“Here, form is emptiness and emptiness is form.
Here is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue.
Here is no birth or decay or death.
Therefore the Bodhisattva ceases to tremble,
For what could go wrong?”
(‘To Be and not To Be’, p.171)
The above verse opens the short parable ‘Chiao’s Dream’ written by the British philosopher Douglas Harding, and found in his wonderful book ‘To Be and not To Be, that is the answer’. In the tale, the Buddhist monk Chiao has just finished reciting the Heart Sutra for the ten-thousandth time, and is very pleased with himself at this achievement. All this self-congratulating sentiment is dispersed by a novice called Tsung who has the temerity to ask what the sutra actually means. Chiao retorts by saying that much ‘hidden’ merit has been accrued through his endeavors, and that Tsung should go and sweep the floor of the meditation hall! That night, he has a dream in which the Buddha appears to him, and he makes the following appeal:
“Ten thousand times, O Holy One, I have recited your precious words announcing that form is emptiness. Ten thousand times! But the forms that this despicable monk comes across are full. Bark encloses solid timber, right to the heart of the tree. Broken stones turn out to be stone all through. Wounded men are plainly made of flesh and blood. Even empty pots are brim-full of air.”
The compassionate Buddha promises to equip Chiao with his own “specimen form that is plainly empty” that will always be to hand, with many clues that will point the monk to it, even though others will not see it. Chiao is understandably overwhelmed with this enlightening gift, for as a Buddhist monk he would love to realize that which so many have failed to grasp over the many centuries since the Buddha had walked the Earth. Moreover, the Buddha arranges for Chiao’s eyes, ears, tongue and nose to be amputated, in line with the passage from the Heart Sutra quoted above. Although reassured that this will be beneficial and not painful at all, doubts remain in Chiao, in that he cannot comprehend exactly how his sample emptiness could be or contain anything without ceasing to be empty. In reply to the monk’s query, the Buddha reassures him with the following words:
“Only give it a trial, Chiao, and you’ll find it all makes good sense. Just now it may sound to you quite impossible, but I promise that you will be able clearly to see that your own absolutely speckles Void contains innumerable forms. Or rather that it is those forms, which are infinite in number and scope and variety. Your own personal parcel of emptiness, though small enough for you to handle all over, will be visibly packed with the blazingly colorful, gigantic, rip-roaring world. And therefore as big, if not bigger, than that world.”
Here, the Buddha talks of how Nirvana is realized in the midst of Samsara, and that beyond the world of opposites they in fact merge into the seamlessness that is enlightenment. This Void contains all that is experienced, and because it is void of any separate substance, it is the very objects and processes that appear in it. On top of all this excellent news the Buddha reveals that wherever the monk goes he will be able to see the dissolving of duality whenever he chooses to observe the facts of the present moment. Chiao, however, has one more thing that troubles him regarding this matter, which is that the sutra states that there is no decay or death, and yet to his dismay he notices that he is made of “very perishable stuff indeed.” Indeed, the next morning when he awakes, the dream remains just a dream, and he fails to notice the “specimen form that is plainly empty” that the Buddha had promised would be his. He laments this to the novice Tsung who suggests that perhaps Chiao already possesses the boons offered in the dream, but that he fails to see them. The latter dismisses this idea as nonsense, preparing to recite the Heart Sutra for the ten-thousandth-and-first time, apparently incapable or unwilling of taking heed of the Buddha’s final words to him the night before:
“Instantly on waking, everything I have promised shall be yours, on these conditions. You must really want it, and you must let it in, open yourself to it, actually look at it and look out of it, instead of thinking about it and believing in it. In actual fact, it’s already yours anyway, unconditionally, whether you choose to let it in or not.”
This charming tale of Douglas Harding’s is beautiful in its simplicity, which is most suitable when realizing the simplicity of the message it contains. This message hinges on the last quotation above, in which the emphasis is put on opening up to the way it is right now, focusing solely on the emptiness that lies at the heart of one’s being. But is Chiao correct in his assumption that this is no more than a pleasant dream, and that clinging to doctrines and rituals is more likely to lead to spiritual awakening than simply paying attention? Thanks to Douglas Harding, we neither have to rely on “thinking about it and believing in it” or disbelieving in it. We can test the hypothesis presented in this salient story by using techniques invented and promoted by a man that I was privileged to have met on several occasions. He was someone not so much full of himself, but full of the world, and because of this his words (and ‘experiments’) are all the more worthy of our attention.
Douglas Harding often used the word ‘experiment’ to describe his style of investigation into what he called “seeing who I really, really am.” These experiments do not require a laboratory or tertiary knowledge of the sciences; they do require an open mind, however, for if conducted in the shadow of long-held views & opinions, their results may well be misunderstood. Let’s start with one of the most basic experiments developed by
- Point with a finger at what’s opposite you. Perhaps it’s a wall – or, considering this blog, a computer screen – and notice its shape, size, colors, and above all its opacity.
- Next, point at your feet, carefully observing their shapes, sizes, colors, and whether you can see through them or not.
- Then, point at your midriff, again noting its visual qualities.
- Now, point to your face and – on present evidence, notice what you see. What colors lie at your end of that pointing digit? Can you discern a shape or size for what exists where ‘you’ are?
- Finally, is this emptiness at your end of that pointing finger really empty? Look again, and see if it is filled with not only your raised hand, but also with everything else that you can see right now. On present evidence, is it true to say that where you thought your face was, there exists a myriad objects of varying colors, sizes, and shapes?
Do you get it, dear reader? At heart, you do not exist; instead there is a void that’s full of the world: “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.” The objects and creatures, not to mention people, that you encounter exist in the light of this naked awareness, that itself is not a thing as such, and was therefore described by
- Close your eyes (you might want to memorize these instructions first).
- Listen to the sounds that are occurring in your surroundings. Listen to their rhythms, speed, volume, and melodies. Notice how each sound has its own separate characteristics.
- Turn your attention around to the listener. What audible characteristics do you find here, if any? Is it true to say that conditioned sounds arise in what might be deemed an unconditioned silence that is capacity for those noises to appear in?
Again, as with visual data, does not the nature of sounds differ to that which hosts them, in that the sounds have specific qualities, whilst the emptiness only finds form in the arising of audible things? This silence has the same (lack of) qualities that we noticed with the pointing experiment; it is the knowing that accepts all sounds for what they are, neither liking nor disliking them, but simply being the spaciousness in which they find expression. (It is the ego that has likes & dislikes, and that too can be seen to exist in the context of this naked awareness.) Alongside vision & hearing, the third focus for these short series of experiments will be thoughts themselves:
- Close your eyes (you might want to memorize these instructions as above).
- Observe thoughts as they pop up in your mind. What are they about? Are they clear & concise in nature or rather vague meanderings? How long does each thought last for, and does it give immediate birth to another, or are there gaps between them?
- And what of that which is aware of thoughts? Is that a thought, too? How long does that last, and is it connected to a particular subject like thoughts are, or is it a simple awareness that simply notes the thinking process?
Here, thoughts are seen as so many mental mirages appearing and disappearing in the quiet space that sees them. It is emptiness itself, the capacity for things & processes to occur in, and yet no division can be detected at all – it is the thoughts that it contains. If emotions are observed in the same manner, they too can be seen to exist in this dispassionate void, as can the remaining physical senses of taste, touch, and smell. All phenomena can be experienced as arising in this formless, soundless, and thoughtless awareness, that, paradoxically is the very things that occur in it, as no separation can be found. And, in this transcendence of one’s self that includes all others, genuine happiness and compassion can be found. A happiness that is not the result of certain people’s actions or particular events taking place, but a quiet bliss that accompanies experience, and a compassion that is independent of the biases of the personality, but which goes out to any being in need that is encountered.
If all this sounds way too good to be true, or just a bunch of airy-fairy ‘spiritual’ talk, the challenge is to try it out. Do the experiments described above, taking as much time as you need to see what they are getting at, and then take that awareness and apply it to everyday life. Don’t be like Chiao, who knows every word of the Heart Sutra by heart, but has no inkling of how to apply its teachings to his life. In doing so, you may find that ‘Buddha Space’ to which this blog’s title partially refers; at the very least, you’ll have a new & interesting mindfulness practice to experiment with. You might even be surprised what you can achieve without any ‘you’ to get in the way, engrossed in the realization that “emptiness is form and form is emptiness.”
'To Be and not To Be, that is the answer' by Douglas Harding can be obtained from The Headless Way website, a link to which can be found to the right of this page.