“Form is emptiness; emptiness is evolving.” David Loy, Zen Teacher
One of the biggest questions many practitioners of dharma have is, how does awakening relate to life?
The quote above from teacher David Loy succinctly captures a core theme in the framework of the Awakening in Life path. His quote is a spin on the standout line from the seminal Mahayana text, The Heart Sutra: ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form’. Loy’s twist on that phrase points in a direction of how we can more consciously connect and integrate awakening and life, and how both can mutually inform one another.
Awakening in Life embraces classical awakening as expressed in a text like The Heart Sutra, while also including a need to respond to the evolving, changing nature of our living existence, individually and collectively.
It is on the foundation of classical awakening (form is emptiness) that we consciously engage the struggles and joys of the world we inhabit together (emptiness is evolving).
To expand on how awakening or dharma, and our evolving, living experience integrate, let’s look at the Three Sufferings from Buddhism as seen through this lens of ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is evolving’, as well as through what I’m calling the Three Freedoms. This exploration emphasizes how classical awakening supports engaged response in the world.
While there are a myriad of ways we can suffer as humans, three helpful categories to consider on a path of awakening are:
So long as you are human, in a body, in relationships, part of society, culture, and the world - no matter how awake you might be - you will experience suffering. Stubbing your toe, heartache, political and global crises, death, just to name a few: when they arise, you experience that suffering and there’s no escaping that suffering when it arises (though we might be able to change circumstances in response).
A lack of acceptance and conscious acknowledgement of the suffering of suffering can at first be an obstacle to freedom as it can consume our minds and hearts relentlessly, trapping us and impeding our ability to fully understand and respond to that suffering, but suffering of suffering also can deeply arouse our motivation for freedom and wisdom, and especially compassion for our suffering and the suffering of others.
Similar to suffering of suffering, change is unavoidable in this life. Here we are attuning to the very nature of change itself, how change permeates our entire existence.
How is change itself a source of suffering? Upon embodied examination through practice, we find there is no place to rest that will provide us permanent peace and ease in this life. Sometimes we’ll experience happiness, sometimes we’ll experience pain.
One common way we experience the suffering of change is being ‘knocked off our center’: just as we were getting comfortable and familiar with how things are, things change. And it’s not that we shouldn’t wish or try to create balance, harmony, safety, and loving, relatively stable foundations in our life and for the world. Indeed we should. However, we are better able to create those foundations and adapt them when life inevitably changes.
Finally, we have suffering that arises from the basic functioning of our human experience, the core operating system, if you will, of what it means to be human, including: sensory experience, perception, thoughts, feelings, ideas.
Here we get in touch with a deep, subtle, pervasive grasping in the very center of our experience, our most foundational sense of self, which is constructed and continually strung together through these core processes. We take our raw naked experience of our senses and build upon that images, thoughts, concepts, and ideas.
We take all of this and impart an experience of ‘self’, which isn’t a problem to be eradicate, and in fact it’s how we function and live, and it’s what makes us human! However, when we are totally unaware that our human experience is subject to these experiences and processes, they themselves interconnected and constantly in flux and changing, we are bound by them as is our sense of self, and thus our response to and experience of life is limited, and this bondage is a subtle, but significant suffering we experience.
In using the phrase ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is evolving, we might group these sufferings like so:
3. All-pervasive suffering.
Ultimately classical awakening is aimed at freedom from all-pervasive suffering, to directly experience and recognize for ourselves the empty nature of what we take as a self and the world: form is emptiness. There is a lot more we can say here, exploring just what this experience is, going further in classical awakening to the experience of non duality, but we’ll save that for more unpacking in the guide.
1. Suffering of suffering.
2. Suffering of change.
While classical awakening does include compassion for others because we know they suffer just by being alive, again the answer to that realization in a path of classical awakening is to awaken to the deepest experience of what is meant by ‘form is emptiness’. We're just trying to help others do that too.
However in Awakening in Life, we embrace suffering of suffering and suffering of change through this life on its own terms, not simply transcending and letting go of it deeply (though we also continually practice that too), we choose to respond. And so, even though we directly experience form is emptiness (and by extension emptiness is form), we don’t stop there, we recognize that there are patterns to our suffering in this world and we can do something about it.
While we can’t ultimately prevent all suffering, we can indeed both heal and lessen many forms of suffering, cultivating greater well-being, safety, ease, connection, and joy for each other and this world. With engaged wisdom, we can also learn to even end many forms of suffering, liberating each other from their traps, and cultivate resiliency to respond to new forms of suffering as they inevitably will arise.
The Three Freedoms begin to situate the fruits of classical awakening in a more integrated path of Awakening in Life. These correspond to the Three Sufferings above and detail how conscious practice with each suffering lead to particular flavor of freedoms and capacities that we can bring into life.
A quick, important note: here the word ‘freedom’ is not necessarily meant as a freedom once and finally attained.
There are certain freedoms in classical awakening that do indicate pivotal experiences and insights that once attained, cannot seemingly be undone or forgotten or lost. For example, if you have a direct glimpse of what is meant by emptiness, that experience and the resulting insight that arises from that glimpse seemingly are not ever lost, and this is because that experience is not something constructed based on conditions, but revealed in awareness as already present and true.
That being said, Awakening in Life takes the approach that any freedom can always be deepened and widened in its embrace of life, others, and in our embodiment.
Last, there are certainly more freedoms than these three that we can explore and experience. Again, because of their correspondence to the Three Sufferings, we have well, Three Freedoms.
By investigating and by practicing conscious acceptance that suffering is part of human experience, especially in direct intimacy with the suffering present in this life we are a part of right now, we can free our intention.
Freeing our intention means we are less trapped and driven by unconscious reactions to the myriad of sufferings of life (and paradoxically leading to us experience more suffering). We have more possibility of how we intend to respond, including more ability to take up practices of awakening with the intent to lessen our suffering and the suffering of others.
Freedom of Intention is generally a precursor to other freedoms and this is why you will see practices such as reflecting on the certainty of death at the beginning of paths of awakening. This helps us to get really clear on what’s important to us in life, and hence we can begin to free ourselves up in other ways.
Through consciously witnessing the nature of change in life, that everything is dynamically changing, we start to get familiar with the inherent groundlessness of reality. We might not yet have a direct experience of that groundlessness, but we can be very clear that this is how things are simply by practicing resting in and with change.
Through this resting acceptance of change, we then open up the freedom of flexibility. We start to have less expectations that reality not change, and instead we develop the ability to move with change, cope with change, and skillfully influence and enact change in the world wherever that is possible and needed.
Through awakening to and directly experiencing emptiness, no-self, or the groundlessness nature of life, we can let go in the very core of our experience.
We have an increased ability to dis-embed ourselves from conditions, and as a result, an increased possibility to hold more in life for consideration and response. Through cultivating a direct experience of the underlying, foundational processes of our human experience, we release our grip on them, and this release is a release into radical openness.
This letting go allows us to experience a much greater, radical spaciousness in and as ourselves, and more space in which all experience arises. We simultaneously can feel less blown about by what is happening, and we can more embrace life.
Again, even though this particular freedom can be characterized as breakthrough experience that can’t be lost, we can certainly have a more stable and integrated experience of it.
In particular, we can find that in certain conditions and situations we might easily be able to drop into this radical openness (for example, on retreat), in other situations we feel totally disconnected from it in our embodiment (for example, relationships, politics).
As such, it’s important to continue working with our experience so we can bring this presence to bear on the struggles and pain of life. This path of Awakening in Life is a continual process of dis-embedding, embracing, evolving, and healing, but the deeper we awaken from core operating conditions of our humanity, the deeper we can do and be all of that.