‘Emptiness is form, form is emptiness’ is a commonly cited part of the heart sutra.
Depending on how you define the word form, this statement can be super insightful or wildly inaccurate. The simple reason why it is not true in the way that most people assume it to be, is depicted in the diagram below.
Emptiness is a combination of three things:
- Non-duality; i.e. space can’t exist without solid, solid can’t exist without space, which manifests as the felt sense and realisation that we aren’t separate from the rest of the Universe.
- Spaciousness; i.e. the space that makes up most of an atom, which manifests as a felt sense of stillness, spaciousness or lightness that permeates everything
- Nebulosity; i.e. everything is transitory and ephemeral, which manifests as the felt sense that everything is constantly arising and passing away
Non-duality and spaciousness do apply to everything and all aspects of experience, including physical matter.
Nebulosity only applies to perceptions and meaning, i.e. our subjective experience. It does not apply to physical reality. A physical object cannot morph into another physical object unless it is taken through a physical process.
You can turn a piece of bread into a piece of toast, by heating it up, but that physical process needs to happen in the physical world. It doesn’t just merge and shift on its own in the same way that perception and meaning can suddenly change from one moment to the next.
In the diagram above, non-duality and spaciousness and the overlap between the two, can be applied to physical matter. But nebulosity cannot. Emptiness is the crossover between all three, therefore it exists within the nebulosity circle so it can’t be applied to physical matter.
An example of this, is the classic example of the cart to depict emptiness – that a cart does not exist in its parts and when dismantled it stops being a cart.
This may be true but those parts don’t disappear – the wheels, for example, are still there in the world, they just aren’t part of a cart anymore. It is their meaning that has changed, not their physical presence.
Definition of Form
Form is another word that is not very specific. There are many ways to define and understand it and this one word ends up including a huge range of ideas in people’s minds.
There is one specific way of defining form, where the heart sutra does make sense:
Form: the outline of a thing as opposed to its substance
This clearly distinguishes that it is the concept or subjective experience of the thing, rather than the physical thing itself that is the form.
This distinction may sound trivial and esoteric but this fundamental change of perception changes everything once it is embodied and embraced.
Climate change, trauma, suffering, emotions and essentially everything in life are all grounded in the state of our physical bodies and shared world.
In order to show up to our lives and be present with what is really there we need to validate that our experience is built on a physical presence that is really here and that shapes our experience.
A spirituality that does not include this can come to the conclusion that checking out from society and detaching from our bodies is a healthy and useful response.
This is bullshit. We need to show up and be present with what is here, which includes listening to the signals that our bodies and our planet are giving us.
It also incorporates the basic reality that to create change that supports wellness and reduces suffering takes energy, time, money and resources to make it happen. It’s not just our individual mind states that we need to change.
It’s also important to be specific and clear about the truth of reality because mistruths muddy the waters, which makes it easier for unhelpful power structures to be upheld.
When vague terms and platitudes are accepted as truth, it is the people who are best at bullshitting that become the most powerful. If things are specific and clear, it empowers people to feel and speak the truth in their own experience.
When This is Useful
I would summarise this understanding as, “Emptiness and form are both inextricable aspects of experience”
If we apply this more specific understanding of this idea to our lives, it can create a huge sense of liberation.
While our physical bodies, emotions and desires are all very much physical realities in this moment, the way that we perceive those things can be incredibly malleable.
The way in which we think of ourselves and others is a concept. We can play with this by looking at things in radically different ways to how we normally look at things.
Adopting a frame where everyone is an expression of divine life-force is a very different frame to seeing everyone as a competitor to you, for example.
When we embrace the emptiness of appearance by combining the understanding of spaciousness, non-duality and nebulosity it creates a huge amount of freedom in our experience.
Through spaciousness we can create space for things like the full range of emotions to express themselves through us, or we can relate to ourselves archetypally, for example.
Through non-duality we can understand that our experience is not separate to the rest of the Universe, it is connected to the greater whole and even when it is hard it could be in service of something bigger than us.
Through nebulosity we can see that the meaning of things is continually shifting and moving, so we don’t need to get hung up on what something says about us in this moment.
‘Emptiness is form, form is emptiness’ suggests that matter is empty, which dismisses or undermines our felt experience and encourages us to check out from engaging with it.
“Emptiness and form are both inextricable aspects of experience,” encourages us to show up for our experience and to embrace and embody both the mystery and the felt sense of what is going on for us.
Through doing this we increase our capacity to be present with experience, which is where we can discover the truth.