understanding of emptiness enables greater compassion. The more strongly one realizes that one’s self and other selves are empty of inherent existence, the less one experiences an essential distinction between one’s self and another. It becomes harder to place one’s own happiness above that of others. It becomes easier to act in such a way that others are benefited, not just one’s self.

Contextual clues

There is a clue to this traditional placement of emptiness later in the learning stream. In the various lists of Buddhist spiritual virtues called “perfections” or “paramitas” (Sanskrit), there are 6 or 10 items. The “perfection of wisdom” refers to the realization of emptiness or the lack of an essential self. But the perfection of wisdom is never the first item in these lists! It is usually number 4 or number 6. Depending on the list, the perfection of wisdom is preceded by the perfections of: generosity, virtue, renunciation, discipline, patience, tolerance, diligence, and one-pointed concentration.

emptiness, compassion, paramitas

For example, here is a Theravada list from the Pali Canon of Buddhist scriptures:

  1. Dāna: generosity
  2. Sīla: virtue, morality, proper conduct
  3. Nekkhamma: renunciation
  4. Paññā: wisdom, insight
  5. Viriya: energy, diligence, vigor, effort
  6. Khanti: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
  7. Sacca: truthfulness, honesty
  8. Adhitthāna: determination, resolution
  9. Mettā: loving-kindness
  10. Upekkhā: equanimity, serenity

emptiness, compassion, serenity

Here is a Mahayana list:

  1. Dāna: generosity
  2. Śīla: virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct
  3. Khanti: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
  4. Vīrya: energy, diligence, vigor, effort
  5. Dhyāna: one-pointed concentration, contemplation
  6. Prajñā: wisdom, insight

I find it interesting that the Mahayana tradition (Nagarjuna’s tradition) places more emphasis on the importance of realizing emptiness, and also locates its paramita later in the list, with more perfections before it.

In Part 8 of this 10-part series …  Greg will cover How to Realize Emptiness, becoming completely “clear about our conception of inherent existence.” Stay tuned…

Click here for Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6 of this series.


We are honored to publish this guest post series authored by Greg Goode and is sourced from his website. Greg is one of the teachers in Stillness Speaks library so please visit his teacher’s page for comprehensive information about his work.

Images: (all edited and logo added) 1) Rime, by Kenny_G 2) Hand, by ju_sajjad0 3) Sunset Music, by damonnofar 4) Ocean Sky, by Unsplash. All photos are CC0 1.0 Public Domain and are taken from Pixabay.com.

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