Dalai Lama & Thupten Jinpa
Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form

On Saturday, June 12, 2021, our Teachers’ Corner was focused on the famous line in the Heart Sutra: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form…“, with teachings from H.H. The Dalai Lama and his long-time interpreter & scholar Dr. Thupten Jinpa.

Both teachers emphasized that “emptiness (Śūnyatā)” does not refer to some “Great Emptiness” out there somewhere but to the true nature of all phenomena, which is that of dependent origination. In other words, no phenomenon has a fixed, unchanging, independent, intrinsic existence. Instead, it is always interdependent, always changing in its composition – it comes to exist as a result of the aggregation of many causes and conditions, and it changes moment to moment as the causes and conditions change. This true characteristic or true nature of phenomena is what the Sutra calls “emptiness.” (editor note: it is also often called “no-self.”) Therefore, form is precisely emptiness. Dr. Jinpa emphasized that we must not see emptiness as the “better truth” and thus attach to it while rejecting form – the line: “emptiness is form” is a way for us to not fall into that trap. Form and emptiness are not two independent realities – they are one unified reality; emptiness is not “better” than form.

After the teachings, the group shared their experiences with practicing the Heart Sutra. We discussed how the concepts of impermanence and dependent origination/no-self/emptiness supplement each other. And how it is crucial that we don’t just try to intellectually understand the words of the Sutra but we must put the teachings into our lifelong practice.

Finally, our facilitator reminded the group that “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” is only used as an example for all five aggregates (skandhas) in the Heart Sutra. She encouraged us to practice saying this line by substituting “form” with the other aggregates as well. For example: “feeling is emptiness, emptiness is feeling,” “perception is emptiness, emptiness is perception,” and so on, and see what impact that may have on us.

Recordings of the Dharma talk we shared during our session and other related resources are posted below. Happy learning!


From the Teachers: Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama:

“Essence of the Heart Sutra”

"Essence of the Heart Sutra' BookcoverDuring our session, we read pages 114 to 117 from the book Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teaching“​ by The Dalai Lama. These are the first few pages of a section entitled: “Understanding the Two Truths”, from Chapter 10 of the book: “Developing an Unmistaken View of Reality.”

We highly recommend looking up this book (ISBN: 978-0861712847) at your local library.

The Heart Sutra – Day 1 of the Dalai Lama’s three-day Dharma Talk

We shared only a short clip of this talk by His Holiness during our session, from 07:35 to 09:57.
This recording is part of His Holiness’ three-day virtual teaching on The Heart Sutra at the request of Korean Buddhists from his residence in Dharamsala, HP, India on January 5-7, 2021.

Recordings of second and third day of talks on Heart Sutra are posted on His Holiness’ official website and Youtube:


Dr. Thupten Jinpa*:

On “Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form”

* Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D. is the Founder and Chairman of Compassion Institute, and the principal author of Compassion Cultivation Training™ (CCT©), the Institute’s flagship compassion education offering, developed while Jinpa was at Stanford University. Jinpa trained as a monk at the Shartse College of Ganden Monastic University, South India, where he received the Geshe Lharam degree. Jinpa also holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Cambridge University. He has been the principal English translator to H.H. the Dalai Lama since 1985, and has translated and collaborated on numerous books by the Dalai Lama. Jinpa also serves as an adjunct professor at the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University, Montreal and is the founder and president of the Institute of Tibetan Classics. He has been a core member of the Mind and Life Institute and its Chairman of the Board since January 2012.


Resources Related to the Heart of the Prajnaparamita Sutra

The root of the Heart Sutra:

… Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita (abbreviated as Ashta or A) means “The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines,” or slokas. A sloka is used to indicate a unit of 32 syllables. The Cambridge manuscript Add 866 of A.D. 1008 gives the actual number of slokas after each chapter, and added together they are exactly 8,411… The faithful in India and the Buddhist world in general assumed that all the [Prajna Paramita] Sutras are equally the word of the Buddha, more or less abbreviated according to the faculty of understanding of the people and their zeal and spiritual maturity. The first was that in 8,000 lines, or rather its precursor. This was then expanded into 10,000, 18,000, 25,000 and 100,000 slokas; and after that it was contracted to 2,500, 700, 300 (The Diamond Sutra), 150, 25 (The Heart Sutra), and finally into one syllable (“A”). They are all anonymous and date between A.D. 50 and 700.

SOURCE: Conze, Edward. Preface. The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and Its Verse Summary, translated by Edward Conze, Grey Fox Press, 2001 paperback edition, pp.xi (ISBN 0-87704-049-4). https://huntingtonarchive.org/resources/downloads/sutras/02Prajnaparamita/Astasahasrika.pdf 

Various versions and translations of the Heart Sutra


Suggested Contemplations

“Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” is only used as an example for all five aggregates (skandhas) in the Heart Sutra. Try contemplating the same line of teaching by substituting “Form (Rūpa)” with the other aggregates and see what impact that may have on us.

  • Feeling (Vedanā) is emptiness, emptiness is feeling;
    emptiness is not other than feeling, feeling too is not other than emptiness.
  • Perception (Saṃjñā) is emptiness, emptiness is perception;
    emptiness is not other than perception, perception too is not other than emptiness.
  • Volition (Saṃskāra) is emptiness, emptiness is volition;
    emptiness is not other than volition, volition too is not other than emptiness.
  • Consciousness (Vijñāna) is emptiness, emptiness is consciousness;
    emptiness is not other than consciousness, consciousness too is not other than emptiness.