The Aro g’Ter lineage offers one of the best explanations of the spirituality of emptiness and non-duality that I have seen. What I have found amongst Mahayana/Vajrayana sects (Dzogchen in particular) is an obsessive focus on extreme forms of emptiness, to the point of voidness. Some Zen sects focus obsessively on form, favouring an excessive concreteness of material objects and their properties. Aside from Aro g’Ter, I had not seen a lineage that looks at the complex interplay of emptiness and form, all the specific, myriad and complex ways that emptiness and form are mixed up with each other. There’s a traditional Tibtetan teaching that says that there are 18 forms of emptiness. What that means is that emptiness is not a singular, absolute state outside of the material world, but an embodied characteristic that takes many forms depending on the particular object or condition one is referring to. There are as many different kinds of emptiness as there are forms to embody them. The Aro g’Ter’s teaching on emptiness is a great way to begin this contemplation.
(From the Aro g’Ter website) Form, emptiness, and non-duality are the most important terms in the Buddhist ‘view’. View in Buddhism corresponds approximately to ‘philosophy’ in Western terms. However, Buddhist view is not just a conceptual framework – it must be understood experientially. The ultimate practice of Buddhism is to live the view.
Explanations of Buddhist view are typically abstract, complex, and intellectual. Consequently, emptiness and form need to be understood in as many ways as possible if we are to bring their meaning into our lives. It is helpful to read a variety of explanations – such as can be found in the books on the Aro gTér Lineage recommended reading list. It is also useful to contemplate the Heart Sutra (the brief Buddhist text which summarises the view that is central to our philosophy).
However, view is best understood through meditation – and by observing emptiness and form in our everyday lives.
In sitting meditation, we experience emptiness directly as the simultaneous absence of thought and presence of awareness. We experience form as the thought and sensation which arise from the condition of non-thought. We experience non-dualityas the nature of Mind in which thought and the absence of thought are no longer mutually exclusive – they have the same taste.
We may experiences flashes of emptiness and non-duality soon after we first learn to meditate. These flashes inspire us to deepen our practice. Significant periods of emptiness generally require a few years of regular practice.
In everyday life, it is possible to begin to observe form, emptiness, and non-duality – immediately. Form, emptiness, and non-duality are aspects of existence:
- Form is the quality of solidity, permanence, separateness, continuity, and definition.
- Emptiness is the quality of insubstantiality, impermanence, indistinctness, discontinuity, and ambiguity.
- Non-duality is the recognition that existence and experience are permeated by the qualities of form and emptiness. These qualities are in constant erratic flux. Our searches either for security (form) or excitement (emptiness) are based on attempts to control that flux.
Having explored the view, we must validate that conceptual understanding in our lives. Unless emptiness and form become evident in our experience of life, the practices of Vajrayana Buddhism can be no more than an exotic hobby.
Habitually, we adhere to form and reject emptiness. We experience the world as having better and worse components. We attempt to collect and consume that which we see as better, and to rid ourselves of that which we take to be worse. We try to manipulate and stabilise our situations using conceptual trial-and-error understandings of cause and effect. This life-strategy intermittently fails due to erratic intrusions of emptiness. Things we thought were objectively desirable prove ambiguous in their desirability. They modulate and mutate in terms of what they mean to us. Undesirable situations and phenomena cannot be entirely eliminated – because they are not separate from us. Often our actions do not have the effects we expect. Just as we think we have everything under control—on the verge of achieving lasting happiness—some unexpected problem arises and wrecks our plans. We experience emptiness as confusion, ambivalence, ambiguity, chaos, termination, insecurity, disarray, loss, disintegration, inexplicable anxiety, loss of direction, and apparent misfortune.
We only fear emptiness because we imagine a characteristic form will be lost – we fear forever. We cling to form as security because form temporarily allows us to pretend that it is not also empty. Dissatisfaction is created by continual bids to secure forms – which subsequently prove to be empty of security. Dissatisfaction is also created by continual bids to dissolve insecurities which subsequently prove indissoluble. It is not possible to find anything other than this. Emptiness and form always define each other – as each other.
Form can be understood as ‘existence’ and emptiness as ‘non-existence’. Emptiness however, is not merely ‘nothing’. Emptiness need not be experienced negatively. Emptiness is the arena in which everything occurs. It is the creative space in which form comes into being. Form can only exist because of emptiness; which is why emptiness is often referred to as ‘the great mother’ or ‘the womb of potentiality’.
Some words which value emptiness positively are: freedom, spontaneity, opportunity, relaxation, serendipity, inspiration, potential, humour, creativity, relief, wonderment, vastness. We must enjoy emptiness if we are to enjoy form. A gracious relationship with form is impossible unless we relate courageously with emptiness – because emptiness and form are non-dual. They are aspects of each other.
This endless non-dual reflection is the limitless dance of Vajrayana Buddhism. Our spiritual practice consists simply of learning to dance with the emptiness and form of phenomena. Vajrayana introduces the one taste of emptiness and form. We develop the ability to actively savour apparently polarised tension, rather than experiencing it in a victim rôle. This apparently polarised tension, after all, is merely created through ongoing attempts to attach to form whilst rejecting emptiness.
We need to observe the way in which we attempt to solidify emptiness. In so doing, we crush our freedom through attempting to impose form on situations where reality is in creative flux. Alternatively—in the disconcerting gaps between contrasting segments of life—we might sense a dimension of being that is independent of circumstances. It is interesting—on finding this space—to allow events to remain undefined a little longer than usual. Settling into uncertainty and feeling its texture – life can disclose itself as emptiness and form: beads on the thread of energy which comprise the nature of experience. We can simply flow with the multiplicity of definitions manifested by reality. We can swim in swirling torrents of form and relax in still pools of emptiness.
This requires that we allow polarities to coexist. We can deliberately entertain experiential and existential paradoxes. We can embrace our impulsiveness and caution, credulity and scepticism, craziness and absolute sanity. Unless we are prepared to feel the texture of these erratically alternating possibilities – the energy of being remains incomprehensible. If we delightedly embrace the possibility of expanding into the fierce totality of each moment—as it arrives—we can know what it is to be alive.
18 Forms of Emptiness by Shaun Bartone