Emptiness in Buddhism is not nothingness;
it is everythingness (physical and mental) being unsubstantial,
being ‘empty’ of anything unchanging (e.g. self),
due to constant change in the moment.
Does compassion, which relieves others’ suffering contradict the notion of detachment (the antithesis of attachment), which prevents personal suffering? Because true compassion is unconditional helping, it is unconditional, and a form of detachment – from having any condition for helping another, while being genuinely helpful. The detachment Buddhism advocates arises from the wisdom of not being attached to phenomena, including people, that change. But this wisdom is also coupled with compassion – because it realises that despite the constant change of phenomena, many beings do not realise this truth of impermanence and cling to the illusion of their selves and experiences being unchanging, and suffer as a result. This is why the fully enlightened who have realised the wisdom of non-self naturally have perfect compassion too, to help those who lack wisdom and compassion to realise enlightenment for themselves and others. It is exactly because the fully enlightened have no illusion of self anymore, that they are selfless (opposite of selfish) in their efforts to help others. Thus, true wisdom is true compassion; true compassion is true wisdom.
There is then no need to feel for others (by having compassion) and not feel for them (by being detached) at the same time. We just need to realise how real the suffering of others is to them and to help them accordingly. For example, when a child is suffering from having a terrible nightmare, we naturally try to gently awaken the child from the illusion. If we do not care at all, and let the horrible dream perpetuate, something is very wrong with us – as we are not being true to our Buddha-nature – which is naturally brmming with compassion. Thus, we do and should indeed care. But in terms of helping in many other instances, it might not be so easy to awaken others’ wisdom. This is where we simply do our best in the moment, without attachment to results. This is the way to cultivate proper detachment, which is the opposite of being in situations where there is fear of becoming too attached to the ones we care about. This fear might even make one hesitant about engaging in any form of relationship with another, to the extent of not being compassionate.
We need to remember that not being in any relationship does not lead to proper detachment automatically. Some relationships are very important too – such as the Buddha’s teacher-student relationship with us. The Buddha is the best example of exemplifying unconditional compassion without any unhealthy attachment. For example, when a disciple passes away before him, he does not suffer from attachment. He just ensures that he does his best to help his disciples while they are alive. In fact, as long as enlightenment is not realised, avoidance of relationships might be a form of suppression of attachment – to not wanting attachment. Any form of attachment renders one still unliberated. It is natural to have attachment at the moment, while we can do our best by being mindful of the reality of impermanence to lessen attachment in good time. It is exactly because people will pass away that we should treasure them and help them now, with compassion, just like the Buddha did, instead of avoiding them – which does not really benefit anyone at all – not even ourselves.
One who imagines oneself to have realised ‘emptiness’,
who becomes apathetic to everyone else
is perhaps the most useless person in the world.