This article was adapted from our upcoming online course, Awakening Here and Now, with Korean Zen monk Haemin Sunim. In this six-week course, beginning on January 13, Haemin Sunim—an internationally best-selling author, social-media phenomenon, and the founder of the School for Broken Hearts in Seoul—presents a clear and direct perspective on awakening to our true nature in this very moment. Enroll today at learn.tricycle.org.
For me, coming to understand the fundamental idea that form and emptiness are not two different things but the same thing, happened with a simple realization. In the hope that you can also come to know this kind of direct experience, I’ll try my best to explain how I’ve come to understand what it means to be aware.
The first step in understanding the inseparability of form and emptiness is to investigate what’s going on for you right now, and then to ask yourself a few simple questions. Right now you are looking at your computer monitor (or your phone) and you are also probably looking at a photo of me, Haemin Sunim.
There is your awareness and the object of your awareness (me!). The next step involves asking the questions that pick apart this duality.
Can you separate the object of your awareness from awareness itself? The Haemin Sunim that you see here—does he exist apart from your awareness? Or is it that awareness and the object of your awareness appear in the same single instant? Can you find me somewhere outside of your awareness?
Knowing what’s external to being aware—that is, exiting your awareness and seeing what’s beyond it––is impossible. Whatever you can “know” outside your awareness is still awareness, since you’re aware of it! The photo of me you were just looking at (and the text of this article, for that matter) is inside your awareness. Even though “Haemin Sunim” is the object of your awareness, he does not, and cannot, exist apart from your own awareness. Haemin Sunim is awareness.
Maybe I should refrain from referring to this awareness as your awareness, because the awareness does not have an owner, it just is. However, you can access that awareness because you are aware of Haemin Sunim. Try again and see if you can separate the two: the awareness of the object and the object itself. Are they two different things, or just one reality? Observe that the awareness of Haemin Sunim and the very existence of Haemin Sunim are not two separate things. You’ll find that there is just one reality, once you do some investigating.
That there is nothing but one reality also implies that there is no object. There is no Haemin Sunim that stands apart from your own awareness. There is nothing but the image of Haemin Sunim, an appearance made by awareness and recognized by awareness.
I’m not the only object that is inextricably bound to awareness. Next time you sit down to eat an apple, take a hard look at it, and ask yourself whether this particular fruit exists apart from your awareness. Like what you did with my photo above, try again and see if you can access its existence outside of your awareness.
You probably see by now that there’s no apple outside your awareness. “Apple” and “awareness” are just contained within one reality.
This reality is like a huge and all-encompassing ocean. There may be different kinds of fish and seaweed and rocks, but they’re all contained inside one ocean. In the same way, there’s just one awareness, with seemingly multiple objects inside of it. If you look closer, you’ll see that there are no independent objects or distinctions––there is nothing but this one awareness. If you push this understanding one step further, you’ll realize that since it is just one awareness, you cannot even it call “one” awareness. When you know that there are two awarenesses, then you can call this “one awareness.” But when there is no “two,” there is no “one” either. It just is.
Perhaps, as a kid, you went to the beach and made all kinds of things––you drew faces, built sandcastles, and so forth. Even at a young age you realized that all those things were made of the same thing: sand. What your small hands rendered might have been in the form of a sandcastle or a face, but you were aware that all of it was all sand. When the tide came in and washed your creations away, you weren’t extremely sad. I mean, you might have been if you were very attached to those sandcastles. But if you see now that they were just one thing––sand—you realize that nothing was actually lost.
Everything you see in the world is made of awareness. Buddhism teaches us that all shapes and forms are impermanent; they come and go. Truly realizing this phenomenon also involves understanding that nothing in awareness is lost. It’s like dreaming: everything you see inside a dream is made up only of your own awareness. You might see a tiger or your loved ones or fancy furniture, but you know, at least after you wake up, that your mind is projecting, or manifesting, those images.
Awakening involves realizing that this reality is just like our dream state. Everything you see is made of awareness, the same awareness that creates the three dimensionality of a dream. It is the same awareness you’re using right now to read these words. (If it wasn’t the same awareness, you wouldn’t be able to remember your dreams!)
If you look deeply at the forms around you, you’ll find that they do not exist apart from your awareness. This is one way we can start to grasp the true meaning of emptiness, and begin to awaken here and now.
Further reading: Read more about Haemin Sunim’s efforts to revive Buddhism and mend “broken hearts” in his home country of South Korea, or learn to use a similar kind of skillful questioning to enter into awareness with former nun and Secular Dharma teacher Martine Batchelor.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.