Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form

The Story of the Bowl

bowl mudra

Lord Avalokiteshvara1 who millennia later also came to be known as the bodhisattva2 Quan Yin, was not only a wise, very astute and courageous leader of his people, he was also a philosopher, discoverer and inventor. When he, some thirteen thousand years ago, moulded his first clay vessel from a lump of clay, he became the inventor of pottery, thus single-handedly setting the stage for many early technological advances, the products of which are still benefiting humankind.


One day, a very long time ago, close to the dawn of humankind, the tribal leader Avalokiteshvara had finally figured it out. For days he had been sitting by the dried-out riverbed, a former stream that was now only the smallest of a trickle compared to what it used to be when the rains had been more abundant. The frown on his forehead had become deeper and deeper, his mind more and more occupied trying to find a way to deal with the drought. For a long time he had been trying to find a new source of drinking water, but although a new source he had not found... what he had found though was a solution.
But it hadn’t come easily. As he had been sitting there, looking for ways of how and where to lead his people to water, he knew that in order to find a solution, that he first had to clear his mind from the worries he had about feeding the tribe. And as he succeeded, now with a mind less disturbed, and all the while gazing at a peculiar rock in that now virtually dry riverbed, he suddenly realized how in the past the force of the once wild stream had hollowed out that rock...


He remembered how water tended to puddle in those kind of hollowed out rocks and boulders.
He suddenly cupped the palms of his hands to mimic the hollow shapes that he saw in that rock that almost seemed to ask for his attention and he wondered why he had never considered that hollow shapes could hold stuff, contain something... water for instance.

Suddenly he became aware of the sound that the few drops of water made that still trickled down the rocks at the edge of the dry riverbed.
And all of a sudden he knew it:
"Aha!" he exclaimed, and although he could hardly find the right words to express what he had just discovered, he somehow blurted out:
"Form is Emptiness!"
And while he rushed to his people, he kept shouting, "Form is Emptiness..., Form is Emptiness!"
But just as he was doing that, he became acutely aware that what he was saying, that it could be taken the wrong way, something like… that form had no substance, that stuff could be thought of as no more than an illusion. So he quickly added:
"and Emptiness is Form!"

"Huh?" the tribal members exclaimed as they watched him running madly down the hill towards them, "He must be as delirious as all of us are!"
By this time extreme dehydration had pretty well affected everybody and it resulted in rather erratic and unpredictable behavior.
"… and Emptiness is Form!" Avalokiteshvara shouted once more and he muttered to himself, "Good thing I added that, if stuff was just empty by nature, they could easily conclude that they would not have to take any responsibility for anything anymore." As it was, he had concluded, they had already become too apathetic.
The reaction of his people to the discovery he had just made was quite lacklustre though, he noted, but he could understand why his own exhilaration did not make any sense to them. Thus he returned to the river bed and pondered deeply about how he could make this "Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form" business clearer to them.

Eventually, as though mesmerized by his memories of how the stream's water had once played so wildly with the rocks, sand, mud and clay and had created so many hollows and water filled puddles in the rocks, he thought of a way to demonstrate his discovery. He would show them how his discovery of form and emptiness could also deliver them from thirst and starvation...

He looked for a still moist part of the riverbed to see if he could find some clay that was still wet enough so that he could shape it with his hands. After he found some, he gathered his people around him and he took a large lump and carefully kneaded it into a round shape.
"Form!" he shouted, proudly showing the round object to the crowd.
"Ball!" they exclaimed, expressing that there was nothing very special about such a shape: there were after all plenty such round stones and boulders to be found. But... they became amazed though when they realized that their leader had been able to make that shape by himself, with his own hands, that he had formed it from a heap of clay.
Then he surprised them even more, with his fist Avalokiteshvara punched a deep dimple into that ball of clay and showed them the just formed hollow shape.
"Emptiness!" he said elatedly.
"Hollow!" they answered, obviously not as elated as he was.
But then, in order to make his point very clear, Avalokiteshvara reached with this hollow lump of clay to the trickle of water that was dripping from the rock behind him, letting the hollow ball fill itself to its rim with water.
"Drink!" he said, while he offered them the water that it now contained, "Drink from this eh... bowl! This hollow ball of clay is now... eh... a bowl!"
"A bowl?" the crowd wondered.
But surprise and admiration followed soon after they saw him proceed to drink water from it himself; water from the ball of clay that now, astonishingly, was holding water.

Avalokiteshvara was not sure if the gathering really fully appreciated the importance and the extent of his demonstration as no one came forward yet to drink. So he urged them, and now… reluctantly - something like this had never ever happened before - they came and drank.

When they emptied the bowl, Avalokiteshvara demonstrated it again, filling the empty bowl from the trickle again after they, one after the other, kept emptying it by drinking from it.
Eventually the bowl lost its shape so Avalokiteshvara moulded it back into a ball shape and again he punched a deep dimple into it and again he turned it into a bowl.
He then picked up another lump of clay and while he put the previously made bowl aside, he repeated the process.

A little while later he got the idea that if he would let the bowls sit to dry and harden, that the bowls would keep their shape, and so he proceeded to make more bowls, even some larger ones.
Eventually some tribal members began to copy him and over time they realized that they had found a way to collect large quantities of water from small sources of water. In the past they would have run out of water altogether but now they could keep large quantities of water fresh as they could store it for later use.

Avalokiteshvara did not stop here with his keen observations, over time he figured out how rock, clay, water, clouds and even fire formed. He discovered the principle of what we now call elements or aggregates - phase states - and he would explain this to his people. He discerned how there are five distinct gradations between the very hard and concrete (such as the earth and rock) and the very subtle (such as the skies and its clouds). Form can turn into emptiness through five stages: from earth to water to fire to air to ether: from the gross to the subtle through a sequence of five in-between steps or, the way we say it nowadays: from solid to liquid to plasma to vapor to spaciousness.
He also discovered the correlation between these five elemental or aggregate states and the five senses: human touch had mostly to do with solids, taste with liquids, sight had to do with light and fire, smell concerned vapors and gas, and hearing involved space and vibrations (such as drumbeats) through it.

Although he must have been aware that much of what he said went over the heads of the ones he tried to explain it to, he knew that the practical applications of his insights would keep everyone healthier, happier and freer. They would drink fresher water, collected from cleaner sources rather than murky pools. They would be able to store food in lidded vessels and keep it from going bad and save it for times when supplies would not be plenty. They would be able to use their fires to turn the clay vessels into reusable pots. There was no end to this.
With his insight into the five elements and the proper use of the five senses he would teach everyone how to use them to a better advantage.
He helped his people to use their sense faculties more sensibly in order to let them separate reality from illusion, especially the illusions that were instilled into them in the past, illusions that had kept them trapped into slavery through trickery of fear and misinformation.
Thus Avalokiteshvara, helped them to reclaim their original free nature and... retain it rather than falling back into subservience.



One of the oldest written documents that mention Avalokiteshvara's name is the 'Heart Sutra', an ancient Sanskrit text that goes right to the heart of the nature of existence, the nature of consciousness, the question of matter and non-matter, the elements, the faculties of perception and the functionality of those sense faculties.

When we read this document now, we find ourselves confronted with a text that at first sight - and even after many readings - does not appear to be very clear. But that is to be expected when we realize that manuscripts from the days of yore, when textual transmission was replacing oral transmission, were the result of renditions and translations that took place over many centuries.
The text we have now went through a process that was similar to the way in which, say, Jesus' life history was at first orally and later scripturally transmitted to his followers and their descendants. Just like the biblical account of Jesus' life and teachings ended up as an amalgamation of recorded oral transmission, a variety of differing memories  from disciples and followers, inserted historical records as well as commentaries added at later dates, the same way (although earlier on in time and concerning a much smaller document) the Heart Sutra has come to us, also as a scripture showing a variety of stylistic and linguistic formats, also a text that is a mix of recorded oral transmission (Avalokiteshvara's original words), commentary notes from various copyists and editors as well as insertions into the main text of remarks that initially appeared only in the margins of the repeatedly copied manuscripts. We also have to keep in mind that in the writing and editing practices of the time, scribes did not separate distinct words with spacings, paragraphs were not indicated, capitalization was not used and punctuation symbols were not known. Together with inevitable spelling and copying errors, it should be clear by now why the Heart Sutra became the complex document that it ended up being.

The Heart Sutra is a small scripture - the English translation from either Sanskrit or Tibetan, Pali or Chinese versions contains no more than about 500 words - but this sutra is, in spite of its brevity, still a rich compilation of mantra like segments, commentary texts from sometimes misunderstanding followers, fragments of more highbrow discussions, pieces of sometimes confused dialog and expressions of veneration.

The core text of the Heart Sutra is extremely brief, “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form” which statement is expanded upon by a listing of what are called the five skandhas3  - the five elements of existence (form) and their concomitant five faculties of sense perception (emptiness). But in spite of the small size of this core text, it is probably one of the least clearly understood literary texts that have come down to us from antiquity.

Instead of adding another translation and even more commentary to the thousands of already available commentaries, with the story I told above, I provide a very different and rather unique approach, an approach that might lead to quite a different but novel understanding of the Heart Sutra, a less philosophical one to be sure and also a less (and that might even be more sure) spiritual one.
A new aspect - at first glance seemingly rather far fetched - becomes clear in the story that I told above about the origin of Avalokiteshvara's words. It is actually quite a soteriological one, although soteriologic in a very practical and utilitarian sense.
(Soteriology - the doctrine of deliverance and salvation; from the Greek 'soterion', 'deliverance'; from soter, savior; from the Sanskrit/Aryan root SAR /SAL, to keep whole, to save, to keep safe.)

I told the story of how Avalokiteshvara made a discovery that eventually delivered his people - and humankind - from the thirst and starvation that had been caused by the repeated periods of drought that were characteristic of the climate in the populated tropical zones of the planet throughout the end of the last ice age.

Thus the story you just read is a reconstructive fantasy of a sequence of historical events that took place some 13 thousand years ago when Avalokiteshvara, a tribal leader, had to find ways to help his people overcome a severe shortage of potable water. I have attempted to reconstruct the moment, the environment and the mindset of those who were present when one of the first dualistic abstractions - form and emptiness - was being made and explained but… almost immediately integrated back into the non-dualist reality of the concrete sensorially observable world.
The story is about how, why and when these two words: form and emptiness were first uttered and how far reaching the consequences were. You might have noted in the reaction of the tribal audience to Avalokiteshvara’s words, how their understanding was very practical and utilitarian, while Avalokiteshvara’s understanding shows us the first beginnings of an abstract understanding concerning concrete observations that lies at the birth of philosophy as well as technology.

The Heart Sutra7

Please note for yourself in the following translated version of the Heart Sutra, were some of the notions, touched upon in the above commentary, fit. See if you can find breaks in the text, were the text does not follow seamlessly. You might be able to find out for yourself which parts could likely be later inclusions. You might be able to identify which words could have been margin notes that became copied into the text. You might even find some places were the commentary and the original core text do not match or even contradict each other due to misunderstanding and or mistranslation by later commentators.

The Text


"The venerable Shariputra asked the noble Avalokiteshvara1, the bodhisattva mahasattva, "How should a son or daughter of noble family train, who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita?" Addressed in this way, noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, said to venerable Shariputra, "O Shariputra, a son or daughter of noble family who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita should see in this way: seeing the five skandhas to be empty of nature.

Form is emptiness; Emptiness also is form4.
Emptiness is no other than form; Form is no other than emptiness.

In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness5.
Thus, Shariputra, all dharmas are emptiness.
There are no characteristics.
There is no birth and no cessation.
There is no impurity and no purity.
There is no decrease and no increase.
Therefore6Shariputra, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no dharmas, no eye dhatu up to no mind dhatu, no dhatu of dharmas, no mind consciousness dhatu; no ignorance, no end of ignorance up to no old age and death, no end of old age and death; no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no non-attainment.
Therefore, Shariputra, since the bodhisattvas have no attainment, they abide by means of prajnaparamita.
Since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear. They transcend falsity and attain complete nirvana.
All the buddhas of the three times, by means of prajnaparamita, fully awaken to unsurpassable, true, complete enlightenment.
Therefore, the great mantra of prajnaparamita, the mantra of great insight, the unsurpassed mantra, the unequaled mantra, the mantra that calms all suffering, should be known as truth, since there is no deception.
The prajnaparamita mantra is said in this way:




1 It is interesting to note that the Sanskrit name Avalokiteshvara literally means "World-ward looking Lord", definitely a lord who did ‘dig’ this world and observed it with a keen eye, consciously and compassionately looking with understanding.


2 'Bodhisattvah' (Sanskrit), a human being whose essence is enlightenment. From 'bodhih' (knowledge, wisdom) and 'sattva', essence, being ('sat' is existance).


3 The five skandhas are:

1 . five elements (earth, water, fire, air, space),
2 . five aggregates (solid, liquid, plasmic, vapor, sound),

3 . five senses (touching, tasting, seeing, smelling, hearing),
4 . five organs of perception. (hands, mouth, eyes, nose, ear)
5 . five attributes (rupa, samskara, sanjna, vedana, vijnana, (five from a range of twelve nidanas).

Notice the vertical and horizontal order in the five series of skandhas listed above.
These five series can be divided into two groups, the top two series represent form and are thus the material skandhas that we use to perceive, while the bottom three are the psycho-physical skandhas that represent emptiness and thus are the skandhas we use to perceive with.

4 The principle of non-duality is introduced.

5 Inserted commentary.

6 The following major insertion clouds the understanding of the first part of this Sutra, illustrating how ancient scripts in their subsequent transmission, oral as well as written, did not pass through history unscathed to stay true to their original wisdom.

7 There are many versions of the Heart Sutra, here is another one:

8 Gone, gone, gone... gone all the way.


Monday, May 21, 2007