The true, real view is the indivisible unity of emptiness and compassion. Confusion arises when something seemingly is, but actually isn’t, like mistaking a rope for a snake. That is a clear mistake, because in reality the rope is not a snake, no way.
How do we actualize this view? We have a lot of thoughts, one after the other, involving the duality of subject and object. When the subject latches onto or grasps the object, that is what is normally called mind, the thinking mind. When there is this subject-object clinging, that creates karma. When karma is created, there is confusion.
What is this thinker that always grasps onto an object? That is what we need to discover. What is it, really? Identify what it is that thinks, clearly and directly. It is as simple and immediate as switching on a light. Instead of thinking of this and that, one thing after the other, let your mind recognize itself in a single moment. When the mind recognizes itself, there is no thing to see there. It’s just wide open. That’s because the essence of mind is empty. It’s wide open and free.
This busy, grasping mind,
Always latching onto things,
Let it be given a break to recognize itself instead.
In that very moment of recognition,
This mind becomes wide open,
Free, and unconfined.
That’s called empty essence.
At the same time, there is a certain knowing that it is empty.
That’s called cognizant nature.
Your mind’s empty essence and cognizant nature function simultaneously.
They are not two separate things, not at all.
In fact, they are indivisible.
That’s called unconfined capacity.
Know these three simultaneously—
Empty essence, cognizant nature, and unconfined capacity—
That’s called the view.
In this way, to actualize the view, to realize or understand the view, is to know that our minds are empty in essence and cognizant by nature simultaneously.
Essence is like the sun itself. The sun’s nature is to shine, to be warm, and to illuminate. In the same way, you should distinguish between mind and mind essence. Mind essence has all three of these qualities. It is the essence of this mind essence that is empty, the nature of this mind essence that is cognizant, and the capacity of this mind essence that is unconfined.
The ground is Buddha-nature, which is unmistaken in nature, the basic state of all things. It is the natural state, which is not made by the Buddha, and not created by any ordinary being either. It’s naturally so, all by itself. That is the ultimate truth. Whether a buddha comes into this world or not, the nature of things is still the nature of things. The Buddha is someone who realizes what is true, what actually exists. If we want to become enlightened, we simply have to acknowledge or recognize what is.
What is the basic state, the ground? Through training on the path, we realize the ground as the fruition. We contact what was there to begin with. At the moment, while we are deluded and on the path, we are not seeing it as it is. We are mistaking it for something else, just like mistaking a rope for a snake. We need to abandon that state of temporary confusion.
The path is the state of confusion. To remove it we need view, meditation, and conduct. When we have a glimpse of natural mind, it’s like we see a piece of the ground. The more we get used to it, the more we see, until we finally realize the ground as it is in its entirety.
That’s why, in the context of the path, there are three aspects: recognizing, perfecting the training of that recognition, and attaining stability. We need to dissolve confusion. At the moment of the view, dissolve the confusion. When meditating, dissolve the confusion. When applying the conduct, dissolve the confusion. When all confusion has been totally removed or dissolved, then you can call that fruition.
If we don’t know or experience the indivisibility of emptiness and compassion, it’s hard to get through life smoothly. Imagine a man and woman who live together happily and love each other very deeply. One day the wife hears some teachings, and she becomes interested in the dharma. She listens a lot and understands emptiness; she realizes that nothing in this life has lasting substance. There’s no real core or substance to anything.
Then she thinks, “My husband and I, we go to lots of parties. We go shopping and buy all sorts of things. But actually, none of that really matters to me anymore.” And she starts to close herself up, to shut herself off from her past activities. From one point of view, what she thinks is actually true. Everything is in fact insubstantial, there’s no real point to it. The husband is puzzled and thinks, “My wife is changing. Maybe I did something wrong? Maybe she has a new boyfriend?” But he lets it slide for a while.
Then she starts going into a room, closing the door, and doing prostrations, which he can hear—“boom, boom, boom”—and he thinks, “Hey, my wife is going a little crazy.” Sometimes she sits in a really strange way, holding a string of beads in one hand. The husband thinks, “This is really weird!” So he says, “Tonight, let’s go out and have some fun.” She says, “That doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. I like just sitting here. Besides, why waste the money?”
And he thinks, “Before, she was very active. She’d cook us delicious meals, water the garden, and do all sorts of things. But nowadays she’s doing less and less.”
She thinks, “What’s the use of watering the garden? You have to do it again tomorrow; it’s never enough. What’s the point? I’ll just sit and practice.”
Now the husband’s beginning to get unhappy. They start to growl and argue back and forth. In a while, perhaps, they will separate.
What’s wrong with this woman? She understands emptiness but not compassion. If there were more compassion in her, then she would realize that although certain things may be pointless, it’s not necessary to avoid doing them just because they don’t mean anything for oneself. They may be important to others, so why not just do them? Actually, if the woman truly understood openness and compassion she would be happy to do something meaningless if it made others happy. She would be even more eager to do it than before, when it was merely her own enjoyment she was pursuing! This is the Mahayana style.
Vajrayana is even better, because you can do anything, enjoy anything, without attachment or clinging. The indivisibility of emptiness and compassion means they should be a unity. It’s not enough to just understand emptiness and the general pointlessness of things, because then we may become selfish and apathetic. If we understand emptiness in a one-sided way, thinking “Things are pointless and nothing really matters to me,” then we don’t really care about what matters for others, either. We might end up saying, “I’ll just sit here and meditate because then I’m happy. I don’t care about anything else.”
Compassion without the understanding of emptiness easily becomes selfish attachment, while understanding emptiness without compassion can also become selfish, one-sided, and limited. In order to avoid those dangers, it’s very important to understand the unity of emptiness and compassion. Your naked, present ordinary mind is the door to this unity of compassionate emptiness.
Right now this door is closed by our preoccupation with an almost uninterrupted string of thoughts. But if we allow just one gap between one thought and the next, we may glimpse the naked ordinary mind, self-existing awareness. Then the door is opened right there, to reveal compassion and emptiness united. It is a timeless moment.
The great wisdom qualities of the Buddha-mind—that wisdom that sees the innate nature as it is and the wisdom that perceives all possible things—are blocked again and again, almost continuously, by the concepts that we form. These concepts are actually temporally based; they are, in essence, time. The moment we start to allow gaps in this flow of concepts, the innate qualities of the awakened state begin to shine through.
After fixation on the concept of self dissolves, the expression of that realization manifests as compassion. The true compassion is undirected, and holds no conceptual focus. That kind of genuine, true compassion is only possible after realizing emptiness.
Of course, we feel compassionate right now as well. However, that kind of compassion is not true and genuine compassion, because it’s always mixed with a conceptual frame of mind. Often mixed with our compassion we feel some distance between ourselves and others. “I am here, and sentient beings are over there. I am higher than they are. They are pitiful. They need help, so I should help them.” That is not true compassion either.
There is clarity of mind, a natural awake quality, from which compassion can arise. It does not center on someone in particular whom we feel sorry for. During this moment there is not a conceptualizing of “another being,” but still in this tenderness there is some way of directing one’s attention to other beings who have not yet recognized the nature of mind. And there is a feeling of sorrow for sentient beings who don’t know that their nature is self-existing wakefulness and therefore are deluded in samsara. This way of reaching out is not really formulated, but we can call it nonconceptual compassion, genuine compassion. That compassion is not necessarily the same as the completely awakened state of a buddha. It is a sign of a yogi on the path, a genuine practitioner.
On the other hand, if we are someone who hasn’t yet recognized the nature of mind, it doesn’t mean that we can’t be genuinely compassionate. There is a way also to be conceptually compassionate, which is different. That is the frame of mind in which we regard ourselves as less important than others. Usually beings regard themselves as more important than others. When we have the attitude that others are more important than me, we call that genuine, although still conceptual, compassion.
What is the experience of true compassion? While recognizing mind essence, there’s some sense of being wide awake and free. At the same time there’s some tenderness that arises without any cause or condition. There is a deep-felt sense of being tender. Not sad in a depressed way, but tender, and somewhat delighted at the same time. There’s a mixture. There’s no sadness for oneself. Nor is there sadness for anyone in particular either. It’s like being saturated with juice, just like an apple is full of juice.
In the same way, the empty openness is saturated with the juice of compassion. Why? Because a lot of qualities are present here. Knowing our empty nature clearly creates an immediate sense of certainty. This certainty has a taste.
There’s a certain time of day, when the sun is setting in the west, when, if we go outside and sit and face the sunset, a feeling of compassion arises easily, spontaneously. It’s kind of free and a little joyful, a little tender, a little sad. It comes all by itself. If you’re not totally open or free from within, then this sadness is not really felt, or even noticed.
If there is any sadness without the openness, notice that it’s always for someone in particular, be it me or him or her. When we simply let ourselves be in that open way, there is a feeling of renunciation, not in the sense of giving up something, but more like letting go of ambition. More like being content.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche is a reincarnate lama educated in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He has been teaching students since 1990. “Dissolving the Confusion” is adapted from his book Carefree Dignity, reprinted with permission from Rangjung Yeshe Publications.
Image 1: Untitled. Susan Frecon, watercolor on old paper, 1996. Courtesy Lawrence Markey Gallery.
Image 2: Sun ("Star Series"), Susan Frecon, watercolor on old paper, 1995. Courtesy Lawrence Markey Gallery.