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Thread: The Formless

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    The Formless

    This is an excerpt from chapter 10 of Robert Wright's book "Why Buddhism is True":


    Encounters with the Formless

    Here’s a passage from the Samadhiraja Sutra, a Buddhist text that’s about nineteen centuries old:

    Know all things to be like this:

    A mirage, a cloud castle,

    A dream, an apparition,

    Without essence, but with qualities that can be seen.

    I first heard this at a meditation retreat where one of the teachers had been going on and on about “the formless.” If you got to a point in your meditative practice where you apprehended the formless, I gathered, you were perceiving reality more truly than if you were still hung up on the world of “forms”—you know, tables, trucks, bowling balls.

    “The formless” isn’t a particularly well-known bit of Buddhist terminology. But there’s a better-known word that means roughly what this teacher meant by the term: emptiness.

    Whichever term you use, the upshot is that, in the world out there, which seems so solid and so structured, so full of things with a distinct and tangible identity, there is less than meets the eye. This world of apparent forms is in some sense, as the Samadhiraja Sutra has it, a “mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition.” Or, as the Heart Sutra famously and pithily puts it, “Form is emptiness.”

    Apparently some very accomplished meditators get to a point where they feel this truth deeply, and may even see the world as “empty” or “formless” on a regular basis. This is considered an important feat, especially if your goal is to attain enlightenment.

    As you ponder these words—formlessness and emptiness—two other words may come to mind: crazy and depressing. It seems crazy to think that the world out there isn’t real, that things that seem substantial are in some sense devoid of content. It also seems kind of depressing; I don’t run into a lot of upbeat, fulfilled people who go around rejoicing in the emptiness of it all.

    But I’ve slowly come to think that, actually, this idea isn’t so crazy, and that in fact it makes more and more sense as psychology advances. And as for the depressingness: thinking of the perceived world as in some sense empty doesn’t have to strip your life of meaning. In fact, it can allow you to build a new framework of meaning that’s more valid—maybe even more conducive to happiness—than your old framework.

    I hasten to add: my willingness to defend “formlessness” and “emptiness” depends on what exactly they’re taken to mean, and different Buddhist thinkers have meant different things. I’m not here to defend the most extreme version of “mind-only” Buddhism, with its claim that the world out there doesn’t really, ultimately exist. At the same time, I’m not just pulling a bait and switch; I’m not going to define formlessness and emptiness in some sense that’s so narrow and technical that the “validity” I claim for the underlying idea turns out to be trivial.

    I think there’s an important, if subtle, sense in which we attribute too much form and content to reality, and I think appreciating this can have—and should have—radical implications for our lives….

    http://whybuddhismistrue.net/?p=260
    Note

    The Samādhirāja Sūtra is a Mahayana sutra dated around 2nd century CE.


    Any thoughts?

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    Forums Member daverupa's Avatar
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    The term "emptiness" is trouble, because it leads into these weird realms of thought. The vast majority of cases in the Suttas involve the phrase "empty of", and the only things "empty of" anything are the aggregates; in other words, experiencing is the stuff being talked about. Experience is empty of permanence, empty of satisfactoriness.

    It has nothing to do with ideas that "the world out there isn’t real," nor "that things that seem substantial are in some sense devoid of content." Emptiness isn't a fact about reality, it's a description of experience.

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    Robert Wright's ideas that "formless" and "emptiness" are pretty much the same thing is not how they are presented in the pali suttas. In the suttas "formless" refers mainly to the four higher jhanas which are the dimension of the infinitude of space, the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, the dimension of nothingness, & the dimension of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. This is markedly different from the idea of emptiness as used in the statement "all dhammas are empty of self". For instance, a person is empty of self but is not formless.
    chownah

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    Forums Member chill9's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by chownah View Post
    Robert Wright's ideas that "formless" and "emptiness" are pretty much the same thing is not how they are presented in the pali suttas. In the suttas "formless" refers mainly to the four higher jhanas which are
    the dimension of the infinitude of space,
    the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness,
    the dimension of nothingness, &
    the dimension of neither-perception-nor-non-perception.

    This is markedly different from the idea of emptiness as used in the statement "all dhammas are empty of self". For instance, a person is empty of self but is not formless.
    chownah
    blissful - to hear of these dimensions - i have heard said that consciousness (?) can be cloud-like - it's lovely too, how the descriptions almost appear to have a soothing sequence.. many thanks

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    Quote Originally Posted by chill9 View Post
    blissful - to hear of these dimensions - i have heard said that consciousness (?) can be cloud-like - it's lovely too, how the descriptions almost appear to have a soothing sequence.. many thanks
    These are the four higher jhanas which are also called the formless jhanas. For those not familiar with the pali term "jhana" it can loosely be described as a type of meditation absorption.....there are 8 (four lower and four upper) with the upper four not being involved with form.....hence the term "formless". This idea of the jhanas not involving form is different from the idea of something being empty of self.

    But these jhanas are not the topic to be discussed here in this thread unless the discussion directly relates to the article under discussion. IF you would like to talk about them in a general way I suggest you start a thread just for that purpose.
    chownah

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    Forums Member Genecanuck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by daverupa View Post
    The term "emptiness" is trouble, because it leads into these weird realms of thought. The vast majority of cases in the Suttas involve the phrase "empty of", and the only things "empty of" anything are the aggregates; in other words, experiencing is the stuff being talked about. Experience is empty of permanence, empty of satisfactoriness.

    It has nothing to do with ideas that "the world out there isn’t real," nor "that things that seem substantial are in some sense devoid of content." Emptiness isn't a fact about reality, it's a description of experience.
    Hello Daverupa,
    I am still thinking about the difference between "emptiness" and "empty of"... and not appreciating the distinction. Can emptiness be described as ones subjective experienced reality?

    Curious to hear your thoughts about this.

    Regards
    Gene

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    Forums Member daverupa's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Genecanuck View Post
    Hello Daverupa,
    I am still thinking about the difference between "emptiness" and "empty of"... and not appreciating the distinction. Can emptiness be described as ones subjective experienced reality?
    For some context, here is Analayo:

    Suññatā is an abstract noun formed from the adjective suñña, which means "empty" or "void". It is noteworthy that in the Pāli discourses the adjective suñña occurs with a much higher frequency than the corresponding noun suññatā. This is not a matter of mere philological interest, but points to an emphasis in early Buddhism on qualifying phenomena as `being empty' rather than on an abstract state of empty-`ness'.
    One of these implications is that the Culasunnata Sutta's treatment shows the early Buddhist concept of emptiness to stand for a qualification, not an entity. This is reflected in the repeated instruction that the meditating monk is to consider his experiences as "empty of" what has been transcended, but at the same time as "not empty of" what is still there.
    One's "subjective experienced reality" is just one's "experience". The point is to see the aggregates & senses (our experiences, NOT objects in themselves) as empty-of a self or what belongs to a self, not to see them as 'having emptiness as a quality' or as 'being inherently empty' in a general way.
    Last edited by daverupa; 15 Nov 17 at 17:29.

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    Forums Member Genecanuck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by daverupa View Post
    For some context, here is Analayo:





    One's "subjective experienced reality" is just one's "experience". The point is to see the aggregates & senses (our experiences, NOT objects in themselves) as empty-of a self or what belongs to a self, not to see them as 'having emptiness as a quality' or as 'being inherently empty' in a general way.
    Many thanks Daverupa,
    I have saved the Analayo article and plan to read it. I am beginning to understand the nuanced distinctions.

    Gene
    Last edited by Genecanuck; 16 Nov 17 at 10:37.

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    Forums Member Genecanuck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ancientbuddhism View Post
    Thank you ancientbuddhism


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