Monday, July 17, 2017


A while back I gave a wordy talk on nothing. That is, nothing in the Zen sense. Now I’d like to say some more about nothing and something about form.

Dictionaries hedge on the word “form.” They say form is:

1. The shape and structure of an object,

2. The body or outward appearance of a person or animal,

3. The essence of something,

4. The mode in which a thing exists.

Talking about form isn’t too difficult. Form is usually associated with something that’s real or concrete, such as a thumb, or a chair, or a mountain. We can also think of form as something that isn’t quite solid but still has shape, even though that shape may be a changing one. Say, a puff of smoke or a cloud in the sky.

Generally we think of form in a physical sense as a figure that takes up space. Form often refers to something whose shape might be spherical (a marble), or cubical (a box), or irregular and fluid (an ocean wave).

Emptiness isn’t so easy to nail down in words because we tend to think of emptiness as an absence. As a nothing. When there is no shape, no form, no anything, that might be emptiness.

Maybe yes, maybe no.

Let’s consider form and emptiness, and see where we go, if anywhere.

At first it might seem that form and emptiness aren’t worth mentioning in the same breath because they are so different from one another. It’s a little like talking about oranges and cucumbers together. Sure, oranges and cucumbers are organic, and they are foods, but they don’t have much else in common.

Maybe yes, maybe no.

In Zen terms, form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. Each has meaning in its own right, and each is meaningful to the other.

Consider a three-dimensional piece of sculpture, or a two-dimensional painting, especially a painting done in traditional sumi-e, or Japanese Zen, style. Space that isn’t occupied by solid material or by brush strokes is as significant to the whole work as space that is filled with solid material or a brush stroke. Here, something and nothing are equally important because each helps to define the other, physically, visually, and—in the observer—emotionally.

Consider your thumb. Like everything else it’s composed of what science calls molecules, atoms, various subatomic particles, and lots of empty space—the space between all that other stuff.

However, what science calls electrons, and protons, and such are thought to be not physical entities but quantities of electromagnetic radiation. Science doesn’t call these quantities “things” but quanta.

So, your thumb isn’t a solid, after all.

The science of matter and motion, which most of us were subjected to in high school, is called classical physics. It’s based on the conclusions of Isaac Newton (late 1600s), who considered existence to be a three-dimensional space that is always at rest and unchangeable. Newton declared that space, in its own nature, without regard to anything external, remains always similar and immovable.

What is referred to as modern or “new” physics got its start shortly after the turn of the last century. It’s based on the theories of the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who decided that viewing the functioning of existence from the rigid viewpoint of Newtonian mechanics was not limiting but dead wrong. Bohr, and other intellectuals of his time, such as Einstein, Schrödinger, Dirac, and Pauli, decided quantum mechanics made much more sense of a senseless universe.

I could babble on at great length about particle physics, because it’s a fascinating topic. But I won’t. I will say that many of the discoveries in quantum mechanics are explainable to a select few intellects only through advanced mathematics.

On the other hand, these notions have been grasped intuitively by Taoists, Hindus, and Buddhists since before the sixth century BC. They didn’t need mathematics.

An aside.

Somewhere I read that President Harry Truman once said he wished he had a one-armed statistician in his Cabinet because the fellow wouldn’t be able to say, “On the other hand….”

I read somewhere else—and I can’t remember where—that an atom the size of the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica (which is three stories high) would have a nucleus the relative size of a speck of dust. In other words, atoms are not what we think of as solid matter but are mostly empty space.

So, again look at that thing we call a thumb. Your thumb may seem solid, dense enough to poke in your eye, but on a subatomic level, your thumb is mostly empty space.

Your thumb is largely emptiness.

Now step back mentally and consider this. Emptiness itself occupies space, and it helps to determine the boundaries of space. Remember the painting and the sculpture.

So if emptiness is circumscribed, it must have form.

Hui-neng, Zen Buddhism’s sixth patriarch, said, “From the first, not a thing is.” That statement could be meditated on for a long, long time. Remember, Hui-neng wasn’t speaking of time in a chronological sense.

Let’s contemplate that for a moment.

From the first, not a thing is.

Now let’s contemplate these wonderfully paradoxical words from the Diamond Sutra: “There are no things or people, yet there are.”

To wind this up, if your thumb is mostly empty space, is its shadow defined by its darkness, or by the light around it?

Nothing is this or that. Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.


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