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Lions Roar : January 2015
T he Key terM in Buddhism’s Heart Su- tra is the Sanskrit word shunyata, usually translated into English as “emptiness.” As the sutra says in its opening lines, “All dharmas [things, phenomena] are empty.” Eyes, ears, noses, tongues, bodies, minds: all external objects— and all Buddhist teachings—are empty. The word “emptiness” is a fair translation of shu- nyata, but it has the drawback of sounding negative, even despairing. The emptiness of the Heart Sutra is something else entirely. It’s good news of joyful freedom and liberation. Commentators to the sutra often ask the question, “Empty of what?” and answer, “Empty of separate self, empty of weightiness, empty of burden, empty of boundary.” The Chinese, searching for a word that might translate shunyata, used the character for “sky.” All dharmas are empty like the sky—blue, beautiful, ex- pansive, and always ready to receive a bird, a wind, a cloud, the sun, the moon, or an airplane. The empti- ness of the Heart Sutra isn’t the emptiness of despair; it’s the emptiness of all limitation and boundary. It is open, released. When I am bound inside my own skin and oth- ers are bound inside theirs, I have to defend and protect myself from them. And when I do place myself among them, I must do it carefully, which is hard work, because I am often hurt, opposed, and thwarted by others. But when there’s openness, no boundary between myself and others—when it turns out that I literally am others and others literally are me—then love and connection is easy and natural. This is why the emptiness teaching of the Heart Sutra, which seems to be rather philosophical and dour, is the necessary basis for compassion. Empti- ness and compassion go hand in hand. Compassion as transaction—me over here, being compassionate to you over there—is simply too clunky and difficult. If I am going to be responsible to receive your suffer- ing and do something about it, and if I am going to make this kind of compassion the cornerstone of my religious life, I will soon be exhausted. But if I see the boundarylessness of me and you, and recognize that my suffering and your suffering are one suffering, and that that suffering is empty of any separation, weightiness, or ultimate tragedy, then I can do it. I can be boundlessly compassionate and loving, with- out limit. To be sure, living this teaching takes time and effort, and maybe we never entirely arrive at it. But it’s a joyful, heartfelt path worth treading. In Mahayana Buddhism, compassion is often discussed in terms of absolute and relative compas- sion. Absolute compassion is compassion in the light of emptiness: all beings are empty; all beings are, by virtue of their empty nature, already liberated and pure. As the sutra says, suffering is empty, and relief from suffering is also empty. But this would be one-sided and distorted. Relative compassion—human warmth and practical emotional support—completes the picture. Absolute compassion makes it possible for us to sustain, joyfully, the endless work of supporting and helping; relative compassion grounds our broad view of life’s empty nature in heart connection and engagement. Either view by itself would be impossible, but both together make for a wonderfully connected and sustainable life. Love + Wisdom = Buddha PHOTO©DV8OR/STOCKSYUNITED Zen teacher norMan fischer looks at the famed Heart Sutra and explains why compassion and emptiness go hand in hand. Plus, thich nhat hanh offers his new translation of the Heart Sutra, which teaches the transcendent wisdom that frees us from fear, wrong perceptions, and suffering. shambhala sun january 2015 58