A Western Buddhist's Travels

Sightseeing & detours on the path of enlightenment

Heart Sutra a deeper look (part 1)

image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relics_of_Sariputra_and_Mahamoggallana

“Here, Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.” The Buddha

“Sunyata”, emptiness is translated by many in the west as meaning Nihilism, which means that reality is unknowable, that nothing really exists, and that nothing can truthfully be communicated about the world around us. The Buddhist idea of emptiness is that reality is ultimately discover-able and understandable, that there is a clearly identifiable cause and effect to everything, and we can learn and communicate these truths about reality. Emptiness is not nothingness, or non-existence , nor is it the absence of reality. Buddhism and Nihilism share a skeptical outlook as a basis, but take opposite approaches from this skepticism.

I’ll try to give you a better idea of emptiness using an object we all recognize. The coffee cup, which we will all agree appears to be a solid object. Yet ask a physicist and he will tell you it is anything but solid. There is more empty space between the parts of the molecules than the parts themselves occupy. Then there is more space between the molecules, so you might think of it as a fishing net holding in the water, however it behaves as if it were solid to our senses. We may think of it as empty or full, or even that state which has puzzled philosophers, is it half full or half empty, or any other level. If there is no coffee in the cup, we say we have an empty cup, but is it empty? It may be full of steam, or just plain air, yet we say it’s empty. How about if that cup were floating in outer space, would it then be empty? No for it might be filled with radiation from the stars, and it still has the dimension of space with in it. So in the physical world, we would say the cup is always full, just we don’t specify what it is filled with. The Buddhist view is that the cup is always empty, the cup doesn’t have an inherent existence. If the cup was floating in outer space, and struck by a meteorite it would probably shatter into many smaller pieces. Before it was shaped by the cause and effect of being made into a cup, the components still existed, but the cup did not. So when a Buddhist states that the cup is empty, they mean it doesn’t have an inherent existence, that the components that currently exist in that shape, have not always been in that form, nor is it guaranteed to always keep that form.

However we can not say the cups form and purpose define it. We could describe a coffee cup, perhaps as: a hollow cylindrical shape with one end closed, leak proof. Yet do those properties define a coffee cup? If you said yes, don’t they also apply to a glass, cooking pot, vase, beer stein, or a bottle? So those properties are not unique to a coffee cup, they are shared with other objects. So can we define it, by the material it is made from? It might be made from clay, stainless steel, glass or plastic. Stainless steel coup apply to a pot, glass to a vase or drinking glass. What about defining it by what it is filled with? Fill it with coffee, and it’s a coffee cup. However is it a coffee cup, when we fill it with tea, or hot chocolate? If we break off the handle, is it still a coffee cup, or is it now a coffee glass? So take away any of the conditions we use to identify the coffee cup, and it losses some of it cup qualities, lose enough of these and we may say it has lost it’s cupness. To be a coffee cup, means certain conditions exist, these external conditions determine it’s cupness. So the cup exists due to cause and effect. The cause is the shape and condition of the materials, the effect by containing coffee.

Now imagine something more complex, write a definition of a human being, Come back to it tomorrow, is there anything you would add or remove from the definition? Now ask a friend to see if they can add something to the list, or if they think you have something that doesn’t belong in the definition.

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11 thoughts on “Heart Sutra a deeper look (part 1)

  1. Bro, Heart Sutra is great for us to understand “Emptiness”. Great sharing! With metta

  2. You know, I was trying to explain this to somebody the other day, but didn’t explain it nearly this well and I didn’t have a clear name for it. Can’t wait to read part 2.

    I’m glad you addressed nihilism too, as often as Buddhism gets tagged with it. I knew I wasn’t alone in being confused about that. But that could be a whole essay right there, so I’ll just say thanks for the clarification, it’s much appreciated.

  3. Funnily enough, I wrote a post on my own blog this morning (www.lovefreedompeace.com/writings) about my own experience since ‘awakening’ earlier this year. I also mentioned nihilism. Please take a look…

  4. Pingback: Heart Sutra a deeper look (Part 2) « Keith the Green's Blog

  5. Pingback: Heart Sutra a deeper look (Part 3) « Keith the Green's Blog

  6. Thank you! The coffee cup image is very helpful!

  7. Pingback: Heart Sutra a deeper look (Part 4) « Keith the Green's Blog

  8. Pingback: Heart Sutra a deeper look (Part 5) « Keith the Green's Blog

  9. Pingback: Heart Sutra a deeper look (Part 6) « Keith the Green's Blog

  10. Pingback: Heart Sutra a deeper look (Part 8) « Keith the Green's Blog

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