Where did Zen come from? Or, “Form is emptiness, and emptiness, form.”

Where did Zen come from? Or, “Form is emptiness, and emptiness, form.”

Laura K. Secor

I almost feel obligated to write about our experience with the pandemic, with lockdown, with this strange time we are in. But I am going to assume that you, like me, are beginning to burn out on the endless discussion of all things virus. It might be refreshing to turn our minds to other matters, however briefly. During this time of constrained activity, I find myself reading a lot more. At first it was phone news, but in the last three weeks I’ve shifted from the relentless focus on COVID to other matters. I’ve been reading a lot about Buddhism. I wish I could tell you that I’m studying the source materials, perhaps in their original Sanskrit, but I am not so intense. I am reading Western interpretations of the Buddhist ideas. I need that Western filter, at this stage in my study, to help me make sense of these alien concepts.

If you have been studying Buddhism, perhaps like me you have found the doctrine of emptiness to be the most alien, the most counter-intuitive. How can the material world be empty? How can it be without form? In the Buddhist vocabulary, form is something like pattern, it’s the shaping of things into themselves. It’s the material world. But you may have heard the phrase, “Form is emptiness and emptiness form.” What in the world does that mean?

For years, I glossed over that concept. I was busy enough with the challenges of meditation without actually trying to understand any of the theories. Then Pema Chodron helped me with the following explanation. “Emptiness” does not mean “non-existent.” It means “empty of independence.” It’s a strange way of saying that all things are interconnected. As Thich Nhat Hanh would say – all things inter-are.

That was semi-satisfying for a couple years, but although I agree that all things inter-are, I just couldn’t figure out what the word “emptiness” was adding to the equation. But last week I discovered Alan Watts’ wonderful book “The Way of Zen.” This is not a collection of his talks, but something he actually wrote, with actual research, so it is much more satisfying than his talks. It includes a history of the sources of Zen.

Zen grew out of the merger of Mahayana Buddhism with Chinese Tao. Today I want to talk about the influence of Mahayana Buddhism. You may know that Buddhism started around 500 BCE with the Pali canon of literature, the recorded sayings of the Buddha. But around 200 CE a new school of Buddhism was founded, using as its texts the “recently discovered” “hidden” teachings of the Buddha. For the western sceptic, these texts were written around 200 CE by a genius named Nagarjuna. He created the core sutras of the prajnaparamita, which can be translated as “wisdom from the other shore” or “transcendent wisdom”. This is the doctrine of emptiness, and Alan’s explanation is really interesting.

The original Pali canon Buddhists had created something of a dilemma. Their goal was to “let go” of material attachment, but how can you have a goal of non-grasping? The goal is itself a form of grasping. Nagarjuna replied that “all grasping, even for nirvana, is futile – for there is nothing to be grasped.” Quoting Alan, “This is Nagarjuna’s celebrated ‘Doctrine of the Void’, which refutes all metaphysical propositions by demonstrating their relativity… The dialectic with which he demolishes every conception of reality is merely a device for breaking the vicious circle of grasping, and the terminus of his philosophy is not the abject despair of nihilism but the natural and uncontrived bliss of liberation”. He is annihilating not reality but the conceptions of reality which the mind can form. So all things are relative – long does not exist without short, hot without cold – all things are interdependent, but also they are without conception, empty of concept. All things are without the “self-nature” of independent reality.

Again in Alan’s words, “Once again, this is not to say that awakening will cause the world of form to vanish without trace, for nirvana is not to be sought as the future annihilation of the senses… Form is void just as it is, in all its prickly uniqueness.

“The point arrives, then, when it is clearly understood that all one’s intentional acts – desires, ideals, stratagems – are in vain. In the whole universe, within and without, there is nothing whereon to lay any hold, and no one to lay any hold on anything… The very one who pursues, who sees and knows and desires, the inner subject, has his existence only in relation to the ephemeral objects of his pursuit… And there is no way out, no way of letting go, which he can take by effort, by a decision of the will… There comes a moment when this consciousness of the inescapable trap reaches a breaking point. One might say that it matures or ripens, and suddenly there is a ‘turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness.’ In this moment all sense of constraint drops away, and the cocoon opens. The peculiar anxiety which Kierkegaard has rightly seen to lie at the very roots of the ordinary man’s soul is no longer there. Contrivances, ideals, ambitions and self-propitiations are no longer necessary, since it is now possible to live spontaneously.”

I am not sure that I entirely understand this turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness, but I have a sense of it. I sense that “emptiness of form” is a way of seeing the interconnection of the web of the universe, and that by letting go of conception, I can find my way without the constraint of my will. It’s an aspiration.

Notice of Annual Meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester – June 7, 2020

Notice Pursuant to the by-laws of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester, the Annual Meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester (UUCW) will take place following the service at 11:15 a.m., Sunday, June 7th, 2020 on Zoom.

The meeting is open to all. However, voting is restricted to members of record of the UUCW. This is an important event in the ongoing business and life of our congregation and reflects the principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregation and in society at large.

During this meeting we will vote on the minutes of last year’s annual meeting, the slate of church leaders to be elected, the FY 2021 budget, and other items that will be posted in the Annual Report.

To view this year’s proposed budget please CLICK HERE.

TO ATTEND THE ANNUAL MEETING go to https://zoom.us/j/3846862031. Meeting ID: 384 686 2031. To join by phone dial+1 646 876 9923 and follow the instructions. Password: 864587

Debbie Merrill, Clerk
Board of Management, Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester

Ways to Help
Rev. Aaron Payson

People are wondering what they can do in these times. I know I do. How can I help? What can I do that is in line with my values, my financial situation, my desire to stay home yet still help? Here are some places to start:

Start Here at Home – at UUCW
Don’t forget to make your pledge if possible. Or make a gift that can be credited to this fiscal year. We will be dealing with lost rental and fundraising income due to the current gathering restrictions. We need to keep our staff, programs and building running even if we are not together. Go to www.uucworcester.org/donate to make a gift for this year or pledge for next year.

If you are interested in helping members of our Community who are struggling, consider contributing an additional amount to the Minister’s Discretionary Fund. These funds are used to help people with rent, prescription expense and other vital necessities.

Contribute to the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry
There are two ways you can contribute to the Pantry at this time. If you are interested in contributing financially, go to the Loaves & Fishes online donation form.

We are also looking for hygiene supplies that our folks cannot purchase with SNAP. Last month we were able to give a bar of soap to all our clients. If you are able to drop off hygiene supplies, specifically wipes, soap, shampoo, toothpaste and/or deodorant that would be great. The drop-off location is Dianne Mann’s house: 21 Ridgewood Rd. Worcester, MA 01606. There will be a tub at the side porch for any donations. Any questions, contact: Dianne Mann at

Contribute to the Interfaith Hospitality Network Homeless Shelter
IHN is the Shelter that we partner with several times a year. They have many needs right now. This morning they were asking for the hygiene supplies we all need. They, too, have asked for additional money since they are in a position of needing staff to help cover the evening and night shifts that church people were supposed to cover. If you are interested in helping with the IHN Shelter, would like to know what they need, etc. Contact: Robin Mitzcavitch at .

Worcester Mutual Aid
If you are a Facebook user and want to help in specific ways, you may want to get on the Worcester Mutual Aid Facebook Group. There are specific postings here for people who need help. There are a wide variety of questions. Perhaps you will know the answer to a question about unemployment, rental questions, etc. We will all get through this together.

Worcester Mutual Aid Facemask Working Group
We’ve all heard how the people on the front lines do not have enough PPE. There is a large network of sewers out there making masks like crazy. Our own Robin Mitzcavitch is one of them! Perhaps you have fabric, elastic, t-shirts, etc. laying around that you never had time to sew, check into this group or ask Robin how you can help.

It’s tough times folks! Never before have we seen anything like it. I have faith that we will all get through this together. Take care of yourself those around you. If you have any needs, please reach out to me. And, if you have the time and/or money to help others, I encourage you to do that as well.

Rev. Aaron Payson
/ 508-963-5959