Compassion, Emptiness, and the Heart Sutra, by Ryan V. Stewart

d1185-guanyin252c2bthe2bchinese2bexpression2bof2bavalokiteshvara252c2bnorthern2bsung2bdynasty252c2bchina252c2bc-2b1025252c2bwood252c2bhonolulu2bacademy2bof2barts252c2bpublic2b1One of the chief concerns of philosophy, since time immemorial, has been to properly address the question, “How do I live?” Namely, “How do I live well?” Naturally—for as long as our species has had the wherewithal to question its purpose and condition, the problem of ethics has found itself at the frontiers of human thought. Many moral philosophies have since rushed into that wide gulf between knowledge and truth, systems of understanding and action which attempt to conquer our ethical indecisiveness and color in a void where so much uncertainty exists.

Many traditions prescribe the ideal, virtuous, or noble life. From the ancient, academic, or political—e.g. Epicureanism, utilitarianism, humanism, or libertarianism—to the more mystical or overtly religious—e.g. Jainism, Christianity, or Taoism—many are concerned with how one acts (or can act), or at least how one views oneself in relation to others and to the world at large.

The Buddhist religion—though some prefer to see it as a philosophy—is one such tradition. An ancient and diverse faith, Buddhism is perhaps best known for its thorough and egalitarian moral philosophy. And while it is indeed diverse (containing a huge number of schools, most with their own interpretive methods and styles of meditation and ritual practice), compassion (or karuna) is treated as an important trait of an enlightened being, and a cornerstone of Buddhist thought, in all sects. Thus, throughout the various iterations of Buddhism—from the forest-monk Theravada of Thailand to the Zen habits of Japan—one finds a remarkably consistent system of normative ethics, and a conceptual framework for promoting the wellbeing of all sentient creatures.

That all being said, the ontological concepts which necessitate Buddhist compassion are perhaps most concisely expressed by the Mahayana (“great vehicle”) tradition—one of two or three major branches into which Buddhism is often divided. Buddhism maintains a unique connection between metaphysics and ethics, and the deeply profound philosophies of many Mahayana thinkers, and those presented in a number of the Mahayana sutras (Buddhist sacred texts), can be seen as an attempt to navigate and define that sort of connection.

Where does one begin in exploring such a notion? The corpus of Buddhist literature is impossibly vast, and anyone could spend a lifetime pondering so many mystical works and their commentaries. I would argue, however, that in order to form at least a basic understanding of the Mahayana ethical-metaphysical relationship, we need look no further than the ancient and seminal Heart Sutra.

Written as a dialogue and teaching, the Heart Sutra is a brief monologue on the part of a bodhisattva (an enlightened being who has postponed his or her salvation in order to remain in the world and aid sentient beings) by the name of Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara (known as Guanyin in China and Chenrezig in Tibet—the latter where the Dalai Lama is considered his living manifestation), whose name roughly translates to “the lord who looks down,”—that is, he looks down upon the world of the unenlightened with charity and love—is a bodhisattva representing perfect compassion. Befitting this disposition, the Avalokiteshvara of the Heart Sutra provides a mortal monk, Sariputra, with a profound teaching, a parcel of great wisdom intended to eradicate the suffering of sentient beings. Avalokiteshvara’s great revelation is that all phenomena are, in fact, “empty.” (Red Pine, p. 3.)

To clarify, the bodhisattva is saying that everything in the world lacks an inherent “self,” or essence. This concept finds its origin in the oldest, pre-Mahayana forms of Buddhism, and the Buddha himself noted that “no-self” is, along with impermanence (anicca) and unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), one of three “marks” which constitute the nature of reality. Anatta, for the historical Buddha, and for the older Theravada school, mostly implies that nothing in the world can be said to be one’s “self,” (atman), and thus identifying anything as representing the essence of oneself—a “self” made up only of non-self parts (cf. Hume’s “bundle theory”)—is delusory. The self-concept, for the Buddha, is an illusion of essence which binds human beings to false worldviews and causes them to misrepresent reality, thus barring them from enlightenment.

The falseness of self-hood forms a bedrock of Buddhist philosophy. In the “emptiness” (sunyata) of the Mahayana, however, we find anatta further developed. (Nagao, pp. 173-174.) We owe this development chiefly to Nagarjuna, a first-century Buddhist philosopher who founded the Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism, and developed the philosophies (one most notably being sunyata) inherent in the Mahayana Prajnaparamita sutras. In his text, Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna famously states, to this effect, “All is possible when emptiness is possible. Nothing is possible when emptiness is impossible.” Thus emptiness, in this sense, is not mere nothingness, but an open space in which all potential exists. Hence one cannot truly differentiate being and nonbeing, total emptiness and total “allness,” infinite nothing and infinite something. One implies, or necessitates, the other. In the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara explains this to Sariputra when he says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness; whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form.” For the Mahayana school, emptiness is not merely the surrogate for essence, and a blank space where one imagines the self, but the numinous nature of all things.

Now, this emptiness implies another notion (this one common to Buddhism on the whole), “dependent origination.” (Pratityasamutpada.) According to this doctrine, all phenomena exist dependently, depending upon one another in order to maintain their existence. (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.p.) Thus, there is no free, permanent, inherent, and individual existence for any beings or objects. Their causes and conditions are inextricably linked to the unending web of phenomena arising and passing away in the universe. One thing cannot be said to be truly separate from anything else when it exists, in time and space, alongside all else, and when it requires for its existence the (falsely!) extraneous forces of nature, matter, and energy. Thomas J. McFarlane, writing in his 1995 essay “The Meaning of Sunyata in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy,” sums this up nicely when he states, “According to Madhyamika, the root of all suffering lies in… the error of mistaking the relative for the absolute, the conditioned for the unconditioned. We take imagined separation as real, supposed division as given.”

An easier, less flowery way to illustrate these three ideas—no-self, emptiness, and dependent origination—in tandem may be to imagine something made up of familiar parts: A tree, for instance. We all know that trees are made of a variety of components—trunk, roots, branches, leaves. Where, then, lies the “treeness” of the tree, in the tree? Is the tree its roots? Is the tree its leaves? No? Why not? One may say, “‘tree’ is the name we give to the sum of the parts of the tree,” but then, of course, “tree” is reduced to a mere name and concept, not a thing-in-itself. Whatever can be called a “tree” is ultimately made up of non-tree parts, and thus there is no “treeness” at all. Similarly, the self, though imagined as one’s essence or “soul,” can be divided into mental phenomena and parts of the body. (All of which are subject to constant change, hence anicca.) There is no “selfness” for this self, only the experience of a very familiar concept by the same name. Thus Avalokiteshvara tells Sariputra, “Whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form. The same holds for sensation and perception, memory and consciousness.”

We now have a grasp on no-self (anatta), and can see how easily it translates to no-essence-anywhere-at-all (sunyata) by analyzing everything down into its (non-) fundamental components, components which themselves are also made up of other components, and so on and so forth. One can continue dividing things and concepts forever, down to an infinitesimal. (Granted, this is a conceptual exercise, and the author omits any claims about concrete physics for lack of sincere knowledge of the subject. Regardless of Planck lengths and fundamental particles, confer “infinite divisibility.”)

But how does emptiness translate into connection, into pratityasamutpada? Let us continue with the metaphor of the tree, and observe how the tree is not only constructed of non-tree parts, but dependent on the conditions of the world at large for those very constructs: A tree, like all lifeforms, requires a number of inputs from its surrounding environment in order to survive and thrive. Water, soil, and sunlight most readily come to mind. Water, for instance, rains down from clouds, which themselves are formed from atmospheric water vapor. Soil is produced over many years by the degradation of organic matter, and organic matter is contained by other lifeforms, which exist by dint of their evolutionary ancestors. Sunlight reaches the Earth from the Sun, which itself was formed billions of years ago from sparse bits of matter produced in the Big Bang.

What sort of philosophical quandary do we run into here, then? For our purposes it is best to put the question this way: “At what point is the tree no longer itself?” That is to say, “At what point is any “one” thing separable from the causes and conditions that give rise to it, or the causes and conditions that it gives rise to?”

If we take this notion—this pratityasamutpada—to its logical conclusion, we come to recognize that we are, in order to exist, dependent upon components and conditions outside of ourselves; that everything, in fact, is; that the entire universe is one integrated system, and in some sense an entity-unto-itself.

One response to such a situation—and an understandable one, at that—may be that of deep compassion: the fact that we are dependent upon all else, and all else upon us, in some sense (and albeit in a small way), gives us reason to care for the world (and other beings especially) as if the welfare of other things and beings was the same as ours… as if we have no “self” apart from that of the world at large, the welfare of which—from crabs to carpenters—is our concern as beings endowed with the capacity for both suffering and empathy. No doubt, it’s this very suffering which binds us to one another. We, knowing our own pain, can experience it vicariously, through others. Philosophers as diverse as Marcus Aurelius, Hume, and Schopenhauer understood the universality of pain and empathy, and thus their importance in morality.

The Buddha, of course, realized the same. And while you may not find a be-all-end-all answer to the big ethical problems in one particular system, opting instead (as many do) for an eclectic approach to moral philosophy, you have to admit that Buddhism provides one of the most intricate (and practical) answers to our moral quandaries.

As long as human beings have questioned the nature of their freedom and manners of life and livelihood, philosophy has helped fill the void inherent in the realms of “good” and “evil” and everything in between. Buddhism presents us with one particularly bright light, helping to illuminate the murky and ever-indefinite realm of philosophical inquiry.

About the author ~ Ryan V. Stewart is a writer and student from Connecticut. He has been actively writing since 2006, and blogs about everything from mysticism and philosophy to environmental issues, the arts, and personal peeves at The Grand Tangent. He’s interested in the intersection of mysticism, comparative religion, and philosophical analysis (among other things). 

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Red Pine, trans. The Heart Sutra. Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004. Print.

Nagao, Gajin. Mādhyamika and Yogācāra: A Study of Mahāyāna Philosophies. Delhi, India: Sri Satguru Publications, 1992. Print.

“Paticca-samuppada.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Ed. Anonymous. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. .