We chant in the Heart Sutra “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form,” as if the truth of these statements is as obvious as the sun coming up in the morning. We could easily think that “emptiness” – no isolated, separate being-ness – is exactly the opposite of form. But the Heart sutra teaches that this opposite is the description of reality as it is: form is emptiness and emptiness is form.
One big contradiction for our logical minds. How can we understand this? (How could we logically understand the illogical!)
In “Western logic” we believe that truth must be expressed in non-contradictory terms. According to this logic, the law of excluded middle (or the principle of excluded middle) is the third of the three classic laws of thought. It states that for any proposition, either that proposition is true, or its negation is true….but not both.
In Mahayana thought, however, this is not the case. Both a proposition and its negation are true. In Buddhist logic, when something is defined, it includes its opposite. All relative events and things, and all absolute events and things, are shot through with contradictions, with paradoxes.
Edward Conze, in his book, Buddhist Thought in India, notes: “We cannot make the statement “A is A” unless not-A is presupposed.” (Page 261). The thing contains its opposite in itself. The presupposition of “no form” is contained within “form.” As an example: to say that a sentient being is human assumes that there are sentient beings that are not human.
Why do all things contain contain their opposite? Because, according to Conze, of “tathagatha.” This term is often thought to mean either "one who has thus gone" (tathā-gata) or "one who has thus come" (tathā-āgata). The opposites are contained: coming, going, and both. In other words, the name of the Buddha. This way of thinking helps me understand the fundamental teachings of great, Buddhist teachers that the absolute (love, compassion) contains the difficult: suffering, war, poverty.
So, this is a world in which opposites are true. Things coming in and out of existence, both at the level of atomic particles and our moment to moment experience, are dazzling and agonizing at the same time.
This is tricky, however. In speaking about Buddhist teachings, it is easy to put the emphasis on the good part, the absolute, forgetting that life can be, in fact, agonizing. When I read Pema Chodron, and other great teachers, it seems that if we just understand the transcendent, then we can be light and relaxed in the face of our day to day struggles. She says in The Places That Scare You, “But the flexible mind of prajna (wisdom) doesn’t draw conclusions of good or bad. It perceives the sound without adding anything extra, without judgments of happy or sad.” (page 94.)
I am becoming increasingly wary of this teaching. Maybe life is like a teeter totter: the more both sides are balanced the better it works. Too heavy on the side of suffering, and we sink into despair. Too heavy on the transcendent, we are out of touch with our lives and the lives of others.
So, besides saying, “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form,” we can say form is form, and emptiness is emptiness.