Emptiness is the essential quality of existence, which is as it is, inevitably so, and universally true. In other words, the nature of existence does not have a separate self-existent property; it is ultimately empty, neither arising nor ceasing.
Form is a physical formation with function. It exists and functions according to its characteristic property.
All forms or phenomena operate based on the ultimate nature of emptiness. In the process, when form and its function slowly settle and reach a stable state, it appears as if form has a sustained character. As the characteristic gradually becomes solidified, it appears as a separate self-existent nature and continues to turn itself into a solid embodiment. The appearance of this separate self-existent nature then covers and eventually replaces the empty or formless nature of all phenomena.
Sentient beings are forms consisting of mental and physical energy, namely the phenomena of mind and body. In the process of composition, these forms do not have any particular individual characteristics. However, during the process of gradually taking on a relatively fixed form, the distinctive quality of mental and physical form also takes shape. If, in cognition, the mind perceives itself as a “self” with an inherent nature of individual life, its form and function will be perceived as a real, eternal, dictating “self”.
From the perspective of the nature of existence, the characteristics of such form of life are relative. However, not knowing this fact and mistaking relative nature for something absolute gives rise to the ignorance of an absolute “self”. Naturally, forms and functions of “self” operating under such a perception come into being. Even though these forms and functions are relative when manifested, due to subtle attachment to this “self”, they are taken as something absolute.
The reason for the cyclic incarnation of sentient beings is due to the fixation of taking relative form as absolute existence. In particular, because of the delusion about self-existent nature, sentient beings lose the enlightened sight of the true nature of emptiness. As a result, the form and function of ” self” are driven to operate for protecting this “self”. The more this occurs, the more solid this “self” becomes, and the more karma it creates, causing it to be reborn and continue to endure all kinds of pain and suffering.
Therefore, in order to cease the suffering of birth and death, sentient beings need to awaken to the formless, the absolute no-self. This means sentient beings must break through their ignorance and wrong views about the absolute no-self, and directly perceive their nature of formlessness and emptiness. Without the correct understanding of the relative nature of “self” and therefore mistaking it as absolute and real, one may erroneously believe that one is enlightened if one lets go of the form and functions of the relative “self” and goes beyond this false “self”, not knowing that the root cause of the cycle of birth and death is the deep-seated misperception and attachment to the view of “self”. Some believe that, when the form and function of the false “self” are abandoned, one has realized the nature of “true self”, not knowing that this nature of “true self“ is the originating and moving force of the cycle of birth and death. Only when one realizes the nature of formlessness or emptiness, and therefore breaks through the deep and subtle nature of “self”‘, can sentient beings liberate themselves from birth and death in the light of formlessness or emptiness.
In practice, if one merely discards the relative “self”, one can only reach a state of no-self that is also relative, which would be similar to the generally held opinion that “no-self in Buddhism is an argument about ethics”. Such a relative no-self is still rooted in the nature of the absolute “self” that is deep and subtle. When a practitioner enters the concentrated state of samadhi, the nature of “self” they see is of the mind. If one practices various worldly methods of creating merit, the relative no-self can slowly become a “greater self”, whose extent depends on the magnitude of one’s aspiration. However, because both practices are based on the absolute “self”, and the root is not cut off and therefore still flowing in cyclic birth and death, even if it is the deepest samadhi or the most extensive “greater self”, it is still not liberation.
Also, from a passive or negative viewpoint, denying the relative “self” can create personality traits or opinions that are extreme and imbalanced, which can lead to a strong rejection of and opposition to the world and increasing disgust towards life itself. In some extreme cases, this may lead to a tendency to destroy oneself.
The real practice according to the Buddhadharma is to negate the absolute “self”, which is the separate, self-existent nature. Only then can one reach the state of absolute no-self, which is realizing the nature of emptiness and being liberated.
Those who practice deep samadhi based on the idea of denying the “self” may be able to see in this concentrated state that the root of cyclic existence is the holding onto of the “self”, and therefore break through delusion and see the nature of emptiness, letting go of the “self” and becoming liberated. When in samadhi, dropping of the “self” can help eliminate or extinguish the habitual tendencies of the relative “self”. When practitioners realize no-self, what manifests in front of them will have the universal nature of no-self, which is the state of liberation.
If, in practice, one does not directly deny the relative “self”, but rather is aware that such a “self” is a relative phenomenon and therefore liberates oneself from the absolute “self” and the self- existent nature through observing and contemplating on the relative “self”, when they ultimately realize “no-self”, they may transform the form and function of the absolute “self”. This transformation allows one’s habitual tendencies to exist as expedient or skillful means for helping sentient beings, or allows one to simply live their life freely and unrestrained. Such is the state of liberated wisdom of the Chinese Chan masters.
Those who practice expanding the “greater self” by doing virtuous deeds are thereby letting go of the “relative self”. When the “greater self” is limitless, they may break through and see that nature of “self” is empty, and realize no-self. Because of such persistent practice over time, the “self” is fused in the “greater self”, and practitioners therefore let go of the absolute “self” and reach no-self. Having mastered the forms and functions of the absolute “self”, as well as having done the various meritorious acts of the “greater self” –which are skillful means of helping sentient beings — when they realize no-self, they are bodhisattvas on earth and enter Buddhahood when this process of realization is perfect and complete.
Form emanates from emptiness. Emptiness is manifested through form. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Emptiness and form are not separate and they neither arise nor cease. Emptiness and form include and complete each other; it is not form, and it is not non-form. Through form one realizes emptiness. Without self, one realizes liberation. Acting in form based on emptiness, one has no hindrance to saving all sentient beings.
(2000/12/26 written at 盤若岩, Malaysia. Published in《頭頭是道》by Dharma Rain Publiscations.)