Form is Emptiness

Buddha Purnima

You have to agree that Siddhartha Gautama had great timing. His birth was during the full moon in the month of May. He attained enlightenment and became a buddha some years later on a full moon in the month of May. And to round it all off, he attained parinirvana (died) during a full moon of May when he was old.

The full moon is so bright outside my bedroom window this morning that it woke me up at 4 AM. It being the 2nd of May, this month we will have “a blue moon” – a second full moon in the same month. Two “purnima’s,” as a full moon is called in Sanskrit (and many of its daughter languages.) This purnima is called the Buddha Purnima.

So what does one do on the day that the Gautama became the Buddha? Listen to the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra – the Prefection of Wisdom Heart Sutra! Here is a wonderful recording of the Sanskrit version of the Heart Sutra.

Heart Sutra

While it is loading, let me introduce you to the Heart Sutra. Wikepedia says:

Briefly the sutra introduces the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara, who in this case is representing the faculty of prajña (wisdom). His analysis of phenomena is that there is nothing which lies outside the five aggregates of human existence (skandhas) — form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), volitions (samskārā), perceptions (samjñā), and consciousness (vijñāna).

Avalokiteśvara then addresses Śariputra, who in this text — as with many other Mahāyāna texts — is a representative of the Early Buddhist schools, described in many other sutras as being the Buddha’s foremost disciple in wisdom. Avalokiteśvara famously states that, “form is emptiness (Śūnyatā) and emptiness is form” and declares the other skandhas to be equally empty — that is, without an independent essence. Avalokiteśvara then goes through some of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths and explains that in emptiness none of these labels apply. This is traditionally interpreted as saying that Buddhist teachings, while accurate descriptions of conventional truth, are mere statements about reality — they are not reality itself — and that they are therefore not applicable to the ultimate truth that is by definition beyond dualistic description. Thus the bodhisattva, as the archetypal Mahāyāna Buddhist, relies on the perfection of wisdom, defined in the larger Perfection of Wisdom sutras to be the wisdom that perceives reality directly without conceptual attachment. This perfection of wisdom is condensed in the mantra with which the Sutra concludes.

The mantra is :

OM Gate, Gate, Para Gate, Parasam Gate, Bodhi Svaha

which is translated as “OM Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Completely Beyond, Enlightend mind, So be it.” The Buddha is also known as the Tatha-gata — “thus gone” or “one who has gone thus,” one who has crossed the stream and gone to the other shore thus.

I like the Mahayana concept of the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is someone who postpones attaining nirvana (total and final extinction from existence) and thus continues to be in samsara because of his vow to work ceaselessly till all sentient beings have achieved enlightenment.

One bodhisattva is Avalokiteshvara, the Mahasattva Bodhisattva, the Buddha of Infinite Compassion. In PrajnaParamita Hridaya Sutra, Avalokiteshvara is the one who answers Shariputra who asks “”How should a son or daughter of noble family train, who wishes to practice the profound perfection of wisdom?”

The sutra starts with laying out the scene, the setting.

“Thus have I heard. Once the Blessed One was dwelling in Rajagriha at Vulture Peak mountain, together with a great gathering of the sangha of monks and a great gathering of the sangha of bodhisattvas. At that time the Blessed One entered the samadhi that expresses the dharma called “profound illumination,” and at the same time noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, while practicing the profound prajnaparamita, saw in this way: he saw the five skandhas to be empty of nature.”

Then, through the power of the Buddha, venerable Shariputra said to noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, “How should a son or daughter of noble family train, who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita?”

Form and Emptiness

In my opinion, the most profound thought that has ever been thought is expressed within the answer that Avalokiteshvara gives: “Form is Emptiness, and Emptiness is Form.” The idea of shunyata and shunya lie at the heart of Indian thought. Buddhism perfected the notion.

Well, anyhow, enough of an introduction. Here is the Sanskrit version with English translation. Listen to the beautiful Sanskrit shlokas. Note around 1:15 (or 3:50 from the end) in the YouTube clip, the words “shunyata” and “rupam” – emptiness and form. And around 3:50 (or 1:15 from the end), hear the “gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha” – totally beautifully done. Follow the words along with the text of the entire Heart Sutra below (source.)

Namah sarvajnaaya
Adoration to the Omniscient!

Aaryaavalokiteshvara-bodhisattvo gambhiiraayaam prajnaapaaramitaayaam caryaam caramaano vyavalokayati sma: panca skandhaah; taamshca svabhaava-shuunyaan pashyati sma.
When Holy Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva performed the deep practice in the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom, he contemplated that there were five aggregates but observed that they were devoid of essential nature.

Iha Shaariputra ruupam shuunyataa shuunyataiva ruupam, ruupaan na prithak shuunyataa, shuunyataayaa na prithag ruupam, yad ruupam saa shuunyataa, yaa shuunyataa tad ruupam.
In this case, Shaariputra, form is voidness and voidness is itself form; voidness is not different from form, and form is not different from voidness; that which is form is voidness, and that which is voidness is form.

Evem eva vedanaa-samjnaa-samskaara-vijnaanaani.
So it is for perception, conception, volition and consciousness.

Iha Shaariputra sarva-dharmaah shuunyataa-lakshanaa, anutpannaa, aniruddhaa, amalaa, na vimalaa, nonaa, na paripuurnaah.
In this case, Shaariputra, all things have the characteristics of voidness; they neither arise nor perish; they are neither defiled nor pure, neither deficient nor complete.

Tasmaac Chaariputra shuunyaayaam na ruupam na vedanaa na samjnaa na samskaaraa na vijnaanaani.
Therefore, Shaariputra, within the voidness, there is no form, no perception, no conception, no volition, nor consciousness.

Na cakshuh-shrotra-ghraana-jihvaa-kaaya-manaamsi.
Neither is there eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind.

Na ruupa-shabda-gandha-rasa-sprashtavya-dharmaah.
Neither is there form, sound, smell, taste, touch nor concepts.

Na cakshurdhaatur yaavan na mano-vijnaana-dhaatuh.
Neither is there realm of sight, etc., until we come to the non-existence of realm of consciousness.

Na vidyaa, naavidyaa, na vidyaa-kshayo, naavidyaa-kshayo, yaavan na jaraa-maranam na jaraamarana-kshayo, na duhkha-samudaya-nirodha-maargaa, na jnaanam, na praaptir apraaptitvena.
Neither is there wisdom, nor ignorance, nor extinction of wisdom, nor extinction of ignorance, etc., until we come to the non-existence of old age and death and the non-extinction of old age and death. Neither is there suffering, cause of suffering, extinction of suffering, nor the path leading to extinction of suffering. Neither is there wisdom nor acquisition because there is no grasping.

Bodhisattvasya prajnaapaaramitaam aashritya viharaty acittaavaranah. Cittaavarana-naastitvaad atrasto, viparyaasaatikraanto nishtha-nirvaanah.
Depending on the bodhisattva’s Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom, one dwells without any mental hindrance. Because of the absence of mental hindrance, one is fearless; freed from delusory thoughts, one will reach Nirvana.

Tryadhva-vyavasthitaah sarvabuddhaah prajnaapaaramitaam aashrityaanuttaraam samyaksambodhim abhisambuddhaah.
All Buddhas dwelling in the three periods realize the highest, perfect enlightenment depending on the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom.

Tasmaaj jnaatavyo prajnaapaaramitaa-mahaamantro mahaavidyaa-mantro ‘nuttara-mantro ‘samasama-mantrah, sarvadukha-prashamanah, satyam amithyatvaat, prajnaapaaramitaayaam ukto mantrah.
For this reason, know that the Great Mantra of the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom is the Great Wisdom Mantra, the Unsurpassed Mantra, and the Unequaled Mantra. It extinguishes all suffering, and is true and real because it is not false. It is the Mantra proclaimed in the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom.

Tad yathaa gate gate paaragate paarasamgate bodhi svaaha.
Namely, “Gone, gone, gone to the other shore; Gone completely to the other shore. Svaha.”

Iti prajnaapaaramitaa-hridayam samaaptam.
Thus ends the Essence of the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra.

[Here is an English version of The Heart of Transcendent Wisdom Sutra: Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra. See this for a bit more on key concepts of Buddhism.]

Author: Atanu Dey


6 thoughts on “Form is Emptiness”

  1. Nice post on Buddha Purnima. Indeed the
    Heart Sutra is said to contain the entire essence of Buddhas teachings. Easy to read I guess but so hard to either realize or experience. Also discovered your other writings. Very nice and informative website.




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