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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 2: Lam-rim (Graded Stage) Material > Explanation of The Heart Sutra > Session Two: Form – Voidness; Voidness – Form

Explanation of The Heart Sutra

Alexander Berzin
Riga, Latvia, August 2009

Session Two: Form – Voidness; Voidness – Form

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:57 hours)

Yesterday we began our discussion of the Heart Sutra; and we saw that this sutra is presenting, in a very condensed form, the teachings on far-reaching discriminating awareness. Discriminating awareness is a mental factor and it is based on the factor which is called distinguishing. Distinguishing is often translated as “recognition,” but that’s not a terribly precise translation. In general, when we distinguish something, we distinguish what it is from what it is not. And this is a mental factor that functions in every moment of our life. For instance, when I look at you, this person in front of me, I distinguish the colored shapes of their face from the colored shapes of the wall. The person is – you know, the face – is this collection of colored shapes, and it’s not the colored shapes that are right next to it in my visual field. We wouldn’t be able to deal with our perception if we didn’t have this mental factor. We wouldn’t be able to distinguish one object from the background, or one object from another object.

When we read in mahamudra literature, for example, that reality is beyond “this” and “that,” which is (we fill in the words): it’s beyond distinguishing a solid “this” from a solid “that.” That’s referring to a “this” that is encapsulated and isolated, existing all by itself, different from “that.” So that’s not referring to our general mental factor of distinguishing. As I said, without distinguishing I wouldn’t be able to distinguish your face from the wall behind you. And when we speak about discriminating awareness, then what this mental factor does is it adds certainty to that distinguishing. So “certainty” means that we’re definitely convinced it’s this and not that; and of course we could be definitely convinced that it’s this and not that, and either be correct or be incorrect. But here when we think about far-reaching discriminating awareness then we’re speaking about a discriminating in terms of reality – how things exist: it’s like this and it’s not like that – and our discriminating awareness is correct. And it’s correct because it’s based on logic. And it’s also based on the experience that if we understand and view things in terms of this correct understanding, it either minimizes or eventually eliminates suffering. After all, why do we need to understand reality and understand it correctly? It’s because when we are unaware of how I and how everything exists, or we understand it in an inverted way, then, as Buddha pointed out with the Four Noble Truths, this is the deepest cause of suffering – suffering not only in myself, but everybody’s suffering. And so the whole point of understanding reality is to get rid of this confusion, so that we get rid of our suffering and we’re in a position to help others to overcome their suffering as well.

So when we translate this term discriminating awareness as “wisdom,” as in the expression “perfection of wisdom,” we don’t get the fuller deeper meaning of what is involved here or implied by this term. And as I explained yesterday, far-reaching is added here, usually translated as “perfection,” because when we have this understanding of reality, this discriminating awareness with a bodhichitta motivation – well, let me modify that – if we have it with renunciation, the true Buddhist definition of renunciation (the determination to be free of suffering and its causes), then that understanding will bring us to liberation; so it’s far-reaching, it brings us to the other shore of samsara. And if we have that understanding with bodhichitta – in other words, aiming for our not-yet-attained enlightenment, moved by compassion and love for others, intending to achieve that enlightenment in order to be able to benefit everyone – if the understanding is with the force of that type of mind, then that understanding will bring us all the way to enlightenment. So we can have a correct discriminating awareness of reality without either renunciation or both renunciation and bodhichitta; that’s possible, but it will not be far-reaching. It will not bring us out of samsara and out of the realm of being a limited being (someone who is not a Buddha). It cannot bring us to either liberation or enlightenment, so it won’t be far-reaching.

So to translate this term as “perfection” doesn’t give at all any correct or deep meaning, does it, since we might think that perfection means that we have a perfect understanding, which means a correct understanding. Here “prajnaparamita” is not referring to just a correct understanding; it’s referring to this understanding with the motivation of either renunciation, or both renunciation and bodhichitta. And this far-reaching discriminating awareness is something which we need to apply in our behavior in daily life; and that’s why in this sutra we have this whole discussion of how do you conduct your behavior, it says, “in profound and far-reaching discriminating awareness. Profound in that it is correct: the deepest understanding of reality. And far-reaching in terms of the motivation. And this sutra, this discussion, is inspired by the Buddha being in concentration, and it is in the form of Shariputra asking Avalokiteshvara to explain.

So now we are up to Avalokiteshvara’s explanation. And he starts his explanation like this. He or she – the question was addressed in terms of both male and female disciples and practitioners – Avalokiteshvara says, He or she needs to keep in view, fully and in detail, the five aggregate factors of his or her experience and those as devoid of self-establishing nature.

So in order to understand this and the lines that follow, we need to understand the five aggregate factors. In fact the sutra is going to refer to many groups of factors: we have the five aggregate factors, we have the twelve cognitive stimulators, we have the eighteen cognitive sources, we have the twelve links of dependent arising – all these things are mentioned here. And we have to remember that this is a condensed sutra: the heart, the essence of the Prajnaparamita teachings; and in the longer versions, which are as long as a hundred thousand verse version, then we will have all the detail. So when we are faced with an expanded version of something and the abbreviated condensed version of something (as here with the Prajnaparamita literature and also with tantric sadhanas), we need to remember that the condensed abbreviated form is really for advanced practitioners; for beginners we have the expanded form. We like to think of it the other way around! It’s only when we have an understanding of the full teaching, the full practice, that then, when we read a condensed version of it, we can fill in with our understanding what’s being condensed – otherwise it’s very difficult to understand what it’s talking about in these condensed versions. But we only have a short amount of time together, so there is no time to explain all of these lists in detail, but I’ll try to give in brief an explanation of them so that at least this material here in the Heart Sutra is understandable.

Five aggregates. I call them the “five aggregate factors of experience,” and yesterday we discussed what “experience” is referring to. Experiencing things means not just to take in information, but also to feel some level of happiness or unhappiness in conjunction with that. So we’re going through life and what actually is happening from moment to moment? This is the question. And we really can only deal with what is happening from moment to moment in terms of our subjective experience of it, and that’s individual. What I am experiencing sitting in this room and what each of you is experiencing sitting in the room is very different, even just on the level of the visual appearance that you are perceiving; everybody is looking from a different perspective. And if we want to analyze what is making up this moment of experience – and, after all, it’s changing from moment to moment – we would want to have some classification scheme. Why? Well, we’re talking about Buddhism here aren’t we? It’s not just a scientific classification scheme. We want to understand what we are experiencing because there is suffering as part of it, and we want to figure out what part of what’s going on in my subjective experience is the troublemaker, the cause of the suffering, and what I need to change within that in order to eliminate that suffering. That’s the whole purpose. It’s not just some intellectual game.

So we can classify or divide what we are experiencing in terms of five large categories. It doesn’t mean that these categories are boxes sitting somewhere up in the sky or by themselves; it’s just a way of understanding things. So we have forms and physical phenomena. There are sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations. And there are the physical sensors, or the cells of the eyes, the ears, and so on, that are involved in perception of any form of physical phenomena. And we also have more subtle ones like, for instance, what would appear in dreams: seemingly sensory objects that appear in dreams; or when we imagine something, like think of a dog. So you have some sort of visual image that is purely mental. In every moment there is going to be some sort of form of physical phenomenon even if it’s just darkness while we’re asleep.

And then there will be some type of what’s called “primary consciousness,” and primary consciousness is a way of being aware of something – and it is aware of what’s called the “essential nature” (ngo-bo) of its object. So what does this term “essential nature” mean? You know there are so many different terms that are so loosely translated all together as “nature,” but actually there are many different types of nature and specific words have specific meanings. You can’t just say “aware of the nature of the phenomena.” So it’s an essential nature, so that means in essence what type of phenomenon is it: it is aware in terms of something being a sight, or in terms of it being a sound, or in terms of it being an odor. This is an essential nature of what general type of thing something is. In modern science we don’t make that differentiation, we just speak in terms of consciousness of all different types of sensory material. But here in Buddhism we differentiate the type of primary consciousness that we have according to the type of sensory information or material.

If we think in terms of the brain, in a Western analysis we have from each of the senses some type of electrical impulse and chemical message that is being sent through the neurons to the brain. Like you have on a television: the television is receiving some sort of waves or something like that. Actually I don’t know how a television works, but I assume that it’s receiving some sort of electrical information. And the primary consciousness is like the decoder, it’s going to decode that information into either: it is visual information, or it’s sound information, or it’s smell or taste or tactile information, or mental information (abstract). I think that is a good analogy of what primary consciousness is doing. It’s decoding this information, as it were, so that we are aware that it is visual, audio, etc. A computer does that as well.

Also, when we speak of ways of being aware of something there are – primary consciousness, as I said – but then there are also mental factors or subsidiary types of awareness. “Subsidiary” is actually a quite literal way of translating the Sanskrit and Tibetan term; it means that it is derivative from the primary consciousness. So it’s something that accompanies and helps this primary consciousness, and it is going to help that primary consciousness in terms of, for instance, attention, interest, concentration. So somehow it deals with that information. And all the emotional content that is involved in how we are aware of that object, both positive and negative: we love that object, we hate that object, we like it, we dislike it.

So among those mental factors, one aggregate is made up of just one mental factor – that’s feeling: feeling a level of happiness. Actually, we should give the next one before that: distinguishing – we are able to distinguish, as I explained before, one object from another object in our sense field; otherwise we can’t possibly deal with this information. And then we feel some level of happiness or unhappiness in relation to that object; or we could feel happy or unhappy not specifically about what I’m seeing in front of myself – I just feel unhappy in general.

So we’ve covered four aggregates: form and physical phenomenon, primary consciousness, distinguishing, feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness – that’s four. And the fifth one is what I call “other affecting variables.” It’s all the other variables (things that change) which will affect our experience. This is the Sanskrit word samskara. So this is made up of all the other mental factors besides distinguishing and feeling a level of happiness, plus things that change (that are non-static) which are neither a way of being aware of something nor a form of physical phenomenon – like for instance tendencies and habits. What’s also included in that category would be the conventional "me,” a difficult topic.

So in each moment of our experience we’re going to have one or more item from each of these five aggregates, or bags – if we want to speak about it very loosely – five bags of things. And they’re changing every moment, and they’re changing at different speeds, and we have troublemakers and problems in each of these aggregates. What appears to us, for example, what it is can be either correct or incorrect, but there’s also an appearance of how it exists. You know, it could appear as if it’s encapsulated in plastic and isolated from everything else. That’s incorrect.

Primary consciousness? Well, not so much a problem with that, but with feeling we could have… Our ordinary feelings are either gross suffering and unhappiness – we certainly don’t want that – and our ordinary happiness is also not the optimal thing that we could experience because it doesn’t last, and we’re insecure about it because we don’t know what’s going to come next. It’s never satisfying: you never have enough and the more that we have, it changes into suffering. Like the happiness of eating ice cream: the more ice cream that we eat at one sitting, eventually that happiness is going to turn into pain.

And we distinguish things incorrectly: we think that if I do this it’s going to make me happy, but in fact it doesn’t. We distinguish reality incorrectly and we project all sorts of hopes and expectations on others, and we distinguish that that’s going to be what’s really going to happen, and the other person is like this or like that, and it’s quite incorrect. And then these other affecting variables, we have all sorts of troublemakers: our disturbing emotions of aggression, hostility, clinging, jealousy, laziness. So we want to get rid of all these unsatisfactory aspects.

And so this is all that’s going on from the point of view of what we’re experiencing. There’s this ever-changing conglomeration of these aggregate factors and as it says here in the sutra this is devoid of self-establishing nature. Well, first of all, the whole experience is devoid of a self-establishing nature, and each little piece of it is devoid of a self-establishing nature, and "me" in all of this is devoid of a self-establishing nature. So how does this work? What does this really mean?

This brings us to a topic of mental labeling. For example, we might say, "I’m in a bad mood. I feel terrible, depressed, etc." So what is that? You know we have to analyze because obviously this isn’t a nice experience. So we are labeling our, these five aggregates – what I’m experiencing now, and it’s not just this moment but a period of time – as a bad mood. So we now have a basis for labeling and a label “bad mood.” So the basis for labeling is these aggregate factors that are made up of all these parts that are each changing at a different speed every moment. So we get an image of something very dynamic and moving, don’t we? Now the mental label of a “bad mood,” well, that is like a concept, it’s either a concept and it can be expressed in a word – you know these two words “bad mood.” Alright? Mental label: we’re talking about a category “bad mood,” which is a concept, really, and it can be expressed in some sort of verbal expression.

“Category”: we’ve had many experiences of bad moods; they’re not all exactly the same, are they? But we have this general category “bad mood,” a concept – sort of what a bad mood is. And you have a word for it in Latvian and I have a word for it in English, so there’s some sort of verbal expression. And it can be quite interesting because your concept of “bad mood” and my concept of “bad mood” could be quite different, couldn’t it? When I think in terms of a concept of a “good time,” what I consider a good time you might consider incredibly boring. So, anyway, “bad mood” is not just a word or a category, is it? So there is what’s called a referent object. And the referent object is what this concept is referring to – and it’s referring to a bad mood, and this conventionally does exist. It is correct. There’s a basis for labeling – all these little parts that are changing all the time. There’s a mental concept and a mental label “bad mood” and the “bad mood” is referring to something that conventionally we are experiencing: I am experiencing a bad mood. It’s a way of putting together what I am experiencing.

Perhaps we can understand this by an easier example. I’m eating a meal – well every individual moment I’m doing something else! I’m lifting a fork, I’m putting something in my mouth, I’m closing my teeth, I’m swallowing. Each little piece is different, but we can refer to the whole thing as “I’m eating a meal.” And conventionally I am eating a meal – I did eat a meal – it’s not as though this is nonexistent, is it?

And the referent object and the basis for labeling are not the same. So that’s a very profound statement, but you have to understand it in a simple example. What is the meal? Is the meal lifting my fork with one piece of food from the plate to two centimeters above? That’s part of the basis for labeling, but is that the meal? Well, no. So the meal is not identical to the basis. Actually, the more you analyze the more interesting it becomes. Did you eat the whole meal in one instant? But in each instant, I’m eating the meal. So you start to really wonder what’s going on here! So this topic of mental labeling actually is very profound when it starts to go deeper and deeper into analyzing what’s going on here with mental labeling.

Now the problem here – mental labeling is not a problem: whether we mentally label eating a meal or not, we’re still eating a meal; and we can still be in a bad mood, whether we mentally label it or not. The mental labeling process doesn’t create the bad mood, just as a mentally labeled process of saying that this is a meal didn’t create the meal. So the problem is we have to differentiate here between what I call a “referent object” (btags-chos) and a “referent thing” (btags-don). Actually that’s not so easy to translate into many other languages, but the Tibetan word is very similar – two words. Remember yesterday we spoke about a focal support, and that our projections of how things exist do not have something behind it holding it up like a support holding up a piece of scenery in a drama, a play. So a referent thing is like a focal support; it’s something behind that referent object which is sort of holding it up.

I have to explain that, because what appears to us is that “I’m in a bad mood,” and that bad mood appears to be something quite solid; and the nasty thing is that it feels very solid. And so all these things are changing all the time – these aggregates: what I’m looking at, what I’m hearing, etc. – that’s changing every moment; and how much attention I pay, and all of that’s changing every moment. But the way that I’m experiencing it is through this mental label of “Ooh, bad mood!” So then we think “bad mood” by itself, and this “bad mood” appears, and we’re not talking about a visual appearance, but it sort of arises in our – well we would say in our mind, but it’s not as though the mind is some sort of stage and the bad mood marched on and there it is, it’s standing there. But, nevertheless, it appears all by itself as if it is establishing itself by its own power. In other words, it doesn’t appear to us as all the various causes and conditions which have produced this bad mood, but it certainly doesn’t appear to us as all the previous life karmic reasons for a bad mood arising. It doesn’t even appear to us that in each moment this bad mood itself is changing. It appears static, solid, “bad mood.” Alright?

Then all sorts of silly things – not silly, but unpleasant things get associated. We feel depressed. We feel the rest of the day is doomed to be terrible because I’m in a bad mood, etc. So although it is conventionally true – “convention” means that we have a convention, we have a way of referring to what I am experiencing, to put it together – so it is a valid convention that we’ve all agreed that this type of experience is a bad mood. So it is conventionally correct that I am in a bad mood. So there is a referent object of bad mood which is imputable on what I’m experiencing every moment that’s changing all the time. There’s a way of sort of generalizing what I am experiencing. There’s no referent thing behind it holding it up; in other words, that there’s an actual thing, a bad mood, existing by itself independent of its causes, and conditions, and the fact that it’s changing, and so on. That is what’s absent.

We process almost like a computer. We process what we are experiencing in terms of various categories: hot, cold, dog, cat, like it, don’t like it. We process our information like that. And we have language to express these categories and we have dictionaries that give the definitions of these various terms, like the definition of a bad mood or the definition of a meal. But even the definition in the dictionary is made up by somebody, just as the words are made up by a group of people who put together meaningless sounds and said this group of meaningless sounds is going to have a meaning. So we have language based on concepts, and definitions of concepts, and words. That’s okay; we need that to communicate. But so-called reality, and I use that word loosely, reality doesn’t correspond to that. Dictionaries and words and language imply boxes – that something fits either into this box, this word in the dictionary; or that box, that word in the dictionary – and things aren’t quite like that. I mean, think especially of emotions. I’m feeling an emotion. What box does it fit into?

So we have language, we have mental labels, we have concepts – they refer to things: there’s referent objects, there’s conventional truth of things, but the universe does not exist like a dictionary, in boxes. So these groups of boxes are absent; there is no such thing. I mean that would be the focal support, would be some box behind this “bad mood,” a bad mood, and there it is sitting by itself; and when we’re talking about voidness, we’re talking about the total absence of that. So if the universe existed made up of all these boxes, isolated, encapsulated by itself – I mean, after all, it’s a different entry in the dictionary – then each of these boxes would be establishing itself by its own power or by the power of some definition. You know, the definition of what goes in this box: and here it’s written: this… this… this… that definition, there it is! It goes in this box!

So this is what’s described as a self-establishing nature, that things have something inside them divorced or isolated from anything else, but within the box that is establishing that box, making that box, establishing that it’s this box and not that box. So this is a very subtle distinction that’s being made here. When we had distinguishing, the mental factor of distinguishing: things do have conventionally a defining characteristic. We have a defining characteristic for a cat and a dog. A cat is not a dog. So there are conventionally defining characteristics, but these have been decided upon by mental concepts. There are so many different types of animals that are thrown into that box DOG – I mean it’s really quite extraordinary that anybody would think that all of them would belong in the same box. Some scientists decided they’re all dogs, and made that classification, and decided upon some defining characteristics that make it a dog. Well it doesn’t sweat, it has its tongue out all the time, it has a tail that it wags, well maybe some other animals wag their tails – so anyway, they came up with some defining characteristics of what’s a dog. But, what are there? There’re just all these animals walking around and they don’t have something inside them like a little label that they wear around their necks saying, “I’m a dog,” do they? “I’m not a cat, I’m a dog.” So there’s nothing on the side of it by its own power that makes it a dog; but it is a dog, conventionally we call it a dog. We don’t call it a cat. We’ve all agreed. But that category of “dog” is something which is established by mental labeling, by convention; it’s not something from the power of the side of that animal.

So this is what this entire sutra is about. It’s saying that nothing has a self-establishing nature. It’s when we believe that what appears to us – this appearance of self-established natures of things, like encapsulated in plastic all by itself – actually corresponds to reality. This is our confusion. This is our unawareness. Because when we believe that this bad mood that we’re experiencing, and which appears to be so solid and establishing itself sitting there making me feel so terrible – when we believe in that, that it corresponds to reality, then we really get depressed. We identify with it. “Poor me, I’m in a bad mood. Don’t bother me, don’t ask me to do anything because I’m in a bad mood.” And the rest of the day is hopeless because I’m in a bad mood. And we not only experience suffering and unhappiness, but we create more – not just for ourselves, but for everybody that we meet.

It’s like, for instance, when you stub your toe: you’re walking and you bang against something in the dark, or whatever, and it hurts. So we could panic, “Oh I stubbed my toe! It hurts so badly” and jump up and down and make a big deal out of it. Or we could say, “Well, conventionally I did stub my toe, conventionally it does hurt. So what?” Okay, you look to see is it really injured. Do I have to put a bandage on it, or is it broken? You take it seriously, but then you go on with life. It hurts. Well what did I expect? Of course it’s going to hurt, but there isn’t this horrible monster thing: “Oh I’ve hurt my toe!” or “Oh I’m in a bad mood!” “Okay, I’m in a bad mood – so what?” So you change what you’re doing. You could sit there and feel sorry for yourself but that doesn’t help. But it’s like, for instance, “I don’t feel like working today.” Well, so what? I go and I work anyway. If you need to take a break, well then you get up from your desk and then you go back. You don’t make a big deal out of anything. As my teacher Serkong Rinpoche always likes to use the expression “nothing special.” “Oh, you banged your toe – nothing special.” “Oh, you’re in a bad mood – nothing special.”

Participant: Well, nothing special has a very interesting connotation here because our Minister of Finance when he was asked about the crisis here and his English was so-so, let’s put it mildly, and he was saying “nothing special.” So he was a student of Serkong Rinpoche!

Alex: But that’s a very good example. If you make it into this “crisis,” then everybody gets depressed and you feel hopeless: “There’s nothing that I can do!” But if you understand that it arose from causes and conditions, then you try to – you start to analyze what can be changed so that we have a different mental label for it. It’s no longer a “crisis.”

Okay, so Avalokiteshvara said, I’ll repeat the line He or she needs to keep in view, fully and in detail, the five aggregate factors of his or her experience and those as devoid of self-establishing nature.

So that means that everything is changing, every moment – these five aggregate factors – and there’s nothing inside it that is by its own power, independent of causes and conditions and mental labels (like “bad mood” is a mental label), that establishes it as this or that.

Then in the translation that I made, I followed the original Sanskrit because there have been some modifications in the way that it was translated into other Asian languages. So actually the Sanskrit just says “Form voidness, voidness form.” It’s the Chinese translation that added the word “is.” There is no word “is.” “Form is voidness, voidness is form” – the Chinese translators added the word “is.”

The Sanskrit just has Form – voidness; voidness – form.

I mean it can’t be literally that form is voidness. Voidness is a static phenomenon: it’s a fact, it doesn’t change. Form is a physical phenomenon – or just forms in general: forms of feeling, forms of etc. – and it changes from moment to moment. So you can’t... They’re certainly not identical, but in technical language they share the same essential nature – that’s the technical jargon – which means that they are referring to the same thing, but from two different points of view. You can’t have one without the other. Like two sides of a coin: you can’t have just one side of a coin. If you have one side of a coin, you have the other side as well. So the two sides of the coin, although they are not identical to each other, are referring to the same thing, aren’t they? So this is referring here, “form – voidness; voidness – form,” is referring to what’s known as the two truths about anything.

Conventional truth – well you have form, that’s referring to appearance of things. And the deepest truth is the voidness – it doesn’t exist in impossible ways. Impossible means with a self-establishing nature. So if there are forms, appearances of things, they have arisen dependently on causes, conditions, parts. You can’t have a hand independently of fingers. It arises dependently on parts and mental labels. The whole mental label of “hand” that somehow we have cut off at the wrist – well, where at the wrist? And so the portion that’s on the other side of that line is a hand – well, it’s a mental concept, isn’t it? So if the existence of a hand is established – so, form – is established by evolution, and the growth from the fetus and the DNA; and it’s established from all the parts, all the cells of the fingers; and it’s established by a mental label “hand,” which is distinguishing a certain part of the body; so if it arises dependently on that, that means that it is devoid of a self-establishing nature: something inside that, by itself, is a hand.

It’s important to relate all of this. After all, Avalokiteshvara is being asked here, how do you conduct your behavior with this? So maybe it’s not so significant to us about our hand or about the wall, or something like that – unless, “Oh this terrible wall, it’s so ugly!” Think of it in terms of bad mood, or this terrible person that I don’t like – you know, this big problem that I’m facing in life. These are the things that we have to understand are – well there’s the appearance: it’s conventionally like that; but it’s devoid of establishing it by itself, by its own power. There’s all these causes, circumstances etc., that’s changing all the time, the concepts.

Also, when we understand this whole process of mental labeling then we realize that we can change the mental label, so this is called “attitude training.” “Mind training” is how it’s usually translated, but it’s attitude training. So you could label it a “crisis” and “a difficult time,” because it is a difficult time, conventionally. But then you could also label it a “challenge”; you could label it an “opportunity to change.” And based on how we label it, then the whole approach of how we experience it becomes quite different, doesn’t it? So by changing the mental label of the present economic situation to “nothing special,” as your Minister has done, well what’s the purpose of that? The purpose is not to panic. Well you know it’s unrealistic… well I don’t know what his purpose was, but if we look at it as “nothing special,” well it’s unrealistic to imagine that things are going to just constantly improve and get better and better and better and better. So if we don’t panic then we see, “Well, how do we deal with the ups and downs that are going to be natural in samsara?”

So this understanding of voidness doesn’t negate the fact that I lost my job, or my salary is lower, and it’s a difficult time. It doesn’t negate that. Of course not. This is conventionally what’s going on, what we’re experiencing, but it does help us not to – although it might feel like this horrible, horrible thing that has happened – that we don’t, what’s the word, we don’t give full belief into that. Okay, it’s arisen from this and that. We’re a little bit more relaxed and we see more realistically, well how can I deal with this? This is conventional reality: I have less salary, etc. Now what do I do? So you differentiate between the referent object – okay it’s a difficult time, that’s true – from a referent thing, this monstrous horrible thing that has happened to poor me. So Avalokiteshvara says, “Form – voidness” – there’s form and there’s voidness. If something has dependently arisen, it is devoid of establishing itself. And if it’s devoid of establishing itself then it has arisen dependently on other factors: mental labels, parts, causes etc.

And then Avalokiteshvara amplifies this to make sure that we understand. He says Form not separate from voidness; voidness not separate from form.

You can’t have one without the other. They come in the same package, like the two sides of a coin. And the Sanskrit has one additional sentence here which the Tibetans for some reason didn’t translate. Perhaps the edition that they got of the Sanskrit was missing this line, but in the Sanskrit edition it says What has form, that has voidness; what has voidness, that has form. But we have to be careful; it is hard to really translate this sentence in a way that doesn’t give a false or incorrect impression. It implies what has form – as if there is some sort of thing which is separate, and that thing has both form and has both voidness; as if there was a thing separate from that, an object separate from that, that has these two qualities. It’s not like that. You know, having form, having voidness; having voidness, having form; but there is nothing that is a base separate from this that has these things. That’s difficult to understand. It’s like if you think of an object and then you think of characteristics like size and weight and shape and so on; is there an object separate from its size and shape? Well, no. You can say the object has a size and it has a shape and it has a weight, but there isn’t an object separate from all of that, is there? Okay.

Then Avalokiteshvara goes on Similarly, feeling, distinguishing, affecting variables, types of consciousness – voidness.

Okay, so now with this, Avalokiteshvara mentions the voidness of all five aggregates.

So we’ve covered quite a bit this morning. Are there any questions about it? We have ten minutes left.

Participant: [unclear]

Alex: Okay, so he asks when we have this sentence “form – voidness; voidness – form,” why is it repeated in these two ways? Is there significance to that?

There is a purpose to that. It has to do with a logical proof. If something – if there’s form – if something arises dependently then it cannot be self-establishing, so voidness. The fact that things arise dependent on other things means that it establishes that it is not arising by its own power. Remember we used the example, His Holiness the Dalai Lama used the example, of the fourth finger. If it is long, it arises as long dependent on being compared to the short finger, the fifth finger, but short compared to the middle finger. It doesn’t arise as long or short by its own power from its own side, so it’s void. So the fact that it arises dependently doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist – it means that it exists, but it is devoid of existing by its own power.

But from the other point of view, the fact that it doesn’t arise from its own power – that it’s devoid of arising from its own power – doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist at all; so despite being void, it arises dependently. Because it is devoid of existing by its own power, therefore it is possible that it can arise based on other things – so, dependent arising. So, in a sense, by formulating it in both ways, it’s saying that form proves the appearance; dependent arising proves that it is void of inherent existence or self-establishing existence, and the fact that it is devoid of self-establishing existence proves or establishes that it arises dependently.

Now that is a rather complex formulation, so let me put it in structural form. Because it’s possible, that means that it’s not impossible; so that’s “form – voidness.” Alright? “Possible” establishes “not impossible” – so it establishes that it’s possible. And “not impossible” establishes that it’s “possible.” You have to have both. Possible implies not impossible; not impossible implies possible. Because we could misunderstand “possible” and we might think possible in an impossible way; or if we think “not impossible” we might think “not at all.” So these two formulations are intended to help us to avoid the two extremes of positive affirmation of true existence, or nihilism (negating conventional existence).

Participant: [unclear]

Translator: Here the question is about emptiness or voidness in terms of being static phenomena so it seems like definition of [trails off]

Alex: What does it mean, that voidness is a static phenomenon? Is that the question?

Translator: Yes.

Alex: A static phenomenon is one that is not created by anything and doesn’t change from moment to moment. I mean there are some things that change from moment to moment that are not created either, like a mental continuum. But it doesn’t change from moment to moment. It’s not affected by other things. So the voidness of something, its being devoid of an impossible way of existing: it is the case, it’s true about something – about anything, no matter what – throughout its entire continuum. In other words, you have a basis. I mean this is another aspect of “form – voidness; voidness – form.” Form is a basis for voidness, and that form has voidness as one of its characteristics, and that characteristic doesn’t change so long as that basis exists.

So your body, for example, is a form and it came into existence, it has a beginning, its continuum, it has an end – when it disintegrates and falls apart. So long as it exists, the fact of it not existing by its own power doesn’t change. It’s a fact about it. That fact is only valid so long as your body exists. If your body doesn’t exist any longer, you can’t speak of the voidness of the presently-happening body. You can speak of the voidness of the previously-happening body, or the no-longer-happening body, but not the presently-body or the not-yet-happening body. The voidness of your body is not affected by your age. It’s not affected by where you are, whether you’re in this room or that room. It’s a fact. It stays always the same. So that’s the meaning here of it being static. Okay?

Participant: So does it mean that it is the only characteristic that doesn’t change over time?

Alex: No. There are other static qualities. I don’t know if we could technically call it a “quality,” but there are other static facts about your body. For example, space – a very difficult thing to understand in the Buddhist context. Space is defined in Buddhism as the absence of anything tangible or obstructive that would prevent your body from occupying three dimensions. So there is nothing preventing your body from occupying three dimensions regardless of where you are. We’re not talking about the wall that would obstruct your occupying, you know, where the wall is. We’re not talking about a characteristic of the wall. We’re talking about a characteristic of your body. And we’re not talking about the space that you occupy: that now I occupy the space and then I move over, and then he moves into the space and he occupies it – like a parking spot on the street. But we occupy – this body occupies – three dimensions.

So it’s saying that there’s nothing preventing that, so this is why it’s always used as an analogy for voidness. Just as there is nothing preventing this body from occupying three dimensions, from a physical point of view in terms of how physical matter works, there’s likewise nothing – you know, voidness – there’s nothing preventing this body from functioning in terms of a self-establishing nature. So this idea of space in Buddhism is something very, very abstract. It’s something that we don’t normally think of in our Western way of looking at things.

Okay, so let’s end here for the morning with the dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force is built up, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Thank you.