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.
THREE CHARACTERISTICS OF EXISTENCE: PRACTICE
In Buddhist philosophy there are Three Characteristics of Existence realized by the Buddha. These characteristics arise from the realities of causality and causally conditioned phenomena, and fall away due to the same realities. These characteristics are impermanence, suffering, and not-self. You cannot practice the three characteristics, yet your practice is interdependent on your realization of these philosophical concepts.
A passage in many discourses reads: “Impermanent indeed are the compounded (the conditioned) things; they are of the nature of arising and falling away. Having come into being, they cease to exist.” Things are characterized as impermanent because they are subject to three stages of being: arising (uppada), falling away (vaya), and decay or change (thitassa annathatta). Impermanence is a synonym for the Buddhist ideal of ‘arising and falling away’ or ‘birth and death’. Birth in the human sense, birth of an idea, also in the sense of the combining of material phenomena from constituent parts into what is viewed as an object fit into this concept. Death as applied to living beings is readily understood; death of inanimate phenomena is sometimes termed destruction even though nothing is every truly destroyed. Inanimate death is experienced as the breaking down of its present form.
Impermanence is causality and it causally conditions all phenomena, and the same is true for suffering and not-self. Things are impermanent due to the causal nature of the Universe and human beings suffer and exist as not-self due to that same nature. All phenomena from the material to the immaterial, from rocks to emotions act as both cause and effect as they arise and fall away. A rock striking you on the head can be a cause of pain; emotional pain can be a cause for you to throw a rock. All things are causally conditioned due to the causal nature of the Universe. You were not in pain until the rock hit you on the head; you reacted with emotion when you threw the rock. Experiences are causally conditioned by internal and external factors.