Emptiness & Interdependence

The Bodhisattva’s Dilemma

The teachings on emptiness help us understand something fundamental about the nature of life, that although we have principles, values, and visions about how the world should be, the world is not a fixable place.
  • Question: If our path is based on teachings and direct experience, and we are focused on our own limitations and practicing so we can experience enlightenment or life as one taste, then where does speaking up for others or for the land come into this? How can we have compassion and not speak up for fairness for other beings (as long as we speak compassionately with those causing the unfair situation)? Thank you.

    Response: Dear Friend,

    I am guessing this question came up from something I said recently about fairness and working with the ego. Practice is not about looking at the world through the lens of “fair” and “not fair.” I also hear you asking about the relationship between “one taste” or “emptiness” and responding to the suffering we see in the world around us.

    Recently I have received a slew of questions regarding emptiness and I will respond to those questions next post. Meanwhile, I want to speak to this topic of justice and dharma practice.

    For the most part, our sense of justice and even our justice system is based on some very basic human principles: that all conscious creatures long for happiness and freedom from suffering. Based on this we have consensual agreements about what is fair and unfair. Through enforcing laws and making agreements we try to keep ourselves in the boundary of these principles. For the most part, people tend to want what is best for others, and naturally feel concerned or deeply troubled when they see others suffer. As for our system of justice, it sometimes works.

    On the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) Buddhist path these basic principles serve as the ground for all the practices. We actively reflect on our own experience of suffering and cultivate awareness that all beings want happiness and freedom from suffering as we do. We make an aspiration that everything we do influences and supports the happiness of others and then we take this aspiration into our daily lives and serve in whatever way we can. This is the conduct of the bodhisattva – those who have taken the vow that lies at the heart of this path. So in no way is this path passive or dismissive of the suffering of others in any way.

    At the same time, the emptiness teachings suggest that when we look at any given situation we only see a little piece of things. This is always a little tricky to talk about because we see a lot of atrocities in the world and we may think that this implies that we should second-guess things when we encounter suffering. The teachings on emptiness never suggest we don’t respond. Rather they protect us from our own “rightness” and fundamentalism… from our own reactions. This is a subtle point but an extremely important one. People do all kinds of things in the name of justice or fairness…they even go to war. But if we were to look deeply into any given situation we will see nothing is simple, there are many causes and conditions. Even when we look at “evil.”

    The fact that we can’t really ever know anything in a definitive way is deeply important here and has to do with emptiness. For instance, when we look into anyone’s past we find a story. Can you separate a person’s evil-ness from the elements that gave rise to their aggression? To move out of this one-dimensional and contracted view we hold of others introduces us to a greater perspective and releases compassion and empathy.

    This doesn’t suggest we should let evil run wild or not try our best to relate skillfully to the world around us. It just means that having a one-dimensional view of anyone is not in accord with the way things are. Moving away from this static notion of “bad” we encounter infinite complexity of fullness – something we can never sum up.

    The teachings on emptiness help us understand something fundamental about the nature of life, that although we have principles, values, and visions about how the world should be, the world is not a fixable place. That is not because it is broken but because it is dynamic and does not lend itself to being known in a definitive way or brought to a static state of how we think life should be. And yet we have no choice but to respond to others with love and care.

    We might call this the “Bodhisattva’s dilemma.” A bodhisattva is someone who dedicates his\her life to serving others but also understands that the world is not a resolvable situation. This is a big, big view of things. It is way beyond fair or unfair. It is an unconditional response to suffering and the longing to extend kindness to others.

    The ego

    Now when it comes to the way we work with our own mind, fair and unfair can be a huge obstacle. Our ego has its own logic and does a lot of finger pointing. So on the path the way we see fair and unfair in relationship to our ego is highly unconventional.

    I want to be clear that when we work with our ego and its natural inclination to blame and struggle with its world, we do not deny our suffering or our stories. Everyone has a story and some people have suffered much more than others. It would be impossible to get through life without some trauma. People experience unconscionable suffering. It always amazes me how resilient they can be.

    But maybe at some point, having done some work around our stories, we will conclude that simply ‘surviving’ is not enough for us. Maybe we will have a sense that there is life outside our story. To explore this we will need to question the truth of our stories. We will have to stop blaming the world around us if we want to truly heal. And healing or emerging from these contracted views we have about our self and others is what dharma is about.

    Victimhood and blame go together. So even if an army of people agreed that we have been wronged, how will that “rightness” we have about our story serve to free us? At some point we will have to own our life – our circumstances. We can’t continue to listen to the ego’s continuous logic of how unfair our life has been. We will have to make the choice to rebel against the ego because it keeps us in the stronghold of victimhood. Not to blame is a powerful choice – an empowerment. But it means we have to give up our “rightness” – something our ego doesn’t want to do.

    The teachings on the Mahayana path encourage us to say, “@#$% you!” to the ego. It’s the great rebellion of our lives. If you have a need to be rebellious in life, like some of us do, you can be incredibly irreverent toward your ego by not being “right”, by not blaming others. You can rebel against your strong preferences and notions of right and wrong, rather than pointing a finger at others.

    In the mind training teachings (Lojong) it says,
    “Drive all blames into the ego” and “Victory to others, defeat to the ego.” This is the unconventional logic and skillful means of this path. You throw fair and unfair to the wind (in relationship to the ego, that is) and you take on life in this outrageous way. It is very exhilarating, liberating and utterly empowering.

    Hopefully, I have addressed your question in a way that opens up the topic a bit. The teachings of emptiness are deeply important. I will write something about that soon. And I also want to mention that I will be streaming a weekend on emptiness the first weekend of September that addresses this very critical topic. Emptiness is the most misunderstood topic in the dharma, yet it lies at the very core of the whole path. Do join me if you are interested and we can have a conversation through the video stream.






    Let's Discuss

    2 thoughts on “The Bodhisattva’s Dilemma

    • Christine McNamara says:

      you can really clarify things that I find hard to understand.

    • Patricia (Pat) Parks says:

      Thank you so much Elizabeth – I am a Ram Joyt(Sebastian) transplant now in KY

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