Form is Emptiness - Emptiness is Form

by Nicole Christine

This statement, made by the Buddha to his disciple Sariputra, and recorded in the Heart Sutra about 2500 years ago, cannot be understood by the ordinary thinking mind. Neither can it be grasped by inference, conceptualising, nor any other activity of the thinking mind. It can only be realised through our own direct insight into the nature of emptiness and form.

The Heart Sutra, is one of the core teachings of the Buddha and a gateway to liberation. It tells of Avalokiteshvara who, having become absorbed in the deepest wisdom, realizes the emptiness of all form and is thereby saved from all suffering and distress. Further, it explains the truth that ‘form is emptiness – emptiness is form’, and how abiding in the highest knowledge results in exemption from all fear. It speaks as well about liberation from the confused, deluded mind and the enjoyment of the highest nirvana.

Well, who would not love to be free of suffering, enjoy happiness, ease, love, and liberation, be free of fear and celebrate the flow of life and heaven on earth? One of the reasons why I began my deep exploration of the dharma and meditation was the severe depression I had been suffering from for many years. Meditation, with its insights into the dharma, brought not only profound healing, but the gift of all I had been seeking and much, much more.

So now, the question is: how can one come to the direct experience of the wisdom contained in this Sutra?

As previously mentioned, with a deluded mind we cannot come to a clear insight into emptiness. A deluded mind is too occupied with negative thoughts and emotions, too full of false concepts about the world and oneself. Such a mind is often not even aware that things could be different from how it presumes they are.

The Buddha’s advice to Rahula is: "Develop meditation that is like space. When you develop meditation that is like space, the agreeable and disagreeable contacts, which might arise, will not occupy your mind and stay there. Just as space is not established anywhere, so I advise you to develop meditation that is like space. If you do so, [any] agreeable and disagreeable contacts, which might arise, will not invade your mind and remain." (MN62.17)

If we develop a meditative mind that is empty like space, like a sky without clouds, whatever passes through our mind passes unhindered, like a bird through the sky. Then, whatever thoughts may arise cannot stick in the mind and create a continuous cycle of useless thinking. With this space-like mind, direct insight into what is useful and wise to do in any given situation can arise and shape our actions without the obstruction of long-held concepts: what we need to know and do in any given situation is simply clear, without any mental confusion about it. Over time we identify less and less with our circumstances and the few points that are experienced as painful within our life. Once our mind has developed this clear, space-like meditation, the gateway is open to our very own insight into what the Buddha is indicating in the Heart Sutra.

To develop meditation that is like space, it is very helpful to find a suitable mentor. I myself have found that the individual guidance of an experienced teacher, acting as a spiritual friend, has been most helpful in my continuing unfoldment towards Buddhahood. This is particularly important when one starts to integrate their practice into daily life, and again later on, when literally everything starts to become part of our practice. As we develop along the path, the application and success of techniques depend more and more on the need of the individual and less and less upon broad traditional guidelines. Since the questions that arise are going to be more and more individual, one’s practice needs to be continuously adapted and custom-fitted by an experienced mentor. The guidance I have received has been indispensable. It is highly unlikely that one will experience a satisfying progress on the path by simply taking a meditation class.

One who has fully realised that "form is emptiness – emptiness is form" is naturally calm and empty. Empty even of any knowledge of "form is emptiness – emptiness is form" itself. Such a being is empty of all concepts about any kind of spiritual state or achievement. They do not ‘know’ eternal truth; rather, they are eternal truth. Nothing else lives in them. They are empty of any concept of themselves. What lives there is truth alone. With the realisation of the Heart Sutra, true knowledge, wisdom, loving-kindness, compassion, happiness, joy – and so much more – naturally flow.

To come to the timeless wisdom of the emptiness of all form, is both a linear process of awakening over time from the delusions of the ordinary mind, and the ever-present possibility of stepping into the freedom of liberation. It is a trail with a beginning and an end, with the realisation of ‘form is emptiness – emptiness is form’ at its core, outside of future, past and present.

When action comes from having realised what the Buddha is indicating in the Heart Sutra, that action, emanating from the wellspring of existence, contributes to the overall benefit of all beings. It possesses that alchemical healing power that balances and removes conflict. It is a direct by-product of being empty of concepts about who or what oneself and the world are, and clearly a mind empty of negativity. When one abides in this understanding, ones actions naturally start to overflow with generosity, care, compassion and love.

In the realisation of the Heart Sutra, one is so full of compassion and love that one is no longer aware of oneself. Everything that is usually experienced as I, me and mine, is seen to be empty of any solid content. One is empty of oneself. One’s mind is not merely filled with compassion and love, it becomes compassion and love. It is compassion and love.