O Shariputra [who listens to the teachings of the Buddha], form is not separate from boundlessness; boundlessness is not separate from form. Form is boundlessness; boundlessness is form. Feelings, perceptions, inclinations, and discernment are also like this.
O Shariputra, boundlessness is the nature of all things. It neither arises nor perishes, neither stains nor purifies, neither increases nor decreases.
Boundlessness is not limited by form, nor by feelings, perceptions, inclinations, or discernment. it is free of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind; free of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and any object of mind; free of sensory realms, including the realm of the mind.
The Sutra on the Heart of Realizing Wisdom Beyond Wisdom Tr. Kaz Tanahashi and Joan Halifax
Part I: (Linguistic) Form is Emptiness
Written by Leah Houle
“Form is Boundlessness/Emptiness” & “Emptiness/Boundlessness is Form” + “Words are Meaningless” (December 14, 2017 by Ideasinhat, https://ideasinhat.com/2017/12/14/language-and-meaning/)
The idea in Buddhism that true freedom comes from understanding that there is no fixed self, and that no entity in our environment has a fixed and bounded form, is often expressed in the teaching, “Form is emptiness, Emptiness is form.” This expression challenges our understanding of ourselves and reality, primarily because it contradicts that which our brains have been designed to do: distinguish and discriminate. The human brain evolved to parse meaning from our environment for survival; not only do we have to instantaneously recognize that in our environment which is worth paying attention to independently, but we must also judge that element as helpful/harmful (which can be extrapolated to the many other judgements we generate like good/bad, beautiful/ugly, nice/mean, pleasurable/painful, etc.). While this capacity is necessary to avoid eating a poisonous plant or being eaten by a tiger, the inability to see it for what it is (a tool of the brain) imprisons us in a sense of bounded separateness.
“So, with the idea that the brain assigns meaning to stimuli in the environment, let us consider the implications for how to think about words and word meaning.” (Ideasinhat)
Language develops from the need to share with others of our tribe the meaning that we have ascertained (and therefore distinguished and judged) from our environment. Thus we arrive at words that refer to some entity or concept. That which we have determined to have some relevance in our environment is assigned a linguistic form—a string of sounds that when taken together enable the listener to identify a similar concept stored in their bank of experiences.
“The pairing of experiences and meaningless symbols is how words acquire their meaningfulness.” (Ideasinhat)
However, like reality itself, words have no fixed reference. The article under discussion here uses the example of the word “fire,” which to most may mean the chemical reaction of combustion. However, via the use of metaphor (innate to human mind-workings), fire can denote many other ideas—i.e. “She’s on fire” meaning a streak of successes.
The concept that words have no innate and distinguishable meaning (only the meaning which we have agreed upon for the purposes of effective and efficient communication), mirrors the concept that forms in the environment have no innate and distinguishable content (only that which we ascribe with our brain). Similarly, the common human attempt to fix words to meaning and morality (i.e. taboo words, complaining about “the way kids speak these days,” linguistic discrimination in job interviews) reflects our discomfort with the emptiness of form. We don’t want language to change, just as we resist our own impermanence.
Part II: “Form is emptiness. But emptiness itself is form.”
Written by Arthur Panaro and Leah Houle
This is a Buddhist assertion that the Ten Thousand Things, though appearing to be discrete entities, are essentially all a metaphysical (ontological) schmear that the mind tends to demarcate with names, weighted values and judgments. (The 10,000 Things is a Chinese expression used to mean the indefinite multitude of all forms and beings in manifest existence.)
Why on earth would Buddhists recommend emptiness? Because if one can perceive the world as empty, and relate to it as such with detachment, then one is free of the stickiness of the three poisons—hatred, craving and delusion. This attitude of liberation becomes a background understanding of life. If we ever master that “form is emptiness,” we are not home free yet. We are also alerted that “emptiness, also, is form.” For now, we can let this alone. It is enough to master “form is emptiness.”
We dive into the practical living of our everyday life. For “normal people” this business of emptiness, and that there is no inherent identity in things, flies in the face of rationality. A thing is what it is Dagnabbit. “Normal people” are under the influence of the “law of excluded middle, that for any proposition, either that proposition is true or its negation is true…no third [possibility] is given.” [Law of excluded middle – Wikipedia]
(As an aside, a point that is being made here is that indeed there is a third possibility, namely that of being nonattached to social events (viewing them as “the big schmear”) and being compassionate in the face of perceived injustice at the same time.)
Whereas Westerners are caught on the horns of the either/or dilemma, Buddhism recommends something less settled. For example: Point to the ocean. It is all the same water. But we point and say look here is a wave, and there is a wave, and so on. It is we who differentiate the water into waves, but it is possible to step back and see all of it as just water. (See Thich Nhat Hanh’s discussion of emptiness in “The Heart Sutra: the Fullness of Emptiness,” Lion’s Roar, August 6, 2012.)
Here is another attempt to progress Buddhist emptiness. There was until recently a monument in the Santa Fe plaza that memorialized USA Union soldiers, and their battle with ‘savage Indians’—an offending meme that at last resulted in protest that brought the monument down.
The monument was sculpted in the 19th century in the shape of an obelisk. Step back and we get a plain old stone in a wilderness landscape. And long, long time ago it had been a slurry of lava. And what was that lava but a swirling mass of atomic and subatomic waves and quanta. If we stop here, we have not yet reached “form is empty” because subatomic particles are not empty—though in reality they are mostly empty space. But let us leave alone this mystery of quantum physics.
In Mahabharata, Krishna, in dialogue with Arjuna, pushes the point of emptiness to the limit. “You must learn to see with the same eye, a mound of earth and a heap of gold, a cow, a sage, a dog and a man who eats the dog. There is another intelligence beyond the mind.”
In the enlightened mind, this kind of intelligence works. But even the enlightened mind, along with the rest of us, lives in the practical world (often called the “dual world” in Buddhism) where things like injustice happen. In a human body, the response to injustice is driven by an innate sense of compassion. Just as the capacity to discriminate and judge is evolved in our brain, so is the tendency to bond and care for those in our environment. The enlightened mind can comprehend that in the numinous grand scheme of things, injustice is a play within the karmic books. But in the here and now, every balanced mind, enlightened or not, is called to right wrongs and bring succor to the widow and orphan. Faith in Buddhism has been discussed in terms of carrying the knowledge of the unified Mind (that understands Form is emptiness, Emptiness is form) into the required actions of the dual mind (that distinguishes forms and makes decisions).
Another aspect of human life that draws one away from the unified Mind is the temptations inherent in the blizzard of the ten thousand things. These temptations lead us to betray our innate compassion and good sense. They derive from the pleasure-pain principle. For example, the instinctual mind can overtake the enlightened Mind in cases of addiction. Look no further than Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, beloved teacher of Shambhala (Tibetan Buddhism) in the United States, or any other number of spiritual leaders (simply Google “Roshi” and “scandal” to see the recent Zen sagas). Mentioning these temptations is not intended to discredit the teachings of these great leaders, but to say that the instinctual mind still holds great power over the enlightened being.
Nonetheless, both enlightened mind and practical mind are fitted with the innate will to live and love.