Form and Emptiness
By the Dalai Lama
In the Heart Sutra, we read:
They should see perfectly that even the five aggregates are empty of intrinsic existence. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form, emptiness is not other than form, form too is not other than emptiness.
It's important for us to avoid the misapprehension that emptiness is an absolute reality or an independent truth. Emptiness must be understood as the true nature of things and events. Thus we read, "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not other than form, form too is not other than emptiness." This does not refer to some kind of Great Emptiness out there somewhere, but to the emptiness of a specific phenomenon, in this case form, or matter.
The statement that "apart from form there is emptiness" suggests that the emptiness of form is nothing other than the form's ultimate nature. Form lacks intrinsic or independent existence; thus its nature is emptiness. This nature - emptiness - in not independent of form, but rather is a characteristic of form; emptiness is form's mode of being. One must understand form and its emptiness in unity; they are not two independent realities.
Let us look more closely at Avalokitesvara's two statements that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. The first statement, "form is emptiness," implies that what we recognize as form comes to exist as a result of the aggregation of many causes and conditions, not by its own independent means. Form is a composite phenomenon, composed of many parts. Because it comes into being and continues to exist based on other causes and conditions, it is a dependent phenomenon. This dependence means that form is consequently empty of any intrinsic, self-existent reality, and therefore form is said to be emptiness.
Now let's turn to Avalokitesvara's next statement, that emptiness is form.
Since form lacks independent existence, it can never be isolated from other
phenomena. Consequently, dependence suggests a kind of openness and
malleability in relation to other things. Because of this fundamental
openness, form is not fixed but rather subject to change and causality.
In other words, since forms arise from interactions of causes and conditions
and do not have independent and fixed reality, they lend themselves to
the possibility of interaction with other forms and therefore other causes
and conditions. All of this is part of a complex, interconnected
reality. Because forms have no fixed, isolated identity, we can say
that emptiness creates form. One can then understand the statement
that "emptiness is form" in terms of form being a manifestation or expression
of emptiness, something that comes out of emptiness.