Dharma Talk: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”

NOTE: The following Dharma talk was given by Rev. Charama on Sunday, October 15, 2017.

We recite the Heart Sutra in every service, sometimes even daily – as Buddhists around the world have for millennia. So we can’t say we don’t know what the noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva says to Shariputra:

form is emptiness, emptiness is form;
emptiness is not separate from form,
form is not separate from emptiness;
whatever is form is emptiness,
whatever is emptiness is form.

And yet I suspect that much of the tension we face in our daily lives arises from an incomplete or incorrect understanding of the essential world (emptiness) and the phenomenal world (form).

They are separate, but they are one. Two sides of the same coin. I like to think of them as one word – formemptiness – or, if I want a visual image, as Brundlefly from the 1986 Jeff Goldblum movie The Fly.

You remember the movie. Brilliant scientist Seth Brundle (Goldblum) invents a matter transporter much like the transporters (“Beam me up, Scotty”) on Star Trek.

Brundle tests his invention on various objects with various levels of success. One night, he says, “Screw it!” and puts himself in one of the pods. Unbeknownst to him, a fly has also entered the chamber with him. So that when his genetic code is disassembled and then reassembled in the pod on the other side of the room, the fly’s genetic code becomes intermingled with his. Over the course of the rest of the movie, he and the fly become one creature. He remarks that he is now Brundlefly.

That’s form/emptiness. (Or, essential/phenomenal.)

How do we know if we are putting too much emphasis on one over the other?

If we find ourselves thinking, “It’s all bullshit” or behaving as if nothing matters – including any of the traditions or rituals of our practice – we’re living in the realm of emptiness.

I’ve known people who have stated, “It’s all bullshit.” Such a phrase has the stink of Zen because – like the protagonist of some koans – those who believe it are spiritually immature. They’ve seen only one side of the formemptiness equation.

On the other hand, if we find ourselves inordinately concerned with everyday life, freaking out at every utterance from a politician, becoming an activist at the drop of a hat, holding others to a standard of perfection, not allowing them to make mistakes, or being inordinately worried about how we (and others) look, what kind of car we drive or house we live in, we know that we’re living in a world of form, which is also called the phenomenal world.

As to the former, life is not bullshit – and neither is what arises every moment. If we are honest, we can see that, clearly, in how we value our loved ones, in the beauty and rarity of a double rainbow, in the birth of a son or daughter, in the need to pay the mortgage on time every month. It’s not all bullshit. It’s bullshitsacred. It is both bullshit AND it is incredibly wondrous, sacred.

As to the latter, it appears many people on Facebook exist in the world of form. Constant anti-Trump or anti-Republican posts. (Before that, it was anti-Obama and anti-Democrat posts.) Allowing the media to rile them to the point of anger and bitterness. Demanding this person or that group do such and such – or else. Arguing over points of theology or doctrine or ritual. That’s the realm of form, and a focus on that side of the coin leads to all sorts of illness, both individual and societal. Sure, some things are important. Even political things. But if you find yourself posting about politics day after day after day after day, it’s possible you’ve become fixated on form. Let it go. There’s more to life than politics. (In fact, politics isn’t life at all. It’s an intangible, invisible concept that resides solely in your mind that depresses, ruins, and kills.)

Again, life is not form OR emptiness. It’s emptinessform. It’s essentialphenomenal. Reality is both.

Then why separate them at all? Why use words like “form” and “emptiness” (or “essential” and “phenomenal”) if they’re the same thing?

They’re not the same thing.

But I’ll save that for another Dharma talk.

In the meantime, I have a hankering to re-watch The Fly.

* Bow *

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