Form is emptiness, emptiness is form
This line comes from the “Heart Sutra,” and the whole stanza goes,
“…form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.”
I’m no Buddhism expert. I’m a perpetual new student. My approach is to work to incorporate what I am learning and reading into my tribal, cultural and ‘school’ learnings. I am not trying to enter another culture—I am attempting to deepen my own understandings.
Western Thought—The Cult of Rigidity
Let’s begin with the west. Here, things are black and white. The west lives in a dualistic world—good or bad, right or wrong. People consider it a big advancement to talk about ‘shades of gray.’ This is taken to mean that there might be other options. While this is so, this does not help, if we then have an argument that goes, “Black!” “No, white!” “You’re both wrong! It’s shades of gray!!”
Nothing means anything forever
Now, there are certain realms where assurance of ‘right and wrong’ is a good thing. A simple example is that everyone knows that the only meaning of a red light at a corner is “stop.” Conventions like this keep us alive and functioning as a society.
But upon closer examination, we begin to see cracks.
Last month Darbella and I were in Quebec. In Ontario (where we live,) ‘right turn on red’ is the rule and convention. So in Quebec, I stopped at a red light, looked both ways, and turned right. Dar said, “Oops.” I said, “Huh?” She said, “You must have missed the huge sign at the border that said, “No right turn on red.” Hmm.
So, back to form and emptiness. The real message is that emptiness is emptiness of a single idea, meaning, or identity.
Or, another way of saying it is that everything is connected, and that all things exist only in relationship.
Nothing is sole, solitary, or fixed.
How does this help us?
Well, we like to think that things have one and only one meaning. Black and white. This is, however, patently untrue. Name me one thing, feeling, thought, that ‘lives’ without a reference to something else. Nothing lives in your world without your defining it.
A client will say, “He always treated me well, but last night he yelled at me, and now I know he’s a mean, nasty person.” Either / or.
Yet, the Heart Sutra reminds us that ‘he’ is empty of a single identity. Thus, ‘he’ is someone who treats his partner well, and who also yells, and also does a whole range of other stuff. He does what he does because of who he is. Who he is, is inter-related to his experiences growing up, what happened at work, etc. Who he ‘is’ in my client’s eyes, is based upon all of her experiences with him, as well as the client’s upbringing, experiences and judgements.
There is a false sense of security in thinking that things ‘are.’
We like to believe that things are unchanging, fixed, immovable. You hear people say, “I’ll always love you.” “That will never happen.” “I only want to be happy.” (That last one should be put, “I want to be happy only.”) And yet, emptiness is the rule, as everything is impermanent, changing. That’s what’s up with the client, above. Her partner changed, and she decided she didn’t like it. Yet, change is the essential makeup of existence.
So, what is everything empty of?
Meaning. A separate self. Permanence.
- Meaning is personal. No two people see things the same.
- Separation is an illusion. Everything is connected. My stories are connected to my other stories, my feelings to other experiences. Every object in the universe exists in relationship to other things.
- Permanence is impossible. Everything is in flux. Your life-purpose is to get old and die. You’ve noticed that, right? Every cell of everything is changing.
We need to loosen our grip on the fruitless attempt to maintain the status quo.
We get there by recognizing that how things are is always “how things are, right now.” Things now are never how they were. Things are empty of their past.
Here’s an experiment. Remember an unpleasant experience. Really work toward experiencing it, complete with all of your judgements about how painful it was or how hard done by you were. Feel the feelings.
Now, stop for a minute, and ask yourself this. When are you experiencing your thoughts, judgements, and feelings? Where was all of this stuff before you thought to have this experience? Can you see that what you just experienced happened “now,” and that everything was a figment of your imagination, concocted on the spot?
It wasn’t “there, in the background.” It is always and ever a ‘new’ experience. Every experience is devoid (empty) of intrinsic meaning. Every experience exists only in terms or its relationship with each of its experience-ers. Yet we waste our lives trying to get others to agree that the way we see the situation is the right and only way to see it.
It’s only true for you
Freedom comes when I realize that everything is in flux. Nothing means anything. It’s all relative to me, and the moment. I can conjure up anything, and emphatically do, all the time.
There is no point denying this, as clinging to anything, including my stories and interpretations, is the only cause of all my suffering.
Letting go means simply or barely noticing that what I am doing right now is what I am doing right now. Nothing about anything is fixed in stone.
Again, I invite you to e‑mail me with any object, thing, thought, belief, that has never changed and is fixed forever, and is not related to anything else.
Here’s a hint: you can’t.
So, what you believe about yourself and your life, and other people and situations, is equally non-fixed and empty of separateness and ‘single-meaning-ness.’
Embrace this: you are who you are right now. How you operate in the world is the result of each and every choice you’ve made, and your operation in the world is determined solely by what you allow yourself to do.
The Buddha said, “All that you are is a result of what you have thought.” The simple meaning of this is: change how you think about emptiness, form, and meaning, and you immediately ‘are’ someone different.
If you hold to what you believe, moment by moment, you will experience only what you have experienced. Change your approach and understanding, and you will have another experience. In that, you’ll have let go and expanded your emptiness.
Understand and work with this, and you free yourself from clinging, and remove the cause of suffering.