FORMS ARE EMPTY, EMPTINESS IS FORM

In INSIGHTS by James Corrigan16 Comments

Children quickly learn that they have a mind. This is the name they give to the source from which, and the venue in which, their thoughts occur. Later, they learn that this mind is where perceptions and feelings occur too.

When the self is seen to have no placement, no identity, and no enduring quality at all, the mind is sometimes elevated to Mind, and the error of a greater Self can occur. But if the self has no true reality, how can it be a place or thing from which, and in which thoughts, perceptions, and feelings occur? Yet we still call it mind, or Mind, because the discerning faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto because we can’t understand what we cannot grasp.

By grasp I mean literally to take hold of something. The insight that there is no enduring self leaves us in a state of unknowing, unable to grasp hold of something with our mind and say, “Yes, this! This is what truly is.” It becomes awkward to speak of our mind, yet how else to say it? And because the discerning faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto, we give a name to that missing self: emptiness.

An absence is such a positive thing. Look closely at this. We notice that something we thought was there, is not there, and rather than say nothing, we mark this fact with a word. Our faculty of reason then has something positive to think about. And when all things are similarly seen to lack an intrinsic reality, we also say they are empty of an intrinsic self-nature and we name this general absence, establishing the doctrine of emptiness.

Yet even though there is no mind, thoughts, perceptions, and feelings still occur. We can call this occurrence whatever we like: we can still call it mind, as many do, but we should realize we are no longer talking about a thing, but an activity. An activity is understood to not have a self, as verbs are not seen as nouns or names. Even so, we learn early in life that all actions have an actor that is responsible because we need to place the blame.

Pay attention here because this error carries into our predilection to over-emphasize emptiness by applying it to activities that occur, saying that they are empty of an intrinsic self-nature. In the vernacular: Duh! Our faculty of reason is well-trained to always hold an actor responsible for activities that occur. But there is no actor, no ground, no nature, no source. That’s what emptiness reminds us of, and that is all it means.

But our faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto, and emptiness is like a super weapon destroying everything in its path. Besides we’re kids and love our toys, so emptiness becomes the source of all things. What? This noticed lack of something is not the presence of something else. Emptiness is a place-holder for what we used to assume was there, but isn’t, and nothing more.

But notice that thoughts, feelings, and perceptions still occur. Amazing. This is called suchness, not emptiness. Suchness marks the presenting —arising, manifesting, appearing, showing up — of these thoughts, perceptions, and feelings. And if we are attentive, we quickly realize that there still is no mind-thing, no self-thing, and no other-things, yet even so, we can still call these occurrences mind, although technically they should be called minding. I prefer to use naturing myself, but most people just stare blankly at me when I do that. But many fall into the trap of immediately forgetting what they recently knew, and see suchness as some thing(s), and reactively apply their secret weapon, emptiness, to suchness, to make the things go away. But there are no things, and no need to bring out the big gun anymore. Our old patterns of thought are leading us astray.

Suchness has no source, nor even an absence of source. There is no ground, no place, and no time for suchness, and no need for any of that. There is no emptiness for suchness either, because it doesn’t apply—doing so is a category error in philosophical parlance. It’s unfortunate that we had to make a noun out of that which presents, calling it suchness, just because our faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto, because suchness—or naturing as I like to say because that’s a verb, not a noun—is not a thing, and not even a collection of things—it’s activity, presencing. Remember what was done here.

Where would it occur? Where does that which shows up appear? When we talk about the space-like expanse of appearances, we are not affirming the existence of space. Go sit by a Buddhist stupa and learn the lesson it presents in the form of the bindu-nada that is placed atop it. The bindu is the non-dimensional point from which all appearances manifest. Note its specific denial of spatial characteristics, it isn’t anything at all. The nada, the vibrations, or reverberations, are the appearances emanating from that non-manifest point. I call it the event horizon. Say what you will about the appearances, but say nothing about how they show up.

So please note that emptiness is not suchness, and is not the nature of anything. We can say it is the essence of suchness, elevating the absence of what we thought was there in the appearances to the stature of the absolute source of all, but that is just overkill and so wrong. It’s useful for a while, to break old patterns of thought, but it has the nasty effect of retarding progress. Suchness presents as forms, otherwise there would be no distinguishing anything, and forms are empty of any intrinsic self-nature. But emptiness, that positive absence the mind can grasp hold of, is form also. It’s the positive trace of the absence we notice, created by the mind so that it has something to grasp hold of. Repeat after me: “Forms are empty, emptiness is form.” This will remind us that emptiness is just an idea that took hold when we noticed we were originally wrong about everything.

The nature of suchness is pure spontaneous presence. And I feel the need to again remind you that suchness is not a thing, (it) presents as activity. And the nature of that activity is not something else, it’s the essential quality of the activity called suchness. So pure spontaneous presence is not a thing either. It’s a description of the salient characteristics of the activity that is presenting. It defines nothing, because there is nothing to define. As Garab Dorje said:

“Transcending all discrimination in its arising, Transcending all discrimination in its release.”

And as Jigme Lingpa said:
“While safeguarding the continuity of the wonderful intrinsic perfection of our existential presence, if the thought ‘the nature of pure presence is empty’ springs up in the rational mind, by ascribing an objective focus of emptiness to pure presence, Buddha is precluded.”

About the Author

James Corrigan

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James is a writer, philosopher, contemplative practitioner and theorist, living in the Dordogne region of France, where he runs a Bed & Breakfast. He was formerly a software engineer in New York, as well as a university professor of philosophy where he taught Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Nature, and meditation. Other LEVEKUNST articles by the same author.

Featured image: Boy looking at Xmas toys in shop window, public domain. Creator: Bain News Service. Courtesy of US Library of Congress. 

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Comments

  1. Author

    Penor, thank you for your thoughts. As for you uneasy? feeling about the state (and origin) of my understanding, I hope it might be useful to point out that feelings are not arguments, just judgements–positive, negative, or neutral.

    Be well!

  2. penor

    James, I believe you stlli dont understand conventional truth and ultimate truth. I dont have anything more to say on this topic.
    Please read HH Dalai Lamas umistaken explanation of the two truths on page 121 of the link I sent you.

    If you wish to contact me about any other matter please do.

  3. penor

    Read from page 115 onwards of the link I sent you earlier.

    Emptiness is an ultimate truth not an absolute truth.
    Absolute truth implies inherent existence.
    Emptiness is not an absolute truth because emptiness is not inherently existent.

    Emptiness is not a conventional or relative truth because it is findable upon ultimate analysis.

    The emptiness of emptiness means emptiness is not inherently existent

    Emptiness the object, is emptiness, nothing more nothing less.

  4. Author

    Penor, I feel it will be of actual value to examine what Nagarjuna argues about Emptiness, or rather the “emptiness of emptiness,” of which he asserts that rather than being an “absolute truth,” it is, because of its emptiness, only a conventional truth, and as such cannot be the nature of anything. Was that too long-winded and obtuse?

    Since you started your comments by quoting my statement: “emptiness is not the nature of anything,” and then went into questioning how I would “define ultimate truth as presented in the two truths,” I dutifully went and researched the “two truths” and came across Nagarjuna’s assertions about the emptiness of emptiness. The take away of my article is “Forms are empty, emptiness is form,” which I feel is much less long-winded than the above statement is, but it depends on the reader understanding that when I wrote: “This will remind us that emptiness is just an idea that took hold when we noticed we were originally wrong about everything,” that “idea” means a conceptual understanding, and thus what you might call a “conventional truth” (but don’t let me put words in your mouth). Thus a conventional truth cannot be the “nature of anything.” And to be more clear perhaps, I mean by “nature” that which gives rise to something, manifests it, gives birth to it, grounds it, and the like; not that something has a certain quality, which is, for example, what we mean when we say “that’s just human nature” when someone is repeatedly, and unfairly, judgmental about someone else.

    So to respond carefully to your question, I started my research on Wikipedia, where this was stated: “Nagarjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā provides a logical defense for the claim that all things are empty (sunyata) of an inherently-existing self-nature.[14] Sunyata, however, is also shown to be “empty,” and Nagarjuna’s assertion of “the emptiness of emptiness” prevents sunyata from constituting a higher or ultimate reality.[25][26][note 4][note 5] Nagarjuna’s view is that “the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth”.”

    Realizing, of course, that wikipedia isn’t to be trusted, I set off to research the “emptiness of emptiness” and found, among other sources, this well-stated summary on a site called “emptinessteachings”:
    “Nagarjuna’s doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness involves many reasonings that interrelate in deep and comprehensive ways. To begin with, to be empty is to be dependently arisen and emptiness is no exception. Ultimate truth is fully dependent upon conventional phenomena to perceive their emptiness. And as entities are ultimately unfindable, this absence that is emptiness, cannot be non-empty and findable. This recognition uncovers the ultimate truth that emptiness is empty. But there is more to the argument.

    “It can also be deduced that if the emptiness of inherent existence is ultimately true, then emptiness must also be empty. If emptiness existed in the independent self-established sense, then emptiness would not be empty but inherently existent. And since everything is empty, that would make everything inherently existent too.8 So if phenomena were empty but emptiness was non-empty, the ultimate truth of the negation of inherent existence would itself be negated. Instead, the teaching that emptiness is empty is consistent with emptiness as an ultimate truth.

    “Nagarjuna’s reasoning extends into an eloquent somersault that completes the analysis. If emptiness is empty, as in an absence, then it can only conventionally exist.9 For there is nothing that can be identified about the emptiness of things, as in the example of elephantlessness. What is not conventionally designated does not exist in any positive sense, is not an object, hence its emptiness. Therefore, to be empty is to only conventionally exist and likewise, to conventionally exist is the only way to be empty. Furthermore, as there are no true objects to know, conventional truth is also the only truth there is. This is the ultimate truth of emptiness and thus, a conventional truth.10 The doctrine of the emptiness of emptiness culminates in the insight that the two truths, the ultimate and conventional are ontologically the same, like two different sides of the same coin.

    “To recognize emptiness as conventional is to thoroughly refute inherent existence and to underscore the recognition that emptiness is the emptiness of conventional phenomena, nothing more substantive than that.11 This insight undermines a contradictory and dualistic reality where emptiness is totally real, while the conventional is totally unreal. Nagarjuna’s doctrine negates ultimate truth as an independent base from which to assert an objective, non-empty view. All views can only be conventionally true.”

    Now, I find nothing in that summary which is counter to what my article states here, and even more, if you do read the section titled “Reality and Existence” here on Levekunst in my “Seven Guides” series, you will find that Nagarjuna and I say the same thing–although we start from different perspectives: he from Buddhist teachings and I, from my direct meditational experiences. Presumably he had a qualified lineaged teacher, whereas I didn’t and had to work it out slowly over thirty years, failing in end, of course, to use the correct Buddhist terminology. However, if you do read that article on “Reality and Existence,” you will find, in answer to your very first question to me, that although I don’t use the correct Buddhist terminology, which appears to me from the articles I read in order to answer your question, to be qualified forms of the word “existence,” I use two words, both painstakingly defined. So to find the answer your question, please read that.

  5. penor

    ‘As you have noted, though with displeasure, I accomplished the view of Dzogchen on my own, ‘

    I have not noted that. Show me where I did.

  6. penor

    I appreciate your reply. It is natural to think the critiques you have received are motivated by people defending the faith as we see alot of this in the world. People are defensive and like to hold onto there beliefs. Dogmatic tendencies are not isolated to religion, it is common to any group within the world. It is mainly due to having a limited perspective or understanding. That being said not all critique is based on a limited or close minded attitude. The philosophical tradition and practice lineage of Buddhism is based upon sound reasoning, intellectual enquiry and verifiable experience. The tradition and lineage has been handed down intact over the generations and it is for this reason it produces enlightened beings. Maintaining a pure and precise lineage and tradition does not necessarily mean those upholding it are close minded, rigid, racist, judgemental, defensive etc etc. This is an important distinction to make. You have probably heard this and many arguments before. It is not up to me to convince you. Rather, if you are presenting philosophical views then you are inviting, critique and debate. It comes with the territory. It is what we are inviting. It is a mechanism which helps arrive at valid cognition. Our emotional and personal reaction to the critique and debate must be put aside. The focus is on logic, reasoning, verifiable sources, evidence and so forth. A vital ingredient is an open mind. Experiential and subjective experience is hard to verify. It is translatable into concepts nut this is a tricky proposition at best, requiering exellent knowledge of philosophical systems and there associated terminology. This seems to be one of the reasons you run into trouble. You have a limited understanding of Buddhist philosophy and terminology and when you enter into that domain, it becomes evident. Translating your experience into buddhist concepts may be the biggest issue you face. It may also be the reason you receive much of the criticism from within the tradition.
    If you read dzogchen teachings and you believe it dedcribes your experience that is one thing. Publishing vommentary on the view of dzogchen is entirely different. You may want to give commentary in a different style, by saying I had this experience and when I read this part about dzogchen or emptiness it seemed to exain what I experienced. I am in no way urging you to comment on dzogchen or emptiness but as you already have and will probably conitinue too do this advice may help the readers to contextualize your comments. It may also help uou refine your knowledge and writing. I genuinely hope you have realised the viewof dzogchen. If you believe you have, it wont hurt you to share your experiences with a genuine dzogchen master. Bu doing so it will help you in a number of ways. You do not have to become a part of the religion or tradition to do so. Personally I am not religious but I see the value in tradition and lineage. All the best. I look forward to discussing your writing in the future. Ah!

  7. penor

    James, you are confused about the object of negation. Relative objects exist, just not as they appear. You also do not recognise that emptiness is the final mode of being or ultimate nature of phenomena. I am assuming you have not studied the two truths in depth with a qualified teacher. If you have you would be well aware of the importance of establishing the object of negation. Also you would be aware of the importance of terminology and context. If you are discussing the two truths then it is helpful to contextualize your comments eg: sutra, vajrayana, dzogchen. I feel when it comes to commenting on the view we need to provide scriptural citations and references. Other wise it muddies the water. In my articles I talk about dzogchen but from the perspective of someone on the path. I dont present the view of dzogchen because I am not qualified and if I eas I feel it is inappropriate to do so in this kind of forum. After my articles are published I am always filled wth regret because I dont want to lead anyone astray, even though I speak only generally on the subject, I still know it has an effect. Writing helps clarify certain things for me but there is a responsibilty attached to it if it is published, thats why I asked for one of my articles to be deleted from here. People benefitting from what we write does not necessarily mean we have written something accurate and correct. It just may mean they are as ignorant as us.

    1. Author

      Your words are well-spoken, Penor, and may benefit others who come across this article.

      As you have noted, though with displeasure, I accomplished the view of Dzogchen on my own, without the aid of a teacher (nor the plethora of books authored by them on the subject).

      I know this to be the case because you are not the first to recognize it in my writings, nor the first to chastise me about sharing my view outside the correct context and without the correct Dzogchen terminology. My terminology is my own, as is my view, which I do not label as dzogchen because I think it would be misleading.

      I started meditating at the age of 5 after the death of my mother. I continued doing so for 10 years, by which time my direct experiences were too much for me to deal with, in the absence of a teacher to guide me through it all at such a young age, so I paused for 30 years.

      When I, after 30 years of continued contemplation on those experiences, finally worked it all out for myself and put it to paper, and in the end published it—for philosophers—I started receiving emails from buddhist practitioners reprimanding me, as you have, for speaking about that which I have no right to speak about, and expressing it in words that are not the conventionally selected words to express it in, and worst of all, having different explanations for aspects of it than the “correct” buddhist explanations.

      All I could think in response to those criticisms was, “Wow, how excellent those decades of struggling (through my dark night) have independently verified those teachings! Why is that bad?”

      Given the frequency of people wanting to correct my errant behavior, I came to label them as “defenders of the faith,” and “not lovers of wisdom.” But I’ve long since seen the inutility of unkind words and their source in passionate judgments, which dissipate on their own now before a mean word is uttered.

      I would suggest to others that may read this, that they read the “Seven Guides” series that I contributed here on Levekunst, that briefly details my path and the insights gained along the way, as I believe that series will answer the specific qualms about my “confusion” that Penor has raised.

      Oh, and, you might want to google “emptiness of emptiness nagarjuna,” which Penor’s initial comments led me to. I suggest it if anyone is concerned about dispelling “ignorance” about two-truths and emptiness.

      Thank you, Penor.

  8. penor

    Is it possible for there to be the non appearance of form (relative phenomena)?

  9. penor

    you wrote, emptiness is not the nature of anything. So how would you define ultimate truth as presented in the two truths?

  10. Ahh, this is like a big breath of cold, fresh air to me. You’ve made a hard to understand subject a bit less hard. Thanks James, I’m going to have to look up your other writings.

  11. Suchness is definitely most appropriate word….but I would say “keeping literally quiet” is best as no word can ever be appropriate for something beyond grasping, if at all there is any.
    Anyway James you have written an excellent piece of article on this issue.
    Very much appreciated!

  12. Very nicely written. The empty nature of emptiness is like an infinite iteration into itself that renders into nothing but the very act of iterating which again is just more positive nominative minutia. Form is inseparable of emptiness which is empty of everything, this is the crux of relative existence but emptiness is not empty of self knowing nor separate from it and I think this is the crux of absolute existence.

    1. Author

      🙏Thank you, Antonio Benito.

      Perhaps the requirement to speak of relative and real existence is a limitation of our thoughts, the way quantum physicists find it necessary to speak awkwardly of particles and waves, which are just packets of qualities and classifications of phenomenal activity, rather than a true description of what is real. We lack a word, and an understanding, for “otherwise than existence and nonexistence,” so we speak of relative and real existence. But the important point is as you mention, emptiness is not empty of self-knowing, nor separate from it.

      Thank you again.

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