Form, emptiness, and non-duality
Earth and sky: form and emptiness

Form, emptiness, and non-duality

Form, emptiness, and nonduality are the most important terms in the Buddhist ‘view’. View is the experiential analysis reality. View however, is not a conceptual framework or philosophy – it must be understood experientially. The ultimate practice is to live the view.

Explanations of viewcan difficult to comprehend — so the nonduality of emptiness and form need to be understood in many different ways in order that the meaning is experienced in the fabric of life. It is helpful to read a variety of explanations — and to contemplate the Heart Sutra (the short text which summarises the view of nonduality).

View is best understood however, through meditation – by observing emptiness and form in everyday life.

In sitting meditation, we experience emptiness directly as the simultaneous absence of thought and presence of awareness. We experience form as the thought and sensation which arise from the condition of non-thought. Form is experienced as the thoughts and sensations which arise from the condition of non-thought. Nonduality is experienced as the nature of Mind — in which thought and the absence of thought are no longer mutually exclusive. This is ro-gÇig – the one taste.

Flashes of emptiness and nonduality may be experienced when initially engaging with meditation. These flashes inspire further practice. Significant periods of emptiness generally require a few years of regular practice.

In everyday life, it is possible to begin to observe form, emptiness, and immediately – because it is an aspect of existence:

  • Form is the quality of solidity, permanence, separateness, continuity, and definition.
  • Emptiness is the quality of insubstantiality, impermanence, indistinctness, discontinuity, and ambiguity.
  • Having experienced the nature of forma and emptiness glimpses of nondual could begin to be perceived.

  • Nonduality is the recognition that existence and experience are permeated by the qualities of form and emptiness. These qualities are in constant erratic flux. Searching either for security (form) or excitement (emptiness) are attempts to control that flux.

Having explored the view, it must be validated in life experience. Unless emptiness and form become evident in the experience of life, the practices of Vajrayana become an exotic hobby.

The habitual tendency is to adhere to form and to reject emptiness. The world is experienced as having better and worse aspects. One attempts to collect and consume that which is seen as better, and to repel and resist that which is taken to be worse. Attempting to manipulate or stabilise situations through conceptual trial-and-error understandings of cause and effect is ineffective. It is a life-strategy that intermittently fails due to the erratic intrusions of emptiness. Things once perceived as objectively desirable prove ambiguous in their desirability. They suffer modulation and mutation in terms of what they mean. Undesirable situations and phenomena cannot be entirely eliminated – because they are not separate from those who perceive them. Often actions do not have the expected results. Just as everything appears to be under control—on the verge of lasting happiness—some unexpected problem arises and undermines the plan. Emptiness is experienced as confusion, ambivalence, ambiguity, chaos, termination, insecurity, disarray, loss, disintegration, inexplicable anxiety, loss of direction, and apparent misfortune.

Emptiness is only feared because it is imagined that characteristic forms will be lost forever. The tendency is thus to cling to form as security — because form temporarily permits the illusion that it is not also empty. Dissatisfaction is created by continual bids to secure forms – which subsequently prove to be empty of security. Dissatisfaction is also created by continual bids to dissolve insecurities which subsequently prove insoluble. It is not possible to find anything other than this. Emptiness and form always define each other – as each other.                                                                                                                                                                                           

Form can be understood as ‘existence’ and emptiness as ‘non-existence’. Emptiness however, is not merely ‘nothing’. Emptiness need not be experienced negatively. Emptiness is the arena in which everything occurs. It is the creative space in which form comes into being. Form can only exist because of emptiness; which is why emptiness is often referred to as ‘the great mother’ or ‘the womb of potentiality’.

Some words value emptiness — such as: freedom, spontaneity, opportunity, relaxation, serendipity, inspiration, potential, humour, creativity, relief, wonderment, vastness. Emptiness must be enjoyed or form cannot be enjoyed. A creative relationship with form is not possible unless one relates openly with emptiness – because emptiness and form are nondual.

Perpetual nondual reflection is the limitless dance of Vajrayana — and practice simply consists of acclimatising to the dancing quality of phenomena in terms of emptiness and form. Vajrayana introduces ro gÇig — the one taste of emptiness and form. We develop the ability to actively savour apparently polarised sensations, rather than experiencing their socially conditioned conflict. Many sensations merely seem polarised due to ongoing attempts to secure form whilst rejecting emptiness.

One needs to observe one’s attempts to solidify emptiness. Freedom is undermined through attempting to impose form on situations where reality is in creative flux. In Contradistinction — the disconcerting spaces between contrasting segments of life, can avail a dimension of being that is independent of circumstances. It is interesting—on finding this space—to allow events to remain undefined a little longer than usual. Settling into uncertainty—and experiencing its texture—life discloses its emptiness and form: beads on the thread of energy which comprise the nature of experience. It is possible to relax within the multiplicity of definitions manifested by reality.

This requires polarities being allowed to coexist. Experiential and existential paradoxes can be openly entertained. Impulsiveness and caution; credulity and scepticism; neurotic foolishness and basic sanity can be embraced. Unless the texture of these erratically alternating possibilities is open to being felt, unreservedly – the energy of being will remain incomprehensible. If the possibility of expanding into the fierce totality of each moment — as it arrives — is delightedly embraced however, one can know what it is to be alive.

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