balance, equivalence, and true nature


The Great Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra says this:

“form is no other than emptiness,
emptiness no other than form;
form is exactly emptiness,
emptiness exactly form;”

When we present these phrases for mental examination, they may not make sense. In fact, they probably don’t make sense – not to our minds and intellects, that is. But these phrases are not meant to make sense to our minds. Instead, they appeal to some deeper experience, to our Essential Nature, our True Nature. To realization.

But I’ll wager that our minds, being both the gift and the curse that they are, find it difficult to let go of their desire to parse these phrases out into something comprehensible, understandable. At the risk of skipping down the garden path, let me offer this: Maybe in addition to equivalence, we can think of this in terms of unity. Some kind of interlocking, interacting thus-ness, or suchness. There is no separation between form – what we can perceive – and emptiness – the Great Unknown. Let me posit two examples.

Many of you know the Oscar Wilde story, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” An attractive young man, Dorian Gray, utters a wish that a marvelous portrait done of him by an artist friend might take on all the rigors of life and age, and that his own visage might remain young and beautiful, as he is at the time of the painting. Over time, Dorian falls into a hedonistic lifestyle, without a jot of moral accountability. And lo and behold, the portrait begins to show the results of all his unconscionable living.

At the end of the story, Dorian somehow suddenly recovers his sense of accountability and determines to banish the effect of his earlier life, and he slashes the painting to bits. When friends come to see what has happened, they discover (to their horror) that the painting is as it was in the beginning, and Dorian is maimed, ugly, and dead. When he slashed the painting, his flesh sustained the wound, and the painting came back to its original splendor. So, the question might come to us, “Which was the real Dorian?” Now, listen to this Zen koan: Case 35 from The Gateless Gate, the Mumonkan:

Goso asked a monk, “Seijo and her soul are separated; which one is the true Seijo?”

The back story of this koan, given in Yamada Roshi’s teisho, has Seijo as a beautiful young woman who wanted to marry a certain handsome young cousin. But Seijo’s father, who loved her very much, had set another marriage for her. Seijo and her cousin set about traveling to a far-off land, where they married and had children. Realizing through their children the power of a parent’s love, Seijo and her husband returned to their homeland to apologize to the father and beg his forgiveness.

As the young husband told his story to the father (while Seijo remained in their boat), the father exclaimed incredulously, “but Seijo never left home! Shortly after you left, she became ill, took to her bed, and hasn’t uttered a word since.” The young husband related the circumstances of their flight and their life since then. The father, needing to check things out to retain his sanity, ran into the bedroom to tell the sick Seijo what had happened. “Without a word, the invalid rose from her bed and rushed out to meet the approaching Sei, and the two became one.” The koan then asks, which is the true Seijo?

A real Hollywood ending, yes? Quite different from the Dorian Gray story. Or is it?

In both stories, we have an apparent separation between persons in the flesh and what we might call their True Natures. Both wanted something different from what they had, and they went to great lengths to realize their desire. Things got out of balance, and each person apparently suffered in the throes of that desire. But in the end, balance was restored for each of them – one in a disastrous way, one in a happy ending. Form (their persons) and emptiness (their True Natures) came back into a unity.

I know I’m probably stretching a point here, but this is how these two stories strike me. In the world of Essential Nature, True Nature – in the world, period – there is a balance between that which changes and that which does not. And even here, we have to be careful to avoid making a “thing” of True Nature. Because when emptiness becomes something, we’ve created a dual world in which form is one thing, and emptiness is something else. And that kind of dualistic thinking is the source of all our woes.

I can’t tell you the answer to the conundrum, “form is exactly emptiness, and emptiness exactly form.” Instead, I leave you to sit with the koan presented in these stories and make of it what you will. It’s just possible the light may go on for you. Clarity may be on the horizon.

Thank you.