The Heart Sutra and the Nature of Emptiness (Part 3 of 5)

The Buddhist concept of shunyata, or emptiness, is perhaps one of the most difficult to grasp of all. One reason for this difficulty, of course, relates to the fact that there is simply no really good English equivalent for it. The Western mind is too used to thinking of the world in dualistic terms to have invented vocabulary suitable to the discussion of such a foreign concept. And so we scratch our heads and pick a word that comes close, and then we spend a little time (or a lot of time) expounding upon what we really mean. The problem with a concept like shunyata is that it is so far removed from how we normally think about the world that we have no ready frame of reference for it. It’s a little like trying to imagine a five-dimensional universe when all we’ve ever known are the four dimensions of space and time. How do we even begin to comprehend five dimensions when the very blood and bone and nerves and tissue of our body/mind have evolved over billions of years tightly enmeshed within four? And how do we even begin to grasp a non-dual reality when all we’ve ever known is self and other? Thankfully, shunyata is not beyond the comprehension of an open-minded individual – at least on a more superficial level. To understand it on a deeper level, however, requires us to further let go of our conditioned ways of looking at ourselves and our world, and awaken to a more fundamental reality. (That’s why we meditate, by the way).

Let me begin by saying that the emptiness of shunyata is not the emptiness of cold, dark outer space. I simply can’t tell you how disconcerting it was for me when, as an impressionable young man, I first encountered shunyata translated as voidness. I don’t know about you, but voidness speaks to me of the vacuous nothingness of outer space. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that misunderstandings related to the nature of shunyata have led some people to think of Buddhism as nihilistic. Thankfully, the word voidness seems to have been banished from modern Buddhist translations in favor of the word emptiness.

In his commentary on the Heart Sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh (1988) introduces the concept of emptiness by asking the question: “Empty of what?” In Buddhist terms, when we say that the ultimate nature of reality is emptiness, we mean that it is empty of anything having an independent, separate, permanent, or distinct identity. Contrary to the vacuous nature of voidness, then, emptiness can be seen as an ocean of infinite potentiality – ever-changing, ever-transmuting – but not in a sense that any separate thing is coming into and going out of existence. Recall from an earlier blog post (Dependent Origination - an Introduction) that “absolutely every ‘thing’ that comes into being owes its existence to myriad causes and conditions, constantly in flux, that form the ground from which and the environment into which that ‘thing’ arises.” But lest we go too far down this road of talking about things and existence, let me also say that I went on to clarify that “to speak of things ‘coming into being’ tends to imply the attainment of or arrival into some stable state wherein – voila! – independent existence has arisen. Being implies a static situation whereas becoming implies a continuous process. The Pali word pertinent to the discussion here is bhava – becoming – one of the links in the… twelve-fold chain [of dependent origination]”.

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Empty of Independent Self!

Okay, now that I’ve prompted your more child-like mind to come forward, let’s approach this concept of emptiness from an entirely different angle. Have you not spent at least part of a warm summer afternoon as a child lying flat on your back gazing up at the clouds slowly billowing and floating past overhead? Do you remember how much fun it was to watch the ever-changing cloudscape gradually transition from formlessness into the figure of an elephant, or a buffalo perhaps? And do you recall, then, the gentle tug at your heartstrings as that which had become your elephant or your buffalo gradually billowed into misshapenness before dissipating into formlessness once again? And so we watched, and waited – our eyes darting all about and our heart rate quickening in anticipation of what might next appear. Look! It’s a rabbit! See, those are the ears…, and that’s its nose; and, look…, that’s its tail! Again and again we would convince ourselves of the existence of huge animals floating across the sky. Of course, even then we knew that it was all in fun. Even our then-short lives seemed infinitely long compared to the fleeting nature of cloud creatures floating across the sky. It’s fun, though, to get lost in play – to give ourselves over to imaginary worlds.

It’s easy for us to realize the fluid nature of things when they change quickly relative to the passage of our days. When things change slowly, though, like a mountain range or the brightness of the sun, we tend to think of them as lasting forever. We’re somewhere in between those two extremes of fluidity and permanence, aren’t we – with sense organs and faculties of perception perfectly in tune with the lifespan of these organisms that they serve? Most often we appear to change slowly, so that at any given moment we might feel as though we’re going to live forever. Ah, but we’re not, are we – a fact that we’re reminded of in the rudest of ways. And therein lies the bizarre nature of our human experience. We’re aware of our impermanence, but given the fact that existence is all we’ve ever known nonexistence seems more unreal than any alternative reality we could ever imagine. We must continue on somehow, right? We simply must. And so we invent all sorts of elaborate metaphysical scenarios in which we continue on into the future, regardless of whether that future actually includes our physical bodies or not.

Let’s imagine that cloudscape once again. This time, however, picture a cloudscape in which, as those elephants and buffalo and rabbits arise they also come to embody faculties of perception and self-awareness. Since their lifespan would be but a mere ten seconds or so (depending upon the wind speed) that ten seconds would take on the importance of an entire lifespan to them. And so they would experience themselves as billowing out of formlessness into that which they identify as their self (upadana – appropriation) and then billowing back into formlessness once again – hopefully without having experienced too much suffering in the process. (Upadana is, of course, one of the links of the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination.)

Emptiness, Dependent Origination, and an Incomplete Understanding

Recall this very succinct presentation of the concept of dependent origination:
When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn’t, that isn’t.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that. (Anguttara Nikaya 10.92)
The Buddha had awakened to the emptiness of all phenomena – the lack of an independent, abiding identity. As time passed after the Buddha’s death, however, various Buddhist schools began to formulate “definite lists of ‘parts’ and ‘relations’” (Sangharakshita, 1980, p. 89) which then began to be viewed as reality itself. The Theravada tradition, for instance, utilizing analyses contained in the Abhidharma, hypothesized the existence of “eighty-two dharmas or phenomena that constitute all reality” (Trainor, 2001, p. 192). The Sarvastivada tradition, on the other hand, enumerated seventy-five such dharmas and, though they denied the existence of the soul they nevertheless furthered a doctrine in which some dharmas (phenomena) “do not come into being but rather exist from beginningless time and only change from a latent to a manifest state” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, pp. 306-307 – hereafter referred to as S&W).

With this in mind it is clear to see that some of what the authors of the Heart Sutra sought to accomplish was to set the record straight, so to speak, regarding the view that “the dharmas identified in the Abhidharma had some sort of ultimate existence, in that they represented the irreducible and permanent elements from which the experienced world was derived” (Skilton, 1994, p. 94). And the fact that Shariputra is purported to have played a role in the writing of the Abhidharma may just have something to do with him being the recipient of this teaching. [Some Theravadins believed (believe?) that on each day that the Buddha ascended into heaven (so the story goes) to meet his mother and instruct her on the details and subtleties of the Abhidharma he also descended from there in order to teach it to none other than Shariputra (Trainor, 2001, pp. 192-193).]

Speaking of Shariputra… Shariputra was one of the very first arhats in a monastic community that came to view the attainment of arhatship as their life’s work. Arhatship represents a state of “no-more-learning” wherein “all defilements… and passions…have been extinguished and will not arise again in the future.” The arhat, having achieved such a state, lives out his life in a state much akin to nirvana as the karmic conditions that perpetuate his physical existence become depleted. Complete nirvana greets him as physical death arrives (S&W, p. 17). Shariputra is, in general, considered to be one of the wisest of the Buddha’s first disciples (S&W, p. 316), and within the Theravada tradition, in particular, he is regarded as a saint who is “second only to the Buddha in his grasp of the Dharma [teachings]” (Trainor, 2001, p. 192). He was considered an arhat (worthy one) who had “attained enlightenment by living a flawless life in a settled monastic community” (Peacock, 2001, p. 96).

Thus, we have in Shariputra the perfect student to which the Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva can convey the profundity of the Prajnaparamita. Shariputra is widely respected amongst the various schools (both the Mahayana and the so-called Hinayana ones) for his wisdom, upstanding demeanor, and his longstanding dedication to the teachings of the Buddha. Nonetheless, from the Mahayana perspective, Shariputra’s association with the Abhidharma and what are seen as misunderstandings of the Buddha’s teachings related to dharmas makes him the perfect individual to receive this expository teaching – thereby allowing him further progress on the path toward salvation.

Emptiness, Wisdom, and Compassion

This last point also sheds light on why it might be the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Avalokiteshvara) instead of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom (Manjushri) who is delivering this teaching. The Heart Sutra touches on compassion in a number of subtle ways. One manifestation of compassion is that which underlies the Avalokiteshvara’s motivation to visit Shariputra with this teaching. Shariputra needed this teaching in order to further his advancement toward complete enlightenment; Avalokiteshvara knew this and wanted to be of service toward that end. Another subtle teaching related to compassion is the need to marry it with wisdom. Shariputra was already renowned for his wisdom, but his wisdom had only gotten him so far. It is the teaching of one renowned for compassion that opens him up to greater realization. A third subtle manifestation of compassion within the Heart Sutra relates to the fact that it is the very realization of emptiness that gives rise to its most profound manifestation. So, we have the dual arising of compassion and wisdom leading the way to the deeper realization of emptiness, and this deeper realization of emptiness leading the way to a more profound manifestation of wisdom and compassion. I’ll delve into this last point further on in this series of posts.

Shariputra’s Long Journey Toward Truth

I feel as though I would be remiss if I passed up the opportunity to convey another Mahayana story related to Shariputra. This one appears in the Lotus Sutra and reveals (for the want of a better description) the long-suffering nature of Shariputra’s search. The passage to which I refer occurs after Shariputra has listened to one of the Buddha’s most profound sermons delivered to an unprecedented assembly including some 12,000 arhats, and 80,000 bodhisattvas (including the Avalokiteshvara) and mahasattvas (great beings). Shariputra’s words read to me like equal parts lament and joyous relief. Edward Conze (1954) refers to it as “The Conversion of Sariputra” (p. 120). Burton Watson (1993) translates the passage in question as follows:

Just now, when I heard from the World-Honored One this voice of the Law, my mind seemed to dance and I gained what I had never had before. Why do I say this? Because in the past when I heard a Law of this kind from the Buddha and saw how the bodhisattvas received prophecies that in time they would attain Buddhahood, I and others felt that we had no part in the affair. We were deeply grieved to think we would never gain the immeasurable insight of the Thus Come One [Tathagata].

World-Honored One, I have constantly lived in the mountain forest or alone under the trees, and always I have thought to myself, Since I and the others all alike have entered into the nature of the Law, why does the Thus Come One use the Law of the Lesser Vehicle to bring us salvation?

But the fault is ours, not that of the World-Honored One. Why do I say this? If we had been willing to wait until the true means for attaining anuttara-samyak-sambodhi [“perfect universal enlightenment”, “enlightenment of a complete Buddha” (S&W, p. 15)] was preached, then we would surely have obtained release through the Great Vehicle. But we failed to understand that the Buddha was employing expedient [skillful] means and preaching what was appropriate to the circumstances. So when we first heard The Law of the Buddha, we immediately believed and accepted it, supposing that we had gained something. (pp. 47-48)

This last sentence reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh’s comment regarding the nature of wisdom and its potential to block our understanding rather than further it (see The Heart Sutra - an Introduction).

The Dialectics of Emptiness

Okay, so we are now at least somewhat familiar with all the players involved, the language that they used, and the concepts being conveyed. Let’s return to the Heart Sutra and what Conze (1959) refers to as the “dialectics of emptiness” (p. 162).

Rosan Yoshida’s translation via the Missouri Zen Center website:

D of E, 1st Stage:        Here, Shariputra, Form is Shunyata; Shunyata is Form.

                                    Form does not differ from Shunyata;

                                    Shunyata does not differ from Form.

                                    That which is Form is Shunyata;        

                                    That which is Shunyata is Form.

                                    The very same applies to feeling, idea,

                                    formations and consciousness.

D of E, 2nd Stage:        Here, Shariputra, all Dharmas are marked with Shunyata;

                                    neither originated nor destroyed;

                                    neither defiled nor undefiled;

                                    neither decreased nor increased.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation via The Heart of Understanding:

D of E, 1st Stage:        Listen, Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form,

                                    form does not differ from emptiness,

                                    emptiness does not differ from form.

                                    The same is true with feelings, perceptions,

                                    mental formations, and consciousness.

D of E, 2nd Stage:        Hear, Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness;

                                    they are neither produced nor destroyed,

                                    neither defiled nor immaculate,

                                    neither increasing nor decreasing.

Edward Conze’s translation via Buddhist Scriptures:

D of E, 1st Stage:        Here, O Sariputra, form is emptiness,

and the very emptiness is form;

                                    emptiness does not differ from form,

                                    form does not differ from emptiness;

                                    whatever is form, that is emptiness,

                                    whatever is emptiness, that is form.

                                    The same is true of feelings, perceptions,

                                    impulses, and consciousness.

D of E, 2nd Stage:        Here, O Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness;

                                    they are not produced nor stopped,

                                    not defiled or immaculate,

                                    not deficient or complete.

Let me close with just a few quick observations regarding the passages above. With respect to the 1st Stage, we can see that the assertion that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” is of the type: A=B and B=A. This is a statement regarding identity. Thus, we should not come to the conclusion that form somehow “condenses” or “precipitates” or “coalesces” out of emptiness only to dissolve back into it. No, form and emptiness are one and the same. Our conditioned ideas related to the existence of separate and independent things are what guide us to believe that the world is otherwise. With respect to the 2nd Stage, we are being made aware of what it means to be thinking of things in such non-dual way. The only way it makes sense for things to be “originated or destroyed” is if things come into existence and then recede back into non-existence. Recall that the key word is becoming. Likewise, the only way it makes sense for something to be “defiled or undefiled” is for it to somehow be considered to have a separate existence which can then be judged against some other separate existence in a relative way.  Ditto, with regards to “deficient or complete.”

Okay, I think we can say that we’ve accomplished most of the heavy lifting required to really grasp what the Heart Sutra is saying. I hope you’ve enjoyed the workout! From here on out it will be a cool down. Don’t forget to drink plenty of fluids and I’ll see you next week!


Anguttara Nikaya 10.92. Vera sutta: animosity (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight, 4 July 2010,

Blum, M. (2001). Buddhism: The illustrated guide (ed. Trainor, K.). Oxford University Press, Inc.

Conze, E. (1954). Buddhist texts through the ages (ed. Conze, E.). Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library.

Conze, E. (1959). Buddhist scriptures. Penguin Books.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1988). The heart of understanding: Commentaries on the prajnaparamita heart sutra. Parallax Press.

Peacock (2001). Buddhism: The illustrated guide (ed. Trainor, K.). Oxford University Press, Inc.

Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, New York.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Skilton, A. (1994). A concise history of Buddhism. Barnes and Noble, Inc. by arrangement with Windhorse Publications.

Snelling, J. (1991). The Buddhist handbook: A complete guide to Buddhist schools, teaching, practice, and history. Barnes and Noble, Inc. by arrangement with Inner Traditions International.

Trainor, K. (2001). Buddhism: The illustrated guide (ed. Trainor, K.). Oxford University Press, Inc.

Watson, B. (1993). The Lotus Sutra (tr. Watson, B.). Columbia University Press, New York.

Yoshida, R. (1979). Sutra of the heart of great perfection of insight (tr. Yoshida, R.). Missouri Zen Center website.

Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.

Photo credit:

Cloudscape images courtesy of:

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. Hello! Great post. As I read this, I realized that there are gaps in my knowledge, and I was hoping you could fill in a few of them for me sometime. How many different Buddhist traditions/schools are there, and what are the major differences between them? (Sorry if that sounds like an exam question. And if you don't want to answer through a comment, I understand - it might be quite lengthy. ;D)

    Hope you're doing well, and staying warm during this chilly autumn weather!

  2. Kristen, I am SO unqualified to answer your question, but I feel very honored that you would ask it of me! I am what you might call a practicing Buddhist, whereas your question would be better asked of a Buddhist scholar - one who may very well be any religion under the sun, or none at all.

    A Korean Zen (Seon) teacher once told me that the study of the sutras and actual sitting practice (zazen) are like the two wings of a bird. However, I'm certain that any legitimate teacher would opt for zazen if forced to make a choice.

    There are many gaps in my knowledge as well, so don't feel bad. I'm glad I have tweeked your curiosity, but I encourage you not to mistake knowledge ABOUT Buddhism with the wisdom that can arise from the practice of it. If your question remains and you feel it is important toward helping you choose a tradition to settle into whole-heartedly, then I would suggest finding one of the books that I used for reference. Some of them were purchased from your favorite book store. ;D

    I'm a big believer in exploration. Browse the bookshelves and see what speaks to you. At some point in time you'll start realizing... oh, yeah, that teacher's is from that tradition and this one is from this one. You'll start putting it all in context.

    Okay, I've managed to go on for quite a while without having even attempted to answer your question. My work here is done.

    (Please realize that that last comment was typed with good nature and lightheartedness!)

    I wish you a very good weekend!

  3. Ok, Yoda, you win. ;D Of course you won't answer my question directly. I would expect nothing less!

    I'm a big fan of exploration as well. The main reason I asked is mostly due to my own insatiable curiosity. I suppose I could have just Googled it, or looked for a book, but I'd always rather ask an actual person first. Blame my detail-oriented nature! In case you haven't figured this out about me yet, I have scholarly aspirations (there's that aspiration word again!). As for choosing a tradition, I've already done that. I just need to make sure I don't get too caught up in all those pesky details!

  4. Is there a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies or Asian Philosophy in your future? Perhaps you are making some career decisions after all! Just don't stop sitting...

  5. Fascinating exposition on the nature of emptiness. Very insightful.



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