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Form and Emptiness

June 27, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Many years ago when I was an undergraduate, I took a class on Buddhism that was taught by a professor who was a practicing Buddhist of some sort or other.  The final exam had two parts, one oral and one take home.  The oral part was to chant the Heart Sutra from memory and the written part had to do with the nature of emptiness.  I was in my early twenties and had a good memory so it wasn’t hard for me to memorize it, but I also had very little “inner” experience of things, so emptiness seemed as remote as the other side of the universe.

After many years of Zen and Tibetan practice I have chanted this sutra thousands of times, but I am no longer able to chant it without referring to my chant book from time to time. And “emptiness” seems even more unknown although if feels much closer than the other side of the universe.  Or maybe I should say that the other side of the universe doesn’t seem so far away as it did before.

The parts of the sutra that I can repeat without looking at my chant book seem to be a part of myself, as intimate as my breath. The text of the sutra is so well constructed that it is able to use words to describe what is beyond words.  Consider, There is no decay and death, no extinction of decay and death and try to let the words sink into yourself beyond the grasp of your conceptual mind and you will begin to sense the overabundance of its truth.  The great question of life and death is opened as far as it can go.  The sutra neither offers hope nor abandons hope.  Whatever you see or experience, or even imagine, you can say that it is so and yet it is not so.  Each moment becomes a question that is as alive as it is profound.  Each moment,  we need to be in the midst of “yes and no” without grasping for a resolution.

I may not be able to recite the entire sutra without referring to the text, but I do know it by heart, even if my middle-aged brain forgets where it is from time to time.  The passage that is most deeply imbedded in me is: Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form.  This teaching is simple.  It neither proposes or refutes anything so it cannot be denied or accepted. It just is. It simply says that there is no reality beyond appearances other than the emptiness of the appearances themselves. So there is nothing to argue for or against!  You don’t need to read through the countless commentaries that have been written over the past two thousand years, you just have to try to experience what it is talking about. How wonderful!

And sometimes you can look at what is and see that form is form and emptiness is emptiness.  Dogen says, When the moon is in the water, the water will not be broken, nor will the moon be wet.  Moon is moon, and water is water. So our practice, which is alive and ever-changing goes from one of these perspectives to the other.  They are just four perspectives of the same truth.  Each perspective contains the other.  Each moment can be understood and experienced from one or another point of view or several at the same time so that it becomes a question to which your day-to-day life is a response.



From → Zen Buddhism

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