We are addicted to establishing our existence through form because form maintains the illusion of inherent selfness. It is as if we feel that if we do not continually check our existence against form-based reference points, we might wink out of existence. The idea of inherent selfness makes us feel secure. We feel safe with the notion that there is something unchanging and real within us. Yet the basis of this idea of safety in form is completely illogical. We know from experience that everything eventually is lost to us. Things disappear out of my life, they break, or they cease to exist. If they do not die – then I will. We actually know that form is inherently unreliable. Ultimately form ceases to be solid. It is impermanent.
Nothing exists in complete isolation but only dependently upon other forms. No form is continuous and unchanging. Definition is only relative to that which defines. We cling to form as if we believe the form that we are relying upon is bound to be an exception to these rules.
If pressed we can actually work out for ourselves that life-without-change would be both undesirable and impossible. If I were suddenly able to snap my fingers and make form totally independent of emptiness I should find myself in quite a pickle.
The food in my gut would not break down, but remain solid and permanent. Breathing and circulation would cease because the breath in my lungs could not change, but would have to be permanent and continuous in the state in which it existed at the snap of my fingers. I would suddenly discover that no-one could see me or communicate with me, because I had become entirely separate and defined, and no longer connected to others’ definitions and the functioning of their senses.
I would find that I could not move, because the space in which all phenomena manifest had become fixed and unable to flex with the movement and change of the matter within it. To provide some pretty analogies: life-without-emptiness would mean that it was always winter but never Christmas22; the flowers in our vase would never die; new life in the soil could not grow and blossom; children would never grow up and become independent. I would be fixed in the mood in which I found myself at the snap of my fingers. Those experiencing illness would never have the chance to recover. The tune in your mind would be there forever. You would be doomed to run that ditty over and over for eternity. I could never let go of that moment of anger.
Such images are effete, fanciful, and grotesque by turns, but perhaps they afford a glimpse of the ubiquitous presence of emptiness in our lives.
Perhaps we can start to get a feel for what could be meant by non-duality. The essence of Buddhism is the statement made in the Heart Sutra: ‘Form is emptiness and emptiness is form’, and every other topic is an expansion upon this, and a method of approaching this realisation.
From my perspective, as a practitioner, the only way to realise the principle of ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form’ is to engage in Dharma. Although the circumstances of our lives offer many opportunities to realise form as emptiness and emptiness as form, we are not able to take advantage of these without the methods of Dharma. Although our lives offer many glimpses of the sparkling-through of our beginningless non-dual state, we are not able to recognise them without the perspective of the view of Dharma. The specific approach of this book will be an examination of the teaching on ‘The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to Practice’. I shall explore how these thoughts offer us a way to engage with Dharma and begin to discover the realisation of ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form.’
22. ‘Always winter but never Christmas’ was the condition of the Kingdom of Narnia—that seemed horrifying to the children in the story—under the sway of the evil white witch, in CS Lewis’s book ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’.