The Heart Sutra says, “Form is not different from emptiness; emptiness is not different from form.” It is one of the most famous phrases in Buddhism, and for many one of the most confusing.
Occasionally, when I run across an English version of the sutra by an Asian translator, I will find the word “color” instead of “form”. This is because they understand that in addition to “form”, the Sanskrit term rupa also means “color.” If we dig a little into the meanings of sunyata, commonly translated as “emptiness”, we find that it also has the meaning of “sky.”
It is possible, then, to render the famous phrase in this manner:
Color is not different from sky; sky is not different from color.”
When we look up, we see the sky. Its color is blue. Therefore, we know the sky is there. Or, so we think. Actually, the sky has no color. The blue is an illusion caused by the scattering of sunlight through the prism of tiny molecules of air in the Earth’s atmosphere. Blue is scattered more than other colors, and this is why the sky appears to be blue. In reality, the sky is empty. It is just space.
Space (akasa) is not really anything, other than a concept, because it has no substance, no form, no color. Sky is merely a conventional designation for space, which lacking any substance, represents emptiness, meaning the lack of an intrinsic essence or self-ness within existing things. Yet, even while we can say that space has no intrinsic essence, no substance, we cannot say that space does not exist.
Color, or form, is just the appearance of color, of form. For instance, the form of a human being is merely the appearance of a human form, for the human being’s mass is mostly water, H20, and carbon. However, when we look at another person, we do not see those things; rather, what we appear to see is form. Likewise, when we look up, we do not see space, we see blue sky.
Form is one of the five skandhas or aggregates, along with sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness. According to Buddhist philosophy, these five aggregates make up the entity of the human being. When the sutra says that form is emptiness and emptiness is form, it next mentions that the other four aggregates also share this relationship.
In Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way, we find a sentence remarkably similar in structure to the one in the Heart Sutra:
The self is not the aggregates (na atma skandhah); the self is not different from the aggregates (na atma skandebhyo ‘nyah).”
Self is like color. Actually, we do not deny the existence of self; we only deny the existence of a self that is eternal, unchanging, and independent. That kind of self is an illusion. Because we have a personality, a body, a mind, we grasp at the appearance of the eternal, unchanging, independent self. We come to believe it is as real as the sky is blue.
The aggregates, owing to their lack of absoluteness and their relativity, are like space. Form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness, none of these has any substance, and yet, as with space, we cannot say they do not exist.
Nagarjuna mentions that to say anything about the differences or sameness of color and sky, form and emptiness, self and aggregates, is to hold an exclusive view, either of eternalism or nihilism. It was for that reason, he said, the Buddha taught the Middle Way, the path between extremes, the path of interdependency.
Good luck and believe me, dearest Doc – it’s better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear.”
Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Beyond the edge of the world there’s a space where emptiness and substance neatly overlap, where past and future form a continuous, endless loop. And, hovering about, there are signs no one has ever read, chords no one has ever heard.”
Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore