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.

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Appropriate Speech: Right for All Worlds

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Appropriate speech, along with action and livelihood, is the path of moral discipline (sila) one walks on the Eightfold Path. Together they make up the visible components of a practice committed to the promotion of human flourishing (happiness, health and harmony). Ethical voice arises in speech driven by wholesome intent, in speech grounded in the realities of karma and causal conditioning. There are four aspects speech that arise in all Buddhist precept traditions: abstain from slanderous speech, from harsh speech, from false speech, and from meaningless speech. The adage that many schoolchildren are taught, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”, they quickly learn is far from true. Words spoken or written can hurt, words can destroy, or words can heal, words can cause the arising of emotions from hatred to compassion. Along with words there is the “speech” of body language and facial expressions, and even of how we dress. Lips do not have to move for others to recognize fear, joy, acceptance or tension that is loudly announced by how we physically present our dispositions. We must always be mindful because what we do matters.

Aphorisms are phrases that distill a wise idea into few words and sometimes vivid imagery. They come in handy tools as for memorization and for teaching ethical ideals and moral behaviors. Sayings such as “love thy neighbor” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” . . . have value when engaging socially with others, though a Buddhist might practice them a little differently with different intent . . . “loving-kindness to all living beings” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto others”. Some aphorisms are clear in their intent, others are not. A well-known Buddhist aphorism is “If you meet the Buddha on the road . . . kill him” and it’s meaning can cofound Westerners. ” In the 9th century the Zen Master Lin Chi was making a valuable point about spiritual materialism. Gathering the trappings of Buddhism . . . statues, paintings and shelves of books, speaking the language . . . bowing, saying namaste, and worrying about karma in relation to rebirth are the ‘materials’ of Buddhism . . . they are not the practice of its intent. The essence of the Buddha’s teachings can be overshadowed when one “collects” the Buddha rather than practice the dharma.

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The Ideal Meets the Real: Buddhism and Reality

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Buddhist philosophy and practice is packed with high ideals. Generosity of spirit and ‘cease to do harm’; compassion is non-negotiable, mindfulness, serenity arising from meditation, Nirvana, bodhisattvas, co-dependent arising, selflessness and . . . it is a long list of noble ideals. Contemporary living provides moment-to-moment opportunities to put those ideals into practice. At each of those moments the ideal meets the real.

There are a host of reasons for recognizing a need for something more. For some they need to fill what they experience as an empty place in their being, emptiness that they want to give form. Others need to find a way to come to terms with the prospect of death that they may fear or welcome, and to contemplate what might be before or beyond life from birth to death. Illness, chronic or unexpected is known to precipitate the need for drastic changes in psycho-emotional health. There are the curious; some who come for the novelty of exotic cultures and stay for the ideals, other who come out of curiosity, don’t connect and go in search of a different path. This recognized need is given form in the first three verses of the Three Refuges Vow: I go for refuge to the Buddha, the teacher; I go for refuge to the Dhamma, the teaching; I go for refuge to the Sangha, the taught. One ‘goes’ in order to experience if the ideals offer what they are searching for. They continue to ‘go’ when value in the refuges is experienced.

There are a host of reasons for choosing to continue a Buddhist practice. For some it is the goal of Nirvana or Enlightenment for themselves, others pursue the Noble Path for purely selfless reasons. Someone with psychological issues might see a way out of depression, guilt or grief through meditation; those with physical issues a way to control pain and suffering through mindfulness meditation. There are the curious who seek purely knowledge, and the seeker who is curious what Buddhism has to offer. Some are attracted to what they see as a simpler existence, others to what they see as a strict spiritual discipline. Each of them see the ideals of Buddhist philosophy and practice as a path to their destination, choosing to put in the effort necessary to fully engage the Noble Path. Among these reasons some discover the value of choosing to commit to Buddhist philosophy and practice which are given form in the second set of verses: I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dhamma; I take refuge in the Sangha. They choose to ‘take’ the guidance and support offered by the Refuges and make it part of HOW they are.

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