The Value of a Cup is in its Emptiness
August 6, 2015 § 2 Comments
A couple of years ago I had the bathroom redone. Part of the refit included a plastic liner placed around the walls of the bathtub that had an “L” shaped section for soap. As I looked at this the other day I was struck by how elegantly this shape demonstrated the Buddha’s words spoken to his disciple, Shariputra,
Form does not differ from emptiness,
Emptiness does not differ from form.
When I looked at the soap tray before I saw only the L-shape. But then it occurred to me that this form was not all that was there. Inseparable from it was the emptiness where the soap went. The L-shaped piece was giving the emptiness a form. Like the Yin Yang symbol that has two curved sections, one black, the other white, this “L” form was caressing and molding the emptiness into something I could use. It was as the Buddha said as he continued to instruct Shariputra,
Form itself is emptiness,
Emptiness itself is form.
Looking next at a chair I saw how it shaped the empty space of the room into an area in which I could sit. (Reminiscent of how a star curves the space about it, as described by Einstein.) Without the chair the empty space could not be used. And without the emptiness there would be no place to put the chair. The form and the emptiness were again seen to be inseparable.
I then applied this to the house. Where there was once just an empty lot the builders had placed a form turning the space into one where I could live and carry out my daily activities. I was, in fact, living in empty space as much as a house. This brought to mind Lao Tsu’s words,
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes that make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there,
Usefulness from what is not there.
Tao Te Ching. Chapter Eleven.
It is this same chapter in which Lao Tsu writes,
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
which inspired the title of this post, a Buddhist proverb that reads, “The value of a cup is in its emptiness.”
It is now even more apparent to me that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form” but not in some way remote except to the enlightened few. The unity of form and emptiness is something that is evident and before me right now in my everyday experience.
Someone took clay to make a teacup and in so doing gave empty space a form I could use to drink tea. Someone else shaped wood that turned empty space into a place where I could live and sit. There is no way to separate these forms from the emptiness or the emptiness from these forms.
Buddha went on to tell Shariputra that this is the same for feelings, cognition and the sense of self. Where these are, emptiness is also, co-existing and inseparable. The thoughts and ideas that appear before us are forms that are giving shape to emptiness on a moment-to-moment basis.
Realizing this I asked myself, “If I can see the emptiness of the L-shaped soap tray, why do I not also see the emptiness of thought? Why do I not recognize the no self of the self?”