Form is empty

The following is a brief excerpt from the chapter on The Paths of Accumulation and Preparation (1) inThe New Heart of Wisdom.

'We should know that our own five aggregates are our own body, feelings, discriminations, compositional factors and consciousness, and that these are the bases of imputation of our self. Through perceiving any of these five, because of ignorance we develop the thought ‘I’ or ‘me’. But in fact, none of these five aggregates is our self.

In this Sutra, the aggregate of form is taken as the first basis for establishing emptiness. Also, in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in One Hundred Thousand Lines, in which one hundred and eight objects of knowledge from form to omniscience are taken as bases for establishing emptiness, form is taken as the first basis. Once we have realized emptiness using one basis, such as form, it is not difficult to establish the emptiness of other phenomena.

Emptiness is interpreted somewhat differently in the various Buddhist schools. The presentation given here is in accordance with the Madhyamika-Prasangika system of tenets, which is Buddha’s ultimate view as expounded in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. Buddha taught different philosophical systems according to the various needs and capabilities of his followers, but his intention was to lead all living beings eventually to the final view of the Madhyamika-Prasangika school. There is no higher view than this.

According to the Madhyamika-Prasangika school, emptiness is the mere absence of inherent existence. Thus, when Avalokiteshvara says that form ‘is empty’, he means that form, such as our body, is empty of inherent existence, or that form does not exist inherently. To understand the significance of this, it is necessary to understand the meaning of inherent existence. We need to understand what would be the characteristics of an object if it existed inherently.

If something were inherently existent, it would have an existence within itself, independent of other phenomena. According to the Madhyamika-Prasangika school, if an object were inherently existent it would also be truly existent and existent from its own side. An object would be truly existent if it existed truly as it appeared and could be found upon investigation. Something would exist from its own side if its existence were established from the side of the object itself without depending upon an apprehending consciousness.

If we are ordinary beings, all objects appear to us to exist inherently. Objects seem to be independent of our mind and independent of other phenomena. The universe appears to consist of discrete objects that have an existence from their own side. These objects appear to exist in themselves as stars, planets, mountains, people and so forth, ‘waiting’ to be experienced by conscious beings. Normally it does not occur to us that we are involved in any way in the existence of these phenomena. Instead, each object appears to have an existence completely independent of us and all other objects.With his words ‘form is empty’ Avalokiteshvara is saying that although objects that are included in the aggregate of form appear to exist inherently in this way, in reality they totally lack inherent existence. The way in which these objects actually exist is quite different from the way in which they appear to exist.

The question of whether objects exist inherently or not is extremely important because all our sufferings and dissatisfaction can be traced to our clinging to the inherent existence of ourself and other phenomena. It is necessary to realize that phenomena lack inherent existence in order to gain liberation from suffering and to attain full enlightenment. As explained previously, until we attain the path of seeing, we need to rely upon logical reasons to realize emptiness. This Sutra does not explicitly explain the reasons that prove the emptiness of form, but many reasons are given in the longer Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. These reasons can be extracted and used here. The explanations of emptiness given in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in One Hundred Thousand Lines are condensed in the two shorter Perfection of Wisdom Sutras containing twenty-five thousand and eight thousand lines, and also in the Condensed Perfection of Wisdom Sutra. Although the explanations are condensed in the shorter Sutras, all the essential reasons given in the extensive Sutra are retained.

In the Condensed Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, Buddha says that form and the other aggregates are empty of inherent existence because, just as the depth of the ocean cannot be measured by shooting an arrow, if we investigate the aggregates with wisdom we cannot find them. It is clear that if we were to shoot an arrow into the ocean we could not discover the depth of the ocean in this way. Similarly, if we investigate the aggregates using sharp wisdom we will not find anything that we can point to and say, ‘This is the aggregate of form’, and so forth. If we are not content to accept the mere name ‘aggregates’ but instead try to discover the aggregates themselves we will be unable to find them. The fact that the aggregates cannot be found when investigated with wisdom is a reason used by Buddha to show that the aggregates lack inherent existence.

Our inability to find form upon analytical investigation can therefore be used to prove that form is empty. We can take our body as an example of the aggregate of form to illustrate how the reason may be applied. If we are ordinary beings, at present we have a view of our body as being inherently existent. Our body seems to be a single entity independent of the rest of the universe, and does not seem to rely on any conceptual process for its existence – it appears to us to be a solid, discrete object existing under its own power. Viewing our body in this way, we cherish it and react accordingly to cold, hunger, gentle caresses and so forth.

If our body really were inherently existent as it appears to be, we would expect to be able to find it upon investigation. This follows because our body would exist under its own power, independently of other phenomena, and therefore we could physically or mentally remove all objects that are not our body, and our body would still remain, existing by itself. Therefore, if we had an inherently existent body we should be able to point to our body without pointing to any phenomenon that is not our body.

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