Ram Das: Compassion and the Void

In a podcast interview, “Episode 12: Behind it All”, Ram Das explains the links between compassion and emptiness, and between different forms of yoga and faith, from Buddhism to Hindu yogas to Christianity. He quotes and explains a Mahamudra text:

‘He who clings to the void and neglects compassion does not reach the highest stage but he who practices only compassion does not gain release from the toils of existence. He however who is strong in practice of both, remains neither in samskara nor in nirvana.’

So what happens is you go all the way out, and then you come back.

He who clings to the void and neglects compassion. Now what does the word compassion now mean? Compassion only means a true empathic understanding of how it all is. Which you can only understand when you’ve been in the void. I mean if somebody comes into me and brings me their heavy burden of, er, their karmic trip oh I’m suffering so, its so rough, and I empathise with them and I love them and I feel the sympathy, and at the same moment that I’m doing that, I realize they don’t exist, I don’t exist, the problem doesn’t exist. None of us ever were, nobody’s doing anything to anybody, right that’s compassion and at the same moment I’m there and I’m, going yeah right, I dig how it is.

This is the kind of thinking that I find very problematic and morally bankrupt. Why? Because it skips over the process that specifies how people resolve their suffering. “Nobodys’ doing anything to anybody” is a denial of the principles of karma and dependent origination.

Let’s take, for example, the companies in Thailand who are using slave labour to process shrimp:


According to this [mis]interpretation of “emptiness”, true compassion is knowing that seafood corporations “aren’t really” abusing their workers, aren’t really refusing to pay them, aren’t really subjecting them to painful and inhumane working conditions. And the people who are working under those conditions “aren’t really suffering.” It’s just “wrong view,” all that suffering is “mind made”, it’s all in their heads. They just need to realize that someday (after they’re dead, most likely) they won’t have to endure slave labour any more, they will all be happy and free. This totally sidesteps the process required by dependent origination to actively undo all the conditions cause people to be trapped by slave labour, including the failure to prosecute exploitative corporations for their criminal behaviour and sanction the global food corporations who profit from cheap peeled shrimp produced by slave labour.

On a personal level, this has been called “spiritual bypassing”. But on a collective level, we need to find a stronger term that communicates not just the personal and collective suffering, but the terrible injustice of the situation. At the very least, I would call this [mis]interpretation of ’emptiness’ a “wrong view” because it denies karma (responsibility for intentional acts) and dependent  origination.

The other critique I would add is one that I would call “we have all the answers.” We already have all the answers we need to solve most human problems. We already know the solution to the problem of slave labour: enforce international labour laws, prosecute the perpetrators and penalize those who profit from it. Further out, replace globalized capitalist production with local and regionalized social production that excludes profit and shares wealth among the workers (one possible solution and not the only one). What we lack is the political will to demand justice. We already have all the answers and solutions we need to significantly slow down climate change. We have all the technologies and social systems we need. What we lack is the political will to institute those changes.

So another interpretation of “the problem doesn’t really exist” is “we already have all the knowledge, wisdom and solutions that we need to solve the problem; what we have to do is put it into practice.” This returns us to what I stated in the beginning: that we cannot skip or avoid the process, and shunyata is process, because once you begin the process and apply “right effort” to continue, you will, through the chain of dependent causes and conditions, eventually arrive at the desired result: the problem is solved.

Compassion is being conscious at all levels. That’s what compassion is. Understanding how it all is every where all the time.

The rest of the transcribed interview is here at Ram Das’ site.


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