There are many teachings which illuminate this non dualistic, selfless perspective. Firstly, some verses often quoted by the Dalai Lama.
With a wish to free all beings
I shall always go for refuge
To the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha,
Until I reach full enlightenment.
Filled with wisdom and compassion,
Today in the Buddha"s presence
I generate the mind for full awakening,
For the benefit of all sentient beings.
As long as space remains,
As long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain
And dispel the miseries of the world.
Guide to the Bodhisattva"s Way of Life, Ch 3,
In the light of our discussion, this last verse might cause some debate amongst Theravadans. Why? It appears to go completely counter to that principle to get out of the burning house as soon as one can. We have our own idea of the best thing to do – practice and develop as much mindfulness as possible, realize enlightenment as soon as possible; that"s it – game over.
In the Pali scriptures the most we ever find out about what happens to an enlightened being after the death of the body is found in such comments as:
Such a one passes out of the sphere of knowledge of gods and humans.
Or in the response that the Buddha gives to Upasiva:
One who has reached the end has no criterion by which they can be measured. That by which they could be talked of is no more. You cannot say, “They do not exist.” But when all modes of being, all phenomena are removed, then all means of description have gone too.
The Buddha thus leaves this mystery powerfully undefined.
So, to the average Theravadan the verse of Santideva, “As long as space remains…” might seem anathema. However, the practice of the Middle Way involves taking up these kinds of compassion teachings along with their partner, the emptiness teachings. These two elements are like the wings of a bird – they can"t properly function without each other.
If we take a moment to reflect on the words of the verse, another layer of meaning opens up: As long as the mind holds the concepts of space and identity to have substantial reality, the mind hasn"t actually realized enlightenment. Enlightened insight is based on recognizing that three dimensional space, time, and being are all illusory – these are imputed realities, but without any absolute existence.
So if we"re hanging onto the Southern idea of “me going”, and “others being left behind” then that idea, by definition, is missing the mark. Similarly, if we cling to the Northern view and think, “this individual being will persist through infinite time for the sake of all beings,” that has also fallen drastically into wrong view.
There can be many subtle layers of clinging involved here too, the habits of overreaching and holding back die hard. No matter how subtly the heart might be identified with feelings of, “I actually do want to get out of here” or “I"d really love to stay and help,” then that pure chord of the Middle Way has not yet been struck.
The correct practice of the Middle Way is therefore aimed at breaking up that delusion whereby "I" can "go" and "others" can "stay", or vice versa. In fact "I" can"t "go" unless the concepts of being and space are radically reconfigured. So, the aspiration can indeed validly be, “As long as space remains, as long as sentient beings remain, until then, may I too remain…” But what if space no longer remains? What if living beings no longer remain? If their essential nature is recognized as conceptually contrived and dependent, what would that say about the supposed "I" who would be staying behind?
The ironic flip side of the verse, when we reflect on its deeper meaning, is thus that, as soon as there is the realization that time, space and beings have no substantial reality, then the "I" is "gone" too – gone to Suchness, come to Suchness: Tathagata.
Sri Ramana Maharshi also has a wise perspective on this area:
People often say that a liberated Master should go out and preach his message to the people. How can anyone be a Master, they argue, as long as there is misery by his side? This is true. But, who is a liberated Master? Does he see misery beside him? They want to determine the state of a Master without realizing the state themselves. From the standpoint of the Master, their contention amounts to this: a man dreams a dream in which he finds several people. On waking up he asks, “Have the dream people also woken up?” How ridiculous. In the same way, a good man says, “It doesn"t matter if I never get liberation,” or “Let me be the last man to get it, so that I may help all others to be liberated before I am.” Wonderful! Imagine a dreamer saying, “May all these dream people wake up before I do.” The dreamer is no more absurd than this amiable philosopher.
This analysis astutely captures the presumptions that are being made. For it"s only when the heart is free that it can really, unequivocally attune itself to all things. One of the expressions of that attunement is "caring for all beings," so a precise and exquisite balance is needed.
One of the scriptures that speaks skillfully on this topic is the Vajra Sutra; here are a number of passages from that scripture that are pertinent.
The Buddha told Subhuti, “All Bodhisattvas, Mahasattvas, should subdue their hearts with the vow, "I must cause all living beings... to enter Nirvana without residue and be taken across to extinction. Yet of the immeasurable, boundless numbers of living beings thus taken across to extinction, there is actually no living being taken across to extinction. And why? Subhuti, if a Bodhisattva has a mark of self, a mark of others, a mark of living beings, or a mark of a life, then they are not a Bodhisattva.”
The Vajra Prajna Paramita Sutra,
Ch 3, "The Orthodox Doctrine of the Great Vehicle"
The Buddha said, “Subhuti, they are neither living beings nor no living beings. And why? Subhuti, living beings, living beings, are spoken of by the Tathagata as no living beings, therefore they are called living beings.”
Ch 21, "Spoken yet not Spoken"
“Subhuti, what do you think? You should not maintain that the Tathagata has this thought: "I shall take living beings across." Subhuti, do not have that thought. And why? There are actually no living beings taken across by the Tathagata. If there were living beings taken across by the Tathagata, then the Tathagata would have the existence of a self, of others, of living beings, and of a life. Subhuti, the existence of a self spoken of by the Tathagata is no existence of a self, but common people take it as the existence of a self. Subhuti, common people are spoken of by the Tathagata as no common people, therefore they are called common people.”
Ch 25, "Transformations Without what is Transformed"
The way we save all living beings is to realize there are no beings. To establish the heart in true wisdom is to see this fact; ultimately there is no self, no other, no living beings, no arahant, no bodhisattva, no life, no death. Realizing emptiness is the seeing through of all that. It"s an intuitive process whereby, even though the heart might be given to compassion, its only when we recognize and surrender to this wisdom element as well, and hold it simultaneously, that there is going to be true freedom.
We need to be careful not to make our traits into a religion of their own. Rather we develop insight into our traits and train the heart in order to balance them out. If we"re a wisdom type, intent on realizing Nibbana, practicing for our own benefit, to get out as quickly as possible – then it"s necessary to train the heart to think in terms of altruism. We need to counteract the obsession that there"s nobody here, nothing to do, nowhere to go, and start moving towards people and things.
Or, if we"re more of a compassion type, determined to stick around and help all beings, such that, “I"m in here and I"m helping you out there” and “I"m going to stay around until everyone else has been saved,” then we need to incline towards the emptiness of things.
It is in the unutterable equipoise of the Middle Way that both of these realities – the infinite and the void – are sustained. They complement and balance with each other.