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Buddhadharma : Fall 2012
FALL 2 0 1 2 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 33 looked deeply into the nature of these five rivers, he suddenly saw that all five are empty. If we ask, “Empty of what?” he has to answer. And this is what he said: “They are empty of a separate self.” That means none of these five riv� ers can exist by itself alone. Each of the five rivers has to be made by the other four. It has to coex� ist; it has to inter�be with all the others. In our bodies we have lungs, heart, kidneys, stomach, and blood. None of these can exist inde� pendently. They can only coexist with the others. Your lungs and your blood are two things, but nei� ther can exist separately. The lungs take in air and enrich the blood, and, in turn, the blood nourishes the lungs. Without the blood, the lungs cannot be alive, and without the lungs, the blood cannot be cleansed. Lungs and blood inter�are. The same is true with kidneys and blood, kidneys and stom� ach, lungs and heart, blood and heart, and so on. When Avalokita says that our sheet of paper is empty, he means it is empty of a separate, inde� pendent existence. It cannot just be by itself. It has to inter�be with the sunshine, the cloud, the forest, the logger, the mind, and everything else. It is empty of a separate self. But, empty of a separate self means full of everything. So it seems that our observation and that of Avalokita do not contradict each other after all. Avalokita looked deeply into the five skandhas of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness, and he discovered that none of them can be by itself alone. Each can only inter�be with all the others. So he tells us that form is empty. Form is empty of a separate self, but it is full of everything in the cosmos. The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Long Live Emptiness Listen, Shariputra, form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form. The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Form is the wave and emptiness is the water. To understand this, we have to think differently than many of us who were raised in the West were trained to think. In the West, when we draw a circle, we consider it to be zero, nothingness. But in India and many other Asian countries, a circle means totality, wholeness. The meaning is the opposite. So “form is emptiness, and emptiness is form” is like wave is water, water is wave. “Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form. The same is true with feel� ings, perceptions, mental formations, and con� sciousness,” because these contain each other. Because one exists, everything exists. In the Vietnamese literary canon, there are two lines of poetry by a twelfth�century Zen master of the Ly dynasty that say: If the cosmos exists, then the smallest speck of dust exists. If the smallest speck of dust doesn’t exist, then the whole cosmos doesn’t exist. The poet means that the notions of existence and nonexistence are just created by our minds. He also said that “the entire cosmos can be put on the tip of a hair,” and “the sun and the moon can be seen in a mustard seed.” These images show us that one contains everything, and every� thing is just one. Because form is emptiness, form is possible. In form we find everything else—feelings, per� ceptions, mental formations, and conscious� ness. “Emptiness” means empty of a separate self. It is full of everything, full of life. The word “emptiness” should not scare us. It is a won� derful word. To be empty does not mean to be nonexistent. If the sheet of paper is not empty, how could the sunshine, the logger, and the forest come into it? How could it be a sheet of paper? The cup, in order to be empty, has to be there. Form, feelings, perceptions, mental forma� tions, and consciousness, in order to be empty of a separate self, have to be there. Emptiness is the ground of everything. “Thanks to emptiness, everything is possible.” That is a declaration made by Nagarjuna, a Buddhist philosopher of the second century. Emptiness is quite an optimistic concept. If I am not empty, I cannot be here. And if you are not empty, you cannot be there. Because you are there, I can be here. This is the true meaning of emptiness. Form does not have a separate existence. Avalokita wants us to understand this point. THICH NHAT HANH is a Zen master, scholar, author, poet, and peace activist. He founded the Order of Interbeing, a community of monastics and laypeople with monasteries and practice centers around the world. He resides at his Plum Village Monastery in southern France. This teaching is from his new book, Awakening of the Heart, published by Parallax Press, 2012. BONNIEWIESNER