Expressions of the Essence

Buddhist phenomenology tells us that one of the five fundamental constituents of the egoic complex is “form” (rūpa, gzugs), the configuration of tangible materiality that is so integral to ordinary sensible experience.[1] Most basically, this suggests that there must be an outside world for there to be an inside world.

With this interface, the self is at play within the familiar field of duality. However, what intrigues me more than the self in the world of form is the formless, and more specifically the question: What is it about the nature of the formless that can be known?

When we talk about emptiness in the technical sense, we are talking about that which is devoid of the temporary and the tangible. We are talking about the mere absence of any inherent identity: the identity of an egoic self (gang zag gi bdag nyid) and/or the identity of the phenomenal world (chos kyi bdag nyid). This is sometimes specifically called, “the emptiness that lacks identity” or “the emptiness of essencelessness” (ngo bo med pa stong pa nyid). Accordingly, emptiness is defined as that which is without duality.

As I’ve been discussing via the past few posts, according to tradition, there is something “there” that is not dependent upon duality.[2] Thinking about how to explain presence in the midst of absence, and how intangible phenomena is experienced, I remembered reading this passage in Dolpopa’s masterpiece compilation, Mountain Dharma: An Ocean of Defintive Meaning,

Moreover, the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra eloquently discusses the distinctions between that which is associated with expressions of emptiness, and that which is associated with expressions of what is not empty,

Kauṇḍinya, in relation to expression, there is what is empty. Due to conditions of cessation, there are expressions of emptiness. These are realized to be completely free expressions of non-emptiness. One must fully recognize these in the same way as sensations, perceptions, impressions, and consciousness.

As it says here, there are degrees to adventitious expressions and so forth. This is precisely emptiness devoid of substance, that which is empty of an intrinsic nature (rangtong). There are also the expressions of enlightened essence and so forth. This is the emptiness that is the very nature of what is devoid of substance, that which is ultimately empty of extrinsicality (zhentong).[3]

Remember that these expressions of emptiness (otherwise translated as “empty forms”) can be “experienced,” and that such an experience comes about through the execution of specific yogic procedures that withdraw one’s senses from mundane stimuli. These are most likely the “conditions of cessation” that are being referred to here. That is to say, in this context, the formless is known through the precise process of rescinding one’s involvement with form.

What struck me about this sūtra quote is how it draws explicit attention to recognizing these expressions of non-emptiness in the same way as one would experience any of the other constituents of the ego ― perhaps giving us some insight into how the relative and ultimate coexist.

In Dolpopa’s commentary here, we read his characterization of these elusive expressions of non-emptiness: that they are in fact expressions of the enlightened essence, buddhanature. Warning us not to confuse expressions of the relative with those of the ultimate, Dolpopa wants to remind us that these are actually expressions of the indwelling enlightened essence that continually pervades all things stable and wavering, tangible and intangible. With this he points to the formless, that emptiness which is the very nature of what is devoid of substance, that key variable in the zhentong code.

As always, your comments are most welcome.


1. Here, I am referring to the 5 skandha: (1) forms (gzugs), (2) sensations (tshor ba), (3) perceptions (‘dus shes), (4) impressions (‘du byed), and (5) consciousness (rnam shes).

2. See the posts, Expressions of Emptiness and Dolpopa’s Experience.

3. Dol po pa shes rab rgyal mtshan. Ri chos nges don rgya mtsho, 374.7-375.3. In Kun mkhyen Dol po pa’i Gsung ‘bum, ‘Dzam thang.

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