The key doctrine of Buddhism, which sets it apart from all other religions and philosophies, is laid out in the Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya Sutra, also called the Heart Sutra, and is stated succinctly as:

Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form.

But “Form is Emptiness” seems like a gross error of conceptual reasoning. Why? Because it mutually identifies Form and Emptiness as being one and the same thing, yet the not so subtle point of the doctrine of Emptiness is that there truly is nothing that is an independently existing entity with its own inherent self-nature — there are no independent ‘things’ at all in reality. How, then, can these two — Form and Emptiness — be identified as being one and the same thing?

Of course, it could be just a statement that these two words have the same meaning because, conceptually, they are describing the same phenomenon. Besides being boring, this interpretation also misses the point that Emptiness is specifically held to be the source, or ‘ground’, of all phenomena, and so, cannot be a phenomenon ‘itself’. Just having to put scare-quotes around the word “itself” indicates this interpretation is a nonstarter.

Also, the semantic construction of the word emptiness, which uses the “-ness” suffix, indicates that it represents an abstracted quality of something. So, what is it abstracted from? And in what way can a hypostasized quality be truly anything independently existing at all? In the declaration found in the Heart sutra, it is abstracted from a particular understanding of what “Form” refers to. So, in effect, this first clause seems to say that Form is the same as this abstracted quality of Form itself — or at least our common understanding of Form. So what is Form?

First, it is important to digress a bit, and mention that the short doctrinal expression, “Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form,” is taken out of an explanatory context in the sutra which gives us more than just those two assertions to ponder. This short expression is a mnemonic for the fuller doctrinal explanation found there.

The setting for the statement of the doctrine is a question posed by Sariputra, which is being answered by the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva Avalokitasvara. Sariputra has asked how someone should contemplate the nature of Prajna-paramita (literally, perfection of wisdom i.e. attaining realization).

Avalokitasvara first explains that anyone who wishes to understand this doctrine must first come to a direct meditative insight of the complete absence of any entity anywhere — neither our ‘selves’, nor others, nor any actual being or thing, has an independently existing ‘self’ with an inherent and enduring self-nature.

Once this has been gained through a spontaneous insight in profound meditative absorption — a state called samadhi in some traditions — it becomes clear that all the qualities, essences, and identities that we confer on the apperceived content of our experiences are inherently devoid of any actual self-existence, although they do serve a utilitarian function that is useful in our daily life.

Once having gained this profound insight, Avalokitasvara then says:

Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is not different from Form. Neither is Form different from Emptiness, indeed, Emptiness is Form.

While it may not seem that anything more has been said in the fuller version of the statement of the doctrine, it is important to first note that the assertion of no difference between the two completely undermines the misunderstanding that Emptiness refers to a void, which is unfortunately at times taken to be the meaning of the doctrine of Emptiness by those who have not had the required meditative insight that Avalokitasvara indicted was a prerequisite to understanding this doctrine. This leads to the misunderstanding that Emptiness is a nihilistic doctrine.

You see, the truth is Emptiness is not nothingness — the doctrine points to a plenum of activity of the naturing of all that appears to be, but which are ‘no things’. This isn’t a play on words, it is an unfortunate confusion of the English word “nothing”, meaning a void or absence, and “not a thing”, or “no thing,” meaning the absence of an independent self-nature intrinsic to what is actually appearing. So Emptiness doesn’t imply that there is nothing at all — a void — it asserts that there are no actual things with a self-nature that stand independently alone, separated from everything else. Emptiness is the activity of manifesting all that appears, and it is this activity that we experience.

A metaphor that I can offer up to shed some light on this is Pando, the heaviest living being on Earth. It is located in southern Utah, in the United States, and covers 108 acres, and is estimated to weigh collectively 6,000,000 kilograms. This is Pando:

Public Domain

Can you see Pando? It’s all those yellow trees in this photo. Don’t look for the biggest one, because it is all of them. Each tree in that photo is an exact genetic clone — although they are clearly different in shape and size — and they all share a single root system, which apparently has been alive for at least thousands of years by some estimates, much longer by others.

On the surface, where we live, each one of those trees seems to be an independent tree, but under the surface, through which we cannot see, is a none-individuated root system. This is not just a bunch of trees with their roots all tangled together. It is one root system. So, to be specific, each one of the apparently separate trees is not an independent tree at all, because it shares the root system with all the other trees. In this metaphor, that root system is Emptiness. Emptiness is not a tree, but it also isn’t something other than those trees on the surface. So let’s continue with this image in mind.

Emptiness is the activity of manifesting all that appears, and this includes us, by the way, which is why Avalokitasvara points to the meditative insight as a necessary first step in properly contemplating this doctrine. Through the practice of meditation, we can suddenly notice that there is nothing permanent, nor even essential, that makes up our ’self’.

So a better formulation of the doctrine’s first clause is to note that “Form is empty.” Empty of what? Empty of any independent self-nature (think of Pando’s root system) — which, again, is the definition of Emptiness. This does away with the first potential error.

But there is that other error in our normal way of understanding this doctrine.

The formulation of the first part of the doctrine, Form is Emptiness, clearly indicates that any distinction between Form and Emptiness, which are erroneously seen as two different things, is denied by the assertion that they are identical. But the improved version, “Form is empty,” does not accomplish both goals: that of not being different things, and that of not being nihilistic.

But what does Avalokitasvara say in the expanded doctrine quoted above? He says “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is not different from Form.” So if we incorporate the improved first clause — Form is empty, Emptiness is not different from Form — we have done away with both errors, and clarified that Emptiness is similarly empty of an independent self-nature.

In the second half of the doctrine, that Emptiness is Form, it seems to indicate the same thing, that Emptiness and Form are not different, but it isn’t saying that. Why repeat the same statement?

A better way to understand this is to consider “Emptiness is Form” to be specifically saying that because Emptiness is the activity known by the conceptual abstraction called “Emptiness,” but is inseparably the activity and what it presents as, thus this abstract concept is also a form. A form of what? Of conceptual thought. This reinforces Avalokitasvara’s assertion that to understand this doctrine we must first come to a direct meditative insight of the complete absence of any entity — any thing — anywhere, because without this insight “Emptiness” is just a concept, and it obscures the nonduality of the activity and what (it) presents as.

What has happened here is that we are misled because the first use of “is” in the doctrine statement was used to denote identity, and so, we take the second “is” to be the same thing, only in reverse order. But that is not necessarily the case.

For example, remarking that “a train is coming” does not identify which train is coming, but only that a train is in the process of coming. But it also doesn’t imply that the meaning of “train” is completely encompassed by the activity of coming. Trains also leave, which is why we take trains — to leave a place. It would be silly getting on a train that only comes, but never leaves. So how could saying “a train is coming” be an assertion of the identity between a train and an activity? This is the difference that we must bear in mind — especially since the first part of the doctrine statement means that any identity imposed on the activity is an illusory idea.

Furthermore, all it takes is some paint to change the numbers on the individual cars and engine of the train, and it is a different train. It is true that there is an actual train coming, but is it the same train that it was when it left its departure point? Perhaps it lost some nuts and bolts on the way, so that it is less than what it was when it left.

Is it the same train it was when it was first put into service some time ago? No, of course not. Parts rust, some are broken and replaced, things get bent, the cars may be rearranged and moved to other trains, while new cars are added, etc. And is it the same train it will one day be? Of course not.

Trains, like everything else, age and decay, and finally, are no more. So how can an old train, decaying away in some corner of a rail-yard, possibly be the same train as the new one first put into service. What has stayed the same? What sets it apart from every other train?

The decaying train sdoesn’t even serve a similar purpose. How can they be the same thing, other than in our common inexactitude about the world and all that appears within it?

Understanding this, brings out the deeper truth that Form is the activity that we call Emptiness — and that name was crafted to elicit the character of this activity — that it lacks any entity causing it, or doing it, such as God is normally understood to be.

For what else could it mean, since form does not have an independent enduring self-nature? Form is empty of that.

So for the second part of this central doctrine of Buddhist philosophy, rather than creating a reciprocal identification by saying “Emptiness is Form” as if these are again two names for one and the same thing as in the first part, a better understanding of this profound pointing out instruction is to note that “Emptiness is form” (note the uncapitalized state of the word “form” to mean an actual instance of Form). This points out that “Emptiness” is a conceptualization of an absence, and not some thing that is present. What is absent? Independent own-being having an enduring self-nature.

You see, Emptiness is not some thing that exists — it is not something in either this world of forms, nor in some more ‘real’ realm of absolute Being. So if we try to make it some thing, if even just to be able to hold onto the idea of it, we have lost the truth completely. Emptiness is not something anyone can experience directly. It is simply a name we give to the absence of any inherent self-nature from all actual instances of forms that are present in the world, that we directly notice at some point along our path while in a profound state of meditation.

So: Form is empty, Emptiness is not different from Form; Emptiness is form.

Emptiness is the name we give to the inscrutable naturing of this world — which is neither Being nor Non-Being. Rather, it is otherwise than Being and Non-Being; and thus, not a thing, but an activity that is beyond nature and essence. Why that last bit? Because this naturing is inscrutable. Anything you think it is, is an error of reason. Oh, you may have come up with a really creative tale to tell about Emptiness, but it will never be the truth, and will always mislead those who do not know better before they have the direct meditative experience.

But there is even more to tell.

Emptiness, as we said, is not a void. Emptiness is the irreducible fecundity of indefinite forms that neither delimit that which is real, nor obstruct that which is possible.

And do not overlook the clear recognition of Form in this central tenet of Buddhism.

Form is a singular component of what we experience, and what we can know, and it points to the myriad of forms of discernible qualities and characteristics that comprise the cosmos of our experience, and all that we conceive about it. This cosmos of form is not a world of matter, nor a void — for our experience is resplendent with formal presence that lacks any inherent self-nature. Yet, this cosmos of form is actual — it is not an hallucination, nor an illusion. Getting run over by a train will end the life you have. And the actuality of the cosmos of form is known by the clear light of our recognition of it — which is the cognitive character of this naturing.

And this brings us to the most important — and often missed — assertion of this doctrine: Emptiness is not optional. It is not contingent on anything, any Being, any necessary condition, nor the absence of those things. And thus, the self-image that you have of your self, the character and personality that you believe defines you, are all empty of truth, because all of that is empty, as all other forms are. You are the not other than Emptiness, as defined above, as the necessary cognitive knowing that is the naturing of all forms — and specifically, the knowing of all those things you thought you were, which are empty. This is the perfection of wisdom — “you” are that perfection. And that is the reason that Avalokitasvara added that third clause in his extended doctrinal statement: “Neither is Form different from Emptiness.” What this is saying is that although we cannot directly experience the activity called Emptiness, the forms that we experience, that we ourselves are, are not other than this activity called Emptiness. So the final full doctrine will look like this:

Form is empty, Emptiness is not different from Form; Neither is Form different from Emptiness, indeed, Emptiness is form.

This activity never started, and will never end. It is not enduring, nor is it impermanent, because it is otherwise than Being and Non-Being — outside of time and space. Even more amazing is that this activity of naturing the cosmos of forms that make up the world, is evidence of the necessary truth of this doctrine of Emptiness — if you are open to non-conceptual evidence, and you are prepared, via the direct insight that Avalokitasvara asserts you must first have, to see the necessity of this understanding.

Some think there isn’t any need for a non-material and inscrutable naturing of all that the world comprises, but then find themselves constantly creating names for hypostatized things that are absent, but which must be the case, because of what is actually present in the world. Others anthropomorphize this naturing and call it God. Still others don’t anthropomorphize it, and still call it God. So be it. We are all lights onto ourselves, as Krishnamurti, and many other wise people over the course of our history, have pointed out.

And finally, please note that “The World” is just a name I give to this overflowing abundance and fecundity of form — this plenum — that we all experience and share.

How that is, why that is, cannot be known using discursive thought and reasoning over concepts. So open your hearts and revel in this gift that we are all blessed with. Meditate upon it — this life that you have — and make something new, and loving, and beautiful out of it, in every moment of your life.

ཨེ་མ་ཧོ། ཕན་ནོ་ཕན་ནོ་སྭཱཧཱ།

In truth, nothing in the physical world has a source there, as the Naturing of the world and all that appears does not exist in the same way as those things that it natures exist — thus there is a kind of “event horizon” within all things, the other side of which we cannot go; and yet, in a way, from which, we have never been apart.

The “emptiness” of independent self-existence refers to the direct experiential insight that nothing in the world exists independently of that non-dual Naturing — so, to say “their naturing” imputes a reality to “them” as separate entities, which is erroneous, as is calling this activity a “nature” as if it is some thing or entity ‘itself’.

And thus, nothing that exists in the world is real in-and-of itself because its appearance is contingent upon this Naturing, which is not to be found, except as it evidenced by the appearance of the things that make up this world — which is a version of the “smoke is evidence of fire” analogy which also underlies the assertion of all the forces, fields, and natural laws found in the physical sciences.

So, although the inner spontaneous sounds used in the Great Responsiveness Meditation techniques are not originated in the physical world, they are a kind of reverberation of the naturing of ourselves and everything else that exists. Perhaps it would be better to say they are still just mental interpretations of what is happening — they are just the reverberations, interactions, and interference of various forms of time. That is the true nature of these sounds.

Thus, these different sounds are a visceral chorus arising as the reverberations of the myriad of entanglements of deeply-nested, recursive, organic, structuring (i.e. Forms) that endure for a spell (i.e. the durational aspect of the coherent continuity of each appearance), and so they are the “sound” accompanying the spontaneous appearance of ourselves, and all the complexity of structures of which “we” consist.

Thus, the world of appearances is a plenum of such Naturing, and different manifested forms are recognized (that is, are experienced) as having different qualities that our mind interprets as matching certain similar external symphonies of sound and of light, thus we hear ‘wind’, ‘water’, ‘fire’, and ‘earth’ sounds, various ‘musical instruments’, light of various ‘colors’, and forms, etc. And these are described as attributes of our “chakras” and various manifestations of our “subtle energy bodies,” as “winds,” as well as similar characterizations found in other traditions.

So when access to these inner spontaneous sounds is gained, what is being listened to is the recognition within the mind of what is being manifested by the Naturing of ourselves and everything that appears (making an appearance) to be (“be” as in being) — called the “self-sound of Dharmata” (Dharmata means naturing) in Buddhism — and this is interpreted by the mind as sound because of certain recognized characteristics, or as light, because of other recognized characteristics. But what they are, more properly speaking, is not to be found in these appearances, nor in their qualities and characters. What they are is not other than the Great Perfection of Wisdom.

Therefore, these divine appearances are the very evidence of that which all spiritual traditions seek, and all religious speak of. This is the unique character of these inner spontaneous sounds used within the Great Responsive Meditation.

ཨེ་མ་ཧོ། ཕན་ནོ་ཕན་ནོ་སྭཱཧཱ།
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