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Emptiness

During our morning service we chant the Heart Sutra, one of the most essential texts in Buddhism. The word "heart" in the title in fact means "essential" - not the organ- but heart as in going to the heart of the matter. And within the Heart Sutra perhaps the most essential line goes "Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form." What does "emptiness" mean here? It is one of those words that seems to have a very different Buddhist connotation than what we usually mean by the word "emptiness" in English. In English, empty is usually meant as the opposite of full, lacking something, like when we say that our gas tank is empty. And when we refer to a feeling of emptiness, we usually mean something like depression, a deadness inside, a sense of something very basic missing in ourselves or in our lives. When we feel empty in this sense, we are desperate for someone or something to fill us up, and we are like baby birds, mouths open hoping, waiting, for the mama bird to bring us a worm!

Emptiness in the Heart Sutra obviously means something very different. First of all it's not talking about a feeling of any kind, it saying something about the essential nature of life, about all the FORMS, all the things that make up our life. If Form is empty, what is it empty of? Perhaps I should just leave you with the question. But I'll try  to say just a little bit more, not to clear up the mystery behind these words, "form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form," but I hope by clarifying the terminology, actually deepen your sense of how radical and mysterious these words actually are. Form, life, is empty of any particular, fixed, unchanging essence, whether that essence is understood as physical substance or essential meaning. Everything emerges from, is identical with and returns to this endless moment to moment flux of being or non-being - since even "being" isn't anything one can say has any essential nature that we can point to or define. This emptiness is identical to fullness. It is everything, and everything is nothing but it.

What does any of this mean in the real word of pots and pans? Simply that all distinctions, all meanings, all identities and especially all our self-identities, have no fixed boundary or definition, except ones that we create and try to hold onto. Suppose as an experiment, we went into a room that was completely empty except for a table, and on the table, a book, and I asked you, "How many things are there in this room?" The obvious answer might be "Two," the table and the book. But there are many other possible answers. I said, you and I were in the room, didn't I?, so many the answer should be "four." Or we might look at the table a little more closely and notice that it held together with nails, its wood has been stained, and the surface varnished. The book is made up of paper pages, a cloth binding, ink for the words etc. Perhaps each word, or each letter should be counted. Perhaps each cell in our bodies. There is no end to the possible ways of counting, and none is truer and none more arbitrary than any other.

The boundaries we set up between ourselves and life serve simultaneously to define us to ourselves and paradoxically to create all the suffering that the self is forever trying to escape, by setting up newer and more impermeable boundaries. Emptiness is endless change and possibility; form is this moment's manifestation of that ongoing possibility. Now THIS, now THIS, now THIS..... endlessly. The self that is each successive moment is called no-self, recreated anew moment after moment, each moment leaving behind no trace, identical with life itself, and continuing  forever.