Raging Against the Void

avalokitesvaraI had heard Rinpoche’s teachings about compassion before, and they had seemed innocent enough. But that night, listening to him speak, it suddenly dawned on me that he was teaching something terrible and inhuman. You see, Buddhists teach that love is a means to an end. By responding to the suffering of others, they say, we let go of our selfish egos, learn the illusory nature of the “self”, and open ourselves to the realization that nothing has a permanent, enduring identity. Understanding that nothing has essential, enduring identity (Sunyata), is essential for achieving Nirvana, says Nagarjuna.

A good humanist might react with revulsion. Using “love” to achieve some other end? Isn’t that called “prostitution”? Using love in a way that is not directed towards enduring personhood? Isn’t that Onanism, Cronus-like, or worse? Instinctively, we feel that love should be the ultimate end, not a means. Love is a fruit, not a seed. A Nirvana that leaves personal love behind seems, to many, to be a Hell.

Some Buddhists have responded by arguing that these objections are a symptom of our selfish egos. If only we dropped our egotistical attachment to identity, they say, we would realize it’s a good thing when people let go of self-reference. The most loving and compassionate thing we could do for anyone would be to hasten along their abandonment of miserable self-reference. Redefining “compassion” to mean “elimination of the identity” is repulsive to the layman. We can’t blame those who hear this and think of “I love you, I’ll kill you”.

The story of Avalokitesvara, developed most fully by the Tibetans, is the best Buddhist answer. In the story, developed hundreds of years after Christ, Avalokitesvara was ready to ascend to Nirvana. However, he looked back and saw the suffering of all the beings who were left behind. Out of love for all, Avalokitesvara refuses to ascend to Nirvana until all other beings have been rescued. In Buddhism, the beings who are ready to attain Nirvana, but remain in this world out of compassion for the lost, are known as Bodhisattvas. Thus, Avalokitesvara is the personification of the vows of all Bodhisattvas.

It’s a beautiful story. According to the Tibetans, Avalokitesvara is the great creator, the father and first king of the Tibetan people, and the Dalai Lama is considered to be an incarnation of this Bodhisttva. This is love, right? Avalokitesvara sees the suffering of all beings and weeps. In his tears, he is driven to make a great sacrifice. He stays in this plane of suffering in order to save all of those who remain behind. You could say it’s almost Christ-like.

Except, it’s not. In the touching stories about the weeping and tears of the Bodhisattva, it’s easy to forget what he’s holding out for. It’s easy to forget what is on the other side of his “love”. Sunyata, the true nature of things, can be translated as “void”. Where are the tears for those who cease to exist as individuals? Where is the rage against the void?

For the Tibetans, the void is typically symbolized by the sky. The sky in Tibet is not the life-giving place that most of us think of when we think of the sky. The climate is arid and cold; warmth is rare, and rain is rarer. Tibet is the one place on earth where you can get frostbite and sunburn in the same day. The oxygen is thin; the air tends to kill infants who don’t have a specific genetic mutation.

According to one version of the Tibetan myth, Avalokitesvara was asked by Buddha to establish a kingdom on the rooftop of the world, to reign until all beings have abandoned self-reference. Avalokitesvara sits atop the highest throne on earth, beckoning all souls to the great void above him, where there are no eternal souls, no resurrected bodies.