In the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara says to Sariputra

this Body itself is Emptiness and Emptiness itself is this Body. This Body is not other than Emptiness and Emptiness is not other than this Body. (translation by Thich Nhat Hanh)

What does it mean to say that Body itself is Emptiness and Emptiness itself is this Body?

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    it's "rupa" not "kaya", "form" not "body"
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 14:14
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    Yes, I'v always seen the formulation "form". But the translation I found now, was like that. And Thich Nhat Hanh had some arguments for that translation. I found it strange, too. See link plumvillage.org/news/… Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 14:19
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    Rupa is a tricky word. It does mean form ("matter", "stuff", etc.), but here it is used in the context of the five aggregates. It does kinda make sense to render it as "body". But the form/emptiness reconciliation does apply to more than just one's physical body.
    – user698
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 14:36
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    And remember, the heart sutra is trying to disrupt ideas of personhood. With that in mind, to translate it as "body" does make a bit more sense.
    – user698
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 14:44
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    According to that link, Thay rewrote the sutta itself "because the patriarch who originally compiled the Heart Sutra was not sufficiently skilful enough with his use of language". And he quotes something akin to this (Zen) story.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 14:49

3 Answers 3


In my understanding, this basically speaks to the following Buddha's expression (SN 22.90):

By & large, Kaccayana, this world is supported by a polarity, that of existence & non-existence. But when one sees the origination ... as it actually is with right discernment, "non-existence" ... does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation ... as it actually is with right discernment, "existence" ... does not occur to one. ... "Everything exists": That is one extreme. "Everything doesn't exist": That is a second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle.

The way an untrained run-off-the-mill person sees things and talks about things, is that anything, any object or phenomena - be that physical or social or economical etc. - either exists or it does not exist. Everything is very cut and dry. But in a wise one's perspective, things are not so simple, not so flat. The wise one sees infinite nuances. This is why the wise one avoids taking extreme simplistic positions about things being or not being a certain way.

Any form - meaning any object of our attention and discussion - is necessarily an abstraction, a subset, a vast simplification of reality. To assume that it actually "exists" would be to commit (succumb to?) the reification fallacy. Instead, a form is a phantom, a fiction, a conceptual overlay. Therefore a form is empty of existence in-and-off-itself. Form is empty. That includes any and all dharmas (phenomena, objects of mind) that some of the late Abhidharmists mistakenly reified. Like the five skandhas (the form/body, feelings etc). Or the Five Great Elements. Or the dharmas. Or even Nirvana itself. From Madhyamaka perspective, these are all abstractions, simplifications, generalizations.

At the same time, to say that things don't really exist - would be to fall into another extreme. Even though form is empty, we appreciate it for its explanatory value. The way we delineate the world into forms, into discrete phenomena, is not entirely arbitrary. It came from our real experience dealing with real things. So the forms we experience, however subjective, conventional, faulty, and incomplete, are rooted in the real nature. The forms do exist, at least in our subjective experience. They only exist as conceptual overlays, but these overlays themselves are not non-existent as overlays. Just like rainbow - there is no actual arch-shaped object in the sky, but you can't say that rainbow does not exist. It exists as a phenomenon. And that phenomenon - however illusory - has its basis in reality, in how things work. This is the "Emptiness is Form" part.

Some of the practical implications of "form is emptiness", is that we no longer get hung up on any one truth, any one method, any philosophical position. We see that they are all ultimately false. On the other hand, because "emptiness is form", we do realize that our choices have effects, and these effects often fruit as experience, and this experience will be rather very real for someone experiencing it! This realization of form-is-emptiness as the ultimate truth is known as the root of prajna or (special) wisdom. And this realization of emptiness-is-form as undeniable reality of experience or the conventional truth, is known as the root of maha-karuna or great (enlightened) compassion.

So at the end of the day we get very practical. Given that form is emptiness and emptiness is form, we do the best thing possible using the best tool for the job. If we need to cut through we cut through, if we need to skip over, we skip over. We don't get stuck beating our head on the wall.

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    This answers not only my question above, but many of my other questions too. Thanks for your time and effort, it's helpful for a better understanding and also in my daily life Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 9:52
  • Excellent answer. I would only want to quibble with this - "the practical implication of "form is emptiness", is that we no longer get hung up on any one truth, any one method, any philosophical position." But this IS a philosophical position, viz. the position required for the Buddha's teachings to be true.
    – user14119
    Commented Nov 8, 2019 at 12:54

Short answer - It is a description of the enlightened state of mind. It is an experience, not a concept. Asking for it's meaning is akin to asking for the meaning of an orgasm.

Long answer - I think where a lot of people run into problems is that they try to read the Mahayana canon like the Theravada canon. This doesn't often work as they can be very different in their approach. The Pali sutras are usually pretty prescriptive. They are most often read as a "how-to" guide for practice. Even when they are being descriptive or go into some sort of philosophical idea, they are generally pretty literal in their treatment. While you also find examples of this in the Mahayana canon, there is also quite a bit of poetic language the purpose of which is to describe in abstract or metaphorical terms some instance of enlightened phenomenology (the Diamond Sutra being probably one of the best examples of this). These are road maps and personal accounts from the journey to enlightenment. Trying to tease out some sort of philosophical meaning from these sutras would like using someone's description of a barking dog as the basis for canine behavior. There's no point in it. Any exegesis or anything deduced would be wholly meaningless and off point.

While the Heart Sutra uses Buddhist philosophical terms like form and emptiness, this sutra is not something we are supposed to understand intellectually. It's actually a sign post - something by which we can measure our progress. It lets us know we are moving in the right direction. The Heart Sutra is a way station, in linguistic form, where people on this journey can share a beer and trade stories. Only after reaching that destination do we understand the point it's trying the convey.

Even longer answer - We know what form is. Knock, knock on wood, right? We all experience that pretty easily. Emptiness is also something to be experienced. It's not just a philosophical idea. That's a little more subtle, but I hope that makes sense. What the Heart Sutra is getting at is the experience where the distinction between form and emptiness dissolves.

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    I think thats a strange answer. An orgasm is not like an enlightened state, is it? Besides, the meaning of an orgasm is pretty obvious - at least from an evolutionary point of view Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 14:32
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    To give you another example - it's like asking what the meaning of the experience of beauty is. Or the meaning of the experience of joy. There is no inherent "meaning" to any of these things unless we apply our discursive mind to them ex post facto.
    – user698
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 14:38
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    -1: There's a lot that can be explained here. At the very least, both about what "body" means, and what "empty" means.
    – user382
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 17:03
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    I'd have to disagree. To ask what form is would be one question, what emptiness is would be another question, but the two of them together - as per this question - is something entirely different.
    – user698
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 17:37
  • @ThiagoSilva "Two things equal to the same thing are not always equal to each other." Or, Blake: "A Riddle, or a cricket's cry, is to Doubt a fit reply." I agree with the 'signpost' idea in this answer, that if you are arguing the meaning of the Heart Sutra, versus nodding your head, those show where you are. It is sufficiently subtle that it would be hard to nod to without real insight. Hard to 'think' you get it when you do not.
    – user2341
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 0:15

What if there are infinite explanations and meanings. Can also mean the 4 noble truth as follows:-

"emptiness is body" means "whatever results from meditation, habits, learning or karma" is "body" (some prefer to use mind", others prefer to use "form" which is "sufferings").

Body is emptiness means "whatever concrete things we see, touches, hear etc." is "habits, karma, meditation etc." Suggesting there is cause to these sufferings.

Further "emptiness is none other than body" and "Body is none other than emptiness".

These last 2 verses thus means that liberation is possible and training towards liberation from suffering is possible.

Imagine "Emptiness is emptiness, body is body"....means there will no liberation .. if not for the last 2 verses

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