This was written by a friend of mine and may be of interest.
“The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all emptiness. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword.” (Bukkho, quoted in Zen and Japanese Culture, Suzuki: Pantheon, New York 1959.)
Here is an application of the doctrine of emptiness in the human world, which violates all the Buddhist principles of compassion. The view expressed may be correct from the standpoint of insight, but is lacking in compassion. Since compassion and insight are one and the same, something is amiss in that it suggests that there is nothing wrong in violating the first precept.
Insight practice has been popularised in the mindfulness cults of present day psychology, mostly based on New Burmese Satipaṭṭhāna methodology. Compassion is not taught as part of insight, and in traditional Theravāda it is held to be a samathā practice, of minimal relevance to insight practice.
The roots of this interpretation go right back to the beginning of Buddhism. During the fifth century BCE, belief systems in the subcontinent of India held that there was a mystical Mt. Meru, surrounded by lower lying lands, including Jambudipa. The worlds of the gods were to be found in the mountains, and the humans and animals shared Jambudipa. The hell worlds were located below both. These worlds provided the location for the rebirths according to the appropriate laws. The laws differed according to the sects involved. The Jains believed in causation by action, and to this day Jain nuns wear face masks and sweep the ground before them lest they inadvertently injure a living creature. Ajivakas did not believe that such ascetic practices had any effect on the workings of karma, which followed its own laws over an infinitely long stretch of time. The Buddhists simply adopted the prevailing view now found in the Vedas, with the exception of the addition of moral causation.
Thus Buddhists to this day believe that intention is the driver of karma, rather than the act itself. Dissenting voices are found in sects such as the Zen sect taken up by the samurai of medieval Japan, who dispensed with moral causation by invoking insight as the overriding factor. Modern New Burmese Satipatṭṭhāna tends in the same direction, by emphasising insight over compassion. They have not abandoned moral causation and karma, but kept them in separate compartments. Thus they believe ‘If you are good, you are reborn as a god, if you are bad, you go to hell, but if you practice insight, you attain nibbāna.’ This latter is seen as something different, something transcendental.
This approach came about because of the reliance on abhidhamma philosophy, and over-reliance on the traditional commentaries. Mahāsi Sayadaw denies the total extinction of a living being after death, saying that this is an annihilation view. Instead he speaks of a particular person involved in the process of rebirth. Mahæsi explains “Likewise avijja, sankhæra, viññæ¼a, etc occur in unbroken succession in terms of cause and effect and so it is reasonable to speak of a particular person involved in the process. It was Devadætta, for example, who committed schism and it is Devædatta who is now suffering in hell. The merchant Anāthapiṇḍika did good deeds and it was he himself who landed in the deva-world after his death.” (Pa¥iccasamuppæda, Mahæsi Sayadaw, Buddha Sasana Nuggaha Organization, Rangoon, 1982. p260.) Mahāsi further explains that arahants do not enter nibbāna, and that beings cannot be reborn there or fall from there. Nibbāna is seen as an attainment of arahants, and after death they attain an-upadisesa nibbāna, which is without a basis of the khandha remaining. This is an erroneous interpretation, as the correct rendering is without fuel remaining (This is covered in Gombrich "How Buddhism Began", Athlone 1996, p69: "Because of phonetic similarity, upādi in this context was changed to upadhi. The latter means basis, foundation, and in particular was used to refer to the basis for craving (tanhā) As this made satisfactory sense, no one noticed that there was even a problem with the original terms.")
Thus an-upādisesa nibbāna is attained in this same life, not after death. The interpretation that an-upādisesa nibbāna is a state parallel to the rebirths around Mt. Meru awaiting ordinary folk is a folk myth, based on misinterpretation of the Pāli canon.
This is important to the unity of compassion and insight, as the attainment of the arahant is in this very life, and not a transcendental state. As a result of his or her liberating insight, the arahant remains in full relation to other people. He or she does not attain any special state after death, according to the original pāli, rather than as stated in the abhidhamma and the commentaries.
When the arahant first attains sa-upādisesa nibbana, he or she has not yet cooled. What this means is that the senses are still hot, and reacting in their habitual way. The brain displays plasticity, and the synapses and neurotransmitters acting on them take some time to cool down. After some time, due to plasticity, the brain changes, and an-upādisesa nibbāna is realised before death. Instead of reacting with the passions as before, the reaction is one of natural compassion. This is not the compassion that results from samathā practice, but is the natural result of insight realisation. By realising emptiness (emptiness of self in Theravāda, or emptiness of all phenomena in Mahayāna), changes in the brain take place enabling the unfolding of natural compassion, which was always there but hidden by the failure to realise emptiness.
These teachings are present in the Pāli canon, but because they did not fit with the prevailing abhidhamma and commentarial views, they have been ignored. Compassion came to be viewed as a Brahma Vihara that is the abode of a certain type of deva who had specialised in the practice of compassion. In reality, compassion is the natural state of the Buddhas, and so all who realise the attainments of the Buddhas will naturally attain compassion along with the insight which gave them the understanding in the first place. Compassion is not just a fellow feeling for those who suffer, but rather a natural healthy relationship with others, which seeks their welfare and wellbeing, and in particular does its utmost to bring them to insight as well.
It was always said that compassion is the abode of the Buddhas. Compassion drove them to teach the dhamma. Compassion drives the spreading of New Burmese Satipaṭṭhāna, so we should do our level best to set the record straight in the light of comparative Buddhist studies and contemporary Pāli scholarship. If we insist on following rebirth myths from fifth century BCE India, and medieval commentaries from Sri Lanka originating in the tenth century AD, we will be following a transcendental system to rival Transcendental Meditation itself. Buddhism will be of limited use to seekers after enlightenment, but will serve the needs of Burmese general’s intent on keeping the status quo at home. Thich Nhat Hahn is one of those who understands this, and few contemporary teacher have been witness to the suffering he has seen. The idea that insight and compassion could be separated is as unthinkable to him as it was to Saraha. It seems that at some point the Theravāda fossilised its schematic dhamma system in the abhidhamma and commentaries, which unfortunately preserve a truncated transmission of liberating dhamma. Compassion requires that we reinstate it as the prime mover of Buddhism, to which insight is secondary, rather than the other way around. Let’s just say that what we need is compassion/insight, or compassion and emptiness are one and the same, as Saraha never ceases to remind us, knowing we have long forgotten that truth (and he was writing in the tenth century!)