Form is form, emptiness is emptiness.

September 24, 2012 § 4 Comments

Shakyamuni Buddha taught the world was made of five skandhas, of the twelve links of causation and the Four Noble Truths.  Centuries later the Heart Sutra declared there were no skandhas; no ignorance, old age or death; no suffering, cause of suffering or cessation of suffering.  At first glance it would appear the Heart Sutra negated the Buddha’s teaching.  A deeper understanding, however, reveals it’s true aim is to prevent the Buddha’s words from stagnating into dogmatic teaching.

By declaring form is emptiness and emptiness is form the Heart Sutra strips away our cherished notions of what Buddhism is and allows us to move beyond a merely conceptual or intellectual approach.  Centuries after the Heart Sutra when Dōgen Zenji said form is form and emptiness is emptiness his aim was in part the same, to revitalize our approach to Zen Buddhism.

Where the Heart Sutra steered us to emptiness Dōgen directed us to form and a positive expression of reality.  Where it told us our true nature was emptiness, Dōgen reminded us that, as emptiness is form, any realization of our true nature includes form.

A main obstacle to realizing one’s own true nature is to consider it as something apart.  The Heart Sutra sought to resolve this essential problem by removing the concept of separation, declaring it empty.  Dōgen saw that emptiness, too, could become a concept and so declared that seeing true reality was not separate from practice.  Practice.  Just sitting, in Dōgen’s teaching, becomes identical to seeing one’s true nature thus removing all conceptualization and separateness from practice.

Both “form is emptiness and emptiness is form” and “form is form, emptiness is emptiness” may be considered as different approaches to healing that appeal to different personality types. To some, psychological suffering may best be resolved by realizing the essential emptiness of the thoughts and feelings that plague one.  To others, realizing the beauty of form, in spite of its impermanence and lack of independent existence, leads to self-healing.

Practice, as Dōgen teaches it, is shikantaza or “just sitting” zazen.  In it we just sit with the whole body and mind, doing nothing.  There is no contemplation, no mantra, breaths aren’t counted or candles burnt.  No particular object is used for concentration, nothing is done with the thoughts that are left alone to rise and fall in consciousness.   One just sits upright with eyes open, breathing deeply and quietly.

From one perspective, allowing all things to arise and fall may be considered a rejection of form.  But from another, it is a complete acceptance of all that is, as it is.  By not clinging to form past or clinging to the form to come, we accept the form of the moment.  In just sitting every rose is a rose and everything is as it is.

To Dōgen, forms that arise and fall include the self.  The self as form is our desires, attachments, aversions and ego.  In just sitting this self is seen as empty and impermanent so can be forgotten, or let go.  When forgotten the true self that is always here, the Self that is one with all forms, is manifest.  All forms arise and fall in that Self and are not separate from Self.  Dōgen, wanting to emphasize this identity of form with emptiness therefore said, form is form and emptiness is emptiness.  Then told us to let that, too, drop off.

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