Form and Emptiness


Translated By: Andrew Yang

Many who have not studied Buddhist scriptures interpret the Sanskrit word “rupa” or “form” as a body color reminiscent of lust, and “sunyata” or “emptiness” as the last empty space left over after extinction. Such far-fetched interpretations vulgarize a profound philosophy.

So if you want to correctly understand these two fundamental terms, do you, then, have to peruse the classics, call upon masters, or sit and meditate until a few rush floor cushions wear out?

Buddhism focuses on both thinking and observation, and does not encourage practitioners to stick to the sheer philological meaning of words, or interpret a text word by word. In Zen there is a saying, “Draw a cat like it is,” meaning that if one draws simply after the shape of things, he may end up with the picture of a cat when he is drawing a tiger. Thus, one may never master the essence of a Buddhist concept or approach unless he goes beyond what other people say and discern with his own mind.

In fact, even those who have never been involved with Buddhist writings may sometimes figure out the meaning of “emptiness” by experiencing daily life or direct observation of things around them.

Wuda was a Zen master during the Tang dynasty. He had not read any scripture by the age of five, nor had he meditated. However, he realized that “Form is emptiness” through observing the crushing of camellia.

One day in late spring, a few camellia plants in his backyard were fully blooming and looked resplendent, a perfect picture to the eye. Suddenly, however, dark clouds came, and a storm rushed in, smashing all the dazzling, brilliant flowers to pieces. As Wuda helplessly watched the devastation going on, his young heart aroused a strong feeling of impermanence and he chanted a five-character-line poem,

In full bloom flowers filled the tree with red.

Once they fell they left the branches bare.

If any flower does survive,

Tomorrow it follows the flow of air.

“If any flower does survive,/ Tomorrow it follows the flow of air.” That is a realistic description of the fact that life is short and all dharmas are emptiness. The presentation of all things in the universe, whether solemn and vast like the sun, moon and stars, or close by like trees and flowers, can awaken people to the true nature of reality, and awakening does not depend on the wisdom from words in Buddhist scriptures. Of course, Buddhists should not take this as an excuse to neglect the reading of classics, because a basic knowledge of Buddhism is a powerful tool for attaining prajna.

Form and emptiness are two fundamental ideas of the prajnaparamita sutras. Form is the material phenomena of the universe. Emptiness means that all these things are born out of a gathering of karma, and end with its dispersion, that they all have a beginning and ending, and that they are empty of self-nature and impermanent. This emptiness of self-nature requires no deep analysis to understand. Indeed, when things exist, they exist only as a short-lived illusion, called emptiness in essence.

Thus, every physical phenomenon with a beginning and ending has a nature of emptiness, in that it occurs when various conditions required by each other are met, and this is known as conditioned arising. And because things are born of conditioned arising, naturally they have no intrinsic nature. This is the notion of sunyata or emptiness.

When things, in this way, possess no self nature, and when an existence is merely emptiness in essence, it follows that when we see things, we should do not cling to their outward appearances or their existence, nor feel attached, for their existence is no more than a meeting of various conditions without a permanent intrinsic self. This is the notion that form is emptiness.

However, although form is emptiness, it is because of this nature of emptiness that things may proliferate and go on through life cycles. If everything remained unchanged forever, the world would be bursting at its seems and thrown into a state of maddening chaos, and therefore nothing could remain unchanged once and for all. For example, the big void, although profoundly empty, does not hinder the appearance of all things. The big void hinders nothing, and everything presents itself in it.

Emptiness is form, meaning that a nature of emptiness is the foundation through which all things present themselves. Were it not for emptiness, the universe would already be packed solid, and how then would it allow everything else to appear in it?

Here is another Zen poem, “Flamboyance with dawn dew, or fragrance with a dusk breeze. Why wait until things fall apart, to understand emptiness?” However vibrant and showy, flowers will fade with the sun rising and setting, and then ruthlessly, an evening wind blows away the petals all at once. This cycle of rise and fall continues endlessly. If that is true, when why wait until all the flowers are in utter ruin, to begin to understand the nature of emptiness of all things in the universe?


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