Mirror of Zen Blog

Reply to a Reader: On Nagarjuna and the Void and the Womb of Compassion


Dear Hyon Gak Sunim,
How are You? I often encounter Your teaching on Facebook and I would like to thank You for that! Also, I noticed that You use questions from Your Students as opportunities for teaching.

So I would like to ask You about the meaning of Nagarjuna’s statement “Voidness is the womb of compassion”. What does it mean? Should we interpret this as the description of changing attitute towards others due to the deep experience of unity with everything because of silent meditation? Do the void and silence that we experience in longer retreats make us feel more love for people and all sentient beings? Why is that?

I wonder what is Your take on this?

Yours in Dharma,

Nagarjuna (c. 150—c. 250), sometimes referred to as “the second Buddha” by Tibetan and East Asian Mahayana traditions of Buddhism.


Dear R.,

Thank you for your note and your question.

Your question is a question in a conceptual manner, seeking for some conceptual “truth“. But that is only a concept, an idea, an abstraction, a mental formation of some shape or meaning that you are looking for, which will cause other neurons to seem like it is “right“ or “wrong“.

Such a path of seeking insight through conceptual or intellectual means alone is NOT the meaning of Nagarjuna, it is NOT the meaning of Buddhism, it is NOT the meaning of Zen.

You must sit – – pure, and simple. And then the “answer” dawns on you, emerges in you and in everything you experience. Then, the “meaning“ is released to a degree far, far deeper and more actionable than any concept that I could give, any idea that the Buddha could give, any abstraction that a professor or an “explainer“ of Buddhism could ever offer to you. I really, really, really mean this – – you cannot get what you are looking for by looking for another “concept“ or idea to respond to your question. The answer you are “seeking” from me is something you already “know” (or, “intuit”, SEE), and it is before thinking, before concepts, before abstraction or idea.

While from time to time there can be intellectual discussions of matters described by Buddhist teaching, ultimately those are only giving photographs of food to a hungry person: that method cannot satisfy the way to resolve true hunger. True Buddhism is mainly only concerned with practice, not with the conceptual understanding of practice. People who fly airplanes use them to arrive at a destination. They do not seek to understand the underlying principles of aerodynamics, the laws of fluid dynamics, the principles of differential vapor states, the physics of gravity, drag, and viscosity, etc. They get on the plane in order to arrive at a destination – – intricate knowledge of the mechanical operation for arriving at the desired destination is not necessary for their arrival.

So, you could chase down various excellent intellectual or conceptual descriptions of this point of Nagarjuna – – even spiritual discussions! – – and yet still be 1,000,000,000,000 miles away from the point that Nagarjuna is pointing us too. And that distance really will not help your life, especially at the moment when you die and transition into some other expression of your accumulated mental energies and forces.

If you truly want the “insight“ that your passage is pointing to, that Nagarjuna is pointing to, that the Buddha and all of the patriarchs and matriarchs are pointing to, that I would only ever be satisfied in pointing you to – – then go and sit on your butt for about four days of intensive silent Zen retreat, hopefully followed by another similar retreat within one or two months of the first one, and a retreat as soon as possible after that.

Finally, you end your message with three distinct questions. And all of the answers to those questions are things which are profoundly and eternally already deeply and irrevocably known to you. You just haven’t looked inside long enough yet, and you would like to get a sort of label description from someone who maybe has looked into it quite deeply. I would suggest to you that you dig your own gold — what you carry already inside you — and make that gold something you can use freely because then you have obtained it through your effort and your direct recognition of its truth, and your appreciation for the effort, and the entire holistic bonding, which that realization will make in your mind, and make completely relevant and serviceable for every single moment of your life!

Now, I am sure you have done a few retreats. You should also consider trying a retreat where there is no part of the curriculum which stimulates the “cognition synapses“, as often happens when you attend retreats where there are kong-an interviews happening at several points during your meditation. Leave that method alone for a while, and look into the only single kong-an that ever really matters: Purely and clearly: “What am I?“

I wish you luck.


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