Each time we sit, we chant the Heart Sutra: Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form. But what do we mean by Emptiness?
The meaning has changed over time. In the original teachings, the word simply meant absence. If the room was empty of elephants, that just meant there were no elephants there. The concept wasn’t central, because anatta – No Self – was emphasised. The person was ’empty’ of a self.
In due course, in the Mahayana, all things were seen as being empty of a ‘self’ – an immutable essence – and hence the world was empty: interdependent, dynamic, connected, whole.
But the original meaning of absence, voidness, vacuity has always lingered.
So when the Chinese started using the term, they equated it with Suchness. They said that it meant empty of delusion. And Dogen said it was prajna – before thinking. Hence Emptiness is that felt inexpressible wholeness which is there prior to thinking, which is always there, before the mind tries to amputate a self from the body of the world.