During the Path of Accumulation and the Path of Preparation the practitioner develops their understanding of emptiness in-terms of the 4 features of emptiness. The 4 distinguishing features of emptiness are identified in the following sentence from “The Heart Sutra”:
Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form is not other than emptiness.
This sentence can be understood in the following way:
(a) “Form is emptiness” indicates that despite the appearance of form, the reality of form is that it lacks an independent, inherent, intrinsic nature. His Holiness [i] [pp.115] states that the “form is emptiness” statement “implies that what we recognise as form comes to exist as a result of the aggregation of many causes and conditions, not by its own independent means”. His Holiness [i] [pp.115] states “this dependence means that form is consequently empty of any intrinsic, self-existence reality, and therefore form is said to be emptiness”.
(b) “Emptiness is form” indicates that form’s emptiness is the reality of the form. This reality (emptiness of the form) is inseparable from the form. The form cannot be established separately from it’s reality (emptiness of the form). His Holiness [i] [pp.116] phrases it this way: “One can then understand the statement that “emptiness is form” in terms of form being a manifestation or expression of emptiness, something that comes out of emptiness”.
(c) “Emptiness is not other than form” indicates that emptiness cannot be established without form. Emptiness is established on the basis of the form. Lama Tsongkhapa stated that the basis of form is required to establish emptiness. Without form, there is no emptiness. This demonstrates how the emptiness of the form is itself an example of Dependent Arising, in that the emptiness of the form depends on the form. In this way, emptiness itself does not independently, inherently, or intrinsically exist. Understanding this helps us to avoid the misapprehension that emptiness is an absolute reality or an independent truth, as His Holiness describes [i] [pp.114-115].
(d) “Form is not other than emptiness” indicates that emptiness is the reality of the form. His Holiness [i] [pp.116] goes on to state “since emptiness can only be understood as ultimate reality in relation to individual phenomenon, individual things and events, when an individual phenomenon ceases to exist, the emptiness of that phenomenon will also cease to exist”. His Holiness goes on to conclude “when a basis for identifying emptiness no longer exists, the emptiness of that thing also ceases to exist”.
This interpendency between form and the emptiness of the form demonstrates how they are two sides of the same coin. His Holiness [i] [pp.115] clarifies this by stating that “the emptiness of form is nothing other than the form’s ultimate nature. Form lacks intrinsic or independent existence; thus its nature is emptiness”. His Holiness [i] [pp.115] goes on to state that “one must understand form and its emptiness in unity; they are not two independent realities”.
[i] “Essence of the Heart Sutra” by His Holiness the IVX Dalai Lama published by Wisdom Pulications (2015).
[ii] “The Heart Sutra Explained” by Donald S. Lopez, published by Sri Satguru Publications (1990).
[iii] “Commentary on the Heart Sutra, Jewel Light Illuminating the Meaning” by Tendar Lharampa published by FPMT Education Department (2005).
[iv] “The Heart Sutra Commentary” by Geshe Ngawang Dakpa at Tse Chen Ling, published by FPMT Education Department (2001).