Form, is the form of emptiness.

October 14, 2012 § 4 Comments


Shakyamuni’s teaching (e.g., The Four Noble Truths, the Four Immeasurables) can be considered a positive formulation of Buddhism that was seemingly negated by the Heart Sutra’s “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”.  That negation, however, was more a refinement or extension of the teachings that took the understanding of the nature of reality to new and deeper levels.  Centuries later, Dogen’s assertion that “form is form and emptiness is emptiness” brought the pendulum back to a positive expression of Buddhism where form is understood to be as important to understanding reality as is emptiness. Neither expression should be considered superior to the other.  Both appeal to a specific personality type and both can be considered as statements that originated out of the needs of a particular moment in time.

By the time Hakuin Ekaku was born in 1686 the Japaneses Buddhist schools of Soto and Rinzai Zen had both fallen into decline.  Hakuin revitalized the Rinzai School but was critical of the Soto School that took Dogen’s teaching to mean that simply calming oneself or sitting with a blank mind was true enlightenment.  As Hakuin showed with his own experience, there are deeper levels of mind to fathom and one mustn’t stop with the first inklings of enlightenment.

Hakuin took Zen Buddhism back to the teachings of the Heart Sutra asserting that “form, is the form of emptiness”.  To me, this phrasing perfectly unifies form with emptiness and emptiness with form and certainly deserves more attention.

Consider that in zazen one strips away all interpretations placed upon the forms that arise in consciousness so that they become empty of projected content.   This is not unlike therapy wherein, for example, a client overcomes his fears by progressively stripping away all conditioned responses that keep the fear alive.  But in zazen (and, of course, in all true meditation) all interpretations projected onto form are removed so that they are seen as they are, not as we wish or fear them to be.

As practice deepens, and more interpretations are removed, it becomes clear that all form is nothing more than modifications of consciousness.  This understanding is not achieved through a mere intellectual consideration of form and consciousness but is a direct result of type of knowing that arises through practice that is neither perception nor cognition.  But an intellectual understanding can be gained by considering that even the scientist tells us that subatomic particles do not have any form unless they are measured or observed.  In other words, there is no form without an observer.  So if form is dependent upon a conscious observer then form is a “modification” of consciousness.

In deeper forms of zazen and meditation there is an immediate knowledge of the I that is not relative knowledge, meaning it is not knowledge about the I or knowledge that is dependent upon descriptions, thoughts or feelings.  As such, it is an “I” that is not dependent upon any object or form.

In practice one can know the “I” without form or as a mere inference, meaning one knows the “I” as emptiness.  But it is not emptiness in the nihilistic sense of nothing at all.  It is emptiness in the sense of pure potential wherein all things are made possible, all knowledge exists as pure meaning and the “I” is pure Light, or pure Consciousness.

To know consciousness as emptiness means we recognize that consciousness is all there is.  All form is known as nothing more than modifications of consciousness.  There is no body except that modification of consciousness we call a body.  There is no chair to sit in except that modification of consciousness we call a chair.  No book.  No computer screen.  No form at all, whether perceived or cognized, that is other than a modification of consciousness that we have assigned a name.  In this way form, is the form of emptiness.


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