Love and Emptiness
first realization on the Buddhist path is our own emptiness—we look at
the self and find nothing permanent. The next step is the egolessness of
other, says Sakyong Mipham, and the way we discover it, interestingly,
is through love and compassion.
What is buddhahood? It is the attaining of egolessness. But what are we realizing the egolessness of?
to the Theravada school of Buddhism, if we attain egolessness of self,
we realize nirvana, enlightenment. This is a common approach: to attain
enlightenment for oneself. But when we have discovered the emptiness of
the self, what is left? The other. In the Mahayana school, the "Great
Path," egolessness of other is one of the most profound teachings.
self has no entity in itself, but it believes it does. Its nature is
that it spreads. Wherever it goes it pervades; whatever it encounters it
begins to absorb as “I.” For example, when we are born, somehow our
consciousness has been able to transfer from our previous life into this
body, which exists only in a temporary way. Once we came into this
body, we thought, "Hmm, not bad. It’s not mine, but I’ll make it mine."
And once we got used to our body, we immediately began thinking: my mother, my father, my house. Then my city, my state, my country, my planet, and so forth.
has no boundary. It can go on continuously, appropriating other. When
we come in contact with something, initially we look at it in a neutral
way; we see it as belonging to somebody else, or maybe belonging to no
one. If we see a tree, we don’t automatically think, “My tree.” Then we build a house next to it—and after a while, we think, “My
tree.” This happens in any situation. When we buy an article of
clothing, at first it feels foreign, but then it begins to feel familiar
as my shirt. It is other, but the ego is constantly solidifying it as self.
Mahayana teaches that complete egolessness comes about only when we
have understood egolessness of other as well as the egolessness of self.
There are two approaches in terms of how to practice the Mahayana: the
direct path and the gradual path. On the direct path, we recognize the
empty nature of self and other on the spot. On the gradual path, we
recognize the nature of things progressively: First we recognize the
self as empty. Then we recognize other to be empty. Then we recognize
things to be the mind, and that this mind itself is empty.
teachings direct us toward helping other sentient beings, because being
able to help others is grounded in having discovered the emptiness of
the self. So Mahayana logic is that we begin to flip from self to other.
A crucial element of the Mahayana is the bodhichitta practice of tonglen, “sending and taking.” In Tibetan, tong means “to send,” and len means “to get.” With a basic understanding of this practice, we begin to draw in the pain of others and send out goodness.
can practice this exchange in many ways. For instance, we can do it
specifically for someone who is ill, taking in that person’s suffering
and claustrophobia and breathing out spaciousness. We do that by
visualizing the inbreath as heavy and the outbreath as light, drawing in
negative energy and sending out love.
first it is important that we take this dualistic approach, because we
can use what we see “out there” to incite compassion “in here.” In the
same way, it is good that we have emotions, because then we have
something to work with. With our breath, we can take in aggression and
give out peace. We can breathe in pain and breathe out relief. That’s
why human birth is so precious: it provides us with the attributes to go
on the path.
and yogis have divided the ego into fifty-one levels of thought
patterns and emotions. They’re listed in several categories, including
universal patterns such as form and feeling, occasional patterns such as
rapture, unwholesome patterns such as recklessness and lack of shame,
and wholesome patterns like faith, love, and compassion.
and compassion are wholesome because when we experience them—even at an
ordinary level—some kind of openness takes place. Those emotions are a
fault line of the ego—when we feel them, the ego breaks down a little
and we begin to see that our sense of “me” is not airtight. Even though
love is an emotion and is often connected with someone we want, or who
makes us happy, it contains some quality of relaxing and letting go.
Compassion works in the same way, poking holes in the seeming solidity
of self and other.
is a very potent practice that helps us develop confidence in kindness
and compassion. It brings sanity to us and to others because it provides
a practical way of working with our mind. For example, if we are calmly
practicing tonglen for someone who is close to us, we are not spinning
out of control with worry about what could happen to them. Therefore,
the meditation is a way to actually bring some sanity to us and the
we begin to do tonglen practice, the question arises: who or what is
sending out, and who is taking in? Through practicing mindfulness, or shamatha, we have established peace. Now, through practicing insight, or vipashyana,
we begin to develop wisdom. We begin to realize that we can’t actually
find the mind we have tamed. Where exactly is it? Is the mind in the
body? Is it in the eyes? Is it in the feelings? Where is the mind that
is following the breath? Where is it coming from? Where is it going?
Where is its space? We can’t really say that it’s here or it’s there.
Nevertheless, there is definitely a process of experiencing being
here—experiencing wildness of mind, and experiencing peace. Where is
that peace? If I’m meditating, I feel tranquil. Where is that
we progress in our meditation, emptiness becomes more apparent.
Emptiness means that there is no inherent existence. Emptiness and
egolessness are very similar in that way. Emptiness is empty of our
assumptions, and it is full of compassion. We realize that assumptions
are the basis of most of our experiences, and we discover that the mind
and the world are actually empty of those assumptions. Discovering our
selfless nature is freedom.
we misunderstand emptiness to mean that nothing exists, which is
nihilism. A more accurate perspective is that without emptiness, we
cannot have form, and without form we cannot have emptiness. They are
inseparable. Exchanging self for other, we realize the self is empty.
Then we realize that other is empty, too. That is how true giving and
taking can happen. Exchanging oneself for other is the point where
relative and absolute truth meet. The whole notion of self and other
starts dissolving. If there’s somebody sending, who’s receiving?
our meditation progresses, we begin to see egolessness—we can’t find
any inherent thing. Compassion seems endless and boundless, but where
does compassion come from? Where does insight come from? Where is this
mind? Actually, we all have the capacity to know, but we can’t
completely understand unless we practice meditation. Mind is empty and
luminous: this is its nature. The Mahayana teachings say that with the
right view, we can utilize certain aspects of our emotions in order to
bring out this natural wisdom. As we develop love and compassion through
the practice of tonglen, glimmers of wisdom begin to shine through.
Mipham Rinpoche is the spiritual leader of Shambhala, an international
network of Buddhist meditation and retreat centers. He is the author of Turning the Mind into an Ally and Ruling Your World.
Originally published in the January 2011 Shambhala Sun magazine.
Illustration (detail) by Jessica von Handorf.