Wednesday, April 20, 2005

An Expression from the Heart Sutra

To see a world in a grain of sand,
and a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour.
--William Blake

The Heart Sutra is one of the Prajna Paramita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutras of Mahayana Buddhism. It has been studied for centuries with many fine commentaries produced on its meaning. This is not one of them. This essay just reflects one of the initial lessons I found on my own through meditating on the Heart Sutra.

(Incidentally it was written in January of this year in case someone detects something incongruous with something else I may have written in this blog.)


Emptiness refers to the fact that things do not possess their form because of some essential quality or spirit inherent in that form or which gives rise to that form. Together with the teaching of impermanence they make a lesson about depedent origination, which in contemporary terms is best captured by the idea of cause and effect. To clarify my usage of these concepts consider the following: If everything is an interaction, an ongoing set of processes, then technically nothing exists inherently, only as a part of constant ever-shifting relationships. Objects are created and sustained by their relationships, and relationships are created and sustained by objects. To explore the substance of one is to reveal the other. These are the principles commonly known as emptiness and impermanence as explained by dependent origination. I have been considering some common thinking that appears from my reading to be present in the more visible aspects of Buddhism in the English speaking world. It seems that there is a lot of emphasis on the idea that emptiness of form, which in turn has been used in some cases to suggest detachment from caring about people or things rather than non-attachment to them. Letting go of an attachment doesn't diminish an experience, it enhances it.

By not grasping or clinging to unrealistic or unhealthy ideas about our relationships to other people and things we should be able to more fully appreciate other people or things, rather than strip them of any value just because they, like all things, are composed of the same basic essence and their form is temporary. That brings me to the Heart Sutra. Here is a relevant execert:

"O, Sariputra, form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form; form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form, the same is true of feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness."

If form and emptiness are the same then the only reason for the saying "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form" is to give voice to the error itself, that of splitting the two and considering them separately ("If I want to understand form I better try to comprehend empitness" or "If I want to understand emptiness I better learn about form"). It occurs to me that that's part of the significance of the phrase, rather than simply saying "Form and empitness are the same thing--they are both just concepts to be transcended." In one incorrect view, you come to see "form" as "something" or "the answer", in the other you come to see "empitness" as "something" or "the answer".

When you begin to forget that form is emptiness, you run the risk of being lured in by some belief in eternalism. That is, you believe that there is some component inside you that makes you who you are, a basic essence which is commonly referred to as a soul. Belief that this soul is an actual transferable object which can only be created or destroyed by God, and which is fundamentally distinct from all other forms of matter and energy, is the basis for "eternal life" in many religions.

When you forget empitness is form, you are in danger of adopting a nihilistic point of view. Even if you don't have the error of thinking that "emptiness=nothing" or oblivion, you can still focus overly much on the notion of emptiness and arrive at conclusions about the nature and worth of things which can rightly be called a form of nihilism. This can result, the same as eternalism, from attachment to the ego. However, instead of believing that the ego last forever (eternalism), you believe that if you aren't "special" then nothing is, and so if you are no longer "essentially you/set apart", then you don't matter and therefore nothing matters. That is where I found the second half of the teaching to be useful.

To elaborate on that last point brings up an issue common to both Buddhism and secular humanism. It is precisely because each person is ephemeral and because there will never be another person like you, or me, that their life should be valued. For the Buddhist, though, it goes deeper than this. Each form is a distinct manifestation of our common root of being to be valued as a unique treasure. Obviously sentient beings are especially important because they have the capacity to suffer, and Buddhism is about using clarity to remove suffering, but each tree is also unique. Each sunset. Each star. Each dung beetle. This is how and why Buddhism can be so blunt about emptiness and impermanence, the birth of form and the death of form, and yet pronounce a view which generates boundless compassion and appreciation for all forms, whether they are deemed to be grand or common, fair or foul. And this can be captured in such a simple and elegant phrase: Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.


A couple months after I wrote this I ran across a book on the Heart Sutra and took it home to read. I was delighted to come across the following passage:

One commentarial tradition--perhaps stemming from the Myingma master Ju Mipham--has a customary way of reading this passage of the Heart Sutra presenting the four approaches to understanding emptiness. According to this reading, the first statement, "form is emptiness," presents the emptiness of the phenomenal world, thereby countering the extreme of existential absolutism, the mistaken belief that all phenomena have absolute reality. The second statement, "emptiness is form," presents emptiness as arising as dependent origination, thereby countering the extreme of nihlism, the mistaken belief that nothing exists. The third statement, "Emptiness is not other than form," presents the union of emptiness and dependent origination, countering both extremes, nihilism and existential absolutism, at once. The fourth statement, "form too is not other than emptiness," indicates that appearance and emptiness are not incompatible, abiding instead in a state of total unanimity. Thus, these four aspects are understood as presenting total transcendence of all conceptual elaboration.

The Path and Fruition (Lamdre) tradition of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism presents a similar fourfold approach to understanding emptiness: (i) appearance is established as empty; (ii) emptiness is affirmed as dependent origination; (iii) emptiness and appearance are affirmed as a unity; and (iv) this unity is affirmed as transcending all linguistic expression and conceptual thought.

Normally, emptiness is said to be an antidote to the appearance of intrinsic existence, but this fourfold approach indicates that, if one's understanding is sufficiently deep, one will be able to use the truth of emptiness to counter nihilistic views, and use the affirmation of the world of appearance as a way to overcome absolutism. This reverse way of transcending the two extremes is a unique feature of the Prasangika Madhyamaka School.

The Essence of the Heart Sutra, by Tenzin Gyatso the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Wisdom Publications, 2002 (pp. 119-120)

I was happy to read this, but not out of vanity. It's hard sometimes to know if an insight, however small, has merit. To see that others, much smarter and more spiritually advanced than myself, have had similar ideas is nice. Not because they said it therefore it must be true, but rather because it suggest that the insight is more likely to be a sign of genuine progress than wishful thinking propped up by vanity.

The entire Heart Sutra is a page or so long and very easy to read. What does the Heart Sutra say to you?
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