Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Also Form

My Dear Abhishek:

You, like everything else, are a little bundle of energy, aren’t you!

Let me tell you a story. It was a very long time ago, by some estimates about 15 to 18 billion years ago, this universe we inhabit was born. Why it came into existence nobody knows. Where did it come from? From Absolute Nothingness. You may ask: how can Something arise from Absolute Nothingness? Here is my conjecture. You start with Absolute Nothingness and represent it with a 0 (zero). Some call it “Shunyata” (Emptiness). Then you separate the 0 into some positive quantity (E) and an equivalent negative quantity (S). If you sum up those two quantities, you end up with what you began with: 0.

Now, take S and create space out of it. Simultaneously, take E and make energy out of it. This created energy permeates the space created. Then transform some of this energy into stuff of various kinds which then hangs around in space. This is where I conclude my conjecture. From here on, my story will follow the currently accepted theory of what the universe is.

They call it the Big Bang, an event which gave birth to Time, Space, and Energy. Right after the Big Bang (whatever it was), the universe was very very tiny. And it was very very hot. The tiny hot universe began to expand, that is, space began to grow. As the universe grew bigger, the temperature dropped. As the temperature dropped, some of the energy began to “condense”. Little bits of energy condensed first into what is called quarks and electrons and other little bits. There are just a handful of quarks. Then these itsy-bitsy quarks combined together to form bigger units such as protons and neutrons. As the universe expanded and cooled further, protons and neutrons combined and formed elements.

The early universe was simple. You had space, energy, and matter. Most of the matter was Hydrogen (about 75 percent) and Helium (about 25 percent). I am simplifying all this and leaving out details such as neutrinos, electrons, and all sorts of exotic stuff. What is important is to note that to start off with, there was just energy. And some of that energy became matter. Matter and energy are one and the same, as pointed out by one guy called Einstein.

Anyway, as time went on, the universe moved from begin featureless to a state where interesting structures started arising. Huge clouds of hydrogen and helium condensed into stars under the influence of gravity. Within the stars, hydrogen got converted by nuclear fusion into helium. The energy released by this reaction balanced the crushing force of gravity. But when all the hydrogen was converted into helium and other somewhat heavy elements such as carbon, oxygen, and iron, gravity won and the star exploded and became a Supernova. In that violence, even heavier elements were synthesized.

The stuff that was thrown off by supernovas again collected into stars with hydrogen and a new star went through its life. Every element that you have on earth (except for hydrogen and some helium) was manufactured in stars over many billions of years. We are made of elements that were cooked in stars: we are star stuff. Every atom in our bodies started off as a bit of energy which condensed a long time ago and came to us as the grandchildren of may generations of stars. The most basic description of anything anywhere in the universe is that it is a bundle of energy.

But then, you may say, that this basic description is lacking a certain something. It does not explain the distinction between equivalent amounts of energy with different forms. You may say that there may be exactly the same amount of energy in a sack of coal and you, but the sack of coal will not have the cuteness that you have. How does this cuteness come about, you ask. That I can tell you in one word: Information.

Let me see if I can explain what I mean. At some point in your life you will doubtless ask, “Where did I come from?” One answer (amongst many others) is: “From a store, mainly. You have been bought at a store.” Here is a thought experiment. Put a man and a woman in a suitable container and stock it with all that they need such as food and air and water. After sufficient time, if all goes well, some of the food would be converted into a baby just like you. Since all the food was bought from stores, the baby came from the stores in brown-paper bags in bits.

What happened was that some of the elements of the food was rearranged into a different organization according to instructions which are biologically encoded somehow at the cellular level. Those instructions you inherited from your parents, who in turn inherited it from their parents, all the way back to the beginning of organic life on earth. In creating you, no new matter was created; only a re-arrangement was done. You are a bundle of energy organized in a certain unique way.

To recap, everything material (including the food that became re-organized as you) is made up of a handful of elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, etc. You start off with sufficient amounts of about a 100 odd elements and you can build yourself everything you see around in the universe. The elements themselves are made up of even fewer more fundamental bits such as protons, neutrons, electrons, etc. These bits themselves are made of still fewer bits called quarks. You get the idea: the deeper you go, the simpler the bits become. The immense variety you see in the universe emerges from complex arrangements of simpler bits. At its most complex, at the highest levels of organization of the elements, life appears.

So we have elements organized in specific ways. The blueprint of that organization is information. You take some stuff (elements) and arrange them according to some blueprint (information) and you get all the structures, from stars (very little information content) to babies (very high information content.) To fully specify a baby, you need gigabytes of information about the DNA of the baby.

The whole universe is nothing but information and energy. Your fundamental nature is the same as everything else in the universe — it is all energy organized in special ways. Perhaps that is what the ancients in India realized when they figured out the philosophy of Advaita (non-duality) and said “Tat Tvam Asi” — That You Are. You and the Not-You are the same. When you attain enlightenment, you will see beyond the duality and realize that all things have the same nature but only the form differs.

So let me conclude this with a line from the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra:
Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is also Form.

With a deep bow to the Emptiness within us all,


PS: The first of my letters to Abhishek is here.

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