Chapter 10: 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….