Emptiness and Form


In my post “Circle and Wave” I suggested an intimate relationship between the absolute symmetry of the circle and the broken symmetry of waves mathematically derived from circles, and a similarly intimate relationship between waves and particles. In my post defining energy I discussed how energy is not a substance, but rather energy is as elusive and hard to grasp as it is essential to the world of things that go bump, the world of experience. In my last post on sensation and perception I suggested however awesome the world of experience is dualistic and maybe we need to go deeper and review the Buddhist experience described as emptiness (well, what Zen masters assure us is experience, I make no personal claims; I am wading here into waters that are very deep, well over my Zen pay grade and all of my heads, Zen or otherwise).

Lets do it anyway. It’s fun stuff.

I am going to refer to two poems, the Heart Sutra and the Identity of The Relative and Absolute, that we chant at the Zen center (as they do in others) and since I chant it, I claim the right to explore it with the disclaimer I do so as a student, not a teacher.

In the Heart Sutra it is said (here dharmas means things/events; like particles and waves, movement with or without mass!):

“Form is emptiness, emptiness is form;

Sensation, conception discrimination, awareness are likewise like this.

O Shariputra all dharmas are forms of emptiness, not born, not destroyed;

Not stained, not pure, without loss, without gain;

So in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness,

No eye ear, nose tongue body, mind;

No color sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomena;

No realm of sight.. no realm of consciousness;”

There is more to the Heart Sutra of course. The point here is, as sophisticated as we can get about contingencies and projections, about energy, about a universe of waves that are particles, particles that are waves, even getting deeper to a universe of no-thing, and every thing, just energy, we are still in a realm of concepts, we are still thinking about it. We are creating phantoms, chimeras of deep but still limited intellectual ideas and limited biological experience.

What is this emptiness that is form?

The rainbow is empty in a sense. There are no rainbow atoms, you can’t box it up and take it home with you. And yet it has form, at least in your brain. Not a bad start, especially for those of us of limited Zen chops. But emptiness in the Heart Sutra, in Buddhism, goes much deeper than that.

I don’t want to diminish emptiness in Buddhism by calling it an idea or a concept or by treating it as one. Nevertheless, allow me a bit of indulgence here. In Zen we don’t tend to go on about definitions. I am not a Zen teacher, and so I will share with you some definitions of emptiness. For the sake of discussion, and particularly since I am not qualified to define or describe emptiness, lets see how it is defined more or less academically:

In “An Introduction to Buddhism” by Paul Harvey, a textbook used in a course on Buddhism at UCLA, emptiness is variously said to be a lack of: fixed form, of Self, of separateness, of inherent existence or nature, of solidity, of permanence, of duality. And even emptiness is empty!

In “the Shambala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen” emptiness, or shunyata in Sanskrit (sunnata in Pali, Ku in Japanese), it is suggested that since all composite things (form) are impermanent and devoid of independent lasting substance they are basically appearances. The article discusses Yogacara and Mahdyamika (two main philosophical schools on Buddhism) approaches to emptiness. In the Yogacara or “Mind only” school of Buddhism, since all is Mind, all is empty, just projections of Mind. This is clearly consistent with the quotes I gave above from Biocentrism and the Lankavatara sutra. The Lankavatara sutra is indeed considered a text of the Yogacara school and was favored by early Zen masters in China. Biocentrism is clearly treading that same path. In the Mahdyamika school of Nargarjuna there is thesis of two truths: 1. the conventional or apparent truth that seems real is an illusion because all things interdependently arise (that web of interactions again) and 2. the absolute truth, the emptiness beyond existence and non-existence that can only be directly experienced.

In “The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism” by Buswell and Lopez emptiness is said to refer to the truth of suffering (first of the four “noble” truths) in early Buddhist texts, as both relate to impermanence. But somehow it also alluded to the absence of cleanliness, which is far from what the Heart Sutra is about. Their article pointed out that it is with the Mahdyamika school of Nagarjuna that emptiness was considered to relate to the entire universe. Because all things arise dependently, they lack, or are empty of, an intrinsic nature characterized by independence and autonomy. In the Mind only Yogacara school they say emptiness is the lack of subject or object. That is, no inside and no outside; nonduality, just Mind.

In his translation of the Heart Sutra (p 68) Red Pine points out, referring I think to the same dependent arising as Buswell and Lopez alluded to in their discussion of the Mahdyamika school and emptiness, that “nothing exists by itself, that any given entity can only be defined in terms of other entities in time, space and mind, and these in turn can only be defined in terms of other entities, and so on, ad infinitum.” Red Pine goes on to say that emptiness, however, is not nothingness, it is “the absence of erroneous distinctions that divide one entity from another, one being from another, one thought from another. He concludes emptiness is “not nothing, it is everything.” Later (P 75) Red Pine speaks of 5 kinds of emptiness that Buddhist commentators referred to, but for the Heart Sutra the most important was emptiness of self-existence. Form is empty of anything that be called self existence as whatever we use to define form is dependent on something else. But emptiness is form! He quotes Nagarjuna: because of emptiness, all things are possible. And Ming-Kuang: Form and the mind are not different… The mind is not outside or inside or in between. (P78)

We have seen that all that happens, all we perceive, from a scientific point of view one could say that all that exists, consists of energy transformations. And yet energy itself is not a substance, but only that which makes all things happen. In fact, energy can not be measured directly but only as changes reflected in what happens. This is a lot like Red Pine’s circular ad infinitum of any entity being defined only in terms of other entities (or phenomena).

Certainly we have seen that solidity is an illusion or, at best, an epiphenomenon of quantum mechanics. Like rainbows. Phantoms, projections.

All we perceive and can know with our brains is just shifts in energy levels.

As much as I have tried to stay away from making science/Buddhism connections, maybe indeed science is approaching an understanding of emptiness.

Maybe it isn’t so hard to see from the scientific viewpoint that there is no fixed unchanging center, that form, which I take to be that which can be perceived, that which interacts, that which is measured when energy changes, is not a persistent brute fact of what there “is,” but rather a manifestation of the ever-changing energy transformations, each change depending on the other and every change that ever occurred and ever will occur, of the constant movement of things that have no inherent fixed existence.

And if we take non-dualism as given, how much less can we see any separation that is meaningful and inherent.

This is the opposite of Platonism, which some mathematicians and physicists think is the way things are. In Platonism there is an ideal world of perfect forms, and we can only see their imperfect reflections in our world. Or we can discover them with mathematics and concepts and ideas and ideals.

But in Buddhism there are no concepts or ideals out there to strive after. We make that stuff up, that is just more chimeras, more phantoms.


In Buddhism we are not approaching some perfect world of form, but rather form is born of a web of interactions and is a manifestation of Mind. There is no True Absolute Eternal Form to be sought after, just constant movement, constant rising and falling, coming together and parting.


Entertainers on a Samurai boat in Tokyo Harbor. Photograph by Susan Levinson.

And it is emptiness that is pregnant with creativity, that allows the flexibility, the pirouette of the dance of form, which is the dance of Mind.

What is perceived, form, is not solid, some inherent eternal quality of stuff, but just perhaps for mind to be at play, to frolic, emptiness takes form.

Now, form may be empty of inherent existence, a manifestation of Mind, but when you drop that rock make sure your foot isn’t in the way! Even the Buddha died, some say of bad meat. Seems a bit like poor form.

So why explore symmetries, waves and particles, why look into energy, sensation and perception, even quantum mechanics?

Because we are here. Because this is the manifest Universe. It is not outside the Dharma (Dharma means here teachings of Buddhism or more generally, Truth, when spelled with upper case “D”).

At the Zen center we chant the Zen poem, the “Identity of the Relative and Absolute.” The IDENTITY; not the subservience of perception, of energy, of the relative, to the absolute.

The Zen master poet Shih T’ou Hsi-chien ( Sekito Kisen in Japanese) in the poem warned us over a thousand years ago:

“To be attached to things is illusion;

To encounter the absolute is not yet enlightenment.”

He explains:

“Each and all the subjective and objective spheres are related,

And at the same time independent.

Related but working differently, though each keeps its own place.”

And later he adds:

“Each thing has its own intrinsic value and is

Related to everything else in function and position

Ordinary life fits the absolute as a box and its lid.”

The universe of energy patterns and change is the relative. Ordinary life. And the relative, our life, is intimately related to the absolute, to the non-dual, to Mind, to emptiness, to what can not be grasped by the senses or the intellect, but may be directly experienced according to the Zen masters, like “the foot before and the foot behind in walking.”

Once again, my ignorance and lack of Zen chops. I can not explain it any better. I can not convey experiences I have not had.

But that is what the Master Zen poets tell us.

Maybe this extraordinary practice, this deep and splendiferous vision beyond visions, these experiences beyond grasping and our intellect, our lives, are as Nyogen Roshi says:


 30 Kushan Buddha

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s