form is emptiness, emptiness is form

the negations chapter 5



    “O, Sariputra, form is none other than emptiness and emptiness is none other than form.  Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”

    The Negations section of the Heart Sutra is a series of clarifying statements that nullify conceptual inferences regarding the real or separate existence of any object whatsoever, whether of material form or of mental pattern.  The tactic of negation is a process of deconstructing conceptual errors. A further section of the Sutra reminds us that bodhisattvas passing beyond all errors realize ultimate nirvana. That realization is the result of the transcendence of obstructive fabricated mental structures which the Heart Sutra and other Prajnaparamita Sutras encourage.   Having dedicated himself to the path of progress of the bodhisattva of the great Middle Way of the Buddhadharma, a practitioner meets with great texts and great teachers, helpers along the Way.  The knowledge and instruction in the Heart Sutra promotes quick and effective progress through a method whereby mental effluents and obscuring structures are subtracted rather than using a method of adding vast sums of knowledge.

      There are many and various cognitive obstructions to progress, some so obnoxious as to curtail further advancement or even to set the traveler on the Way into a reversal of direction.   The modus operandi of an adept traveler or contemplative, therefore, is to remove or subtract these hindrances by identifying them and recognizing their detrimental effects. There is nothing quite so obstructive as false or wrong views; yet such views can be eliminated through recognition of their falsity.   Nothing has to be added; no addition need be pursued. The Prajnaparamita texts teach the art of transcending delusion by subtracting conceptual error and deconstructing errant mental structures.

    A Sanskrit word that pertains to such a deconstruction process is apoha, or “what something is not”.   Here the method of the Negations section puts an inferential emphasis on the uniqueness of whatever is being regarded; what something really is is clearly realized by apoha, an analysis of what it is not, thereby putting it in the correct conceptual context of its interdependency within the relativity of existence. Any thing, event, or object is actually a non-separate, functional aspect of the totality of relativity — plus the cognition of it.  The correct cognition of anything is an application of attention that can intercept the habitual flow of the distracted mind in its incessant deluded thinking.   More than a restructuring of the mind by addition of more complexity, the Prajnaparamita dialectic is actually a process of deconstructing false views that in their absence, allows the enlightened condition of prajna to function according to the truth of sunyata.  This kind of perception is prajna-wisdom.

    When Avalokitesvara tells Sariputra that “. . .form is none other than emptiness, and emptiness is none other than form” he means to eliminate any error of thinking that might suggest that form and emptiness are two different things.   Emptiness is only a concept, a potent idea that can negate all other fictitious ideas and formats of thinking.  Material form is never different from emptiness because emptiness is just a pure perception of form as it really is, with no conceptual overlay added on by an errant mental function such as attraction or repulsion, preference or prejudice.  Neither form nor emptiness can be a separate reality.  If form is cognized in any manner other than as empty, or being free from absolute individuality or separateness, then a conceptual overlay, or superimposition, by the fabricating mind, is taking place.  This is the distinguishing trait of delusion, seeing something askew, seeing something as other than it really is.

    Emptiness is a deconstruction device to be used to purify an errant cognitive process.  The right way to know form is to know it as empty of inherent existence.  Form is emptiness because emptiness negates form as existent unto itself.    If emptiness and form were different entities, then it would be possible to assert their realities as separate from one another.   The real way form exists is in emptiness of inherent existence.   The only way emptiness exists is because it is the reality of form.  They cannot be a duality opposed to each other, nor can they be separate from one another. They both are interdependent, therefore non-different.

“Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”

    Here is the natural positive conclusion that arises when the conceptual duality of form and emptiness has been negated.

“The same is true for feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.”

     The true meaning of emptiness and form as non-dual wisdom has just been spoken by Avalokitesvara and now he includes the other four skandhas as partaking of the same truth.   All the skandhas are emptiness and emptiness is all the skandhas.

“Sariputra, all phenomena are characteristically empty, not created nor destroyed, neither tainted nor pure, without increase or decrease.”

    The Heart Sutra extends the purview of emptiness to include all phenomena.   Emptiness is their real characteristic, their distinctive markless mark. Emptiness is not just another conceptual overlay imposed on an object of perception, and because of this it is not a real mark or a real characteristic as imputed by the mind.   Empty is how things really are, how things really exist in the constantly evolving state of change.

“. . .not created nor destroyed . . . .”

    Any objective phenomena, coarse or subtle, of materiality or of mentality, is empty of its own selfness and completely interdependent in its relational interplay with all else in existence. Something can be “created” only when it previously has no existence whatsoever, but there is no such thing because whatever exists arises into existence from prior conditionality.

     Conditionality must be considered empty of its own inherent existence since it cannot exist apart from its impermanency. There is absolutely no phenomenon that has definite boundaries or limits of self-existence, separate, originating from its own essential basis, or existing as an absolutely singular, one-only entity. This is why a particular phenomenon, even the totality of phenomena, cannot be created or destroyed.   Conditions, which things really are, emerge from previous sets of conditions and those conditions merge into another status which we give a name to conceptually, and then habitually perceive (erroneously) as being a singular phenomenon.

“. . .neither tainted nor pure . . . .”

   The terms tainted and pure are conceptual imputations, the superimposition of mental factors projected onto objects of perception.  These mental factors have nothing to do with the objects as they really are.

“. . .without increase or decrease.”

     These are the same kinds of conceptual distortions, notions that are applied to an object that is assumed to exist separately as itself only, instead of how it really exists, the flux of conditions continually changing. In the absence of such mistaken assumptions, clarity is experienced and notions such as tainted, pure, increase and decrease are known as they really are, as only partial descriptions, mental situations not to be confused with the real “empty” state of things.

   “Therefore, Sariputra, in emptiness there are no forms, no feelings, no perceptions, no mental formations, no consciousness.”

     When a conclusion follows a premise that sets forth an explanation, it is indicated by the word “therefore”, which here is intended to further extend the instruction on emptiness by means of negation. Again, Sariputra is reminded that all the five skandhas are empty of inherent existence.

“. . .no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind;”

    These are the six sense media, or sense organs.

“no form, no sound, no odor, no taste, no touch, no object of mind.”

     These are the six sense objects of the six sense organs and their detectable phenomena.  The six sense media and the six sense objects taken together are called the twelve sense bases.

“There is no realm of eyes and so forth, up to and including no mind consciousness.”

    This statement refers to the six classes of consciousness that are cognitions related to the six sense organs and their six objects of contact.  The cognitions, along with the six sense organs and their six contact objects, are classified as being eighteen elements. These are the essential dynamics of consciousness incident in the course of conscious awareness and coincident with other factors like sensitivity, external conditions, light, attention, duration, and a multiplicity of accumulated mental factors and qualities that can misconstrue and distort.   Keeping this in mind, the meaning of the above quoted statement is that these eighteen elements are nothing more than names and descriptions of partialities; of fractions of interdependent and interrelated processes we term “condition(s)”, temporary aspects of cognitive cycles, none of which have their own inherent existence. There is no state of permanent “eye-ness” out of which eye arises full blown, as from the mind of Zeus. There is no state of permanent “anything-ness” out of which any “thing” arises full blown from its own inherent selfness.

“. . .and so forth, up to and including . . . .”

     This is a way of declaring the more detailed formula previously given in the Sutra in a more abbreviated way.

The 18 Elements of Consciousness

eye c.

ear c.

nose c.

taste tongue
tongue c.

body c.

mental object
mind c.

“There is no ignorance and no extinction of ignorance and so forth, up to and including no ageing and no death and also no extinction of ageing and death.”

     This sentence is another radical negation, this time of the important Buddhist doctrine of interdependent origination. Just prior to his enlightenment in the third watch of the night, the Buddha comprehensively considered the twelve links of interdependent origination.  The twelve links, correctly and fully comprehended, are a necessary foundation for understanding the reality of emptiness.   This formula shows that whatever comes about emerges from a prior condition, and so, being dependent on previous factors, must necessarily be empty of essential selfness.  These twelve links are:

1. Ignorance: That which is defined as not knowing the Four Noble Truths of suffering, origin of suffering, cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering.
2. Fabrications: These are the active karmic volitional formations, bodily, verbal, and mental.
3. Consciousness: The six classes of consciousness arising from sense contact, eye contact, ear contact, etc.
4. Name and Form: Regarding name, there is feeling, perception, intention, contact, and attention. Regarding form there are the four great elements of earth, water, fire, and air.
5. Six Sense Organs: The organs of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.
6. Contact: The six contact classifications arising through eye, ear, nose, etc.
7. Feeling: The cognitive awareness of pleasure, of pain, of neither pleasure nor pain, born in the six classes according to the six sense contacts.
8. Craving: The desire (attachment) born of feelings arising from the pleasurable contacts of the six sense media.
9. Clinging-sustenance: Shows itself in four aspects: clinging to sensuality, to view, to precept and practice, and to the doctrine of “self”.
10. Becoming: Becoming pertains to sensual becoming, form becoming, and formless becoming.
11. Birth: This process involves the interdependent origination involving the mental conditions conducive to rebirth, descent, coming to be, the appearance of the aggregates, acquisition of sense organs, etc.
12. Aging and Death: The result of rebirth, decrepitude, brokenness, graying, wrinkling, decline, weakening of faculties, the decreasing of strengths, the breaking up, passing away, disappearing, – the dying process, etc.

    The way it is is that each thing or event is a unique phenomenon, a structure of infinite conditionality. Each condition therein is also a unique phenomenon. The uniqueness of each phenomenon is so only relative to the rest of conditionality; it is the totality of the flux which makes relativity possible.  It has been said that the understanding of interdependent origination is the key to understanding emptiness, which in turn is the key to enlightenment.   Why then is this doctrine of interdependent origination also negated in the Heart Sutra?

     Actually the Sutra does not really negate the fact of interdependent origination, it merely states that its twelve components are not self-existing either. What the Sutra negates is the perception that these components arise and exist independently, of themselves. But this cannot be so because conditionality itself is a set of conditions, just as is every condition within conditionality.

“. . .no extinction . . . .”

    Here is another negation of what Buddhism presents as foundational doctrines.    Avalokitesvara is not saying that these doctrines do not exist, but how they exist is that they are not separate or self-existing classes and elements of nature, but can exist only as conceptual aspects of a totality. Avalokitesvara’s radical statements in the Heart Sutra are not an attack on the established profound truths of Buddhism, but a defense of the fact that the understanding of emptiness through prajna-wisdom must be applied throughout all the doctrinal bases. The extinction of ignorance and of ageing and death means there can be no extinction of something that has no real self-existence.  These, like all else, will always arise again and again as conditions become fertile for another repetitive round; yet the components of the repetitions are selfless, the repetitions are selfless, and all that appears to originate is selfless.   Process IS, but it is also selfless.

    The same application of emptiness is valid here concerning the Four Noble Truths, which are:

The Noble Truth
of Suffering

The Noble Truth
of the Origin of Suffering

The Noble Truth
of the Cessation of Suffering

The Noble Truth of the Path
Leading to the Cessation of Suffering

    The last Truth consists of Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

    Within this list there are no pills, no right foods, no right monies, no right homes and gardens, no right education, no right religious denomination, no right upbringing or social standard. There is only unattached being, like a newly created pot on a wheel is satisfied with being that which it is, and nothing more.  It is said,

“There is no wisdom and no attainment with nothing to attain.”

    And even this statement is applicable.  These terms are only conceptual descriptions of ideas that should not be viewed as something other than what they really are.  The fundamental disciplines of Buddhism culminate in knowing what exists and what does not exist, which is the eradication of delusion — which is itself also subject to this negation.  All is flux, conditional change, with no separate or entirely individual thing undergoing the changes.  There are only momentary mistakenly perceived impressions of unchanging individuality in this soup of swirling currents, in this tightly interwoven textual fabric of many hues. Here wisdom refers to prajna and attainment refers to nirvana.   It is not that prajna and nirvana do not exist at all; it is that neither have their own substantial independent existence. They are simply states of being, just another condition arising within the conditional, and their truth as a concept is no more substantial than is “tree” or “forest”.

   The Heart Sutra utilizes a negative dialectic because real apperceptive knowing must transcend the limited terms of discriminative thinking and the habitual structures of perception that are incomplete and limited when using conventionalities of language that can transmit counterfeit thought-forms, errant modes of imperfect expression.

    Since the first expression in negative terms that emptiness and form are non-distinct, Avalokitesvara has told Sariputra that basically nothing exists as it is commonly perceived to exist — nothing whatsoever; even the hallowed doctrines of Buddhism do not exist autonomously, and there is nothing that can be known correctly through conceptual or verbal designations.   The communication of sunyata through the device of negation is a potent and effective approach that can lead to direct immediate experience. What things really are cannot be affected by any terminological description of them; they are simply and only what they are. But discriminative error makes for delusion.  Emptiness does not imply non-existence or nihilism.   Emptiness is only a device that puts to rest all wrong distractions and distinctions and allows passage beyond all errors.

    “Therefore, Sariputra, because bodhisattvas have nothing to attain they rely on abiding in the Profound Perfection of Wisdom without mental hindrances.”

          A further stage in the summation of what was said before, Avalokitesvara here mentions that “..bodhisattvas have nothing to attain …” The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras explain in manifold ways that nothing can really be attained or achieved because any perceivable object or goal is merely a mentally or verbally designated idea.   A bodhisattva has nothing to attain because “bodhisattva” too is a mental and verbal designation, a name applied to a set of conditions as if that bodhisattva were an extant self arising in independent separate completeness.  An individual perceiving itself as a bodhisattva self, or for that matter any other type of self-being, is delusional perception, creating an own-self using the same errant thinking methods arising from fundamental ignorance.

     Similarly, it is an error to apprehend any thing as being impermanent.    Buddhadharma points out that all is impermanent, arising and abiding for a time, yet naturally and eventually dissolving away, changing into something else.    But if there is no real self-being of anything, anywhere, at any time, then there actually can be no thing, and no correct description of it.  So there can be no thing to describe as being impermanent because there is no permanent self-thing.  In the deeper vision of emptiness, so-called “things” or dharmas, are known to be a flux of changing events, or a simple changing-ness.   But there is really no independent singular thing that undergoes a change.  Therefore, as Avalokitesvara has said, “there is nothing to attain.”   Attainment, as an event that someone or something arrives at, cannot really be so, and so has to be negated and known as a corrupt conceptualization.  Ultimate attainment then is this: In the absence of such wrong-apprehension the correct view will BE.   The correct being of pot-ness is simply the attainment of the momentary state of being a pot without any other amendments of any sort whatsoever, with correct discrimination of exactly what pot and pot-ness really are.

   The gist of the Heart Sutra is that the whole motivation to attain what is desired, even if that should be a liberation or an enlightenment, is a futile gesture based on partial and errant observation and thinking.    To simply cease thinking in the wrong way, or unskillfully, is to simultaneously cease the entanglements, transcend the hindrances and obstructions, vacate the wrong motivations, wrong behaviors, and wrong views.   Immediately bodhi is experienced as perfect awareness, the awareness that has been available at all times anyway, like the shadow always moving by our side.    But because of such a density of obstructed perceptive qualities this presence is not readily perceived.   If one can cease errant apprehensions, subtract them and see without errant discrimination, that is what is necessary. Nothing has to be attained. Thus there is “no attainment”.  It might be said that one has then obtained or attained an “absence” of delusion, which is a definition of bodhi and of nirvana, but an “absence” cannot be an attainment because an absence is a void of anything existing therein. Absence is discerned as a condition that has no conditions, a double negative, an unconditional non-condition, the same as the double negative “no non-attainment”.   This is a dialectic verbal method that negates something that could never be in any case, so the truth is revealed.

“. . .they rely on abiding in the Profound Perfection of Wisdom without mental hindrances.”

   The primary hindrance alluded to here is the hindrance of wrong view, of not understanding emptiness and self.   The five hindrances (nivarana) in Buddhist terminology are usually sense desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt. In the absence of hindrances, there is no fear because a bodhisattva is not shaken by the anxiety of losing something or of not attaining something because his discrimination is no longer faulty; it is founded in emptiness.   There is no thing that has an exclusively self-subsistent nature, so whatever does not absolutely exist cannot be lost, or attained.   There can be then no fear of loss, no fear of non-attainment. Fear arises only out of the apprehension that something undesirable may happen or that something desirable may not happen.   But what does not exist cannot either be lost or retained.   When a totalistic perspective is known as truth, then there can be no fear, no foreboding, no dread, no despair, because all is recognized as it really is, as selfless. Truth is the state of non-created being.  Truth sets one free. It is the ego-motivated restless mind, creating stress, distraction, diversion, that inseminates rebirth in any form.  Ignorance creates images of self and a busy mind never sees the attendant shadow-truth that is always part and parcel of the momentary process.   Therefore, it is said that abiding in the Profound Perfection of Wisdom without mental hindrances, the bodhisattvas are without fear.  And the reality of this understanding is the realization of relativity within wholeness and wholeness within relativity.

“Having passed completely beyond all errors they realize ultimate nirvana.”

      Errors are wrong beliefs, incorrect understanding of the nature of something.  There are sixty-two diverse kinds of wrong beliefs delineated in the Pali Suttas and the Mahayana Sutras. An error of perception, a misunderstanding, creates a mental condition where one believes something to be true when it is not, or something to be not true when it is. Such mental errors are the root of transgressions in all behavioral contexts be they manners, morals, or ethics.    Nirvana is the fact of experience only when all errors have been passed completely beyond.  The situation is bodhi, a state of perfected prajna-wisdom in which there is transcendent understanding, perfection of awareness of emptiness of things and of self, awareness of flux, awareness of reality as that condition of conceptual non-creation.  This is seeing truly, without the filtering hindrances and errors. This is ultimate nirvana.

“All the buddhas of the three times have fully awakened into unsurpassed, complete enlightenment through relying on the Profound Perfection of Wisdom.”

    Prajna is the only mother of all buddhas.  There is no other mother.  “All the buddhas of the three times” usually refers to the buddhas of the past who came before Sakyamuni Buddha, the present dispensation of Sakyamuni Buddha, and the future Buddha-to-be, Maitreya.

      This completes the comments on The Negations.


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ultimate nirvana


four noble truths

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