Emptiness: The Insight of Equality

Those of you familiar with the Heart Sutra know that “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form,” is the most important statement in the text. In one commentary I have on the sutra, an older one titled The Cave of Poison Grass, Seikan Hasegawa, a Rinzai Zen priest, explains the declaration this way:

Sunyata [emptiness] is the beginningless beginning of the world which has two aspects: wisdom, which is emptiness, and love, which is form. Emptiness tells us the sameness, and form tells us the difference. The sameness sees the substance of all forms. Then it can be said that a mountain is not different from an ocean, mountain is ocean; or man is not different from woman, the man is woman. Their value is not different, both are the same. And as humanity, woman and man, the old and young, the poor and the rich, the wise and the foolish, and all such contrasting individuals do not differ; every one has the same respectable value.

It is possible to view emptiness as a “beginningless beginning” because in Buddhism the continuum of consciousness is said to be beginningless; and consciousness arises dependent upon causes and conditions, and Nagarjuna taught that anything which is dependent arising equals emptiness.

Ku: Emptiness
Chinese character for emptiness, calligraphy by Miyamoto Musashi

Hasegawa’s commentary tells us in simple terms not only what lies behind this famous phrase from the sutra but also many of the seemingly paradoxical statements we read in Buddhist literature. The opening sentence of Dogen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra comes to mind: “Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient Buddha way.”

Emptiness refers to the realm of awakening, but this realm is not separate from the world of suffering. “Form is emptiness” directs us to the path that leads to the transcendence of suffering and awakening, while “emptiness is form” is the reverse path, from awakening to suffering. The point of divergence between these two paths is resolved through non-duality. They are two paths and yet they are not two.

The concept of emptiness is a great equalizer because it shows us how all things are equal in value. It undermines the foundations of hatred, racism, nationalism – all the things that lead to conflict and violence. That’s one reason why emptiness is often called “the insight of equality.”

The Buddha asked, “Manjusri, in what equality do those sentient beings who act with the three poisons abide?”

Manjusri replied, “They abide in the equality of emptiness, signlessness, and wishfulness.”

Maharatnakuta Sutra


3 thoughts on “Emptiness: The Insight of Equality

  1. Hi David,

    It’s been a while, hi! This is a really interesting post. Lots of thoughts. I usually think of emptiness as something more akin to freedom, flexibility, creativity. In practice these qualities help us to think clearly and recognize bias. On the other hand, embodied equality — maybe “composure” — can also make people into really good manipulators. I think this is a real concern, something that really can happen when a person starts to get some results from practice but doesn’t have a solid sense of either ethics or moral discipline.

    Regarding things like racism, nationalism, practicing emptiness in this sense helps to overcome ignorance by creating more space in the mind to recognize unexamined patterns. But what about sexism, or heterosexism, which involve not only views, but, I could say, more entrenched habits? Is it enough to practice “man is not different from woman”?

    I live in a pretty traditional community that practices celibacy along with separation of genders, so I’m also asking this just for another perspective. It seems to me sometimes that the fires of desire smolder more powerfully than the fires of hatred. Is emptiness, in its freeing sense, really a fix here, or do we need a more humanistic sense of equality as well? (I actually wonder if that’s what you’re getting at.)

    1. Hi James, nice to hear from you again. Frankly, I haven’t parsed things as intricately as you have hear. I am writing in a general sense, more as equality across the board. I don’t feel that sexism and racism are all that different. Both stem from a superior attitude based on “I” (or “we,” “us”) and I think they are learned habits or views in the sense that no one is born a racist or a sexist, it’s something we learn from parents and society. Whether or not it is enough to practice equality depends on what one means by practice. If it means a deep insight into the nature of equality couple with putting that insight into action in one’s daily life, that seems to me to be the goal.

  2. Beautifully written , thanks for sharing.

    This is verily the middle way.

    It is as if all forms come into play when one stretches the emptiness (sameness) with a tool called “time”. So ultimately everything is emptiness, but we do not exist in it, we exist as forms.

    all forms are equal if you remove the time.

    nagarjuna covers this extensively almost as a science. But, its just a nice theory. Reality is reality, suffering is suffering, and dhamma is dhamma.

    I notice myself going back and referring to the components in the noble eight fold path, as they seem to be comprehensive components needed for one to abide in this state…moment-to-moment, and continuously (day to day, life long).

    Only when one perfectly sheds everything (“lets go”) does one have real freedom (“nirvana”).

    All of us, good or evil, are a nothing but a formation, accumulated over time (aka “karma”), which we call “self” (identity). And the noble eight path lets one change their “formation”(aka self) to align with dharma (“the way”), which grants absolute wisdom, freedom, and ultimately, nirvana. This is not just theory, one just has to observe themselves to see their evolution (karma -> dharma -> nirvana, or how one goes from bad -> good, good -> evil etc.etc , manly -> womenly, womenly -> manly, hatred -> love, bigoted -> ashamed, IGNORANCE -> WISDOM etc.etc). Its all in one’s reach.

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