“Just for fun,” Marijo posted a brief comment on my thoughts about form and emptiness. Brief though that comment was, it was brilliant, and it opened the discussion out in so many different directions that I couldn’t adequately respond in a comment. In fact, I don’t know that I’ll be able to adequately respond here, but let’s see if I can catch at least some of the insights to which she pointed.
Marijo starts by rightly recognizing my use of space in the discussion of emptiness as no more than a metaphor.
I like your explanation of the double negative of emptiness through the analogy of space.
This is a subtle insight. Our usual conception of space, particularly as I described it, could easily be confused with emptiness. But in Buddhist terms, emptiness means to be empty of duality or concept. Space, as a conception, isn’t emptiness. In his commentary on the Heart Sutra, while discussing dharmas (the smallest particles of experience–not to be confused with the Dharma), Red Pine explains the difference between space and emptiness.
When we establish a dharma that either exists or does not exist, we create a separation in time, in space, and in our minds. Emptiness is not space but the absence of space. Dharmas represent the creation of space, the conjuring of division into our awareness. Emptiness represents the removal of that space or division. Thus, where there is emptiness, which is everywhere, there are not dharmas. Dharmas as self-existent or non-existent entities are fictions. Dharmas as emptiness are real. Thus, the separation of dharmas from emptiness is impossible.
Marijo then goes on to describe the birth of form.
In thinking about form, I usually find it helpful to think of an activity–our thinking of things forms them, gives them form, makes them formed things.
Like space, the term “form” is often used without being carefully considered. It might seem to be the very essence of a thing, but she rightly recognizes that it can be very helpful to consider it as an activity, to see form (and thus emptiness) as a verb rather than a noun. Edward Conze offers this perspective on emptiness as a noun.
It may either be described as an object without a subject, or a subject without an object. When viewed as an object without a subject, it is called “Suchness.” When viewed from the subject-side, the transcendental reality is known as “Thought-only.”
Using the notions of subject and object maintains a subtle, though incomplete, notion of duality. The step that would take us beyond duality from there is one suggested by a friend of mine from class (and echoed by Marijo), which is the metaphor of form or emptiness not as a noun (either subject or object) but as a verb without subject or object. There’s still a residue of concept there, but the difficulty in trying to conceptualize that is probably very much like the difficulty we have in trying to grasp emptiness.
And in his discussion of the five skandhas (which he translates as form, sensation, perception, memory, and consciousness–the five “pillars” that together we mistake for a self according to the Buddha), Red Pine elaborates on Marijo’s claim that “our thinking of things forms them.”
But if we stop to consider these five pillars that support our awareness, it becomes clear that the Heart Sutra presents them to us backward in order to make them easier to grasp for those whose understanding of reality begins with the material world. In terms of the world as we actually experience it, we begin with the skandha of consciousness and then extrapolate the memory of previous states of consciousness from which we extrapolate perceptions from which we extrapolate sensations from which we extrapolate an objectified world of form.
Which brings the discussion back to form, and Marijo emphasizes the difficulty inherent in it.
The difficulty lies in that the form things are thereby given is the form of an object–something unified yet, in itself, unrelated to other things, independent, and therefore non-composed, and therefore indescribeable.
Red Pine describes form, or rupa, similarly.
Rupa is not the material world. It is simply the outside world, in contrast to what we presume is an inside world. Thus, the word rupa does not actually refer to a concrete object but to the appearance of an object. Form is like a mask that cannot be removed without revealing its own illusory identity. Such a mask might be worn by a table or a sunset or a number or a coin (the rupee), or a universe. Whether such things are real is not relevant. The important thing is that they make up a presumed outside to a presumed inside.
I hope I haven’t done too much violence to Marijo’s reasoning with these elaborations and parallels.