Nonduality and Compassion in Buddhist Thought

In Buddhism, understanding Emptiness leads to compassionate intentions and behavior

Daniel Lehewych, M.A
44 min readJan 2, 2022

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Photo by Lahiru Supunchandra on Unsplash

In Buddhism, undifferentiated concepts of emptiness, nonduality, and the ultimate are often taken to mean “nonexistence.” This, however, is incompatible with Buddhism’s fundamental ethical principle of compassion. This paper intends to argue that this incompatibility arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of emptiness. In section 1, I intend to layout that emptiness denotes metaphysical nihilism and therefore amorality or immorality concerning compassion. Then, in section 2, I will demonstrate the fallaciousness of this view by arguing that emptiness truly means dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) and that compassion can only be understood, and therefore, enacted from the purview of affectively understanding emptiness in this manner. Furthermore, I shall argue that the core of understanding emptiness in this manner is understanding the nonduality of conventional and ultimate reality. Finally, in section 3, I intend to explain how the view in section 1 is so readily arrived at — specifically, I shall argue that this derives from three factors: (1) literary/structural esotericism, (2) ignorance of emptiness on account of unfamiliarity with meditative/enlightenment experiences, and (3) an active denial of the truth.

Section 1: Default reification’s transformation into metaphysical nihilism

The doctrine of two truths in Buddhism posits two distinct realities.[1] The first is conventional reality. Conventional reality is generally described as the reality of our day-to-day life, where things inherently exist and possess individual essences –and thus, exist by necessity, of their own independent accord, and will do so eternally. (MMK 224)[2] On the ‘eternal’ front, we may not explicitly say this, but we certainly act as if our identity and personal properties –along with the identity and properties of all things — will last forever. We take things for granted and participate in petty disputes –we often flippantly act as if attaining our ends, or discarding what is bothering us, will bring us eternal happiness (eternal happiness that is more real than anything, including the present moment.)…

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