Emptiness is Form


For a couple thousand years Buddhists have been fond of quoting one line from a treasured scripture, the Heart Sutra. That line runs:

Form is emptiness. Emptiness, form.

I want to ask, when they quote this line—I should say “we,” since I just did it, myself, and liked it and I am a Buddhist—okay then, when we quote this line, why are we doing it? What are we really saying? I ask because the answer speaks directly to our lives and loves and what to do about them.

The Heart Sutra is famous for pretty much negating all the central Buddhist teachings—in the nicest way, of course. In fact, it amazes me that this brief scripture ever got past the Buddhist censors (yes, there have been Buddhist censors, just not too many of them). Here the sutra is saying that everything we see and experience and hold dear, our loves and temples, the great globe itself, is really such stuff as dreams are made on: baseless, insubstantial, empty. So Buddhists are always trotting out the Heart Sutra when they want to get all spiritual on us. Better not focus too much on form because it’s all going to fade and leave not a rack behind. Better to set your sights on the deathless, peaceful realm of nirvana, on the pure and spiritual emptiness lying behind all forms. Well, fine. Go to, I say! But that’s only “form is emptiness.” That’s only half the quote, yet it seems so many folks stop here. Stopping here creates a lopsided approach to life, sometimes not an approach at all, more like an evasion. This is not the Middle Way of the Buddha.

I freely admit I’m a lopsided Buddhist, too, since I spend so much time struggling against what I’ve just described. Well, someone has to do it, and it seems to be my karma. So here’s my teaching: I love the second half of the quote: “emptiness is form.” Why? Because it says that that very emptiness, that pure and perfect realm of nirvana, is, in fact, form. And that means it’s everything we see and experience and hold dear, after all. If we ever experience nirvana, we experience it exactly through our loves and temples and the great globe itself. And so we must treasure them, nurture them, love them with all our power. We must love our family, our friends, our community, our nation, our global biosphere for what they are: our sacred environment.

We yearn for the spiritual realm, our true home. I say the spiritual lies not elsewhere, nor is it to come; it is here before you, in this very moment. Do you want a vision of heaven? Close your eyes a moment. Are you ready? Now open them.