Cat in a Box – Engaging Form and Emptiness

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Buddhist philosophical ideal that “form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form” found most famously in the Heart Sutra can be a difficult concept to wrap the mind around. Emptiness is well . . . empty, and form has substance so how can they have the same properties, at the same time. To achieve some realization of this dharma requires a thought experiment followed by a way to engage that ideal in moment-to-moment practice. There is both an ancient ideal and a contemporary thought experiment that can bring about a clearer understanding of form and emptiness.

In Buddhist philosophy everything, all dharma is causally conditioned. It becomes what it is in a particular moment as a result of the causal process of the Universe. This would not possible if all dharma had inherent and permanent form. The philosopher and scholar Nagarjuna is arguably at the top echelon of Buddhist philosophers whose original ideas continue to shape Mahayana thought and practice to this day. His most revered text is the Mulamadhamakakarika text in which he maintained, “Since there is no dharma whatever which is not causally conditioned (not relative to whatever experience or situation it finds itself connected with), no dharma whatever exists which is not empty.” Phenomena have no form until acted upon physically and/or mentally by another phenomena, human being or otherwise. Until the moment of interaction it has only potential (emptiness) to take on form, a form dependent on whatever acts upon it. Causal conditioning, the who, what, when, where, why and how of the causal process enacts the transformation from emptiness to form. For Westerners caught up in concrete definitions and concrete descriptions it isn’t an easy concept but one that can be engaged with a little creative re-description. Let’s look to a contemporary science model for some help with that.

In 1935 Erwin Schrodinger was looking for a way to describe the difficult language of quantum mechanics, in particular how particles like atoms can be in two or more different quantum states simultaneously. His thought experiment began with putting a cat in a box that had no openings. Inside the box is placed a radioactive atom connected to a vial of deadly poison. Once the box is closed there is no way to know if the atom decays allowing the vial to shatter and the poison to be released and the cat killed. He postulated that because the atom, the cat and the vial could not be seen then the atom could be viewed as beeing in both a decayed and non-decayed state at the same time. The cat, because it couldn’t be seen would be both dead and alive at the same time. Without observation these physical objects would be in two diametrically opposed conditions in the same moment. The ideal of choice between “dead or alive” was empty of meaning. Emptiness and form are diametrically opposed conditions yet Buddhist philosophy says they too are the same.
To apply Schrodinger’s thought experiment to the Buddhist philosophical ideal of emptiness and form first requires the understanding that observation is an experiential act and the emptiness/form concept can be experientially verified. In Schrodinger’s experiment there is a cat in a box with a vial of poison. There is a trigger, the atom that has the potential to release the poison killing the cat. The atom, the poison and the cat are each thought to be in two simultaneous states of existence because we can’t see them. It all comes down to one can’t ascertain the reality without the experience. There is both emptiness and form.
The saying that if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound points to form and emptiness. There is the potential for sound to be heard if someone is present. If not, do we really know for certain if there is a sound? Only the birds, bugs and other critters present know for sure.
Consider too a birthday gift. You accept a package beautifully wrapped with a silver bow. You can hope that it is _____________ (fill in here whatever you might wish for). It feels like it weighs the right amount and it doesn’t rattle. The box is the right size for it. No matter. You are holding a box of emptiness until you open it and experience what is inside, giving it form.
There is no way for human beings to know the future. Yeah, some people say they can but it is all speculation whether scientific or the metaphysical methods are engaged. So, each moment can be viewed as in a box until it is entered in to. There is a tendency for people to believe they know what is in the box before it is opened. That is known as fondling the future. It is a thought experiment without the possibility of experiencing it (emptiness) until the future happens (form). Then that ‘future’ is empty and as the present moment, is form. Let’s try a different thought experiment.
Wade has been called into a meeting with his boss and a representative of human resources. He can’t think of anything he’d done wrong but that doesn’t ease his anxiety. Wade is certain he knows what will happen. Other employees have had the same situation and came out of the office, cleaned out their desks, and left the building. At 2pm he enters the office (the box). Sitting at the conference table is his boss (the atom), the human resources person (the poison), and Wade (the cat) takes a seat. Wade has prepared himself for the worse. An hour later he comes out of the meeting with a promotion and a raise. While Wade imagined what was going to happen in that office it was in reality empty of form until he experienced it. He could equally have imagined getting a promotion and raise.
The dharma is the realities of life, what is. We don’t know what “is” until we experience the emptiness of any situation, thus experiencing the form it takes. Buddhist practice further teaches us that once form is experienced it will not take that same exact form again. It will be empty again. Even as we experienced the form of any dharma there is another person who is experiencing the emptiness of that very same dharma.
Form and emptiness are Buddhist philosophical concepts that are deeply interconnected and interdependent. Generations of Buddhist monastics and scholars continue to contemplate them, discuss them, and try to understand them better. This concept also has great value in practicing the dharma, in achieving a mature Buddhist practice. Consider the ideal of not-self, the ever-transforming you. You, as not-self are a mirror of form and emptiness. The not part is emptiness. The self part is form. In you there is an emptiness, a potential that is realized when some phenomena has an impact on how your. In that moment a form arises. That form is also empty waiting for the next phenomena in next moment. You are not only a not-self. You are a human example of form and emptiness.




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