Avalokitesvara doing deep Prajna Paramita, clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions, thus completely relieving misfortune and pain. Oh, ŚShariputra, form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form. Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.

During our Fall Ango, we’ve been studying the Heart Sutra, one of the most profound teaching in all of Mahayana Buddhism and the essence of our tradition. Its purpose is, as Daido Roshi says in this commentary, “to stun the mind.” But in order for that to happen, we have to able to actually hear the teaching. For most of us, it can take years of practice before we really begin to understand the radical nature of what is being expressed. Form is emptiness. This is the medicine to liberate all of us from our illusions, but we have to learn to receive it. That’s what practice is about—teaching us how to receive the dharma, how to engage it intimately and let it enliven our mind.

Form is emptiness. What does that mean? Form is very simply the thing we perceive as it knocks on the doors of our senses. Our eyes touch physical forms; our ears touch audible forms; our skin touches textures and feels cool and warm. Our nose touches smells; our mind touches thoughts. And in that moment of contact, there’s a kind of physicality to the experience. Even in noticing a thought, it feels like we’re making contact with something. When we feel the breeze on our faces and its movement past us, it feels like there’s something solid there.

Although we know the breeze is transient and ever-changing, with each successive moment of contact we develop an increasing sense of continuity. An “object” as ephemeral as the wind becomes concrete. In the inner workings of our unconscious mind, something comes together. Through the power of our consciousness, a structure is created.

From this essential working of the mind, our sense of reality and this world, of self and other, arises. Because this moment feels like the next, and the next, and the next, we experience permanence. And because we perceive ourselves as the ones experiencing this permanence, it seems very clear that there is “me” and there is “everything else.” My eyes touch you, and you appear different from me. Wind, a tree, an emotion—these appear as distinct and solid from how I experience myself. I look at myself in a mirror or look down and see my body, and I perceive this form to be who I am. I experience myself as separate from other things, which each appear separate and distinct in themselves, too. And because my sense of myself appears as continuous and seems to hold together, it conveys a sense of permanence. I have a sense of existing. I exist in space—here I am. I exist in time—here I am again. This is what we call the self—a series of such moments coming together in apparent seamlessness. We don’t see any gap. Every change or shift just gets woven into the interior workings of our consciousness as something that’s happening within a solid, permanent state.