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Anālayo, professor of Buddhist Studies at the Sri Lanka International Academy in Pallekele, teaches at the Center for Buddhist Studies of the University of Hamburg and researches at the Dharma Drum Buddhist College in Taiwan. He has drawn on his extensive research into early Buddhism to present Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, our featured title this month. Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, comments, ‘Serious meditation students will benefit tremendously from the clarity of understanding that Venerable Anālayo’s efforts have achieved.’
Hannah Atkinson of Windhorse Publications interviews Anālayo and draws out his perspective on the bridges between early texts and how they illuminate compassion and emptiness in Buddhist practice. (The audio version is on Soundcloud.)
Your new book is called Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation. How would you introduce the book to those who haven’t yet heard about it?
In the title of the book, ‘early Buddhist meditation’ stands for the basic approach that I have taken in all of my recent work, where I go through the Pāli suttas and their parallels in other traditions preserved in the Āgamas (mostly in Chinese but also in Sanskrit and Tibetan), and I compare the different versions of the texts. This enables me to discover the common ground between them, the material that takes us back to the earliest stage in the development of Buddhist thought that we are still able to access today. So this is why I am calling it ‘early Buddhist meditation’; it is not Theravāda or Mahāyāna but the beginning stage of all of these traditions.
The other part of the title points to my discussion of the nature of compassion and the nature of emptiness, and how they can be developed through meditation. Whilst doing my research, I found that in early Buddhist thought, compassion is intrinsically related to the four brahma-vihāras, so after introducing the concept of compassion, I focus on how to practise compassion in the context of the brahma-vihāras. What we have with the brahma-vihāras is a basic set of mental attitudes that are appropriate for any life situation. They also have considerable liberating potential, supporting the cultivation of insight much more than is generally acknowledged.
I then move on to talking about emptiness, particularly with reference to a discourse preserved in Pāli, Chinese and Tibetan (called the Cula-suññata-sutta in Pāli), which describes a gradual perceptual entry into emptiness. So I approach the two topics of compassion and emptiness predominately from a practice-oriented perspective because this is how they are presented in the early Buddhist texts.
Your book has been described as ‘a work of bridge-building on many levels’, bringing together the fields of academia and Buddhist practice and highlighting the presence of compassion and emptiness in early as well as later forms of Buddhism. I was wondering if fostering the unity of the Buddhist tradition is something that particularly inspires and motivates your work?
For me the whole path leads in a direction that is the exact opposite of creating a narrow sense of identity that excludes others. The main goal is letting go altogether of our whole sense of a permanent self with which we identify. So although I follow a very traditional Theravāda monastic approach, it has always been important to me to ensure that my heart stays wide open to all other Buddhist traditions. This book in particular reaches out to my brothers and sisters in the Tibetan tradition, and it was therefore a great gift that His Holiness the Karmapa wrote a foreword to the book. It seems to me very clear that an essential element of walking the path is seeing the beauty in other traditions, really appreciating what others do even if we ourselves do not do it that way.
The book also brings out the complementary nature of compassion and emptiness. What is it, in particular, that unites the two concepts, and how do they work together in practice?
What particularly strikes me – and what also motivated me to bring compassion and emptiness together in one book – is not only the philosophical cross-connection between these two concepts but the fact that they can come to be so close in actual practice. This is clear when we go through the instructions on the brahma-vihāras as we find them in the early Buddhist texts. There is now a common Theravāda practice of directing mettā towards a particular object – a friend and a neutral person, etc. – but this is not found at all in the early Buddhist texts. The emphasis here is not on doing compassion but on being that quality, allowing it to radiate out in all directions. And this relates very easily to the contemplations of emptiness as described in the Cula-suññata-sutta that I mentioned earlier. In fact this is how I practise myself – I go through the four brahma-vihāras, and then practise emptiness contemplation. The transition is so smooth and at the same time it is very powerful.
And although emptiness is often presented as something abstract and philosophical, the point of Buddhist meditation is not just to have experiences of emptiness but also to see the emptiness of experience. Through the book I wanted to show that emptiness, like compassion, is something accessible and something that is intimately related to our everyday life. To truly understand compassion and emptiness is to see that – at least from a Buddhist perspective – you cannot practise one without practising the other.