There is a quite a bit of discussion in Western Buddhism about form and emptiness, as these concepts are featured prominently in the Heart Sutra which in turn has a close association with Zen. This invites comparisons between the Buddhist teaching of non-duality and the concepts of transcendence and immanence. The emphasis today is on form.
Form seems simple enough, given the Western emphasis on materialism. Everything that exists can be reduced to some measurable form of matter or energy, so form is anything composed of these things. Many English-language books on Buddhism use this frame of reference as an analogy to explain emptiness by pointing to subtler and subtler forms of energy until one gets to the fuzzy level of what has been dubbed the quantum field (or in some versions the quantum foam), which itself is compared to emptiness.
This can be misleading as it places the emphasis on an external process rooted in a strictly materialist paradigm. It is fine as an analogy, but prudence suggests it is risky and and unnecessary to draw a direct equivalence. Form is a phenomenological concept that precedes any explanation of the basis of what is being described. Form is, in a sense, anything which can be described and is hence born of discrimination and labeling by the mind. Feeling, intuitions, imaginings, logical musings, judgements, and the like are forms as much as tables, chairs, and chew bones.
In other words, whatever mind is or isn't, wherever and however mind originates, it is itself the origin of form.
Ironically, the views of mind under the umbrella of the conventional materialist paradigm support this view. That is, even if the mind is just an illusion attributed to coalescent brain function or possibly even an epiphenomenon of the brain arising as a distinct experience, the seat of all pattern detection and formation as well as various types of generic and specific mental activity is restricted to the mind. While things may exist outside this brain-mind, which is in contradiction to Buddhist teachings, everything we actually experience (even our awareness of sensations from the body) is said to take place in the brain.
Buddhism distinguishes itself from conventional materialism in the conflation of brain and mind, but the teaching that form arises in the mind is valid in either view. The view of form as mental distinctions is noticeable different than assuming that form is simply material stuff. Form is much more subtle.
The idea of form preceding any notion of explaining the phenomena arising in our consciousness and any philosophy or mind or matter implies that form exists prior to any kind of analysis. It can only be explained in hindsight. The logical mind cannot arise without form, neither can emotions or perceptions.
This kind of mind-bending examination is familiar to many Buddhists, which is why the non-duality linking form to emptiness and emptiness to form, neither monist or dualist in a strict sense (that is, they don't qualify either as two fully separate things nor as a single thing), is so critical to Buddhist understanding. An analogy popularized by Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn compares emptiness to water and form to waves. If one tries to scoop away all of the waves looking for the water underneath eventually one will be left with neither. (A similar and perhaps more fitting analogy would be cutting down all of the trees to get a clearer view of a forest.)
Buddhism also traditionally teaches that while localized forms of consciousness are dependent on the brain, these temporary forms, which we tend to call individual minds, are only part of a larger, indeed infinite, whole. This is where quantum physics is sometimes brought back in by some using Buddhist or Hindu or Taoist terms and concepts, suggesting that this larger field of consciousness connects to the material world at the quantum level, that in fact consciousness is or is the basis of this quantum field.
If consciousness is indeed as vast as many Eastern traditions claim, then comparisons to God are understandable. I suspect that the desire to integrate form arising from mind and matter arising from quantum foam is driving a good bit of the "consciousness as the basis of the quantum field" speculation.
But what if we stepped back from that for a moment? What possibilities might be possible if we continue to set aside the question of materialism or the material universe and focus on form as distinctions in the mind? Even if the speculation that matter and energy are manifestations of consciousness are true, many of the implications discussed still center primarily on God and matter as the West conceives of these things. But what if we focus on understanding God outside of materialism and in terms of form and emptiness?
Immanence, or divine presence in the material world, is changed to a more immediate view of divine presence in the very mental distinctions in which one's perception or conception of the world arises. In the case of the Biblical view of God, it changes the tone of many images dramatically, especially in opposition to the deadening literalism often imposed upon them. It releases God from the kind of over-wrought analysis that tends to obscure the directness and intimacy of the imagery found in writings such as the Psalms. The line between what God is and how we think about God is erased, taking away any safe distance.
This is not to say that God is simply whatever we imagine like a fictional character. It is more accurate to say that God is the cutting edge of awareness, the immediacy of the present moment, becoming real to us in the forms we encounter in our minds. This is a slippery concept to be sure. Ironically, by becoming the substance of our distinctions God is liberated from them. God becomes omnipresent in a very uncompromising way. God is in our anger, our confusion, our boredom, our prejudice, and our violence as much as in our calm, our clarity, our appreciation, our acceptance, and our peace.
We are never separated, neglected, or abandoned.
In fact, the problem with God's immanence is the fact that we do want to wall God off as a distinct concept or experience with a list of preferred attributes. God is too familiar and too available for us to see. We seek after the extraordinary because we have taken the wonders of our existence for granted. God as form calls us back to finding God in the most pedestrian thoughts and mundane objects as well as the wildest flights of fantasy and inspiration, telling us that in the end it's all part of the same adventure.
The smiling Buddhist teacher Lama Zopa Rinpoche says something along these lines in his small text How to be Happy: "For those who have Pure minds, Buddha manifests in pure forms; for those who have impure minds, Buddha manifests in impure, or ordinary, forms. Buddha manifests as whatever it necessary to guide a particular being."
God immanence as form also expands the Christian view of Christ, who takes on a role similar to that ascribed to Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Form, whether gross or subtle and in all of its manifestations, is called the body of Christ. As contemplative teachers as diverse as Fr. Richard Rohr, Br. John Martin Sahajanda and even pop spiritual writer Dr. Deepak Chopra suggest, the singular identity of Jesus as the Christ was inclusive, not exclusive, as it referred to a non-dual union with all aspects of form.
In the words of Shin poet Kobayashi Issa:
- The world of dew --
- A world of dew it is indeed,
- And yet, and yet...