30. The Heart Sutra

Q: Good morning, Robert. Another question about the Heart Sutra, please. What is your understanding of “form is emptiness, emptiness is form”?

A: The key to this, in my view, is to understand the term shunyata, which is translated most often as “emptiness,” not as indicating complete nonexistence, but as signifying a lack of independent existence.

So, for instance, “form is emptiness” indicates that the form we call table, being composed of non-table elements—wood, nails, glue—is empty of a separate, free-standing, independent existence, relying as it does for its actuality upon the actuality of its constituent parts. Looking deeper, we see that each of those constituent actualities depends on its constituents. The wood of the table, for example, depends upon non-wood ingredients—sunshine, water, minerals from the soil—so the wood never had an independent existence either.

In the very same way, “myself” is made up of non-self elements: the languages I speak, other people’s opinions, etc. So, while I may imagine myself to be a somewhat permanent and separate entity to which thoughts occur, events happen, etc., that is a misapprehension. Myself, being co-dependent with everything else in this aliveness, must flow and change constantly along with everything else.

I understand “emptiness is form” as an advisory against being enchanted or hypnotized by the idea of emptiness. If one engages in the intentional pursuit of “emptiness,” as if emptiness were some ideal state to be attained once and for all and subsequently forever more savored, then we hear all kinds of nonsense like “despite appearances, nothing that changes actually exists” or “there is no such thing as a person”—the kinds of half-baked ideas that have become popularized as “non-duality.”

Perhaps the meaning of the expression “emptiness is form” will be clarified by saying it this way: Even the notion of “emptiness” is still a kind of form.

If this is clear, then let’s go one step further. As far as we know, neither does form exist in some absolute, unconditional way independent of mind, nor can we know that form does not exist in some way prior to or independent of mind, and the same with emptiness. No one knows what really exists, or even what “really exists” means or entails. So “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” is not a truth to be learned and recited, but a didactic device aimed at loosening attachment to extreme conceptions of “reality” which are either naïvely materialistic (“the table I see exists exactly as I see it”) or dogmatically nihilistic (“nothing exists objectively at all; the material world is only an illusion”).

Q2: Does the Heart Sutra point to the idea that all that exists is a unified whole, that words for things are inaccurate and misleading because they delude us into thinking that separate things exist, and that the essence of reality and myself is Oneness? Lastly, and this is where I am in a rut, how do I move from my conceptual understanding of non-duality to actually living, feeling and knowing deeply that I Am That experientially?

A: The Heart Sutra does not speak of a “unified whole,” so I wonder why you inject that. To be honest, I don’t wonder. I am pretty sure I know why. You have heard about non-duality, and now believe not only that non-duality is “Truth,” but that you are required to “realize” non-duality if you want to end the psychological suffering that seems to be part of ordinary, day-to-day “dualistic” life.

A previous questioner asked me if the Heart Sutra was about “a slow burning away of mental and emotional patterns.” I replied that in my view the Heart Sutra does not suggest burning anything, slowly or not, nor is that sutra an instruction to do anything, including burning, but is a poetic exposition of the emptiness of the name and form called “myself.” When I say “emptiness,” I mean that when I try to find the essence of myself, I cannot.

If the bacteria in my gut were not alive and doing their dance, there would be nobody (no body) called Robert. But those bacteria require this human body to supply the proper conditions for the survival and reproduction of their own bodies. In the very same manner, myself originates co-dependently along with everything else and can never truly stand apart from anything.

That previous questioner had asked for advice, and I responded by suggesting that during her “slow burning of mental patterns,” she should be sure to throw anything to do with spirituality into the fire and stir the ashes.

I’m moved to tell you something along the same lines. Forget about non-duality. Just put non-duality out of your mind entirely — ban it as a banal, shopworn meme. Without that will-o’-the-wisp, then see where you are.

I have just said emptiness means that when I try to find the essence of myself, I cannot.

Don’t take my word for it. Examine the matter to your own satisfaction. Try to find the essence of yourself. See what you come up with.