Ghost Dog is a film by Jim Jarmusch. Forest Whitaker plays the title character, a lone wolf hit man who follows the ancient code of the samurai. He lives in a homemade cabin on the roof of an abandoned tenement building where he keeps a flock of pigeons. Ghost Dog is cold-blooded but he also has warmth and humanity, something that was already a bit of a cliche by 1999 when the film was made, but it works. Ghost Dog broods a lot and in voice overs, frequently quotes from the Hagakure, a book of commentaries by a 18th century samurai, Yamamoto Tsunetomo:
Our bodies are given life from the midst of nothingness. Existing where there is nothing is the meaning of the phrase “Form is emptiness.” That all things are provided for by nothingness is the meaning of the phrase “Emptiness is form.” One should not think that these are two separate things.
“Form is emptiness, emptiness is form . . .” comes from the Heart Sutra, of course. It has been called the most famous statement in Mahayana Buddhism.
Boiled down from the much larger Maha-Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Heart Sutra not only touches upon every major concept in Buddhism, but I would say that of religion and philosophy as a whole. There’s even a shorter version of what is already the shortest Buddhist sutra, which in any of the Asian languages amounts to a mere paragraph, and it’s not much longer in English. Recited daily by Buddhists all over world, the Heart Sutra transcends sectarianism. I think the Pure Land, Nichiren and Theravada are probably the only mainstream schools that do not use the Heart Sutra in one way or another.
Interpretations of this famous phrase, “form is emptiness . . .”, might be as numerous as the sands of the Ganges. It is not my intention today to add another one, but rather present some words by a few contemporary Buddhist teachers.
The Five Skandhas are the components of existence. Buddhism holds that an individual is a combination of the skandhas, or aggregates, listed here in the passage that contains the statement under discussion:
Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Prajna-Paramita, clearly saw that all five Skandhas are empty and thus crossed over all suffering. O Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are also like this.
Thich Nhat Hanh, contemporary Zen Master, from The Heart of Understanding:
Form is the wave and emptiness is the water. You can understand through that image. The Indians speak in a language that can scare us, but we have to understand their way of expression in order to really understand them. In the West, when we draw a circle, we consider it to be zero, nothingness. But in India, a circle means totality, wholeness. The meaning is the opposite. So ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form,’ is like wave is water, water is wave. ‘Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness,’ because these five contain each other. Because one exists, everything exists.
Sheng-yen, (1930-2009) Chinese Ch’an monk, from There is No Suffering:
Indeed, everything is empty, but emptiness is wonderful existence. It is precisely because our existence is illusory that we can experience enlightenment and help others to do the same. For this reason, “emptiness is not other than form” is more important to understand than “form is not other than emptiness,” in that the workings of the five skandhas are the full display of emptiness. The five skandhas do have a conventional existence. Our bodies are illusory, but we will suffer if we do not care for them. Food is illusory, but we will starve if we do not eat. Our activities are illusory, but only through activity can we help others. For this reason, there is action in the midst of emptiness, and because of this, we should remain active and positive, and avoid nihilism.
Tenzin Gyatso, The 14th Dalai Lama, from Essence of the Heart Sutra:
It is important for us to avoid the misapprehension that emptiness is an absolute reality or independent truth. Emptiness must be understood as the true nature of things and events. Thus we read, “Form is emptiness; emptiness is from. Emptiness is no other than form; form too is no 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 no 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 – is 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; there are not two independent realities.
Mu Soeng Sunim, Korean Zen teacher, from Heart Sutra: Ancient Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Reality:
The sutra insists that form is emptiness. There is a critical difference between form being empty and form being emptiness. Sunyata [emptiness], in Prajna-paramita sutras, is the ultimate nature of reality; at the same time it does not exist apart from the phenomena but permeates each phenomenon. Therefore, sunyata cannot be sought apart from the totality of all forms. And, although all forms are qualified at their core by sunyata, its presence does not negate the conventional appearance of form. In this sense, emptiness is dependent upon the form it qualifies, as much as form is dependent on emptiness for its qualification. Thus form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. At its core level, form does not differ from emptiness nor does emptiness differ with form.
Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971), Soto Zen Master, from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
We say our practice should be without gaining ideas, without any expectations, even of enlightenment. This does not mean, however, just to sit without any purpose. This practice free from gaining ideas is based on the Prajna Paramita Sutra. However, if you are not careful the sutra itself will give you a gaining idea. It says, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” But if you attach to that statement, you are liable to be involved in dualistic ideas: here is you, form, and here is emptiness, which you are trying to realize through your form. So “form is emptiness, and emptiness is form” is still dualistic. But fortunately, our teaching goes on to say, “Form is form and emptiness is emptiness.” Here there is no dualism.
When you find it difficult to stop your mind while you are sitting [in meditation] and when you are still trying to stop your mind, this is the stage of “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” But while you are practicing in this dualistic way, more and more you will have oneness with your goal. And when your practice becomes effortless, you can stop your mind. This is the stage of “form is form and emptiness is emptiness.”