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Form does not differ from emptiness
Emptiness does not differ from form
— The Heart Sutra

The first time I encountered the heart sutra was on June 23, 2010. That was the first time I went to the Zen Center to see if exploring Zen would be as interesting in practice as it seemed in my mind. For someone with a mind as analytical and ultra-rational as mine, the above statement reeked of contradiction and absurdity.

emptiness

Emptiness

When you first read the statement that form is emptiness and emptiness form, how does it strike you? Seriously, does that even make sense? To me, it seems pretty obvious that those two things are about as opposite as you can get. In this corner, weighing in at 300 pounds, we have Form! In this corner, weighing in at zero pounds, we have the challenger, Emptiness! Doesn’t seem like a fair fight does it?

Even with this apparent contradiction thrown at me as part of one of the first activities of the evening, I decided to keep an open mind and allow the contradiction to slide. I figured there had to be some bigger mystical meaning behind it. After all, they really didn’t mean that form and emptiness were one and the same.

It wasn’t until a little later that I learned they really are saying that form and emptiness are one and the same thing. What I dismissed as an apparent contradiction that was obviously some sort of metaphor or deeper statement is pretty much to be taken at face value. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Deal with it. How am I supposed to deal with that?

This statement forced me to confront my attachments to name and form and to emptiness. In my rational and analytic state of mind, I built up various objects and concepts and things and I categorized each one and put them in their proper place apart from each other. In other words, I was creating a world in my mind where I existed over here and everything else in the universe was over there. In Buddhist terms, this is called ignorance. It is also considered the primary cause of suffering. When we build things up in our mind and think that they are separate from us, it leads to clinging and attaching and to suffering.

I won’t dig any deeper into this subject in this post but it’s amazing how much ink has been spilled over the centuries examining these concepts. However, at some point, the contradictions and confusion about the concepts of form and emptiness went away. It no longer strikes me as a strange concept. I think I really started to get this concept over that past few months when I was really dealing with a lot of depression. One of the problems with depression is a serious feeling of emptiness. I had such an overwhelming feeling of emptiness that I really did realize that it had a form all its own. Emptiness had form and that form was emptiness. I know that this isn’t the assertion of the heart sutra but it was the catalyst I needed to gain the insight into this that made it seem much less a mystery.

What I now understand is that the Buddhist concept that we attach the English word “emptiness” to is not a nihilistic or negative word. Instead, it means seeing things as they really are without constructing a lot of extra stuff around it. If you allow a blade of grass to just be a blade of grass, it’s going to have the form of a blade of grass. However, without a lot of mental baggage about that blade of grass, “it’s green, it’s long, it is the same color as the leaves on the tree” etc., it is “empty” So, even though it appears to be a contradiction at first, the phrase really does capture a deep truth. Brad Warner, writing about this phrase in his book Hardcore Zen had this to say about it and I will give him the last word.

This kind of understanding cannot be expressed symbolically in words used in the usual way. To the extent that it can be expressed symbolically, the phrase “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” really is as clear as it gets.

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Today when I got into the car, I was able to get reception from the only radio station in the area to play jazz. It’s a pretty low powered station but sometimes I can get it. As I turned it on, the DJ announced he was about to play a song by Thelonious Monk. He’s one of my favorite jazz pianists so it was great to get a chance to hear some of his music unexpectedly. I really love listening to Monk because even though he was a virtuoso player, he wasn’t driven to fill every song with as many notes as possible. Monk understood that not only were the notes he played important, the silence between the notes was an important part of the composition. He was so laid back when he played that he made it seem simple. It’s sparse and there is an emptiness in his music that can be deceptive. If you try to play a Monk piece, you quickly realize that there’s a lot more going on that you think.

Monk would often play slightly behind the beat and would leave almost uncomfortable pauses in his music. As you listen to him play you begin to learn to appreciate those pauses because they provide the structure to the music. It wasn’t just his notes that made him so amazing, it was the way he worked with pauses and spaces that made him a master. I get the same impression from those who have earned a title of teacher or master in the Zen tradition.

Zen is all about working with the silence and emptiness that gives structure to our lives. Sitting quietly in meditation or walking mindfully in meditation make us aware of how much emptiness is in our own lives. The normal response is to try to fill that emptiness up with thoughts or entertainment or work or food or anything else we use to identify ourselves. Zen won’t let us do that. Zen demands that we see ourselves as we really are: emptiness and all. Once we do this we begin to see that it’s not a bad thing. We realize that there is a beauty in emptiness. Our emptiness is a source of strength that we can draw on for sustenance. Just like Monk would draw on the emptiness between the notes to build up a work of art we rely on our emptiness to give form to ourselves. Without emptiness, we would have no room to grow. We would be a solid lump of stuff only identifiable by our outward appearance. Imagine a tree with no space between the branches and the leaves; without the emptiness inside of it, it’s not a tree and without emptiness inside us we aren’t ourselves. Learn to understand that our emptiness isn’t a drawback. It’s not an imperfection to be blotted out. We should embrace our emptiness and see how it adds shape to our lives. Then, we can become the beautiful works of art we really are.

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