In nearly every service we chant the Heart Sutra which says, "Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form; that which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness, form." It goes on to say, "The same is true of feelings, perceptions, formations and consciousness." Which is the short way of saying, "Feelings do not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from feelings; feelings are emptiness, and emptiness is feelings." These fiveform, feelings, perceptions, formations and consciousnessare the five skandhas, which is translated as the five heaps, piles, collections, or aggregates. According to Buddhism, the five skandhas are the constituents of our personality, the five elements that comprise a human being, including everything we might consider to be a self. All the facets of our experience can be stated in terms of the five skandhas. The first skandha, "form" or rupa in Sanskrit, is matter, and it refers to the material side of experience. Form is the object of our sense organs, everything we can see, hear, smell, taste or touch. The other four skandhas, feeling, perceptions, formations and consciousness, correspond the nonmaterial aspects of experience. Feelings or vedana means the immediate, gut level response, both conscious and unconscious, that we have to everything we experience. Feelings are either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. They are fundamental, primitive responses that even plants and animals have. They are the almost instinctual response to push away what we don't like and to follow or reach for what we do. Our conditioning is rooted in these gut level responses. The third skandha is "perception" or samjna which functions to categorize what we encounter by distinguishing the different characteristics of sense objects, such as blue, yellow, long, short, male, female, friend, enemy, etc. Perception is the pre-naming discrimination that we learn in the first years of life. The fourth skandha is "mental formations" or samskara which literally means "together-makers". Formations are all active dispositions, impulses, volitions, and emotions including all psychological states whether conscious or repressed. The fifth skandha, "consciousness" or vijnana, is the function of maintaining, cognizing, comparing, storing and remembering all the seeds of consciousness. Consciousness is six-fold: visual consciousness, auditory consciousness, olfactory consciousness, taste consciousness, tactile consciousness, and mental consciousness which includes the mental organ, our mind. Consciousness includes what we may think of as the "soul" or "self," as well as pure awareness and thought. When we talk about subject and object in activity, consciousness is the subject.
In the Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, "The subject of knowledge cannot exist independently from the object of knowledge. To see is to see something. To hear is to hear something. To be angry is to be angry over something. Hope is hope for something. Thinking is thinking about something. When the object of knowledge is not present, there can be no subject of knowledge." This means, for example, if you are in a completely dark place, like a cave, where there is no light and therefore no perception of a visual object, there will be no visual consciousness. We may be able to call up images, but this is a function of memory, not the ability of the eye organ to perceive light and shape. Another way of saying this is that objects do not exist independently from consciousness; and there can't be any consciousness without objects. Consciousness and the objects of consciousness always arise together.
In his book, Old Path, White Cloud, Thich Nhat Hanh presented this by saying, "Form is an object of consciousness. The subject and object of consciousness are two faces of one reality. There can be no consciousness without the object of consciousness. Consciousness and the object of consciousness cannot exist independently of each other. Because the subject and object of consciousness cannot be separated, they are both said to arise from mind." For a long time I thought this meant that objects, or the things that make up the world, do not exist, period, except when they are the objects of consciousness; or they only exist when some form of consciousness seeks them out. I imagined Chapel Hill, or the whole world, as a kind of void which had objects popping into existence as consciousness sought them out and then disappearing when consciousness disengaged from them.
This reminds me of the question, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does sound occur?" With these ideas came a kind of panic about the nature of reality. I thought this meant that objective reality, instead of being the world filled with things as I know them, was instead a void; and if I were enlightened, I would dwell in this voidness or non-existence of objective reality. This was not only somewhat frightening, but it also sounded pretty boring. Of course, there was another part of me that thought, "What does it matter whether or not objective reality is void? How will it change my daily life?" Actually, I really wasn't too worried that one day I would come into my office and find my computer void and my work void.
I asked my teacher to explain this to me. In fact, I asked several times over several years because it took a long time for the explanation to penetrate to a level that I could even remember it once I left the room. His explanation was that the objects of the world, the roads and cars, buildings, mountains, flowers and so on, exist whether or not consciousness has arisen, but they don't exist as objectsthey aren't differentiated until individual discriminating consciousness separates them from the whole. Objects don't exist separately from, or opposed to, each other. The universe is non-dual. We only experience it as dual when discriminating consciousness is engaged, distinguishing things as separate from ourselves. When discriminating consciousness arises, it arises with an objecta form, feeling, perception, or formation. There is no consciousness without an object.
Discriminating consciousness distinguishes between things, it objectifies and names them and globs on associations from our past experience. The way we perceive and experience the world is completely unique, based on and adjusted to our individual experiences from our past; when we die, this world of ours will die. The usual understanding is that the world which you and I experience, exists in common with all other people and this world existed before we were born and will continue after we die. However, this is just an idea. We could take something as an example: an orange, a tea cup, the Buddha statue on the altar. A common way of thinking is that the Buddha statue exists objectively and that at this time, in this room, we are all seeing the same Buddha statue. According to Buddhist teaching, this is not the case. We each see the statue from a slightly different angle, in a slightly different light and shadow, and we each have our own individual past associations and current associations which flavor what we see and how we feel about it, which also flavors our perception. For example, the altar may remind someone of the incense and altar they saw in a church and bring up their feelings about that. For someone else, seeing the Buddha figure may remind them of their potential for liberation, giving them a feeling of assurance. We each bring associations from the past and emotional overtones to the way we perceive things. Maybe some of us are even a little color blind. So, this Buddha statue is a different statue for each of us.
The central teaching of the Heart Sutra is shunyata which is translated as "emptiness." In Buddhism, emptiness does not mean voidness or nothingness. Shunyata or emptiness always means empty of something the way full always means full of something. Thich Nhat Hanh gives the example, "We are sitting here in the Dharma Hall, there are no markets, buffaloes or villages [in this room]. We cannot say that emptiness is something which exists independently. Fullness is the same. Full is always full of something such as full of markets, buffaloes, villages, or monks. Fullness is not something which exists independently. At the present moment, we can say that the Dharma Hall is empty of markets, buffaloes and villages. As for all dharmas, if we say that all dharmas [or things] are empty, what are they empty of?....emptiness of all dharmas or things refers to the fact that all dharmas are empty of a permanent, (eternal) unchanging self."
Emptiness also means interdependence. All dharmas or things depend on each other in order to arise and exist. There is no dharma which can exist apart from other dharmas, and that is why we say the real nature of dharmas is emptiness.
Suzuki Roshi said, "There is no emptiness which has no form, which means that emptiness cannot exist separate from form." He said, "`To empty' something means to experience it without relying on the form or color of being...what it should be empty of is our preconceived idea of it...our idea of big or small, round or square." These descriptions are just ideas, the way we measure and compare one thing to another. We tend to carry these values into our way of experiencing things, but things themselves have no scale, or weight, or inherent value. We overlay reality with our judgements and values, and we use these values so much that we become blind to them. So, they don't exist anywhere but in our thinking. Suzuki Roshi said, "When we have an idea of something, when we conceptualize something, it is already `dead' experience. It's not actual experience and the reason we empty a that what we empty is not actual reality, but the idea of big or small, good or bad." This is what we add to our experience. "I don't say that such comparisons are always wrong, but mostly we are liable to use our selfish scale when we analyze...when we form an idea of something.... We must empty this part. The way we empty this part is to practice zazen...."
Talking about emptiness, or the subject and object of conscious, tends to be pretty abstract. One way to practice with this is to use the notion of emptiness to support getting in touch with the place where we are open or vulnerable, and in that place to try to put down our guard. By turning toward our soft spot, or vulnerability, we are turning toward a space which isn't so fixed by our ideas of the way we think things are, or the way we want things to be. When we let go of self-protection, which is a kind of anchor that fixes our position and holds it rigidly, we can let go and there can be some space to allow movement. In zazen it may feel safer to let go of our definitions or perceptions about things, to relax our discrimination. We can play with letting go of our identity which serves as a kind of armor defining the boundary between inside and outside. We can practice letting go of controlling our breath. The space where we let go of control, but at the same time remain present, is the space where change and movement can occur, where we can come closer to things as they really are. This is, for me, taking refuge in Buddha, in the unconditioned.
I think one of the reasons that the hara, or lower abdomen, is emphasized in zen meditation is because less thinking takes place in our gut than, for example, our head. Our center of gravity is located in our abdomen, so it's more stable and more still physically than some other parts of our body. Being still helps us get a sense of our conceptualized world and how we go about fabricating it, how we add on to things and events in order to make them part of our story. We do this both with the outer world of things as well as with our assumptions and conceptualizations of who we think we are and how we go about maintaining this "self" we think we are.
In one of Carlos Casteneda's books, he suggested that we keep death as our "advisor," by visualizing death as hovering just over our left shoulder. When faced with the real possibility of death, sometimes people are able to wake up to the aliveness of their life and find joy in the details of their simple daily routine. Thich Nhat Hanh said, "We practice so that each moment of our life becomes real life."
© Taitaku Pat Phelan, 1997