Shariputra said: "Herein a monk lives spreading thoughts of goodwill in all directions. He lives spreading them everywhere, in every way, to the entire world, abundantly, boundlessly, unrestictedly, peaceably, benevolently. He lives spreading thoughts of compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity in the same way. This is called limitless mental freedom. Thus a monk transcends the realm of infinite consciousness and reaches and experiences the realm of nothingness. This is called mental freedom that is nothingness…. This is void of self or anything that is of the nature of self. This is called mental freedom that is empty.”
This passage helps us to understand
- the nature of the seemingly obscure terms ‘realm of infinite consciousness’ and ‘realm of nothingness'
- the nature of liberation or mental freedom
- the relationship between the Brahma Viharas and the higher dhyanas.
Emptiness or voidness - shunyata - in the Buddhist sense is clearly not a kind of passive vacuity of mind, but rather the functioning of complete altruism that occurs when there is nothing of self functioning. This is objectivity, undistorted by greed, hate and delusion. Shariputra goes on to say that it is greed, hate and delusion that are the limitations upon freedom of mind. In Buddhism, greed, hate and delusion are the components of self. When self is absent the mind naturally radiates goodwill in all directions.
We can see from this that the higher dhyanas are not limited to what happens when one is sitting cross-legged on the floor. Spreading goodwill in all directions is a recipe for an engaged life just as much as for a contemplative one and both have their place.
We can also see that the teaching on the four Brahma Viharas - love, compassion, joy and equanimity - is not something separate from the cultivation of dhyanas. It is not the case that these are two serparate meditations with different methods and goals. The higher dhyanas are the Brahma Viharas and vice versa.
Consciousness becomes infinite when there is goodwill toward all. This is unconditional positive regard. The realm of nothingness is the condition of being free of ego. This is congruent empathy. We can readily see how this teaching unites the ideals of the arahant (free from ego) and bodhisattva (full of altruism) making them two sides of the same coin. To be an arahant and to be a bodhisattva are like the steps in walking. Each follows the other endlessly.
It is good to contemplate these high ideals, even though one may admit that one does not, in reality, fulfil them. Still they open to us the nature of Buddha, the nature of Dharma and the nature of true Sangha and these are good things to carry in our hearts.