Monday, June 30, 2008

The Spacious Quality of Emptiness

People may wonder what drives a man to engage in diverse charitable, environmental and humanitarian activities, in hands on activism to help heal the world, after a decade of meditation and commitment to other-worldly attainments.

Some would see that as a falling of grace of sorts, believe it or not! Let me quote an old favorite author, Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, biting into one of his favorite themes. That is, bashing the Mayavadis (Advaita-vadis, monists, the Shankara tradition):
"The Mayavadi philosophers, therefore, adhering to the slogan brahma satyam jagan mithya ("spirit is true, world is false"), want to refrain from false, materialistic activities. They want to stop all activities and merge in the Supreme Brahman. According to the Vaisnava philosophy, however, if one simply ceases from materialistic activity one cannot remain inactive for very long, and therefore everyone should engage himself in spiritual activities, which will solve the problem of suffering in this material world.

"It is said, therefore, that although the Mayavadi philosophers strive to refrain from materialistic activities and merge in Brahman, and although they may actually merge in the Brahman existence, for want of activity they fall down again into materialistic activity. Thus the so-called renouncer, unable to remain in meditation upon Brahman, returns to materialistic activities by opening hospitals and schools and so on." — Srimad Bhagavatam 7.13.27, commentary
There is, however, an alternative interpretation to this pattern of action. Perhaps some of the meditators weren't pulled back towards the world merely owing to an insufficient capacity for prolonged contemplative life, or over a profound and insuppressable ontological pull for action. Perhaps they in fact emerged from their cocoon of solitude after attaining profound realization on the nature of existence, on the substance present and discoverable in the world, just as a worm emerges from its cocoon to glide across the skies as a beautiful butterfly.

The fact is that emptiness is spacious. Where the stuffy ego-complex has resolved and no longer imposes itself, when the flow of nature is perceived without attachments and aversions, a sense of emptiness finds its natural self-expression. In that emptiness, there is infinite room for giving and sharing. In that emptiness, in absence of a possessive ego, unconditional giving and self-sacrifice are a natural consequence.

Where there is ego, there is competition. Where there is competition, there is no compassion. Competition, by its very definition, is all about a particular ego-entity emerging victorious in meeting his objectives and gaining fame appropriate to the achievement, whether as a benevolent or a heinous character. It is, in other words, ultimately self-serving.

"But if everything is empty of permanence", one might ask — and it's a very valid reservation! — "what difference does compassion make?". It wouldn't really make that much difference to you, given that you are into a life of desirelessness and natural liberation. There are, however, countless conflicted ego-formations, the populace of the world, who could use some ego dissolution to make the world just a tad bit more harmonious and beautiful.

The Vedanta-sutra cuts to the heart of the assimilated individual's modus operandi: lokavat tu lila-kaivalyam: "The apparent world is indeed but sole play.". With liberation, all necessities have ceased and all duties have been fulfilled. And when the work is done, one is free to act in any given manner without enmeshment in the infinite net of action and reaction.

Look at Krishna. A mukta-purusha of first water, a controversial character for many, and difficult to reconcile even for profound philosophers. Combined in a single being, we find the polar opposites of a playboy engaging in extensive amorous dalliances with other men's wives at the heart of the night in the forest groves of Vrindavan, and at the other end the sober philosopher, famous for his Bhagavad-gita.

When asked by king Parikshit, Sukadeva explained that Krishna's amorous adventures are exactly as those of a child playing with its reflections in the mirror. A classical Vaishnava interpretation following Sri Chaitanya's line of thought employs the tantric theory of shaktis in explaining the relationship between Krishna and the girls. This is, however, an explanation very much tied with specific theological formulations.

Let's assume Krishna was not an all-powerful primeval deity, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead to use a term coined by Bhaktivedanta. Suppose he was once upon a time just like one of us, but made his way across the eons, transforming into something extraordinary. Would we not have the same prospects, each one of us, then? If you looked at the matter from a Tantric Buddhist perspective, in fact this is exactly the case. Padmasambhava, for one, the great grandfather of Tibetan Buddhism, was an ardent tantric practitioner with numerous consorts, yet considered by many to be practically a second Buddha.

Tantric sadhana, the union of the polarity of the cosmos, is however aptly acted out only at levels of consciousness where an understanding of shunyata has evolved to a very substantial degree. Many long-time monks and practitioners consciously choose to leave consort practice to the later years of their lives, knowing the immense challenges it presents in containing one's mindfulness and retaining a sound platform of aloofness.

Then, having reached the grand stage of emptiness, it is quite natural for a person of profound spiritual background to engage in benevolent activities, in acts of goodwill that unfold on the egoless platform. It naturally follows. We need to be doing good things, us worldlings. And for the holy, doing good things no longer rises out of obligation — it rises spontaneously.

Ultimately nothing makes any difference. In the meantime, there is some time separating us from the maturation and resolution of our karmic track. Riding the waves into wherever the universe leads us, we engage in acts that are wholesome and beautiful, we learn the sublime art of life. In that there is supreme peace, supreme happiness, and supreme enjoyment as well.

1 comment:

Ananda Gopala Dasa said...

Very nice. Probably a hard pill to swallow for most people, due to the esoteric emphasis. I have been wanting to write a version of this that focuses on compassion and competition.

The introduction of "high-minded play" and the ultimate conclusion that, "Ultimately nothing makes any difference [but that's Nirvana Nevermind]", clearly makes this graduate or post-graduate material.

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