Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Wave and the Ocean

The Heart of Understanding is a short book by Thich Nhat Hahn that offers a simple and insightful commentary on the Heart Sutra.

One of the most confusing parts of the dharma (at least for me) is the paradox of "form is emptiness; emptiness is form".

”Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains form and emptiness this way:…Form is the wave and emptiness is the water…So “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” is like wave is water, water is wave…”

By emptiness we mean that all things are empty of an inherent existence.

To understand this better, consider a glass bowl. We refer to it as empty if there is no food or liquid inside of it. But there is always something inside of it--like air and light for example. So from a physical perspective the bowl is always full of something or other.

But from the Buddhist point of view, the bowl lacks an inherent existence. That doesn't mean that the bowl does not exist, but that its existence as a bowl is dependent upon many other factors and a highly specific set of conditions. Its characteristics don't make it what it is-the glass, the round shape, and the diameter are all qualities of it but no single one of them makes the bowl a bowl. A half of a coconut can serve the same function as a bowl but it is still called a coconut. Other things made of glass are not bowls, they can be many other things like drinking glasses or cups.

Viewing it this way, there is nothing about our bowl in question that is intrinsic to that bowl or any other bowl. The glass material doesn't make it a bowl, nor does its roundness. Its existence depends on several things, because it is interdependent with everything else. In order to be a bowl, it must possess a number of simultaneously existing qualities and conditions. If one of these conditions is tampered with or no longer exists (i.e. it breaks into fifty pieces) then our bowl is not necessarily a bowl anymore since a major aspect of the conditions that contribute to its "bowlness" is no longer in place.

This tells us that the bowl's very existence is completely dependent upon outer circumstances.

Bowls, and everything else in the universe, are empty.

1 comment:

They call him James Ure said...

That's why I follow in TNH's Zen tradition. I too didn't get the form is emptiness thing until hearing that wave adage.

Oh and also I too am an artist (painting). You might be interested in a couple of prints that I have of two Buddhist themed paintings. Both with Buddha featured.