It is important to gain some understanding of the language of Dharma and a perspective of the differing paths. Once we understand that teachings can be approached from differing perspectives, and that these approaches are all valid within their own context, even if they appear to contradict one another, we can start to grasp the idea of every teaching arising functionally from a single principle. We can begin to glimpse the possibility of engaging with the simple single principle of Buddhism, out of which arise all the various methods of practice. We can begin to approach the functional matrix of Buddhist method with confidence.
So what is the simple single essential principle of Buddhism? The essence of Buddhism is expressed in the statement made in the Heart Sutra:19 ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form’. Every other topic in Buddhism is an expansion of this, or a method of approaching this realisation. The entire explanation of our experience of our lives as unsatisfactory, and of separation from our beginningless enlightened nature, can be expressed as our compulsion to split emptiness and form.
Through refusing to relax into the reality of ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form’, we create all our misery of obduracy, fear, loneliness, anxiety, and despair.
We attempt to split emptiness and form and try to exist only in form. We hang on to form compulsively, convinced that emptiness is our enemy.
When we do experience emptiness, we attempt to change things or fill the empty space as quickly as possible to re-establish form. We believe our security lies in form, and only in form. We feel that emptiness undermines form and that this is the reason we experience unhappiness. If we could just get rid of emptiness, everything would be perfect.
We associate emptiness with pain and unhappiness and we constantly cling to form references to try and avoid unhappy emptiness experiences. This process of separating emptiness and form is called dualism.
But it is not possible to become truly happy without embracing emptiness as a friend. In reality, emptiness and form are indivisible, non-dual, but we only recognise form as desirable. We do not need to acquaint ourselves with form because this is our addiction. We know form as the manifestation of ourselves as tangible beings who can experience the perceptions of our sense fields and can think and perceive. We recognise the form of other beings. We interact with the forms of the objects that make up our world.
We define some of these things as desirable, while other things we decide we do not want around us. Then there are objects and experiences that we never bother to check out at all. It is no problem for us to understand the realm of form, so to begin with we must acquaint ourselves with emptiness.
The first step to understanding the principle of ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form’ is to examine what is meant by emptiness.
What exactly is meant by emptiness and how do I experience it? Let us look at three ways that I can explore the experience of emptiness in my life. I tag everything that I experience through my senses and cognition, as a reference point – in terms of its ability to sustain the sense of myself as a solid, permanent, separate, continuous and defined being.
The first way I can look at emptiness, is through the simple understanding of loss: of things ending, of people and things ceasing to be part of my life. I become separated from people and things that I love. Possessions get lost or broken and I experience a sense of emptiness because that reference point no longer exists within my sphere of definition.
Experiences I enjoy come to an end, and relationships change and end. These are all situations in which I experience the emptiness of changing definitions in my life. Emptiness arises when things cease to be important in my life. The car that was once my pride and joy is now old and rusty and I am enjoying looking for its replacement. The pleasure of appreciation has ended with regard to the old car – it has dissolved into emptiness. Sometimes I experience the emptiness of change as a painful loss; sometimes I am glad of the opportunity to refresh a situation or move on. Whatever my response, these situations are times when emptiness happens in my life.
Emptiness is change. Emptiness is not always a negative thing, but we tend to associate it with painful times, and develop the misunderstanding that emptiness is undesirable. In fact none of the happy and desirable things in our life can occur without emptiness.
The baby cannot be born without the end of the pregnancy. The marriage cannot take place without the engagement ending. The sculpture cannot be created without the form of the clay changing. The picture cannot be painted without the tubes of paint being used up. The stars cannot be appreciated without the daylight dissolving into night.
The second approach to emptiness is analytical examination. The purpose of an analytical approach is to discover that objects and situations are empty of inherent existence.
If you are sitting in a chair to read this book, you may be resting the book on your lap. Imagine you now stand up to go and get a cup of tea. Your lap has disappeared. You have not maintained your lap as you walk to the kitchen. The lap was a conceptual imputation placed upon a particular position of your body, but it does not exist from its own side. It is empty of inherent existence. You do not somehow have to extract the lap-ness from your legs, and lay it aside for next time you sit down. What happens if you cannot remember where you left your lap and you sit down?
Things can start to become a little incongruous when we look at them this way, and we can glimpse an understanding of how nonsensical it is in reality to view form without the possibility of emptiness.
Another example commonly given to indicate the emptiness of inherent existence is to take an object like a table. Generally a table has a top and four legs. If I remove the legs from the top and place them in a heap on the floor, does the table still exist? If I remove two legs so that the top slants down to the floor, could we still define it as a table? What is required in order for the definition ‘table’ to be placed upon the sum of its parts?
This can be a fascinating intellectual exercise to arrive at an understanding of emptiness. The examples that can be used and analysed in this way are endless. Inevitably, analytical analysis can make the imputation of an inherent, unchanging form definition on any object or situation look illogical. Yet this is the way we relate to form. Our relationship with form is far from logical. It does not hold up to even the most superficial logical examination.
We approach form as though it exists solidly, permanently, separately in its own right, continuously and with definition. We also take this approach to what we are as beings. I feel that there is something about me that is solid, that is always with me throughout my life, and I fear its loss at death. I feel that I am permanent, that there is something about me which never changes. I believe I exist as a separate, inherent personality, independent of others. I feel that memory confirms my continuity, as I can remember feeling like myself throughout my lifetime. I have a feeling of definition: that I am a certain type of person, with opinions and preferences, and a definite physical form. I get upset when a person or situation challenges these feelings of definition.
I feel decidedly uncomfortable if I am ignored, because this creates a moment of awareness that for that person in that moment I do not exist. This can be frightening.
When I look at photograph albums I can see that I have changed radically over the years. I can remember reactions to events in my life and may feel that I would not react like that now. The distress I felt at dropping my favourite teddy out of the window of a moving bus when I was two years old would not be the same if the loss occurred in adulthood. Yet still I have this notion that somewhere, possibly in my head, there is a ‘something’ that has always been there and will always be there, unchanging and unchangeable.
Even if I know from science that the tissue of my body has changed completely by every seventh year, and that the functions of my brain are chemical and electrical, I still have the feeling of a self-existent self.
We cling to this idea of an inherent self because we feel it is the only way we can be safe. Form is our security blanket. Form is the territory I can accumulate or the possessions I can consume that will finally make me happy and secure. Form is the aggression I can manifest to protect me from my enemies, or the state of nervous tension that keeps me alert to all dangers. Form is the ignorance in which I can choose to dwell to numb myself to the pain I see around me.
The third way that we can discover emptiness is through spiritual practice. There are many meditation techniques that teach us how to allow the content of mind to settle, so that we can experience the nature of mind without thought.
I feel that I am the chatter that goes on in my mind. I ideate continually. I think about what just happened; I think about what I wish I had said; I think about what you just said; I plan what I am going to do in the future; I analyse and judge what I have done in the past; I evaluate the present on past experience, attempting to categorise it into something familiar. My conceptual mind is always full of the buzz and chatter of thought, emotion, sensation, memory, and I feel that this is the nature of what I am. I think about who I am and what I want. I make plans and practise conversations. I develop an image of the type of person I think I am and collate my opinions and ideas. I think that I am the chatter of mind.
The definition of who I am might become quite substantial. I might feel that I cannot leave the house without wearing makeup, or a particular type of clothing. I may feel that I have to drive a certain type of car and have a particular type of job. When life throws all our definitions into the air and ruthlessly re-shuffles the cards of our circumstances, it can plunge us into despair. This can happen through an unpleasant occurrence such as the loss of one’s job, or it can happen through a desired event such as winning the lottery. Sudden and radical change can produce disorientating and disconcerting experiences of emptiness.
Meditation techniques allow the chatter of the mind to subside. Ultimately this is the only way that we can embrace the experience of emptiness and make emptiness our friend in anything like a controlled manner. Life circumstances bring us face to face with emptiness, but are unlikely to offer a method for us to learn to savour the experience.
Analytical thinking may provide us with an intellectual understanding of emptiness, but it lacks the timbre of real connection at the level of feeling. Meditation enables us to make contact with emptiness in our innermost being.
To engage with the experience of emptiness through the practice of meditation is simple and direct. I begin to recognise the chatter of the mind as superficial. I discover a deep well of stillness that exists behind the chatter. I begin to recognise the ebb and flow of conceptual mind and the still potential of the nature-of-mind.
We could call these two aspects cloud mind and Sky Mind. Cloud mind is the ebb and flow of conceptual mind, and Sky Mind is the still potential of the nature-of-mind. Clouds arise in the sky, flit across it and decorate it, but do not limit or define the vast empty blueness of sky. Sky always has the potential for cloud to arise. Cloud is a natural aspect of sky, but sky is not limited by cloud. Sky exists irrespective of cloud, but cloud cannot exist irrespective of sky.
We could call this wave mind and Ocean Mind. Waves arise on the ocean, flit across it and decorate it, but do not limit or define the vast empty blueness of ocean. Ocean always has the potential for waves to arise. Waves are a natural aspect of ocean, but ocean is not limited by waves. Ocean exists irrespective of waves, but waves cannot exist irrespective of ocean.
Sky Mind exists without the disturbance of the clouds of chatter. Sky Mind is the empty ground of what we are. We discover Sky Mind through letting go of the chatter of cloud mind and dwelling in the space of sky-without-clouds, mind-without-chatter. We discover Ocean Mind through letting go of the chatter of wave mind and dwelling in the space of ocean-without-waves, mind-without-chatter. Then we begin to feel comfortable with emptiness.
Emptiness becomes less threatening and we start to welcome it into our lives and our being. We begin to enjoy the freedom emptiness offers us. We begin to enjoy freedom from the dominion of cloud formations. We let go of the need to surf through every moment of every day.
Through ordinary experience, intellectual analysis, and meditational discovery, we learn to recognise emptiness and to become more comfortable with it. We learn to feel less panicky when emptiness occurs in our lives, and to open ourselves to dwelling in that space-without-reference. Once we have discovered something of the nature of emptiness and have recognised that we habitually interpret all experience through its form content, we begin to look at the relationship of emptiness and form. We realise that craving form and fearing emptiness is only one particular viewpoint
Through discovering tranquillity in meditational emptiness, we begin to wonder at the status of form and emptiness as opposing factors in our experience of happiness or dissatisfaction. We begin to wonder about the phrase: ‘Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.’ We can stare at the statement Chenrézigs20 added when making his declaration to Shariputra21 in the Heart Sutra: ‘Form is not different from emptiness, emptiness is not different from form. That which seems like emptiness is form, and that which seems like form is emptiness. You will not find emptiness apart from form; or form apart from emptiness.’