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So when Avalokiteshvara says, "Form is emptiness," he's referring to this simple direct relationship with the immediacy of experience—direct contact with blood and sweat and flowers; with love as well as hate. First we wipe away our preconceptions and then we even have to let go even of our belief that we should look at things without preconceptions. We keep pulling out our own rug. When we perceive form as empty, without any barriers or veils, we understand the perfection of things just as they are. One could become addicted to this experience. It could give us a sense of freedom from the dubiousness of our emotions and the illusion that we could dangle above the messiness of our lives.

But "emptiness also is form" turns the tables. Emptiness continually manifests as war and peace, as grief, as birth, old age, sickness, and death, as well as joy. We are challenged to stay in touch with the heart-throbbing quality of being alive. That's why we train in the relative bodhichitta practices of the four limitless ones and tonglen. They help us to fully engage in the vividness of life with an open, unclouded mind. Things are as bad and as good as they seem. There's no need to add anything extra.

Imagine a dialogue with the Buddha. He asks, "How do you perceive reality?" and we answer honestly and say, "I perceive it as separate from me, and solid." He says, "No, look deeper."

So we go away and meditate and sincerely contemplate this question. We return to the Buddha and say, "I know the answer now. The answer is that everything is not solid, everything is empty." And he says, "No. Look deeper." We say, "Well, that's impossible. It's either one way or the other: empty or not empty, right?" and he says, "No." If this were our boss, perhaps we wouldn't care, but this is the Buddha, so we think, "Maybe I have to hang in here a bit and go further with the irritation I'm feeling at not being given any satisfaction."

So we meditate and contemplate this question; we discuss it with our friends. Next time we see the Buddha we say, "I think I can answer your question. Everything is both empty and not empty simultaneously." And he says, "No." Believe me, we're feeling very groundless and that means rattled. It's uncomfortable not to be able to get ground under our feet. But the process here is of unmasking: even though we're irritated and anxious, we're moving closer to seeing the true unfixed nature of mind. Since "No" is all we can get out of the Buddha, we go home and spend the next year trying to answer this riddle. It's like a Zen koan.

Eventually, we return and say, "Okay. There's only one other possible answer. The nature of reality is that it neither exists nor doesn't exist. It is neither form nor emptiness." And we feel good! It's a beautiful groundless answer. But the Buddha says, "No, that's too limited an understanding." Maybe at this point his "No" is such a shock that we experience the wide-open mind of prajnaparamita, the mind that is satisfied with no resting place at all.

After Avalokiteshvara told Shariputra that "form is emptiness; emptiness also is form," he went even further, pointing out that there is nothing—not even the Buddha's teachings—to hold on to: no three marks of existence, no suffering, no end of suffering, no imprisonment, no liberation. The story goes that many of the students were so dumbfounded by these teachings that they had heart attacks. A Tibetan teacher suggested that more likely they just got up and walked out of the talk. Like the Theosophists with Krishnamurti, they didn't want to hear this. Just like us. We don't like to have our basic assumptions challenged. It's too threatening.

Now if this teaching had come only from Avalokiteshvara, the students might have been able to rationalize their fears. "This is just a warrior on the path, not so different from us. He's very wise and compassionate, of course, but he has been known to get things wrong." But the Buddha was sitting right there in deep meditation, clearly pleased with this presentation of how to abide in the prajnaparamita. There was no way out of this dilemma.

Then, inspired by Shariputra's questioning, Avalokiteshvara continued. He taught that when we understand that there is no final attainment, no ultimate answer or stopping place, when our mind is free of warring emotions and the belief in separateness, then we will have no fear. When I heard this many years ago, before I had any interest at all in a spiritual path, a little light bulb went off: I definitely wanted to know more about "No fear."

This instruction on prajnaparamita is a teaching on fearlessness. To the extent that we stop struggling against uncertainty and ambiguity, to that extent we dissolve our fear. The synonym for total fearlessness is full enlightenment—wholehearted, open-minded interaction with our world. Meanwhile we train in patiently moving in that direction. By learning to relax with groundlessness, we gradually connect with the mind that knows no fear.

Then Avalokiteshvara proclaimed the pith of the prajnaparamita, the essence of the rug-pulling-out experience, the essence of the fearless, open state of mind. It came in the form of a mantra: "OM GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA." Just as a seed contains the tree, this mantra contains the entire teachings on abiding in prajnaparamita, abiding in the fearless state.

Trungpa Rinpoche's translation is, "OM gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awake, so be it." This is a description of a process, a journey, of always stepping out further and further. We could also say, "OM groundlessness, groundlessness, more groundlessness, even beyond groundlessness, fully awake, so be it!"

No matter where we are on the bodhisattva path, whether we are just beginning or we've practiced for years, we're always stepping further into groundlessness. Enlightenment is not the end of anything. Enlightenment, being completely awake, is just the beginning of fully entering into we know not what.

When the great bodhisattva finished teaching, the Buddha came out of his meditation and said, "Good, good! You expressed it perfectly, Avalokiteshvara." And those in the audience who hadn't walked out or died from heart attacks rejoiced. They rejoiced at hearing this teaching on stepping beyond fear.


From The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. ©2001 by Pema Chödrön. Used by permission of Shambhala Publications.

Pema Chödrön is a fully-ordained Buddhist nun and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape  Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are and When
Things Fall Apart. This article is excerpted from her book, The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, available from Shambhala Publications.

Bodhichitta: The Excellence of Awakened Heart, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, September 2001.

Click here to visit the Pema Chödrön Spotlight page.

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