Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form. Form is not other than emptiness.
How to read a sutra; form is emptiness, emptiness is form; world of shared experience vs world of actual experience; form as experience vs emptiness as the space in which experience arises; the value of nothing; “I” as an experience; rest, trusting the perfection of wisdom; no where to go; being at peace.
Student: Is everybody coming back?
Ken: I always feel better when I get people to run screaming from the room. [Laughter] Which has actually happened! Yes, I once did a demo at a conference and fifty people walked out.
Student: They thought you were dancing with the devil.
Ken: I have been compared to that, yes. Someone’s asked me, “Did you study with the devil or something?” I said, “No, he studied with me.” [Laughter] Okay, well, any questions from this morning? Microphone. Sophie, isn’t it? Yep.
Sophie: You know when you’re talking about like who experiences the experience, if you’re having like a lot of pain, who’s experiencing that? I mean you know it’s very difficult to transform that experience into emptiness, when—
Ken: You can’t possibly transform it into emptiness, who ever told you you could do something like that?
Sophie: Well I think…You know I once saw a lama in Tibet who was in tremendous pain and he laid there smiling, as people came in to bow before him. I’m just curious about that because if you have pain or you see someone suffering, I mean what’s going on there if there’s no experiencer and no experience, you know I’m just…and I know I am confusing relative world with absolute…
Ken: Well, I think this is a very good question. Because I think there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding around this. You know you can’t transform pain into emptiness for the same reason you can’t wake up a person who’s pretending to sleep. [Laughter] I’ll let you chew on that for a little bit. But it’s actually the same reason.
Now, I’ll answer your question more completely in the last section this afternoon, but for now, because we’re going to go into this, it isn’t a question of transforming an experience into something else. It’s a matter of experiencing what is arising as completely as possible. Because—I’ll put it very simply—when you experience things completely, then you know what they are.
How many of you got angry over the last week? How many of you took the anger that arose as a fact that you just had to act on? Yeah, let’s be honest. You got angry—all of you did! And we do that because we don’t know at that moment what anger is. It appears to be very solid and have a lot of force, etc.
But if we experience it completely then we know that it is a movement in mind. In the same way that a wave is movement in water. I imagine most of you have had the experience in your meditation of sitting there fuming over something that happened the previous week or the previous day and just sitting there, Grrr! Grrr! Err. And think, “Okay back to the breath, but he said this and he said that.” Grrr!
Anybody had this experience? [Laughter] And it goes on, you know, for ten minutes or fifteen minutes or twenty minutes or whatever and then suddenly you find yourself sitting there like this…and you’re not angry at all. And you didn’t decide not to be angry. You didn’t say to yourself, “Oh, I’ve worked through this now.” It just stopped. Right? And some part of you may go like, “What happened? I was so angry three minutes ago.” And you try to remember the situation but you can’t get any juice in it. Anybody had this experience?
Well, that arises because the anger has actually been felt. You know it may sound a little stupid but I say a lot of stupid things. So that’s nothing unusual. But the function of a feeling is to be felt. And a feeling can’t be complete until it is felt.
Now what happens if a feeling comes up and you try not to feel it? “No, I don’t really love him.” How well does that one work? You know, “I’m not really angry with you; I just have a few things to tell you.” [Laughter] Or the Charlie Brown version of this. Lucy says to Charlie Brown, “I’m going to do you a favor Charlie Brown, I’m going to tell you every thing that’s wrong with you.” Next frame, “Why don’t you get a sheet of foolscap.” Next frame, “Draw a line down the center.” Last frame, “On second thought, get two sheets.” [Laughter]
No anger here at all. But when we experience it and a lot of us don’t do that very gracefully but when it’s actually been felt, been experienced, then its finished. When we know this about feelings, then we can open to the experience of them. And we experience them vividly, just like our friend here, this piece of paper. And they come and they go.
And something very important happens then. Can you be something that you experience that comes and goes? No, if it comes and goes in our experience, we can’t possibly be it. So we can’t be anger. Anger arises but it can’t be what we are in the way we were talking about this morning. Oh, okay.
And not only that, we experienced it, we felt it and the world didn’t come to an end. Most people don’t actually experience the emotions because they’re afraid that if they do the world will come to an end. Or they’ll die or something like that will happen. So the more intimately we know our experience, the more we’re able to just experience it.
Sophie: But what about physical pain? There are people who have a neurological damage and they have ongoing pain.
Sophie: You know pain isn’t arising in the mind, it’s arising in the sensory body.
Ken: Oh, I’ve experienced enough pain and enough anger to know that they’re both equally intense experiences.
Sophie: I’m not denying that but I’m just saying that the anger is a thought that may be creating conditions in the body whereas I’m talking about if someone, you know, is in a car accident and they’re bleeding or there’s—
Ken: Yeah, but they…
Sophie: The physical body’s suffering!
Ken: Yes, I understand. I know something about that. And it’s not easy. [Quietly] But I don’t think any of this is particularly easy. But in the same way that we’re not the anger, we are not the pain. Pain is an experience. Now it may require a more than trivial capacity in attention to be able to experience pain that way. That can be quite difficult, but it’s possible.
There’s a second part which also makes things difficult. And that is chronic pain, it drains energy. It’s physically and emotionally wearing. So even though you know and are able to experience it, it stills drains energy from the system. So none of this is easy but it is possible to experience pain as a sensation. And know it to be a sensation.
And when you are able to do that, and as I said it’s primarily a matter of capacity, it’s not grin and bear it stuff at all. Then strangely enough, mind and body both relax. And you’re able to be at ease in the pain. And this is what it sounds like that lama that you visited has been able to do.
If it’s purely physical pain, even though it may be fairly intense it’s not so hard. But when it’s physical pain conjoined with emotional issues than it can be quite difficult. But the principle remains the same. By developing a certain capacity in attention and then yes, it is possible to find ease even in the experience of pain. I’m not going to say it’s easy, because it’s not. Okay.
Any other questions? From this morning. Speak now or forever hold your peace, because I’ll launch into bunch of other stuff. Yes?
Just hold for the mic, for a moment.
Student: Yeah, I’m not sure I really completely understood your pencil example about the eraser and the…and missing the middle and if you could maybe give a different turn at that?
Ken: Okay. You have the experience of seeing this, right? Seeing this piece of paper is something you experience. What’s the experience made of?
Student: Sight, physical sensations in my body, thoughts.
Ken: No, the physical sensations those are other experiences. What’s this piece of paper made of? Do you want me to make it a little bit easier? What is a thought made of?
Student: I don’t know if it’s made out of this but there seems to be an energetic charge at times.
Ken: Yeah, certain thoughts, definitely. But what’s a thought made of?
Ken: Well, that just leads me to ask what’s a memory made of; it doesn’t get us anywhere. It’s very interesting you know…how often do you wrestle with thoughts in your meditation? And you can’t even tell me what they’re made of? Strange, isn’t it? Yeah. So, what experiences a thought?
Student: Intellectual images.
Ken: Intellectual images experiences the thought? No, I’d say that was the experience of the thought. That isn’t what experiences the thought. What experience the thought?
Student: The experiencer.
Ken: It’s a little difficult to say, isn’t it?
Student: The mind that thinks it’s the experiencer, the mind [unclear]….
Ken: The mind, yeah okay. I’ve heard rumors about that. [Laughter] What’s the mind made of?
Student: It’s thinking stuff.
Ken: I like that. [Laughter] I say the same thing: “It’s thinking stuff.” You know, and we can say that the thought is made of stuff. So what’s the relationship between what the thought is made of and what the mind is made of? Do you have two different kinds of stuff or is it the same stuff? You say?
Ken: Same. How many vote for same? Can’t say what it is, but there it is. Experience arises. In each moment of experience, there is experiencing and experienced. Because of our conditioning, we appropriate the experiencing to ourselves, and thus relegat the experienced to an object. Touch the back of your hand with your finger. There’s a sensation there, right? Do you feel it in the back of your hand or in the finger?
Student: Can’t say.
Ken: Just so. It’s exactly like that. We make this division but actually there’s just the experience. The awareness aspect we appropriate for ourselves, thus we experience a dead world in which there is no awareness. Because we’ve appropriated the experience of awareness to ourselves.
In the exercise we did this morning where we just opened to everything, how was that for you? Some people said the world become brighter and more alive.
Student: That’s just, for me that’s very hard that I’ve…yeah, I got into the trip of, “Am I doing it right?” Am I…
Ken: Oh, yeah so you’ve got to work a little bit at increasing capacity so you can actually stay in it. Okay, well keep working there.
All right. Okay. This afternoon:
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
Emptiness is not other than form.
Form is not other than emptiness.
These are very famous lines. In the original Sanskrit version of The Heart Sutra, there were actually six lines. Because they wanted to cover all the logical possibilities. But these four have echoed down the corridors of time quite happily.
Whoever came up with these lines was a genius and they’re worth considering very carefully because in these four lines we also find the secret of how to read sutras.
Now, somebody asked me about The Diamond Cutter Sutra this morning. The Diamond Sutra has, I think, thirty-two chapters, maybe thirty-three I can’t remember, and think it’s Subhuti and Buddha go back and forth. And when you read this it sounds like Subhuti’s asking the same question over and over again and Buddha’s giving the same answer over and over again.
Edward Conze, who is one of the great scholars of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras in the twentieth century said that after chapter 8 of the Diamond Sutra, it was all pointless repetition until 24 or 26 or something like that, when Buddha started to say something again. He didn’t know how to read sutras. It’s very important to know how to do things.
The Heart Sutra starts with an invocation, (page 18)
I bow to Lady Perfection of Wisdom
Some worship a golden goddess
With four arms, a book, and a rosary—
Expecting, perhaps, to be freed from pain.
Some worship a collection of sacred tomes
Full of subtle concepts and subtler logic—
Confident, perhaps, in the power of reason.
Some worship bliss, clarity, emptiness,
Or other altered states—
Convinced, perhaps, that there is something to gain.
Apparently no one told them
How to bow.
“Who sings?” asked a jazz singer.
One night she disappeared from the nightclub stage, but the song continued, and the audience loved it.
Apparently she knew how to bow.
This is the experience of one of my students who was a jazz singer. And she said, “What do I do in my practice?” I said, “Ask who sings?” A few months later I got this phone call and the reply was, “No one.” And she’d had this experience: her husband plays the guitar—he’s one of the top jazz guitarist in L.A.—and just in the middle of her set she completely disappeared. And there was just the song.
The sutras are not intellectual or scholastic texts. As I said this morning they’re a record of an interaction between a teacher and a student. If you think they follow the rules of logic, you’ll miss the point.
There is a sequence and the sequence is extremely important. And many people over the centuries have written commentaries seeking to interpret that sequence in terms of logic. This is really like cooking a skeleton, and hoping that you’ll eat some meat.
So I want to go through these four lines from an experiential point of view. And when you read sutras, you don’t seek to understand them. Stay in touch with precisely what they are eliciting in terms of experience in you.
Form is emptiness.
What happens when you hear that? What happens in you? Yes, please, microphone.
Student: I’m gonna break the rule. What do we mean by form here?
Ken: Form in this context means everything that we experience through our senses.
Ken: And the experiencing, and the experiencing of it.
Student: Okay, I was having a lot of anxiety about that earlier.
Student: But now I’m not.
Ken: So, I’m sorry you didn’t break the rules.
Student: Well I got a little logical there. That’s why I wanted to know what your term…define your term.
Ken: You asked for clarification, that’s not a problem at all. Okay. So
Form is emptiness
Student: Like everything opens into an open, silent space.
Ken: Okay, anybody else? Yeah, either.
Student: I feel like everything is a lie, then.
Ken: Everything’s a lie?
Ken: A lie.
Student: A mistruth.
Ken: Yes, they’ve been lying to me for a long, lonnng time. (Laughter) Okay?
Student: I feel a sense of exhilaration.
Ken: Okay, back here.
Student: I feel a sense of relief.
Ken: Ha, ha ha. So excitement, exhilaration, relief, feeling I’ve been lied to. What’s going on here? Pardon?
Student: A feeling of completeness.
Ken: A feeling of completeness, okay.
Well, let’s put this in real terms look around this room. See the walls, the paintings, the people: all of this is form.
Avalokiteshvara says, “Form is emptiness.” So when you say that line and look at everything, what happens? Yes, pardon?
Student: Tremendous letting go.
Ken: What do you let go of?
Student: Let go of [unclear] because all these represent compassion.
Ken: Well, you’re looking at the actual paintings, but I am talking about the people, and the walls, and the lights, and the air conditioning, and yeah…but what happens in you? Let’s hear from some other people, okay. Yeah, hand the mic around.
Student: When I hear that line the first thing, I start thinking about what do these words mean? So we talked about form but emptiness just as much and I…So my mind immediately goes to what I’ve read which is we’re talking about empty of self. That’s what happens to me when I hear that lines, I think…I start to translate…
Ken: You start thinking…
Student: Because the words, “form is emptiness” by themselves don’t mean much to me.
Student: Except the association because they’re part of the sutra.
Ken: Okay. So you start thinking like, “What does this mean?”
Student: Translating, yeah.
Ken: Anybody else?
Student: Well, like I think of the chair and the table analogies. You know, at what point when you start taking things apart do they cease being what they are.
Student: And so, when you bring them down to their…they’re nothing. I mean at what point is a chair not a chair, when you start taking it apart?
Ken: When it has three legs?…
Student: A person not..
Ken: Two legs or?
Student: if you took them apart, so to me…
Student: …that’s what “Form is emptiness” means.
Student: There’s no there, there.
Ken: All right, so here and then Laura, after Sophie.
Sophie: You know when ever I read those lines I’ve always felt like it was a contradiction to make me totally confused.
Ken: Okay, so?
Sophie: Because to me form is not…emptiness would be an absence of form.
Sophie: So whenever I read that I always think, you know, is this a trick?
Ken: Yeah, okay so you’re feeling tricked, confused and deceived. Okay. Laura.
Laura: A variation on that, I feel puzzled and curious, sort of stopped in my tracks.
Ken: And you’re right that’s a variation on that, yup.
Student: The first time I heard words I came to tears, and so that experience remains, to some way that the…it suggests that there’s a mystery and a profundity beyond anything I have understood to this point and I’m willing to stay open to that.
Ken: Okay. Well, let’s take a look at this line. One way of understanding this, is it’s saying things are not what they seem.
Now whether you do it with a table, or a chair, or a chariot which is a very traditional thing, you know, a glass, a cup. Things seem solid. You know a book [bangs the book on a table] seems solid. But we have to be careful here, because Buddhism is not talking about the world of things.
We have two worlds: the world I think I experience, and the world I actually experience. The world of objects, careers, family, responsibilities: is this the world I actually experience or the world I think I experience?
How many vote for think? How vote for actual?
Student: I voted twice. [Laughter] We picked a winner in this election.
Ken: If you think that’s practicing the middle way, think again. [Giggling]
Sensations, thoughts and feelings, I talked about earlier: are they the world that you actually experience or the world you think you experience?
Student: It’s closer to actual.
Ken: Yeah. In the world that we actually experience there are only three things: sensations, thoughts and feelings. That’s it! There isn’t any drum, there isn’t any bell, there isn’t any paper. There isn’t any paper- there’s white, rectangle, seeing. This is what the Sarvastivadins were getting at with their dharmas. The world that we think we experience is a short hand which we use to communicate. There’s a very interesting difference between these two worlds. I know this is California and we talk about sharing experience, right? So anybody have a good lunch today?
Ken: Yeah, what’d you have for lunch?
Ken: Falafel. I’m not going to ask you to share that experience, I hate falafel. (Laughter) Anybody else have….?
Ken: What? You had falafel too? I’m not interested in talking to you. Who had a good lunch?
Student: I had salad.
Ken: Oh, very nice. What kind of salad?
Student: Greens, and tomato, and avocado, and walnuts.
Ken: Sounds good what kind of dressing?
Student: Like a Chinese chicken salad.
Ken: Oh, excellent. Did you enjoy it?
Student: Very much.
Ken: Okay. Could you share that experience with me, please?
Student: I don’t think so.
Ken: Are you being selfish?
Ken: Why do you say I don’t think so?
Student: Because it happened already.
Ken: Well, can you recall it?
Student: Oh, okay, you want me to share the product I experienced?
Ken: Well, do you have a memory of it?
Student: I do.
Ken: And when you have that memory can you sort of feel the textures and the tastes and all of that?
Ken: Could you share that experience with me?
Student: I could try.
Ken: Please. I mean I had a salad but I didn’t have that salad, so. I didn’t have the walnuts.
Student: Would you like words about my experience?
Ken: No, I want to share the experience. I’m not interested in words. I want the experience.
Student: I can share with you tomorrow. [Laughter]
Ken: How would you do that?
Student: I would make you a salad.
Ken: Oh, so now we’re going to eat out of the same salad? This is getting a little intimate but we’ll go with it.
Student: Out of the same large salad.
Ken: Yeah, yeah, okay. Two separate plates here, you know we’re not cohabiting yet. So but I want to, when I eat that salad I will have an experience and you’re going to have an experience. I want to share your experience! I know my experience but I want to share yours.
Student: I’ve had that same one once before.
Ken: Well, so are you going to share it or not?
Student: If I could I would!
Ken: What do you mean if you could?
Student: My experience is going to be different experience from you. My experience, you won’t be able to experience the same thing.
Ken: I can’t experience your experience?
Ken: You can’t share your experience?
Ken: Is this because you’re being selfish?
Ken: Well I don’t understand. How did this phrase, share experience come about if you can’t share experience? I mean I moved to California because I heard that everybody [laughter] shared experiences here. And now you’re telling me I was lied to. [Laughter] Is that right?
Ken: So in this world there’s no possibility of sharing experience?
Ken: Wow! Okay forget about sharing. How about can I buy it?
Student: No matter what you pay you will not experience what I experience.
Ken: Wow! So no buying, no trading, no exchange, no sharing, none of that stuff! It’s interesting isn’t it? In this world there is no form of exchange possible. Your experience is your experience and that’s it. In this world, we buy and trade and exchange all over the place. But in this world, it’s not possible at all. This is the world that Buddhism is talking about, and that’s often not understood.
So form is emptiness. I have an experience of form, seeing things. We’ll use seeing for now, we could use hearing things, we could use thinking, wouldn’t make any difference.
So what is this experience of seeing? Goes back to our friend. Now this morning we went through this and everybody I thought was on the same page. Wasn’t that clever! [Laughter] Though there is the experience of seeing, this seeing doesn’t take place anywhere. It doesn’t come from anywhere and it doesn’t go anywhere. We all recall that from this morning?
So here we have a very interesting situation. You have this experience of seeing and everybody does see a page here, right? We’re all on the same…okay. And when you look at the experience of seeing it doesn’t seem to exist anywhere, right?
That’s what “form is emptiness” means. It seems like there’s something very solid there but when we really look at it, there’s nothing there.
So now look around this room and look at it the same way. Look at other people, or what you think are other people, anyway. What’s that like? If I’m not mistaken or maybe I’m completely alone in this department, everything takes on a kind of dreamlike quality, doesn’t it?
That’s how things are in a dream, you know, we experience all this stuff vividly but there’s nothing there. This is what “form is emptiness” means.
Now, stay right there.
We come to the next line: Emptiness is form.
Well, we look at this room or this dream of a room that we’re having right now, there’s a certain amount of space here, isn’t there? Like all this space, [waves arms around in the air] all this space.
Suppose we were to fill this room completely with people. Stacked up on top of each other right up to the ceiling. You know, five or six layers. Would that affect the amount of space in the room?
Ken: No. And if we look at it from this point of view that this is just an experience, so just imagine this room is filled. It doesn’t have to be with people, you can think of objects. We can have cars sitting on top of us or flowers, it doesn’t matter. But it’s just absolutely full of things.
And you’re experiencing this: Emptiness is form. You follow?
“Emptiness is form.” So whether it’s full or empty, it’s still an experience. So now this is good, we’re all clear here. We have form and we have emptiness.
On this Hakuin says:
Rubbish! A useless collection of junk.
Don’t be trying to teach apes to climb trees
These goods have been gathering dust on the shelves
for two- thousand years.
He goes on,
A bush warbler pipes tentatively in the spring breeze,
by the peach trees a thin mist hovers in the warm sun.
A group of young girls, cicada heads and moth eyebrows
with blossom sprays one over each brocade shoulder.
So we have form which is experience and emptiness which is the space in which experience arises. We can’t say what it is, but there’s this space in which experience arises.
And then we hear “Form is emptiness.” We say okay, form doesn’t mean these solid things; it means that what arises in experience arises in this space. And it’s there but it’s not there at the same time.
And when we hear “Emptiness is form.” We go that’s fine there is this space that allows everything to be. Makes it possible. Now we get the next two lines:
Emptiness is not other than form.
Well we started off with things are not what they seem, that’s form is emptiness.
Now we come to “Emptiness is form,” which means emptiness is not what it seems.
That is it’s actually more of a fullness rather than an emptiness. But now we get Emptiness is not other than form. Well if you’ve looked at what happened, we started off with thinking that experience was very solid. And then we heard, “Form is emptiness.”
So now we think that we’ve come to see that experience isn’t a solid as we thought it was.
And so we’re inclined to think probably that, you know, experience just doesn’t really exist. And then we get the next line, Emptiness is form, which actually says, “Well, no, you really do experience things.” And you do experience lots of things. So we’re cool: there’s emptiness and there’s experience. That’s nice. We have these two; we’re clear about that.
And now we’ve get this third line, Emptiness is not other than form. Well, this is very troubling because now it says that these two things, experience and emptiness, they’re really not different. How do you feel about that?
Anybody? I mean it’s having experience in emptiness, that’s okay, you know, we can sort of play with that. But experience and emptiness—they’re really not different—how does that feel? Anybody? Yes?
Student: Well, it seems kind of expansive if you’re going from the sense of emptiness is all this fullness.
Ken: Could you hand the microphone, please. Please say that again.
Student: It seems kind of expansive in the…if you’re going from the sense that nothingness is really all this fullness and…Well, alright I don’t know, now I forgot what I was going…Is it on?
Student: That then you have this sense that experience is related whatever you said to emptiness. Then it’s huge and also chaotic and full and it’s really pretty exciting.
Ken: Okay, so it opens up possibilities.
Ken: Yeah, okay. Right, anybody else? All the way up here.
Student: It feels like another nail in the coffin. [Laughter]
Ken: Yours or mine?
Ken: That’s fine, I don’t worry about that. Say more.
Student: Well, you know the “Emptiness is form.” Hello! “Form is emptiness” pulls the rug out of, for me, the solidity that I assign to my experience of things.
Student: And then “Emptiness is form,” what does that do for me? It allows me to relax, it allows me to relax in what it is I am experiencing. And then when it says, “Form is not other than emptiness”—
Ken: Actually it’s “Emptiness is not other than form,” same diff.
Student: Okay, all right. It, it…if ever I thought there was an alternative that I was going to escape from, this whole conversation. It’s , no. There’s no escape, it’s sort of taking my head. I feel a hand taking my head and going there. And then, oh yeah, yeah, I get that, no, no, no, there.
Ken: So it’s pointing you very, very precisely. Okay so: big fullness, many possibilities, pointing right at it. Anybody else?
Student: So it took me a long time to sort get to the point where I could actually say it was a bit of a relief, you know, thinking about it at all. Because in the beginning, very honestly it was absolutely terrifying. When I first encountered this, “Emptiness is form, form is emptiness,” I just thought, “What!”
You know, it undid me completely. It was just like, you know, the Zen koan that stops you dead in your tracks and you don’t even know how to think at all. And then it was really rather terrifying. Actually, I mean I worked with it for a very long time and I went…because I have a tendencies of fear and anxiety about my world in general I went to this completely nihilistic space where my world became undone for me completely, whenever I tried to think about emptiness.
Student: I really went down to a terrifying space where the world dissolved and I couldn’t have a sense of matter, at all. Myself or the validity of anything else. And it became a very painful space. It’s taken a very long time where I have now gotten to the point where the two…the possibility of, that word emptiness really bothers me. I don’t know there has to be a different word, translation for the word, shunyata than emptiness because the word implying less than something took, it was where I went.
And as I said I have this tendency to fall into nihilism and it was very frightening and I got very depressed and really freaked out. And it took a bit a very long time to come up to a warmer space where I just threw the word emptiness out all together to the point of the possibilities of it being something else other than what I thought it was.
Student: And that was very meaningful for me and I didn’t even want to share that because I know that, he didn’t even come today there was a friend of mine who was gonna come today who went way down into that fairly recently and I told him it was long process but it was worth working with, because its one of those practitioner’s downfalls that happens to some people, depending on the type of your mind.
And that you know you can get to this possibility where the fullness that it has these incredible possibilities that it wasn’t meaning what my interpretation of the word emptiness meant at all. And then I felt like I was, you know, all these possibilities came up and it was really very, you know, feel like I can work with something and I got more stable.
Ken: Okay, thank you.
So “Emptiness is form” or “Emptiness is not other than form.” We have these two opposites—seeming opposites—emptiness and experience. A lot of people take issue with the word emptiness. It’s actually the right translation, in both Sanskrit and Tibetan. Tibetan is stong-pa-nyid. If you have an empty box you say gong-stong-pa-nyid. And same in Sanskrit, I don’t know Sanskrit but it’s wonderful. Whoever came up with the word was also a genius. I like him, or her or whoever it was.
And it teaches in a strange way the value of nothing. Nothing is what makes everything possible. You can’t fill a glass that is already full. So if it’s already full you can’t use it.
So we have this emptiness and this experience, and it seems that we have these two poles. But now we have this “Emptiness is not other than form” that says that these two poles are not two poles. They’re one and the same. In other words, this opposition we thought was there isn’t what it seems. And as someone said earlier, when you allow the experience and the no-thingness of experience just to be there, and then all kinds of possibilities open up. Don’t have to make things one way or the other. Okay, so that seems like a really good place to stop doesn’t it?
But Avalokiteshvara doesn’t shut up at this point. He says, Form is not other than emptiness.
Now what happens? What’s your experience when you hear those lines? Well, my sense is that something in you goes tilt!
And it’s just like “What?” Or “Huh?” Anybody have that experience? Yeah. And this is exactly what those lines are designed to do. They lead you through this process.
Things are not what they seem. Okay, we can live with that. Emptiness is not what it seems. Well, that’s good because I didn’t really like that anyway. Opposition is not what it seems. Hmm okay, that’s alright. Nothing is not what it seems and now there is nothing left to stand on. Nothing to hold on to. That’s why I think these lines are so brilliant because they leave you with absolutely nothing to hold on to.
How is that for you? Yes?
Student: It feels like I have no feet.
Ken: Exactly, no feet, no ground, nothing. Yes?
Student: It’s like walking through a doorway that’s dark on the other side.
Ken: Doorway that’s dark on the other side. Okay for you it’s walking—
Student: I mean I don’t even know if there is a floor.
Ken: You don’t even know if there is a floor. Yes, I’ve been in rooms like that. Anybody else?
It kind of stops everything, doesn’t it? And that’s really the point of these lines. It doesn’t matter if hear them for the first time or the thousandth time. They always stop the mind. And open the possibility of just experiencing what’s there. Which is the point of practice.
Hakuin has this to say about it:
A nice hot kettle of stew. He ruins it by dropping a couple of rat turds in.
The rat turds are form and emptiness.
It’s no good pushing delicacies at a man with a full belly.
Striking aside waves to look for water when the waves are water.
Forms don’t hinder emptiness; emptiness is the tissue of form.
Emptiness isn’t destruction of form; form is the flesh of emptiness.
Inside the Dharma gates where form and emptiness are not-two
A lame turtle with painted eyebrows stands in the evening breeze.
It’s typical Zen. So, now we turn to the next bit.
Therefore, Shariputra, all experience is emptiness. It is not defined. It is not born or destroyed, impure or free from impurity, not incomplete or complete.
This section of The Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshavara is taking careful aim at the three marks of existence. The three marks of existence are impermanence, suffering, and non-self. They’re kind of foundations. Impermanence says things are born or destroyed. Suffering says we suffer because we don’t have pure experience. And non-self says when you have a sense of self, your experience of the world as incomplete.
And Avalokiteshvara comes in now and says:
Not born or destroyed. There went impermanence.
Not impure or pure. There went suffering.
Not complete or incomplete. So much for non-self.
That is, as all of these things are concepts. They’re ways of experiencing the world.
The Mahayana counterparts to the three gates to freedom: instead of impermanence we have no characteristics, nothing which defines a thing to be itself. You know, this is a glass only by virtue of the way I use it. This becomes an object only if it is seen. Everything is defined by interaction and relationship. Nothing exists in its own right. It’s getting a little frightening.
The second one is no aspiration. Though we could take Dante’s phrase, Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. These aren’t the words to the portal to Hell. These are the words to the portal to Awakening. Dante was a little confused on that point. [Laughter]
You see, what’s the dominant emotion associated with purity? Anger. You hate dirt! [Laughter] The most aggressive people are the ones who insist on being utterly pure. It’s responsible for countless wars at all levels of society. Far better to have no aspiration, no hope and relate to things just as they are. By way of commentary on that:
The most beautiful song
In the world
You have to be lashed to a mast.
Will you learn about true perfection.
Even buddhas have to wash their faces.
Just let things be.
How many wars does purity cause? Pure food, pure body, pure art, pure life, pure morals, pure ideology, pure practice, pure mind… The list goes on and on.
Is this being awake, or merely trying to avoid discomfort?
What is dirt?
The difference is in your mind.
And what about your mind is impure? …or pure?
One fall day, a monk carefully raked up all the leaves that had fallen on the lawn in front of the monastery. At the end of the day, the abbot came to look at his work.
“Isn’t it perfect?” asked the monk, pointing proudly to the immaculate lawn.
“Not quite,” said the abbot. He walked over to a tree in the middle of the lawn and shook it vigorously. It brushed against other trees, and leaves from all of them floated to the ground. “Now it is,” he smiled.
And not incomplete or complete.
The sense of I is an experience, not a fact. It’s a way we experience things. It isn’t a fact and we know it isn’t a fact because there’s nothing we can point to. In fact, it’s worse than that but I’ll go into that in about half and hour.
What happens when you relate to I as an experience, rather than a fact? Anybody? Where’s the microphone? You have it. Okay. Who wants it?
Student: Each moment surprises; there’s more surprises.
Ken: More surprises, okay. You have something?
Student: Really it’s not personal.
Ken: Yes it makes things a lot less personal, and how’s that?
Student: It just becomes another thing.
Ken: Yeah, how many of you are familiar with, On Having No Head? You know, go and look up On Having No Head on the internet. It will take you to a site by an old American guy called Douglass, with two esses, Harding. Who studied Zen way back in the fifties. Harding, and just go enjoy. It’s an interesting way of looking at things.
And not incomplete or complete.
He keeps laying it on, one insult after another.
At the first gate, you drop ideas; at the second gate, dreams. Now you’ve arrived at the third. At the third gate is emptiness. What are you going to leave here?
“The experience was incomplete,” you say.
Nonsense. That’s just your way of saying you weren’t satisfied.
No ground, no base. What’s missing?
The thief left it behind—
At the window.
-Ryokan, One Robe, One Bowl
It’s one of Ryokan’s most famous koans. He came back to his room one day and found a thief had been there. The thief left it behind, the moon, at the window.
So Avalokiteshvara is taking away the three marks of existence as things that exist in their own right. Because this is what the Sarvastivadans believe. And then in the next paragraph, he goes into everything we discussed this morning. With the five skandhas and the twelve this-es and the eighteen thats and the twelve these and the four thats and time.
So what we’ve done here is to go through Emptiness Take 1, Emptiness Take 2, Emptiness Take 3. You’ll have to forgive me I’m from Los Angeles and there’s only one industry in town.
Emptiness Take 1 is, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form, emptiness is not other than form, form is not other than emptiness.”
Take 2 is, “Not born or destroyed, not impure or pure, not complete or incomplete.”
Emptiness Take 3 is, none of the categories—all of those charts that these philosophical bookkeepers or accountants had so carefully developed to understand and look at experience—none of those are how things are.
Now we get to Emptiness Take 4. And this is where….[page 89]
Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable.
But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.
– H. L. Mencken
Therefore, Shariputra, because, for bodhisattvas, there is no attainment, they rest, trusting the perfection of wisdom. With nothing clouding their minds, they have no fear. They leave delusion behind and come to the end of nirvana.
So, this is the last step. And it’s very interesting, in tradition after tradition of Buddhism you find that these same four steps are repeated in different ways.
In the Mahamudra tradition you have: experience is mind; mind is empty; emptiness is freedom; freedom is natural presence. That’s the basic paradigm of the Kagyu tradition of mahamudra.
In the teachings of Maitreya you have, “The wise come to know that there is nothing other than mind. And then they come to know that mind itself is not a thing, letting go of even these two knowings.” No! “And then they come to know that these two knowings are not things, and letting go of even of this knowing they rest in totality.” So another four steps. You find the same thing in dzogchen tradition, over and over again you find this.
So, here in The Heart Sutra,
Because for bodhisattvas, there is no attainment, they rest, trusting the perfection of wisdom.
Now this morning I talked a bit about resting. So let’s do that again. Let’s just rest. But I want you to do it with a difference.
You’re never, ever, ever going to get anywhere.
Student: But it’s a path.
Ken: Yes, it’s another lie. There is no path. From where we’re working today.So there’s not only nothing to attain, there is no possibility of ever attaining anything. To put this in the context of refuge: there’s nothing outside you that is going to save you and there’s nothing inside you either.
Okay that’s long enough, how was that? [Laughter] How was that?
Student: We didn’t get anywhere.
Student: Wait, wait I’m not ready. [Laughter]
Ken: I’m sorry, you missed your chance.
So what was it like to rest like that for just that short a period of time?
Student: So relaxing.
Ken: So relaxing, anybody else? Anybody a little freaked out about this idea that…yeah what’s going on with you?
Student: It just freaked me out.
Ken: Okay, would anybody like to do this for a little bit longer?
Ken: Okay let’s do it for a few more minutes. And there’s no attainment, no possibility of attainment, ever. It’s always going to be just…like…this.
So what were you doing for the last couple of minutes? Working hard at getting somewhere? How was it? Anybody get a little bit itchy? How many found it relaxing? So we did that for 2 minutes, how would you like to do that for 5 minutes? 30 minutes? An hour? A whole day? Anybody getting cold feet here? [Laughter]
How about for a week? Or a month? Or a year? What would you have to let go of inside to do this for a year?
Ken: Well, not quite everything but you know a whole bunch of things about career and family and probably have to run into those damn productivity issues, pardon?
Student: Any kind of effort to fast forward [unclear].
Ken: What would it be like to do this for three years? Or five years or ten years?
Student: If there is nothing to attain, why do I need to let go of anything?
Ken: Oh, because when you sit like this for a long period of time, as Ajahn Chah says, “You want to practice meditation, put a chair in the center of the room. Sit in the chair. See who comes to visit.”
Student: Maybe I don’t have to do anything and it will just happen.
Ken: You’ll have a few visitors I assure you. And some of them are quite tenacious. You know what the point of those visitors is? Why they come to visit you?
To pull you out of that chair. Do you know who I am talking about? You want to know who I am talking about, then you do exactly what I said after this workshop. You go home, put a chair in the center of one of your rooms. And sit in it. Give me a call tomorrow. [Laughter] Tell me who came to visit. You know who I’m talking about?
Many years ago I did a dzogchen retreat. You’re only given one meditation instruction and it consisted of two words: do nothing. It was a 3 week retreat. I started to get itchy after two weeks. It was a very, very productive retreat for me. But it made me appreciate the great teachers in a very different way.
Six years, ten years, doing nothing. Yes, it costs quite a lot. And the question is, that is why I asked you at the beginning, what’s this worth to you? Yes?
Student: I forgot about what I was going to ask.
Student: I forgot about what I was going to ask. I guess about, this goes to attainment. But you need to sit through extended period of time doing nothing. It takes a motivation and earlier on you said, “Just imagine if every day was going to be just like this.” You would hope you would get…build more capacity in these tear jerker-outers, would maybe not be so fierce, do you find that so or? What’s the point of it all if not…?
Ken: I think it’s very important to be clear about what’s the point of it all. And it’s very important to read The Heart Sutra or any of these texts very carefully.
Therefore, Shariputra, because, for bodhisattvas, there is no attainment, they rest, trusting in the perfection of wisdom. This is one of the meditations we did this morning.
When you rest that way, bit by bit your mind becomes clear. Nothing clouding their minds. You leave delusion behind. You even leave the idea of nirvana behind.
What is the point of practicing Buddhism? Buddha was asked this during his life. He always replied, I teach two things: suffering and the end of suffering
This practice despite some of the vocabulary, is not about truth. We use terms like awakening, freedom, but those obscure what it’s really about. It’s about peace. The end of suffering is peace. People think—and many people practice—because they think they’re going to get something. I can assure you if you practice properly you’re going to get nothing whatsoever. But you may, conceivably, find some peace.
Thich Nhat Hahn says this quite well: “If you want to be peaceful, you have to enjoy peace.”
There are many parts of us that don’t enjoy peace. These are the night visitors, the monsters under the bed, the creatures in the basement. You can’t kill them, you can’t make them go away, you can’t transform them. If you could do any of that stuff, you would have taken care if it already. But you can learn how to be with them. In a way that you’re at peace.
There are very significant things that flow from this. In the words of The Heart Sutra, All [the] buddhas of the three times, by trusting this perfection of wisdom, fully awaken in unsurpassable, true, complete awakening.
The young boy looked at the emperor
And cried out, “Is he insane?”
It’s one thing to see things as they are.
It’s another to start a campaign.
With all these fancy, high-sounding words you’d think something special had happened. Or is this a case of “my buddhahood is better than your buddhahood”?
Does awakening stop you from dying?
You can still be shot, poisoned, and, if not, you then have to face the inevitable outcome of old age.
Does it make you more intelligent?
You don’t suddenly understand molecular biology, micro-economics, or systems theory.
Does it stop you from being harmed?
You aren’t immune to cancer, strokes, or even flu bugs.
Does it help you save the world?
Good question. The world may pay attention to you or what you have to say—or not.
It’s unsurpassable because there is nowhere to go.
It’s true because there is nowhere to hide mistake or error.
It’s complete because it includes everything you experience.
So this complete awakening is simply a way of being fully and completely in our experience. In order to do that, we have to be completely at rest.
Which is why you rest trusting the perfection of wisdom. There is only one way to be completely at rest and that is to trust nothing whatsoever. You just rest. And if you rest this deeply, you will, perhaps, find a way to know peace. What comes of that we’ll discuss after the break.