Children quickly learn that they have a mind. This is the name they give to the source from which, and the venue in which, their thoughts occur. Later, they learn that this mind is where perceptions and feelings occur too.

When the self is seen to have no placement, no identity, and no enduring quality at all, the mind is sometimes elevated to Mind, and the error of a “greater Self” can occur. But if the self has no true reality, how can it be a place or thing from which, and in which thoughts, perceptions, and feelings occur? Yet we still call it mind, or Mind, because the discerning faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto because we can’t understand what we cannot grasp.

By “grasp” I mean literally to take hold of something. The insight that there is no enduring self leaves us in a state of unknowing, unable to grasp hold of something with our mind and say, “Yes, this! This is what truly is.” It becomes awkward to speak of “our mind,” yet how else to say it? And because the discerning faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto, we give a name to that missing self—“emptiness.”

An absence is such a positive thing. Look closely at this. We notice that something we thought was there, is not there, and rather than say nothing, we mark this fact with a word. Our faculty of reason then has something positive to think about. And when all things are similarly seen to lack an intrinsic reality, we also say they are empty of an intrinsic self-nature and we name this general absence, establishing the doctrine of “Emptiness.”

Yet even though there is no mind, thoughts, perceptions, and feelings still occur. We can call this occurrence whatever we like: we can still call it mind, as many do, but we should realize we are no longer talking about a thing, but an activity. An activity is understood to not have a self, as verbs are not seen as nouns or names. Even so, we learn early in life that all actions have an actor that is responsible because we need to place the blame.

Pay attention here because this error carries into our predilection to over-emphasize “Emptiness” by applying it to activities that occur, saying that they are empty of an intrinsic self-nature. In the vernacular: Duh! Our faculty of reason is well-trained to always hold an actor responsible for activities that occur. But there is no actor, no ground, no nature, no source. That’s what Emptiness reminds us of, and that is all it means.

But our faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto, and Emptiness is like a super weapon destroying everything in its path. Besides we’re kids and love our toys, so “Emptiness” becomes the source of all things. What? This noticed lack of something is not the presence of something else. “Emptiness” is a place-holder for what we used to assume was there, but isn’t, and nothing more.

But notice that thoughts, feelings, and perceptions still occur. Amazing. This is called Suchness, not Emptiness. “Suchness” marks the presencing (arising, manifesting, appearing, showing up) of these thoughts, perceptions, and feelings. And if we are attentive, we quickly realize that there still is no mind-thing, no self-thing, and no other-things, yet even so, we can still call these occurrences mind, although technically they should be called “minding.” I prefer to use “naturing” myself, but most people just stare blankly at me when I do that.

But many fall into the trap of immediately forgetting what they recently knew, and see Suchness as some thing(s), and reactively apply their secret weapon, Emptiness, to Suchness, to make the things go away. But there are no things, and no need to bring out the big gun anymore. Our old patterns of thought are leading us astray.

Suchness has no source, nor even an absence of source. There is no ground, no place, and no time for Suchness, and no need for any of that. There is no emptiness for Suchness either, because it doesn’t apply—doing so is a “category error” in philosophical parlance. It’s unfortunate that we had to make a noun out of that which presents, calling it “Suchness,” just because our faculty of reason needs something positive to hold onto, because Suchness—or Naturing as I like to say because that’s a verb, not a noun—is not a thing, and not even a collection of things—it’s activity, presencing. Remember what was done here.

Where would “it” occur? Where does that which shows up appear? When we talk about the “space-like” expanse of appearances, we are not affirming the existence of Space. Go sit by a Buddhist Stupa and learn the lesson it presents in the form of the Bindu-Nada that is placed atop it. The Bindu is the non-dimensional point from which all appearances manifest. Note its specific denial of spatial characteristics—it isn’t anything at all. The Nada, the vibrations, or reverberations, are the appearances emanating from that non-manifest point. I call it the event horizon. Say what you will about the appearances, but say nothing about how they show up.

So please note that Emptiness is not Suchness, and is not the nature of anything. We can say it is the essence of Suchness, elevating the absence of what we thought was there in the appearances to the stature of the absolute source of all, but that is just overkill and so wrong. It’s useful for a while, to break old patterns of thought, but it has the nasty effect of retarding progress. Suchness presents as forms (otherwise there would be no distinguishing anything), and Forms are empty of any intrinsic self-nature. But Emptiness—that positive absence the mind can grasp hold of—is form also. It’s the positive trace of the absence we notice, created by the mind so that it has something to grasp hold of. Repeat after me: “Forms are empty, Emptiness is form.” This will remind us that “emptiness” is just an idea that took hold when we noticed we were originally wrong about everything.

The nature of Suchness is Pure Spontaneous Presence. And I feel the need to again remind you that Suchness is not a thing, (it) presents as activity. And the nature of that activity is not something else, it’s the essential quality of the activity called Suchness. So Pure Spontaneous Presence is not a thing either. It’s a description of the salient characteristics of the activity that is presenting. It defines nothing, because there is nothing to define. As Garab Dorje said:

“Transcending all discrimination in its arising, Transcending all discrimination in its release.”

And as Jigme Lingpa said:

“While safeguarding the continuity of the wonderful intrinsic perfection of our existential presence, if the thought “the nature of pure presence is empty” springs up in the rational mind, by ascribing an objective focus of emptiness to pure presence, buddha is precluded.”

Forms are empty, Emptiness is form.


Featured image: Boy looking at Xmas toys in shop window, public domain. Creator: Bain News Service. Courtesy of US Library of Congress. 

2 Responses to “Forms are Empty, Emptiness is Form”

  1. Andrew Campbell says:

    You are not being honest and you are very sensitive to criticism.
    What you really want is for people to say that you are realized and have wisdom – that you have understood what the Tibetan’s have understood.

    But what if the Tibetan’s had a misunderstanding? What then? You would be worshipping a mistake. Like this Pure Presence idea. Its the fact of experience – of being ‘on’ instead of ‘off’; but then so what? What off it?

    Well I can tell you there is something to do, and that is simply to see how mental events are creations. Not that the world is the creation of mind, but that mental events are creations. Pure presence is a creation too. So presence and ideation – these are creations and really that’s it. You look at these creations and you see that they are dependent and that’s as far as you can go. After that you just let the energy of these creations flow – interrupt the flow by grasping and you’ll get into trouble – you’ll start believing in your fantasies – but don’t get upset because we are all in that position.

    • James says:

      Andrew, I am always struck by how you feel the need to inject personal attacks into your commentary and then frame your thoughts as facts that everyone knows. It’s not criticism of my writing and my ideas that I am sensitive to, it’s giving the stage to someone who comports themselves as you do, which is grade-school at best. But at least this time, there is something worth entertaining for a brief moment.

      In fact, “pure presence” is not what you categorize it as. I would suggest that you read a particular post already on my blog about a definitive experience of Now, but I don’t think you read with a clear mind, so it would be a waste of time. You can call it what you want, but we’re talking about two very different subjects. Pure Presence is not the “fact of experience,” as you put it, but the venue of appearances. You probably don’t see that, or understand it, because you speak from a perspective of physicalism and the reality of mind and mental events, without giving any supporting evidence for your beliefs. Yes, I understand… everybody just knows them to be true. But in this case you’re wrong. And no, it’s not awareness or consciousness or anything else that ends in “-ness.”

      You’ll have to excuse me for ignoring your closing “wisdom,” as I don’t see it as having a competent source.

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